Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: M.I.A. *Maya*

I have good news and bad news for M.I.A. fans. The good news: 2010 has seen the release of a pretty terrific M.I.A. album. The bad news: that album is by Sleigh Bells, and it's called Treats.

Maya Arulpragasam has always been frustrating, by intention. A pop artist who wears political opinions like a penciled-in beauty mark or a weird asymmetrical hairdo, M.I.A. fancies herself a provocateur, when all we really want from her is compelling dance music. With every release, her efforts have resulted in increasingly diminished returns. Arular, her first and best album, was threatened by two interrelated flaws, her penchant for cacophony and an over-reliance on repetition. The material on Arular was so good that it managed to elevate its flaws into the realm of novelty, and ended up being better for them. These flaws were more pronounced in her great (yet wildly overpraised) follow-up, Kala, which contained some clunkers ("Hussel" and "Mango Pickle Down River") alongside some jaw-droppers ("Bamboo Banger," "Paper Planes," and "Boyz"). On Maya, M.I.A. has consolidated and emphasized her worst tendencies, while only intermittently offering the listener the smallest consolation of a good hook.

Lynn Hirschberg's much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A., unquestionably a hatchet job, seemed to confirm the once-sneaking suspicion that Maya Arulpragasam is intellectually vapid and artistically pretentious. Maya accomplishes the same result without Hirschberg's assistance. From the unnecessary typographical presentation of its title (/\/\/\Y/\), to the insipid and instantly dated references to internet culture (the iPhone, Google, and Twitter are all name-checked), Maya betrays the hopeless labor of an artist trying to construct something relevant and profound atop a foundation of sand.

Despite its self-reflexive title, Maya isn't a personal work, nor is it M.I.A.'s Self Portrait, her deliberate attempt to shed fans. Instead, it sounds as if M.I.A., so emboldened by her status as critical darling, assumed any tossed-off dreck would seem better by virtue of being her dreck. Or perhaps she's just run out of ideas. Either way, there's no excuse for the six-and-a-half-minute-too-long "Teqkilla," an aimless mess that hides beneath the belches of electronic tones and a too-familiar beat. "Lovalot," which opens with the insightful lyric, "They told me this was a free country, but now it feels like a chicken factory," only gets worse from there. On "Stepping Up," M.I.A. insists "you know who I am" over the braying of power tools. Yes, Maya, we know who you are. Only this song makes us want to forget.

There are moments where Maya hints at something great, before veering off course. "Born Free" begins with the thrill of an accelerating snare beat that launches into a sample of Suicide's "Ghost Rider." All is well, until M.I.A.'s inert and overly echoed vocal enters the mix, making it the second best song named "Born Free." Its accompanying (nine minute long!) music video is, incredibly, even more obnoxious. "Meds and Feds" features a signature guitar hook by Derek Miller (of the aforementioned Sleigh Bells) as its best element, but lacks the salve of Alexis Krauss' lovely voice. Where Krause tempers Miller's aggressive riffing, M.I.A. turns the song into the aural equivalent of a root canal, without the merciful respite of Novocaine.

Maya contains one unqualified success. "XXXO," a thumping Eurodance gem, is irresistible, with a chorus that demands the confines of a dark and sweaty dance floor. By being blatantly accessible, "XXXO" ends up being the lone left-field track on an album so desperate to incite. If M.I.A really wanted to be provocative, Maya would have contained twelve tracks like "XXXO." In other words, it would have been a Robyn album.

The cover art to Maya encapsulates what's so wrong with the album itself: a shambles of uninteresting and disparate elements that not only fail to jell, but end up obscuring an artist we've come to admire.

What the WHAT?

I'm beginning to think Alvin Greene's candidacy is nothing more than an elaborate, Andy Kaufman-style prank. How else to explain the below, official, rap video?

Update: Greene's people didn't produce the video, though Greene says he wants to "make sure everybody hears it."

[HT Ezra Klein.]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Song Break: "Don't Call It a Remix" Edition

The not very old is new again. Robyn's "Hang With Me," the first single to her next album, Body Talk, Pt. 2, has already been released as an acoustic track on her most recent (and still new) album, Body Talk, Pt. 1. It's the rare occasion where two approaches to the same song both succeed for different reasons. The acoustic version, with Robyn's gorgeous vocal accompanied by a quiet piano and a stirring string arrangement, is steeped in longing. The dance track, avoiding the whiff of mere remix, is confrontational: a taunt rather than a plead, all thanks to the miraculous power of a drumbeat.

The re-release of an album track as the lead single to a new album is a daring and audacious move on Robyn's part. That the new version nearly wipes away all memory of the other, while also strengthening the latter's wallop, only further proves Robyn's genius as an artist for whom the notion of "serious" pop music is no contradiction.

[Both versions are presented below.]

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Baffling Understatement of the Day

The NYT on Mel Gibson's marketability abroad:
Normally, foreign film markets are deeply forgiving of idiosyncratic behavior or the ravages of time when it comes to action-oriented male stars who have reliably turned out hits. [Emphasis mine.]
Talk about poor wording. It would be outrageous if a supermarket tabloid had described Gibson's sickening behavior, which covers the full gamut of hate (anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyneny, and racism), in the flippant manner of an oddball quirk. To read it in the New York Times is scandalous. Does the Grey Lady still edit her articles?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Alvin Greene: Enemy of Communism

Alvin Greene gave a speech yesterday to the Manning, SC chapter of the NAACP, one that managed to be as bungling and awkward as his interviews. The speech, mostly an amateurish string of bromides (even for a political speech), went from B- to A+ when he humbly proclaimed that America must "reclaim the country from the terrorists and the communists." Say what? Is this Alvin Greene's evaluation of America's majority political party (his own), or does he know something we don't about who's really pulling the strings in Washington?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

*The Kids Are All Right* Review

These are the times to warm men's hearts. First it was Toy Story 3, and now comes Lisa Chodolenko's The Kids Are All Right. Both have convinced my too-cerebral mind how much my hardened heart desires to be brought to the state of a pulsing glow. Both succeed because they have heaps to offer both head and heart. The close proximity of their release only underscores how few films even attempt the precarious tightrope walk between smart humor and sincere tenderness that they execute with such aplomb.

The Kids Are All Right is too uproariously funny to be a drama, and too earnest in its presentation of humanity to be a comedy. The closest comparison in recent memory is Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, a fine film no doubt, but one that never fully embraced its touchy-feely side. Why are serious writers and filmmakers so afraid of (or uninterested in) genuine positive emotion? Why are the sharpest comedies bitter and cynical satires? What does the say about our culture?

Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are married parents of two teenagers, a nuclear family of the well-to-do liberal California sort. (If all film characters inhabeted the same universe, Nic and Jules would be friends with Meryl Streep's Jane Adler from It's Complicated.) While things are far from perfect -- Nic, an overstressed doctor, enjoys red wine too much, while Jules struggles to launch a new career (her third) in landscape design (don't you dare call it gardening) -- the two have an enviable, well-lived-in relationship. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), their eldest child and an overachiever who has just turned 18, is preparing to leave for college. Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who is aptly described as a "sensitive jock" and has the sole Y chromosome in the household, longs for an adult male presence in his life. The family's world becomes upturned when he convinces his sister to seek out and contact their anonymous donor father.

Enter Mark Ruffalo, whose Paul is the archetype of cool masculine worldliness. Not only does he own a hip, earthy restaurant that would make Alice Waters swoon (he grows his own organic vegetables), he wears a leather jacket, rides a motorcycle, and exudes sex. (Mark Ruffalo can't help that.) Paul is unhappy with his status as a listless Lothario. Once he meets his biological children, in a wonderfully awkward scene, he finds himself pulled into their lives as a new member of the family. The Kids Are All Right centers on how Paul uniquely disrupts and alters each family member's life, for better or worse.

Where a lesser director would veer into melodrama, farce, or (worst of all) polemic, Chodolenko subtly explores these tensions. She almost completely bypasses the fact that Nic and Jules are a married lesbian couple in what I assume is a post-Proposition 8 California. When the subject of their sexuality is explicitly addressed, it's in passing, tossed off like a fact of life unworthy of emphasis. In that sense, The Kids Are All Right is the next logical step from Brokeback Mountain, a film that couldn't escape its capsule definition as the "gay cowboy movie." The universality of The Kids Are All Right (we never even learn the character's last names) is what makes it the best gay movie since Far From Heaven (which also starred Julianne Moore). This is the story of a family, one that just so happens to have two women its head.

I regard Julianne Moore as an angel who walks on Earth, an actress of such radiance and ability that I would happily watch her perform as Tree #2 in a high school performance of Our Town, but The Kids Are All Right is Annette Bening's movie. Her Nic, the breadwinner and guardian of the family, whose facial expressions somehow communicate more than her impeccably written words, is the film's emotional center of gravity. In the film's best scene, Bening sings Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" acapella at the dinner table. That moment -- so funny, so ironic, so poignant -- will play next year, on the night she wins her first Academy Award. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect, especially Ruffalo, who plays Paul as a lovable and sympathetic fuck-up.

While watching The Kids Are All Right, I was reminded of Alexander Payne's Sideways, a (somewhat nasty) satire of the epicurean and boozy proclivities of the West Coast Liberal. Lisa Chodolenko is kinder, but a gently pointed satire underlies her film, though never at her characters' expense. Nic's tirade against composting and heirloom tomatoes is a riotous high point. (“If I hear another person talk about how much they love heirloom tomatoes, I am going to kill myself.”)

Before exiting the theater, while the credits still rolled, I half-jokingly asked my friend if he wanted to stay and watch the movie again. Not because I felt like I missed something, or because I thought a repeat viewing would reveal new depths, though both may be the case. Like a codependent, I didn't want to leave these characters behind, all of whom I'd come to love. And now, even as I write this, I feel like an addict: I can only think of my next fix, the next time I see The Kids Are All Right.

*Inception* Review

Remember Calvinball? It was the game Calvin and Hobbes played in Bill Watterson's cartoon, in which the two would gleefully come up with new, and arbitrary, rules as the game advanced. I quote wikipedia:
When asked how to play, Watterson states, "It's pretty simple: you make up the rules as you go." Calvinball is a nomic or self-modifying game, a contest of wits and creativity rather than stamina or athletic skill....
Inception, the new film by Christopher Nolan, is a two-and-a-half hour game of Calvinball. Remarkably high concept for a film (a summer film, no less), it requires the viewer to keep in mind a parade of rules, right up to its final moments. It's a demanding film, though never impenetrable. But given its running time, and its dizzying action-heavy heist movie format, this film about dreams becomes soporific.

Visually, Inception is arresting, in the vein of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, where reality is malleable, and metaphysics is thrown out the window. In one striking sequence, a city bends perpendicularly, becoming an M.C. Escher lithograph. If you're unfamiliar with The Matrix, Synecdoche, New York, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, these surrealistic visual tropes may thrill. But at this point, seeing a locomotive rush down a city street, or a skyscraper crumble like the edge of a glacier, seems more clichéd than visually daring.

The twisty mobius strip plot of Inception is all about its clever construction, but like a mobius strip, its center is empty. It's also nearly impossible to describe in fewer than five paragraphs. The (very) short of it: humans have discovered a new method of espionage, to enter a person's dreams with the purpose of stealing secrets. That's easy enough. But it's also possible, albeit highly dangerous, to implant an idea into person's mind during sleep. This act, called inception, is our characters' goal. Have I mentioned Inception involves one or two rules?

I almost hated Inception, yet it lingers on. Nolan's execution of his frustrating material is elegant, especially in the film's latter half. The performances are mostly excellent (Ellen Page, I love you), with the sole exception of Leonardo DiCaprio, whose furrowed brow should have gotten top billing, beside its host. Speaking of DiCaprio, Inception invites comparisons to Shutter Island, a less sophisticated high concept film that has an equally ambiguous denouement. And like Nolan's own Memento, most of the fun here is in reuniting the puzzle pieces.

Maddening, yet oddly satisfying, Inception requires at least one viewing. If only to give you a reason to debate it, or if you're like me, to kind of hate it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: Big Boi *Sir Lucious Leftfoot...The Son of Chico Dusty*

To read the reaction to Antwan "Big Boi" Patton's new album, Sir Lucious Leftfoot...The Son of Chico Dusty, is to witness the intersection of the whiplash of historical revisionism and a small cultural awakening (of which I, too, am guilty). Conventional wisdom has it that Outkast, arguably the most popular and critically beloved rap group ever, was the product of a polished MC (Patton) and a wild near-genius visionary (André "3000" Benjamin). Exhibit A, and the example par excellence, is Outkast's last album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, essentially two solo albums glued together. Dre's half was ridiculously hailed (largely, and understandably, due to "Hey Ya!"), while Patton's half was, to be generous, merely admired (when discussed at all).

History revised: seven years later, André's The Love Below sounds better in memory than it does playing through speakers. As is the case with the product of any visionary, the excitement of the new overshadows deep flaws. Speakerboxxx, however, sounds better than ever: tight, muscular, and assured. "Hey Ya!" got all the attention, but "The Way You Move" is nearly as wonderful and, since it wasn't as overplayed, it still sounds fresh.

The catalyst of this revisionism, via the advance tracks to Sir Lucious Leftfoot, almost three years in the making, was the realization that perhaps too much credit was heaped on André. The cultural awakening is realized with every repeated listen to the album proper. Lean by Outkast's standards (just 15 tracks), Sir Lucious Leftfoot is great throughout and shows that Big Boi doesn't lack for flourish, while also maintaining a staggering level of competence that approaches virtuosity. I don't mean to insult by faint praise: real competence is hard to come by.

Much like Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid, which Patton had a large hand in, Sir Lucious Leftfoot reaches an early artistic zenith with a triple play. "Follow Us", "Shutterbugg", and "General Patton" could each carry an album single-handedly. In the case of "Follow Us", the catchy modern-rock-radio chorus by Vonnegutt is elevated by the surefooted funk that surrounds it. "Shutterbugg", the album's giddy first single, pounces with an unstoppable beat ("cut a rug!"). The bombast of "General Patton", with its glorious sample of a Georg Solti aria, obliterates any notion that Dre was Outkast's only visionary.

Singling out these three seems unfair, as the rest of the album is nearly as great (see: "Shine Blockas", "Tangerine", "Hustle Blood", "Be Still", "Fo Yo Sorrows", etc.). The large roll call of artists (including the aforementioned Janelle Monáe) who contribute to the album never overtake Patton's gift -- the deft turn of phrase -- which is the album's true highlight. The surprise, and the bottom line, is that Sir Lucious Leftfoot is as good, if not better, than any Outkast release. André who?