Album Review: Weezer (The Teal Album)

I talk about Weezer’s latest PR stunt and fun album

Teal is fine. It’s the representative color of Bed, Bath & Beyond; Essential Oil Cults; and Inspirational Instagram Self-Help Gurus who like to spout platitudes about being your best self. It’s digestible and calm. It’s comfortable and inoffensive. At best, it’s good for an enjoyable moment, to take your mind off your troubles, and little else. It’s pleasant and inconsequential. It’s fine.

Really, it’s fine.

Just like this record.

If I didn’t know that The Black Album is just around the corner, this album would be a lot more frustrating. Rivers Cuomo has been indulging in distraction for the last three years, since the release of the excellent White Album, which saw the band continue their upward ascent following the release of Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which is one of my favorite records by the band, and a legitimate comeback. Instead of amping up the tension, and putting all his energy in the Black Album, Cuomo has been indulging himself by releasing the fun, but empty, Pacific Daydream, and indulging the transient whims of the twitterverse, by way of Dan Ozzi resulting in a profoundly straightforward cover of Africa, by Toto, even though Hold the Line is clearly the more meme-worthy cut, and the better song overall.

Yes, Rivers Cuomo and his merry crew have been putting out records despite their own recognition that the Black Album is the work they’ve wanted to release for years. But that has not stopped them from releasing another album’s worth of materials without any notice. This time, a cover album, shaded Teal.

“It’s fine” – Lindsey Ellis

I get it, we live in a cultural diaspora that requires surprise releases; a culture that requires click-baity titles about how a band is catering to their fanbase in adorable, inoffensive ways, to deflect from the crueler, more offensive ways people currently act and the uglier facts of modern reality. We need some breather moments between all the miasmatic terrible with a cutesy meme and twitter campaigns to get shit off the ground. You want to be relevant, even as you get older. I get it.

It’s fine.

But really, I want the Black Album, and this feels like a deflection.

I should note that I do actually enjoy this record. It’s fun to listen to and single along to and walk to and put on repeat. It is not a thought heavy album, and it’s all good earworms. Despite my distaste for releasing a million unintentional records on what amounts to a whim, I won’t deny Cuomo’s talent for a slick, well produced pop. He has the magic ear, and the money to make records. So he does. Good for him. Fine.

From the very first note of the now infamous cover of Africa, however, you know exactly what you are going to get. Covers that go over a wide array of pop-culture from the last 6 decades, with enough prima facia compelling song choices and structural decisions that belie the fact that this album sounds like someone’s carefully curated playlist meant to show that they have an eclectic taste, but are still approachable and cool. Y’know what I mean.

This album is aggressively intentional. Every moment is clinical. Sterile, but not transcendant. The 10 cuts on this record are all excellent songs in their own right, and Weezer acquit themselves well in covering them. I personally find the sandwich of the happy-go-lucky summer of love classic “Happy Together” by the Turtles, infamous metal meltdown “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, and then the even more ebullient “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO a particularly inspired combination of covers in sequence. One can look at how the album goes from 80’s, then 70’s, then 90’s/00’s and see a conscious effort at putting forward some compelling structural conceit.

And it’s even better because these covers are slavishly devoted to sounding exactly like the original. I honestly have to wonder how many times Cuomo listened to Paranoid to be able to sufficiently mimic Ozzy Osbourne’s psychotic rambling iambic dictums about going insane. I feel like Jeff Lynne is lowkey pissed that Cuomo did almost nothing to Mr. Blue Sky, excepting a few moments of skank in the chorus. Cuomo even pulls out some genuinely odd choices with “No Scrubs” and “Billie Jean” before ending on a pretty conventional, if uplifting cover of “Stand By me”

But that sense of simulacrum at all levels is almost Greta Van Fleet levels of fucking obnoxious. Each second feels algorithmic, intentional, and machine learned. The covers are all so perfect that they lack any real character. It feels like a boardroom put this record together, with the exact percentage of demographic appeal considered; the diversity of song choice measured; put into a blender to make some brand name Kale Smoothie that’s all the rage, and just tasty enough to overlook the nihilistic void of it all.

It’s an album to enjoy, and nothing more. Fine.

Weezer has never been a band that knows the meaning of restraint, when it comes to releasing records. The similarly empty Pacific Daydream were a series of songs that didn’t even make the cut on the Black Album. They were songs that had been written, but were deemed too…meh, to be put on the record that is designed to court controversy. The results feel like that. A bunch of unnecessary bonus tracks gussied up as an album and sold because why the fuck not.

And the same goes for this record. This record is a lot more enjoyable than Pacific Daydream because I get the sense that Cuomo cares about these covers. There is a lot of effort devoted to each track. You can’t make such surgically precise cuts without effort.

But this is also probably the reason why the Black Album got delayed in the first place. I see it as inevitable that Cuomo got so sucked up in the proceedings of making a meme for a fan that he got enthused about making a cover albums, and not caring whether anyone wanted that.

And on that front, I can’t blame the impulse. All creators are subject to Shiny New Idea Syndrome; most don’t go out and do it, however. And whether I can fully blame Cuomo remains to be seen. The twitterverse can be aggressive and frustrating on the best of days, so this may just be an effort to keep sane. And on some level, I respect the sheer output level Cuomo has to be able to release records one after the other like that.

But there is something to be said for the concept of restraint.

If there is anything genuinely troubling about this record, however, it is the similarity of this record to Ninja Sex Party’s Under the Covers II. While that record is straight 80’s, there are a number of distressing similarities that make me weary, including track listing and a cover of “Africa”. These are covers, so you can’t really call it plagiarism; but there is just enough cross-over between these two albums that it feels really, really weird to hear the same covers over again.

So, at the end of the day. Teal is a pleasant color. You can enjoy it while taking a walk. You can chill with it and you can just be there with it. But it doesn’t amount to much; it doesn’t mean much; and it’s pretty disposable.

Just like this album.

Until I’m waiting there for you,

599,972 out 1,000,000

The Promised Neverland Review & Analysis (Spoilers): 131045

Be careful

Note: moving forward, these reviews will feature full spoilers for all episodes through the current episode. If you do not want to be spoiled for Episode 1 or 2, please do not read further.

Emma looks for Conny. She pulls a red curtain away revealing a banquet. In her hand, Conny’s huge stuffed bunny. She walks up to the table, curious, blood-red wine in evidence. A body on a fruit-platter lies in shadowy silhouette. Cut to Conny’s lifeless eyes; cut to Emma’s terrified eyes as the gaping maw with of a demon closes in behind her for the kill.

A terrified scream. Darkness. Emma breathes heavily, eyes filled with terror. The varied snoring of 37 children surround her. She looks up at the clock; the clock looks back at her, swinging and ticking, swinging and ticking, swinging and ticking. Emma huddles, her time is coming.

What a fucking start to an episode.

The Promised Neverland continues creating momentum with its stellar second episode 131045. The animation is beautiful, the storytelling fresh, the characterization subtle, and the sense of danger, palpable. But best of all, 131045 ratchets up the tension, and terror to a fever pitch, without doing anything at all.

Chores after the Apocalypse

“Smile, Emma”

One of this show’s greatest strengths so far has been its employment and weaponization of negative space. The spaces in-between, the unseen, the nooks and hidden crannies. This episode takes those small, good things, and makes them horror. Last week’s episode had all the quiet, uninteresting moments used as sub-textual set-up for the wrongness that covered the show’s atmosphere like a gelatinous patina of uh-oh. There were hints that something was up, but nothing overt until the very end of the episode when everything came together in a climax that had me climbing up my sofa: the children of Grace Field House are veal for rich Demons, harvested and farmed at the house.

The violence of Conny’s death and that peripetetic moment has transformed the unsettling quiet of the show. It is no longer just a sub-textual wrongness: it is fully blown honest to god text of terror. Everything boring and straightforward has taken on a sinister cast that hitchcock praised: The dull diegetic sounds of nature feel finite and terrible. The children’s snores are too peaceful. The sound of wind and the peace is distinctly unpeaceful.

Selling the razor-wire tension of this situation is Emma. Her terror is pitch-perfect as she reacts in a way that is both heartbreaking, and tactically dangerous.

Psychology is messy; people are not straight-lines and they do not take hard news in just one way. A person may laugh in the face of doom, or they may weep; they may do both at the same time; they may flip shit or recoil; or they may dispassionately observe. It’s never just one thing, but as Robert Frost said, multitudes. Emma is overtly terrified of her situation, and her terror has translated to a dim, distant numbness. She does her chores with a thousand-yard stare. The veneer of her home has been stripped, and everything has been taken from her. She sees her situation before her. She hears that ticking clock in the background. Tick, tock.

But still, she has to smile.

And despite her terror, she and Norman are capable of calmly discussing why Demons would want to eat them, and how they are harvested. There is a desperate need to escape; but chores need to be done. Why not discuss dispassionately what’s been going on.

The moments in this episode where they push the bounds, go to the places where they shouldn’t go and the interactions with Mom are terrifying. But it is the bored clinical way in which Norman discusses their plight with Emma that is somehow more terrifying. As they walk the halls, there is a sense of claustrophobia – a tangible sense that the walls are closing in – even though nothing, strictly, has happened yet.

The sense that eyes are everywhere is damn near perfect. Where is it safe to be yourself? It’s unclear. But every time Norman and Emma do anything, I’m scared that they are going to be found out because…

Mama Isabella is a fucking terror

Isabella is only in this episode for a few minutes, but those few minutes sell the feeling of claustrophobic horror as much as the reveal of the main characters fate. She is the looming, matronly face of authority. Like Big Brother, her loving show of affection masks that Banal Himmler evil that is both dispassionate, and uninterested in its moral mendacity. She found the stuffed bunny that Emma had left behind in her dismay, and is on the look-out for things that are out of the ordinary. She is in a punishing mood.

The weaponized negative space manifests throughout the episode. Including the battle of wills. Mom cannot let-on explicitly that she knows someone watched Conny’s death. So she has to be subtle; she can only indicate in sidereal ways that she knows the truth; she has to keep on the look-out invisibly.

The tight-rope is tense.

Norman reflecting my general state watching this episode

In most Shonen stories, conflict resolution is textually straightforward. One guy does something bad, another guy beats that guy up. The battle is all on the ground. Tangible. In the moment. The fights have subtext – at least the good ones – and thematic importance; but the fights are still recognizably a fight. The punching is the point.

But so far, this show has taken the opposite track: fighting is hidden. It isn’t explicitly a fight. It is a few words exchanged, or a tactical maneuver. Instead of punching the villain in the face, a knowing remark, a glimpse of power are the weapons.

When Isabella shows that she knows where all the kids are, she is attacking. When Norman tells Emma to keep a happy face, a riposte. It is an exhausting long-form duel, which keeps all those empty spaces perpetually filled with the promise of pain and suffering.

This storytelling tactic pays big dividends towards the midpoint of the episode. Emma has gone to do something and runs into Isabella. Isabella has noticed Emma acting strangely, and asks what’s up. For a moment her eyes modulate into something less than motherly. For a split-second Emma almost betrays her knowledge of her plight, but then masks it with a big smile, and a hug. She then casually mentions Conny in a way that feels aggressive and confrontational; and then she adds an extra dollop of honey about how much she loves living here, and walks away.

At the end of the sequence, she drops to her knees from the stress. Girl, I feel ya.

The entire scene works because of how effectively the conflict has been set-up. The chess being played is easy enough for me to pick-up, but still subtle enough to be off to the side, occluded. That is good writing.

It’s horrible for my blood pressure, though.

But what amplifies that disquiet is something much worse.

The Stakes are Ridiculous and the Main Characters are only making it worse

131045 has established with astonishing economy the scope of the odds against these kids. They are not even teenagers, who have to somehow plan an escape from this house. But not only that, there is a world beyond them that they don’t even know about, that is even more dangerous, potentially many times more difficult, and these kids have been sheltered from it their entire life. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

It creates an air of mystery and makes the move forward even less predictable than most. The anxiety that the story engenders is genuine. The stakes feel larger than usual, because there are so many individual components that are to the character’s detriment.

Which brings me to the conclusion, which I feel…mixed, on.

I’m aware that this is a Shonen series, but the conclusion to this episode, where Ray (Sasuk-ray?) is informed of the situation and is recruited to help the kids escape, felt a bit off. Not bad, but off.

For most of the episode, everything being off to the side worked so much in its favor. But this little end piece, where Ray, Norman, and Emma state Emma’s goal to save all the children felt a little…obvious, for lack of a better word.

If heart palpitations were a human

It certainly was no episode killer, and the introduction of swelling dramatic music, and straightforward comedic moments were welcome in what was a very dour proceeding. But, I dunno, the rest of the episode was so perfectly precise in how much it revealed that it felt a little gauche to have such an obvious approach to the ending.

But it still smudges the end of the episode a bit because it betrays everything else stylistically. It is explicit and on-the-nose, and filling the space, and it is a straightforward character moment. Emma’s reversion to her genre’s cheerful gritty tropes is good – for my blood pressure – but dampens the ending a mite.

But as I said, human psychology isn’t a straight-line and neither is storytelling, so I don’t necessarily mind having a contradictory note to the proceedings, even if it undercuts some of the tension. Because what she wants to do in the face of the precipice which she has been presented is somehow even more difficult than what they wanted to do initially. She wants to save everybody, and that is not going to be easy.

But if these first two episodes are any indication, it will be one hell of a thing to watch.

Until I smile,

877 out of 100 and a definite recommend.

The Promised Neverland Review (Spoiler Free): 121045

The Promised Neverland’s premiere shows a lot of….promise.

That could have been more eloquent.

The Promised Neverland (2019), an adaptation of the Manga of the same name currently running in Weekly Shonen Jump, has premiered and I want to talk about it because man, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

I have not read the Manga – though I may do so as the season moves forward – so this premiere episode was my first foray into the series. With this combination of subtlety, economy, animation, characterization and pacing, I am excited to explore this series further.

But first:

What is The Promised Neverland?

A partial synopsis of the Manga is as follows (from MyAnimeList.com):

At Grace Field House, life couldn’t be better for the orphans! Though they have no parents, together with the other kids and a kind “Mama” who cares for them, they form one big, happy family. No child is ever overlooked, especially since they are all adopted by the age of 12. Their daily lives involve rigorous tests, but afterwards, they are allowed to play outside. 

There is only one rule they must obey: do not leave the orphanage.

Creep Factor 5, Captain

The most striking element of this premiere is the immediate sense of dread that infects every element of the story, basically from bar one of the OP.

One immediately gets the sense that something is ten kinds of up within the first five minutes of the program. Despite having an on-the-nose cold open, with an announcement of theme that feels more than a bit shoe-horned, the series has a palpable tension and subtlety emanating from its prima facia setting in an idyllic orphanage in the middle of the country.

The aesthetic is something between the Handmaid’s Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Naruto; all the children (everyone around the age of 12) are dressed in glaring white hospital-esque outfits, symbolizing their general childish innocence. The setting, Grace Field House, in design and structure evokes some rural British countryside out of Downton Abbey. From the high vaulted ceilings, and large bedroom which gave me mad Madeline vibes, to the tungsten lighting, everything gives off a quiet, patient, peaceful ambience.

Or at least it’s supposed to.

Emma looking into the unknown

This peaceful old-school atmosphere is undercut by small details: the presence of advanced technology. Bar codes and scannners; large ID numbers in a weirdly decorative font tattooed loudly on the children’s necks. Oh no.

The tension between these aesthetics immediately gets your creep-radar on the alert. And as the episode progresses, and the children just go about their day, that tension only tightens further and further. You may not even notice that you’re being wound up as the kids do things like, play tag; eat food and just be children.

The tension is made all the worse by the energetic lead Emma, who has the bubbly, popular personality typical of Shonen protagonists. She genuinely loves the house; she loves “Mom” – a matronly figure in a maid’s uniform; she loves all her compatriots. She is likeable and charming.

Twist, twist, twist.

The music only enhances the creepiness; used relatively sparingly, and primarily a mix of ambient electronic and piano music. Everything is so quiet that, even though you can feel the tension rise in your gut, you are still lulled into a sense of security. The weirdness is weird, and there are some off details.

Animation & Economy

One of my favorite things about visual storytelling – filmmaking, TV series, Comic Books – and especially time-locked stories (movie and TV) is how, when it’s done well, the storytelling is pure economy: you can explain a character in as little as 30 seconds with a twist of the body, a laugh, and maybe three lines of dialogue.

All the named characters are drawn well from the word go: from the somewhat dim Dom; to the adorable Conny; to the mastermind Norman, the angsty-Sasuke-looking rival trope Ray, and our main character Emma, everything needed to explain who these characters are is done instantly within the first three scenes.

Emma’s ebullient announcement that it’s time to wake-up, followed by all the children playing rambunctiously in the bedroom immediately convey Emma’s assertiveness, confidence, and her leadership of the group of 38 children. The way she speaks with everybody, giving high-fives to certain children, laughing. The way she talks to all the main characters establish who the character is within seconds. During the game of tag, Norman’s mysterious smiles, and far-off gaze establish him as intellectual and tactician; the way Ray abstains from playing games, or interacting with the others pins down his rebellious nature. All the named characters are developed instantly, making the narrative easy to follow, and establishing their innocence.

Ray, he looks like Sasuke, he’s angsty

Uh oh.

I also want to commend the work that CloverWorks has done with the animation. Everything is crisp, and clean; the color palate is just soft enough to be soporific; and they’ve translated Shirai’s character designs so that they teem with life, while remaining distinctive. Emma’s character design in particular is to be lauded.

Economy is a tough balance. Sometimes one can be too economical, and elide all the “Good Stuff” for later episodes. A number of great, subtle storytellers will purposely leave out compelling action for the reader to figure out. Fortunately…

The show is not stingy with its action

Towards the end of the episode, I was growing weary of the pacing a bit. Not too much, that creepiness was over-the-top and the tension was drawn tight. The normality was established and I was expecting that the disturbance – the “call to action” as Joseph Campbell called it, would wait until a later episode.

I was wrong.

Without going into any spoilers, the ending sets up the story and the thematic underpinning of the show – the end of innocence – expertly, and with a degree of emotional pitch I had not expected. A few sequences toward the end of the episode immediately paid off the tension and when it was finally released, I found myself jumping with terror, and grasping myself, as one does, when horror is done well.

It was real satisfying.

But the best part of the end of the episode is not just well…the everything of it, it is how it establishes one of the most important elements of the series going forward: Strategy vs. Brute Strength.

In the episode, during the aforementioned sequence where the kid’s play tag, Norman highlights that strategy and tactics – not brute strength – are what often determine the winner of a battle. Emma’s main failing is that she is “Compassionate” and, more to the point, straightforward.

This series has a long-game in mind, and the traits that have been highlighted are not athleticism or strength – which are Emma’s forte’s – but wit and strategy. Given that “Punching things harder” has been the tacit philosophy of Shonen stories since time immemorial (see: all the shonen protagonists), emphasizing the use of one’s mind, over the use of one’s fist can prove to be a legitimately compelling stylistic choice if effectively implemented. Especially knowing the stakes involved.

There is also a grand sense of mystery, set up in the first episode that, if handled well, could add compelling spice to an already compelling debut.

What doesn’t quite work

There is very little I genuinely disliked about this show. The only major critiques have more to do with the fact that this is a pilot episode. There isn’t going to be a lot of time to delve into who the characters are; and that’s fine.

Norman completes our trio

If I have any complaints, it is that the character’s failings have not yet been emphasized. That is more of a nit-pick, than a major issue. These characters have been established well, but they are still very much in a state of potential, only a promise of something to come. Emma is a compelling lead, featuring all the shonen tropes that make a character likeable, but it is not clear whether the failing established by the show her “caring too much for others” is going to be a sufficient character flaw in the long run to warrant further explanation. Ray is a more one-note character than i’d like; but again, this is the pilot.

If I have any complaints, it is only that my attention flagged a little during the middle of the episode; but again, as an introductory episode, that is to be expected.

Conclusion

The Promised Neverland is off to a great start, and promises to be an excellent show. While the pacing was somewhat slow, I have faith in where the show is going, and I am invested enough in the characters to be excited for the next episode.

Let’s see how that promise lives up, as the season goes on.

Until I score perfectly on my exam

.0000889 out of .0001000

See you next episode!

Eric Talks About: Tokyo Story (1953)

Image result for tokyo story

Kyoko: Life is dissappointing, isn’t it?
Noriko: Yes, it is.

I am not old, but I am now old enough to appreciate Tokyo Story (1953). When I had watched Ozu’s revered Magnum Opus, I was 18, I had not yet moved out of my parents house, and I hadn’t truly grown up yet. My experience was too limited. I had a taste for genre film, that has not yet truly abated, and I was more interested in the visual aspects of filmmaking – color not the least of it – than the emotional elements.

It is good that I gave this about 10 years to marinate. For a long time, I hated it. It was boring, and mind-numbingly slow. It’s tatami mat aesthetic, where the majority of shots sit at a Zazen level on the floor was redundant, and repetitive. The human portrayal of being was trite, and uneventful, and the story meant little to me.

The film, I realize now, is meditative. I have more experiences now. I am aware that I grow older, that I age, even though my mind remembers youth more clearly than it did when I was young.

For those who are not of the cineast variety, Tokyo Story is a 1953 film by Yasujiro Ozu, focused on an elderly couple visiting their children in Tokyo for a vacation. During the vacation, their children, adults, and with lives of their own have little time to care for their aging, bored parents who have little to do in the bustling city, as they approach the twilight of their lives. it is a 136 minute that feels infinitely longer, as the majority of it is shot statically, with shots that linger for too long, and much of the story moves at a measured, patient pace. Image result for tokyo story

It is a film that requires some understanding of the neuroses of Post-war japan, for certain. The sense of loss, and grief for an era that has now left, torn cruelly asunder, and seemingly forgotten amidst the modernizing, west influenced Tokyo.

Like Short Story subtle writing, those americana’s you see listed for the O. Henry prize, or shortlisted by MacArthur fellows, this film inhabits negative space, and emphasizes, to a large extent, the humanity of failure, and disappointment. These topics continue to grow in appeal for me, as the years wear on.

The characters as presented are unfailingly human. As shots linger on Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) drinking Saké with his long suffering, but ever smiling wife Tomi at his side (Chieko Higashiyama), discussing his willfulness in youth, and his penchant for drink, one envisions that time when his hair was a deeper shade, his body not so rictus with age. One can see him coming home late at night – as he does later in the film – stumbling, with his wife sitting, thinking about all the things she could have done. All the people she could have chosen, but instead chose him, to take through life’s journey. All of it communicated by not speaking out loud. by speaking to human failings, rather than contrived ones.

It is how the human heart suffers. Instead of characters broadly announcing their existence, loudly, and succinctly, the story moves over them with a brush-stroke rich in its minimalist qualities. Instead of truly villainous children, who don’t care about their parents at all, we are given one of those low-grade ore horrors of growing up: a job, a life, children of their own. No time to spend on people. Their failings are real, and byproducts. There is no malice aforethought.

Ozu goes out of his way to humanize all the characters, making none of them anything less than human. Whether it is the Older Gentlemen shooting the shit over Saké at a bar, being escorted home by police; whether it is Noriko’s kindness masking her loneliness; or whether is their children being dutiful, and loving, but only just enough to pass the snuff: there is no villainy to be had here. Just people being people, and all those dinghy’s bumping in the night.  Image result for tokyo story

It still feels long, but different than it used to. Instead of feeling ponderous, it feels like the camera is in a Zen Buddhist posture, reciting a haiku with the syntax of its shot composition. The shots move together with seamless grace, moving form location to location, never veering from the upright lotus, simply observing, watching, being.

The emotions are pure. The water clarified by this sense of stillness. A peace that pervades the loneliness of the characters. There are no tropes being exploited, or big moments. It is all in the details, that accrue carefully over time. Each little gesture or trait being folded cross ways with another, until a latticework of humanity is presented in the origami of its characters.

In a word: beautiful.

As I move forward, getting older, not perhaps getting any wiser, but aging. As making time for people seems to become more difficult, I find myself struck by the film’s pace. It is the ever progressing nature of time. That final shot of Shukichi alone in his house, incense drifting up lazily has the elements of honesty that hit closer to home than I’m comfortable admitting.

It is one of those things that rewards rewatching, which is why, I think, I will. But at a later time, when I have gotten older. When the heart has darkened like wood because it must, and symptoms of time moving forward are in evidence.

Until I am not disappointed.

Boarding House Reach – Jack White

 

Image result for boarding house reach

This album is infuriatingly compelling; damn it.

Garage-Rock Revivalist and King of the Hipsters Jack White returns with Boarding House Reach, his third solo studio effort and it’s hard to talk about this record. It makes me feel like Schrodinger’s cat, somehow in love with it and utterly frustrated by it.

Of Hemingway’s many stylistic features, his most famous is the extensive use of parataxis, which – aside from being a very fun word to use in a sentence – is a logically tricky technique where, instead of using a conjunction that defines the relationship of two ideas, favors the logical placement side by side of the two words: instead of saying, but, use and.

And it seems Mr. White’s new songwriting style is paratactic, to greater and lesser success.

This album is a glorious mess; Zappa in its essence by way of AWB, Earth, Wind & Fire, and sometimes, White’s own series of malaprops that define the best of his work. There is a chaos and disorder that I love; and I’m not sure why.

Image result for boarding house reach

Track to track, there is no flow. None of the tracks have any sense of continuity. The downbeat synth gospel “Connected by Love” is followed gracelessly by the meandering “Why Walk a Dog?” and then there is a very distressingly intentional 5 minute jam on “Corporation”. And then there is “Abulia and Akrasia”. Each of these songs is concocted half-heartedly, and exist painfully in the negative space. The funky white boy jam of “Corporation” never quite coheres, with the vintage keys and synths clashing with the guitars, and abruptly changing tone with each vamp on the original musical idea.

And instead of building up, or flowing from one contour to the next, there is a splatter paint aesthetic to the pastiche and stylings. White steals liberally from the sounds of Kid A on “Hypermisophonia”, and then takes a hard left turn into 90’s hip-hop sounds on “Ice Station Zebra”. At no point do these songs feel like they should follow one another.

As we progress through each track – with an interesting drum beat here – a little throwaway vignette here featuring healthy steinbeck sounding big words like some frankenstein abjuration – a thick garage rock fuzz guitar riff, there is no propulsive lift that makes the album become more than itself. The plane is turning down different runways and tracks, increasingly kaleidoscopic; but only ever obscuring, never clarifying.

It feels like something Frank Zappa would have done; and, at times, I feel like I’m re-listening to We’re Only in it For the Money, or Uncle Meat, where the song fragments never really add-up, and it’s on purpose. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that White is secretly listening to The Mollusk on infinite repeat.

And I’m not sure that works. Those records rely heavily on the fact that Zappa and Ween don’t take themselves at all seriously. The humor is from the absurdism of the personalities of

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Zappa and the Mothers, as much as the music on the record, which never stabs the serious; never approaches that kind of intent that would convey some kind of point.

Jack White has never affected that kind of persona. He’s always struck me as rather self-serious, even when making a joke. His humor always has a very in-group vibe; the kind of joke told by the kid who is reading Camus to his horn-rimmed wearing, plaid laden, group of friends, all the way in the back corner, laughing at the absurdity of Sisyphus.

And that doesn’t quite gel with what Jack White excels at: tightly written rock music. I’m all for weird jazz, technical prowess, and musical cavalcades of chaos, but it doesn’t feel genuine on this record.

And and and and yet, I can’t stop listening to this record.

Despite the high signal to noise ratio of cognitive dissonance this record induces, White does a lot of things right: the production is damn near flawless, even when the songwriting is oblique and off kilter. His guitar tone still sounds like that sexy-fuzz that I’ve always known: like sugar dipped bacon, gritty, sweet, but still just salty enough for character.

Despite the song’s often going nowhere, with disjointed musical ideas never quite adding up, there are some particular killer cuts on the back half of the record “Over and Over” is pretty great. The instrumentation is often interesting, and the sound immersive.

By the end of it, even though I’m frustrated and  dreamlike, I still want to explore the record again; as if re-listening to it will somehow make the confusing thick production into tighter written songs; and the equation will make itself known.

The chaos isn’t controlled; Jack White isn’t Frank Zappa; and this record is a confused mess; and I kind of love it anyway.

Until I don’t think like Caravaggio

Qualified Like

If you like this record, check out: Uncle Meat, The Mollusk, We’re Only in it for the Money

4:44 – Jay-Z

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“There’s a fine line between heaven and here” – Bubbles

Lao-Tzu once said “Celebrate your Failures, lament your successes”; Jay-Z has learned that, to his benefit, on 4:44, an album that manages to be fractious, fractured, and the compelling kind of incomplete.

Coming on the heels of Lemonade, 4:44 sits in the middle of two swirling eddies pulling in opposite directions. On the one, a canny business man, father, artist, and lover who broke Public Enemy’s first rule and fell for their own hype; on the other, a former gangsta, an untrustworthy malcontent, a lascivious hateful man who doesn’t know who deserves what, and, most glaringly, a black man.

This album is as defined by its swirling palate of chaos, as by its jagged definition of what it means to be black: a perpetual pull, the mule accompanying 40 acres pushing its heels as it’s master forces it forward. From the opening air raid sirens of “Kill Jay Z”, where Jay kills his ego onward, there is an ever present tension. An irreconcilable abnegation of self.

The samples, often distorted, broken, atonal, rough around the edges support this sense of internal chaos. “The Story of OJ” – one of my favorite tracks – is sprinkled with pitch-shifted vocal fragments while a glitch-fixed piano falls scatters tense high-key fragments. A recognition of being a smart man, a rich man, everything the american dream epitomizes; and yet, he can’t escape the status as a house, field, rich or poor n****r.

How frustrating that’s gotta be: to do everything you can, and still be somehow less. Jay-z’s earthy straightforward flow is at its most barren and effect: no frills, with concrete vector imagery: every detail thrown into a centrifuge, crashing into each other, paints a pollock that may be worth a million or two, if he plays it right.

While generously allotted throughout the album, Shawn Carter’s essential struggle is brought to its essence in that Story. Simultaneously laughing at OJ’s declaration of “I’m not black, I’m OJ”, he reflects the shattered mirror of his own financial failures and successes. He muses obsessively on his vast fortune, his business acumen, his musical talents, all with an easy lilt. But that refrain punctures. He can’t escape it, no matter how successful he gets he’ll always be black.

Even his self-aggrandizement only serves to make him a target of his own verbal slaughter. Every lyric about his ability to seemingly create millions out of thin air runs into constant barrage of nips and jibes of his failures, whether giving too much credit to Kanye, Cheating on Beyoncé – going Eric Benét (almost)- or shooting his own brother. No stone is left unturned.

I can’t claim to understand that kind of immense frustration. To feel and be seen as perpetually behind, to be less, no matter how high you fly. The whole album rides on that tension. Whether it’s discussions of is upbringing; his family; or his admission of guilt. Nothing comes easy on this record.

I don’t consider this album an apology, either. It’s too ambivalent for that. It feels more like a struggle. No effort is made to draw a neat little box around the feelings or self-perceptions Carter goes through, whether it be the struggle of reconciling a hard past with a different kind of hard, or his relationship with the Queen.

It’s always good to have an emotional thru-line, and, in the case of this record, his relationship with Queen bey is certainly a jagged kind of good. It reeks of uncertainty, tentativeness, and out and out frustration.He sounds most vulnerable on the centerpiece of the record “4:44” when he discusses emotional coldness, the fear of alienation; learning how to be soft. He sounds terrified of a lack of intimacy more than a knife in the back. It’s a refreshing kind of terror.

Even when she makes an appearance as the choir on “Amen”, there is a constant feeling of guilt and uncertainty, layered in a sheath of recognition; a decisive acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It’s a refreshingly complicated line to straddle.

Further, Master-Z’s production is on point. Un-bassy, with a lot of the samples occupying the mid’s  and trebles, there is a real sense of turmoil gleaned from the spare, often unnerving production with its ticklish uncomfortable flourishes. I often feel like Z was listening to 22, a million liberally when coming up with the sampling style.

In fact, I feel like this record, although more coherent (and compelling, fight me), than Bon iver’s cut, is very much a similar thesis statement: my shit is falling apart, and I’m watching it happen from a million glittering angles. It feels like pieces of a broken mirror arrayed against each other to create a mirror house, with the Ego of Jay-Z as some devilish doppelganger to  as its pepper’s ghost hologram, not quite real, but uncomfortably so, at the same time.

It’s a statement I gravitate toward regularly: inconclusive chaos. That entropy that accompanies the end of the universe. This album sounds like the Buddha’s walking to the Bodhi tree, but not his sitting under it. The soul samples on what is undoubtedly the centerpiece “4:44” have a dramatic heft because of the directness and uncertainty.

That said, the back half of the album isn’t nearly as consistently excellent as the first half; and by the end it has certainly lost its steam. But it’s a record that wisely chooses for brevity, and it is a rich experience, after its reasonably short run time of 36 minutes.

The essence of Taoism, Buddhism  and eastern dualistic religions is the tension of this album: one end of the spectrum looks much like the other. Success is its own kind of failure, and vice versa.

And when its handled this honestly: ugly and naked and uncertain and ripped in a million pieces, it certainly hits the right spot with me.

Until I stop running away.

Review: Harmony of Difference EP – Kamasi Washington

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Kamasi’s really pushing the definition of “EP”, with this one.

Coming from a tradition of Non-Tradition and Rule Breaking, Kamasi Washington’s EP Harmony of Difference is one of my favorite new jazz records in recent memory; the other being Washington’s Opus Epicus the 3 hour odyssey “The Epic” released in 2015.

This record falls into what could be called the sub-genre of Jazz Innovation, which includes the hallowed ranks of Trane, Sanders, and Ayer as the free-jazz Holy Ghost. You’ve likely heard the jokes about these types of record: 20 minute jazz odyssey.

They follow the same series of beats: an introduction of theme via the Bass line, followed by some melodic vamping; sometimes there will be a few short tracks in which themes are explored in a bit more detail. Then, transcendence.

Some of my personal favorites are stuff like the immortal A Love Supreme by Monsieur John Coltrane, Karma by Pharaoh Sanders, Enlightenment by McCoy Tyner, and contrapuntally The All Seeing-Eye, and Spiritual Unity by Wayne Shorter and Albert Ayer.

This record has that same sense of bombastic abandon and push for innovation. It has those tasteful ethereal themes that connect us through the soundwave vibrations of the spiritual instant known as Om. Scattered throughout the 6 tracks, among the sultry bass lines; the shimmering keyboards; the funk grooves; and Washington’s classic playing, there is that sense of increase and tension. That almost sexual ecstasy that comes with communing with the divine from the sound of a reed and enamelled keys on gold.

There is the wonderfully cohesive compositions, at which Washington truly excels. His compositions have enriched everything from Flying Lotus to Kendrick Lamar, and he has a true ear for those classic anti-classic Jazzsterpieces. He has the soaring, and the falling. The moments of diffusion such as the song “perspective”. The arrangements match the tone of the songs subject matter. Desire establishes the theme, while the ensuing tracks veer and shuck and jive into their own thematic territory, culminating in a thirteen minute sublimation “Truth”.

It’s a joy to listen to, I tell you.

This record is not quite what I would call a game-changer, though. This is a record defined by its influences, almost to the point of being slavishly devoted. They’re good influences, and this piece works well as a self-contained suite with rich harmony and melodies. But it is part of a tradition. He doesn’t dramatically push the form. He doesn’t go balls out with his compositional choices. There is a sense of balanced, but it is weirdly dimmed, considering the tradition from which it comes

For every new flourish that is Washington’s own, there are melodies and compositions that feel eminently familiar. There is a sense that he has imbibed his forebears wholeheartedly. And while these compositions have character and flavor all their own, they have a recognizable source. I can’t escape that personally.

But, when I listened to this record for the first time, I was taking a walk on a sunny autumn day, with the leaves falling in the Boston Garden amongst the flowers and beauty. As “Truth” built upon all the previous themes like a modal voltron, I was taken by a moment of serenity; the sea of bodies falling around me in harmonious equidistance. The glass green pond with Swans swimming; the buskers. The taste of my coffee and the just right temperature of the air against the shimmering blue felt just right.

And when it’s that rich, I can’t help but fall into the Harmony life.

The Guard has Changed. Let’s see what Washington’s got next.

Review: The Desaturating Seven – Primus

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We’re going down to the valley to suck the life out of rainbows, gonna have ourselves a time.

As long as I’ve been an openly weird individual, I have found something kindred in Primus; from their openly surreal lyrics that sound like Bertolt Brecht on meth watching Barney the Dinosaur and having an existential crisis; to their deep vein thrombosis varicose rhythm section, composed of the eternal slap-bass of Signor Claypool like some creepy uncle who your parents tell you to stay away from, and currently, Tim Alexander from the classic line-up. From the seas of cheese, to the morbid absurdism of Horny Tom-Cats and Muddy Murderers, I have always had a soft spot for the particular insanity of Les Claypool’s most famous outfit.

So it’s no great shock that I enjoy The Desaturating Seven, at, if nothing else, the minimum capacity for enjoyment. It has all the hallmarks of classic Primus: twisted melodic slap bass that marches alongside the guitar-as-rhythm low-key virtuosity of Larry Lalonde, marrying the drums in unholy matrimony while they explore the bizarre, the twisted and the immoral with a happy Wonka jaunt.

But, weirdly enough, the album was a bit of a shock. I say weird only because I wasn’t expecting to be shocked. I was expecting Primus to be Primus. But they got me with an album that is closer to a song, than an album. Which is weird, for a band predicated on Lynchian insanity.

This record is pure concept, based on a horrifyingly delightful children’s tale “The Rainbow Goblins”, the album chronicles the events of the story as the Goblins – who eat color – are on their way to a valley filled with color to consume. In the end, their greed gets them, and they die from eating too much. Classic Primus subject matter.

Poetic like a fart-joke.

But unlike a regular Primus record, which is 40-50 minute of riffs, bizarre vignettes and characters, and an exploration of the dark-side with teletubbies brightness, this record is a sustained exploration of one band of fucked up children’s story characters, and it’s only 34 minutes. It’s also not one metric fuckton of brick wall funk-rock.

Unlike their greatest records, this album has space in between the moments of bat-shit insanity, which are more muted than their previous highs. It’s a new experience.

And, initially, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I’ve been used to Blue-Collar Meth Heads, Icon worship to the Bad Lee Van Cleef, a weirdly high volume of references to fish. I was used to a continuous stream of inventively textured bass, and Claypool sounding like an Oompa Loompa on Coke.

And I got that, mostly. But I also got wide-open spaces of ambience. I got an uninspired LaLonde The solo on “The Dream” but it is the singularity of concept that took the most time to get used to.

One of Primus’ gifts if their ability to tell a story; but they’re better as flash fiction, than novels. They can paint these vivid pictures of the creepier unaware elements that hide in the shadows of children’s story. John the Fisherman, Tommy the Cat, Mud: all these stories are self-contained within their respective songs and have hallmarks of a sense of place and style.

But by focusing on one cast of characters, Primus becomes diffuse. The characters don’t have that eminent shock value like they used to; and this took time, but I actually finally enjoy it.

This is a Primus Meta-Song; a fact which acknowledges itself in the final track, looping around to the beginning with the same filtered and flanged acoustic riff that begins the album, even says “The Ends?”. Instead of having the dramatic impact of something like a Smosh Youtube video, or a Lydia Davis short story, they go into more detailed storytelling. Each song contributes to the whole, and reflects form as function.

Each song plays a part, and serves a role in the narrative. The spaces are wide to accommodate a more detailed story. It’s a children’s story, and it’s easy to follow. But from taken from this context, I find it a rich experience. I’m marching along with these gluttonous, only barely metaphors-for-real-life goblins while Claypool, Lalonde and Alexander tell a story, full of sonic and emotional peaks and valleys.

I like that. And it’s  not what I expected.

If you’re a Primus fan, check it out; if you’re not, find out what the people who wrote South Park is actually about.

As for me, I’m going to watch Teletubbies, and read a Pulp Novel.

Review: To the Bone – Steven Wilson

Goddamn, Steven Wilson knows how to write a melody.

Though he’s better known for crafting intricate prog-music, having a million side projects, and making sure that you forget what joy feels like (don’t watch this if you want to be happy ever again), and being the modern equivalent of every good prog-group you’ve ever heard of, Steven Wilson has always written great vocal melodies.

To The Bone is a testament to it.

Following Wilson’s masterful Hand. Cannot. Erase. record number 5 is almost meta in its approach to prog-music history. If you’ve ever listened to a shred of music of Prog greats, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson et. al., after those amazing huge-ass concept records with full scale orchestras, at least one tuvan throat singer, fifteen cadres of sitars, and a triangle for good measure, you have the “I’m too good for this band, fuck alla’y’all, it’s the 80’s” solo record, which features a drum machine because, well, the 80’s, and then some obnoxiously catchy tunes that don’t really sound like prog, because they’re as often in 4/4 as they are in 13/16 (real time signature, blegh).

And this record really takes that ethos to its logical extreme. The opening title track even has a drum machine opening, a spoken-word truism about how reality is subjective, and then a huge ass bass drop.

It’s magical, I fuckin’ tell ya.

And man, when Wilson wants to just write tight songs, with hooks that puncture your eye, pull at the cornea and rip it off with catchiness, he does. There is not one song on this record that is not expertly crafted pop that, given enough listens, wouldn’t have you bobbing your head. With songs like the “Same Asylum as Before” and “Permanating” with a straight monster of a bull-rush piano riff, and sweeter than sin guitar lines, while you have to shake your hips by compulsion, just because Wilson will not let up with the earworms. It feels very human.

You could be forgiven for finding Wilson’s previous efforts somewhat clinical: his previous solo records, no matter their greatness always had a sense of emotional restraint. He tuned his emotions to perfect-pitch, just like his productions. Every peak and valley had an element of calculation, to create a specific effect. Songs like “The Raven that Refused to Sing” are sung and played with just enough emotion to completely fuck you up; but only that, and no more. He uses his silken voice as just one more element.

This record is undoubtedly a messier beast. Without maestro’s like Guthrie Govan and Marco Minneman, or any of his other solo buddies, Wilson is on his own. He sings with passion on this record. He occasionally overblows his vocal lines; he plays solos that lack the perfect vigor and fluidity that fans have come to expect, and there is a sense that he is just existing for its own sake, rather than to sell an emotional point.

I’m…not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, this record is eminently listenable. It’s focused for the most part, its crystal production – with every sound living and breathing and fucking your ear drums – is a thing of beauty; and Wilson is letting himself out of his shell to express himself. I rather enjoy Ninet Tayeb’s contributions, as I did on Here Comes Everybody….Hand. Cannot. Erase. There is a vitality to this record  that is missing in some way on all of his previous records.

But it still has that qualities of the 80’s that I can’t shake. A weird clinical approach to it. It’s so under the surface that it doesn’t bother me a whole hell of a lot. But it can be distracting.

And Wilson doesn’t wholly give up his more grandiose impulses, which leads to some uneven moments throughout the records. “Song of Unborn”, “People who Eat Darkness” and other cuts on this record veer into prog wankery that I expect, and welcome, but on this record they can be jarring and unfocused, not because they’re bad, they just go against his intent.

Peter Gabriel’s solo records are almost completely devoid of his Genesis flourishes. The songwriting on those records is focused much more tightly. The prog is only a garnishment, comparative to the songwriter. That’s what makes them so frustrating for me.

While I appreciate that Wilson’s vision has veered more towards pop, given the context, and given the song-writing, it feels transitionary, and a little under cooked.

That’s ok though: when the music’s this goddamn catchy, I don’t need a perfect crystal of prog-perfection.

Until It’s how you will express
The essence of you

Review: Paradise Lost: Enough

“we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” – Satan, Paradise Lost

Life is language; and there is a point when you learn a new language -whether it be Italian, MySQL, The Palestrina, or the use of a quarterstaff – that you feel click in the back of your skull that changes everything. This click pivots the jumbled chaos of syntax, movements, prosody, inflections, genuflections, gesticulations, gestures, rules and reasons into something meaningful. An onrush of clarity. You see the invisible hand guiding all those moments that were once chaos and gain the most powerful invisible force of all: understanding. The language has not changed though: you have.

It is with that thought, that I review Paradise Lost: A Movement Collective’s latest performance: Enough.  

At this point, my status as a fanboy for this group is well established. So my thoughts on the quality of the piece are self-evident: it’s great. The choreography, the music, the flow all work magnificently. A Propos of my fanboy status, I have gained a modicum of understanding on the art of narrative dance, to my benefit; but you don’t need a background in dance, or theater to enjoy this piece, thanks to a number of factors that make this group so special. The good kind of hurt, in particular.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The story is simple, and potent: Noah (Matt Kyle), a homosexual boy meets another boy – Justin, played by Artistic Director Tyler Catanella – at a party, and spends one spectacular night of intimacy. The hitch? Justin is both closeted, and in a relationship with Kate (Taylor McMahon). As a result – and some rumors that ensue, and Justin’s rejection – Noah finds himself ostracized, bullied and pushed to the limit. Pushed closer and closer to the edge by both others, and worse,  himself until he’s had enough and decides to end it all. Fortunately, Hope (played by Cassie Samuels) saves the day, literally and figuratively, and Noah comes to accept himself, and moves on, accepting that he doesn’t have to fight who he is, to exist. He is enough. 

Noah (Matt Kyle) alone; Photo Credit: Tim Lewis

The fact that I’m able to sum up the story in a paragraph is fantastic. Simplicity is the source, and companion of complexity; and, to go with a now 2 year long running pun, the devil is in the details. I will never tire of that one guys, sorry.

…shitty humor aside, this piece is subtle and sophisticated not in spite of, but because of the harmony of simple premise and design, paired with complex execution.

That harmonic tension is everywhere: the set-design presents a minimalist canvas on which to paint detailed strokes: Six Light columns, a Scaffold, and some additional overhead colored lights play against this tightly focused personal drama.  The story follows a conventional three-act structure, and at no point does the story confuse you with its movement or beats. The story and theme are straightforward.

Noah (Matt Kyle) and Justin (Tyler Catanella) falling apart; Photo by Tim Lewis

But then we have the interplay of Choreography and Narrative and Music, all written and maintained by Peace Pilgrim, a.k.a artistic director and evidently artistic-swiss army knife, Tyler Catanella. Each of the above pieces feature precise, subtle interplay that keep it tight like a Miles Davis jam, but never call attention to themselves. All done with Dialogue in absentia: The ultimate simplicity, that makes everything difficult.

As a guy who’s paid to put words together in sequence, and is a generally verbose motherfucker, I cannot stress enough the importance – and power – of silence, simplicity and blank space. I have always appreciated the strength of this group’s use of it. The way it’s never a void, or an abyss, but equally rich in the tapestry of the stories it tells. Further, their understanding of Narrative increases each and every time I see them perform, and that silence grows increasingly vital to their voice.

With the above in mind, this piece has the most functional Choreography I’ve yet seen by them. I was there for the premiere of the initial version of Enough 2 years ago; and despite the intensity of that initial performance, the narrative was sometimes lost due to mishandled silence and a shorter length. This time around, I was constantly able to follow the track of the story, despite the expansion of the story itself, and more detailed Choreography; with more moving parts and players, over a longer time. The scenes of being at a party, felt like a party; the contractions of large scale dance numbers with the whole collective, and more intimate character interactions flowed like a river. The acting was a part of the dance. The movement was the story; the dialogue unnecessary

More, dance was cleverly used to elaborate the psychology of the characters: “Dream” versions of each character play as a wonderful conceit to explore the inner lives and motivations of the characters, without lengthy monologues. Dressed in black, these characters represented the characters secret selves – their shadows – characters, without ever feeling forced, and in service of the piece’s theme of self-love and acceptance. They were, in some ways, literal Shadows.

The result of all that is unexpectedly harmonic in other ways: emotional resonance.