Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Music: "No More Stories/ Are Told Today/ I’m Sorry/ They Washed Away// No More Stories/ The World Is Grey/ I’m Tired/ Let’s Wash Away " by Mew

The first time I listened to Mew was when they released 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites. The band had already made a name for themselves in their home country of Denmark, but their huge and emotional songwriting had not yet caught on in the United States. I was in high school at the time this album was released, and luckily, unlike many of the bands I enjoyed at this time, Mew has become more for me than a guilty pleasure. The band’s latest effort, No More Stories/ Are Told Today/ I’m Sorry/ They Washed Away// No More Stories/ The World Is Grey/ I’m Tired/ Let’s Wash Away, is consistent, powerful, and delivers in every way possible.

Opening track, “New Terrain” is a perfect introduction to the album (henceforth referred to as No More Stories…). Mew are able to encapsulate all of the ambition and scope of “No More Stories” in what is probably one of the most impressive sonic experiences I’ve heard in a long time. “New Terrain” seamlessly transitions into the staggered beat of “Introducing Palace Players”. Again, Mew show off their love of enormous rock with rousing synth parts and jagged guitar hooks. It is a standout track on the album that longtime Mew fans will not expect, but will undoubtedly be impressed with. No More Stories… quiets down with “Silas the Magic Car”, a more traditional sounding Mew song that channels the softer moments in Radiohead’s catalogue and melds them with angelic vocals from frontman, Jonas Bjerre. The melody of the track is later repeated in the closing of No More Stories…, serving as an appropriately inspiring ending to an amazing collection of songs.

Other noteworthy moments are the tropical sounds of “Hawaii” that suddenly change gears into an epic choir, and “Tricks of the Trade” which is probably Mew’s most electronically based song to date.

I was lucky enough to catch Mew’s set at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, one of the few shows in the US that Mew played on their summer tour. Although their stage presence was relatively mellow, the sound they produced was as enormous and enveloping as I hoped it would be. The band tested some tracks from No More Stories… including “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” which became a great sing-along despite the fact that most members of the audience had not heard the song yet. Fan favorites from And the Glass Handed Kites sounded perfect and were most likely heard by other festival-goers watching Grizzly Bear on the other side of the park.

It was obvious that the small audience who had collected at the Balance Stage for Mew’s set knew that they had been a part of something special. Hopefully No More Stories… will gather the larger fanbase Mew deserves. It is undoubtedly one of the largest records of the summer and will please Mew fans and those new to their music.

No More Stories… is available now digitally and will be in stores on August 25th. Also make sure to check out Mew on their current world tour with Nine Inch Nails.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Literature: "The Twits" by Roald Dahl

One of the frequented topics of conversations for Generation Y (and I’m guessing for every other generation, too) is how the face of pop culture is slowly adapting to the times, how it’s not the same as when we were young. This leads to reminiscing about oldmovies such as Fern Gulley, Little Nemo, The Brave Little Toaster and other appropriately obscure childhood cornerstones. And then comes the cultural analysis: “When you start to think about it, everything being made for kids these days, it’s changing, they get it easy, they’re coddled, everything is becoming … POLITICALLY CORRECT.”

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college I briefly worked at a children’s library, and I can say this: children’s literature has absolutely taken a turn for the politically correct (at least in the, say, age 4-13-ish range. After that all bets are off). There are very few bad guys, and if there are they are turned into good guys at the end. There aren’t any real antagonists because everything is nice. Why wouldn’t you want to give your child nice thoughts and nice books? It makes sense, but there’s not the slightest hint of an “edge” anymore, or the idea of “crossing the line.”

That’s why I heartily submit for your consideration The Twits by Roald Dahl (if I have to explain to you who he is or why he’s important, than my only guess is that you’re a sandwich shy of a picnic, if you catch my drift). This was my favorite book as a little kid, and it continues to be one of my favorites as an adult. It’s pretty far down the ladder in Roald Dahl books that people know, but it’s one I don’t want to be forgotten by time. Why? Because it’s downright nasty, in both the mean and the gross sense. Roald Dahl is known for his kooky, skewed, sometimes creepy/dark writing, and not pampering readers with sunshine and happiness. The Twits diverges slightly from his other books because there are no characters to root for. There is a family of trained monkeys that come to get revenge on the Twits about halfway through the book, but for all purposes the focus of the book are the Twits and how revolting they are. Mr. Twit has a disgusting beard where morsels of his food get caught, and then he eats them later. Mrs. Twit has a glass eye and carries a cane that she uses to hit animals and small children.

It is one of the funniest books I have ever read.

I brought it into my 2nd grade class during a show-and-tell-esque activity where students read from books they liked. None of my classmates got to hear much of it though, because I was laughing the entire time and I hadn’t even gotten past the first page. The teacher wasn’t too jazzed about it, and I don’t think she let me entertain my fellow students with descriptions about the horrible miscreants that are the Twits for very long.

Here is part of the description from the back cover: “Mr. and Mrs. Twit are the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest twits in the world. They hate everything—except playing mean jokes on each other, (and) catching innocent birds to make Bird Pie.” Without giving anything away, one of Mrs. Twit’s inexplicably cruel jokes is serving worms to her husband and telling him it’s spaghetti.

I read The Twits again recently, and it’s one of those things that can appeal to all ages. It’s delightfully inappropriate and twisted and you can probably read it in about half-an-hour or less. The illustrations by Quentin Blake, who has illustrated most of Roald Dahl’s books, are also notable for fully realizing the Twits’ ugliness. According to Amazon.com the demographic for this book is ages 7-11, and within that age range there are no recent books that can hold a candle to The Twits’s hilarity or mean-spirited humor, all in good fun of course. If you’re interested in other un-PC books for children, I would also recommend The Stupids by James Marshall, which is about a family that does everything in the wrong way, but is essentially about mentally ill/challenged individuals, if you read between the lines.

Art: Georgia O'Keeffe's Cityscapes

Let’s be real. When most of us think Georgia O’Keeffe, what immediately comes to mind are those iconic flower close-ups, now impossible to separate from the female anatomy no matter how O’Keeffe herself felt about such associations. Perhaps you might also consider her paintings of the American Southwest, the desert landscapes and animal skulls that characterized her later career. Less widely known, however, is a period from 1925 to 1930 in which O’Keeffe turned to New York City and its skyscrapers for inspiration—in my mind one of the most shocking breaks with expectation of all time.

Like Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe baring all onstage in Equus or Charlize Theron’s decidedly unglamorous turn in Monster, O’Keeffe’s cityscapes reflect a desire to escape being pigeonholed into a specific niche, namely that of a “woman artist.” By 1925 O’Keeffe had achieved great success, in large part due to the support of Alfred Stieglitz, to whom she was married in 1924. As the sole female member of Stieglitz’s elite circle of modern artists, O’Keeffe’s work was praised for the very fact that it was perceived as being so definitively feminine and evocative of her own sexuality. She had begun to resent this typecasting, however, a frustration that led her, much to Stieglitz’s distaste, to take on the New York City skyscraper, in all its cold, industrial, phallic glory, as her newest subject. In one of my favorite quotes, she declared that she wanted to be “so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me.”

The paintings themselves are fantastic in their simplicity. A personal favorite, City Night (pictured above), a 1926 painting I first encountered at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, uses just a few basic shapes and a minimalist color palette to achieve a slightly claustrophobic perspective, making the viewer acutely aware of the overwhelming scale of the buildings closing in around them. As in her flower paintings, O’Keeffe has the ability to take something completely familiar and, by focusing in on its essential shapes and curves, give an abstract quality to the most recognizable of subject matters.

It’s never entirely clear how she feels about the city; while I get a sense of isolation and powerlessness from City Night, her 1927 piece Radiator Building—Night, New York (left) to me seems to show the city in a much more favorable light, with the buildings’ illuminated windows suggesting the people inside, and the head-on perspective putting the viewer in a more open space.

Whatever your feelings on O’Keeffe, New York, or Modern Art, for that matter, these paintings are undeniably innovative, influential, and one of the best instances of sticking it to the man in art history. So go ahead, hang that poster of Light Iris in your dorm room, but next time you visit a museum, take some time and check out a different side of O’Keeffe.

Literature: "The Waves" by Virginia Woolf

I am in awe, and its an awe that goes very well with the late summer sun that casts shadows of the vinyl pool chairs. I’ve just finished Virginia Woolf’s lyrical and experimental The Waves (originally published in 1931) and it hits me like nothing I’ve ever read before. From its first crystalline images, it absolutely races, guided by the intensely intimate soliloquies of six charming narrators. At once, Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda and Susan are strikingly different, throwing each passing voice into sharp relief against the musings of the others, but also, they personify a haunting chorus of life’s most plotted questions, calling out to the space between them, they trace the “complete human being we have failed to be.”

Though maybe not a contemporary beach read, The Waves is punctuated by the third-person narration of an anonymous sunny day as it passes on a sandy coast. As the characters describe life as they age, from childhood, to adolescence, adulthood, and finally concluding with the anticipation of death in old age, so too does the sun pass through the sky, shifting the subtleties of the beach scene each time Woolf returns to paint it, like a series of impressionist paintings, obsessed with the same, indifferent cliff. And though it might not depict the steamy love triangle that seems to tangle up so many fictional beach houses in the Hamptons, Woolf does push her characters toward each other endlessly, forcing them constantly into the most familiar human dramas, giving poetic voice to the enduring ambiguities of love, friendship and loss.

One could say reductively (especially if they like to drop terms knowingly, note to self, here comes a keeper!) that The Waves presents the purest example of Woolf’s so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style. I tend to hate that phrase, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish, this book is more than a modernist exercise in the limits of narrative voice, to be discussed in lecture halls as a novel point of evolution and then forgotten. Woolf’s characters speak like the most honest actors on a strange, new stage. Simultaneously they describe reality as it passes objectively before their eyes, like a coffee cup on a table, but also navigate a surreal space with flights of dialogue so surprising that they abstract the human experience to suggest a wholly new awareness, one that escapes the physical laws of time and place. To call it simply a novel would be like lumping an eggplant within a bushel of apples, Woolf herself deemed it a “play-poem.” It is indeed is a kind of evanescent, dramatic experience, somehow enchantingly contained within the solidity of form and phrase. It is at once stunningly unique and familiar, surveying the swirling, furious storm of life as if in the precise eye of the most glorious hurricane.

Music: The Uglysuit

Anyone searching for the album that becomes synonymous with the season they bought it has found what they're looking for with The Uglysuit's self-titled debut LP. It is the exact music equivalent of the surreal feeling of meeting someone new and having that first particularly good time with them.

The band consists of six friends from Oklahoma City who've been playing together for years, and the familiarity shows. They've dabbled in many different (many admittedly embarrassing) genres and fortunately found their way to this, whatever this is--it's been called dream pop, folk rock, psychadelic, brit-pop power anthem, but none of those seem to do it. I could shout a few bands at you (Flaming Lips, The Shins, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Decemberists, Polyphonic Spree), but I prefer to call it what it is--densely-layered shimmering guitars, soaring pianos, rich waves and walls of sound, simple yet evocative and touching lyrics, and wait, is that an accordion? Also, Israel Hindman's breathy vocals are perfectly suited (pardon the pun)--if Conor Oberst or Elliott Smith were ever momentarily overwhelmed by joy and a profound appreciation for the beauty and possibility of life, it might sound like this.

Kicking off with the breezy, atmospheric "Brownblue's Passing," the album takes you on a truly incredible journey, notably passing through the infinitely-catchy single ("Chicago"), and two legitimately epic explorations ("And We Become Sunshine," "Everyone Now Has a Smile"). However, that's about all I want to or can say. The places this album takes you, real and imagined, will be entirely yours.

Literature: "Less Than Zero" by Bret Easton Ellis

You’ll find, I think, that the screenwriters veered somewhat from Ellis’ original vision. The book follows its protagonist, Clay, as he visits home during the winter break of his first year at college. Home for Clay is an upper-class, 1980’s Los Angeles, or to be more specific, a series of expensive cars, posh bars, and beds with the scent of money and cocaine heavy on the sheets, in and around Los Angeles. His friends are troupes of Beverly Hills kids who grew up too fast and with too much money; they all have expensive drug habits, an addiction to MTV, and a total desensitization to the world around them. Clay’s big problem in the book, though, is not the salvation of his friends, as he’s hardly any different from the rest of them—half the book follows him as he tries to find his dealer to score some coke and pills. Clay’s problem is that he’s eighteen years old, and already has ennui.

As the novel progresses we see that Clay and his friends have already done everything, seen everything, and know everything. There are simply no thrills left for them in life, and they’ve become totally desensitized to everything that used to keep them awake. The college-aged kids literally resort to heroine, prostitution, human torture, and rape to keep themselves occupied. Things start to spiral, but in a subtle, oppressive way.

If you google the novel, you’ll find countless references to it as “the first MTV novel,” pointing to its countless references to then hit-songs and brief, music video-length chapters. Ellis’ description of LA can at times read like a laundry list of street names, neighborhoods, and clubs, but overall becomes a portrait as glamorous and hellish as the story. The prose is frank and fairly simple, the reader’s only anchor in a story that dives off the deep end with such a blasé expression of boredom on its face. I’d hesitate to suggest the book to the faint of heart or stomach. I would suggest it, however, to those who feel adrift, and maybe a little angry. To those who feel like the compass they were given has maybe been broken all along. That is to say, I’d recommend it to the college-aged. Ellis did write it when he was 19, after all. The sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, is due out in early 2010. We’ve stumbled into the perfect moment to discover this book.

Art: Viva La Revolución

I'm sure you remember Shepard Fairey's powerful and iconic Hope posters that were everywhere during the 2008 presidential election. Well, I would like to offer you a different flavor of politically-charged graphic art. First, let's go back 100 years to the months leading up to the Mexican Revolution.

Jose Guadalupe Posada, in the last years of his life, printed hundreds of volantes (flyers) with images of politicians and folk heroes. The volantes were designed to bring knowledge of politics and current events to a largely illiterate working class. The most striking aspect of Posada's work was his use of Calaveras, or animated skeletons.

Although Posada was virtually unknown while he was alive, his artwork has become the foundation of Mexican printmaking and political art. His art inspired the Mexican Muralists (Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Siqueros) and later influenced the creation of the Taller de Grafica Popular (which translates to the People's Graphic Arts Workshop).

Founded in 1937 by Leopoldo Mendez, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O'Higgins, the TGP picked up where Posada had left off by printing volantes and larger posters called carteles. But the TGP had a different agenda--while Posada's prints were mostly satirical, the TGP generated artwork that advocated worker's rights and attacked fascism. For roughly 20 years, the TGP flourished until television and radio rendered the volantes and carteles obsolete. Today, the Taller has been reduced to an after-school program for young artists in Mexico City.

But the revolutionary fires still burn in Oaxaca, Mexico. A new group of young artists called the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca ,or ASARO Collective, was created in 2006 in response to the political turmoil sparked by a teacher's strike in June of that year. The ASARO Collective creates prints, posters, stencils, and stickers that are critical of the Mexican Government, Capitalism, and the mistreatment of indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Some ASARO artists are focussing on the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the 1910 Mexican Revolution by printing modern "punk" versions of revolutionary icon, Emiliano Zapata (left). Since 2006, ASARO has gained a considerable amount of attention. They now have their own studio called Espacio Zapata and have recently had several exhibits of their work tour throughout the United States.

So when you get tired of seeing Obama's beautiful red, white, and blue face on every blank wall in the US, check out the artwork of some real revolutionaries.

Music: Son Lux

Son Lux, aka Ryan Lott, is a classically trained composer who calls himself a hip-hop producer. He has created multimedia projects featured in the Guggenheim, composed scores for dance productions, and remixed Arts Section favorites Radiohead, Beirut, Wild Beasts, DM Stith, and My Brightest Diamond, among others. To make a long story short, he is a versatile musician who was named NPR’s Best New Artist of 2008.

His debut album At War With Walls & Mazes, one of my personal favorites of 2008, was refreshing in its uniqueness. The album, released on the predominantly hip-hop label Anticon, was made over four years and mixes classical compositions with electronic flourishes and simple, but often heartbreaking lyrics. Lott experiments heavily on his release but maintains a
clear direction throughout each track (as he discusses below about his sophomore album); the result is a layered work that unveils itself anew with every additional listen. Even the album’s artwork (right) speaks of creativity: it was designed by Joshue Ott on superDraw, a program that Ott created and a new art form that I hope to see more often in the future.

Son Lux rarely plays shows, but I was fortunate enough to see him last month at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. When he told the audience that he reinvents his songs for every performance, I was skeptical, but while many of the songs were barely recognizable, it was an amazing showcase of the talented new artist. Lott, accompanied by two violas, played the beautiful set that revealed yet another side to his songs. Below he speaks about his forthcoming sophomore album, other work, and some recommendations he has for our readers.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything recently that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

Film

Hmmm… I actually haven’t seen any amazing films recently, mainly because my wife and I are so addicted to The Wire that as soon as we were 2 episodes into it, we completely re-arranged our Netflix cue and basically stopped going to the movies. So until we finish all 5 seasons, they can wait.

Art

One of the coolest things I’ve seen recently is the James Ensor exhibition at the MoMA. I was unfamiliar with this dude’s work. He’s compelling to me because you can look at two of his paintings and it seems like there’s no way it’s the work of a single artist. Maybe I can relate to that. But my favorite painter I think is Rothko. I can sit in front of one of his paintings for a long time.

Books

I’m reading Obama’s book “Dreams from my Father.” Because it was written like 15 years ago, it’s fascinating on many levels. I'm learning a lot about how much I don't know about racism.

Music

There are a few artists I’m particularly excited about right now. DM Stith is one of them. Hard to explain how amazing this dude is. His debut LP is called Heavy Ghost, and then he has a couple other EPs. One’s called BMB, which contains a remix by yours truly. Serengeti & Polyphonic are a prog-hop duo extraordinaire that just released a crazy great album called Terradactyl. I haven’t heard a more fascinating and open-minded approach to hip-hop production. And the record that I haven’t pulled from heavy rotation on over a year is Why?’s Alopecia. Impossibly good, and my favorite release of 2008. And then I’ve recently rediscovered Ligeti’s String Quartets. They’re awesome.

Dance

I added a dance category. I recently saw Winter Variations by Emanuel Gat. I won’t even bother trying to describe it, but it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced ever. Weirdly, another piece on his program did like nothing for me. But Winter Variations… geez.

Are you working on your sophomore LP? If so, how far are you and what's the process like this time around?

Work on LP#2 is well underway. The process is very different than it was for the first one. When I began the first record, I didn’t really know that I was making an album. At least, it was not my intent. At some point in my musical experimentation, I realized that’s what was happening. So I created the Son Lux identity to commit to it and explore my ideas thoroughly. This time around, it’s completely different. I have more resources, both technologically and in fellow musicians, and a lot more music under my belt. It’s hard to say how far along I am with it, because my stuff comes to life after a ton of experimentation. Sometimes it clicks in one hour, but usually I’ll work for 100 hours on something before something really beautiful reveals itself.

Are you working on anything else?

I recently completed an amazing project, writing a bunch of new Son Lux material for choreographer Stephen Petronio for an evening-length production he created on Ballet de Lorraine in France. I laid the groundwork for new album material with the project.

I’m also working on an exciting commission for choreographer Gina Gibney, one of my long-term collaborators. It's an evening-length score, and some of this material will also find its way into the next record, no doubt.

And I’m always remixing/remaking artists’ stuff. I have remixes for Anathallo, Wild Beasts and Nico Muhly waiting in the wings for release, and about four others I’ve committed to but haven’t finished yet.

I’m also wrapping a Son Lux EP that I plan to release in the fall. All this plus my day job. Yikes.

Photo by Sarah Cass

Free Son Lux Downloads:

"Throw" (Album Out-Take)

"To Pluto's Moon (Son Lux Remix)" from Shark Remixes Vol. 2 - Son Lux

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