Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory (4.5/5)

            Cloud Nothings’s songwriter and at one time only member, Dylan Baldi has made the claim in interviews that his latest album, Attack on Memory, felt like such a departure from his earlier, lo-fi static-pop sound that he considered recording under an entirely new name.  Dylan’s right that Attack on Memory marks a shift in style for Cloud Nothings, but he’s wrong to claim that this is a complete departure from his first two full length releases.  A shadow of doubt and remorse hangs over the album, and while Attack on Memory’s darker themes leads to a rearrangement in sonic textures, ultimately Dylan’s ear for a catchy riff or a snaking guitar line makes it clear that Attack on Memory was written by the same artist who penned the bouncy “Understand at All.”

            The opening track, “No Future/No Past,” attempts to strike a clear demarcation between Attack on Memory and Dylan’s earlier four track bedroom recordings.  The song, a slow marching dirge, builds from a whisper to a throat searing scream, and it helps form the atmosphere of the rest of the album.  But despite this new approach, Dylan can’t help but write some surprisingly catchy tunes.  Sure, he’s traded in much of his nasally delivery for a scream that seems to start and stop in his trachea, but underneath the self-torment lies a talented songwriter.  In fact, a couple of the songs, such as “Fall In” and “Stay Useless,” could have easily have slid into one of his earlier albums without causing much disruption. 

            Attack on Memory relies on two elements to truly differentiate itself from Cloud Nothings’s first two full lengths: a full band and Steve Albini’s production.  The centerpiece of the entire album, the nearly nine-minute long “Wasted Days,” could never have been pulled off as a bedroom recording.  The song’s energy depends on multiple guitar dynamics and clear shifts from one movement to the other.  This fuller sound is only enhanced by Albini’s steel hard production sound.  Albini is famous for his hands off approach to producing, allowing the sound of his studio to do all the work for him.  Like Bruce Lee, he relies on the “style of no style.”  And here much of the album feels as if it were recording in an ancient cave, the band surrounded by long forgotten glyphs.  And what better environment for Dylan’s intonation of easy self-disgust.  At times the album recalls Albini’s most famous production work, Nirvana’s In Utero.  And while Dylan doesn’t have Cobain’s gift for layers of irony and somersaulting wordplay, he takes advantage of Albini’s skills to evoke elemental feelings of anger and distrust that can be found in the common 20-year-old American male. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars (4/5)

Buried within Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original series of Barsoom novels hides the DNA of some of the most successful blockbusters of the past forty years.  Films like Star Wars and Avatar wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that Burroughs had already laid the groundwork in the early decades of the twentieth century.  So despite the fact that John Carter’s Martian adventures are a precursor to modern sci-fi and fantasy films, the first major movie adaptation of Burroughs’s work can’t help but feel like somewhat of a rehash.  But it is also difficult to hold this against a film that largely delivers on its promise of uncomplicated thrills. 

John Carter opens using a framing technique similar to the novel on which it is based, A Princess of Mars.  In the tradition of the “found text” narrative, Burroughs represented his novel as an extended story written down by his uncle, John Carter.  In the film, Burroughs is informed that his uncle has died, and he is summoned to his wealthy uncle’s sizable estate.  Upon arriving, Burroughs is told that he has become the executor of his uncle’s trust and is given a manuscript to pore over.  This manuscript, as you might surmise, is a recounting of Carter’s adventures on the red planet, or Barsoom, as the Martians call it.  Carter, it turns out, was once a prospector looking to strike it rich near Apache country.  Because of his former role in the Confederate cavalry, a local Indian fighter, Captain Powell, attempts to re-enlist him in his efforts to put down Apache resistance. 

The sit down between Powell and Carter turns into one of the film’s best visual gags, and the first indication that the director, Andrew Stanton, also helmed the Pixar classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E.  Carter eventually escapes from the cavalry fort and becomes embroiled in a firefight with a band of Apaches.  In his escape, Carter finds shelter in a cave where he encounters a Martian, and, after snatching a metallic piece of Martian technology, is whisked away out of the Arizona desert into the deserts of Barsoom.  The framing technique is somewhat convoluted, since we are first introduced to John Carter through Burroughs and then introduced to Carter proper on the frontier before he finally finds his way to Mars.  But it was smart for the filmmakers to keep the 19th century time frame.  In most science fiction films, the audience must suspend disbelief, but in a film based on early works of fantastical fiction like John Carter, there is a second layer of suspension of disbelief where the audience not only must believe in the fantastical, but they must also believe that the kind of absurdity we see in these stories is the sort of material for which a contemporary audience would have been willing to suspend disbelief. 

And once we get to Mars, there is, like in the novel, some enjoyably goofy conceits.  Because of Mars’s weak gravity, Carter finds himself capable of leaping across the landscape, and his denser bone and muscle mass make him an even more formidable fighter than the vicious Barsoomian natives.  John Carter first encounters the Tharks, a ruthless four armed warrior race.  The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, played energetically by Willem Defoe in CGI garb, sees in Carter a weapon he can turn against the other denizens of Barsoom, and instead of shooting him on sight decides to tie him up for later use. 

In addition to the Tharks, Barsoom houses the Red Martians who look pretty much like Earthlings who forgot to put on enough SPF during their Florida vacation.  The Red Martians control several city-states that are at war with one another.  The city of Helium has been under siege by the city of Zodanga and cannot hold out for much longer. The leader of Zodanga, Sab Than, has been able to keep his rivals on the ropes thanks to technology he received from a mysterious group of secretive people known as the Therns.  In a desperate last bid for peace, the ruler of Helium has agreed to marry off his daughter, the Princess Dejah Thoris, to Sab Than, but when she learns of her fathers plan, Dejah jets off.  The Zodanga airships catch up with her near the encampment of Tars Tarkas and his tribe where Carter rescues her from plunging to her death.  Dejah, of course, wishes to recruit Carter to her cause in defending Helium against the onslaught of Zodanga.

The plot itself is somewhat tortuous, thanks in part to the insertion of the mysterious Therns, who did not appear in the first book and whose inclusion adds just one more twisted convolution.  And while the politics could have easily been more of a chore, Stanton, like all Pixar directors, has such a fantastic sense of pacing that we never have to suffer through much political posturing.  The audience is given as much information as they need, and then we move on.  But not surprisingly the most engaging parts of the film take place among the Tharks.  The movie is smart enough not to blunt the violent aspect of Thark society—Thark children are hatched in communal incubators and those who do not break from their egg in time and summarily killed—while at the same time the filmmakers shave off some of the racism of Burroughs’s original story.  (In the novel, the Tharks stand in for the American-Indians Carter is fighting before being transported across space and time).  For a Disney movie John Carter is surprisingly violent, and Carter finds himself covered in Martian blood on more than one occasion. 
The joys of John Carter are ultimately slight, but this is also the movie’s strength.  While other blockbusters have become increasingly bloated, John Carter feels invigoratingly light-footed.  True, the movie’s running time exceeds two hours, but it never feels long.  Just as Carter himself is a man out of time and place, John Carter the movie also feels out of step with its fellow big budgeted adventure films.  At its heart, and when it is at its very best, John Carter feels like an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks flick—Captain Blood with more special effects.  Many people have questioned whether or not sci-fi fantasy film set on Mars at the end of the 19th century can recoup its substantial cost in 2012.  I’m the last person who should try and predict public tastes, but I can say that John Carter is that rare breed of sci-fi spectacle that, when it hits its stride, actually thrills. 

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Let Rock and Roll Die

Recently there has been plenty of anguish in the wind about the state of rock music in today’s cultural and economic marketplace.  At the Grammies Dave Grohl felt the need to come out and defend “the human element of music,” which, to some, meant he was dissing electronica.  (This goes to show that rock music may be dying, but fans of electronic music will always have thin skin).  Over at The Guardian, Michael Hann argues that all rock and roll music needs is a large flagship band to rally around.  But others aren’t so optimistic.  In the New York Times, JonCaramanica decries the artistic stagnation that has barnacled its way around modern rock and roll radio.  I think, at the very least, we can all agree that modern rock radio sucks.  In my town of origin, Cleveland, which also happens to be the home of the Rock Hall of Fame, the station that once played contemporary rock music has now been replaced by sports talk.  Of course, the radio station in question defined contemporary rock music as a bunch of stuff from the 90s plus the warmed over grunge imitators of today, so it wasn’t much of a loss.

The Apocalypse
There’s plenty to quibble with when it comes to these prognostications of death.  In the case of Caramanica’s New York Times article, he is smart enough to define his subject not as rock music as a whole, but as rock music on a major label that is played on a major radio station.  But he’s also dumb enough to claim that the Black Keys’s newest album is nothing more than “one long airless, swingless jam,” whatever that is supposed to mean.  I suppose part of his argument is that rock music is so in love with revivalism, whether what they’re reviving is classic blues based rock or nineties grunge, that they haven’t moved the art form forward.  But is this really a phenomenon located only in rock music?  Plenty of people have argued that the last fifteen or so years have been a time of cultural stagnation, and they are not only pointing to rock music.  The songs of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry could easily fit within the milieu of the late 90s.  Their brand of revivalism just happens to be more popular.

But, at the same time, Caramanica might have a point.  With the exception of the Black Keys, most of the bands Caramanica sites as examples of rock and roll’s stagnation are pretty convincing.  In fact, modern rock radio has been a wasteland for the past fifteen years or so.  I have a solution to this problem: let rock and roll die.  Now, let me walk that statement back a little.  I don’t actually want to kill of the genre of rock music.  But I do think that the manner in which these articles are defining rock music seems just as old fashioned and out of date as some of the music they are decrying.  Here is how Caramanica defines the subject of his piece: “For the purposes of this article, that’s [rock music] more or less rock released on American major labels, regardless of origin, and played on mainstream rock radio stations.”  He’s only looking at music that has been played on the radio.  When was the last time you’ve actually listened to music on the radio?  For many of us it has been years.  And when I do listen to music on the radio, I’m much more likely to tune in to local college radio stations than something funded by a large corporate conglomerate.  This begs the question, why do we even care about the health of rock and roll music in the mainstream? 

Rock music has been around since the mid-twentieth century, and in that time it has evolved to the point where it looks a whole lot different from the music that was made by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.  While rock music’s most famous signifiers of rebellion and drugs came about in late sixties and early seventies, I would argue that it didn’t become a truly vibrant artistic vibrant until the late seventies and early eighties during the punk and new wave movements.  It was during this time that rock musicians decided that they couldn’t make the kind of music they wanted if they still relied on the old forms of music production and distribution, leading many to create their own music labels.  From that time forward, few artistically viable rock bands made it onto rock radio, but if you picked up the nearest rock you might find a bunch of squirming hardcore punkers taking pains to destroy rock music, and in the process reinventing it.  With the exception of a brief boom in the early to mid 1990s, great rock music hasn’t been found on the radio.  But there has always been a vibrant subculture that has played with the form and influences of the genre. 

What was true in the 80s onward is true now.  It is amazing that these music critics seem so concerned with the economic health of rock music in a day and age when thousands of new rock bands can be heard free through a myriad number of internet sources, from Spotify to Youtube.  If you are looking for great new music through your radio dial, then you’re looking in the wrong place.  Sure, rock musicians could probably construct songs that would be palatable to large swaths of the American public, but do we really want a new Phil Collins for the 21st century?  Besides, thanks to the long tail, even popular music isn’t terribly popular by the standards of the pre-Napster age.  Now, with this new world of easy and instant access comes plenty of other questions.  How do musicians make money off of their hard word?  How can music fans cut through the millions of mediocre to bad songs in order to get to the good stuff?  The one question most people are not asking, other than culture critics at large magazines and newspapers, is whether or not there’s anything good on the radio.  I have no worries about the artistic viability of rock music.  In fact there are too many great rock bands out there for me to keep up with.  What we need to do now, as fans of art, is to make sure we are supporting musicians who provide the soundtrack to our morning commute and our Friday night debauchery.