Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kids Rock

Two things have been occupying my thoughts recently.

The first started when I saw The Black Kids on the front of the New York Times Arts Section. I didn’t have a chance to read the article then – I have to stay up on the times for my job, and unfortunately that job isn’t “being an insufferable hipster” – but it’s since turned into a minor hullabaloo. Idolator chimed in, arguing against taking absolutely positive stances in favor of bands. John Darnielle put in his two cents against being absolutely absolute in any direction. And while I still haven’t read the article that started it all, I’ve been visiting the band’s myspace every so often for the last month to hear “I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You.”

The other has been Kevin Durant, and I’m convinced that the two are deeply intertwined.. First off, I swear I’m not obsessed - it’s actually not Kevin Durant per se, but Andrew Bynum’s development, the phenom that is Lebron James, and what it means to have talent and develop it.

If you haven’t heard The Black Kids yet, you should. Not just because this conversation is meaningless without the context, but because they’re pretty good. They borrow liberally from the Factory Records playbook, throwing in some Robert Smith vocals over amateurish guitar strumming and shout along hooks that all get to the point, if not with subtlety, with a whole bunch of fun.

But this band is not ready for the NBA. When I started reading up on basketball, and Kevin Durant, it took me a little while to understand thing like “Kevin Durant’s body may not be NBA ready” and “Kobe is in the prime of his career,” but now I’m starting to see how the connections between sports and music may go deeper than blog posts like these and explaining “sophomore slump” records.

In the blog buzz era, where there really isn’t enough time to hear every band that crosses the internet radar, there really isn’t much room left for nuance. Bands get lumped into good and bad dichotomies because if you equivocate on good, people will move on to listen to the unequivocally good, and most writers enjoy writing hate pieces too much to leave the benefit of the doubt open for a band without swiftly shutting it behind them. So where does this leave bands like The Black Kids - band with a lot of potential that hasn’t quite gotten there yet?

In the NBA, they’d draft them high and develop them. In the old music industry, they’d have developed locally on their own, maybe reaching beyond by touring in the style made famous more by Our Band Could Be Your Life than Almost Famous. Or maybe gotten signed to a major and done the latter. Who knows? But in the new music industry, they’re pushed into the big leagues before they’re ready, exposed to the cold harsh light of standards they can’t and really shouldn’t be expected to meet, and we wait for their failure. There’s probably an NBA reference here that I could be making, (the restrictions that led to the 2007 Draft Class were instituted for a reason, I suppose) but my hoops knowledge isn’t there yet.

I’m not saying we should go backwards – there’s a lot I like about the state of music today, especially compared to the way it used to be – but I do think it’s time to rethink how we talk about bands, and the standards we hold artists to while they’re still developing their talent. While music history is littered with debut albums that shattered everything we thought we knew about the medium, we’re not even expecting bands to do that. We’re expecting them to do it with the first demo we here from them on Myspace.

By now, I take it you’ve listened to The Black Kids, and you’ve probably got your thoughts on the songs, but put those aside for a minute. Now think about what this band could sound like on their first full length. Think about what it could sound like when they tighten up the beats and make the arrangements go somewhere, but keep the fun and the energy. Think about what it will sound like when you’re pushing those nifty bass lines through something other than your computer speakers. And think what will happen when that bass player realizes he can play half the notes and be twice as awesome. Pretty sweet, right?

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Name Is

While there might be a couple good reasons to bring me onto a group blog, one of them isn’t my sports knowledge. When the weekly pub trivia night comes around, our team draft can usually count on me to produce solidly in the culture and current events categories, with a couple clutch saves in science and whatever random nonsense the quizmaster tosses into the mix. Usually the discussion on a sports question where we’ve hit a roadblock goes something like this:

Darryl: Couldn’t it be the Giants?
Team: You just picked the Giants because that could work as a baseball or football answer, didn’t you?
Darryl: Maybe…
Team: Well, that’s a good effort, but it really doesn’t help us figure out who won the Masters in 1986, now does it.
Darryl: That’s the one with the hoop, right?

Then, at the beginning of this summer, something strange happened. My friend Brendan decided to try talking me into becoming an NBA fan. Seeing as I was returning to the Pacific Northwest, and the draft was about to happen, what followed was a two hour long dissertation on Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and how Kevin Garnett might be the second coming of Christ. I was intrigued and wished to subscribe to his newsletter. Which I did. In the form of YouTube-ing the beejeesus out of Kevin Durant hilight reels.

I was sold.

But this isn’t about how I got so hooked on the game that I had a minor freakout when Durant came down badly on his ankle against the Warriors, putting his regular season opener in jeopardy. I’ve come to terms with the fact that basketball is fucking cool. No, this is about how I’m this close to getting conned into caring about professional football by blogs like Kissing Suzy Kolber. And about how perhaps in a few months, I’ll be able to make a joke comparing the change in my trivia squad to the players on my fantasy basketball team. Because now I have a fantasy basketball team.

Hi, I’m Darryl and I’m a recovering sports anti-fan and I promise my next post will be more indie than this.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pushing Daisies Episodes 1 and 2

I'm on record as saying that, for the past few years, maybe longer, TV has been a better bet than movies. You can argue the reasons why that is till you're blue in the face--necessity of invention in the face of more competition, more room to breathe for creative people--but the cheery fact is that shows like Deadwood and The Wire routinely reach heights that even the best of movies never quite reach.

Just judging by its first two episodes, you can probably add Pushing Daisies to that list. If ever there was an example of the obsolescence of cinema in the face of television, this is it. For one, Pushing Daisies looks like a movie, with vivid colors and glitzy, surreal effects that call to mind Edward Scissorhands or The Life Aquatic. Part of this is no doubt courtesy of director Barry Sonnenfeld (the cinematographer for the Coen Brothers, as well as the director for the Men in Black franchise), but it also has a lot to do with creator Bryan Fuller's vision.

Fuller's vision is realized in the forensic fairy tale Pushing Daisies actually is. Ned (Lee Pace), a pie-maker, possesses the ability to bring people and things back to life with a touch, but if he touches them again, they die permanently. And there are consequences. If Ned lets the erstwhile corpse live longer than a minute, someone else in the vicinity has to die. Ned's not a saint, but he's not a bad guy, either, so he uses his power to solve crimes and collect reward money with his partner, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) and his resurrected childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel).

Still, however much I rhapsodize about the state of television today, there's still a lot of bad things about it. The glut of procedural dramas is certainly one of them, and however quirky the trappings of Pushing Daisies are, it's still yet another procedural, which means that it's got to have interesting and likable characters to survive. And goodness, it does. Friel and Pace have fabulous chemistry, and they're the main reason for the only criticism people can find in the first two episodes: it's twee, it's precious, it's like freebasing the essence of sweet. And yeah, in a show where people drive a dandelion-powered car, that may be legitimate. But when Ned erects a plexiglass partition in his car with a dishwashing glove so he and Chuck can hold hands when driving, or when Ned and Chuck stand next to each other and hold their own hands, leaving the rest to their imagination (all of which is narrated by Jim Dale, one of two people, along with Jon Miller, who could read the phone book to me and keep me enthralled), it's impossible not to be charmed.

And the sweet is nicely counterbalanced by Chi McBride's acerbic, bitter Emerson (and who would have thought that McBride was a pretty funny guy after the stale-bean soup of a show that was Boston Public?). He's got some fantastic zingers, like his "Bitch, I was in the vicinity!" after finding out that Ned resurrected Chuck for good in the pilot episode, or his wishing Ned would finally just touch Chuck because the status quo was better for business.

So yeah, get these first two episodes, not only because they're certainly of a unique, satisfying feather, but because they may be the show's best. It's rare for a show to peak in its pilot episodes, but because ABC canned Sonnenfeld for going consistently over budget after the first two episodes, that's a distinct possibility. But I wouldn't mind so much, if only because Pushing Daisies is, for its first two episodes at least, one of the best things I've ever seen.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Modern Library Top 100: #99 - The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy (1955)

What a foul, loathsome, pretentious novel this one was. Sebastian Dangerfield is an American expat carousing about the streets of Dublin in the aftermath of World War 2, doing the usual things people do in picaresque novels: smoke, drink, and fuck, and to hell with the consequences.

Now, I don't have a real problem with the ribald anti-hero per se, but Dangerfield is something beyond that. He beats his wife, threatens infanticide, spends all his family's food money and screws over his friends. All of this is done without the barest hint of redemption--Dangerfield doesn't really change over the course of the "plot," if such a thing could be said to exist here--it's mostly just a series of loosely connected moments. Clearly we're meant to sympathize with the Ginger Man a bit, because he often falls into some sort of reflection about how sensitive he is (ginger can be both sharp and sweet, you see), but his sensitivity is more about questioning why people loathe him and why he doesn't get everything he wants, right away.

Donleavy's prose is undeniably beautiful, and he ends many chapters with frequently affecting doggerel ("All I want / Is just one break / Which is not / My Neck"), but beautiful wrapping can't contain the rottenness within.

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Modern Library Top 100: #100 - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918)

A few years ago I was on an Orson Welles kick, which started with a chance viewing of Citizen Kane at an old girlfriend's house. Like anyone with a pulse, I was aware of the film's existence but had always brushed it off as something not worth my modern sensibilities.

Obviously I was wrong, because the film is probably the best thing ever to be committed to film. I don't feel sheepish for having doubts, though, since part of the fun of growing up in the 90s and Aughts is that there's always going to be a vast expanse of the unexplored arts to surprise and delight.

So I went through Welles' oeuvre, finding equal parts wheat and chaff until stumbling on to The Magnificent Ambersons, which was actually Welles' next effort.

(Parenthetically, Welles was obviously a colossally talented guy, but he peaked pretty early on (he was only 23 when he broadcast War of the Worlds, and only 26 when he made Citizen Kane) before becoming a minstrel for the talk show circuit.)

Anyway, to bring a long story to its point, I liked the movie enough to buy the book, and liked the book enough to read every other novel on Modern Library's list, starting from the bottom and working up.

By all rights, I should have hated The Magnificent Ambersons. It's got everything I find distasteful in a novel: highfalutin dialogue, aristocratic intrigue, long descriptions of cotillions in excrutiating detail.

But I loved it. Tarkington somehow managed to cobble together a great, compelling story about redemption and the acceptance of responsibility while simultaneously weaving in an elegy for the death of small town America by the cold hand of industrialization.

If that sounds like one serious novel, it is, but it's also quite a fun jaunt over a few hundred pages. The Magnificent Ambersons tells the story of a once proud family, whose patriarch was also the city's main powerbroker, as it struggles to keep its dignity and fortune intact against time and obsolescence. The protagonist, George Amberson Minifer, is a loathsome, entitled young punk who even the Hilton sisters would find overprivileged. Yet he's showered love by all, and Tarkington has a way of detailing it in such a way that it never feels false.

It helps that the book's other protagonist, Eugene Morgan, is the most empathetic and understanding character this side of Atticus Finch. Morgan is the erstwhile lover of George's mother and the father of George's paramour. He's also one of the captains of industry encroaching on the Amberson fortune, and he's one of the few characters in the book who's genuinely likable.

And when George loses everything, submerged in the expanding city his family once ruled, his rebirth is unexpected and appropriate. It's a good journey, an epic one, even, and I can see why Orson Welles chose to follow up Citizen Kane with it.

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