Reeks Of Teen Spirit

Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial

After hearing “Fill In The Blank”, “Vincent”, and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, the first three singles from Car Seat Headrest’s new album, I had a pretty good hunch that their forthcoming Teens Of Denial would end up being my favorite album of the year.  And after having spent a week with it, filled with numerous repeat listens, this hunch seems to be coming to fruition, though I’m not exactly sure where this kind of confidence in an artist’s abilities has come from.  Maybe I’ve just been listening to music and studied the trajectory of artists’ careers for long enough that I can tell when a young artist’s “moment” has finally come.  It happened last year in the lead-up to Courtney Barnett’s debut, and it also kinda happened the year before with The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream.  But then again, I’m probably not that unique with these bands.  If you have a discerning enough eye and ear, you can spot where these kinds of special artists are headed.  And when you get down to it, where Car Seat Headrest is headed (heh) doesn’t really matter to me.  All that really matters is that in this moment, I like this album a helluva whole lot.

Also, a big reason my instincts told me this album would be really great, is that Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo is clearly a major songwriting talent on the rise.  Much like Frankie Cosmos, Toledo has been writing, recording, and releasing music as Car Seat Headrest on bandcamp for several years.  So while you could be tempted to scoff at his wiz-kid persona considering the guy’s barely out of college, the fact of the matter is, he’s put in his dues honing his talent.  And with this first original album on Matador (last year’s Teens Of Style was composed of re-recordings of his bandcamp work) you can feel that talent and potential practically bursting at the seams.  At a hefty 70-minutes, Teens Of Denial has the kind of delicious girth that few straight-up indie guitar rock albums have nowadays, which reminds me a bit of the unwieldy album lengths of Modest Mouse — another beloved Pacific Northwest band — during their heyday.

And that’s probably what I’ve enjoyed most about this album — both how much of it there is, and how much of it is great.  Car Seat Headrest’s brand of contemplative ’90s-inspired indie rock isn’t necessarily the kind of sound that you’d think would work for 6+ minute compositions, but whereas most long-ish rocks songs seem more interested in showing off (typically in terms of technical musical prowess), Toledo’s songs go a bit more for the gut.  Take for instance the spoken word section of the 11-minute “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”, where Toledo goes full on confessional, constantly invoking the phrase “How was I supposed to know?”  And then you have the incredibly affecting “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, which might be the best song I’ve ever heard about the simultaneous helplessness and senselessness of being killed by a drunk driver.

It’s that sensitivity and thoughtfulness that I think makes this such a potent record, since as I said, the epic song-lengths and more polished sound of these recordings could’ve easily made this thing feel bloated.  But veteran producer Phil Lesh lends the band a steady hand, inconceivably making everything sound big and small at the same time.  But also, it’s just a really fun record to rock out to.  Toledo and Lesh clearly seem to have been toying with forming a more muscular version of Car Seat Headrest, while keeping in mind that the head and the heart are still the most powerful muscles of all.  Well, that and the rock muscle, wherever that’s located…

Favorite Tracks: “Fill In The Blank”, “Destroyed By Hippie Powers”, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

A Band Shaped Hole

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

If there’s one thread that I’ve recently picked up on, it’s that Radiohead are somehow both a band completely of their times and out-of-time.  Practically every album they’ve made seems in restropect tied to some sort of cultural or pop-cultural shift that was going on at the time — be it the faux-grungeness of Pablo Honey, the late ’90s technology emergence of OK Computer and Kid A, the anti-Bush-ism of Hail To The Thief, or the death of music as a business that heralded In Rainbows.  And yet it never feels like they’re chasing this kind of era-defining topicality.  Radiohead’s music is overwhelmingly intimate and claustrophobic, always seeming like it’s stuck in some sort of tiny bubble, while the outside world is fighting to get in, and for better or worse, always does. Continue reading

Twice As Nice

The Nice Guys

It’s taken nearly 30 years, but I think Shane Black has finally been able to establish a distinctive oeuvre from which one can expect several trademarks.  A Shane Black script will most likely feature fun and loose rapid-fire dialogue, a fair amount of unexpected violence, homages to hard-boiled crime novels, and an L.A. Christmas will probably tie the movie together in some way.  An easy reason to point to why its taken him so long to amass a body of work representative of his trademark style probably has to do with the fact that he cut his teeth as a screenwriter in the Hollywood studio system.  Which isn’t exactly the easiest place to flourish, even for someone with Black’s propensity to entertain.  But luckily, he seemed to have pleased enough studio execs with Iron Man 3 to get a chance to make his third directorial effort The Nice Guys, which is — to quote my friend Sean Lemme — the Shane Black-iest movie yet.

Set in 1977, if you couldn’t immediately tell from how ridiculously ’70s everything about this movie is, The Nice Guys begins with a murder.  It’s the murder of a young skin flick actress, which sends drunken slob of a PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling), down a rabbit hole looking for another young porno actress named Amelia, who happens to be missing.  In the process he crosses paths with another PI living on the fringes, Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe, being exactly as burly and surly as you’d want him to be).  And after the two of them decide to team up to find this girl, they get wrapped up in a whole underbelly of conspiracies and double crosses that I don’t remember a lot of the specifics of, but I guess that seems totally appropriate for a hard-boiled PI story of this sort.

The Nice Guys makes no attempt to hide its desires to be a complete throwback.  Not only in its homages to ’70s cop and porno movies, but also to the Raymond Chandler novels that pretty much every PI story can’t help but feel like an homage to in some part.  And oddly enough, it also feels like a throwback to the type of ’80s buddy cop movies that Shane Black sort of perfected with his Lethal Weapon screenplay.  You’d think a movie that was so steeped in worn-out influences in what is at the end of the day an action movie (albeit a very funny one), might feel a bit stale.  And yet there’s something about this movie’s twists and turns — some of which lead to some hilariously over-the-top set pieces — paired with it’s rapid-fire dialogue and darkly comic violence, that really makes this thing pop.

Also, I think a lot of the movie’s success has to go to its two leads.  Russell Crowe has come a long way (as has his waistline) from his similarly thuggish role in L.A. Confidential, and it’s nice to see him embrace the kind of intimidating physical presence that he just naturally has.  And better yet is Ryan Gosling, who stumbles his way through every scene with a level of physical comedy that I’m not sure I’ve recently seen from any so-called “comedic actors”.  In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that this movie is as funny as it is considering there aren’t really any people in it associated with the private party that is modern comedy.  I guess just chalk it up to the old “Airplane rule” that serious actors playing straight against ridiculous situations can be just as funny as comedic actors yuckin’ it up.

I’m not really sure whether to count the fact that this movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a fun, flashy time at the movies as a knock for or against it.  But since I had a big grin on my face for most of it, I say The Nice Guys is alright in my book.  And sure, it’s a little frustrating that like pretty much every Shane Black movie I’ve seen, the women characters are significantly underwritten compared to their male counterparts.  However, Angourie Rice as Gosling’s junior sleuth of a daughter is a welcome addition, though I guess I did say “women characters” and not “young girl characters”, so… oh well.  But if you wanna see a funny, dude-centric action movie that’s light on it’s feet and doesn’t happen to have any superheroes in it this summer, you’re probably not gonna do much nicer.

Rokk Talk Ep. 01: In Concert

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureates of rock ‘n’ roll. The voices of promise. The guys who forced folk into bed with rock. Who disappeared into a haze of substance abuse only to emerge and find Jesus. Who were written off as has-beens only to shift gears and release some of the strongest podcasting of all time. Ladies and gentlemen — Mildly Pleased presents, ROKK TALK!!! With John Otteni and Colin Wessman.

P.S. In this episode we talk about concerts!

P.P.S The spelling of “Rock” as “Rokk” was an artistic decision not a mistake. Deal with it. *puts sunglasses on*

The War of Bucky Aggression

Captain America: Civil War

You’ve heard enough of TV’s golden age, the period starting probably with The Sopranos in which suddenly there were too many great shows to watch. It’s gotten to the point where some people say TV has surpassed movies, especially when it comes to comedies and dramas, while cinema has become obsessed with franchises and blockbusters. I don’t really think it’s as simple as that narrative, but it is definitely something to be aware of as Marvel Cinematic Universe begins Phase 3 with Captain America: Civil War, the best episode of the MCU Show yet.

This year has given us several takes on the superhero in-fighting genre; Marvel did it itself a few months ago with the second season of Daredevil, which pitted The Man Without Fear against The Punisher. That was an ideological battle, with Punisher believing that Daredevil’s belief in redemption really just gives criminals more opportunity to hurt people, and Daredevil arguing Punisher killing villains makes him no different from them. It was good. Also there was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was more obsessed with how the fight between those two titans would play out than why such a fight would ever happen. It was bad. Civil War is closer to Daredevil, thankfully.

It’s been a recurring criticism of Marvel movies that they do a great job fleshing out the main characters and a terrible job making villains interesting, so it figures one of their best villains would be the original MCU hero, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). After another Avengers-caused disaster, the governments of the world demand that superheroes register with a UN-run agency or retire. Tony Stark becomes the face of the pro-registration movement, and many of the Avengers join him, but Captain America’s (Chris Evans) justifiable skepticism stops him from signing, and the ill-timed reappearance of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) quickly leads to Cap and those that side with him ending up on the wrong side of the law.

Seeing heroes fight each other is dumb. So the movie has to earn it, and the ideological battle here is a good one. Ever since Man of Steel, if not earlier, audiences have been concerned about the collateral damage of super heroics. One of the best aspects of Age of Ultron was that it showed the Avengers work just as hard trying to save people as they did fighting the bad guy. The debate of accountability also fits the character arcs of both Cap and Iron Man. Over four movies, we watched Steve Rogers become disenfranchised – we know he doesn’t feel like he quite fits in the 21st Century, and even though he started out as literally a soldier, he doesn’t trust organizations anymore after seeing how corrupt SHIELD was. On the other hand, over his five movies, we saw Tony Stark go from the rebel who gave the finger to the board at his company and congress, to a man constantly beaten down by his hubris. He was already dealing with intense PTSD before Ultron, now the guilt of that is destroying him. The soldier becomes the rebel, the rebel becomes the soldier, and it all absolutely fits these characters.

It’s also great that the movie shows the Avengers really don’t want to fight each other. They strongly disagree, but in the big six-on-six battle, it’s made obvious nobody really wants to hurt each other. The most heated parts of that battle are based on misunderstandings and mistakes. And the final battle, which is real, is justified by heightened, compromised emotions. It’s the part of the movie that worked least well for me, especially since the epilogue has one character tell the other that there are no hard feelings.

What I’m trying to tell you is that Civil War does everything Batman v. Superman failed to do, and it does it effortlessly. A believable, meaningful fight between the rich, technology boy and the blue boy scout? Pretty much nailed it. A meddling human who’s masterminding the whole thing? They give us Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ultimately unnecessary but still interesting villain. An expansion of the cinematic universe by adding new heroes? We get Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) a badass warrior king who learns a lesson about the price of vengeance and MF’n Spider-Man (Tom Holland), a briefly shown, delightful guest in the fray.

Most importantly, the movie is still fun. Juggling this many characters is hard, what’s even harder is making sure each character seems cool, tough, and funny. The Russos pulled that off somehow, as every damn character in this movie felt like they belonged. Yes, even Don Cheadle’s War Machine. It’s an amazing feat, at it only came at the cost of the movie not really feeling like a movie. This is just part of the story of these characters, a film akin to (but more satisfying than) something like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in its absence of a beginning and lack of a true ending. Welcome to the new age, movies aren’t movies anymore. You either going to love that or hate that. Time to pick a side.

An Old Hope

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

I am nothing if not a creature of habit, and it seems that a new yearly tradition has seeped it’s way into my music listening habits.  What it is, is that after we here at the blog have done our top ten albums of the year and I’ve exhausted all musical pleasure I’ve been able to squeeze out of the past year, I look back to some artist that I’ve overlooked and try to go deep into their discography.  This year my ignorance reclamation project was PJ Harvey, a singer/songwriter whom I’d really never given a fair shake, since I guess she just always seemed a little too, I don’t know, difficult to get into.  Also, it didn’t really help that Harvey’s two most recent albums — 2007’s White Chalk and 2011’s Let England Shake — marked a bit of a departure from Harvey’s sludgy, emotionally exhaustive ’90s work, which would’ve appealed to my sensibilities a bit more than these recent albums. Continue reading

Cosmic Thing

Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

Contrary to one of the songs on her latest album, Frankie Cosmos is 22.  This is a fact that immediately made me feel quite old.  Because sure, I’m aware that there are lots of “people” making music that are considerably younger than me and are making a more than descent living doing it.  But for the most part, these are pop artists.  They make music that is certainly pleasurable to listening to, but doesn’t have much nuance or lyrical depth.  In addition to having pop-like pleasures, Frankie Cosmos’ music does have a fair amount of nuance and lyrical depth, but most of it pertains to the experiences of being both scared and in awe of what kind of possibilities are out there in this big beautiful, doomed world of ours.  Which is to say, it’s the kind of music that only a 22 year-old could make.  And once I came to that realization, I had no problem enjoying this album as much as I have.

“Intimate” is a word I would use to describe Frankie Cosmos’ music (or possibly “twee” if you want to be a little more condescending).  Not because there’s anything shockingly confessional about Greta Kline’s (Frankie Cosmos’ given name) lyrics, but more because she sounds like she’s constantly having some sort of dry, thoughtful conversation with her listeners.  Almost like you’re casually hanging out in Kline’s bedroom with her, as she rattles off different half-formed observations and puts them to these insatiable pop ditties.  Which may have to do with her originally developing her sound in the confines of her bedroom, recording and releasing songs on bandcamp for the past few years before finally stepping up to the indie big leagues (and a full band) with her last two releases.  Needless to say, her music always feels like a safe place.

But more than anything, this is just a really easy album to put on and listen to over and over again.  It’s already become the album of 2016 I’ve listened to the most by a pretty significant margin.  Some of it probably has to do with the fact that every track is around 1 or 2 minutes long, while Next Thing as a whole clocks in just shy of 29 minutes.  Some of it also probably has to do with the fact that these songs are quite catchy, but they don’t necessarily beat you over the head with their catchiness, which might have a bit to do with the slightly introverted nature of Greta Kline’s songs.  And for that, it’s an album that seems suitable for a lot of moods, and I can only assume it’ll get me through many more weird moods throughout this year.

Favorite Tracks: “Floated In”, “On The Lips”, “Sappho”