You know how some bands evoke a particular moment or phase in your life? Whenever I hear the excellent Songs from a Dark Horse, I’m transported back in time to the fall of 2008 when I lived in Denmark. Listening to that album became something of a bedtime ritual for me. After a day of exploring the dark, rainy streets of Copenhagen, I’d come home and play it each night as I showered by candlelight. They were dark days – the sun rarely peaked through the clouds and had already set by mid afternoon, but they were also some of the most beautiful and memorable days I’ve experienced.
Phil Moore and Beth Tacular of Bowerbirds (Photo D.L. Anderson)
Here they are. “In the Yard” first, quite a departure in my mind from their debut (until the chorus comes in at least)…
Declaration of War may not have secured an Oscar nomination, but it’s easy to see why it was France’s official entry in the foreign language category. The movie, directed by one of its stars, Valérie Donzelli, tells the story of a young couple, Juliet and Roméo (no, the coincidence does not go unoted) who meet, run away together, and, after a whirlwind romance soon find themselves with a baby boy. But it’s not long before things start to turn. Little Adam cries for weeks on end, has not yet learned to walk (at 18 months), and has taken to vomiting. Often.
Given its grim subject matter, Declaration of War could have easily slipped into a tired formula. But instead, its honest depiction of hardship and its inventive shots and sound editing make it one of the most interesting and compelling films I’ve seen in some time.
Take a look at the trailer:
The movie is a curious interplay opposing forces. No doubt some scenes will be controversial. One minute, the young couple is spending the night with their sick son at the hospital and the next, they’re making out with other people and partying. But it’s the tension between these binaries that makes the film feel real and amazingly honest. This is what life is – a constant push and pull: tragedy and comedy; love and war; chaos and order; chance and destiny (“Does this mean we’ll have a love story with a tragic ending?” Roméo jokingly whispers into Juliet’s ear when they meet at a party).
And the soundtrack is just as intriguing as its characters. LOUD, thumping club music sets the stage for Roméo and Juliet’s first meeting… cut to the hospital where heavy classical music sets the tone. Each time music is invoked, it demands to be heard and acknowledged – as if were a principle character as well. That weird experimental song in the trailer? It’s Laurie Anderson’s “Superman,” from 1981, and it’s a perfect fit. Heck, there’s even an odd musical sequence sung by the two stars sing themselves. (This is a French movie we’re talking about.)
Again and again, the music makes the film. In what I found to be the most memorable and affecting scene in the movie, Juliet has just learned about her son’s horrible diagnosis from a doctor. And suddenly, the regular sound of the hospital is replaced by a glitchy, pulsating beat the slowly builds and eventually erupts as Juliet sprints down the florescent lit hospital halls and eventually collapses on the shiny linoleum floor. (See 0:45-0:47 in the trailer.)
After I saw the movie, I learned that not only are (or is it were?) Valérie Donzelli and Jérémy Elkaïm a real-life couple… the story the movie depicts was first theirs. Their pain, their struggle, and ultimately, their triumph.
Antony and the Johnsons – Radio City Music Hall, January 26th
Antony Hegarty (photo Jan Erik Svendsen)
Now that I’ve heard Antony and the Johnsons play with a 60-piece orchestra (which features Thomas Bartlett on piano), I have trouble believing that their music was ever experienced with anything less. Last night Antony Hegarty broke my heart, then helped to reassemble all the pieces into something at once stronger and more tender than before. Haunting, transcendent, and wildly triumphant.
(Full review here on Brooklyn Vegan.)
Daniel Knox Presents “John Atwood: Black & Whites” – 92Y Tribeca, January 25th
Last night, I had the treat of witnessing a unique spectacle that was pleasing to both the eyes and ears. During the darkening days of last November, composer, performer, and film school drop-out Daniel Knox began to create a piece inspired by the photography of John Atwood. But Knox and Atwood’s connection began long before. Though the two never met until they lived elsewhere, they grew up on opposite sides of the same intersection in Springfield, IL. And though Knox began the process by studying Atwood’s images, he soon realized that it was perhaps Springfield that called out to him and provided the inspiration.
Atwood's work on display at the gallery at 92Y Tribeca
Regarding the experience, Knox explains:
There is a line running through our bodies of work that begins and ends in Springfield. I have tried, by looking back, to create a portrait of John, his work, and the landscape we both inherited that continues to fascinate and disgust us both.
Indeed, Knox’s music presents an interesting mix of emotions. Calmly moving along to black and white images of a flowing stream one moment, the piece would suddenly find itself in the darker terrain of smoking factory stacks, screeching violins, and intentionally discordant arrangements.
For more click on these helpful links, provided by Knox:
Jeff Mangum – Brooklyn Academy of Music – January 21st
Well, I didn’t think it was going to happen. I walked into BAM with the intention of seeing a movie, but upon hearing the excited chatter emanating from the huddles of pea coat-clad, bespectacled fans, I thought to myself, well maybe I’ll just check. I headed over to the ticket window to make my inquiry:
“Any chance you still have tickets for Jeff Mangum tonight?”
“Got one. In the balcony. Thirty-six dollars.”
I slowly walked away, trying to decide what to do next, and quickly texted a friend who had attended the Friday night show. But, thinking about the tiramisu I had melting in my purse, I decided to stick to my original plan and bought a movie ticket instead.
Fast-forward two hours. As I walked out into the lobby, the doors to the opera house where Mangum was scheduled to play flew open to mark the intermission following the opener, The Music Tapes. I decided to try one last time. After hovering for a few minutes, I asked a guy if he had an extra ticket, and somehow, I got lucky on the first try.
Going into the show last night, my knowledge of Jeff Mangum was built almost entirely on hearsay – testimonies from friends whose adolescence had been shaped by Neutral Milk Hotel. People who had recently seen him play in New Jersey spoke of the experience with the wide eyes and shallow breaths consistent with complete awe. (1) The man is a legend, and he hasn’t even had to OD or commit suicide to get there. So even though I didn’t wear out my copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea through repeated plays, I was curious. Curious enough that when I saw that extra ticket for the orchestra section, I coughed up the $40 and took it. Heck, given Mangum’s track record and long hiatus, who knows when I’d have the chance to see him again, let alone in the plush seats at BAM.
I quickly made friends with my fellow ticket holders because, well, that’s just what you do at a Jeff Mangum show. All the normal walls of aloofness and indifference are broken down. People are chatty, candid, kind, and open.
“Ok,” Audrey said to me as we took our seats side-by-side. “I almost didn’t come tonight because I get really emotional. Last time I sobbed a lot. But I’m ok. I promise.” The guy behind us leaned forward. “Oh were you at Asbury Park, too? It was amazing!”
But the chatter quickly subsided when Mangum took his seat surrounded by a cadre of acoustic guitars, and after briefly engaging with a few people in the audience, began the sad, slow strums of “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.” I looked over at Audrey. As promised, tears were already flowing freely down her cheeks.
Jeff Mangum (photo Phil Dokas)
Though the theatre was large, its size didn’t stifle the dialogue between Mangum and his fans. Throughout the show, Mangum responded to comments, queries, and requests voiced by the audience, going so far as to play “Little Bids,” a song he admitted he rarely plays live due at least in part to the pain it conjures.
What’s special about Mangum’s lyrics is that instead of being rooted in something as fleeting as teenage angst, they convey a deep down, lingering pain that is somehow as vague as it is acute. (2) As the giant frozen metronome on stage suggests, many of his songs are tied to specific years and dates, but none of that matters. His metaphors are enigmatic and abstract enough to loosen their bonds to time and to encompass both the specific memories and emotions of Mangum himself and the ones forged independently by each member of the audience.
Thus, “Holland, 1945” offers more than a chance to sing a long in person to Mangum. It facilitates a unique kind of catharsis – an opportunity to air all those feelings that have been tied to the song since its release in 1998.
Though the encore was relatively brief (just two songs), the finale was a lively one, thanks to Mangum’s quiet invitation to “come closer if you want.” Suddenly plush, assigned seats were left to abruptly swing shut as audience members flooded the foot of the stage. With the help of some of the guys from opening band, The Music Tapes (who also jumped in on a few other songs earlier in the evening), Mangum closed the set with another sing-a-long, this time “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Did I, like Audrey, cry at the sound of Mangum’s voice? No, but by the end of the night, I at least began to understand the Mangum phenomenon. Mangum’s voice may not offer me a direct link to my teenage past as it does for many die-hard fans, but it does at least connect me to a moment when all of Brooklyn was united and still.
Jeff Mangum set list Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2 Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone Engine
The Fool (instrumental)
Encore Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
— (1) I even have one friend who somehow ended up at one of Mangum’s recent birthday parties. They started playing this drawing game that resembles telephone, and Mangum apparently would draw things like “a girl with a flock of seagulls for a face.”
(2) Take these lines of “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone:”
Like a walk in the park like a hole in your head
Like the feeling you get when you realize you’re dead
This time we ride roller coasters into the ocean
We feel no emotion as we spiral down to the world
And I guess it’s worth your time
Because there’s some lives you live
And some you leave behind
Since it was founded in 2009, Kickstarter has helped countless people do what they love to do – create art. The concept is simple. Individuals who are short on cash but rich with ideas propose a specific creative project they’d like to pursue (complete with the amount of money necessary to achieve it), then with help from friends, family, and the arts-loving public, they are able to raise the funds to make it all happen. Everybody wins. The artist pursues a dream, the donors get rewards, and everyone gets to appreciate the end result – the resulting artistic projects.
Given today’s troubled economy, organizations like Kickstarter are perhaps more essential now than ever before. And… it’s also a great place to learn about exciting new artists, filmmakers, writers, and of course, musicians.
Take Vieo Abiungo. Led by talented multi-instrumentalist and film composer William Ryan Fritch, Vieo Abiungo offers a unique synthesis of instruments and soundscapes. It’s only a matter of time before we hear this stuff at the movie theatre.
With a sound like this, it’s no wonder Vieo Abiungo’s Kickstarter campaign was a huge success! For more from Vieo Abiungo, head over here.
Well, here they are – a list of my favorite songs of the year.
(The order is based more on mood, not necessarily on preference.)
“Wavlngth” – Headless Horseman, “HDLSS” compilation
Wild, exuberant, and infectious, this song jumped out at me as I was researching the hundreds of unknown bands descending on the city for CMJ in October.
“Whale” – Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress
Listen to the slowly unfolding beat as layers upon layers are piled on top of each other to create an earnest, upbeat diddy that is far more complex than it appears.
“Let England Shake” – PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
A strong intro to a strong album. Harvey proves she’s still got it.
“Lose It” – Austra, Feel It Break
Operatic, buoyant, and so much better than Zola Jesus, this is the song that sold me at SXSW. The bit at the end by the Lightman twins (of Tasseomancy) seals the deal.
“Cheerleader” – St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
I know, I know. “Cruel” was the song with the awesome music video. But can I help it? I love the slowly mounting tension this song holds before it erupts into a pounding, staccato chorus.
Det haster! – Casiokids, Aabenbaringen over aaskammen
This song is just a blast. Easy as that. (Now if I could just understand the Norwegian…)
“Heart in Your Heartache” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong
The album was a disappointment, but this song’s got everything that first made me fall in love with the band in 2009. A peppy, poppy masterpiece.
“I’ll Drown” – Sóley, We Sink
A veteran of fellow Icelandic artists Seabear, Múm, and Sin Fang, Sóley steps into the spotlight, herself, and the result is charming and magical, even though the lyrics depict heartache.
“Carve a Peach” – His Clancyness
Despite the artist’s cringe-worth name, I can’t get enough of this song – shimmering, laid back, and lovely.
“Bunhill Fields” – Amor de Días, Street of the Love of Days
Short and sweet, I could listen to this song on repeat for hours.
“Mona Lisa” – Atlas Sound, Parallax
Bradford Cox at his poppy, pitch-perfect best.
“Harsh Realm” – Widowspeak, s/t
Hazy, mesmerizing, and simple.
“Night After Night” – Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
This song consistently makes me cry. Beautiful, tragic, and haunting.
“Holocene” – Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver Another one for weeping – honest and breathtaking, a downer that somehow manages to simultaneously exude strength.
2011 may technically be a thing of the past, but what’s a few more lists, right? I’ll begin the trio with my favorite shows of the year. This list is always the most fun to put together because unlike the best songs or best albums, the list of contenders is limited to the shows that I managed to catch.
There are so many factors that go into a good show: the crowd, the venue, the sound, the music, and even the stage banter and my mood. All too often, concerts leave me rather indifferent. Here are a handful of the shows that I won’t soon forget.
13. Timber Timbre + Angel Olsen – Glasslands, April 14th* Of course, we’ve already established that Angel Olsen is a delight, so seeing her open for Timber Timbre was a nice treat – especially on such a small stage! For the late night show, Glasslands underwent a dramatic transformation. Usually whimsical and cozy, for Timber Timbre’s set, the venue transformed into an eerie, lantern-bedecked cavern, which mirrored the Canadian group’s spooky blues sound perfectly.
12. Lykke Li + Grimes – Webster Hall, May 18th* Maybe it was the sheer spectacle of Lykke Li dancing and prancing on stage or her amazing charisma – whatever the case, this was a solid show (even if Li’s album, Wounded Rhymes, didn’t hold up for me). Of course it didn’t hurt that Grimes, “the sound of the future” according to one music fan I spoke to, held the opening slot. These women will challenge even the most aloof hipster to get down.
Lykke Li (Photo Chris Jobling)
11. M83 + Active Child – Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 23rd* From Anthony Gonzalez’s introductory yelp (“Carry on! Carry on!”), M83 was an unstoppable force. They exuded confidence and competence in equal measure – a rare feat these days.
10. Bon Iver + The Rosebuds – United Palace Theatre, August 9th* I don’t expect Bon Iver’s 2011 release to make the cut for best albums, but there’s no denying it – that man’s voice could cure a cripple, enough so that I was even willing to give that ridiculous saxophone solo a pass.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Photo Renee)
9. Mount Eerie + Wyrd Visions – St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, June 19th* (Northside Fest)
Northside Fest brought some great artists to town in June, Mount Eerie, and this show was the highlight for me. Given the reverence lavished upon Phil Elverum by his fans (I turned into a giggling mess at the merch booth myself when I finally got my hands on The Glow, pt. 2 on vinyl), it only seemed right to watch the show from church pews. (Much love for Wyrd Visions, too!)
8. St. Vincent with Cate le Bon – Webster Hall, November 3rd* Perhaps one of the most flawless and powerful performances I saw all year – Annie Clark brings it.
St. Vincent (Photo Guus Krol)
7. Feist + Mountain Men – Church of the Intercession, October 3rd*
This show was certainly a surprise – for me and the hundred or so others in attendance. It’s not often you find yourself at a crypt in Harlem – especially with an orchestra, Leslie Feist, and the lovely women of Mountain Man. Definitely a treat.
Feist (Photo Jill Mapes)
6. Sea of Bees – Rockwood Music Hall (stage 2), October 21st(CMJ)
Good God, Jules Baeziger left me breathless with this one. In the midst of all the prefab beats, glitz, glitch, and hype that comes with CMJ, an intimate Sea of Bees set was just what I needed. I think I cried at this one. Multiple times. So good.
5. PJ Harvey – Terminal 5, April 19th* Yes, it was Terminal 5, but come on. We’re talking PJ Harvey here. I could hardly believe I was in the same room as her, let alone listening to her play from my perch in the VIP balcony. Cat Power may have been a bust last year, but PJ Harvey? Untouchable.
PJ Harvey (Photo Il Fatto Quotidiano)
4. Austra – Emo’s, March 17th (SXSW) I definitely didn’t know when I was getting into when I stepped into the Domino showcase at Emo’s last spring. With SXSW, it’s always a temptation to dart from show to show, but Austra definitely caught my eye, and I think you’ll see why…
3. Sufjan Stevens + Diamond Rings – Prospect Park, August 3rd*
Despite the fact that rain poured down on us for upwards of three hours, the mood at the park was ecstatic. Swirling neons, giant blow-up men, quick choreography, ridiculous costume changes, Kat Martino’s solo, and beach balls were just a few of the things that made this show pop. Epic in every sense of the word – and worth every drop of rain.
Sufjan Stevens (Photo Jon Uleis)
2. John Maus – 285 Kent, October 19th* (CMJ) Stepping into this show (another Domino showcase) felt like stepping back in time when music still mattered enough to make you forget everything else and embrace the moment in all its sweaty, smokey glory. Like a cult leader, Maus writhed and shook on stage with fervor as the music swept over the room of his unquestioning followers. Magic.
John Maus (Photo Stephan CK)
1. Laura Marling – Audio Visual Arts Gallery, September 28th*
A private song with Laura Marling? Hands down my favorite music moment of the year.
Picture me and Laura sitting in this room (Photo RK)
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being