Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Middle School Mixtape

Though it will surely one day become an internet artifact just like this blog, I give you my podcast, The Middle School Mixtape

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fawns & Owls

Went to the Echo last week to see Megafaun...really excellent show. Even better than I was expecting.

I wish I'd brought my camera so that I could have captured the bearded trio all wearing their Lakers jerseys (Worthy, Kareem, and, strangely enough, Eddie Jones) but, alas, I did not and I grabbed this non-event-specific photo from the internet instead. Oh well.

But, anyway, Megafaun killed it. I learned later that the members of Megafaun were former bandmates of one of my absolute faves, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and while their music now isn't identical, they share a lot of aesthetic preferences. The core of Meganfaun is their beautiful singing and harmonies. They employ the kind of co-frontman thing with their two singers, brothers Brad and Phil, each taking the lead at different times but usually just singing together.

The concert started out with the airy, haunting "Kaufman's Ballad," which they nailed and which clearly established them as a cut above their opener, Breathe Owl Breathe (more on them later). Playing without a bass for the first song, the music floated over the audience, as if cutting through some forest fog. The set after that had a lot of sonic variance, as switches in instruments (guitars to basses, banjos to guitars) let them incorporate elements of rock and psychedelia into some numbers as well as more rootsy bluegrass into others.

Aside from playing a wonderful set, Megafaun also won over the audience with their hysterical, endearing banter. The two leads played effortlessly and naturally off of each other (they do know each other quite well) and they made jokes about Phil's (or was it Brad's?) misuse of sports metaphors and the wafts of dancehall music coming through the floor/walls. They even ended the set like a little league game with the band members leading two lines of audience members to congratulate everyone on a "good game." While so much silliness might usually strike me as distracting, their comments in no way lessened the seriousness of the actual music nor their focus during it. Plus, they were so genuine and funny, and so thankful for a respectful, moderately large crowd, that they were impossible to dislike.

Check out plenty of samples of Megafaun on their official site.

Breathe Owl Breathe also wrote pretty good songs and performed them adequately, but wasn't so successful in separating their "having fun" personas from the "we're serious musicians" personas. The songs often had unusual lyrics (about werewolves and swimming and such) but those mostly worked -- what hurt them, in my opinion, was their inability to just let the music speak for itself. Instead, the donned capes and snorkel gear and childish dance moves and hid behind this "we're zany!" schtick that was unnecessary and made the rest of their act seem disingenuous. As an concert-goer I can't believe that a musician is totally consumed and moved by their music (as they often acted like they were) when ten seconds ago they were joking around and being immature. Maybe the two mindsets exist simultaneously for them, but, for me, you're not in your music when you're constantly taking yourself out of it to semi-mock yourselves. They're a good band musically, they've just made some bad choices in the way they choose to present it.

They could take a lesson or two from Megafaun, but, then again, most bands could. One of my friends bought Megafaun's most recent album and, though I haven't listened to it much yet, so far so good. Maybe I'll follow-up on it later.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How to Sort of Make It in America

Cool is a strange thing. We all know people who are ostensibly cool but without an obvious reason as to exactly why. These people might not be funny or smart or interesting or even that fun, but they still manage to be cool...mostly. Is it just confidence? Some kind of shallow charisma? Just looks? Whatever it is, HBO's How to Make it in America is their television equivalent.

Recently finishing up its first season, HTMIIA is a show that's all style and no substance -- but that style can take it farther you'd think it should be able to. It starts with an admittedly awesome title sequence, set to Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar," and progresses to successfully glamorize the dreamer-class of young, good-looking urbanites. And, to that extent, it works, don't get me wrong. I watched all eight episodes and was happy to do so, but I can't praise it much more than that.

The show centers around Ben Epstein (played by Bryan Greenburg) and his best friend Cam (Victor Rasuk) and their attempts to start a clothing brand. Ben is likable and fun to root for and Cam is a classic "easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" kind of guy, but they aren't exploring any new ground nor or they remotely complex individuals. They're not particularly well-acted, but they don't make you wince either, which I suppose is something.

These characters, were they given better storylines, would be more than just the serviceable that they are, but, alas, the plotting is adequate at its best and lazy at its worst. For example, on two separate occasions, the pair happen to run into powerful fashion moguls that they somehow convince to help them out. One of the meetings, at a party, is okay on its own, but as the next is literally catching a glimpse of some designer on the street, it weakens both instances considerably. Granted, they do serve as good chances for Cam to be proactive and work his charm, but it's pretty far removed from the "surprising but inevitable" mantra. Similarly, in another episode, when Ben and Cam are looking for 300 "50/50s" (t-shirts that are 50% polyester and 50% cotton if I remember correctly), Ben befriends/flirts with a girl who works at a thrift store who then is able to take them to a secret warehouse full of such t-shirts. There is an effort to make Ben and Cam's journey difficult and full of obstacles, but when the solutions are just lucky and not creative/interesting it kind of defeats the purpose. Knowhatimsayin?

My other issue with the show is the B-stories that deal with Cam's older cousin, Rene, an ex-convict. While Rene is very well played by famous character actor Luis Guzman, his story doesn't really fit in with the average-NYC-life vibe established elsewhere. That is, if the show is supposed to be about trying to make it in America, like normal 20-somethings do, why do we need a mobster from whom the guys borrow money from and are afraid of? I feel like it shows a lack of confidence from the writers that they can't make the standard trials and tribulations weighty enough and want to add this dramatic, supposedly exciting element. Which is unfortunate sine Rene's criminal persona makes the show worse instead of better. I have the same issue with Friday Night Lights, as much as I love it, in that when they get away from the small town stories and involve murder and guns it makes everything seem less realistic. The extraordinary isn't always necessary to tell an extraordinary story.

And, yet, all those complaints aside, I did enjoy watching the episodes, because the show is still cool. Ben is pretty cool, his ex-girlfriend is pretty cool (until the last episode anyway), they eat at cool places, have cool friends, have cool parties, and so on and so on. That might not be enough to get me to watch next season, if there is a next season, and it's not enough to make it a good show, but it's still enough to make it a not a bad show.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gettin' the Party Started

All right, no more excuses. I've been out of town a bit but mostly just lazy, and I have plenty of new music and TV to write about...

A couple months ago I'd never really even heard of Party Down, nor was I aware that the Starz network had any original programming. As you can probably guess, I've now made my way through the first season of Party Down and, had I gotten to it in time, it would have made my Best of 09 TV Shows list.

The premise of Party Down is pretty simple: each episode is a different event/location that needs to be worked by the band of eccentric characters that make up the Party Down catering company. The show centers around a thirty-something named Henry (Adam Scott) who has recently given up on his acting career and has resigned himself to making nearly minimum wage at his old job, run by his "friend" Ken.

The tone of PD is similar to its premium-cable comedy brethren, Curb Your Enthusiasm, though the smaller scope, very play-like in it's nature, limits the customary Seinfeldian coincidences and tie-ins. But the darkness is there, as is the more adult comedy that network and basic cable shows can't touch. It's a sitcom, yes, but it isn't too sitcomy.

As all the episodes exist within the context of the a particularly party/event, the characters carry most of the show's comedic weight. While Henry is sort of the de facto straight-man, he's clever and self-loathing enough to generate his fair share of laughs. While Adam Scott is usually better known to play jerks* he's perfectly likable in this show and his chemistry with Lizzy Caplan's character, as they explore a romance in their recently turned-upside-lives (him because of abandoning acting, her fresh off a divorce), is excellent and provides a strong emotional core that can carry the show dramatically and create a serialization that ties the episodes together. Their romance is, in fact, one of the stronger elements of the show (and this from someone [me] who doesn't usually require a love story) and doesn't feel forced or manufactured in the way, for example, Community** has used Jeff and Britta or crappy shows on CBS and such have surely wasted their time doing.

* Apparently, I haven't seen him in much else myself.
** Though this show has really grown on me. More on it soon.

The supporting cast of PD is also great, with recognizable comedic actors like Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr as an aspiring sci-fi screenwriter and Jane Lynch as a washed up actress -- though she'll be replaced by Will and Grace's Megan Mullally for the upcoming second season due to Lynch's success on Glee. Starr is intentionally unlikeable at times, pretentious and arrogant, but he provides a hilarious counterpoint to actor/model/musician/handsome guy Kyle, who, though not a Rhodes scholar, actually turns out to be a genuinely endearing character.

For me personally, the show is extra engaging because I can easily relate to struggling LA folk biding their time while waiting to break into show business. Obviously that wouldn't be enough on its own, but this element makes me feel like my life is a little more interesting, since I myself might as well be scraping by at a catering company.

All in all, a very funny, well-written show and one that I'm glad I discovered. I hope it can keep it up when it starts its second season this Friday.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sooooo Close

What a heartbreaker...

Man oh man.

I haven't been so emotionally wrapped up in a college basketball game* in a long time. Had Hayward's desperation three banked in -- and it was so, so close -- that becomes arguably the most famous play in sports history. Obviously, time would be the ultimate judge of that, but one of the biggest upsets ever? On one of the craziest shots ever? Over the biggest, baddest, most hated program in the land? It almost happened. That game will still endure pretty well. A real classic.

* Financially wrapped up in a game perhaps, but not purely emotionally.

As good as Brad Stevens was this tournament, I don't think he necessarily made the right call in having Hayward go one-on-one to try and win the game. Granted, Hayward is a great player and he got a makeable though difficult shot, and hindsight is 20/20, but Butler had actually gotten a couple of easy looks recently thanks to some nice passing. That said, it would have been even worse had they taken too much time and the 5th option hucked up a bad shot as the time expired. I guess I can live with Hayward trying to win it on his own, but, I don't know, it didn't exactly strike me as "The Butler Way" that we'd heard so much about. It was tough to see Hayward come up short. He seems like a good kid and he really carried that team for long stretches this tournament. He hopefully has some more big games ahead of him in college and then a successful NBA career.

Butler, though they lost, did prove something in that game. Because they don't play a pretty, fluid style it's easy to look at their games and view them as getting lucky, but they're a tough team that makes the other team work for everything. Barely losing to the nation's best team (and I'll give Duke their due, just ask West Virginia or Baylor) I think solidified that Butler was every bit as good as their tournament finish suggests. Their scoring droughts were excruciating to watch at times; they were probably just one playmaker, an athletic big man perhaps, away from being the kind of team that looked as good as they actually were.

As much as it's fun to rag on Duke, I don't have anything against any of the big three (Smith, Scheyer, Singler) especially after that story at halftime about Smith's dad dying. On the other hand, Zoubek is easy to root against and he made me think to myself multiple times, "He's just big! He's not even that good! Arrghh!" as he grabbed another clutch rebound or tapped the ball back out to the guards. Coach K is a tough one because I don't like him for the most part (not that he did anything wrong, politics aside) but he is the coach of Team USA. Duke may not be the Yankees but they sure seem like it when they're playing Hickory High.

I would have absolutely loved for Butler to win that game, though maybe their moment is just beginning, Butler only loses two of it's important players, and keeps Hayward, Mack, Howard, and Nored. Rematch in the 2011 Final Four?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Paradise Lost

All right, so admittedly, March wasn't the best month for blogging. I'm not gonna make excuses, but feel free to make them for me. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view) April doesn't look a whole lot better, so expect another month with an entry total closer to 10 than to 20.


"But I guess where I was originally going is that nobody wants to write endings in television. They want to sustain the franchise. But if you don’t write an ending for a story, you know what you are? You’re a hack. You’re not a storyteller. It may not be that you have the skills of a hack. You might be a hell of a writer, but you’re taking a hack’s road. You’re on the road to hackdom and there’s no stopping you because stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end." - David Simon (read the full interview here)

When I read this quote, the first thing it made me think of was Lost. Specificially, how hard it's going to be to create a satisfying ending. I guess we're about halfway through the final season, and, to this point, I'm cautiously optimistic that the ending is going to work well.

I wonder, on the one hand, if we basically have all the necessary information with the exception of what this alternate reality is about -- which, granted, is a pretty big exception. I suppose the the good vs. evil thing is the only thing grand enough for the ending to a show as epic as Lost, but part of me actually kind of longs for the mystery of wondering about the Others and Dharma and about who's good and bad and in-between. Also, keep in mind, I was never really one to complain about not knowing what was going on, isn't that the fun of a mystery?

So it seems, to me, that there are three competing powers: Jacob wants a successor to keep up the good fight/defeat the Man in Black; the Man in Black wants to get off the island, which will either destroy the world or destroy everyone who's involved with the island; and Widmore wants, possibly, to just blow the island up and end the whole fiasco.

My Widmore theory is possibly unsubstantiated, and I'm not sure why he would want to blow up the island, but his motives have been all over the place from the POV of the viewer, so I'm just guessing here. Also, perhaps tying into this possibility, as we've seen, blowing the island up doesn't necessarily blow the island up in all realities, so maybe Widmore knows this and his plan is much more complicated than I think. Especially since it seems like he wants Desmond to guard the island or something.

As for Jacob's plan, I'm curious as to whether it makes sense that Jack will be the New Jacob. Jack was, initially, the single main character of the show, though his role has kind of lessened as the show's gone on. It would be fitting on the one hand, completing his full-arc as a man of science to a man of faith, but I could see it being just as fitting for a resurrected Locke (the real Locke that is) or even Sawyer. Or, maybe, as some have suggested, it's Aaron or Sun and Jin's baby that will be the successor (or at least provide some loophole). Maybe that's why Desmond is back? We'll see.

Speaking of Desmond being back, I'm glad he's around again. I remember at one point (after "The Constant" one of my favorite episodes, the one where Desmond calls Penny on Christmas Eve) feeling like he was, in the grand scheme of things, the most important character. Of course, then we didn't see him for about a season and a half (maybe not that long) and I was proven wrong, but his episodes are always great and I find his romance is the most engaging. He's also gotten a raw deal so many times (from Widmore and from the sacrifice he had to make for the island) that he's easy to empathize with.

Anyway, as you can see, it's hard to write about Lost without being a super-hardcore fan, but now you at least know that I have indeed been watching it and that I haven't completely forgotten about my blog.

Back tomorrow or Monday.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Catching Up the Ears

If I were a truly good blogger, I'd have given each of these albums/artists their own know.

First things first, stolen straight from a couple of my favorite music blogs, Soul Sides and HearYa respectively:

Listen to this awesome Aretha Franklin cover of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." Initially, when the piano started up, I was a little confused about how the timing was going to work, but then these relaxed, sublime vocals come in and the rest is history. This is one of the better examples I've heard of doing an amazing cover of an already amazing song, yet having the new version be entirely different while still respectful.

I don't know much about Joe Pug (pictured above), but the guy knows how to write lyrics. His music isn't completely my style, but check out this little verse from "Not So Sure" (link from the live session):

I bummed expensive cigarettes,
I wrote John Steinbeck's books,
I undressed someone's daughter,
Then complained about her looks.

Damn. As R Kelly might say, that's real talk.

Owen Pallett - Heartland: I'm sure that someone has done an album kind of like this before, but I haven't heard it. Pallett (who used to go by Final Fantasy, and it's probably better he had to drop that moniker) has made a very cool, interesting indie pop album ... except he used an orchestra instead of a regular band. What results is kind of reminiscent of Andrew Bird in some ways, except many of the songs feel like a new-vocaled remix of numbers from a lost, melancholy Sondheim musical. It is a little odd at first, and some of the songs ("Flare Gun" especially) can be too showtuney, but overall the album works really well and is rewardingly well-crafted. Definitely work a listen; even if you don't like the album you'll appreciate the intention. Final Grade: B+/A-

This video doesn't include the full-orchestra, but you can kind of get the idea.

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast: This debut album reminds me a lot of the Real Estate LP from last year. It's definitely more of a rock album, and it lacks some of the charm and sophistication of the Real Estate album, but it's still pretty darn good. It's interesting, and this is something I've noticed in the music scene recently, that there seem to be a fair number of bands that are playing music that isn't exactly new or original, and in fact it sounds like music that was more popular a a few years ago, but it's been influenced by all the music that has come out in those few years and therefore does seem to be fresh, even if only slightly. For example, and this is why I bring it up, Surfer Blood sounds a lot like Weezer, but captures just enough details from the post-Weezer debut landscape to not be a worthless Weezer knockoff -- of which there were plenty when Weezer was at their apex. Bottom line, Astro Coast isn't exactly breaking new ground, but they're doing enough of their own thing, and doing it well. Final Grade: B+

Here's an in-studio version of "Floating Vibes." God, they're so young! I'm not going to pretend I'm not jealous.

Other Lives - Self Titled: When I heard the track "Paper Cities" I really, really loved it. I thought it was melancholy but mature and it gave this feeling that everything should be moving in slow motion when it was playing. And I still like this song, but, unfortunately, the rest of the album isn't quite as good. Most of the songs are too soft and poppy for my tastes and they're quick to welcome the melodrama. Clearly they have some potential as there are at least two other songs, "Don't Let Them" and "It Was the Night," that are more than decent, but I'm not going to be tracking their career waiting for them to make the jump. Final Grade: B-

This song is still great though. And it's from, so I guess I heard of this band through them too. Watching this video makes me wonder how I didn't like this album more.

Back soon with, likely, a full review of the new Gorillaz album, though maybe not, as I still want to give that a few more listens. Back soon with something.