Monthly Archives: May 2013

The National’s TROUBLE WILL FIND ME

the national

The National is in the middle of a hot streak. Don’t get me wrong, all of their albums are worth a listen if you enjoy contemporary alternative rock (or whatever they call it these days), but their three album run of Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet have been some of the best albums released in their respective years. So when I realized that The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me, was nearing its release date I wasn’t exactly hyped or ecstatic. After all, music from their past records is still just as good years later as it was when I first heard it – additionally, I felt confident that the band would put out another great record. I was never worried that The National would put out a bad album or even a mediocre one.

Everything that made Boxer and High Violet great are back: the atmospheric swells, Berninger’s mournful croon, the nearly rhythmic and propulsive percussion, the melancholy and personal lyrics. By and large, if you’ve enjoyed the past work of The National, you’re sure to enjoy Trouble Will Find Me. The album is a slow burner – perhaps even slower than High Violet. It’s not inaccessible by any means, but many of the songs’ twists and turns, many of the lyrics’ confessional turns of phrase, become more salient with repeated listens.  The band’s music is meticulously constructed, with every melody, rhythm, and tone seemingly not only exactly where it should be, but where it has to be as if there were no other option.

The album begins with “I Should Live in Salt” bears more than a striking resemblance to High Violent’s opener “Terrible Love.” The song begins in skeletal form: an acoustic guitar, Berninger’s voice, and a few slight  synthesizers. The phrase “you should know me better than that” is repeated throughout the verse (much like the title phrase of “Terrible Love”), and the song slowly builds to what feels like an anthem. “Sea of Love” – the band’s first video in support of Trouble Will Find Me – starts with rapid snare taps that make the song feel on the verge of an enormous crescendo. “Sea of Love” follows a few different changes of tempo and sound, and it contains the album’s namesake lyric – it’s sure to be one of the album’s most prominent tracks.

My only real complaint with Trouble Will Find Me is that the band doesn’t really expand its musical palette from previous records. Tonally, it sounds a lot like High Violet, and most of these songs would have fit perfectly in place with that record. Maybe it’s for this reason why I wasn’t hyper-ecstatic about the album’s release – it feels too comfortable. It feels like a warm sweater that I’ve worn for years now. I don’t mean to suggest that the band needs to run out and experiment with electronica, but the band’s sound is by now very familiar.

Fans of The National owe it to themselves to check out Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a great album that only further extends this band’s fantastic catalog. If you’ve never listened to The National before, this record is a good one to start with, but I might recommend Boxer over it for beginners. I’d recommend this band to fans of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, or Iron & Wine – while The National don’t sound exactly like these bands all the time, they share many sensibilities of songwriting. Listeners who have never been convinced of The National’s merit probably won’t find reason to change their minds here – Trouble Will Find Me is made of the same exact ingredients that endeared them to so many people in the past. Trouble Will Find Me is a great record sure to be on many Best Of 2013 lists.

Essential tracks to sample/download: “I Should Live in Salt,” “Sea of Love,” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”

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Vampire Weekend’s MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

vampire weekend modern vampires of the city

If you’re reading reviews about Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, you are gonna hear the word “mature” over and over. The band has (intentionally?) cultivated a reputation for being bratty smartasses. Whether it be the lyrics centered around posh lifes or the ironic wardrobes of the band members, I think that Vampire Weekend has been disregarded in some circles as being aggressively twee. Modern Vampires of the City is set to change some minds though — the album, and the lyrics in particular, is in my mind, the band’s career highlight thus far. Modern Vampires of the City is thoughtful, catchy, fun, weird, and well-crafted. On this album, Vampire Weekend captures some of the magic that made Animal Collective’s Merriwether Post Pavilion so good — the songs here are strange, eclectic, and progressive, but for all of its unfamiliar parts, everything is centered with great pop-centric melodies.

Vampire Weekend’s bread-and-butter has been their ability to take modern indie rock and fuse it with traditionally-African sounds. While this is still largely true on the quartet’s third album, it may be less true than it has been on previous albums. Instead, the music feels more eclectic here than it ever has been before. Every now and then, the guitars or vocals will twang with some of the African motifs, but for the most part, the band seems more interested in trying out new instruments or vocal modulations. The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle” and “Believers.” These first two songs are fine, the first is a midtempo, laid back song that doesn’t really announce the album in any way; the second track is more upbeat with some folk/americana vibes carrying it through its run time. However, beginning with the third track, “Step” the band finds its footing — the song has a well worn feeling, both musically and lyrically, as frontman Ezra Koenig recalls the places that he has been, presumably on tour away from home. It’s characterized by a soft melancholia that never overplays the emotion.

“Diane Young” seems to be one of the early favorites on the record. The song is a fast, synthesizer-driven, R&B-infused pop song — where I may have called attention to the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City, this track certainly isn’t a good showcase of that. Instead, the song is just 2 minutes and 40 seconds of good times and fun. “Hannah Hunt” recalls some of the same sounds that “Step” uses, but to arguably greater effect: it’s one of the most warm and beautiful songs on the record with just the right amount of restraint. “Everlasting Arms” is driven by African-themed percussion; the bass and keys take a backseat to the drums and vocals here. The song has a strong melody, and it sounds the most familiar of the bands’ work out of all of the tracks collected here. “Ya Hey” is one of the catchier songs on the album, and it makes use of some high vocal modulation that is sure to annoy some — the band makes it work here in this context though. The lyrics deal with religious/existential doubt as seen from a young Jewish person — who knew crippling religious doubt sound so fun? “Ya Hey” (or “Yaweh” — get it?) is probably my favorite track on the entire record. The final track, “Young Lion” is less than two minutes long, and it leaves the record on a note that is just as fuzzy, grey, and distant as the album’s cover art.

I would recommend this album to anyone interested in modern alternative/indie rock. Vampire Weekend’s third album shows a band that grown tremendously since 2010’s Contra — the music and lyrics are all sophisticated but not stuffy, different but not pretentious, and well crafted but not overly technical. I would recommend Modern Vampires of the City to fans of Yeasayer, Animal Collective, MGMT, or Passion Pit. If you are a fan of the band, hearing this album is non-optional. If you’ve listed to the band’s previous two records and not been impressed, Modern Vampires of the City offers enough new sounds and ideas that the band may be worth trying out again. Myself, I wasn’t head-over-heels for their self-titled debut or Contra, but I absolutely love this album. I really hate the name of it though (I’ve been trying not to comment on it this entire review).

Essential tracks to sample/download: “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey,” “Hannah Forever,” and “Everlasting Arms.”

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Review of Jon Ronson’s THE PSYCHOPATH TEST

the psychopath test hardcover

There’s something that annoys me about journalists who ultimately make the story about themselves. We see it a lot with Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock: both of these documentarians try to make a point, but they end up involving themselves in the movie to the point where they movie is more about their own narrative rather than the issue at hand. British journalist Jon Ronson falls into a similar vein but with one distinct difference: where some journalists/documentarians are fueled by ego, Ronson is definitely fueled by the thrill of the chance. One thing that has characterized all of Ronson’s books is his need to get to the bottom of whatever he’s researching in. In THEM!, he tried to get to the bottom of all of the zany conspiracy theorists/extremists. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, he tried to unravel the truth in a bizarre series of events in the US Military. In The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011), Ronson attempts to discover what psychopaths are, why they are, who they are, and how we know.

The Psychopath Test is funny, informative, and even suspenseful. I want to point out the first chapter in particular: the first chapter might be the best thing Ronson has ever done as a writer. The book begins with Ronson learning about a series of self-made books that have been distributed to an exclusive group of people internationally. The people who receive these books are primarily academicians and intellectuals, but no one can quite discern WHY they received this cryptic book. The book itself seems to be a coded message, and many of its passages are ominously foreboding. Ronson attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery, and it launches him into search for what makes a psychopath. This first chapter was such a joy to read, and things become so crazy and strange — Ronson makes for a good character to lead us down this rabbithole. If you are on the fence regarding this book, sample the first several passages on Amazon, and that should be your litmus test.

The story that is told in the first chapter ultimately serves as the smoking gun for what comes later. Ronson interviews alleged psychopaths in a mental ward, researchers who pioneered work in psychopathy, the man who developed the current scale used to diagnose psychopaths, a psychopathic millionaire CEO, one of the first criminal profilers, and the man who devised the current form of the DSM (more on that in a bit). I do a lot of work in the field of psychology, so a lot of this information was not particularly new. However, with that said, the materialthat wasn’t new to me was still fun to revisit. Ronson retells a lot of this information with incredulously wide eyes and in a dry, witty way that’s hard not to love. If you’ve read any of Ronson’s work before, you know that the man is a very anxious, neurotic individual. This trait is accentuated here as Ronson travels among murders and other unhinged individuals. As Ronson becomes more involved in the subject matter, the more neurotic and paranoid he gets. Is he himself a psychopath? Are psychopaths going to find him and kill him for exposing him?

Interestingly, I found that most of the best moments in this book came from when Ronson was interviewing the perfectly “sane” people — the researchers who have spent their lives trying to pinpoint the identity of psychopaths seem to show the most psychopathic traits. This point is overtly made in one of Bob Hare’s seminars. Hare is the inventor of the current scale used to assess for psychopathy, and one of the members of his audience stands up and proclaims the man to be a psychopath himself. Hare, along with some of the researchers in the field all exhibit strange, quirky mannerisms, and their curious interviews were more interesting than, say, when Ronson interviews a mass murderer later in the book. To that point, hearing about the creation of the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (or DSM; the handbook on which ALL current abnormal psychological disorders are diagnosed and informed) was one of the highlights for me. When this interview comes late in the book, it feels only tangentially related to the main thread of The Psychopath Test, but as someone who works in the field, I was captivated by the story behind the influential manual.

jon ronson at the daily show

Including The Psychopath Test, I’ve read four of Ronson’s books. Out of these four, The Psychopath Test is the best written — while it can’t compete content-wise with THEM or The Men Who Stare at Goats, the book itself is a little more coherent than his past work. Don’t get me wrong, these chapters are disjointed, but Ronson has been able to link them together narratively so that the transitions mostly feel natural. With that said, the book is still pretty scattered, and it shifts between the personal narratives of Ronson’s travels and more expositional, historical accounts. The ending of the book is also pretty unsatisfying — Ronson tries to tie it all back together, but he is never really quite able to make it whole. This rickety conclusion is made worse by the lack of content of the book — even at nearly 300 pages, the book doesn’t feel very substantive. Of course, this is both a compliment and a criticism: the 300 pages really fly by.

Even though the book left me somewhat vaguely unsatisfied, the adventure was a lot of fun. There’s a ton of information for those who are both new and familiar with the field, and it is all synthesized in a way that is easy to digest and fun to read. If you’ve never come across a book/article by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test makes for a good place to start. In fact, I might even say that this is the best place to start; the book may be one of his funniest, and it is probably the least scattered/disjointed. If you are at all interested in psychopaths or the madness that lurks behind normal people, give this book a go.

A word about the Audiobook: If you enjoy listening to Audiobooks, the author himself narrates this book and does a wonderful job. Much like his other books, Ronson phrases and paces his own book terrifically. Because many points of the book involve Ronson introspecting, his own narration makes the book feel more personal than it already is. The length of the audiobook is approximately 8 hours (maybe 8 and a half), so it’s not too long. Additionally, its chapters are all about 45 minutes or so, and they make a great natural stopping-point for those who have long commutes / jogs. The Psychopath Test is currently on Audible.com for relatively cheap, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an informative, breezy, fun listen.

Here is Ronson’s TED Talk (sigh) regarding much of what makes up the content of The Psychopath Test.

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In Inglorious Basterds, The Nazi’s Aren’t the Bad Guys. You Are.

Inglorious Basterds

When Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds came out in 2009, it took a while for people to really catch on.  What was this movie?  What did it want to be?  It seems that on its release in the summer, most critics dismissed it as being trashy, self-indulgent, and cruel.  However, by the end of the year, the movie made its way to many, many Best Of 2009 year lists, and for good reason.  Inglorious Basterds is shot perfectly, impeccably paced, and well written.  It has become regarded as one of Tarantino’s best movies — a large claim for someone with such a cherished catalog.  I would argue though, for all its acclaim, it’s one of his misunderstood movies released in recent years.  Here’s why.

On the face of it, Inglorious Basterds has an incredibly simple plot: a number of Jewish folks want Hitler dead, so they come up with a way to make him dead, and they do indeed make him dead.  There are clear lines drawn between characters: some characters are undeniably good (like Brad Pitt or Melanie Laurent), and some characters are just plain-out bad (like, well, Hitler or the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa).  At least, that’s what most people would say coming and leaving the movie: the Basterds are good, the Nazi’s are bad.  But that’s wrong.  The Nazi’s aren’t the bad guys.  The people watching the movie thinking that the Basterds are good guys — those are the actual bad guys.

Now, I know that this doesn’t make sense on the face of it.  The first time I watched Inglorious Basterds, I nearly broke into applause whenever the theater full of Nazi’s erupted into flames.  I experienced barely-bridled glee watching Hitler’s face turn to swiss cheese via bullets to the face.  Watching the movie a few more times, I realize that, this was Quentin Tarantino’s intention: we’re supposed to cheer.  Doing so though, makes us hypocritical, propaganda-loving brutes.  By having this kind of reaction — the satisfaction of watching the “bad guys” be tricked and slaughtered — the audience is brought down to the same level of the Nazi’s in the movie.  Keep in mind, all of the Nazi’s are watching the premiere of a movie, blatantly used as propaganda.  This movie-within-a-movie is the key, so let’s take a closer look at it.

All of the high-ranking Nazi officials are attending the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.”  From what we, the audience, see of the movie, it looks pretty simple, dull, and stupid.  The entire movie follows one soldier as he sits in a tower and snipes countless Allied forces.  That’s it. However, the Nazi’s absolutely love it!  They find it riveting.  While watching the movie, we look at their reaction and scoff, incredulous of their barbarity — how could this be entertaining to anyone?  Now think about the main plot of Inglorious Basterds: a group of Jewish soldiers track down and slaughter Nazi’s.  We cheer, get excited, and laugh at the antics of this rogue military force — they completely dominate any Nazi’s in there way.  Now that the tables are turned, and the Allied forces are killing the guys we don’t like, it doesn’t seem so vulgar or barbarous.  We are having the exact same reaction that the Nazi’s are while watching “Nation’s Pride,” but we don’t see the active hypocrisy in this until we leave the movie and think about it.

But the Nazi’s are bad guys in the movie, right?  Sure.  Hans Landa is shown in the first scene of the movie killing an innocent Jewish family.  After that though, what?  Besides being a bit goofy, imprudent, and rude, the German forces are pretty humane.  We never see any torture, concentration camps, complete genocide — that is all baggage that we bring to the movie to begin with.  It helps us dehumanize the Nazi’s in the movie.  Take for example, the bar scene: most of the guys there are just having a good time, enjoying a beer.  Hell, one of the German soldiers just had a kid, and most of them are there celebrating his birth.  None of them walk out of the pub alive though, for what its worth.

Another example is the road scene, where we find that the Basterds have caught a handful of Nazi’s.  The Basterds offer the Nazi’s a choice: give us the locations of your troops, or die.  Almost all of these soldiers choose the latter option, and they die knowing that they’ve kept their brothers-in-arms safe for a bit longer.  When the “Bear Jew” comes out, the Basterds make a point to ask one soldier “How did you get those medals on your chest? Killing Jews?”  The German soldier replies “Bravery.”  And when this soldier gets his head bashed in, it’s all the better — he’s a decorated soldier.  In hindsight though, this wasn’t a guy who was obsessed with Jews, like Hans Landa, he was just an exceptionally brave grunt.  This soldier stares down the black tunnel, unafraid — and when watching the scene free of historical context, the Basterds are clearly behaving in villainous ways (insulting, laughing, threatening).

The final, most compelling illustration of this point, is the climactic scene of the movie.  Shosanna has conspired to burn the entire theater down, thus killing hundreds of Nazi officers.  The main point of catharsis in this movie is watching all of these Nazi’s realize that they have been played for a fool, by a Jewish woman no less!  We hear her laughter while the building burns down with hundreds trapped inside.  Removing historical context from the scene, it’s an absolutely terrifying image: a face appearing on the screen, announcing imminent death, and being burned alive.  The use of fire is appropriate here, mirroring the real-life Holocaust imagery.  However, when we think back on the Holocaust, it’s hard to not feel completely devastated reflecting on the cruel ways Nazi’s burned Jews alive.  But, when it happens in Inglorious Basterds, it’s not only a deserved death, it’s a feel-good moment.    The one German that is genuinely a bad guy (as seen in the film), Hans Landa, isn’t present in this mass-scale incineration (although he does get his by the end of the movie).  By this point in the movie, we are just as barbarous as the Nazi’s at the premiere.  We are being fed propaganda, and we absolutely love it.

In the moment, the Nazi death feels completely justified, and for good reason.  We come to the movie with the knowledge that the real-life Nazi’s were completely horrible, despicable  disgraceful human beings.  And that’s what makes the movie-Nazi’s love “Nation’s Pride.”  It’s not just the wimpy sniper killing off Allied forces, it’s the sniper killing off what the Allied forces represent.  We never see the Allied forces within “Nation’s Pride” do anything that actively run to their deaths — we don’t get any context behind them.  And that’s what makes the audience of Inglorious Basterds worse than Nazi’s: we do get context, we do see directly that some of these soldiers have fears, emotions, families, and we cheer anyways.  We’ve watched a propaganda film, and laughed/cheered at the death of the “other side” even when we do have context of their humanity.  How could those Nazi’s applaud such a disgraceful movie in which hundreds of people are slaughtered in the name of a single purpose?  Well, I guess the egg is on our face.

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Deerhunter’s MONOMANIA

Deerhunter

 

SHORT STORY:
Monomania is a great record. The band maintains a delicate balance of experimentation and accessibility. A must-own if you liked their previous record.

LONGER STORY:
I’ll just preface by saying that I absolutely love Deerhunter. The Atlanta-based band feels like a mad scientist, throwing together genres, tropes, instruments, and ideas into a cauldron all the whilst cackling madly. In 2010, the band released HALCYON DIGEST — an album that would streamline the band’s music into a (mostly) no-frills version of Deerhunter. The album was commercially and critically successful, but importantly, it felt like the band had turned a new exciting corner. For that reason, 2013’s MONOMANIA has been highly anticipated — would we get another HALCYON DIGEST? Or would the band turn its next corner and move on to new sounds? Would the band retreat back into its past catalog in response to their newly received attention? The answer to these questions is “Yes.” MONOMANIA is sort of all of these things.

The album starts off with “Neon Junkyard” — it’s a tumbling tune that mostly dictates the course of the album. It takes 20 seconds for the song to take a coherent form, but before this time, “Neon Junkyard” is an amorphous collage of sounds with none of them really fitting together. At the magical 20-second mark, all the music catches in step and we get a very clear, precise melody that occasionally detours and meanders. The band has described this album as “Nocturnal Garage,” and while that description is apt (like the album’s cover), I think “Neon Junkyard” might be more fitting. As a whole, this album is made of old, discarded parts: lo-fi alternative rock, 80’s era shoegaze, Hank Williams-era country, etc… The band has taken all of these parts and thrown a neon light onto it all, so what could come across as a strange, experimental, self-indulgent is now accessible, catchy, and well… fun to hear.

The second track “Leather Jacket II” is a confident, sneering rocker similar to something The Hives would release. “The Missing” is in the vein of “Desire Lines” and “Fountain Stairs” from HALCYON DIGEST; it’s a “normal” song as far as Deerhunter goes, and what makes this song great is what makes all of Lockett Plundt’s penned tracks good (a solid melody, a shoegaze atmosphere). The song would probably make a good starting point for anyone new with the band, and you can think of it as a way to dip your toes into a chilly pool music-wise. It’s probably not a mistake that the record’s most accessible song comes directly before “Pensacola,” the record’s strangest. “Pensacola” sounds like the Hank Williams and Pavement had a child that was sick of Florida and decided to hit the open road. The song might be the only track on this album that feels like Deerhunter is completely out of its comfort zone (and having a great time doing so), but it works — the song is a rambling boot-slapping ode that couldn’t be further in musical space from “The Missing.”

“Dream Captain” borrows one of rock-n-roll’s most famous lines (“I’m a poor boy from a poor family”) and repurposes it into the beginning of a haymaker chorus. The title track is notable for its last 3-minutes: the song goes off the rails and turns into a cacophony as Bradford Cox chants “Mono-monomania” over and over again. Trust me here, it’s sounds much cooler than it reads here. The final track, “Punk (La Vie Anterieure)” ends on a lo-fi note, with the band barely playing its way through the song. While I say that the band is barely playing, I mean this in jest of course, but that’s the perception of it and what makes this (and other Deerhunter albums) so great. There are plenty of points on this record that sound nearly out of the band’s control, but these moments are all firmly in place — when the music begins to careen off course, it always feels structured and planned, so it always feels exciting but never sloppy.

Bradford Cox, the frontman of Deerhunter notorious for his bizarre on-stage (and off-stage) antics has written every track here except for “The Missing.” If anything, this record doesn’t feel as personal as anything he has released in the past (Deerhunter or Atlas Sound). For that reason, I suspect that Deerhunter has become his “rock-n-roll” project where his most solo Atlas Sound has become a place to release his melancholia. I wouldn’t say that there’s an ironic distance here, but more of a carefree, shrug of an attitude.

Overall, MONOMANIA is a great record, and one that only suffers from comparison. There are plenty of points where this album rises to the heights set by its predecessors, but it’s different and it has different intentions. Additionally, some of the tracks here suffer from comparison as well: “T.H.M.” feels just plain boring when you put it in the context of “Pensacola” or “Neon Junkyard,” but the truth is it’s a good song that is in the middle of a great record. I suppose that MONOMANIA never really comes together as a whole (although it is bookended with similarly styled tracks) — the record feels a bit more like a grab bag of Deerhunter tracks. At any rate, I highly recommend this album to any fan of indie-rock or alternative. If you are new to the band, MONOMANIA might not be the best place to start. I’d recommend 2010’s HALCYON DIGEST before this, for beginners, but most of what makes that album so great is also present here as well. If you haven’t enjoyed a single Deerhunter record before, I don’t think this one will break the cycle for you either.

Essential tracks to sample/download: “Pensacola,” “Monomania,” and “Leather Jacket II”.

 

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