Monday, January 31, 2011

Sam Beam's Clean Slate



There have been more than a few times when, either due to honest mistakes or a lack of proper fact-checking, I've had to put my foot in my mouth with a given opinion or phrase in my writing. I usually clear this up via the comment tab or a grim acknowledgment in a future review or essay, and I move along. This doesn't happen too often, but when it does, I'm usually chagrined enough to do the proper research or allow enough time to make sure that little mistakes don't happen. I mention all of this because, after listening to the latest Iron & Wine album Kiss Each Other Clean, I kept thinking about a small passage from my review of the latest Decemberists release. I had written: "As much as I adore Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam, for example, some artists, despite their brilliance, tend to focus on the same lyrical and musical styles." Beam, who records as Iron & Wine, has gone in a completely new direction this time, to the point that my assertion that he follows a consistent style has been rendered completely false. If one wants to make a connection between newness and cleanliness, then Kiss Each Other Clean is probably the most apt album title of the new year.

I've long considered myself an Iron & Wine fan, but my appreciation for his music doesn't border on the obsession that I normally deserve for other musicians or bands (see: The Decemberists). I genuinely enjoy the beautiful lyrics, hushed tones, and stark guitar accompaniment, a minimalist combination that makes for stunning music. His sounds have consistently been marked by a sort of crossover appeal, in that his songs and albums have been enjoyed equally by Pitchfork readers and heard by fans of the Twilight films. Like any medium, music has a tendency to be divided up by labels, with various cliques coveting and dismissing certain artists, and a unifying voice like Sam Beam is all too rare. My enjoyment of his music is based heavily on two of his EPs--Woman King and The Sea And the Rhythm are short samples, but contain some of the best work he's done, and the EP formats of those albums are openly defied by their scope. Kiss Each Other Clean begins with "Walking Far From Home," a track that hints to a typical Iron & Wine album, and in the best of ways. It takes a poetic repetition of the idea of random visualizations, and the constant stream of images keeps building and growing more evocative:

"Saw a prisoner take a pistol
And say 'join me in a song'
Saw a car crash in the country
Where the prayers run like weeds"




However, even though it follows Beam's expected lyrical path, the music accompaniment is more layered than usual, and his voice takes on immediate confidence, and while his delivery is usually quiet and whisper-like, his new vocal command hints that the new album is going in a different direction. Once the listener gets used to this, it veers into even more unexpected patterns. By the time "Monkeys Uptown" kicks in, the sounds become more pop-like, and weave together lyrics that are both stark and humorous, creating a song that's immediately infectious yet asking for close listening:

"But no one likes a beggar slightly overdressed
And trouble comes in funky clothes
You can always find a razor lying in the road
And it's looking like you better do what they say
Those monkeys uptown who told you not to fuck around"

Towards the end, listeners are thrown for yet ANOTHER loop, as songs like "Big Burned Hand" open with funk-style jazz horns, as if a song from a completely different artist has found its way onto an Iron & Wine release. I had to listen to some of the songs multiple times, and as I enjoyed them, I realized that I'd never guess they were by Beam had I listened to them randomly. Kiss Each Other Clean is more than an example of an artist breaking out of his or her comfort zone; it's a brazenly new sound that encompasses varying styles and expansion from someone normally noted for scaling things back. One can almost imagine Beam creating this album as a challenge, to show that his musical acumen can be applied to varying genres, including (but not limited to) folk, jazz, funk, and classic rock. However, none of the songs feel out of place, and they all retain his penchant for strong lyrics. For anyone expecting his usual style, Kiss Each Other Clean could be called shocking, and in a positive way.

Returning to my previous statement about the broad appeal of Iron & Wine, it has to be noted that this is his first album for Warner Bros. after releasing his previous albums and EPs on Sub Pop. While this notion may turn my positive assessments into seemingly negative ones, I cannot help but wonder if the album has been produced to be more, well, mainstream, despite the fact that plenty of his work has been featured in and around various pop culture mediums. A lot of critical mileage has been accumulated over the notion of independent artists who venture into more "radio-friendly" releases. As I write this, I can't help but assume that some of his more ardent fans may be turned off of these new styles. However, he's not taking any steps back by venturing out so drastically. Perhaps this is a sign of more complicated works to come, or maybe he'll return to his quiet folk-song roots. However, it's hard not to tip ones cap to such a major musical change, especially since his lyric writing is just as evocative as ever. If this is a totally new Sam Beam, he's definitely talented enough to explore these other sounds, and while I can envision the occasional hiccup if he continues this way, Kiss Each Other Clean is a strong record even if it takes a few listens to warm up to the difference.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Turning On the Lights: "Sex At Dawn"



As a freshman in college, I took an introductory psychology course that came with a fairly standard textbook and a fairly eccentric professor, both of which combined to make the course strictly introductory and not instilling an immediate desire to take more psychology electives, at least from what I took away from the class. However, one of the professor's offhand remarks on the textbook was very true: the chapters on human sexuality, while well-written for the most part, and intended for college students, had a dose of humor infused with the lesson plans. The only particularly "humorous" passage that I recall explained how women can achieve multiple orgasms until little things like a persistent telephone take their mind off the task at hand; the effect was one of a nervous parent attempting to ease the discomfort of talking with a child about sex. Of course, most books about human sexuality tend to take tones of either consistent humor or consistent seriousness. Thankfully, as I read Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, I found that the writing styles of authors Christopher Ryan and Caclida Jetha to be humorous when needed, yet treating the subject with complete scientific curiosity and journalistic research. To put it another way, the book treats sex as what it is: a part of the human condition, and no more in need of diffused tension than a look at modern eating habits or fashion styles.

Surprisingly, Sex At Dawn experienced little to no immediate backlash when published last summer, which is surprising since its central themes show that even the most innovative early sex researchers were hampered by societal constraints (not very shocking), and that evolution and current studies of ape behavior (and of cultures not exposed to Western ideals) show that monogamy is not ingrained in our genetic makeup (a hypothesis sure to shock and provoke many people). Ryan and Jetha make it clear that they are not dismissing monogamy; rather, history has shown, from sex scandals to mating behaviors, that the idea of life-long partners struggles against our deep-seated desires. The early sex researchers, most notably Charles Darwin, had little true knowledge about sex, and the combination of inhibitions and general unease of the subject has had drastic consequences throughout history. A majority of what Ryan and Jetha discuss might seem like common sense, but in world history, misinformation has often reigned supreme.

"If women were as libidinous as men, we're told, society itself would collapse. Lord Acton was only repeating what everyone knew in 1875 when he declared, 'The majority of women, happily for them and for society, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.'
And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren't particularly sexual creatures, in cultures around the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, muttered insults about 'insatiable whores,' pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnoses of nymphomania or hysteria, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality...all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control (39)."

Anxiety about sex can be attributed to religion, society, and to an extent, politics, but the book only points fingers and criticizes people's beliefs on sex only when it leads to problems (which, sadly, it almost always does). One of the many tribes and societies documented in Sex At Dawn is the Mosuo tribe, people in a Chinese region in which sex is simply part of their culture, with no shame or stigmas associated with male and female sex drives. However:

"When even these heavy-handed tactics failed to convince the Mosuo to abandon their system, [Chinese] government officials insisted on bringing (if not demonstrating) 'decency' to the Mosuo. They cut off essential deliveries of seed grain and children's clothing. Finally, literally starved into submission, many Mosuo agreed to participate in government-sponsored marriage ceremonies, where each was given a 'cup of tea, a cigarette, pieces of candy, and a paper certificate.' But the arm-twisting had little lasting effect. Travel writer Cynthia Barnes visited Lugu Lake in 2006 and found the Mosuo system still intact (130)."



(Cacilda Jetha and Christopher Ryan)

While sobering practices and statistics are unavoidable, it's balanced with utterly fascinating looks at ape behaviors that offer insights into our own sexual impulses (as the authors state: we're not descended from apes, we are apes). Chimpanzees have often been the standard model for studies on human behavior, especially with such a close DNA match, but the bonobo offers a much stronger case to being a link to our ancestral sexual and interactive behaviors. Without "dumbing down" the source material, Ryan and Jetha cite excellent case studies, highlighting genetic similarities that are often overlooked or dismissed.

"It seems that [anthropologist Helen] Fisher, who shares our doubts about other aspects of the standard narrative, is about the reconfigure her arguments concerning the advent of long-term pair bonding and other aspects of human prehistory to better reflect these behaviors shared by bonobos and humans. Given the prominent role of chimpanzee behavior in supporting the standard narrative, how can we not include the equally relevant bonobo data in our conjectures concerning human prehistory? Remember, we are genetically equidistant from chimps and bonobos. And as Fisher notes, human sexual behavior has more in common with bonobos' than that of any other creature on Earth (73)."

There are scores of other passages and examples of both primate and human case studies regarding sexuality, but no amount of scientific data or proofs can overcome the contemporary hesitation to discuss sexuality in an open, thoughtful environment. Yes, major strides have been made, but the notion of living in heavily sexualized society still has a lot to overcome, and Sex At Dawn does its best to prove that our "urges" are not something to be repressed or confused about, but simply part of our physical and psychological lives. However, this is easier said than done. The more solemn historical data presented in the book shows that even in modern times, areas of sexuality are still misunderstood or deemed too "taboo" to seriously discuss.

"But still, the war continues. As recently as 1994, pediatrician Jocelyn Elders was forced from her post as Surgeon General Of the United States for simply asserting that masturbation 'is part of human sexuality.' The suffering caused by centuries of war on masturbation is beyond calculation. But this we know: all the suffering, every bit of it, was for nothing. Absolutely nothing (287)."

Not for scintillating reasons, Sex At Dawn is an excellent work in a book world dominated by obvious sexual inquiries. Ryan and Jetha aren't exactly advocating graphic sexual discussions at every dinner table and coffee shop in the world; however, these ideas need to be explored and understood. There is simply a lot of fear, and people have a lot of questions (for example, as a child, my grandmother told me a story about nearly being hit by her own mother for simply reading a newspaper as a young girl and asking what the word 'rape' meant). Ryan and Jetha strike a fine balance between the scientific and the sociological, and for a subject that almost inevitable brings up a select group of emotions, their writings and hypotheses are truly grounded in their own fascination with sex's science and history, and it's difficult to not be equally impressed by the work that anthropologists and psychologists are doing to facilitate knowledge and open dialogues. Their style is witty and engaging, but without sacrificing journalistic explorations and immediate attention to the specific issues.

Work Cited:
Jetha, Caclida and Ryan, Christopher. Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins Of Modern Sexuality. Copyright 2010 by Christopher Ryan and Caclida Jetha.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January Hymns: The Decemberists



"The beauty in Colin Meloy's songwriting, and the maturation of the Decemberists as a complete unit is that they very well could have been a "one and done" band, since their music had the potential to regress into satire or, even worse, repetitiveness."

I wrote this back in 2009 for Aught Music as part of my take on the Decemberists' debut album, Castaways and Cutouts. As I also mentioned in my other writings, my appreciation for the band stretches back for many years, and while I tend to be biased in their favor, I still keep thinking about how drastically wrong things could have gone for them. Their early albums for Kill Rock Stars contained songs about gin-runners, World War I soldiers, and chimney sweeps. While originality bordering on audacity worked wonders, I don't think anyone would have immediately blamed early critics for thinking that the band would peter out and be remembered today only in terms of hipster favor. However, 2005's Picaresque, while still based in a combination of old-time storytelling and modern hints, was much more expansive, creating miniature narratives contained within single songs. Every since moving to Capitol Records, songwriter Colin Meloy has continually upped the potential, creating masterful concept albums based around Japanese folklore (The Crane Wife) and an absolutely stunning rock-opera about (naturally) ill-fated lovers and an evil queen (The Hazards Of Love). After that last feat, what could be next? How much more inventiveness be packed into a single album before veering into experimental tones? This week, the band released The King Is Dead, and has again gone into new territory. However, this new territory is not marked by more complexities. The Decemberists have scaled back drastically this time around, and have offered their interpretation of Americana.

Sans Meloy, the other members of the band teamed up last year for a small album of almost exclusively instrumental bluegrass-folk songs, Feast Of the Hunter's Moon, under the name Black Prairie. The King Is Dead is not an extension of this, but rather an impressive combination of classic sounds with a more modest lyrical approach by Meloy. The opening track, "Don't Carry It All," is an emotional prairie hymn, exploring personal freedom disguised as a harvest ode.

"And you must bear your neighbor's burden within reason
And your labors will be born when all is done"

For a songwriter as historically-based as Meloy, this is a curious, yet effective opening. It could be viewed as a thematic hint to the rest of the disc, if the atmosphere The King Is Dead is meant to be more "historically rural" in tone. The usual sounds are there, but it's heavy on harmonizing, creating an uplifting group sing-a-long, not unlike a church hymn. Then, as if to appease the die-hard fans who have come to expect murderous Irish gangs and adolescent royalty in their music, "Calamity Song" becomes the "expected" Decemberists song, a more rocking dream landscape that nods back to the band's early millennium days:

"And the Panamanian child
Stands at the dowager empress' side
And all that remains is the arms of the angels"




For the most part, this minimalist album is not so much a return to their roots, but an entirely different package that, with their other works in hindsight, could have been their impressive debut instead of Castaways. However, while there's almost never such a thing as a perfect band or album, The King is Dead does hit the occasional stumbling block. "This Is Why We Fight" isn't a bad song, but in their war song canon, it's unnecessary, especially when compared to previous efforts like "The Soldiering Life" and "Sons and Daughters." The melody is impressive, but it's one of Meloy's weaker lyrical efforts, a repetitive poem that never really stays with the listener like other songs. Meloy has an excellent gift for selecting impressive female guest vocalists, as heard on the stunning layers provided by Shara Worden and Becky Stark on The Hazards Of Love. This time around, the guest is Gillian Welch, a singer/musician who has made her own impressive marks on contemporary American folk and traditional music. However, The King Is Dead offers her little to no true spotlight. She's merely relegated to being a backup singer, and it's almost impossible to pick her out among the chorus of voices, backup vocals that are harmonically impressive, but are a group effort, since Meloy does his normal job of carrying the weight.

These may be mild complaints, and overall, The King Is Dead (a titular nod to the Smiths, who Meloy has frequently cited as an inspiration), is an impressive album. However, given the musical novellas that the group has provided in recent years, it may be a bit unnerving to listen to a quaint American roots homage. There's no specific theme to follow, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I don't for a second believe that they've exhausted their abilities, but rather intentionally opted for a less bombastic approach this time around. And the fact that they can switch between styles without resorting to gimmicks is really an overall plus. As much as I adore Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam, for example, some artists, despite their brilliance, tend to focus on the same lyrical and musical styles. Perhaps The King Is Dead is merely an interlude before another sprawling epic. This album isn't Meloy's best example of lyrical writings, but there are subtle hints and imagery that take shape after multiple listens. "Down By the Water" is an excellent example. While Meloy doesn't go for specific details, he shows that his ear for metaphor is just as strong as his ear for history.

"All dolled up in gabardine
The lash-flashing Leda of pier nineteen
Queen of the water and queen of the old main drag"

I can imagine that some listeners will be disappointed by this album, but honestly, it's charming and smart, especially since The Hazards of Love will be very difficult to top, and they didn't go overboard trying to do that. This has been a quiet month for music releases, so in hindsight, this is a small gem to open 2011. It may not be immediately remembered at the end of the year, but the band has nothing left to prove. For now, the small scale is very effective.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Breakdowns: "Blue Valentine"



(WARNING: SPOILERS)

"What is potential?"

During one of more "relaxed" scenes in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, Cindy (Michelle Williams) eats dinner with her husband Dean (Ryan Gosling), smiling, drinking, and with genuine sincerity, tells him that he has the potential to do anything he wants besides being a house painter. There's nothing condescending about her insistence that he's better than what he does; she's not talking down to him or scoffing, but letting him know that she still sees his good, even as their marriage is cracking. He counters with the simple question, obviously offended, and continues his cycle of taking any perceived criticism as an attack, and conveniently turning his wife's encouraging words into a potshot at his personality. And thus, one of the many themes and motifs of the film becomes obvious, as if it wasn't visible before: the glimmers of happiness and growth are immediately blown away, leading to silence and/or arguments. And therefore, what one would hope would be a loving breakthrough simply makes a turn into one of the saddening circles in which Dean and Cindy are hopelessly spinning.

Disintegrating relationships are cinematic plots as old as movies themselves, but rarely have they been as realistic and uncomfortable as the one between Dean and Cindy. The film opens with their young daughter, Frankie, standing alone in the backyard, calling after her lost dog. She goes inside to wake Dean up, and he immediately goes into responsible father mode, holding her and reassuring her, even though he's half asleep (and likely hungover) with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. There's no doubt that he loves his daughter, but as the scene progresses, it becomes obvious that there's a blurry line between whether Dean is good with Frankie because he's a good parent, or because he's more of a child himself. They go into the bedroom to wake Cindy up for work, claiming to be tigers, and his solution for his daughter not eating her breakfast is to spread it on the kitchen table for them to lap up like leopards. In the background, Cindy watches them both, her eyes and face tired, both physically and emotionally. As she gets Frankie ready for daycare, it becomes obvious that she's the parent, and Dean acts more like Frankie's peer.

Blue Valentine jumps between the past and the present, and one of the early scenes shows a younger Dean getting a job with a moving company. His job interview isn't convincing, but he proves to be a hard worker, and during breaks with his co-workers, he waxes poetic on love and affection, mixed with a dose of realism. After helping an elderly veteran move into a nursing home, Dean touchingly arranges the man's room, setting up his Army uniform and his old wedding picture. Across the hall lies Cindy's grandmother, and the two young people meet under comical circumstances: she peeks into the room as Dean takes his day's pay off the old man's dresser, which his supervisor had left for him earlier. He catches her stare, and insists that he's not stealing from the old man, but has a job and the necessary funds to take her out on a date. She's cautious and reserved, but for all of Dean's soon-to-be exposed faults, he's undeniably handsome and charming.

Back in the present time, Dean impulsively sets up a "romantic" getaway to a motel with themed rooms (they end up getting the "Future Room"), and on the way there, Dean buys gas while Cindy stops in a liquor store, where she meets an old flame, Bobby. Bobby is upfront and blatantly inappropriate, asking if she's faithful to her husband. Resuming the drive, she tells casually tells Dean about the chance encounter, and he immediately becomes angry; we assume this is jealousy, but as the past scenes develop, we realize that he has every right to be upset with the idea of her seeing Bobby. As this realization unfolds, another realization kicks in: the jumps between time periods are not done as flashbacks. Instead, they chart and guide the audience to exactly where Dean and Cindy are at the present time, from young lovers to unhappy adults. We're not seeing "growth," except from an age standpoint. Their personalities--Dean's alcoholism and slacker tendencies, Cindy's unhappiness and problems with men--are constantly present, and while the film is not about finding out who's at fault. It's a realistic look at the fact that people are sometimes adverse to change, and that some relationships can be broken to the point where they are beyond saving.

A lot of attention has been given to the intimacy of Blue Valentine, specifically the sex between Dean and Cindy in their "Future Room," which nearly tagged the film with an (unnecessary) NC-17 rating. They're both drunk, and Dean attempts to make love to Cindy, leading to the hints that she, for possibly unknown reasons (given the context of her previous relationships), wants the sex to be more aggressive. Dean refuses to go along for fear of hurting her, and she's turned off by his amorous remarks about wanting to have another child. Their lovemaking comes to an abrupt halt as Cindy locks herself in the bathroom alone. I'm not about to go into musings about the frivolity of the MPAA ratings system; plenty of people have already done their share of critiquing, and there's already a fine documentary about it anyway. However, the fact that this film was nearly deemed "NC-17" for emotionally dramatic sequences is ridiculous. There were many instances during my screening in which I felt uncomfortable, but in the best of ways, thanks to the terrific writing and acting that is unafraid of depicting scenes that, frankly, happen to many people. Tidy, simplistic resolutions can be done wonderfully in film; however, audiences also need reality at times.

Gosling and Williams have been nominated for Golden Globe awards for their acting, and their performances are those rare ones in which the hype is warranted, almost to the point that there needs to be more attention. Gosling's performance as Dean is gripping, because of both his acting and his slight physical transformations between the character's younger self and older, more haggard state. Much like his performance in Half Nelson, his interpretation of Dean is a flawless blend of both charm and desperation. It can be too easy to say that he "inhabits" the role, but in all reality, he nails every emotional ebb and flow that Dean goes through, from early appeal to the broken realization that his marriage is falling apart. There's never any over-acting or melodrama. The audience never knows where Dean is going emotionally until he gets there, and even when he acts out, it's a fine balance between impulsiveness and utter sympathy.




Williams gave slight hints to her skills at portraying unhappiness in Brokeback Mountain, and here, hands down, she gives the best performance that I've seen this year. Cindy is an emotional wreck, but she gives the occasional laugh and smile in her happier moments, and much like Gosling, it's an emotional shock to see how Williams can alternate between despair and hope. Also, Cindy's nuances and history make her one of the strongest female characters in recent film. She's not lacking for male attention; it's revealed late in the film that she was offered a job promotion because her boss was attracted to her. The scene passes quickly, but Williams makes Cindy strong even in her crushed realization, since she felt that her skills, not her sex appeal, was what warranted her opportunity. She's smart and motivated, but in the end, she realizes that her own happiness is more important than keeping up an unhappy marriage for the sake of her daughter. There are plenty of actresses who have excellent emotional depth, but Williams elevates and explores Cindy better than any other actress. She's perfect at going back and forth between her youthful innocence and unabashed insistence on her own happiness. The final confrontation between Cindy and Dean is painful, but it becomes clear that she has an idea about what she needs to be happy, while Dean is left alone, with no choice but to change himself for the better or keep sinking. The film ends on a beautifully ambiguous note. The outcome is implied, but the fate of Dean and Cindy is really left up to the viewer.

Cianfrance has directed smaller pictures before, and Blue Valentine, while not exactly mainstream, is proving to be his major break. His directing is excellent, but beyond Gosling and Williams, the strength lies in his screenplay (co-written with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis), and the juxtaposition of time frames is done without any explanations, but still retains a fluid feel. There is no need for title cards or hints that the film will jump back and forth; any audience will be smart enough to catch on quickly, and Cianfrance's direction does not insult anyone's intelligence. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is just as layered and complimentary. The hues of blue may seem obvious, given the film's title, but combined with the gray desolation, they are done carefully without jarring the audience with overabundant cinematic flairs. Blue Valentine is a moving, tense film that is unequivocally artistic, but an example of an "art film" that really deserves a bigger audience. It's not for everyone, but with dozens of relationship movies made every year, it's rare to see one that truly tries to capture the notion of everyday, unanswered questions. As depressing and blunt as the film is at times, these characters are people from all walks of life, and the journey is much more important than the destination.