Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Decembeuiyists: The Cuiyane Wife

Opening a small band up to a large audience is tricky. Finding the balance between maintaining one's artistry and reaching out to a specific demographic often results in failure on some level.

I've discussed this in the past, specifically regarding Death Cab For Cutie's Plans and Snow Patrol's Eyes Open. Neither album is a failure, but neither lives up to their bands' promise. Plans is a fine album, but it departs from Death Cab's rock background, instead aiming for the soft-pop audience that somehow connected Ben Gibbard to a soundtrack he was entirely uninvolved with (Garden State). Eyes Open, meanwhile, is okay, but more significantly it marks Snow Patrol's bid to become the official band of the now-defunct Dubba-Dubba-WB. Common to both is increased prominence for their lead singers' voices, as compared to the backing music; this works in neither case. There's an instinct to emphasize global components (words, the vocal hook) when that might not be the right decision. Point being that bands typically seem to seek fame by moving away from what put them in position to become famous.

On that front, I have good news. I was lucky enough to hear The Decemberists' major-label debut, The Crane Wife, recently. I cannot stop listening to it. It's their best work to date... from start to finish, a home run. (Oh, the sporting life.) Colin Meloy and company have taken their pretty, quaint, firmly-entrenched-in-a-niche sound and made something a) broad, b) consistent with previous Decemberists albums, and c) more focused than any of their other works. It's the kind of album a band makes at its absolute peak. It is all the things for The Decemberists that Plans and Eyes Open are not for Death Cab and Snow Patrol.

I'm genuinely stunned that they made this album, that they are the band that achieved the balancing act. Their bread-and-butter, to date, has been sea shanties and tragic period romances. The band has always served as a backup act to Meloy's vocabulary-soaked, letter-R-deficient tales of Barrow-boys, Chimbley Sweeps, and giant Whales. The music thus takes on a mood to match the lyrics, suggesting a band of traveling minstrels rather than a rock group. Her Majesty and Picaresque are perfect albums in their own way, but they are also exceedingly quirky, to the point where they almost demand an apology. I would never have guessed that they'd zip it up and make such promising music. Congrats to everyone in the band, as well as producer Chris Walla (who also produced S.A.C. whipping-boy Plans).

The key difference is that The Crane Wife seems to have a musical axe to grind. The primary objective is to showcase the band's musical ambitions and arrangement skills, not to showcase Meloy and his thesaurus. "The Perfect Crime #2" is a Steely Dan homage first, and a story of blackmail and double-crossing second. The allegorical tale of invasion, colonialism and rape in "The Island" takes a back seat to an impenetrable wall of prog-rock keyboards. On Picaresque, that wall would be made of accordions and bass viols, and Meloy's voice would have been more prominent in the mixing process. Instead, they appear to have taken up the torch for historically-themed folk-prog-rock from Jethro Tull. Having heard the finished product, it really, really works.

(Those two bands aren't very dissimilar, when you think about it. Especially when you examine their respective lyrical tones. Many people will assert that prog-rock was a departure for The Decemberists; those people should listen to Thick As A Brick and The Minstrel In The Gallery a few times before saying that stuff. The more I think about it, the more natural the progression feels.)

The other half of the equation, making the musical spotlight possible, is the restraint/focus that Meloy shows in his storytelling. He's one of the most gifted songwriters on the planet, but part of the risk involved with his earlier works is his penchant for indulgence. There is nothing as precious as "The Chimbley Sweep," as whimsical as "Billy Liar," or as alliterative and thesaurus-heavy as "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." (Which is a personal favorite of mine.) Some have commented that this is a sign of weakness as compared to Picaresque, but I think the opposite. I think it's a sign that after some experimentation, all of which was successful, they are forging a path that works.

But while The Crane Wife is somewhat of a departure, it's still a Decemberists album. It's not going to disappoint and perplex longtime fans of the bands (save they who bee Pirates, yarrrrrr). Their trademarks are still present... just not focal. And that's one of the marks of a great band... the ability to move in a new direction without abandoning what that made them famous to begin with.

In short, while it doesn't have the consensus-winning appeal of an album like Come On Feel The Illinoise!, it's a perfect example of a band taking its shot at stardom and knocking it out of the park. You have to appreciate these instances when they come up. So, hats off to The Decemberists. We'll celebrate again when I buy the album.

[Edited 7:04 for typos & rewording.]

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I'm Tired Of These Mothafuckin Snakes...

So, the movie actually isn't bad. Oh, it's bad, but I had a good time anyway. The whole "internet" thing totally lowered everyone's expectations; with quality a non-factor, people seemed to have a pretty good time with it. And it even has a life-affirming message!

I find it amusing that this is the first movie post I've needed to qualify with spoiler warnings; NO film deserves such warnings less. But hey, that's life.


Personally, I think they went a little overboard with the snakes. No, just kidding, but there was a lot of gratuitous shit that had nothing to do with the snakes. That stuff bothered me. What's the point of killing somebody as a joke if the snakes didn't do it? Getting trampled by some asshole in high heels is funny? The movie isn't called Cunts On A Plane. It's called Motherfucking Snakes on a Motherfucking Plane. So if some poor bastard has a gruesome death that does not come at the hands (?) of a snake, what's the point? That pissed me off.

More importantly, the climax leaves something to be desired. Getting sucked out into the ocean via vacuum? What the fuck kind of shitty ending is that?!? As someone who inserts "GET OFF MY PLANE!!!" into everyday conversation, I was hoping for an Air Force One-esque moment where Samuel L. has a big "showdown" with the "king" snake or whatever. But no. They have a "clever" idea and it makes the problem disappear. Sorry, but that's not gonna cut it. It's like if Jaws had ended with Roy Scheider calling the Coast Guard. Laaaaaame.

Though on the flip side, a snake got peed on. Now THAT'S entertainment! I'll buy THAT fer a doller!!!


Anyway, I did have a good time. I'm impressed at how they kept those snakes under control. Pretty amazing job of snake-wrangling.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Give It Up For KG... Give It Up For ME!!!

Oh yes. In any other year, this would be the motion picture event of that year. Alas, it isn't that year. It's THIS year.

Monday, August 14, 2006

OMFG, My Finger!!!

This demonstration of a finger-safe table saw is jaw-dropping.  Totally legit.  The blade detects the electrical currents in your finger, and drops from the table near-instantaneously, thus saving you from a life of misery.  Coolest thing I've seen in a while.

Of course, if you read the article you'll see that the tool industry really lived up to its name: they refused to adopt the technology until the government got involved.  What a bunch of dickbags.  As if people wouldn't pay more for a saw that removes the #1 source of danger involved.  I wonder how many fingers have been detached from hands since the product's initial demonstration in 2000.  (Probably enough to feed all the Sox fans at Fenway this weekend!)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Decision 2006

This week I have decided a few things.  Because I'm the decider.  Not you.  Me.

* If we give James Blunt to Hezbollah, and allow them to do whatever they want to him, will that end the war?  Is he what all this fighting's about?

* Cinderella Man was almost a great movie.  I enjoyed it immensely, way more than I thought I would.  I came out of it giving Ron Howard, one of my least favorite directors, a great deal of credit for the incredible job he did.  But then I read up on the "bad guy" of the movie, Max Baer.  He was portrayed as little more than a womanizing, arrogant (unbelievably so), and proudly murderous fiend.  Very little of that is true; in fact, Baer was more of a clown than anything.  Howard made a big deal out of the fact that Baer killed two men (one indirectly) in the ring, and conveniently made Baer's character a guy who relished that power.

* Cansei de Ser Sexy is being hyped up an awful lot, but rightfully so.  They tap into the broken-English-girl-band-run-by-men territory that The Go! Team recently made successful.  I'm sold, albeit w/ reservations about the "obsession with sex" that their female vocalists have.  I feel like I'm 13 again, being scandalized by "Sir Psycho Sexy" and tittering in a corner.  But good God are they fun.  Who wouldn't want to listen to Brazilian women boasting about how sexually active they are?  The music's pretty fun too.

(As an aside, CSS just played the Pitchfork Festival.  You may remember Pitchfork from such declarations as "most of !!!'s audience has come to accept Nic Offer's generally asinine lyrics as an inherent part of the group's unique dynamic." [Nick Sylvester, 6/8/04]  That's right, because Pitchfork would never champion or promote an artist whose lyrics are asinine.  !!! sure stands in sharp relief next to CSS' Proustian tribute to the restoration of the life spirit and the delicacy of human existence, as found in their song "Artbitch":
Lick my art-tit
Lick my art-tit
Suck my art-hole
Suck my art-hole
Bra-fucking-vo!  Leaves of Grass, my ass!  So, putting that big jug o' drivel into a song is okay because... why?  Because it's sung by sexy Brazilian ladies flaunting themselves?  Well, never mind then!  Who needs standards?  Actually, on second thought, sexy Brazilian ladies... hmmm... maybe Pitchfork's onto something...)

* Also found in my car stereo recently is lo-fi-bande-de-l'année Tapes n' Tapes.  Pretty good.  Not great, but good enough to grow on a guy.  And good enough to justify their "your blog made my band overrated" fame.  The Loon is pretty creative, given the low-budget constraints.  I see them kicking some ass in the future... unlike certain other lo-fi bands.  (Hype Your Band Say Yeah!)

* Big, big props to Robert Randolph and the Family Band for cheering me up all week.  Check out Live At The Wetlands if you want the inside of your brain to burn down with joy.  Or check out their Austin City Limits appearance on PBS.  I now believe that Congress should pass a law banning all religious ceremonies held in the absence of the Sacred Steel.  (Separation of church and what now?)

* I wonder if anyone's made a t-shirt yet with Mel Gibson's unkempt, bearded face, above his now-infamous complaint: "What Do You Think YOU'RE Looking At, Sugar Tits???"  You know, cause it's the next big thing now.  (In fact, that picture of him on TMZ might go nicely with a Photoshopped set of earlocks and a yarmulke.  Shalom!)