Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Yank's Humble Guide To Kiwi Music (Part II)

It’s May, and down here that means New Zealand Music Month, a celebration I grow increasingly fond of every year. For such a wee little country at the bottom of the world, NZ has a rich and diverse pop music history.

Anyway, so like FOUR YEARS ago I spotlighted a handful of my favourite kiwi musicians here for NZ Music Month and optimistically called that “Part 1.” Here’s part two, with another group of fantastic Antipodean sounds for anyone who wants to learn more about the way-out tunes from down under. This time I spotlight seven young newer bands that are doing outstanding work, and together they do help show that New Zealand pop is very healthy.

Dictaphone Blues

I’m always a sucker for power-pop, and Dictaphone Blues ably follow in the footsteps of acts like Big Star and Badfinger with a bombastic, melodic range of songs on their latest, “Beneath The Crystal Palace.” Shredding guitar solos, heaven-sent harmonies cloaked in a pristine production style, they’re retro in the best possible fashion and well worth a spin.

Recommended if you like: Cheap Trick, Badfinger

Listen to: “Cliché,” live

Drab Doo Riffs

Snarky and charmingly ramshackle, this combo filters rockabilly through a bit of punk attitude. I’ve read them described as sounding like music from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, and can’t quite think of a more apt description. Their songs like “Juggernaut” and “I’m Depressed” roar past you in a snide burst and are a rollicking good time.

Recommended if you like: The Cramps, Dick Dale

Listen to “Juggernaut,” live

Great North

To be fair, I do work with the lead singer in this band, but hey, they’re still pretty darned good – a sweeping Kiwi take on Americana that evokes the lonesome open road and heartbreak on the way. “Alt-country” isn’t something that seems very common in Kiwi music but Great North bring class and a distinctive voice to the genre. I’d listen to these guys even if my mate Hayden wasn’t in them.

Recommended if you like: Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen

Listen to “Second Skin,” live


NZ-raised Kimbra has hit stardom on the back of her duet in Goyte’s inescapable Sting sound-a-like tune “Somebody I Used To Know,” but she’s a very formidable talent on her own merit. Even The New York Times thinks so. Her debut album “Vows” is pretty charming, bouncy dance-pop that has just enough strangeness and style to it that it sounds quite fresh – and her voice is remarkably versatile, moving from be-bop scatting to a banshee wail.

Recommended if you like: Bjork, Amy Winehouse

Listen to “Settle Down”

Lawrence Arabia

The Finn family hold a mighty sway over NZ pop music – Neil Finn’s Crowded House and Split Enz with his brother Tim, and the up-and-coming dazzling songcraft of Neil’s son Liam Finn. But the true heir of “Beatlesque” pop in NZ right now has to be Lawrence Arabia, whose warm, inviting sound is utterly, effortlessly catchy. His tunes combine nostalgic psychedelia with a dreamy wisdom. The songs are light and airy, with lyrics that are subtly amusing and world-weary at the same time.

Recommended if you like: The Beatles, Squeeze

Listen to “Apple Pie Bed”

Tono and the Finance Company

Arch and witty, this young new band have lyrics so sharp that you find yourself rewinding songs to catch the bits you missed. Frontman Anthonie Tonnon writes songs about being young, confused and broke, but with a poet’s eye. Not every band can pull off a song about how a landlord has ripped you off (“Marion Bates Realty”) and have it come off as a sweeping existential ode.

Recommended if you like: The Smiths, Elvis Costello

Listen to “Marion Bates Realty”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Born from the ashes of the late punk-pop combo The Mint Chicks, UMO offer a bent and elastic take on psychedelic pop. I already named their debut one of my favourite albums of 2011, and still adore it – splicing together elements of psych and funk to make music that skitters about into unexpected corners. There’s a shaggy-dog beauty to this highly rhythmic, yet weirdly melancholy music that sticks in your head.

Recommended if you like: Prince, MGMT

Listen to “How Can U Love Me?”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Learning to love the Hulk again

One of the best side effects of "The Avengers" movie being a mega-hit worldwide is that people are starting to think the Hulk is kind of cool again. Mark Ruffalo's witty, tense performance as Bruce Banner just about steals the movie out from under many other flashier characters, and for the first time, the Hulk himself seems "right" on screen. Like many, I hated Ang Lee's ponderous and misguided 2003 film, and while I enjoyed 2008's "Incredible Hulk" with Edward Norton, there was still something missing from it.

"Avengers" and geek-god writer Joss Whedon figured it out - the Hulk had no real character on screen previously. For 50 years in comics, the Hulk has often been a funny, touching character. The "Avengers" Hulk gives us some of that movie's funniest, and scariest, moments, and looks about as realistic as an 8-foot-tall green muscle man really could. Unlike the last two Hulk movies where the Hulk was basically a CGI Godzilla, in this one we spend enough time with Bruce Banner to truly see him within the Hulk when the moment comes.

I used to think the Hulk was a lame character when I was a young comic-collecting Marvel fanboy. The whole "Hulk smash" and Banner as whiny cursed nerd thing just seemed cliched and boring. Yet I've long since changed my mind and these days I'd rank Bruce Banner as quite possibly Lee and Kirby's second-greatest Marvel creation, just after the Fantastic Four.

I just recently picked up Marvel's new "Hulk: Pardoned" collection, which reprints a huge swag of comics by the great Bill Mantlo from the early 1980s, which contained a story that shook up the whole "Hulk smash/Banner whine" paradigm forever. Mantlo (who was tragically brain-damaged in 1992 in an accident) might just be the most influential writer the Hulk ever had. "Hulk: Pardoned" is the start of an epic 30-issue storyline that ran from "Incredible Hulk" #270-300 or so, where for the first time Bruce Banner gains extended control of the Hulk's body and becomes "the smart Hulk."

Mantlo's writing is really underrated - it's not flashy like Alan Moore or Frank Miller were in the 1980s, so he never quite got the respect he deserved, but for mainstream superhero comics, Mantlo was one of the best at quietly filling in character and depth amongst the smashing. In "Hulk: Pardoned," we find the genius Banner dealing with the power and freedom of being in control of the Hulk for the first time, along with its pitfalls.

One of the key things Mantlo established about Bruce Banner is that the Hulk's fierce rage and animal nature isn't some "other personality" but very much Banner's dark side, the legacy of a childhood filled with abuse (a key bit of Banner's back story Mantlo also added to the character). While Ang Lee fumbled horribly trying to illustrate this sad past in his labored "Hulk" film, in "Avengers" Mark Ruffalo manages to brilliantly distill this down to just one single, crowd-pleasing line in the final confrontation scene, as he answers an earlier question about how he "lives" with the Hulk inside him:

Steve Rogers: Doc... I think now is the perfect time for you to get angry.

Bruce Banner: That's my secret, Cap. I'm always angry.

Mantlo's writing on the "Hulk" gave a character that was beginning to seem a bit tired a new life. The extraordinary 150-issue run by writer Peter David that followed shortly after Mantlo's is probably the best the character's ever been, and largely indebted to Mantlo. David opened the door further for alternate manifestations of the Hulk/Banner duality -- you got the cunning, feral "Grey Hulk," another kind of smart Hulk with "Professor Hulk," and much more. Bruce Banner's head is filling with alternate personalities and manifestations, and while invariably his life turns to crap, Mantlo showed us how many permutations his story could have. More recently, there's been a surfeit of great Hulk comics with the "World War Hulk" miniseries (what happens if a smart but violent Hulk declares war on mankind?) and Jeff Parker's excellent "Red Hulk", which features another key supporting character becoming a 'Hulk' himself and doesn't feel like scraping the bottom of the Hulk barrel at all.

The genius with a tortured dark side isn't a new idea at all - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are a big influence in Lee and Kirby's original "Hulk" tales. But as "Avengers" shows, the man with a raging, constraint-free id inside is still a very potent character. And the reason Ruffalo's Hulk is such a crowd-pleasing character is partly because Hulk smashing stuff up is always cool, but also because "Avengers" smartly makes Hulk a relatable hero as well, which the previous two Hulk movies never really managed to successfully do.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My name is MCA and I still do what I please

Well on and on and on and on

I can't stop y'all 'til the early morn'

So rock y'all tick tock y'all to the beat y'all

C'mon and rock y'all

I give thanks for inspiration

It guides my mind along the way

A lot of people get jealous, they're talking about me

But that's just 'cause they haven't got a thing to say

The Beastie Boys were my gateway to hip-hop, which as an uptight white boy I wasn't supposed to get into. I found rap wasn't all guns 'n' girls and got into everyone from Run-DMC to Kanye thanks to the Beasties reeling me in. "Check Your Head" and "Ill Communication" could easily be the soundtrack to my 1990s. And my favorite B-Boy was always MCA, with his battered-tires voice. There's been too much cancer in our lives lately, and at 47, MCA had a lot of good rhymes left in him. One of the greats.

Rest in Peace, MCA. Adam Yauch 1964-2012

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A not-exactly-review of "The Avengers"

Short review of “Avengers”: I loved it.

Longer story: I remember the crazy, epic excitement I felt when Tim Burton’s “Batman” was being filmed, way back in 1989. I clipped the first fuzzy black-and-white picture of Jack Nicholson’s makeup as the Joker out of the newspaper and carried it around for weeks. I remember waiting in line at the Sierra Cinemas on June 23, 1989 for the first showing and being dazzled by actually seeing Batman, from the comic books, on a movie screen. While in hindsight Burton’s “Batman” is more than a little flawed, it woke me up to the idea that a comic character I loved could come to life. (Yeah, I’d seen and liked the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, but didn’t feel the intense connection to the character I did to Batman.)

Time and again I’ve had that same weird sensation evoked by a good comic movie – in “X-Men,” seeing Wolverine pop his claws on screen, or in “Spider-Man 2,” when Spidey and Doctor Octopus have that dizzying battle on a moving train. Not every comic movie has worked – I still rage at Ang Lee’s baffling “Hulk” or the missed opportunities of “Green Lantern” or “Fantastic Four.” But when they do, they hit that sweet spot of making the imaginary seem real, for just a second.

The scene in “Avengers” where it kicked in for me was when Thor, Iron Man and Captain America meet for the first time in a mountainous woods, and they fight, of course, because fighting is how superheroes meet each other. And then there’s this shot of the three of them in a moment of calm, and I was just like, yeah, that’s the Avengers, all right.

I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan and he’s done Marvel Comics freaks proud with his deeply affectionate, epic and yet witty take on the Avengers. Mashing Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and more into a coherent movie would be tough – this could’ve easily been a debacle of “Batman And Robin” proportions. But instead, it’s pretty darn near perfect. And while I'm sure I could nitpick - it's a bit slow to get going, the Hawkeye in this movie is not "my" Hawkeye, the army at the climax are utterly faceless cannon fodder - I'd rather just sit back and bask in that glow of a comic come to life. It’s good to know I can still feel at 40 like I did at 17 watching “Batman.”