Best Albums of 2008: #17: Yelle- Pop-Up

17. Yelle: Pop-Up

There is really nothing profound to say about Yelle. She is French. She wears puffy dresses. She makes fun of male DJ’s who piss her off. She is the kind of total badass that can wear a full-body candy-striped leotard and still command power and authority.

I will be honest and say that I like this album because it makes me feel good to listen to it, but I haven’t the slightest clue what most of the songs are about. This is half-ironic, too, because Pop-Up will forever be solidified in my memory alongside a part of this year that left a sour taste in my mouth, partially because of a person who I did not have the slightest clue about. Somehow, despite this, I still really like it. Maybe because the album makes me want to wear clothing the color of highlighters. It also makes me want to do things that Hipster Runoff would make fun of me for, but I do not care. This whole genre of poppy electronic music by DJ’s is an important cultural moment (the same kind that bands like MGMT exemplify) and I think that this album is a good example of it. You should listen to it, dance to it, drive to it, cook to it, whatever. It will make you feel good, I promise.

Related posts:
Best of 2008: #18: Parenthetical Girls: Entanglements
Best of 2008: #19: The Gaslight Anthem- The '59 Sound
Best of 2008: #20: Billy Bragg- Mr. Love and Justice
Best of 2008: Intro


Best Albums of 2008: #18: Parenthetical Girls- Entanglements

18. Parenthetical Girls: Entanglements

This one is a fairly recent addition. I struggled with where to put it because it is at once so beautiful and so unsettling. Parenthetical Girls toured earlier this fall with Evangelicals and made me really glad not to have showed up late. What I like about this album is what I liked about Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope: all of this classical training culminating in something that is slightly off-kilter, unsettling, and beautiful. I also appreciate that this album tells a coherent story from start to finish, that its liner notes could be a chapbook of poetry.

Magical is one way to describe the album, but “quaint” and “morbid” are perhaps others. Why morbid? I don’t know. Something about the band and about this album reminds me of a spooky story, though more of the Lemony Snicket than Stephen King variety. A spooky Lemony Snicket musical in which tall, wispy figures dress as dandies and dance to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. They have really big eyes and look like they belong in a Bryan Fuller show. They are perpetually in a magical hand-holding parade. As I wrote in October, “I have a fantasy of Zach Condon and Stephin Merritt both joining this band and singing each other songs in the street, maybe making a Takeaway Show.”

Related posts:
Best of 2008: #19: The Gaslight Anthem- The '59 Sound
Best of 2008: #20: Billy Bragg- Mr. Love and Justice
Best of 2008: Intro


Best Albums of 2008: #19: The Gaslight Anthem- The '59 Sound

19. The Gaslight Anthem- The ’59 Sound

Like a repurposed dress that I recently made from one of my dad’s old plaid shirts, this album borrows a lot of old material, recalls vintage Americana, and still manages to have a freshness that I missed on the first few listens. It is Americana’s version of the declaration that “Punk’s not dead!” The bridges and highways of mid-century America are its landscape. There is honesty and desperation, but also enough of the Gaslight Anthem to remind us of the real period of its release.

At first, I thought there was too much of the band in the album, actually. If you’ve listened to “Sink or Swim,” you will recognize a lot of re-used lyrics and riffs. Now, these things just add to the nostalgia and familiarity of the whole thing. The ’59 Sound is still, above all and no matter how universal or poetic, a story about a particular experience of life in New Jersey. If I was Brian Fallon, I’d be so tired of all of the Springsteen comparisons, no matter how well meaning. As much as these songs might pay tribute to a particular, formulaic way of songwriting, to read them only in that way diminishes what they do that is particular to this band and ultimately pretty successful.

If you know anything about me, you know that, first and foremost, what I think about constantly is place, travel, and identity. My favorite music, literature, everything seems to come back to these themes and explore the ways that they define one another. Not only is the ’59 Sound replete with these gestures, but I think that it is a defining theme of Fallon’s lyricism, as well.

Take this verse from “Great Expectations”:
I saw tail lights last night in a dream about my first wife.
Everybody leaves and I'd expect as much from you.
I saw tail lights last night in a dream about my old life.
Everybody leaves, so why, why wouldn't you?

Or this one from “High Lonesome”:
And Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand
I always kinda sorta wished I looked like Elvis
And in my head there's all these classic cars
And outlaw cowboy bands
I always kinda sorta wish I'm someone else

Or this one from “The Backseat”:
And in the wild desert sun, we drove straight on through the night.
We rode a fever out of Boston.
Dreamed of California nights.
Come July, we'll ride the Ferris Wheel.
Go round and round and round.
And If you never let me go, well I will never let you down.

What do we articulate through references to cars, to turbulent rivers, to bigger cities, to the visceral experience of moving through the air on a Ferris wheel? Why does living out of a suitcase cause us to question who we are? Why do we want so badly to be rooted in a place? These are questions that this album raises. They are broad, life-shattering questions of the most urgent kind, and yet there are no easy answers.

All we can do is exile ourselves and adopt travel metaphors--cars, trains, hitchhiking, and their audio-visual symbols—to search for what makes us who we are. We are at once inside of ourselves and out there somewhere in the backcountry, in other cities, on beaches, alongside rivers. These are ultimately the things I find most appealing about this album—and what will make me listen to it alongside The Charm of the Highway Strip, Left and Leaving, and Under the Western Freeway.

I should point out that my friend, Charles, convinced me to give this album another chance after I totally didn’t get it and kind of put it on the list of this year’s failures. His post about the album here is a moving example of why Charles is a fantastic writer with a real capacity to not only put his intense connection with music into words, but make you feel what he feels in a very raw and powerful way.

Related posts:
Best of 2008: #20: Billy Bragg- Mr. Love and Justice
Best of 2008: Intro

Best Albums of 2008: #20: Billy Bragg-Mr. Love and Justice

20. Billy Bragg: Mr. Love and Justice

In my world, it always begins and ends with Billy Bragg. He is probably one of the few remaining people (notice that I said few and not only—don’t want to discount anyone else here) who embodies the practice of political struggle inspired by music. In a year overshadowed by the hope and hype surrounding Obama, though, I’m not surprised that this album got very little blog attention in the U.S.

Sometimes, I find Bragg tired because I’d much rather listen to Riot Folk or Ghost Mice. He didn’t seem to go after Blair as much as Thatcher. Mr. Love and Justice reminded me that, above all, the man is a great folk musician. He accomplishes this without sounding any bit like the 1960’s (an accomplishment in and of itself). There isn’t a whole lot of politics here—and I am okay with that. There is a jab at the tobacco industry, and a few general songs about war. If you take all of that away, the album sounds every bit as twangy as a good folk album should. I like the subtlety of these songs. They could have been angry, loud, indignant. What Bragg communicates instead is that war and violence are now parts of our everyday existence, and that we are all too tired to scream and march anymore. We are outraged, yes, but our screams have fallen on deaf ears, and now it is time to eulogize the normalized taking away of freedom (“O, Freedom”), build community (“M for Me”), and focus on particular struggles (“The Johnny Carcinogenic Show”).

You can watch videos for most of the songs on the website.

Related posts:
Best of 2008: Intro

Best Albums of 2008: Intro

This was a year of homage’s to the past, to recollections of early modern rock, of punk’s first wave, and of the electro-neon of the 80’s. Nothing here is new. Everything is dedicated to re-creating, though almost anti-nostalgically, a sound that once heralded a major shift in the history of 20th century music. In the space of memory carved and marked by musical legacies, these albums are like doors to the rooms of the past, rooms in which the collective musical conscious lay on its back thinking of pickup trucks and guitar amps, writing powerpop riffs while dreaming of Phil Spector, and where it finally bleached its hair, dyed it blue, tattooed literature onto its body, and came out as charged as its social and political cousins.

I feel like these lists are inevitably autobiographical, and in this case mine is purposefully so. We don’t just connect to music through an objective, neutral vacuum inside of our heads. The albums we return to time and again reflect the affect we feel, the kind that is impossible to really put into words without telling a story about what part it played in making us who we are today. So, what follows is a series of posts, one for each of my top 20 albums, that tells the story of my life in the last year, inasmuch as it highlights albums that I think are fantastic enough to take time out of my busy schedule to write about. In some ways, these albums were my life this year, dear friends that helped me along, expressing things I had not yet figured out that I felt. Some of these choices surprised even me in the end, but I’m happy with the way it worked out.

Related posts:

Best of 2008: #2: The Magnetic Fields: Distortion
Best of 2008: #3: Deerhunter: Microcastle
Best of 2008: #4: The Walkmen: You & Me
Best of 2008: #5: Gentleman Jesse and His Men
Best of 2008: #6: Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Best of 2008: #7: Okkervil River: The Stand-ins
Best of 2008: #8: MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
Best of 2008: #9: Streetlight Manifesto: Somewhere in the Between
Best of 2008: #10: M83: Saturdays=Youth
Best of 2008: #11: TV On the Radio: Dear Science
Best of 2008: #12: Mount Eerie: Lost Wisdom
Best of 2008: #13: Cloud Cult: Feel Good Ghosts
Best of 2008: #14: Ratatat: LP3
Best of 2008: #15: The Submarines: Honeysuckle Weeks
Best of 2008: #16: Grand Archives: S/T
Best of 2008: #17: Yelle: Pop-up
Best of 2008: #18: Parenthetical Girls: Entanglements
Best of 2008: #19: The Gaslight Anthem- The '59 Sound
Best of 2008: #20: Billy Bragg- Mr. Love and Justice
Best of 2008: Intro


Lists to come

I have been so slacking in every part of my life, to the extent that when school finished I procrastinated from relaxation by starting this giant sewing project that is now finally done.

The plan is to churn these lists out in the next week or so, before the new year. Since I haven't written about most of the albums, they will likely be in separate posts.



Review: Synechdoche, New York

Pretty much the only consistent movie taste that has stayed with me through my bouts of adolescent self-discovery through adulthood has been a great love of the work of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. His work is absolutely immense and awe-inspiring, and his latest film (which also happens to be a very succesful directorial debut), Synechdoche, New York is most definitely the best movie of the year and probably the best (though perhaps most frustrating) of all of his work.

The plot is almost not as important as the film's visceral experience, but basically this is what happens: an egomaniacal hypochondriac theater director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) finds himself alone after his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him with their child. He loses all sense of time, and the years pass by as he waits for her. Eventually he wins a grant of unlimited funds to stage the most meaningful play that he possibly can, and he uses it as an opportunity to interrogate himself, his own life, and the human drama and interactions he encounters on a daily basis.

The film is vaguely about disability and self-understanding in all of these weird ways. Hypochondria turns into depression and maybe even schizophrenia. He is obsessed with finding his family and with writing the play, but at the end of the day, he is in this constant self-referential loop without escape. Everything is about him him him, even when he interrogates his own practices for the good of others. He marries again and cannot even remember his daughter's name. We realize that he is pathetic because he is like us. He is the way that we are when faced with trauma and betrayal. We collapse into our own selves, our own worlds.

He writes the play, for which he never finds a title, in order to find and understand himself. It begins with scenes from his life and soon he casts someone to play him in the play. This person happens to be a man who has been following him for 20 years. He casts more people and the play becomes so meta that it is hard to follow. There are actors not only for him and his assistants as they occur as real characters in the play but also as the directors of the play. There are all of these layers. The set is complex and ginormous. It is a full recreation of his whole living spatial experience inside of a warehouse, and that warehouse has another inside of it in which the whole thing is recreated on a smaller scale and again into infinity.

There are hundreds of actors. They act out the 'reality' of lived experiences that have already happened. The director watches them all, but most importantly, himself in an effort to understand who he is from the outside. But all of the actors are real people, a dimension that the film explores in interesting ways. They produce characters by mediating their own selves. Their representation can never be reality, just the merging of themselves with the characters they are supposed to play. In one part, the director's love interest falls in love with one of the characters who is supposed to be him because the actor reminds her of the real person, leaving us to wonder, then why not the Real? Why only the Symbolic? Who is real? Who are we? Are we anything? Are we just playing ourselves in this ginormous play in a re-created representational universe?

The use of space is so interesting, and probably my favorite part. The warehouse theater begins as an enormous empty space and ends with an entire constructed world of fake architecture, imitation elevators, and illusions of place within it. It speaks volumes about the human practice of constructing space by building rather than by granting meaning. At one point, the director orders the builders to finish the fourth wall, enclosing the characters in their spaces in order to give them authenticity. It is all about space and the repetition of time through these scenes that re-enact real life through a dozen filters and distortions aplenty. The play never opens because real human tragedy is the only way to break out of the loop of re-enactment and practice, of replication and repetition.

I would watch this movie 200 times in a row and still not understand it, but that is the genius of Kaufman. He confronts our most taken for granted assumptions about the world and about ourselves, spitting them back in a paranoid schizophrenic frenzy of flashes and lights. I have always really loved his collaborations with Spike Jonze but Synechdoche is raw and dark in ways that movies that Human Nature or Being John Malkovitch and especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could never be.


If I didn't hate female homosocial bonding right now I would think this was really amazing