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Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend’s new, self-titled album, out today on XL, is getting the rave reviews everyone expected it would get. Every publication out there is falling all over itself to celebrate the soukous and the references. Imagine, songs that sound vaguely like Afro-pop, created by the whitest band in the history of music! Even better, throw in the most obscure cultural references possible–here’s Lil Jon! here are kefirs and keffiyehs! look at me, I know what Dharamsala is!

Here’s the thing: I sort of like Vampire Weekend. I don’t mind bopping around to “Oxford Comma.” It’s just the kind of lively song that I might play to wake myself up in the morning. But guess what? Vampire Weekend is a pretty decent pop band. They aren’t a revelation. They’re not doing much new with the form. Even the snatches of African music have been incorporated into the same format with more skill (see Paul Simon, which every reviewer seems to reference, though none seem to care that he already wrung everything that was ever innovative out of the fusion).

What I think may be happening here is what happened with film critics and the movie Sideways. It was fine, sure, but they just couldn’t stop heaping praise on it, as though its director, Alexander Payne, was as good as Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa all rolled into one. Finally, the madness needed to stop, and A.O. Scott decided to call everyone on their shit. He wisely pointed out that film critics liked Sideways so much because they identified too strongly with its protagonist, whose obsession with wine echoed their own critical fixations. As far as Vampire Weekend is concerned, let’s think about who most music critics are. They are overeducated and, frankly, geeky, have wide-ranging tastes in music, and cultural references are, for them, kind of like candy. So when a band comes along that incorporates eclecticism (in the form of Afro-pop), collegiate nerdiness (they’re all Columbia grads and for heaven’s sake, look at what they’re wearing), and a limitless supply of knowledge about rooves and commas, every goddamn motherfucker is all over it.

Well, I call bullshit.

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I love One Story. It’s a fantastic literary magazine that appears about once every three weeks and contains–you guessed it–only one story. While a larger lit mag might be weighed down with sub-par filler material, there’s nothing extra dragging One Story down. I look forward to every issue. Each one only takes about one subway ride to read.

The most recent issue, which I received in the mail on Saturday, is the best yet. It contains the first published story by Amelia Kahaney. Called “Fire Season,” it truly heralds the arrival of a powerful, new talent. In the story, a thirteen-year-old girl name Marni realizes that she has grown out of her awkward stage and is now, suddenly, beautiful. Dressing in clothing from her mother’s singles-bar days, she pursues a cruel and distant boy named Pablo and shakily inflicts her burgeoning sexuality on Roger, her most recent surrogate father. All of the action occurs amidst the backdrop of a California subdivision threatened by an advancing wildfire.

What makes Kahaney’s writing so viscerally real is its depiction of a young teenage girl who hasn’t yet grown into her sexual power. Marni and Pablo are vicious, attacking each other in the pool and hurling rocks with the express purpose of bruising one another. Kahaney renders the masochism of early adolescent love and lust unflinchingly. This piece is everything that the contemporary short story is not: the characters are not refined, New York intellectuals, and it’s never self-consciously quirky. Tom Wolfe once wrote that all New Yorker stories are about “inchoate longing.” This was, of course, hyperbole, but this sort of genteel story is just as common today as it was in the ’60s. “Fire Season” is not about inchoate longing; it’s about the kind of longing so consuming that it induces violence and incites destruction.

Distortion

It isn’t often that an album excites me this much upon first listen, but The Magnetic Fields’ Distortion, out tomorrow via Nonesuch, is the first hype-worthy album of 2008. I started listening to it earlier today, and I just can’t stop. Holy fuck is it good. At the risk of sounding reductive, I’m going to say it combines the stronger elements of 1999’s 69 Love Songs (Stephin Merritt’s deep, echo-chamber voice, general bounciness, lyrical cleverness and humor) with Beach Boys-style pop and then drenches it all in a bath of Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired distortion (get it?).

Some initial highlights:

“California Girls”: A bubbly diatribe against the sunkissed (or tanned-orange), towheaded (bottle blonde) bitches of the Sunshine State. “I hate California girls,” sings co-lead vocalist Shirley Simms. I do, too. Most of them, anyway.

“Mr. Mistletoe”: A bit late for the holiday season, but the fuzzed-out jingle bells beat anything in Santa’s sleigh.

“The Nun’s Litany”: The best irreligious sing-song track since Belle and Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister.”

Curious? You can stream the whole thing here.

I tend to hate stoner comedies. Half Baked put me to sleep. How High? How lame. I walked out of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I just can’t abide the same dumb jokes over and over again. But there’s something different about Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face. Sure, the movie is all about someone’s stoned adventures, but the writing, acting, and directing are so sharp that it never felt trite. I have always adored Araki–he is so delightfully strange–and his last film, Mysterious Skin, proved that there was more to him than stylized tales of drugged-out teenagers. Smiley Face is another new direction, though it does involve one seriously stoned post-adolescent.

Anna Faris is brilliant as Jane, an out-of-work actress who devours an entire plate of her evil roommate’s cupcakes after her daily wake and bake. The action begins when Jane enters the weed haze to end all others and realizes that said cupcakes were of the “special” variety. From there, she embarks on a quixotic quest to buy more pot, bake new cupcakes, and make it to an audition. Of course, her efforts end in one disaster after another. The supporting cast is absurd and hilarious, featuring Danny Masterson fucking a skull, Adam Brody as a dreadlocked dealer, and John Krasinski as a total dweeb.

Whenever a film receives as much good press as Persepolis has, I start to get nervous. Though it may be perfectly enjoyable, it will rarely live up to the hype. Thankfully, this is the rare movie that surpassed my already heightened expectations.

Though I’ve always wanted to read the Persepolis graphic novels, I still haven’t, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. A friend who has read and re-read the books confirmed that the adaptation was faithful: she only counted six missing scenes.

Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical story of her childhood after the fall of the Shah is graceful and engaging. As the new regime becomes ever more oppressive, Satrapi is forced to wear the veil, and her Marxist relatives are jailed or executed. Eventually, fearing for her safety, her parents arrange for her to attend high school in Austria, where she learns that life in the West comes with its own set of problems. Humor mitigates tragedy without trivializing it, as in the clip I’ve included above, which shows Marjane overcoming her depression through what must be the all-time funniest rendition of “Eye of the Tiger.” The black-and-white animation, ripped directly from the pages of the comic books, is beautiful and subtle. Transitions between scenes are thoughtful and artfully done.

Persepolis is not only a gorgeous and meaningful film, but it can also educate the American public about the modern history of Iran–something we all sorely need. But information always makes a stronger impact when relayed on a personal level. In that sense, Persepolis succeeds both politically and artistically.