reviews

Tom Waits, “Bad as Me”

Tom Waits, "Bad as Me" (courtesy Paste)

Tom Waits, "Bad as Me" (courtesy Paste)

I’m hardly the unbiased party to review a new Tom Waits. I happen to love his gritty, carny, meandering, noisy, maudlin sound. And I know from personal experience (and many mix CDs) it’s a taste that people love or hate.

This is Waits’ 17th album, and I’d say it collects the highlights of the types of sounds he has been working with over the last few albums. “Talking at the Same Time” is a lonesome, almost Latino barroom tune sung in an impressive falsetto.  Even his tendencies for loud and brash noises seem restrained and even refined on the title track.

In the interview I heard with him (on Terry Gross, ahem) he spoke of his and wife/producer Kathleen Brennan’s desire to capture a vintage soundscape. And there’s a snap and crackle to the music like make it sound like timeless Tom Waits. And that’s just about perfect for me.

Want more?

Watch the video for “Satisfied” here (directed by Jesse Dylan… yep, one of those Dylans).

James Blake (9/21/11) & Bon Iver (9/22/11)

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James Blake, Great American Music Hall (9/21/11)

I had some awesome back to back concert experiences recently: James Blake at the Fillmore (9/21/11) and Bon Iver at the Greek (9/22/11).

Both artists have similar artistic temperaments,  specializing in songs that tug on your heart’s memory, but with different musical styles: James Blake relies on computer-based sounds, while Bon Iver has a more organic, woodsy approach.

At the James Blake show, opener Teengirl Fantasy let me experience some true dubstep (which I totally had to look up, old person that I am – it’s basically electronic dance music from London). They made LOUD and POWERFUL sounds come from their computers and drum sets, and even if it was entirely my scene, it was a good preview for what came next.

Blake is a rather unassuming presence – his striped shirt and sideways (Bieber?) hair make him seem like a recovering art student. But his voice? Even as he proclaimed to be sick, it hit the highs and held the lightness of an Antony.

The highlights for me were “To Care (Like You)” and “Limit To Your Love,” during which Blake recorded live samples that he looped, including the whoops from the crowd. In between the intense light show and the wall of noise, it was a show that really swept me away.

Bon Iver at the Greek was a different story. We got there too late for the opener, and it was at the Greek, which is outdoors and huge (also, trivia: where I had my English graduation). It was hard to find a seat, as the picture below attests.

Justin Vernon, the man behind the band, came to (relative, indie music status) fame with 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Legend quickly established that he wrote it after a devastating heartbreak in a cabin in Wisconsin. Somehow the music-listening public erupted in sympathy and understanding.

With this year’s Bon Iver, Vernon’s sound became bigger, and this was evident by how big his touring band is. I love the epic, Peter-Gabriel-Genesis “Holocene” and “Flume.” Having the entire auditorium erupt in the encore “Skinny Love” was awesome, but I do feel sad that I missed the time when I would have seen this talented artist on a smaller stage.

Bon Iver @ Greek Theatre (9/22/11)

Want more?

Check out the collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver, “Fall Creek Boys Choir”!

Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, courtesy Goodreads.com

Hype is huge in the food world. New restaurants will float or flounder based on diners’ need to try the Next Big Thing. What’s new and in is not always what is good (think of how much upscale comfort food you’ve eaten in the last few months) but somehow impossible to avoid.

So trying to get away from the hype – that’s my excuse for not reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s much-lauded, delicious, solidly satisfying book Blood, Bones & Butter (“Magnificent. Simply the best book by a chef ever. Ever.” – Anthony Bourdain).

But this book! I simply adored it. I ravished it. I consumed it. It will make you hungry for food and more good writing.

Hamilton begins her book with a description of a family dinner party. It’s the 1970s in rural Pennsylvania, and her set designer father and glamorous French mother host a lamb roast outside for dozens of friends. The descriptions – dinner slowly cooking outside, candles and a fire pit illuminating the darkness, the bohemian sensibility – are evocative reminders of how food works with memory to create something more far more rich and complicated than just what we consume to survive.

Shortly after the magic of the barbeques, Hamilton’s parents split up. Her brothers and sisters, all older, scatter. She writes about the period, later, reflecting with her sister:

We have had long incredulous conversations with each other about our often starkly different experiences of the very same family. … There are only five years between us, but five years is enough time for the geography and topography of a family to change dramatically, for ravines to form, trees to upend, streams to run dry (156).

She ended up working prep in a kitchen, then as a waitress and for a catering company. It’s through a combination of hard work and some luck that she ends up chef and owner of Prune in New York.

Hamilton’s work with food and appreciation of good, simple ingredients is evident, but we’re able to almost taste everything with her because she is such a strong writer. Take this description of visiting her husband’s family estate in Italy, where his mother cooks every meal:

Pine nuts in the shell that fall out of the tree in the courtyard of her youngest sons’s summer house–so piney they taste almost metholated; her own orages, their juice squeezed over ice crushed in a dish towel with a mallet for a midday snack fo the kids; figs that are juicy and cool when picked at ten a.m., warm and jammy at four p.m. Burratta and buffalo mozzarella and giuncata- the fresh cow’s milk cheese that sits in giuncata (rush) baskets that impart its flavor and its name-were brought to the hourse by the local man who makes them–still warm!–the first time I tried them (172).

Blood, Bones & Butter is nothing but satisfying, and inspires me not only to get in the kitchen, but to write as well. I’d say one of the best books I’ve read about food, and definitely one of the finest books of 2011.

Want more?

She has written a recipe series on the NYT, including day-old roast chicken and butter cake!

She cooks with Mark Bittman!

She gives her favorite places to eat in New York!

She’s interviewed at Epicurious!

 

I’m Not There

I'm Not There (via revoballad.blogspot.com)

Why make a movie about Bob Dylan, let alone six Bob Dylans? He’s a living legend who has shaken off every label that the public and his fans have put on him: voice of a generation, prophet, rock star, elder music statesman.

Perhaps Todd Haynes’ 2007 film, I’m Not There, is the only way to reconcile all the Dylans. Six actors portray the musician: Christian Bale as the folksy protest singer; Ben Winshaw as the tortured poet; Heath Ledger as the high flying rock star; Richard Gere as a hero of mythic, rootsy Americana; Marcus Carl Franklin as the itinerant singer-songwriter; and Cate Blanchett as the angry, gifted songwriter dealing with fame.

The whole film is a dreamy, music-soaked affair, drawn together by Dylan’s songs. Each story has a different arc that illuminates a facet of Dylan’s life or his myth. Some stories fall flatter than others – I could never completely tell what Richard Gere’s character was doing.

But some Dylan doppelgängers work beautifully. Cate Blanchett plays one of the most interesting characters of her whole career, as the twitchy and uncomfortable Dylan. She channels some of the scenes from Pennebaker’s 1967 Don’t Look Back. I’m not quite certain that Haynes meant to highlight any sort of femininity on the part of the character, but rather show how he felt like someone else acting in his own body.

Heath Ledger also shines as the debauched 1970s version. He and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are in the middle of getting a divorce, because he’s angry and detached from his family. It’s the story of the perils of fame against self and family, and the fact it’s played by Ledger gives the whole affair an even more tragic lens.

I would only recommend the film to Dylan fans, as it’s more fun to recognize the allusions. Perhaps film buff would enjoy it too, as it stands alone as a quirky and innovative film telling of the many lives of a man who refused to be there.

Want more?

Cate Blanchett talking about her role:

Labyrinth

Labyrinth, courtesy Wikipedia

As if birthdays themselves don’t make you feel old, Labyrinth is 25 years old this week. I believe it has gone down in history for introducing young kids to David Bowie’s music (and his incredibly tight pants).

Labyrinth is one of those delightful mid-80s movies that combines live action actors with Muppets. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit: I love muppets. Not just of the Miss Piggy variety, but all flavors coming from Jim Henson’s creature factory. And boy, does the movie come through with the muppets.

Storywise, David Bowie plays the King of the Goblins, who captures Jennifer Connolly’s baby brother when she, a put-upon teenager, wishes him to be spirited away. She then must travel to Goblin land to rescue her brother, teaming with Muppets great, small, and gross, in the process learning some about friendship and growing up (aw!).

Watching it as an adult, you realize that Connolly, at sixteen, looks like a Renaissance beauty, and Bowie, in his natural predatory state, circles her like a hungry fox.  Is it slightly creepy? Yes. Can this be overlooked? Oddly, also yes.

Also as an adult you wonder: why did David Bowie decide to dress up like an elf attending a disco in a kids’ movie? Where was his career? Did he consider this an extension of Ziggy? These are not important questions; what is important is that it happened. And it may be his finest role on film.

Because what really blows the movie out of the water is the music, composed and performed by DB of course. I would be eternally pleased if every jukebox had a copy of “Magic Dance.” The rest of the songs aren’t too shabby either.

It’s one of those childhood movies that sticks with you. And yet it’s probably best not to watch it again until you’re showing another youngster, so as not to burst that happy bubble. Happy 25, Labyrinth!

Want more?
You MUST watch “Magic Dance:”

And the Flight of the Conchords’ take on Labyrinth-era Bowie is pretty hilarious:

Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan

Continuing with celebrity memoir week, I thought I’d share some impressions about Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. 1, a book that I bought when it first came out, then proceeded to never read completely until a recent long plane ride. Chronicles Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan (courtesy Tower)

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has proven himself extremely adept at refusing to take responsibility for his public image. He lies in interviews, purposefully misdirects, and generally has a palpable dislike for anyone, fan or journalist, who believes that he or she is “owed” a piece of him. In short, you must read Chronicles with a grain of salt the size of the Chrysler Building.

That being said, Dylan is a fine writer, at times both lyrical and direct. He divides the book into five parts: his early days as a folk singer in New York City, his attempt at family life in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a farm in Woodstock, and his later touring years in the 1980s.

Young Dylan was famously inspired by the folk singer Woody Guthrie. He tracked the dying artist down to a hospital in New Jersey, where he would visit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reflecting on his younger self, Dylan recognizes the desire to do something different musically, to move beyond the tame folk resurgence to a movement with more teeth. He describes the musical, literary, and social influences that inspired his art, but:

The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.

Frustratingly, the book skips straight over his most interesting recordings, including Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The next section picks up with an unhappy Dylan in the late 1960s, holed up in a farm in Woodstock. He’s trying to escape the responsibilities lingering from his early roots as a protest singer, actively recoiling from being any voice of a generation. The emotion behind this section rings true and even current.

The third and fourth sections might be the most tantalizing, as you glimpse his mid-career struggles. Dylan writes of his (relatively) recent past recording the album Oh Mercy (1989). He describes his frustrations with touring and a hand injury:

The previous ten years had left me whitewashed and wasted out professionally. Many times I’d come near the stage before a show and would catch myself thinking that I wasn’t keeping my word with myself. What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.

How much is true? Does it matter? You’re a fan before you pick up Chronicles, not after. And if you are, it may make you appreciate the man even more.

Want more?
I created a Youtube playlist of songs Dylan spoke highly of in Chronicle: Volume 1. Listen and enjoy!

Bridesmaids

ATTACK OF THE FUNNY LADIES

Thoughts on Bridesmaids.
Every few years, a movie comes out that puts the media in a lather. These are not controversial films, nor do they break fundamental rules of cinema or elevate the genre to new heights. Nope, we’re talking lady comedies.
You may have heard or noticed the flurry with the movie Bridesmaids, but it’s nothing new. It happened  when Christopher Hitchens wrote his now-infamous “Women aren’t funny” in 2007 (which everyone keeps referencing, but I’m sure he’s not really thinking about it). It happened with Baby Mama. Apparently “Are women funny?” makes great copy.

If we’re not funny, then you men out there are wasting a lot of time fake laughing (amiright ladies?!). In all seriousness, some women are funny, just like some men. The real question is, and it’s asked by movie industry executives: 1). are women’s comedies made in the same mold as men’s? And 2). will women pay money to go out and see them?

Well, the answer to question one is – kind of. Bridesmaids neatly captures the little moments that make up female friendships between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph). It’s about fake working out, then treating yourself to brunch, or coming over to drink white wine and read gossip magazines together (both things I have done).

What the title, and previews, might not show is that Bridesmaids is not really a buddy comedy, or an ensemble show a la The Hangover. There’s a brief moment en route to a bachelorette party in Vegas when the supporting cast (including Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper and Melissa McCarthy) shines, but then the film changes focus back to Wiig’s life.  Which is falling apart.

Wiig is less manic than her SNL characters might suggest. Annie is happy for her friend, but can’t be entirely pleased at the loss of her only support system. I feel like the signs of her hitting bottom could be remixed in a trailer and make a completely different, far more depressing movie.

Modern weddings are not just an opportunity for two people in love to show it to their family and friends; it’s also a VERY BIG moment for friends and family. For women, there can be a host of high-profile activities. Showers, bachelorette parties, gifts, what have you. So as Annie is falling apart, Helen (played oh-so-mean-girly by Rose Byrne ), Lillian’s fiance’s boss’ wife, takes the reins for the preparation. There’s one scene, at the engagement party, when the two try to outdo themselves? Classic.

So there’s another part. I’ve read it’s producer Judd Apatow’s influence, and it’s basically a scene when the ladies get extreme food poisoning while trying on dresses. All you need to know – I closed my eyes and ears. Did the (full) theater erupt in laughter? Yes. Did I just get queasy typing the word “erupt”? Yes again.

I just don’t think this comedy needed the gross-out element. There was enough comedy! In fact, I feel like there is going to be a fuller movie with the  deleted scenes on DVD, as some of the plot points felt a little abandoned. But then again, we don’t see these films for the stories, do we? We see them to giggle at women who earn it, take after devastatingly awkward take.

To summarize, I will end with the wise words of Kosmundo, who had this to say about the film:

so yes, it was funny. but at the end of the day, the lady heart is really why i liked it. for the brunch scene and the couch pep talk and the wilson phillips dance moves – if i have to sit through ladies crapping themselves in pretty dresses, to get real/funny/honest representations of what friendship looks like for me, i’ll take it.

Want more?

NY Mag has a great roundup of all the Bridesmaids coverage.

And if you’ve seen it? You’ll probably want to watch this:

o

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

2011? 5? 3?? Fl..

Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" (courtesy flickr)

Fleet Foxes released their self-titled first full length album three years ago (2008! where did time go!). It was a frequent companion of mine on scenic drives and road trips, and their medieval jam-band sound made a perfect soundtrack to summertime adventures. I saw them live at the Fox Theater in 2009, and was incredibly impressed by their beautiful harmonies and tight arrangements.

Their new album Helplessness Blues is no sonic departure, but it does seem like lead singer Robin Pecknold has grown up. The themes are more grounded, less about the mythic pastoral past and more about everyday, modern struggles. “Montezuma”, the first first song on the album opens, “Now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” Even as the song goes on to reference empresses and dragons, I can recognize a quarter-life crisis from 2 paces away.

Later, on “Helplessness Blues,” he goes on to mourn, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” Are you going to opt out of the bigger grind? Downsize and find a space you can be master of? More questions I certainly don’t have the answer to, but Pecknold wonders beautifully.

Despite the band’s lyric earthiness, the music itself embraces the ethereal. The arrangements are very complex but are made pure and simple soaring lead that recall medieval choirs (which I can’t, but can certainly imagine).  What they have accomplished on this album is so precise, but flows so easily that you’re never aware they must be working really, really hard.

Want more?
Mad did a great review after  seeing them at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Here’s a Pitchfork interview with the band from earlier this month.
Check out Helplessness Blues’ rising score on Metacritic (“Universal acclaim”!). And the Wikipedia page for the album is super-super-detailed.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

On the tail of the royal wedding is probably an auspicious time to examine our particular fascination (as Americans at least) with the British aristocracy. The runaway success of the British series Downton Abbey confirms that this obsession still runs deep.

When I heard of the series, I thought it was created just for me. I have written before about my love of the interwar time period in England. From Gosford Park to The Remains of the Day, I have come to adore the upstairs-downstairs dynamic    (upstairs are the landed gentry; downstairs are the people that serve them).

Downton Abbey actually begins right before World War I, with the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately for Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his family, his heir and daughter’s fiance drowned when the ship sank. Now his three daughters and wife face the possibility of losing everything if he dies due to a pesky entail.

What the show does so well is explore how people attempt to reconcile their personal desires with the social constraints around them. Both the Earl’s family and the servants that work for them must follow a set of archaic protocols. Dress for dinner. Lock up the maids’ rooms at night. Elaborate hunting parties (though I think those still happen).

But history is quickly catching up with the family, and you can practically watch the old ways come crashing down on the beautiful abbey. The smallest differences in age, like between the eldest and youngest Crawley girls, become monumental as both take on new world views as to what they are capable of as young women. Funnily enough, the most thrilling victory comes for one of the housemaids, who manages to escape and become a secretary. (Just fifty years before Peggy Olson…)

I’m not doing the best job of explaining the plot, but then again I don’t want to ruin it. Suffice to say, it is heavy with drama of seductions, plots, love affairs, covered up deaths, and (gasp!) ruined reputations. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, and has been renewed for a second season so I suggest catching up. One of the best things I’ve watched this year.

Want more?

Downton Abbey preview

Bossypants


Tina Fey Bossypants 2011 Shankbone

Bossypants

Tina Fey has a book! Tina Fey has a book! There are now new ways for us to love and admire Tina Fey!

The Saturday Night Live former writer and Weekend Update host, screenwriter of Mean Girls, and producer/star of 30 Rock is beloved. So beloved that the first thing that Google suggests when I type “girl crush ti” is “girl crush tina fey”!

Bossypants is her first book, and it’s a very readable blend of personal memoir-showbiz chronicles. The tone is self-deprecating and clear. Fey manages to balance heralding her nerdy past (mid-20s virgindom and decades of awkward hair cuts, pictures included) while still withholding some of her more recent personal impressions.

She tells an anecdote about an interview in the Sarah Palin news cycle where she exclaimed, off-handly, that she’d leave Earth if Palin were elected. This, of course, was picked up as the lead on the article. Fey, daughter to two Republicans, is conscious of both her unexpected political heft due to a resemblance to a vice-presidential candidate, as well as the dangers that entering the vitriolic political realm can bring. I bet she’s never received hate mail from the sandwich-loving Liz Lemon on 30 Rock.

The best bits are the stories that, while told in a pretty matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental manner, illuminate much about the treatment of women in comedy. Amy Poehler, in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live, finished up a joke in a pretty vulgar manner. As Fey writes,

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it!”
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eys for a second, and wheeled around for a second. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

Fallon comes off as a bit naif and privileged, and I discover I still have things to add to my “Amy Poehler is my hero” list.

Fey also writes about Photoshop (pro!), honeymoon cruises (con!), and working motherhood (impossible to balance!). Fey just announced that she’s pregnant with her second child, so the decision that has plagued her during the writing of this book has been answered. And more power to her, a woman who’s done a lot for comedy, politics, and recognition of awesomeness in women. I just wish that the book gave us more, instead of a tangible feeling of holding back.

But if you have an opinion, please feel free to offer to to me through the gap in the door of a public restroom. Everyone else does.

Want more?

Classic Palin (Fey)/Clinton (Poehler) sketch from SNL. It may have been three years since you’ve watched it.