All Saint’s Day: St. Vincent’s Big Win for Women in Art-Rock

Annie Clark’s been making waves in the art-rock scene since 2006 under the name St. Vincent.  At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, she claimed her first Grammy for Best Alternative Album, the first female solo-artist to do so since Sinead O’Connor in 1991. She triumphed over the fierce competition of Jack White, Alt-J, and Arcade Fire, and accepted the award while on world tour in Australia. She’s been touring non-stop since 2014, and if you saw her perform at Stage AE back in April you know how magnificent her performances are. She co-ordinates dance moves while playing guitar and adjusting effect pedals. She’s intense, she’s talented, and she’s out there doing her thing.

St. Vincent can’t be bothered by people who say her music’s weird and unusual—to her ugliness is its own type of power. To write music that challenges expectations and norms, yet keeps you coming back despite yourself, is her specialty. In an interview with  tUnE-yArDs’ Merill Garbus she once said “I feel like every time somebody asks ‘what’s it like to be a woman in music’ the only difference is, you get asked ‘what’s it like to be a woman in music.” She strives for the control of her narrative, to not be fenced in by reporters into being the poor girl in a boy’s industry. It seems she’d rather teach an interviewer a few of her soccer tricks, or talk about that one time she wandered naked through a desert, than follow a gendered line of questioning.

Respecting this, I’ll only say once more how great it is for a female solo-artist to take a Best Alternative Album again. For artists like Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Bjork to be nominated multiple times over decades to no avail, and for all aspiring Indie-Rock artists, to see a 24-year draught in female winners come to an end is a big deal. For St. Vincent, the Grammy’s an honor that’s being mailed home so her mother can display it in the living room. For decades we’ve lived in a world where women write the year’s best albums, it’s important for the Grammy’s to acknowledge this, but you can’t put your life on hold for an award show. She has to pack her bags in Australia, do a show in Taiwan, then three in Japan closing off February, before doing a South-American leg in March.

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The Interview (2014)

Feeling defeated after the Detroit Lions lost to the Dallas Cowboys, I watched “The Interview” (2014). It’s something I don’t feel amazing about. I had a rather morbid curiosity with the film after the media made it the center of a controversy superstorm. Nobody was expecting a masterpiece, so despite the hype, the film had a very low bar to reach. It’s a Seth Rogen/James Franco movie – that’s not to say it’s bad, it just means – well you know… You need to be ready for a certain kind of stupid.
In this regard, “The Interview” met my expectations of  being a big dumb movie. The characters are quickly defined as soon as they’re introduced. Rogen’s character has perhaps one of the least interesting character motivations… ever? He’s a entertainment-news producer who’s celebrating his 1000th episode. He bumps into Anders Holm from Workaholics (a show I dislike) who’s a producer for 60 Minutes. They throw insults at each other about their respective shows, and Rogen’s feelings are hurt. Now Rogen is motivated to make his tabloid show more newsworthy. It’s the kind of slow start to a comedy that’s hard to watch. And the slow stuff just keeps coming. For the first twenty minutes or so, I had lots of regrets about renting “The Interview.”
Things pick up, and I laughed at a lot of things in this movie. Mostly Lord of the Rings jokes, which I didn’t see coming. I’ll say another thing I didn’t see coming was racist humor? I’m sure it doesn’t come as a shock to many people that a bunch of white guys made jokes at the expense of Asians. I just honestly thought we were past the point when a movie could come out in 2014 where a white guy goes “Me so sorry.” It just feels so tired, on top of being wrong. I get that Rogen and Franco’s characters are idiots, but surely they can be funny idiots who aren’t also racist, right? Those types of jokes aside, well, funny things happen in “The Interview” and I don’t feel like doing them an injustice in text. Despite the frequent stupidity which I can’t stomach, there was plenty of stupidity that was right up my alley. Amazon’s reviewers have given “The Interview” a three-star rating out of five-stars. I couldn’t agree more. “The Interview” is the epitome of an “okay-to-average” movie which will forever be remembered because of a most bizarre controversy.

2004 Retrospective: Half Life 2

Half Life 2 turned 10 this year, though it was only 7 years ago that I first played it in The Orange Box. So, how is City 17 holding up?

Well, for a game that’s 10 years old I was still impressed by the visuals. It does some things better than even newer games, water for instance. Why does the water in Half Life 2 look better than the water in Skyrim? Some of it is visual trickery on the part of the Source Engine. According to developer commentary the water is rendered three times. 1) The reflection of everything above the water. 2) The refraction of everything below the water. 3) The player’s view of the water. Valve’s smarts keeps an old engine looking fine. Textures here and there could use an upgrade, but otherwise Half Life 2 is still a great-looking game.

Another thing that holds up is the combat. Half Life 2 lets you take on a wide variety of opponents in unique settings. Fighting Combine and Headcrab forces underneath the bridge is nerve-racking and fun. The Combine can feel bullet-spongey at times, but I never felt like the fights were unfair. As the player, it’s up to you to use your noggin at times. You have to do more than think about taking cover. It’s not like your health will just regenerate if you wait long enough. You can and will get stuck in situations where you have to think about how to survive. How to use the Gravity Gun to kill what you can, preserve ammo. The pacing of combat left me feeling exhausted – all I’m doing is fighting, fighting, fighting. Interesting encounters against airships, helicopters, antlions, zombies, and striders are welcome.

The only thing that felt unwelcome at times were puzzles. Or rather, I welcomed puzzles as a breath of fresh air, a chance to put down guns for a second – but the quality of puzzles did not stand up. Many of them just feel like tech demos, while others were like poor platformers. Maybe I liked them the first time through all those years ago – but well lets talk about “Sandtraps.” The chapter is “Tremors,” don’t touch the sand, and monsters won’t attack you. Great concept, except that the physics drives me crazy. I as a player am trying to build a bridge of objects to cross the sand. Funky controls and even less stable physics make it a much harder task than it should be. Picking up and placing objects with the Gravity Gun was just not as fun as I remembered, nor as easy.

Revisiting Half Life 2 was fun at times, and sometimes frustrating. The thing that kept driving me forward was story though, and this little trip down memory lane made me thirsty for more Half Life. The state of the world in Half Life 2 is intensely engaging. The Uprising – appropriately exciting. Most of all, the mystery of Breen, G-Man, and the Combine will keep me thinking all night. What would Half Life 2: Episode Three would have been? What’s going to happen? What will Half Life 3 be? I’m glad I revisited Half Life 2 if only because I remembered how good it is, and was able to appreciate how well it aged. In other ways, revisiting Half Life 2 has frustrated me, because oh my god – it’s been 10 years and we haven’t closed the door on City 17.

What’s Up? (Broadchurch Edition)

It would be a huge mistake for me to let another day go by without writing about Broadchurch. It’s a British murder-mystery drama that I started on December 17th, and finished on December 19th. In a year where I got to watch Fargo, True Detective, House of Cards, and other television greats – I can’t believe something could top all of that. Okay, so, Broadchurch isn’t as good as True Detective or Fargo, but I liked it more than either show. I felt less tense, less miserable – I had a great time theorizing “whodunit” without going through the agonizing… hmm… anxiety? that shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad could cause me to experience. (The kind of tension that makes you want to pause or fast-forward a show).

Broadchurch took place in a quaint seaside town that I thought was beautiful. The Jurassic Coast is wonderful, and something I never knew I wanted to see until now. David Tennant gets to be Scottish, weird, and kind of an ass to people. It’s nice to see him out of the loveable Doctor role and inside something much darker – the troubled detective. Olivia Colman’s great as his detective-sergeant, though I’ve never seen her in anything before. And I can’t believe I’m saying this but… I loved Arthur Darvill as the town Priest. Honestly. The cast is so small that I liked a little bit of most everyone. Oh man! And David Bradley too (Lord Walder Frey, Filch, so on!)

The show does what it promises to do in the first episode. Find the killer. We have two detectives, a small town, and while it may not disturb the formula – it’s a good time. Question everybody, come up with your own theories, and have a good time doing it. It was hard to stop watching, and when the credits rolled – I cried! I cried a little bit, yes! Congratulations Broadchurch. Not many TV shows will ever make me cry.

So please, do yourself a favor – if you have Netflix just give the first episode a try. If the serious tone and the brooding, methodical detective work isn’t your thing, then fine. For me it was, and I’m already thinking about re-watching those precious six hours of Broadchurch. It’s weird… but this show might be the highlight of winter break so far.

2004 Retrospective: House, M.D.

I had been planning on having a ten-year retrospective for House for a while, and by sheer coincidence, House actually first aired ten-years from today’s date, November 16th, 2004. Lucky break on my part! Totally didn’t plan for this. Anyways, let’s get down to it. I watched a few episodes of the first season of House, and noticed that things were very different than how I remembered them. The color scheme of the show was way more desaturated than I remembered, and the show lacked the iconic “Teardrop” by Massive Attack that became known as the “theme from House.” It was also bizarre to see how House and his doctors, Chase, Cameron, and Foreman, didn’t know each other as well… Watching the first episodes of House only highlighted that my memory of the show was basically defined by the middle seasons.

I suppose House is a show whose beginning and ending I have never watched. It’s one of the few shows I watched with my Mother on a regular basis, and I never would have hopped on during Season 2 or 3 if it weren’t for her. Whatever the reasons, I never saw House all the way through, I didn’t even finish Season 7 – though I’ve read over and over again how the show ends in Season 8. Regardless, Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House is one of the better primetime television characters we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in the last decade, and it really reminds me of Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion.

Some observations…

  • I didn’t know House was a vicodin addict from episode one, I thought he developed that problem over time.
  • Already, in the very first episode, I don’t like Foreman.
  • The four tropes of an episode of House are all here.
    • We spend the first five minutes of an episode waiting for horrible things to happen in ordinary situations, thus revealing the patient.
    • House complains at / yells at somebody for doing something idiotic, and he gets an idea for treating the patient.
    • House suggests breaking and entering in order to learn more about the patient.
    • The patient’s first treatment works until halfway through the episode, and then it turns out House only made things worse.
  • Seriously, what’s with the colors in the first episode of House? It’s practically in black and white!
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Plants are supposed to add a little bit of Green to the room, but in House, it’s just a different shade of grey.

I don’t have very nuanced things to say about House except, I suppose it’s good fun – and a little more than that. The pattern of a medical procedure show is fun to watch, and House adds a bit more character to the formula. Hugh Laurie’s great in the roll, and while I couldn’t find it in myself to finish the show – I could watch the first five seasons again – in time. It’s not the type of show I’d marathon, but I’m glad it’s in syndication. When it’s late at night and you’re flipping channels and you find a rerun of House on, it’s not a bad watch at all.

2004 Retrospective: Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends

Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends: Aired August 2004

There was no shortage of kids my age talking about and watching Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. It’s a show that captivated me with its premise; that all abandoned imaginary friends stayed at a Foster Home, and executed on everything that its world had to offer. Everything about the world of the show clicked: the kazoo-and-piano frenzy of a soundtrack, the flatly shaded art style, and the aesthetic of the Foster Home itself.

Most importantly the show had good characters and everybody had their favorite: Bloo, Wilt, Eduardo, Coco, Mac, Frankie, Madame Foster, Dutchess, Herriman… and if you were really unfortunate you knew somebody who liked Cheese. My favorite characters were Coco and Frankie (voiced by Grey DeLisle) and they both really shine in Season 1, Episode 4: “Store Wars.” It opens with Frankie Foster struggling to organize a surprise party for her grandmother Madame Foster. Like Yumi before her, Frankie embodied this no funny-business attitude that I identified with when I was 11. She’s an overworked teenager/young adult in a house full of chaos and imaginary nonsense – and the way she coped with that was pretty hilarious.

Frankie has to go to the Mall to pick up last minute party supplies, and of course Bloo complicates things by inviting the gang along to go shopping too. Everybody has money for gifts, except for Coco, the odd, deranged, 1/3 Bird, 1/3 Palm, 1/3 Airplane imaginary friend who’s kind of the Charlie Kelly of the group. The Mall is a great setting for the episode: an elevator-musak rendition of the theme-song loops in the background, and the shops lightly parody those found in your typical mall. Victoria’s Secret becomes “Victorian Indiscretions,” and all the characters react differently to the lingerie on display (Mac and Frankie both smile but for different reasons I presume).

kcw 2004 retro 2

Frankie finds herself falling asleep on a massage chair at Pointier Image, during which time Coco gets hired at the Mall’s foot court. With the group separated during her nap, Frankie spends the rest of the episode trying to reign in the chaos. Meanwhile Coco climbs up the Mall-job ladder, running the Information Booth in once scene and then becoming a Mall-cop just minutes later. I really like “Store Wars” as a representative episode of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. It balances the chaos created by imaginary friends perfectly with the stress and craziness that the human characters experience while trying to control that chaos. The episode ends with Coco giving Madame Foster an expensive gift with the money she earned by working at the Mall, though Frankie gets no such happy ending.

I’ll be the first to say that Foster’s can be a bit annoying now that I’m ten years older, but it occupied a special place in my heart back then, and it still does. The premise is just so darn heart-warming that I’ll put up with a little extra kinetic energy just to live in that world for 22 minutes at a time.

Arctic Monkeys’ “AM” (2013)

I’ve listened to Arctic Monkeys roughly since 2005 or 2006. A lot was happening in that time: I got my an iPod Video, and made a lot of dumb purchases on iTunes. I made lots of one-off single purchases of songs I don’t think I have stored on any devices anymore, I bought South Park Season 10 digitally so that I could watch the Cartoon Wars episodes, I bought the Season Two finale of Lost. I started telling people that I liked “Alternative music,” whatever that means. I listened to and bought a lot of Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys, I started surrounding myself with anything that iTunes labeled as “Alternative” and came from the U.K. It was a great time to be a fan of Arctic Monkeys because it felt like they were releasing a Single or an EP every few months, though that meant I had no reason to buy their first album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (2006) which featured most of the songs I already owned. Wisely “Leave Before The Lights Come On” (2006) didn’t feature any tracks that spoiled that surprise that was “Favourite Worst Nightmare” (2007) which I enjoyed. But in the time between 2007’s “Nightmare” and 2009’s “Humbug” my love for Arctic Monkeys cooled. In the midst of developing my love for artists like Beck, and They Might Be Giants, my music tastes shifted in such a way that the pure energy of the early Arctic Monkey’s catalog wasn’t my thing anymore. Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” (2009) reflected this shift in my musical taste, by showing that the band had the capacity to show down, and get dark, with the help of Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme. I neglected to listen to the band’s fourth release, “Suck It And See” (2011), but now that 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d give the band’s latest and commercially greatest album had to offer. After this lengthy pretext, and without further adieu, this is what I thought about “AM” (2013).

It’s hard to say how much the band has changed in the last four years, since I’m missing an entire fourth album, but roughly speaking, “AM” sounds a lot like “Humbug,” and I still don’t know what to make of that observation. On one hand; I think it’s cool that after going years without listening to the band that they still sound familiar to me, on the other hand I was expecting something more after all of these years, and after all of the noise about “AM” being the band’s greatest commercial and critical success.

Sonically the album explores places the band’s been before; guitars in the fat of the fuzz and thick bass lines, but the band reaches uncharted territory by including pianos, organs, octave pedals, and a Blood Orange-like amount of plucky, reverb guitar parts. “One For The Road” stands out vocally, as Josh Homme’s backing vocals are chilling underneath the fast tongue of Alex Turner. Thematically, the first half of “AM” feels largely on edge, creepy, cool, dark, that sort of thing. I was getting tired of it by track five, “I Want It All” and it just so happens that track six is where my opinion of the album starts to turn around.

Arctic Monkeys have always done beautiful well, and “No. 1 Party Anthem” is no exception. Their brand of sleepy guitars, with Turner’s rocking crib of a voice, have always been amazing – but they’re the reason to come to “AM,” the highlight, the thing that Arctic Monkeys have taken to the next level. “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds” following it, pierce the dark rain clouds floating above “AM” with hope, and light.

“They make you get up and dance, yeah they make you get up, out of nowhere somebody comes and hits you with an, Ooh la la la la”

This mid-album burst of energy is put to good use, launching into the funky number “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the return of Homme in “Knee Socks” before tying the knot of the album, thematically. Arctic Monkeys started by asking “Do I Wanna Know?” (a catchy opening song) and followed up with “R U Mine?” (and although it looks like a twelve-year old’s text, the song broached the dark and mature). By “Knee Socks” we were in the midst of assumptions, break-ups, asking what could have been, and so to close the album on “I Wanna Be Yours” feels right, like the last step of the album’s arc – starting with the desire to possess, and ending with the desire to be possessed.

I’m glad Arctic Monkeys are still around and making music. “AM” was a good listen; it reminded me of what I loved about the band, and showcased how they were developing their strengths. But without knowing what “Suck It And See” sounds like, it’s hard to say whether the band is stuck in gear, or whether this fifth album was just a return to style and themes of old.