Thursday, February 26, 2009

Concert review: Of Montreal, Auckland, February 25

PhotobucketOne of my favorite bands I've discovered in the last couple of years is the decidedly oddball Of Montreal. A lot of bands like to say they're "unique" and don't fit in one genre, but Of Montreal actually doesn't. "Techno-glam disco punk rock" might be the best quick summary -- frontman Kevin Barnes is like a cross between Ziggy Stardust Bowie, Prince, Kraftwerk and George Clinton. The band made their first New Zealand appearance last night, and it was a delightful circus. It was the first show I've ever seen that featured an encore performed by a man in a tiger mask roaring and a man in a dinosaur mask wearing a Superman costume doing drum solos.

Yeah. That kind of show.

Of Montreal didn't get going till nearly 11:30 (thank god I had a day off), and there were two opening bands beforehand, notably the Kiwi act Ruby Suns, who had a great heavy drum world-fusion thing going. Before Of Montreal took the stage, the tiger-man came out to rev up the crowd, and it was clear the party was on. For the next 90 minutes or so, Barnes & co. had a synth-pop and fuzz-guitar blast romping through their tunes - complete with animal masks!

PhotobucketOf Monreal's 2006 disc "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?" is one of my favorite albums of this decade, "the sound of a nervous breakdown with a beat you can dance to" as I once wrote. Last year's "Skeletal Lamping" is nearly as good, full of slick and sweaty sex-obssessed funk jams that owe a lot to Prince. Barnes and co. are famous for an elaborate stage show, and they didn't disappoint -- the show exploded into life with "And I've Seen A Bloody Shadow," a lusty confessional song that featured the band's burly roadie, a dead ringer for Freddie Mercury, coming on stage in a Catholic cassock to "bless" the band, then tearing off his cassock and skullcap to reveal devil horns and muscles like the Hulk, all while the band blasted away. Strange costumes kept coming and going all night. It's the kind of theatrics that come close to pretension, but there's a kind of goofy lightheartedness to Of Montreal's masks and mock stage fights that make it work.

PhotobucketThe Kings Arms is a pretty tiny venue so I wasn't sure how the band's stageshow would come off -- although it was obviously pretty cramped for space and a lot of the bigger elements I've seen in live videos couldn't come off, it still worked well and it was great to see the band so close.

I was really glad to hear so much off "Hissing Fauna," such as the mournful 80s-pop anthem "Heimsdalgate Like a Promethean Curse" (have I mentioned yet that Barnes favors really odd titles?), the several-songs-in-one romp "Bunny Ain't No Kind Of Rider" and "Gronlandic Edit" (hearing the marvelous high note harmonies in that songs live was terrific). The densely produced songs come off well live, with the excellent band swerving between synth-based dance beats and fuzzed-out walls of guitar that sound like a Sonic Youth solo. Barnes was a sly and intensely androgynous frontman, rarely "leaving character" but his rock and roll circus married hooky pop with endearing showmanship.

For a fairly accurate sample of the band's weirdly addictive coolness (and to get an idea if they're your cup of tea or not), here's the video for "Grondlandic Edit." Do not watch whilst on acid.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The first day of the next 12 years or so

Photobucket"I was very happy at school. I was wearing the same uniform as everyone else and my school is just up the road from my place. And also they have a computer room where everyone plays games on the computer. My friends in my class are Caitlin and Hayden. And Mrs Brown is the teacher. She teaches everyone's stuff. Big school is better than daycare and it is smaller and it is not just like a big house. It is little white rooms and those rooms are where the school classes are. I learned to count up to one hundred but I can't tell you that now. I hope we do a different thing every day. I went swimming too.

Oh one more thing I like playing with Caitlin a lot. And that is all."

Monday, February 23, 2009

A relatively quick bunch of Oscar picks

OK, I'm not really so into the Academy Awards as I used to be. For one thing, in NZ they don't air live on free-to-air TV, but rather a few days later, by which point you've already heard about all the good parts anyway and don't want to sit through three hours of it.

Also, as I generally grow a wee bit wiser and grayer with age, I've really noticed how little the awards really have to do with overall film quality. Some great movies get nods, some don't. It means a lot to some people, I guess, but it's just an awards show. I don't get all bent out of shape over it, but it's a bit of a mug's game when, say, an Al Pacino wins for shameless pap like "Scent of A Woman" instead of a dozen worthier flicks. Call it The Oscar Overcompensation Effect.

This year, I've only seen 3 of the Best Picture nominees ("The Reader" hasn't made it here yet while "Frost/Nixon" I haven't gotten around to). Still that won't stop me from making a few random predictions of today's ceremony:

Best Picture:
PhotobucketIt is written that "Slumdog Millionaire" will surely win it, and of the flicks I've seen I have to say it deserves it. It's not perfect and there might well be a better movie from 2008 I haven't seen yet, but it's quite an enjoyable entertainment and it sheds a light on a part of the world America doesn't often think about. I also enjoyed the romantic fable and nomination leader, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but with lessening ardor as time passes (the hilarious "Forrest Gump"/"Button" mashup video really sums it up well). It's a good movie that tries a bit too hard, despite fine performances by Brad Pitt and a luminous Cate Blanchett and stunning special effects.

Best actor:
I haven't seen "The Wrestler" but I kind of believe Mickey Rourke is more likely to win than my own pick, Sean Penn. Penn certainly deserves it for his wonderful take on Harvey Milk, America's first notable elected gay politician. "Milk" is a very good film and Penn is open-hearted and sincere as Harvey without ever quite being a mincing gay stereotype. He's a hell of a lot better in this than the overwrought "Mystic River" which he did win an Oscar for (see: Al Pacino, above).

Best actress:
This category annoys me, because infinitely talented Kate Winslet really should already have a couple of Oscars. She should've won for "Little Children" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," frankly, rather than a kinda dubious sounding Holocaust movie which I admittedly haven't seen. But like she joked herself on Ricky Gervais' "Extras": "'Schindler's Bloody List,' 'The Pianist' -- Oscars coming out of their arses." Do a Holocaust movie, get a golden boy. Oscar Overcompensation Effect. On the other hand, warhorse Meryl Streep might win this one. But Winslet is overdue and pretty much the best thirty-something actress we've got, so give it to her already, whatever the movie!

PhotobucketBest supporting actor:
Yeah, Heath Ledger will win, and yeah, Ledger deserves it for his already-iconic psychopath Joker in "The Dark Knight." Frankly, he should've won for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005. But part of me would really, really love to see Robert Downey Jr. win for "Tropic Thunder," because comic acting of that quality ("I'm the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude!") is a lot harder than it looks. But being dead trumps being black.

Best supporting actress:
This is often the "who is that again?" award so it may well go to one of the lesser-known names in this category. (Scuttlebutt seems to be that Taraji Henson of "Button" will win, but I'm sorry, I didn't really think she was more than adequate in the movie.) Of the nominees, I'm a big fan of charming Amy Adams ("Enchanted," "Junebug") so even though I haven't seen her in "Doubt," I wouldn't mind seeing her win at all.

PhotobucketBest director:
OK, some years the Academy likes to split the picture/director awards. Frankly, I think they should this year, and give it to Gus Van Sant for "Milk." Danny Boyle was superb with "Slumdog," too, but his hyperkinetic style sometimes works against the film, rather than with it, I thought. I felt like "Milk" was the more personal statement, and a beautiful peak in a career thats included many wonderful films. Van Sant's style is never flashy, but instead, it's kind of haunting in films like "Drugstore Cowboy" and "To Die For." "Milk" is a perfect evocation of 1970s San Francisco (my first memories of The City are from that time, and I felt like I was watching a time machine during some sequences). Van Sant expertly combines archival footage with his recreations, and shoots the entire movie with a poetic eye, enhancing what could've been a traditional biopic in another's hands into something that has real power. I think "Slumdog Millionaire" is a bit better story, but "Milk" is better directed.

So what are your picks and pans?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Shuffle: Always singing the same old song / same old song

PhotobucketRain rain all the live long day. It's an Auckland summer again.

1. Failure 2:54 The La's*
2. Chesley's Little Wrists 1:16 Pavement
3. Rise 6:18 Public Image Ltd.
4. Violet Eyes 3:51 Meat Puppets
5. Tribulations (Lindstrom Mix) 7:56 LCD Soundsystem
6. Making Time 2:55 Creation**
7. Mercy Street 6:23 Peter Gabriel***
8. No Love Lost 3:40 LCD Soundsystem

* The one-album wonder band who did Oasis's schtick better than Oasis ever did I think.
** Aka "The Max Fischer Theme Song."
*** Oddly enough, perhaps my least-favorite track on one of my all-time favorite records. Still a decent if mournful tune though.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Up in the mornin' and out to school

...So we've been busy lately, what with life and all, and ... the final countdown. The final countdown, that is, to our wee little man Peter's first day of school, which is now just a week away. Peter turns 5 years old on Wednesday, and under the New Zealand school system, he goes to school the following Monday. Yikes!

PhotobucketWe're in the whirlwind of emotion that comes with this transition -- our baby, what happened, how did we get to school days already? It's total cliche, but good lord, the days do move, don't they? Peter is ready for it, of course -- he knows his letters and numbers, loves to learn about everything from dinosaurs to space to pirates. Everyone thinks their kid is the smartest in the world, of course, but we hope our boy flourishes in the wild world of the education system.

And for me, it's a big slap upside the head as his experience will be very different than my primary-school days in California 30 (urk) years ago. There are lots of differences in the NZ system (such as the whole starting when you turn 5, rather than at the start of the next school year). Most kids in NZ schools wear uniforms, for one (and look at our lad in his new uniform!!) The curriculum will be different, I'm sure -- the Maori language is taught pretty heavily, for one.

Peter will also be in a very different environment than the small California mountain town I grew up in. His school is quite a little United Nations -- a mix of white, Maori, Asian, Indian, Pacific Islander. We had his first school visit last week, and in his class of a dozen or so kids, there is one other white or Pakeha girl so far. We were visiting with a couple other parents whose kids are about to start -- and you had one from Sri Lanka, one from Tonga, one half-Samoan... Auckland really is a melting pot, by gum, and it'll be interesting for Peter growing up some here.

I'm a bit freaked and scared about the big transition, but heck, kids are kids and this school has a good assessment report. But it's a big day next Monday -- the first day of the rest of Peter's life!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's not the heat, it's the humanity

Yes, it's winter in half the world, but hot and sticky summer in the other half. So it's only about the equivalent of the mid-80sF here but apparently we've hit 100% humidity at points in the last few days. Frankly, I didn't know such things could be done. I thought 100% humidity means we're underwater. Which is kind of what it feels like. My sweats are sweating. You go swimming to feel less damp. I realize now I could never survive a really humid place like Southeast Asia (and I lived through Mississippi summers for seven years, by gum!).

PhotobucketAnd the heat can be far worse -- it's very sad to see of the tragic wildfires across the pond in Australia; the at least 200 death toll and photos we've been seeing are truly horrific. I've long feared California having something similar happen; fires are a dime a dozen in the Golden State but (knock on wood) they've not quite gotten to this holocaust point.

But I do have to wonder if it's just a matter of time; as places dry up and people fill in all the space, firestorms like this surely will happen more. When we lived up in California's Lake Tahoe 7-8 years ago, we had several wildfire scares there; the Tahoe basin basically is a giant funnel with only a handful of roads in and out. I thought about what would happen if a giant blaze took hold there, and how quickly roads would jam, and what might happen next. The storms in Oz might not happen like that in the US (one of the terrible aggravating factors there is how incredibly flammable eucalyptus trees are). But it's a sober warning for pretty much everyone who lives in a fire-prone zone.

Donate to help Australia's wildfire victims here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: Hate #3

PhotobucketHere we are at the latest in my every-so-often series* taking an alphabetical random jaunt through my comics collection. (OK, every so often means every couple months, really). Anyway, when I think of comics and when I think of "H," I think of one word ---

HATE. ...Not y'know, bashing people and so forth, but rather, Peter Bagge's classic time capsule of 1990s nostalgia featuring ne'er-do-well Buddy Bradley. I've written about "Hate" before on this blog, so this might be a bit repetitive. But go read the previous post to tell you a little of why "Hate" is great.

Now, the first issue of "Hate" I remember picking up was #3, a wonderfully twisted Dante's inferno of a "date night" for Buddy Bradley and his rather aggressive new gal pal Valerie. A simple romantic dinner at home goes haywire as a procession of ever-more-twisted roommates interrupts the night with their various neuroses. It's a simple plot, but Bagge has a keen eye for lunacy; the nerd loner George, the manic id Stinky and the depressed self-pitying Lisa. They're like a roll call of "Hate"-ful behavior, topped off by the rants of Buddy and Valerie.

PhotobucketNobody in "Hate" is really likeable, I guess, but back in the 1990s they all seemed to still be a lot like me and people I knew. Just exaggerated a bit. In fact, this mildly obscured panel here to your right tells you much of what you need to know about "Hate" #3 -- sick and twisted but funny as hell, too. I've been trying to find a use ever since for the phrase "get your genitals away from my plate" but have failed.

A lot of the "grunge" era I guess seems rather dated now; that strange halcyon era of photocopied "zines," plaid shirts and mobile phones that were the size of a briefcase. An era without text messaging or any real internet! "Hate" captures well what it was to be coming of age in that in-between daze, and I hope it's not sacrilege to say I see it to the '90s as R. Crumb's comix are to the early '70s. All that and it be funny, too! While the trappings of the era have changed, one of the sly genius of Bagge's cartooning is that the fundamentals of human interaction haven't. We're all mildly or majorly screwed up, and "Hate" is an ode to the way people sometimes get.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" is not a documentary

Photobucket"Slumdog Millionaire" is a poor boy's tale -- a kid from the Mumbai slums who ends up competing on a top game show for millions of dollars, but who in his heart just wants the love of a girl.

I really dug it -- I haven't seen enough of 2008's "big" movies to say whether it's the best or if it deserves that Oscar win for Best Picture, but I wouldn't be sad if it did win. It's a vibrant, dynamic flick, utilizing the best of hyperkinetic director Danny Boyle's style that he's developed in films like "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later" and the underrated "Sunshine." It's got great heart, a terrific fusion soundtrack, a frenetic but not overwrought editing sensibility and colour, and offers most of us in the West a view into a world we can hardly imagine. It's a dash of Bollywood crossed with Charles Dickens, romantic comedy and police thriller. But it's also getting a fair amount of attacks as well.

The biggest complaint or backlash against the movie seems to be how it portrays India's poor, and if it's "glorifying" them or using real human suffering as the basis for entertainment. It's an argument, sure, but I really have a problem seeing how valid it is when poverty and suffering have been the basis of entertainment for a hell of a long time. Heck, just in the last few years off the top of my head movies like "Gangs of New York," "Brokeback Mountain," "Crash," "Babel," "No Country For Old Men" and "Ray" have all used some variation on the theme of poor people living miserable lives, faced with choices on how to get out. I really, really hate the term "political correctness," which has come to mean less than nothing really, but in this case, you have to wonder -- if Danny Boyle wasn't a British white guy, would his film be getting the same charges of exploitation? Maybe so.

PhotobucketBut I just don't think "Slumdog" glorifies poverty -- good lord, just seeing what Jamal goes through at the hands of the beggar leader Maman is enough to turn me off the idea of being poor. "Slumdog" is uplifting, and a bit sentimental and yeah, blatantly implausible in a lot of ways, but in the end it does offer a message of hope in the darkness, of getting out and breaking free of your circumstances (or, as Jamal would have it, instead, finding your true self -- "It is written," after all). It is a fantasy of the possible, like a lot of great flicks.

If that kind of storytelling is somehow wrong, then a lot of movies are too. Whether the subjects are white, brown, black or whatever shouldn't matter if the story is worth telling. Boyle and company haven't set out to document every facet of the awful reality of the underclass in so much of the non-western world. This is not a documentary. It's a movie, and a fine one.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Concert review: Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Auckland, February 4

PhotobucketI have to admit, I was a little nervous about seeing Ryan Adams and the Cardinals again. He's either really good or not so good live, known for his temper, coming on the heels of a good-if-not-quite-amazing new album, and oh, he just decided to quit the music biz apparently. The last time I saw him 18 months ago, he was infuriatingly great, doing some wonderful tunes despite apparently trying to sabotage them.

But no worries, because last night's gig was an excellent counterpart to his dark and brooding 2007 show in Auckland. Ryan's mood was fantastic, I'd go so far as to say giddy, with that whole 'last show in a long tour' relief. Compared to the last show when I think he looked up and muttered two sentences to the crowd, tonight he was engagingly goofy, telling jokes, singing impromptu "band themes" for his mates, and even dealing well with a handful of really obnoxious hecklers. I don't know if there really is a Good Ryan/Bad Ryan, but we definitely had Good Ryan last night.

PhotobucketAdams' psychedelic heart-on-his-sleeve country-rock was in fine form, bouncing between ballads and rockers. Highlights for me include beautiful show opener "I See Monsters," a tremendously urgent take on "Rescue Blues," the excellent new tune "Born Into A Light" and a real gem for any Ryan fan -- a soaring, epic take on his superb cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall" (which beats the socks off the original, I have to say). I don't know if this really is their final show downunder for a while or not, but the Cardinals were in excellent form -- particular kudos to lead guitar Neal Gasal and the groovy pedal steel of Jon Graboff.

Auckland's been having a heat wave and it was a bloody sweatlodge inside the Powerstation. The punters were quite into it, which was nice except when the occasional yahoo acted out (great quote from Ryan when gently chastising one arm-waver: "This isn't Fugazi, you know"). Whatever dark place Ryan was in last time, though, it did make a difference to some of his songs -- there was a searing passion then to a song like "Goodnight Rose," which was like an anguished cry from the heart, whereas last night it was a bouncier, less stinging jam. You can't really judge a guy's life from watching him play on stage a couple hours, but I had to wonder about the whole suffering equals art thing. Who writes the best songs, Good Ryan or Bad Ryan? But still, it was great to see him happier yesterday.

And that alleged retirement? Well, the incredibly prolific Ryan deserves a break, to be sure, but I hope he doesn't stay quit forever.

*Photos are from the Wellington gig the night before courtesy of Flickr user aloemonkey.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25 Random Things courtesy of Facebook

I am in a random kind of mood and thus will steal a Facebook meme I have been tagged with like 150 times to fill the vast and empty space that needs to be filled. So.... Rules: Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. Steal this if you like, or not if you don't!

25 Random Things About Me

1. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. I've been back once, when I was 30.

2. I was born with a condition called craniosynostosis; basically, I had no soft spot on my skull and had to have one surgically put in. If you x-ray my head you will see wee little metal staples. Good times!

3. From toddlerhood to about age 25 or so, I had an unearthly fear of bullfrogs. I still don't care for them much.

4. All my grandparents died by the time I was 4 or so, so I barely remember them at all.

5. I am left-handed, just like our shiny new President.

6. I got sent to the principal's office for hitting a girl when I was in second or third grade.

7. My all-time favorite movie is "Annie Hall." I think.

8. Famous people I have interviewed include Dave Matthews, Alice Cooper, Richard Ford and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. I stepped on Jerry Brown's foot accidentally.

9. I was really short until my freshman year in high school, when I shot up to over 6 foot in about six months. It kinda hurt.

10. I love eating fish but I hate cooking fish.

11. Top country I want to visit I've never seen: Thailand.

12. The first date I ever went on with a girl was a school roller-skating trip in sixth grade. It didn't go anywhere.

13. The first concert I ever went to was Howard Jones, nerdy keyboard master supreme, in 1988 or so. His equipment kept breaking down. I'm rather embarrassed about the whole thing now.

14. The older I get the more eclectic my music tastes are getting; when I was 21 I thought punk was noise and actually briefly owned a lot of Billy Joel CDs.

15. My wife and I were pen-pals for a year or two before we actually met; we finally married in 1999. I find her handwriting curiously sexy as a result.

16. I am color-blind, which basically in my case means I have trouble differentiating shades of blue and green. And a few others.

17. We named our kid Peter mostly after his grandfather, but have to admit that Peter Parker slipped in there too as an inspiration.

18. The one song I probably listened to more than any is Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." Yeah, there was a girl involved.

19. I wore braces and/or headgear for like six or seven years when I was a kid. I had really crooked teeth.

20. If money wasn't an object I think I would like to run a bookstore.

21. I still regret selling most of my original Kenner Star Wars action figures at a yard sale when I was 10.

22. I hate the word "creamy."

23. I self-published a nifty little book of some of the 200 or so newspaper columns I wrote from 1994-2004, mostly as a keepsake for myself and the family. But hey, if you wants one....

24. My favorite part of America is the Pacific Northwest, and if we ever move back there that's where I want to go.

25. Nik is actually my middle name.