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.