Friday, July 30, 2010

Concert review: Florence + The Machine, Auckland, July 29

PhotobucketFlorence Welch, I love you. Seeing Florence + The Machine live at Auckland's Trusts Stadium was a marvelous show by one of the most promising young new musicians out there.

One of my favorite albums of 2009 was Florence + The Machine's debut "Lungs," which showcases Welch's remarkable magpie talent. It's a disc that draws back on '80s alterna-pop, run together with a modern gloss and strong vivid storytelling imagery.

She's boiled together the essence of several great women singers such as Kate Bush, Cat Power, Siouxsie and Fiona Apple, although her voice reminds me the most of vintage Sinead O'Connor with that mix of power and honesty. She can bellow the hell out of a note, but she can also manage whispers, snarls and coos, which to me is a sign of her strength. And the killer part? She's only 23.

PhotobucketClearly, she's struck a nerve -- the audience at Trusts Stadium was full of young women singing along to every word of her doomy love songs and waving their hands in the air. Florence proved a marvelous live performer who was by turns art-school dramatic, sweet and charming and a howling banshee. And from this bloke's pespective, sexy as all get out dancing on stage barefoot in a swirling black dress. There's something about Florence's best songs like "Hurricane Drunk" or "My Boy Builds Coffins" - they sound like diary entries, full of raw passion and feeling, but she doesn't quite cross the line into being too overwrought and sentimental. There's a sincere intensity to the best of her work which puts shame to the "American Idol" school of singing where you wring the life out of every single note.

Highlights of seeing Florence live included a stunning entrance with "The Drumming Song," where Florence methodically beat a single drum to start the show; a great snarling take on her "Rabbit Heart," and a gorgeous shimmering backdrop of glowing stars to "Cosmic Love." She also previewed a great rousing song from her in-the-works second album, "Strangeness and Charm," which if anything shows her songwriting is just getting better. And I ain't a fan of this whole "Twilight" thing, but her contribution to the "Eclipse" soundtrack, "Heavy In My Arms," was a gloomy brooding delight.

She was clearly having a hell of a time, chatting up the audience at the end and reluctant to end the show. I'm eager to see where she goes next.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Reviews: 2010 New Zealand International Film Festival

One of my favorite things to liven up a dreary, rainy Auckland winter is the New Zealand International Film Festival, which brightens every July with a slate of dozens of local and international movies. This year I was heavily in a documentary frame of mind, and saw several great docs that are well worth seeking out. Another highlight was a most excellent screening of Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western "Once Upon A Time In The West" in the glorious Civic Theatre -- you haven't lived until you've seen Charles Bronson's eagle eyes staring you down from a sweeping wide screen the size of a house.

Here's the movies I checked out at the fest this year:
There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Noho
PhotobucketTakuu, 250 km off the mainland of New Guinea, is slowly washing away. Climate change and rising seas are wreaking havoc on this tiny atoll community of just 500 people who have lived there for hundreds of years. This documentary, directed by New Zealander Briar March, looks at the uncertain future the islanders face as seas overtake their land -- just a few feet above sea level. It's a beautifully shot documentary that has a clear focus on the dilemma the people of Takuu face, one likely to plague other communities in coming years. These aren't unspoiled island people who've never seen an airplane; they are part of the modern world, but still faithfully keeping to their old traditions. The tiny size of Takuu and its isolated place make it a kind of oasis, but not without problems. March picks a few islanders and their stories to focus on -- particularly sad is the woman who left the island years ago who left behind her family, but returns once a year or so from the mainland. It's very hard for me to imagine what it would be like to live on a tiny island not much bigger than some strip malls, with only a ferry a couple of times a year. There's a hopefulness to "Island," but you still feel that you're likely watching the end of something. It's kind of heartbreaking, even though it's a beautiful little movie.
The trailer

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
PhotobucketI love the Magnetic Fields, which are basically Stephin Merritt and a cast of collaborators brewing up askew, witty and dark chamber-pop music such as the classic triple album "69 Love Songs." Merritt's doom-deep voice and songs like "No One Will Ever Love You," "Love Is Like Jazz" and "I Don't Believe In The Sun" have often left me wondering what the man himself is actually like. Enter this documentary, a real treat for Fields fans. Merritt himself is an amusing contradiction -- with his deep bass rumble you might expect him to be an ascot-wearing bear of a man, but the diminuitive figure resembles nothing so much as Elmer Fudd. The film makes a big deal of Merrit's reputation as a grouchy fellow, but the portrait that emerges here is less scathing. In fact, it's often kind of sweet, especially when it delves into the symbiotic relationship Merritt has with Claudia Gonson, instrumentalist and manager who basically handles all the "little details" of his life. "Powers" is best at how it takes you into the day-to-day life of a semi-famous musician -- the rehearsals, the hours spent writing, the time wasted on publicity interviews. The Magnetic Fields have never been big stars, but they've been adored in their own fashion. This movie is a fine valentine to Merritt's work and surly charm.
The trailer

"American : The Bill Hicks Story"
PhotobucketBill Hicks never quite made it to the big time, but in his brief life, he was one of the US's most incendiary, hilarious stand-up comedians, unafraid to break barriers. This highly entertaining doc interviews family and friends to recreate Bill's life before his shocking death from cancer at the age of 32. It's a kind of rise and fall and rise and fall and rise again movie. At first I thought the movie made Hicks seem rather shallow, not as revelatory as the comedy bits I've seen of him. But the cleverness of "American" is that it gradually shows the evolution of a comic's style, from his mugging gags beginning to the end, where Hicks had begun to resemble some kind of wild-eyed prophet, the son of Lenny Bruce, fiercely cutting with his wit. Hicks developed a voice in his short lifetime, and "American" is the story of how he got there. The directors make a curious stylistic choice to "re-enact" scenes from Hicks' life using animated still photos; while it looks kind of funky in a faux-3D way, I felt the technique distracted me more often than not. The best parts of "American" are the copious footage of Hicks' voice raging away at the dying of the light, a sound that's still potent 15 years after his death.
The trailer

Teenage Paparazzo
PhotobucketDirected by and starring Adrian Grenier, best known as Vincent Chase on TV's Entourage, this is a meta hall of mirrors that looks at celebrity and society's obsession with it. Grenier was "shot" one day by a 13-year-old kid named Austin Visschedyk who said he was a paparazzi. Striking up a friendship with Austin, Grenier dives into a fascinating big-brother sort of relationship with the kid, following him as he hangs out in Los Angeles til 2am chasing down Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (yes, the parenting here is rather questionable). Grenier learns what drives the paparazzi, and even tries his hand at "papping" himself. He also sees Austin become famous himself, ending up on a reality TV show. By the end we've been spun around all sides of the celebrity cycle -- Grenier avoids judging celebs or paparazzi, and the film's general even-handed tone is welcome. I was pleasantly surprised by how much depth "Paparazzo" has to it, although it slides a bit too heavily into academic theorizing towards the end. But it really leaves you thinking about the stars we love and why we're so obsessed by them (heck, I even had a bit more respect for Paris Hilton by the end, no mean feat). This screening was highlighted by Grenier's attendance down here in NZ, and a half-hour Q&A afterwards with him. He's nothing at all like "Vinnie" in real life of course, and I was quite impressed by his talk and musings on the celebrity culture. Definitely check this one out if you get a chance.
(Can't seem to find a trailer for this one but plenty of footage on the website!)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Superheroes I Love #4: Black Panther

PhotobucketThere weren't a lot of black superheroes for the first 30 years or so of comics history. Comics, like mainstream society itself, were rather all-white and racism was pretty casually thrown around. It was the times, but it was an era where a book like "All-Negro Comics" could be published without irony. Until the comics version of Barack Obama came along. The character who's smooth, cool and collected, always prepared -- and no, he's not Batman.

Who: The Black Panther, who debuted in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966 -- and became the first major black superhero in American comic books. (The name has no link to the real-life militant political group.)

What: King of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, T'Challa is the latest in a long line of rulers of the tribe and heir to the powers of the 'Panther god.'

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Come on, he's the KING, a superhero, and he's like Obama, Shaft and Lando Calrissian combined. The Black Panther was the black superhero, but in the majority of his stories, he's rarely been any kind of token. He's worked side-by-side with the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, married the X-Men's Storm, and always kept an ultra-cool, dignified and sometimes arrogant regal aura about himself. I love the extremely simple design of his costume, which first caught my eye around age 9 or so, but the character's sincere appeal is in how he breaks barriers without making a fuss about it. He's a hero on his own terms.

The Panther's peak came with Christopher Priest's masterful, complexly plotted run in the 1990s in his solo title. Priest's T'Challa is shown as both a hero and a calculating, imperious monarch, tangling with some of the Marvel universe's top figures and often coming out ahead. For a "second-tier" character The Black Panther has had a pretty decent run in solo titles -- a saga by Don McGregor in the 1970s' rather dated-titled "Jungle Action" is superb.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Today I am Mime Man

What's your powers Mime Man?

My powers are to mime out stuff and make bad guys go away. I have a motorbike and a plane.

How did you get your powers?

I got my powers by stepping on white and blue tomato sauce at the same time.

What's your secret identity?

John Key [editor's note: The Prime Minister of New Zealand. No, I don't get it either.]

Do you have a partner?

I have a dog named Billy. He bites bad guys' legs and helps us to bad guys' hiding spots.

Who is your worst enemy?

My worst enemy is Superman. Because he gets grumpy sometimes.

(Cross-posted from Peter's Creations which features lots of cool stuff done by the young fellow at irregular intervals.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar: 'Ordinary life is really complex stuff'

The thing about the late, great Harvey Pekar is that he saw day-to-day life could be as exciting as Batman battling the Joker. He was really the first to tap into the power of autobiographical comix, and the godfather of the work of dozens of creators like James Kochalka, Howard Cruse, Craig Thompson, Joe Matt and my ol' pal Jason Marcy. Everyone who came to realise that the ordinary world could be extraordinary.

American Splendor was kind of an ironic title for his life's work, but Pekar took us through his mundane world -- working as a file clerk, love and obsessions and cancer and pain, the whole shebang. He was an utterly unique, cranky and unpolished voice in comics at the time he began his work -- even Robert Crumb, whom Pekar collaborated with, tended toward more fantastical, surreal work rather than the grit and grunge of daily life.

I'll miss his cantankerous voice, but am glad he's left so much behind to enjoy. Start with one of the big thick American Splendor collections, and you can't go wrong with the superb 2003 movie, which in my mind is one of the most creative and thought-provoking comic book adaptations we've seen in this era of superhero overkill. Godspeed, Harvey.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The first Beatle to be 70 years old

PhotobucketHappy birthday, Richard Starkey, better known as the unstoppable Ringo Starr, who's 70 years of age today. It's hard to pictured that a Beatle is now 70 -- and yes, still hard to believe only two of them survived to senior citizenhood (Sir Paul is a mere 68).

It's a funny thing to be Ringo, of course. Even the most generous assessment would have to place him as the least artistically successful of the four Beatles, although for a brief spell circa 1970 he was actually the biggest-selling solo Beatle. But I don't think anyone would say tunes like "You're Sixteen" and "The No No Song" quite matched up with "My Sweet Lord" or "Imagine." And if it weren't for Pete Best's poor fortune, we'd probably not care about Ringo turning 70 today at all. Really, wasn't he just lucky?

None of that matters, though. The thing about Ringo is that he was the gawky Beatle, the odd Beatle, the charmingly rumpled big-nosed fella who was the underrated drumming engine behind the Beatles sound, the guy who's just been happy to be here all along, the Mr. Billy Shears who sang out of tune.

PhotobucketHe's the everyman Beatle and our eyes among the Fab Four. Even his rather goofy solo work has the amiable Ringo charm to recommend it.

Everyone has a different pick for who their favorite Beatle was, but if you had to choose which one of the Beatles to be? I bet a lot of us would want to be Ringo, the drummer who endures, the guy whose entire life was changed by a band's roster switch. Happy birthday, Mr. Starr.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

T-t-talking about my Pepsi generation

Photobucket I held a can of Pepsi the other day and was staring at it for quite a while, because that's the sort of thing I do. I've drank a lot of Pepsis in my time... for many years, it was my caffeine fix of choice, until the sugar/chemicals/calories etc. finally led me to scale back considerably. Down here in New Zealand, they're quite hard to find, so when I bought a case of Pepsi the other week it was a special treat for myself, the most Pepsi (Pepsis? Pepsum?) I've had in years.

I discovered Pepsi as a kid and it's always remained my carbonated beverage of choice (I appreciate the occasional Fanta/orange soda, and went through a Mountain Dew Code Red phase for a spell). I'd suck them down like water for years and it probably explains my dental distress over time. At one point during a summer camp in the late 1980s I had well over a dozen Pepsis during one long, very sleepless day/night. ... You think you're invincible for the longest time and don't ever imagine something sold in a supermarket might not be "good" for you, I guess.

But like I said, I've scaled back. I eventually became addicted instead to the utterly horrible coffee pretty much all newspaper kitchens specialize in. Since I drink my coffee black, there's less calories/sugar than soda to deal with. I go months now between Pepsis.

The whole Coke Vs. Pepsi thing? Well, I can tolerate Coke in a pinch, but I've always found it more bitter, less crisp. I always sympathize with the underdog, so maybe that's why I've gone with Pepsi. It's been interesting to watch how perpetually No. 2 Pepsi can't leave its can and logo design alone. While Coke goes with what has worked for decades, Pepsi has changed what feels like constantly.


I remain an aluminum purist when it comes to soda. I will and have drank it out of plastic bottles, but my battered palate tells me there is indeed a difference in the taste of a Pepsi in a bottle and one in a can. There's something comforting about the icy blue metal chilled exterior, about putting your mouth gingerly on the edge of the shiny cylinder. The experience of chugging one of those always-too-large-a-serving plasticky bottles is never the same.

I'm relatively aware now of trying to have a good (or at least non-horrible) diet, so Pepsis are rare now. But still, to pop open that can with the familiar pffsssshht and grip that chilled object, to do the motions I've done hundreds of times before -- well, some things in life are worth indulging in sometimes.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Year in Music 2010 midterm report

So here we are halfway through the year 2010, my goodness, and I should take a look at a handful of the albums I've dug most midway through. I've been much more about the retro than the nouveau this year, digging into all sorts of 1960s/1970s stuff, far more Electric Prunes than Justin Bieber if you get what I'm saying.

But there's still some mighty cool stuff I'm listening to that isn't 40 years old, and more to come this year with albums from Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Of Montreal and many others I'm looking forward to. Here's 5 albums I'm digging from 2010:

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
PhotobucketSure, James Murphy wears that '70s Bowie/Iggy influence on his sleeve here, but the brooding, meandering techno-pop tunes on his third disc wriggle into your head and stay there. The introspective streak begun in "Sound of Silver" continues here with the marvellously cathartic 'Dance Yrself Clean' with its loud/soft pulse, while snarky singles like "Drunk Girls" continue along the parallel 'North American Scum' satire path. Dance music with a wink.

Beck's Record Club #4, Kick
Not available in a record store near you, this online-only offering is the latest of Beck and an all-star crew's free-wheeling cover treks through their favorite albums. They've done great Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen and Skip Spence ones so far, but my personal favorite so far is their take on INXS "Kick," which gives that slick and shiny synth-pop album a new veneer of classic cool. "Kick" is the sound of 1987 for me and has some fine underrated pop tunes -- and it's nifty to see Beck and Co. do a loose, sprawling take on it. Dig around for the MP3s if you can find them online.

MGMT, Congratulations
PhotobucketTheir debut album "Oracular Spectacular" had some great pop hits, like the inescapable "Kids." But they've taken a swerve with this dizzying shambles of an album that is a reactionary response to the fame of "Kids." It's not full of "hooks," but rather a kind of tapestry of psych-rock that dances around the edge of pretentiousness. It takes a few listens to get into the almost willfully obscure groove but I find myself coming back to this one a lot for its spacey appeal.

New Pornographers, Together
For some reason this fifth album isn't being praised quite as much as this alt-pop supergroup's other discs, but I'm still really enjoying its mix of hooks and bombast. It doesn't break the mold, but the dueling qualities of Neko Case's booming voice, Dan Bejar's snide asides and A.C. Newman's easygoing optimism still works for me. The Pornographers have massaged their style into a smooth formula, but it's not worn out just yet.

Roky Erickson, True Love Cast Out All Evil
PhotobucketErickson's tale is well-known in rock circles -- hellfire singer of the psych-rock band The 13th Floor Elevators, he descended into a morass of drug and mental problems, including a lengthy spell institutionalized. Now in his mid-60s, he's found a kind of inner peace and teamed with alt-country act Okkervil River to make a beautiful, ravaged yet kind-hearted album looking back at this chaotic life. While it may lack the surreal, haunted-by-demons sting of his finest work, this is still a great, wistful coda to a strange trip of a career.

Biggest disappointment so far:
The man goes a decade or so between albums for this? A limp collection of covers, done with a bland orchestral backing. While Gabriel's voice is still gruff and terrific, there's a dour, labored feel to this entire enterprise, with even the world music textures that colour his best work lacking. While some work, like Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage," when you suck all the joy out of Paul Simon's "Boy In The Bubble" you've messed up somewhere. It's depressing, and makes me wonder if he's "lost it" for good and if we'll ever see a follow-up to 2002's "Up."