Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic

I’ve loved The Flaming Lips forever. They’re a band you can get behind. A feel good, indie rock success story. A band that got better as they aged and got rewarded for the effort. That said, I almost didn’t buy Embryonic, their new release. Maybe it’s Flaming Lips fatigue, but I just haven’t loved the last several records. While nice when they show up in shuffle, Yoshimi and War With the Mystics are two records that have had little staying power in my book. In the past several years the band seems to have set its sights on a sugary sweet brand of psychedelia. They’ve become a feel good party band. While their brand of sunshiny day, psychedelic optimism isn’t bad, I have to admit to liking my psych with a bit more of a psych ward edge.

I decided to take a chance on the new one based on a couple of factors. The fine folks at Aquarius Records were raving about the record on their list. Their review led me to believe that perhaps the Lips had found a new musical vein to mine. Also, a quick look at the reviews in the iTunes store caught my eye. People raving about how bad it was and how horrid the production sounded piqued my interest. A couple of one-star reviews from people downloading MP3s, then complaining about the album’s sound quality was enough to convince me that, perhaps, purchasing the cd was in order.

I’ve only listened to the record once, but I’m tempted to say this is their best record in ages. Possibly one of their best ever. Embryonic is a refreshing blast. Propulsive bass-lines abound and creepy vibes pervade. Embryonic is a soundtrack, not for the summer festival circuit, but for someone trapped watching Christmas on Mars ’til the end of time. It’s got edge. It’s got grit. It’s got ice in its veins. It’s a late night record for a late night that might turn sour. The Flaming Lips have always been a band that has thrived when they’ve taken artistic chances, be it performance art trips like the Boom Box Experiments or Zaireeka, be it shedding guitars on The Soft Bulletin, be it turning to a more pop sensibility with Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. Embryonic finds them taking a move away from the pop and finding inspiration elsewhere. I’m hearing more Can than Beatles this time through and that’s a move I can get behind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Crime by Irvine Welsh

I’ve always been a big Irvine Welsh fan, but I must admit to being severely bummed out by last year’s If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work. I had to put it down ¼ of the way through and had a sinking feeling that either he had totally lost it, or I had been wrong for liking him in the first place. My wife got me Crime for Father’s Day this year and I’ve been avoiding it for fear of not liking it. I finally picked it up and let me say, I couldn’t be more pleased. I loved this book.

The book exhibits a refreshing maturity. So many of Welsh’s early works are steeped in a youthful exuberance--a headlong dash into youth culture. And that’s fine. But Welsh is older now, as is much of his audience. Crime is steeped with middle-aged fragility. I loved that. It seems honest. Rather than re-living a storied, debauched past, Crime addresses concerns one faces when the party is over.

Crime focuses on Ray Lennox, an Edinburgh cop, obsessed with tracking down pedophiles. Lennox has gone off the rails following a case that has gone bad. In classic Welsh form, drug and drinking binges abound. Lennox heads to Miami to detox with his bride-to-be. Their hope for r & r in the Sunshine State quickly goes South. After a pre-marital quarrel, Lennox takes off on a bender and gets hooked up with an unsavory batch of characters. Lennox can’t leave well enough alone and, mercenary-style, tries to solve the problems of these shady people he barely knows. Full of good intentions but rife with horrid judgments, things go from bad to worse and the shit thickens frighteningly as Lennox gets immersed in the dirt and grime he tried to leave back in Edinburgh.

But the guts and gore aside, Lennox takes a journey deep inside himself--a journey where he needs to face all the misgivings, shame, and self-loathing in his own life. On the outside, he’s a tough Scottish cop, in control of all that he sees. On the inside, he’s falling apart. He’s too much of a tough guy to admit it or to seek out the help he so desperately needs. Will he sink into the same old patterns, or will he emerge a stronger, better, more fully realized person?

Like most of Welsh’s material there’s a lot of degradation, but as the grit falls away, you’re left with characters in the throes of mid-life growing pains. Crime is filled with people navigating the world in the best way they can. Not always with grace, but with heart.

Friday, October 23, 2009

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Got to give a shout out to my wife, Alison. She’s been working with Camper Van Beethoven bassist, Victor Krummenacher, on an awesome music project called McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Their first CD Time For Leaving has just been released and you should check it out. They’re definitely shooting for a Richard and Linda Thompson vibe. It’s an invigorating amalgamation of English folk, roadhouse blues, country stylings, and somber introspection. Any fan of roots music, blues, and No Depression style Americana should take a listen. If you’re in San Francisco, be sure to check out some upcoming live shows. Live, the band has transformed into a different beast altogether. Dropping any pretense of quiet solitude, the live show is a barn-burning, tear-it-up throwdown. They’ve recently added Doug Hilsinger, my favorite San Francisco guitarist, to the line-up. Doug's addition has amped up the show in a great way. You’ve got to dig a band that brings a different vibe in the live set from the studio set.

• You can check out upcoming show dates on their MySpace Page.

• You can download Time For Leaving from iTunes. You can buy the physical product from CD Baby. The cd is packaged in a snazzy letterpress package that I designed.

For your listening pleasure I’ve posted two songs. Time For Leaving is a stunning beauty. We’re working on a video for that one. Fare Thee Well is crackling, dirty blues at its best. I’ve included a YouTube video of the latter and if you watch that after listening to the studio track, you can hear the transformation from tight studio band to live behemoth.

Revisiting Monty Python

I love comedy, yet I constantly bemoan the state of comedy as it plays out on tv and in the movies. There’s definitely a lot of good stuff out there, but more often than not, I’m left feeling a little disappointed with the majority of it. This week, I’ve been knee deep in the 6-part Monty Python doc on IFC, Monty Python: Almost The Truth. I can’t tell you how much I’m digging it. I loved Python to death when I discovered it back in the 5th or 6th grade. I used to show up to school and drive my friends crazy with my horrid reenactments of the show, faux British accent and all. It’s been years since I’ve paid much attention to Python and I’m usually pretty disheartened when I see John Cleese or Eric Idle in anything contemporary. But that said, I’m loving revisiting such an early influence on my life. I won’t get into much detail here, but the thing that I’m most blown away by is how damn smart the show was. The troupe’s love of language is paramount. Nothing is dumbed down. Art, culture, and literature references abound. Some skits revolve solely around playing with language. It’s not a passive viewing experience. The viewer is expected to keep up.

Python were a huge success and a prime example that you don’t have to play to the lowest common denominator. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of dumb, absurdist, and downright silly bits. The Fish Slapping Dance for example, and perhaps my fave Python sketch, Upplerclass Twit of The Year. Nothing too erudite there. But Python was willing to mix highbrow and lowbrow. Perhaps nobody did it better. So much comedy now plays straight to the lowest common denominator and is neutered of anything smart. Too bad. Comedy can be this good. I've thrown in the Argument Clinic sketch below. A beautiful example of a skit that plays with language while being utterly silly at the same time. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009