Thursday, December 23, 2010

Music: Das Racist

I thought Das Racist was a joke after hearing “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”; listen to the song and try to argue otherwise. It's a song that a friend and I would sing after a night of drinking. But then they released a killer mixtape in Shut Up, Dude earlier this year and then an even better one in Sit Down, Man just a few months later. Suddenly they were writing smart lyrics with clever wordplay and a velvet flow. There are even a few tracks that I included on my unfortunately titled “Party” iTunes playlist. Das Racist started as a group with a terrible live reputation and have since proven the condemners wrong. So basically, you should give Das Racist another chance if you decided you didn’t like them a year ago. Both of their mixtapes are free – seriously, you have no excuse. Below, they answer some questions in a way that won’t surprise their fans.

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

Dap: Watch Mala Noche. Rene Magritte made cool art, I'm sure there are cooler more modern versions of this but I don't know much about "visual art." Music sucks! Also, I would recommend our readers reduce or cease their use of "hard" drugs.

Himanshu: Film: Man Push Cart, Art: Subodh Gupta, Music, Literature: The Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

KOOL A.D.: The last movie I saw and liked was Cocaine Cowboys. Art/Music. Right now I'm reading Santeria: African Magic in Latin America by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler.

Where does the name
Das Racist come from?

Dap: Earth.

Himanshu: Wonder Showzen

KOOL A.D.: Germany

How did you guys meet and start writing music?

Dap: Victor and Himanshu met in college and started recording rap songs.

Himanshu: We met in college, but started rapping about a year after graduating. We weren't close friends in college.

KOOL A.D.: Define "music."

What's your songwriting process like?

Himanshu: Open Gmail. Click compose document. Write down thoughts. Think of 2 or 3 things you've been thinkin about lately that are "interesting." Piece them together. Put them in a "good" order. Build a narrative.

KOOL A.D.: Sell crack, rap about it.

Who would you like to collaborate with (dream and realistic)?

Himanshu: The-Dream, Swizz Beats, Kanye West

KOOL A.D.: M.I.A., MF Doom, Kool Keith

What are your plans for the future?

Dap: I'm going to try to make my body a little larger this winter.

Himanshu: I'm going to try to clean up my act.

KOOL A.D.: I want to live in a warm climate by a large body of water.

If you had a $250 million dollar budget to make a movie, what would it be about?

Dap: I wouldn't want to work hard enough to make a $250 million dollar movie that would utilize all of that money. I would keep a lot of it. I'd make a movie about a regular guy doing things most likely, I'm not so sure.

Himanshu: The life and times of Shiv Kumar Batalvi or Guru Dutt.

KOOL A.D.: I would start a sustainable fish farm. And make a movie about it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Music: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros have an interesting history. Created by Alex Ebert (aka Edward Sharpe), former lead singer of the very different power pop group Ima Robot, Edward Sharpe has ten permanent members that create an epic, but humble feel to their debut album Up from Below. The band has quickly gained popularity since the album’s release through festivals and placements including a commercial for the humorously named Ford Fiesta. The band put on a mighty live show where you can see how all of the members contribute. Their hit “Home” is probably familiar to you, but the band has other memorable songs. The front half of Up from Below is loaded with the swaying “40 Day Dream”, the endearingly catchy “Janglin”, the slow chugging of the title track, the family feeling of “Carries On”, the hippy feeling of “Jade”, and then the great duet of “Home”. The second half is not quite as strong, but still keeps the general feeling of warmth in numbers. The exception is the Fleet Foxes-like song “Brother” where Ebert turns off the amps and everyone else’s mics for an acoustic confessional. He answers a few quick questions below.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers?

Everyone needs to see and hear the BBC documentary “The Century of the Self”.

What is the songwriting process like with such a large group?

I wrote most of this first album, but we will be writing the next one more communally… In pockets, rough ideas brought in, etc.

What do you have coming up?

‘Solo’ albums from me (Alexander), Christian, and Jade are in the works… as well as the second Edward Sharpe album!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Optimist Records: "Heartthrob High" by Heartthrobz

Heartthrobz is meant for big speakers and bigger subwoofers. Heartthrob High, Optimist Records second release, is meant for the sweatiest dancefloors and the most unapologetic dancers. The FREE EP features fat beats, sharp synths, and anthemic choruses featuring lyrics like “Close your eyes/open your thighs/cuz now it’s time to Disco-Tize.” The opening track “Disco-Tize” is basically the EP’s mission statement: sexy, dancey fun. The title track is hilarious and at the same time just right to get a party started. “Sex on the Dancefloor” needs no explanation. When you’re listening on headphones and the funky bass line kicks in on the EP closer “WHAT’Z HER FACE?” you know you’re just a little cooler than everyone who’s walking past you – the song’s chorus will make you raise your arms in revelation. Download the unrelentingly fun EP for free HERE – the songs have to be downloaded separately.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

There are these ideas we have about America. You may live in the noisiest corner of Manhattan, or the leafiest, three-car-garage-iest suburb in the state, but you can’t tell me there haven’t been times that you’ve heard the word “America” and you pictured a golden prairie with maybe one or two spotted palominos nibbling at the flora. It’s a collective unconscious thing, an idea we’re raised to believe in even if we haven’t ever really seen it—this America that existed before us, where time moved slower, the sun set lower, and extremes of courage, fear, pride, and violence were what made us those brave men and women of the frontier. We have these pictures in our minds of this America that we think we sort of love, if only we could get a better grasp of it.

I re-watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), this weekend, and it reminded me, again, of this elusive America we all grew up looking for. The film, directed by Andrew Dominik, traces the last days of famed wild west outlaw Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt. The narrative begins with the first meeting of James and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), a young and devoted fan who grew up on his own brand of mythic Americana: adventure books about the James gang. While there isn’t what you might call a driving plot in the movie, the narrative meanders through the James Gang’s last train robbery and the series of betrayals and vengeances that follow it, Pitt’s Jesse James (the enigma to end all enigmas) becoming all the while more paranoid and volatile, at times flying off the handle with little provocation and at times sitting with a silent, eerie stillness. And of course there’s that maniacal Tyler Durden laugh that no one who saw Fight Club is ever likely to forget. Affleck plays the part of Ford with an equally powerful anxiety that gets the viewer feeling just as jumpy and nervous as his character on screen. Both lead actors play their parts with subtlety and stillness, as if what they’re both hiding in the interior might burst forth if they ever lost control.

The script, full of really fantastic one-liners (“Poetry don’t work on whores.”) does well installing the audience in the time period, a time when people (almost exclusively men, in the film) spoke frankly, but elegantly. One character asks a man how his recently-shot leg is doing, and he responds “Full of torment, thanks for asking.” Most beautiful are the passages of voice-over narration that are lifted from the original novel, giving the audience glimpses into Jesse and Bob’s internal lives. The day before the once-adoring (and still obsessed) Bob is to kill Jesse, the narrator tells us “His fingers skittered over his own ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot…He imagined himself at [Jesse’s age.] He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of this film, though, is the visual. Some shots blurred and drunk with color and others starkly sharp and hyper-focused, what we’re given is a world of shadows and fires, natural beauty and human isolation. The opening narration mentions that James suffered from a condition called granulated eyelids that caused him to blink more than average, “as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” It’s clear that Dominik set out to film that world, bigger and more beautiful and frightening than any world we could accept. That’s the world that Jesse James inhabited, and that’s the America we’re all born looking for. The film is slow and subtle, dirty and violent and elegant and arresting and absolutely ruthless in its stillness. Go see it, and give yourself another glimpse of the world you forgot you were looking for.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Music: Free Energy

It’s summer and it’s damn hot outside. This is the time to have a barbeque and enjoy some afternoon drinking or throw a party on a roof somewhere. Free Energy is your soundtrack for these occasions. The band, who signed to DFA where James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem produced their debut album Stuck On Nothing,is shameless rock and roll – powerful riffs, pump up lyrics, and songs that are catchy as hell.

The opening song on the album, also titled “Free Energy”, opens with the lyrics, “We’re breaking out this time / making out with the wind.” You know what you’re in for. “All I Know” features T. Rexian strings and the type of touching swagger that Marc Bolan would be proud of.

“Hope Child” opens with the strong, distorted chords you have come to expect at this point in the album. What makes the song stand out is the surprising affect it had on me when it slowed down – the repeated refrain “You’re not alone” hits because it’s a break in the music, but it’s also one of the few spots of inspirational vulnerability on the album. Free Energy is not breaking any new ground with their sound, but they’re fun - “Bang Pop” has a chorus meant for a road trip sing-along (a la the beginning of That 70's Show).

Beware of seeing them live because they will melt your face right off. Some people think that rock and roll is dead; if that’s true, then Free Energy is the zombie president that rules all because it looks so goddamn human. Lead singer Paul Sprangers discusses muscles and girls below.

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

I just read Utopia or Oblivion by Buckminster Fuller. It's pretty incredible. He warns of the dangers of over-specification in one's education, like how modern universities push students to narrow their focus of study on very particular subjects, instead of promoting what he calls comprehensive learning-where one is encouraged to see how all disciplines and facets of education are connected and necessarily linked. The other thing is--he believes in the survival of humanity. He believes that war, i.e. the extreme manifestation of human fear, is based on a once-justifiable but now antiquated notion that there is a lack of resources (food, water, shelter) for all humans. He argues that with modern industrialization we have solved this problem, but have yet to dismantle the fossilized systems (government, organized religion) that now stand in the way of our collective growth.

Why DFA?

Why not?

What was it like working with James Murphy?

Really incredible. It was the first time we collaborated with someone who we really could trust and lean on. He pushed us and he made us take our ideas more seriously--and at a certain point, as a producer, it didn't matter to him what we played as much as that we just commit to the playing and expression of our music--as a producer he wanted to hear our ideas expressed clearly and deliberately. This idea seems simple now, but it was pretty enlightening.

What is your songwriting process like?

Scott [Wells, lead guitar] and I write songs apart and together. We demo songs apart and together. We add stuff to each others demos. We sit and work out melodies together. We talk about music. We let ideas digest and grow at their own pace. We tend to our ideas and songs like cosmic gardeners.

Working on anything else?

My biceps. My attitude. Hanging out with cute girls.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Music: "Expo 86" by Wolf Parade

There’s something I need to get out of the way before this review gets going. I have a serious bias that leans in the favor of Wolf Parade. I’m convinced that anything Spencer Krug or Dan Boeckner touch or create turns to gold instantly, and then spontaneously duplicates itself through freak occurrences that defy the laws of matter, space, and time to create more gold items. If Expo 86 was a blank CD-R with a Post-It Note on it that said “Do It Yourself”, I would still be telling you it was the best thing since 99 cent chicken nuggets. Lucky Expo 86 is actually a solid album, so I don’t have to lie.

Where Apologies to the Queen Mary sounded like a band that needed to prove themselves to get stated and At Mount Zoomer sounded like a band that needed to make an incredible follow-up, Expo 86 sounds like a band that wants to make a genuinely fun record that is straightforward but rewarding to listen to. This might be hard to believe in the first 15 seconds though. “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain” begins with a typically frantic Spencer Krug ranting about a dream. It’s cryptic and weird but an awesome testament to his writing that sets a pace and tone for the rest of the album. Expo 86 never really slows down. It’s a rock album that you can dance to.

“What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go This Way)” is another one of Krug’s songs, but shows early on in the album how Boeckner and Krug are able to work together better than before. Synthesizers and guitar work blend together and let each other stand out at the right moments. The same can be said for “Little Golden Age” which is one of Boeckner’s songs. There is a familiar charm to Boeckner’s writing. It’s always served as an appropriate counterweight to Krug that helps keep Wolf Parade effective.

“In the Direction of the Moon” is one of the highlights of the album for me. A relentless keyboard part keeps the song going all the way through. I see huge potential for this to be the first Wolf Parade song to get sampled. It could be totally sick. “Ghost Pressure” follows with what is the most party ready song on the album. It was one of the first songs released to the pubic before the album came out, and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since then.

Expo 86 winds down with “Yulia”, which sounds a little too similar to track two (“Palm Road”). I would make a bigger deal of it if they weren’t both great songs. The last hurrah is “Cave-o-Sapien”. I’m pretty sure this is the silliest song Wolf Parade have written. The is a line towards the end of the song that reads, “I had a vision of a gorilla, and he was a killer! A Killer!” It’s crazy, but makes for a great closer that sums up the tone of the album pretty well.

Expo 86 isn’t like Apologies to the Queen Mary, but does it really have to be? Would you rather listen to something that was contrived and pointless or a great album by a band that wanted to do something they would enjoy? There isn’t a song like “I’ll Believe in Anything”. You wont hold your best friend and sing the lyrics to them in the most earnest and loving way possible, but you will give them a high five and ask where the beers are.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Optimist Records: "Wearin' Shorts in the Summer" by Luke Brandfon

Optimist Records is a new part of The Arts Section where we will be releasing artists we like on a pay what you want basis (this means you could get the music for free). The first release is Wearin’ Shorts in the Summer by Luke Brandfon, which you can download HERE.

Luke Brandfon is a musician who has explored many genres. He has played folk, experimental instrumental, sweaty dance beats (Heartthrobz, who will be released later this summer on Optimist Records), and more. His solo material comes from some place else. When listening to Wearin’ Shorts in the Summer, a title that currently speaks volumes to me, I can’t help but feel a sense of warm nostalgia. The great opening duet “Wasabi Pea” introduces the listener to the young love present through much of the album.

“The Moment” has a hint of Willie Nelson and Phosphorescent and is a song of longing and heartbreak where Brandfon repeats, “You don’t even want to be my friend.” Brandfon’s lyrics can sound simple (as he discusses below), but they feel honest. The album has many highlights, so be sure to download it HERE if you think you think you might be wearing shorts this summer. Just type in zero for the price if you want the album for free.

What do you get out of being in bands that are so musically different?

I get a lot out of being in bands that are musically different. It gives me a chance to experience and enjoy songs in different ways – whether it's making ridiculous disco ballads with overtly lustful and immature lyrics or recording really bare love songs with just a crappy guitar in my college dorm room – there are so many things I love about music, about writing songs, and about playing live, and having different groups in addition to solo stuff is a great way to try out new ideas.

What is your songwriting process like?

My songwriting process is very confusing - even to me....a lot of times my songs start with a melody I think up, or a chord progression I write. In other words, lots of times I'll just hit record and play the guitar, keyboard, or whatever, until I start playing something that I think really sounds good, or is pretty, and so on and so forth. Then, once I get a decent progression I'll write words over it, overdub other instruments, etc.....for some of my songs, the lyrics are really secondary---and you can totally tell what songs they are, because the words are pretty simple, without any hidden metaphors.....but, even when my lyrics are "cheesy", or seemingly trite, when I'm writing them, or singing them, I'm really doing it sincerely.

Working on anything new?

Yes, finding a job.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Literature: "The Adventures of Augie March" by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow – who died five years ago last week – stands as one of the American literary giants of the second half of the twentieth century. Though born in Canada, his books are often quintessentially American, and are characterized by a darkly comic world view. In his decorations – the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Pulitzer Prize, and three times the National Book Award – it is easy to compare him to the other American greats, Hemmingway and Faulkner. Bellow, though, in his flowery prose, fine suits and with his notorious conservatism, stands distinctly apart from the succinct prose of a Hemmingway or the modernist styling of Faulkner.

It is hard, in fact, to find a recent author set further apart from post-Modernist fashion, or one more hostile to academically chic critical theory. For Bellow merely writes, and does he ever. He paints with bold, ambitious strokes and his style is grandiose and unapologetic. The opening paragraph of Augie March evokes from the beginning Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Bellow’s novel takes as its model.

“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first to be admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or by gloving the knuckles.”

The protagonist, Augie March, narrates his way through his life story, the brilliant orphaned son of immigrants growing up in the 1930s in a poor Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. His adventures – without giving anything away – are at times rather ridiculous and unbelievable. Despite the meticulous detail of the prose, its constant attention to the smutty world of mid-century Chicago, the plot often borders on the fantastical. Chance happenings constantly deliver Mr. March into exceptional circumstances, and anyone expecting a novel of gritty realism should be rather disappointed.

Indeed, the story is a meandering one, and is far from carefully constructed. In that sense, the book is a bit of a technical failure. To become too hung up on the plot’s failures, though, is to miss the point. The joy in Augie March is that Saul Bellow can flat-out write. His prose sprawls and explodes on the page with a jubilant vitality and unabashed swagger like no American’s since Twain. Augie March is a breathtaking odyssey across the American landscape, told in brilliant prose by a master of the language.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Film: A Serious Man

It's taken me a while to catch up on my list of Oscar nominated films, but the other day I finally had the chance to see the new Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man. With their typically dark and satirical humor, Joel and Ethan Coen head back to their roots in this film to great success. Set in the late 1960s in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis where the brothers actually grew up, the film follows a Job-like character who, despite the many misfortunes and complications that arise in his life, tries to be a "serious" man and to find meaning in his suffering.

In contrast with other Coen brothers movies, the plot is simple, consisting of a series of unfortunate events heaped on the shoulders of a bespectacled and befuddled Larry Gopnik, a Jewish mathematics professor awaiting a decision from his tenure committee at the college where he teaches. Throughout the film, Larry attempts to deal with his impending divorce, his wife's overly-intimate lover, his brother's leaking cyst, his trouble making son about to be bar mitzvahed, all on top of a quickly dwindling bank account and an ever-mounting sea of troubles.

The simplicity is deceptive, however, for the film hides a subtle depth in its relation to the Job story from the Bible. In the midst of his grievances Larry turns to his Jewish faith for meaning, facing a slew of quirky personalities in his search for spiritual guidance.
In this way, Larry's trials not only provide some wonderfully clever humor, but simultaneously express sincere frustrations as to the nature of faith.

In my opinion, the best part of this film is the amusing, puzzling, and profound ending only the Coen brothers can conjure. But I won't spoil it for you. Go see this film for yourself. It's fantastic!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Film and Music: Oddsac

I saw "Oddsac" last night at a special Chicago screening. I am writing this the following day with a complicated predicament on my hands. The Arts Section is about recommendation and positive reviews, but even after I've given the film hours to sink in and digest itself, I'm still not exactly sure what it is I witnessed.

"Oddsac" is the product of around four years of collaboration between experimental indie band Animal Collective and video artist/director Danny Perez. The band has described the project as a visual album, meaning the sounds and visuals are equally important and completely rely on each other. For this reason, there will be no soundtrack of the film released independently of the visuals. This is where it gets tricky to talk about "Oddsac". This was an undoubtably tough project to undertake, but nevertheless, the difficulty in making the film should not dictate its success. So here's the big question: Does "Oddsac" work? For the most part, yes.

The biggest issue is that "Oddsac" isn't as consistent as it should be. When Perez opts for cinematic visuals with characters and scenarios, the film is an impressive and pretty amazing thing to experience. The visuals are intriguing, thought provoking, and imply some sort of narrative while interacting seamlessly with the music. When Perez throws minutes straight of swirling colors and flashing messes of light at you (and it happens a lot) it just isn't interesting. I understand that the tone is meant to be abrasive. I understand that they might not want me to enjoy looking at some of it. I'm ok with that, and I agree that intentional displeasure can send a powerful message, but it has to be worth it. I hate to say it, but these parts were a frustrating waste of time that could have been spent developing the overall theme in a more productive way.

Let's talk about the good stuff because there was a lot of it!

The music is huge. The majority of the soundtrack was recorded and written between the time when Animal Collective released "Strawberry Jam" and the close-to-flawless "Merriweather Post Pavilion". Because of this, much of the music was backed by "Merriweather"-esque electronic bass and beats while also showing off some of the guitar driven style from "Strawberry Jam". A song sung by Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) was paired with visuals of a vampire paddling a canoe at night. That scene alone made "Oddsac" worth watching. The grand finale was also pretty fantastic. The song was rather dark but danceable and was accompanied by visuals of some kind of freaky food fight with a monster.

I've tried to be vague about the content of "Oddsac" while still giving an opinion because I think it is best to see it without knowing too much. It is definitely eccentric with lots of weird surprises, and I want anyone who sees it to be as caught off guard as I was. It is important to point out that while it is far from perfect, "Oddsac" is worth seeing. Animal Collective fans will love the music, and some of the visuals are pretty stunning. It's probably going to confuse you and your brain might hurt afterwards, but its only an hour. Just roll with it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Literature: "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

I am being perfectly frank when I say I haven't read a book as strangely wonderful as Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" in a very long time. Murakami has become well known for a kind of "cool surrealism" (Zalewski) that encircles the reader in a complex dream world. With every turning page the possibilities offered by time and consciousness expand as Murakami blends elements of Japanese folk tales, Greek myths, surrealist aesthetics, classical music, and Murakami's own intensely philosophical narrative style.

"Kafka on the Shore" is a particularly ambitious tale, weaving together the story of Kafka, a young teenage boy running from his own Oedipal prophecy, and Nakata, an old man who suffers from a mental disorder inflicted in his early childhood. As their stories progress, the seemingly impossible blooms around them: fish rain from the sky, humans speak with cats, spiritual concepts take on the physical bodies of characters from commercial advertisements, and souls leave their respective bodies to commit transgressive acts.

The book is dense, complex to the point that Murakami's publishers launched a website shortly after publication as a way for readers to submit questions to the author personally as to how to understand the novel. Several themes are clear: the redemptive power of music, the potent and painful bonds of family, the influence of the past on the present. And yet the novel manages to complicate even these, turning them every so often so that "boundary line[s]" begin to "waver," "metaphors transform," and we are left confused, with no "center... to hold on to" (Murakami). Instead, as Murakami himself has said, "'Kafka on the Shore' contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead... these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape... To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution" (Murakami).

Despite its intricacy, or perhaps because of it, "Kafka on the Shore" is no less than entrancing. Reading it is a true experience, one in which you find yourself enveloped in a spiritual, philosophical, and psychological state of un-knowing. Led to question the nature of time, self-awareness, and the existence and limits of reality, this book seeks to bend you, to allow your mind to live in dreams. Finally, when you reach the end of the journey, having come through the labyrinthine entanglement that is this novel, you find yourself in a moment of complete release, as if you were standing on the "edge... of a brand-new world" (Murakami).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Literature: "Girl With Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace

It’s rare that I throw books. I abuse books all the time, sure, leave them dog-eared and bent and spine-cracked and pen-marked, but rarely do I turn them into projectiles, launching them across the room in anger or self defense or what-have-you. Upon finishing Girl with Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories, I pitched that sucker at the carpeted floor of my semester-abroad-Dublin-apartment as hard as I could, in a fit of relief and devastation and anger and just about everything else one can feel.

I’ll say this: I didn’t love every second of this book. But I loved this book.

Wallace is best known for his goliath novel Infinite Jest, but in many ways just as complex and gratifying, are his short stories. First off, the man has a way with words. There are bits of prose in this collection that will leave even the most jaded, world-weary 20 year old English major breathless and tongue-tied. Not only that, but each story comes from one drastically different narrator after the next. John Billy is an old-west tall tale that’s being recounted in a saloon by a good old Oklahoma boy who says things like “was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” while the title story, “Girl with Curious Hair,” is told from the perspective of a sociopathic Los Angeles aristocrat who speaks with a kind of dictionary-English that makes evident the influence Wallace has had on the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.

Over the course of these stories, we hear from an Eastern-European grandmother, a teenage lesbian, Lyndon Baines Johnson, an MIT “poet of technology,” a middle aged television actress on Xanax, Los Angeles punk-rockers on LSD, a divorced account executive, and, of course, Alex Trebek, among others. Each voice is crafted carefully and fully, treading bleary lines between the hyper-realistic and the surreal.

The aspect of this collection that’s at once infuriating and enriching, I think, is just how smart Wallace is, and how fond he is of making the reader work for a reward. Interlaced through the book are theories on linguistic philosophy and the nature of perspective that take a few readings to even understand grammatically, and Wallace doesn’t shy from taking risks like throwing in stories within stories within stories, or having the pieces in the collection range in length from one page to one hundred and forty pages. That’s right, the last story in the collection, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” is almost half the book in and of itself, and is a spiraling, almost plotless foray into metafiction and literary philosophy. It’s tough. It’s tough by design. But it’s worth it.

While, in moments, this collection can be almost excessively difficult, it’s also hilarious, beautiful, thought-provoking, and absurd. And where it’s difficult is where the book really draws you in, Wallace forcing you to work through the problems he’s working through, to be as confused and engaged with the mediated and ever-evolving world as he is. This is clearly a labor of love for both the writer and the reader, but I promise that it’ll leave you looking at the world in a very different way from when you embark on it. You may want to throw the book at something. I’d encourage it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Art: Stephen Westfall

For nearly two thousand years, Rome has been a Mecca for visual artists throughout the Western world. The city is filled to the brim with the potential for inspiration. The physical spaces created by thousands of years of cultural production are downright magical and often mysterious. For a visual artist, spending any amount of time in Rome is a challenge. It's impossible to go there and not be visually impacted. She demands you to strike a balance between her beauty and your personal aesthetics.

During my journey through the Eternal City, I had the pleasure of meeting internationally renowned American artist, Stephen Westfall. Stephen won the American Academy's Rome Prize for Visual Arts in 2009 and has been living and working in Rome since the summer. If you're not familiar with his work, Stephen brilliantly employs color and pattern to destabilize and unground the viewer's perception. His paintings defy the concept of art as object, and instead enter the realm of art as a continuous visual encounter. His entirely new body of work arises from his time spent in Rome. In a recent interview, I asked Stephen about his personal relationship with Rome and his art making.

How has Rome impacted your artwork as opposed to New York or elsewhere? What's new about the paintings you've created in Rome and what has been your inspiration while working on this new body of work?

I think these two questions are almost the same so I’m going to answer here. I’m a somewhat Poppish, post-minimalist geometric painter. My visual imagination was fueled by architecture and the use of color on an architectural scale (Barragan, le Corbusier, billboards, etc.) well before I ever seriously entertained the possibility of becoming a serious painter. Rome is an architectural National Park, so to speak, as is New York. But the fresco tradition and the long history of inlaid marble floors and walls here was clearly on my mind when I applied for the Rome Prize. I was also looking forward to encountering the Rationalist style of fascist architecture, and the bold graphic design of the post war period. Of course I found all that here, and more. My most recent paintings are responding the Cosmatesque and Baroque floors of the churches and palazzos, the gridding of Rationalist facades, and even some of the window mullion patterns I’ve seen here. The show I’m mounting at the American Academy will feature the most complete integration of paintings on canvas, wall paintings, and works on paper that I’ve ever done. It will also invoke specific source material that I’ve already mentioned, from all over Rome, and it’s also calibrated as an installation response to the specific architectural features of the two room gallery.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

I am chiefly concerned with abstract sign space, where planes of color both create spatial illusion and project into real space. Along with this real energy in the first encounter with the image there is also the sense that the image has a memory of all the historical manifestations and uses of geometry. Amy Sillman described my paintings as images of painting stretched to the exact size of the painting itself. I loved that. I paint in oil on canvas and, contrary to viewers’ first impressions I don’t use tape. I want the paintings to give a sense of the hand fitting these planes together.

When I paint on the wall I use good quality latex acrylic house paint. I do use tape here because it’s really the only way to get the job done at that scale and under the inevitable time constraints I’m working with. Somehow, it matters less at that scale anyway. The results still look crafted and good.

The Arts Section is all about recommending things. Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

In Rome? Go to the Vatican Museum in winter, visit the pinacoteca first and hit the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel after 4:30. You’ll never be there again with so few other people. Bliss. Make a tour of the Cosmatesque floors of some the major churches. Two standouts are Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria in Cosmadin. The broken Roman bridge at the south end of the island in the Tiber offers perspectives worthy of Piranesi, especially at night. And the Capitoline Museum annex in Montemartini sets stunning Roman sculpture against the spectacular backdrop of the giant turbines of the first public power station in Rome. Then there’s the great third floor of the Palazzo Massimo. And on and on.

In literature, I’m reading the Nicholas Fox Weber biography of Le Corbusier and his recent book on the Bauhaus Group. As for music, I listen to everything. I’m lately all about the Avett Brothers. Monteverdi in Rome is a revelation. The thing that has mesmerized is that I’ve put this broad collect of jazz, classical, folk, alternative rock, reggae, soul, electronica, etc. on itunes, about 1700 cds so far. When I put it on shuffle it becomes the greatest radio station in the world.

As for art you can never see too much Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. Or my friends, Polly Apfelbaum, Amy Sillman, Chris Martin, Mary Heilmann, MaryWeatherford, and Rebecca Morris. Rebecca may be the most exciting painter you’ve never heard of.

What are your plans after completing your fellowship in Rome?

I go back to teaching at Rutgers and the Bard MFA program in the summer. I have shows at George Lawson Gallery in San Francisco in the fall and at Lennon Weinberg Gallery in New York in the spring. Many of the paintings in both shows will have been completed here.


Stephen Westfall's newest works will be on display at the American Academy in Rome from March 12th thru April 30th, 2010.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Music: "Die Young" by Blair

Immediately after Blair released the "Pluto EP" in 2007, critics were making comparisons to influential musicians like Liz Phair and Jenny Lewis. What these writers were unfortunately overlooking is everything that sets Blair apart from her predecessors. With her full-length debut, "Die Young," Blair has developed a sound that is familiar and friendly but with the signature style that made the "Pluto EP" so successful.

"Die Young" explores a wider variety of emotions than Blair's previous work. The album opens with "Rampage" which sounds just as aggressive as it's title implies. As the string arrangement in the beginning of the song builds up, it's pretty clear that something huge is about to happen.

"My Turn" combines a steady rhythm and some subtle orchestration with really excellent vocals. Subtlety is something that Blair has mastered in her songwriting. Whether it is with clever lyrics or smart compositional decisions, she doesn't hit her listeners over the head with answers. There were times during listening to "Die Young" that I was aware of how much I was loving it, but couldn't explain why. I had to do some digging, but would it really be as much fun if it was being spoon-fed to me?

I think that's why I find Blair to be different from the musicians she is so commonly compared to. Her music is fun, but thoughtful and smart. That's not to say Liz Phair and Jenny Lewis have never written fun songs, but Blair does it in a way that’s relatable. It never gets too heavy.

Other standout tracks on the album are "Murder", "Wolfboy" (previously heard on the "Pluto EP" but making a welcomed return), and album closer, "So That's It". Although I'm singling out individual songs, I want to make it perfectly clear that the whole album is worth listening to. If you are going to get any of it (which you should), get the whole thing!

I've been waiting for this album for a while now, and it's awesome to be able to say that it delivers in every way I hoped it would. You know how when you experience something that's so incredibly conceived, polished, and structured it blows you away and makes you want to be a better writer or artist or musician or whatever it is you love to do? Blair does that.

We asked Blair a few questions about the making of "Die Young" and her future plans.

"Die Young" was written over a long period of time in different locations. How do you think this affected your writing?

Half of the songs from Die Young were written over a span of 5 years. The other half were written within one month. Initially, I was writing songs without a real goal of completing a record. Yes, my ultimate goal was to create a solid piece of work, but, I didn't necessarily think about the art of a record. My goals were a bit more short termed: write another song. I recorded and re-recorded these songs many times over the years which allowed them to evolve. After I moved from New Orleans to California, it just sort of happened upon me that I had a group of songs and a vision of how they fit together. I got excited about that and wrote the rest of the record very quickly. The mountains, the ocean, and the seclusion I felt after moving to a new place, opened up a stream of creativity that I had never felt before.

How was recording "Die Young" different from recording the "Pluto EP"?

The "Pluto EP" was recorded after a year of hopping around the south due to Hurricane Katrina. I didn't have so much of a vision of a collection of songs as I did with "Die Young", as an urge to just record whatever songs I had at that moment. Katrina pressed the fact to me that nothing is certain and so I felt an urgency to put something out there. With "Die Young", I felt no urgency. Just the urge to create something that would be a collective statement of how I see the world.

Are there any bands or musicians that have had an influence on your songwriting?

I like the fringes of pop music. Nirvana taught me what a pop song is. At some point, I fell in love with John Frusciante's guitar playing. My mom was always playing Neil Young. I bought Beck's One Foot in the Grave and couldn't stop listening to it. I was obsessed with The Strokes for a bit. Doolittle is one of my favorite records. Arular by MIA changed me. The White Stripes inspire me. How did these magic music moments influence me? I have no idea. But they must have. If I knew, or tried to figure that out, I don't think I'd like my songs.

Is there anybody you would really like to collaborate with?

I'd like to record an EP with John Frusciante.

Are there any touring plans for 2010?

The touring plans are in the making. Late spring will entail a U.S. tour.

What are you looking forward to most going into the new decade?

I'm looking forward to traveling to play my music for people. I look forward to learning more about music and to hearing music that will change my life.

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

I saw a great film, A Single Man by Tom Ford. I thought it was beautiful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music: James Carter

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of speaking with the jazz saxophonist, James Carter. Carter came onto the jazz scene in the early 90s and it was instantly clear that he was to be a major figure. While what attracts many people to his music is the intrigue of a single man who can play so many types of saxophones and clarinets, what has people coming back to his music time and time again is the incredible power that he generates. Listening to James Carter is like being attacked with sound, its completely oppressive. He is also an incredible ballad player who can literally move you to tears.

Carter’s last album was Present Tense released in 2008. Mainly in the quintet format, this album presents the variety in Carter’s oeuvre, from fast paced blues, to slow ballads, a salute to the free jazz musician Eric Dolphy, and a bossa nova song. He also recently participated on Gold Sounds, an album with an all-star line up of Cyrus Chestnut, Reginald Veal and Ali Jackson that is a tribute to the music of Pavement. In 2000 Carter did an album saluting Django Reinhardt called Chasing the Gypsy which made it onto several top 10 lists of the past decade. Also of note is the 2003 album Gardenias for Lady Day.

We appreciated the time James Carter spent with us and we are excited to bring you the transcript of our conversation.

A lot of people know you for the large variety of saxophones that you play, how did you start to get into learning all these saxophones?

[Laughs] Well, I started playing back in 1980 and I trace my involvement with music and particularly with the saxophone as a sort of revelation because it happened in certain spurts. I’m from a musical family, and I’m the youngest of five and as a result I always had musical instruments and people that played them around the house; whether it be siblings or cousins or what not. But they were mostly into top 40 R & B, tunes of the day in the 70s and stuff when I was growing up. Jazz didn’t really come in until a little later, it was always around the house but it didn’t hit me until a time when my Mom was around doing chores and she’d have a jazz station on that is now not operating, it was wjzz back in Detroit. So she’d be doing the chores and various people would come on, mostly the vocalists and mostly the usual suspects: Billie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, and what not. Just to see her in a happy mood, I kinda gravitated towards that and thought that’s good merriment. The vocalists were one thing, but it always seemed like there was this horn, this sound that would come in between, either during the vocal chorus or right after. It always got to me, it was always the qualities that these horns had and I came to find out that this was the saxophone, so I was attracted to its sound first. Then I was able to see pictures of it not through the jeweled cd boxes, but on the actual album covers, which gave you the full up and close personal look of the cat holding the horn. And most of the time it would be the old Selmer Saxophones and I was really like “Wow! That is bad!” so I was attracted from this point by the physical attribute. I was hooked from those two things. And as fate would have it, sometime later my oldest brother played in a group called By Nature’s Divide and the saxophonist came to be a boarder with us. So now, all of a sudden there were saxophones in my house. So, after the saxophone chooses me it further seals the deal by putting one in the house with us so it was a done deal after that.

Could you talk about your last album, Present Tense? Who is the band on it and what’s it all about?

Present Tense was more or less to get back into the loop of things; I hadn’t recorded in a bit. I’ve always been a fan of eclectic mixes. There are certain pieces that I felt in need of a bit of a longer reading that didn’t have one at the time and at least be brought to light like “Dodo’s Bounce,” and then a few originals on there too. It was a nice eclectic mix. At the same time, I wanted to make a brief yet meaningful statement on the compositions. The people that were involved on the recording were Dwight Adams on trumpet, D.D. Jackson, James Genus on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Rodney Jones on guitar, Eli Fountain. During that time it was about getting back into ecclectical statements by dealing with various pieces from the Diaspora. I also had just started playing a particular brand of horn called P. Mauriat out of Taiwan. If you go and look at the artwork on the inner sleeve, it’s the first time I’m really showing allegiance to this one company, because over the years I’ve played and endorsed various instruments but never really took it to print as I have with P. Mauriat.

What is Sierra’s Saxophone Concerto and how did you get involved with that project?

Roberto Sierra had come to quite a few performances of mine through the years and it came to a head in November of 2001. I was playing with Kathleen Battle in Baltimore and my manager brought him backstage, they were mutual associates. So she made the formal introduction, and he was like “I really like what you’re doing and I’d like to write a concerto for you.” I kinda reluctantly said “okay, you certain about that?” Something along that line had happened the year before but I wasn’t able to take advantage of it because I already had enough on my plate touring the Layin’ in the Cut and the Chasin’ the Gypsy albums simultaneously so I wasn’t able to do it, but it was a Dutch composer who had the same ambitions but he already had his music scored and I wasn’t able to do it. With Roberto’s piece, I was in it from scratch. The following month, in December, we met at a mid-town studio and he showed me some sketches of various musical ideas he had and I played some of them so he could hear me and we started developing on the ideas that we were to go on. Every other month after that I was getting a new movement from him until I had the whole thing in about June or July and got it ready for it’s world premiere in October of 2002. It has been kind of a staple ever since then. I’m still learning how to play it.

You had an album a few years ago that was a tribute to Pavement, and I was wondering how you brought their music to jazz and why you choose to do this album?

The Brown Brothers got in touch with us on that. They out the band together from their favorite jazz musicians and they presented us with the idea doing the music of Pavement and they wanted to see what we could come up with. I had previously known of Pavement through Beavis and Butthead, because they do their video montages between episodes and “Country Air” was on one of them. So I kinda knew about them from that standpoint. I looked at one of the cds they gave us as source material and I heard the “Country Air” thing and I was like, “Okay, I know where I’m at now.” And we just went from there. It certainly helped that we were able to all get together in Jimi Hendrix’s studio, I think that the studio itself had creativity in the air and that really brought it home.

What’s next for you? Are you planning another album, or are you about to go on tour?

I’m planning on finishing this album with the Sierra Concerto, and there’s another piece that goes along with it that my cousin [the violinist] Regina [Carter] and I are double soloists on with a string quartet that is called “Caribbean Rhapsody.” The remainder of the album will probably be some solo pieces. And I’m looking on going out on a couple of tours, my own and I’m going to tour Dee Dee [Bridgewater]’s album on Billie Holliday, Eleanor Fagan which is looking at being released this year.

Lastly, do you have any recommendations for our readers?

I just really recommend keeping your ears open and anything that feels or sounds good to you and sound it to the rafters, let other people in on that feeling and let it continue to spread. We need all the good vibes and positive feelings that we can muster. Wherever it comes from, don’t let the catalyst be.