Thursday, June 30, 2011

2011.5 - The Year In Music...So Far

The fact that I feel like I've consistently been calling each successive year not just a good year but a great year for music is probably the strongest evidence I can provide to suggest that just such a qualifier is no longer a necessity. There's simply so much music currently available and instantly at ones fingertips that a list-making exercise of this sort has in a sense receded back to its original function: to take stock of a single opinion and perhaps point the like-minded toward a new discovery. As such, one could conceive of similar lists devoted to single genres as opposed to vain attempts as comprehensiveness such as this. So while I'll make no apologies for what I've chosen on this day to represent my fifteen favorite albums of 2011 so far, I will offer the caveat that I am not completely confident with my selections. Meaning, there are probably a dozen other records that could conceivably make this same list if it were made on a different day of the week.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 4 - Robert Altman's California Split

Leaving Godard aside, ReFramed explores the pure entertainment value of Robert Altman's oft-dismissed California Split.
Calum Marsh: “This simultaneously relaxed and lively swing-fest, a celebration of collective euphoria, shows how deeply akin Altman’s style is to the aesthetic of improvised jazz, which at its best tends to thrive not so much through competition as through the kind of sudden inspiration that fellow players can spark in one another.” That’s Jonathan Rosenbaum writing about what I consider to be the best of Robert Altman’s many great films, the oft-overlooked California Split, and it’s difficult to think of a more accurate description of the very particular tone struck by this film. By the time of its release in 1974, Altman’s reputation for looseness and abstraction had long-since been established, but California Split amplifies those tendencies to an unprecedented degree. Because unlike his stylistically similar classic The Long Goodbye, which self-consciously digressed from Chandler’s well-established noir framework to ironic and highly comedic effect, the fleeting and disparate passages which comprise California Split are held together by only the faintest suggestion of an overarching narrative. Altman, lacking the constraints of Hollywood convention, is free to roam about and improvise as he goes—and we’re invited to sort of just meander through the resulting mess with him, soaking in the images and sounds, which exist in joyful abundance. But most of all California Split is just such a thoroughly enjoyable film, and is one of the most purely entertaining experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.

Jordan Cronk: This being in essence our second ReFramed topic, I guess it feels appropriate, then, that we would turn 180 degrees from Jean-Luc Godard to Robert Altman. Both have unwieldy catalogues with many indulgences and curiosities, but whereas Godard’s late period work is an admittedly acquired taste, the under-recognized work of Altman is just as accessible and digestible as his canonized classics. I guess just because there’s so much of it to sift through, it’s inevitable that a number of his strongest works have fallen by the wayside. I could see us devoting a number of these columns to other Altman films in the future, which I think would be more than appropriate since I’d put him on a very short list of the greatest American filmmakers ever. And like you say, California Split, made at the absolute peak of his powers, is one of his most impressive yet underseen works. And that “faint suggestion of an overarching narrative” that you speak of is especially impressive here since the finished film is so tight, as opposed to something like Nashville, which at three hours in length, is ironically one of his most well known yet most intimidating pictures.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Track Review: Zammuto - "Yay"

Despite a relatively lengthy five year hiatus, it wasn’t so much a surprise that the Books would come back strong, but that they would come back so demonstratively. The Way Out (2010) retained the found-sound, electro-acoustic duo’s subtle, meticulous attention to detail, but also saw the group implementing a forthright, almost funky undercurrent of rhythm, particularly on tracks like “I Didn’t Know That.” It was an invigorating new direction, one that half of the duo, Nick Zammuto, seems intent on building upon with “Yay,” a self-released track from his newly unveiled solo guise, Zammuto.

The Books utilize vocal samples in a manner as distinct as any other modern experimental act, yet on record this source material has remained more or less intact. On “Yay,” however, Zammuto chops, loops, and sends pinwheeling a vocal sample like an appropriated beat source, stutter-stepping like a Mount Kimbie or Gold Panda outtake. The latter’s breakthrough 2010 track, “You,” even feels like a reference point here, building as it does an infectious melody out of shards of broken syllables. The track’s rigid foundation of sharply struck floor toms and warm organ tones provide an appropriate axis for Zammuto’s playful edits, which kind of careen joyously around the mix in carefully deployed increments. It’s so instantly enjoyable and infectious that it ends up playing almost like a traditional three-minute pop single, yet with a slightly off-kilter bent that never allows the listener to get too comfortable. Instead, Zammuto invites us to move in close and savor the intricacies, all the while proving that the line between hardnosed experimentation and unconscious euphoria can be smeared into a streamlined piece perfect for either mindset. [CMG]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011.5 - The Year In Film...So Far

The Los Angeles Film Festival kicked-off last week, and as usual it kind of signaled my arrival at the mid-point of the year. I attended the fest for the first time last year and as a result I was perhaps a little charitable to the first six months of 2010. That was a solid slate of films no doubt, and the year as a whole turned out to be quite strong in my opinion, but as the year drew to a close and I was privileged enough to catch a glimpse of a handful of films lined up for release in the early part of 2011, it became obvious that it would be the following year that would be the one to remember. And indeed it has been. 2011 has, in just six short months, offered up a selection of films to rival any full year in recent memory, and that includes 2007, 2005, 2001-- you name it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Record Review: Comet Gain - Howl of the Lonely Crowd

Reviewing a record like Howl of the Lonely Crowd is a somewhat disheartening endeavor. Perpetually underrated as Comet Gain have been, and this being sixth album in fifteen years, it’s more than a little depressing to think that they’ve more than likely extended their popular reach. In that sense, they’re a quintessential indie-pop cult act—not in the tradition of eventual breakthroughs like Belle & Sebastian, but more in line with ‘80s fringe collectives such as the Chills and the Clean. Like those bands and many in their orbit, Comet Gain tend to be appreciated (when they’re appreciated at all) more for their run of singles than their full-lengths. Their “Jack Nance Hair” 7-inch from 1998—compiled on 2009s essential Broken Record Prayers compilation—may be the absolute apex of the modern indie-pop single. And though they haven’t release an album in six years, their sound is still all over the modern pop underground, with Los Campesinos!, Crystal Stilts, and the Cribs in particular all flirting with certain aspects of their style.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Podcast: End of Radio #35 - Drunkard's Special (Folk I: 1920 - 1959)

"After weeks of procrastination, your End of Radio co-hosts Jordan Cronk and Brian Webster finally make good on their promise and kick-off a three part series on the history of American and British folk music. This first show covers the early American country, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk movements."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 3 - Jean-Luc Godard: The Lost Later Years (1990 - 2011)

In this final installment in ReFramed's dissection of Godard, Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh consider age, attitude, and the angst of misplaced elitism.
Calum Marsh: Now that Film Socialisme has been fortunate enough to finally receive a formal (if very limited) American theatrical release, the mainstream reviews are pouring in, and the results have been…well, not exactly effusive. What are your thoughts on how the film’s been generally received, Jordan?

Jordan Cronk: It’s funny in a sense. Coming out of the festival circuit last year, the film was pretty hotly tipped by critics and publications that I would consider authoritative: Johnathan Rosenbaum, Amy Taubin, Cinema Scope, etc. Hell, it sat at Number Two on Film Comment‘s best unreleased films of 2010 list. And now predictably, with mainstream critics getting a look at the film, the film is being construed as an affront not just to the senses, but to the cinema itself. Which is ironic, since this film, along with most of Godard’s ‘90s and 2000s work, is so obviously in love with the process of creation and the art form as a whole. I know this bothers you, as it does me, but is it fair to hold these opinions to the standard we do for some of the folks mentioned earlier? And does it even matter at this point, forty some odd years after general audiences stopped caring about Godard?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - May (2011)

Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided in the introduction to read the entire feature.

"As with most months, May was bursting with Home Movie possibilities, and although we didn’t get to all of them, below is a beefy compendium of the touchstones that made their way onto DVD or Blu-ray this month. Kino International offers a survey of Italian icon Sophia Loren and mild-mannered documentarian Nicolas Philibert, and so do we. Cinema Guild releases José Luis Guerín’s under-the-radar effectual romance “In the City of Sylvia.” And Blue Underground delivers another Hi-def miracle with Dario Argento’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails.” But May Home Movies belongs to Criterion, as we obsess over five swoon-worthy Blu-rays of five diverse must-see films: “Solaris,” “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “Diabolique,” “Something Wild,” and our Pick of the Month, “Pale Flower.”" Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

Friday, June 10, 2011

Track Review: Sun Araw - "Crete"

As Sun Araw, Cameron Stallones has carved himself a unique niche by mining one particular strain of psych-rock, and mining it very well. With only a modicum of tools, he’s stretched his narrow aesthetic about as liberally as anyone currently working in this particular vein. Which means you either give yourself over entirely to Stallones’ stone-faced (or maybe just straight stoned) grooves or you simply skip ahead in your playlist in anticipation of the unwavering sprawl that Sun Araw slowly unravel across each long-form composition. And I don’t really think Stallones really cares either way, so dedicated is he to the hypnotic churn he’s able to conjure with little more than guitar, synth, drum machine, and a few loop pedals.

Stallones’ pair of 2010 records, the On Patrol LP and the Off Duty EP, swirled dub narcotics around helixing kraut grooves in a nonstop attempt at spiritual transcendence. Sun Araw’s forthcoming album, Ancient Romans, doesn’t look to be a huge change in direction: “Crete,” our first taste of the record, is all hollowed-out psych loping and fiery soloing in the tradition we’ve come to expect from Stallones. Here his guitar tone reminds me a bit of early Ash Ra Tempel—surely an influence on the Sun Araw ideology—when Manuel Göttsching would get loose from the groove and spit electric currents in wild abandon. Stallones doesn’t show that kind of dexterity, but the intended effect feels similar, as a rather demonstrative synth chord stamps out a concrete melody beneath free-form pyrotechnics.

At nearly ten minutes, “Crete” is given ample room to breathe, with variations in harmonics seamlessly folding in on themselves across Stallone’s one-man post-apocalyptic landscape. In other words, this is heady, concentrated stuff, borne of mind restless and searching for a realm beyond which we currently reside. And significantly, Stallone continues to get there, though he leaves it up to the listener to meet him halfway. The trip won’t be worth the effort for some, but few artists are currently spinning cathedrals of sound this intoxicating and with seemingly so little effort. [CMG]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 2 - Jean-Luc Godard: The Second New Wave (1980 - 1989)

"In Part 2 of ReFramed's Godard discussion, Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh review the French filmmaker's "second first" phase as a director."
Jordan Cronk: Now, Jean-Luc Godard has been pretty kind to us and to a series such as this by segregating his career into convenient little movements, but after wandering for a good decade or more in the wilderness of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, he himself seemed to even acknowledge the need for a return to form. At the time of its release, Godard called Every Man for Himself his “second first film,” and as we mentioned in our last column, this was the first widely accessible (comparatively speaking of course) film he made in nearly twelve years. It was a return to narrative, a return to characterization, and a return to at least some modicum of coherency; it also kick-started a decade that seems ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. I know you in particular may even prefer this decade to his runs of ‘60s films. Beyond the obvious characteristics and general linearity in relation to what directly preceded them, what is it about these films that make them continue to standout in a late-career catalogue that at times can seem impenetrable to the common viewer?

Calum Marsh: Well, as we discussed a little bit the last time around, I think Godard’s ‘60s films, masterpieces though many of them are, have had their reputations bolstered as a result of their historical value and confirmed status within the larger cultural canon. The films Godard made during the ‘80s, on the other hand, aren’t lucky enough to have history supporting them so vehemently—they thus need to not only stand apart on their own but also apart from those ‘60s “classics”. That means they have a lot working against them. But what’s funny is that once you actually pass the invisible hurdle and actually get right into those films—assuming you can find any of them, because apart from three of the weaker films from mid-decade none of these films are available on DVD in North America—you realize just how accessible and wholly enjoyable they are. These films are still quite dense, mind you, and tend to posit more sophisticated ideas and arguments than did the films which preceded them, but the general and pervasive idea that Godard totally lost his way after Week End starts to seem a little odd after you watch a film like Every Man For Himself or First Name: Carmen, which are fairly coherent and entertaining.