Review – The Suburbs by Arcade Fire August 4, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I caused a bit of controversy among a couple of my smarter (music wise) friends by because I implied I was underwhelmed with this record. This is clearly not the case. It’s incredibly strong, but those strengths only serve to make it’s missteps more glaring. I didn’t extrapolate much on a few key tracks due to word count restrictions, but those thoughts boil down to this: Empty Room, Half Light II, Month of May and Sprawl II off this record will enter any greatest hits package this band puts out, along with Ocean of Noise, Intervention, Crown of Love and Power’s Out. Arcade Fire were probably the Meat Loaf of my high school career (both in terms of noisy, commercially successful releases and in terms of popularity and musical grandiosity) so it’s nice to see that they didn’t similarly put out only one classic. I had a tough time with this record and review, but I’m glad I stuck with it. 2010 has been strangely sparse in terms of records I’ve latched onto, so maybe it’s faint praise to say The Suburbs is a highlight. I don’t think so, but maybe.

he Suburbs is an agonizing record. It’s agony to listen to and agony to ignore. For every moment you feel drawn to it, you have two of rage at the change of a formula that worked so well and one wondering whether Arcade Fire have improved upon it. Sandwiched between classics are songs sounding like single fodder, throw-aways padding what should have been Preakness in their Triple Crown. These stumbles may not matter.


For the most part, Win, Regine, and company seem at odds with the sweeping elegiacs that have thus far made up their fingerprint. They’re done with mini-epics and have moved onto a collection of cogent moments, leaving the album to be the singular experience, not single tracks. There are no lineal connections with their previous work, and though stompers “Month of May” and “City With No Children” channel “Antichrist Television Blues,” these references are passing. As such, comparisons have already been drawn to OK Computer. More poignant is the disparity between the latter album and Kid A. Little remains of the past, but it is unquestionably the work of them same band.

Bookending title tracks “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (continued)” give the album some narrative anchors, and discography highs “Empty Room” (sounding like a neon Bible b-side layered over grinding shoegaze, which is to say outstanding), and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” moderate missed opportunities in “Ready To Start” and “Deep Blue.” Only briefly do they abandon loneliness to revisit the apocalypse they’re so fond of writing about in “Suburban War” (with, again, reference to career best “Ocean of Noise.”) Contained in it’s a final movement as good as they’ve ever done.

Like the exurbs they discuss, The Suburbs is only frustrating and distant on first glance. Peering under a layer of static and despondence is a challenge with enough reward to merit the undertaking. Butler croons “The music divides/us into tribes,” something doubtless to happen among their fanbase. Their loss, it would seem.

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Review – Inception July 27, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I come down a little hard on Inception here, I think. There has been enough fawning praise elsewhere that I think I was subconsciously pushed to point out what I saw to be it’s flaws. I’ll restate because I’m not sure I was clear enough: Inception is the best movie to hit theaters this summer (wide, at least. I hear Winter’s Bone was awesome, and as I’ve said I Am Love was awesome) and one of the best this year. I’ve seen it twice and would see it a third time in a heartbeat.

Christopher Nolan might not be the best director of our time (he comes close), but he certainly is the loudest. Fashioning a strong relationship with Warner Bros. — owner of one of, if not the most effective marketing machines on the planet — Nolan is their newly-minted golden boy in a tenuous situation: we have been talking about Inception for what feels like forever. That amount of hype would bend and break most films, but Nolan, no doubt steeled by helming one of the largest film franchises ever in Batman, just internalized that pressure and made what might be his masterpiece.

Inception is about dreams — the creation of dreams, the manipulation of dreams, and how those dreams can shake and shape us. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dominic Cobb, an extractor of the highest order. He can walk into your brain, steal an idea, and leave without a trace, all while you sleep. When Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires them to leave a trace via a near impossible process called “inception,” the rewards outweigh the risk. “Don’t think about elephants. Now, what are you thinking about?” remarks Cobb’s partner Arthur, played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, 500 Days of Summer), explaining how true inspiration is impossible to fake. Christopher Nolan seems to agree.


What follows is a delirious trip into multiple planes of reality, a mind-melter that for better or worse will conjure memories of the recent Shutter Island. Cobb enlists the help of a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page of Juno, Hard Candy, and Trailer Park Boys fame) and a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy of Bronson, Layer Cake, and Scenes of a Sexual Nature) to break into Cillian Murphy’s (28 Days Later, Sunshine) dreams and convince him to break up an energy conglomerate founded by his dying father.

Inception is, unequivocally, this summer’s best movie (so far, that is — early reports call Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a contender). It’s a dense, thrilling, highly creative film that gives the finger to “dumb fun” films in style. It’s the best money you can spend at a theater right now.

Comparisons to Fellini’s 8 1/2 will abound as it seems as likely an allegory for the filmmaking process as it is a straightforward action picture. Debate roars over the finer points of the film’s message, forcing attentive viewers to discuss the nature of reality, perception, and obsession at length. No matter the answers to the many questions it raises, that it elicits a response other than “that was crap,” makes it stand head and shoulders above this season’s crop.

While exceptional, Inception is not perfect. Complaints are similar to Nolan’s other offerings. The script is Christopher’s baby, with rewrites extending into the early part of the decade. The absence of writing partner and brother Jonathan Nolan is felt in the terse and at times oppressively serious tone of the film. There are a few moments of great levity, but they are few and far between. This becomes an issue during the trademark Nolan, needfully long exposition: gobs of information force-fed (albeit in an exciting manner) to an audience just to enable their enjoyment of the explosive third act. He makes films like a prog-rock song — bounding gallops out of the gate, settling into a lengthy digression on why he is more brilliant than you, frequent bursts of excitement through the fog and an end garnished with fireworks. The Mars Volta should be jealous.

That said, Inception so ably sucks you in you’ll barely notice the cold characterization and minor issues it has. From zero-gravity acrobatics to a homicidal Marion Cotillard flowing through Cobb’s dreams like an assassin, Inception lives up to every bit of hype.

At one point in the film, Ariadne remarks how building a dream is “less about the visual and more about the feel of the dream.” She wonders what happens when she alters the physics of the dream world. That world then literally flips upside down, a city folding onto itself, all spectacle and shock. Looking at what she has done, she says, “it sure is something, isn’t it?” to a similarly moved Cobb. “Yes it is,” he responds quietly. It sure is, Mr. Nolan.

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Review – I Am Love July 22, 2010

This flick was my first time at an honest to goodness press screening. Not going to lie, it was pretty great. I could do that often and have no complaints.

I Am Love will be one of the best films of the year that no one will watch. It has a lot going against it, Oscar-winning lead Tilda Swinton or no. It’s entirely in Italian (Swinton learned to speak the language with a character-specific Russian accent). It’s a two-hour hard drama, devoid of levity, and North American censors are notoriously squeamish when it comes to shots of female genitalia. Yes, shots — plural. It’s this abandon and seeming disregard for North American box office take that makes I Am Love not only a shocking achievement, but one of the most fearless dramatic films in years.

The film tells the story of Emma Recchi, an immigrant inductee into the powerful Recchi family of Italian aristocrats. Embarrassingly wealthy owing to a thriving textile concern, the film apes Tennessee Williams and joins them celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch who finds himself approaching death. While at this point it could easily devolve into a straightforward heir battle, the thread of the family’s future only serves as a frame to describe a situation where Swinton’s Emma will never belong. As her utility to her husband ends at her uterus, a chance encounter with her son’s chef friend draws her slowly into an affair. It’s a tale of life, death, renewal, and stumbling forward, clothed or not.

Director Luca Guadagnino has put together an impressive package with his biggest production to date. His direction of frequent collaborator Swinton is expertly done, an advantageous situation given that she forms the centre of gravity for the film. There is nearly nothing else in the film. I Am Love hangs its entire being onto her capable, angular shoulders and she responds to the weight expertly. His mastery of shot choice and his clear respect for cinematography makes I Am Love an absolute treat to look at, inspiring an instant desire to catch it again on Blu-ray (an odd trait for such a tense dramatic work). In another life, Guadagnino could direct food commercials: a good portion of this film imbues sensuality into food and cooking. This is a skill that most directors wish they could attach to their love scenes.

The script is incredibly strong, juxtaposing Emma’s lovers expertly. Her husband pointedly clothes her, zipping a dress, and clasping bracelets and other expensive armour, while her lover unwraps her like a present for the world and the audience to see and admire. In an effort to help along her journey into adultery, Emma stalks her prey like Gatsby (that is to say with class, not the creepy kind of stalking). Here, Swinton masterfully introducing a girlish fluster into her encounters. Sub-plots about another unwelcome inductee include her son’s fiancée, and the plans to sell the family business to foreign concerns at the cost of the company’s humanity weave into the narrative with ease. The affair unfolds with shades of Dawson’s Creek, the “will-they or won’t-they” factor becoming stifling right before its logical release (which sets up a hilarious visual gag that may be the film’s only funny moment). The unpredictable pacing of the film — plodding, with sudden octane infusions — suits the unpredictable nature sudden, traumatic family events, and sets up a climax that will knock you flat.

While it has flaws, they are nitpicks at best. A sub-plot regarding Emma’s daughter coming out as homosexual is tainted by the unintentionally hilarious choice she makes to cut her hair short, a cliché obviously meant to compare with her mother’s similar choice upon deciding to divorce her husband. Similarly, Guadagnino’s choice to make the face of the antagonist attempting to purchase and corrupt the family business an American Sikh is a blunt and artless comment on the changing economic and social face of the United Kingdom and the European Union. It’s a vaguely racist moment that comes from nearly nowhere. Combine those with what amounts to a huge amount of “Italy porn” — lavish shots boasting the natural beauty of the Italian landscape — and it results in comparatively minor gripes about a solid film.

I Am Love will have nearly no domestic impact commercially, but will continue the Oscar tradition of populating the “Best Foreign Film” category with some of the best work no one cares about until they get a statue. Swinton keeps marching quietly forward in her campaign to be regarded as one of the best actresses of her time with this challenging, awe-inspiring work she carries effortlessly. If she hasn’t already earned a star on the Walk of Fame, this will probably do it.

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Review – The Last Airbender July 15, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. This was a major personal blow, really. People close to me know how serious I am about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and how often I call it one of the most enjoyable, well made pieces of fiction I have ever encountered. It’s funny, romantic, exciting and one of my favorite things ever. To see it so poorly interpreted was hard to watch.

M.Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender blows.

But seriously folks, to talk about this film is to talk exclusively about its utter failure. By now the entire planet has come down on Shyamalan and is loudly plotting his violent demise, both for committing a Hague convention-worthy crime against filmmaking and for the full-ceremony desecration of a franchise that many have strong feelings for. Those attached to both the series and to good filmmaking are going to be reaching for the nearest halberd and dialing for airline tickets post-haste.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a series on Nickelodeon that ran for three seasons. While aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, it is easiest to categorize the achievement of co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (and head writer Aaron Ehasz) as a kind of small-screen Pixar. While aiming at a young demographic, they created a series that is not only completely entertaining, but empirically well made. Between its canny sense of humour, outstanding character work, and grand scale, it’s a fantasy series that not only deserves the title of Tolkien-esque, but demands it. Shyamalan managed to take something that would have been fine as a word for word reenactment with real people and sucked every ounce of life from it. It’s art murder and he is a criminal.

The Last Airbender tells the story of Aang (said like “hang,” which the director seemed to miss), a 12-year-old airbender monk born as the latest incarnation of a super-being that can manipulate, or “bend” all four elements — earth, fire, water, and air. Told far before his maturity level could have allowed him to understand his responsibility and rushed due to a worldwide military struggle, the plot finds its most ready analogs in stories of Superman and Jesus Christ: what did these messianic figures do before they became saviours? While that question is mostly understood with those two examples (according to Superman: Birthright, saved oppressed Africans to impress a girl and none of your God damned business, respectively), the original Nickelodeon series speaks to its audience by admitting the imperfections of his humanity. Aang ran away, and when he came back, he just wanted to have fun, be a kid, fall in love, and grow up. What follows is a painfully American tale, Aang bootstrapping himself to greatness with the help of his friend Sokka (said like the foot garment, which Shyamalan got wrong too) and primary love interest Kitara. While his birth had a factor in his greatness, it is a story of learning, failure, and a willingness to follow the structure of the original Star Wars trilogy almost exactly. It is also some of the best television of the last decade, and certainly a contender for best children’s show ever. I have to make all this painfully clear to explain the colossal failure Shyamalan’s adaptation is.

The film has no heart. The characters have no soul. There is not a single humorous moment in the live-action version of a show that is more than half comedy. The action is muddy and poorly shot. The romantic angle that dominates the story is castrated and non-existent. The script sounds like it was written by Dr. Nick Riviera, or maybe Michael Bay after a stroke. Any talent Shyamalan has as a visual artist (and he does, though that talent is buried time and time again under everything else being terrible) is buried by everything else being terrible. It’s an insulting, witless, and unacceptably bad interpretation of something great. While it could be argued that it’s difficult to condense eight hours of the first season into a feature film, there wasn’t even an obvious attempt. Shyamalan cut this one down to a mercifully short hour and a half, though I doubt it was his idea.

The Last Airbender possibly represents the end of big studio franchise starters, and not a moment too soon. Instead of deigning to the thoughts and experience of the creators and director (M.Night being an unabashed fanboy of the original series), the finished product seems like it took every note given by a suit with no experience with the material as gospel. If the original leads were mostly non-white, pretty much a Tibetan monk and some Inuit (they were), make them white. Villains are white? Make them brown. Heavy overtones of Eastern philosophy and religion? Soccer moms do tai chi, just make them do that. Then, because unrelenting grit is the current tone du jour, don’t include a single moment of levity. Instead of exploring the complexities of adolescence, just hire Industrial Light and Magic to make things look pretty (they don’t). Slap some of that terrible post-production 3-D on there to artificially inflate the opening weekend take. That’ll teach them to be optimistic.

The Last Airbender is the worst film to come out in a summer season full of total crap, and I doubt even Step Up 3-D could be worse. If it has a single success, perhaps it will become a silver bullet killing three awful things: adaptations without creator controls, cynical use of awful 3-D, and the career of M.Night Shyamalan. Like an abused spouse, this is it for me, M.Night. Cut all contact, delete from Facebook, hit the gym.

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Interview – Rob Lutener of Up North July 12, 2010

The following originally appeared in the The Peak. I got to talk to a buddy about a piece of documentary filmmaking he was involved with. Pretty neat stuff and a cool story.

t’s a cold, grey expanse. The sun rarely rises very far over the horizon and thick fog sometimes hangs like a veil over its entirety. You may go days without seeing a familiar face. The hard ground lets little grow, making the prospect of finding food a difficult notion at times. The people who love it stay and make it work, but time and change have driven as many away as it’s attracted. Man and beast alike struggle to adapt. Also, seemingly no one will let you use their phone. Stuck on SFU’s Burnaby campus with a dead mobile, student Robert Lutener plugs money into a payphone to answer a few questions about his award-winning documentary, Up North, a treatise on the effects of rapid change on one of the world’s most fragile social and environmental ecosystems.

“Up North is a film that documents the social, cultural, economic, and linguistic change in Canada’s Arctic,” says Lutener. He, along with collaborators Drew McIntosh and Aaron Bocanegra, packed a van and headed north from Edmonton, Alberta with a camera in tow to document a region he calls “a magnifying glass for how change affects human beings and the environment around them.” Through interviews with locals — community leaders, elders, artists — Lutener and company constructed an oral record of the Canadian North. “We wanted to let them tell the story of the North in their own words, as opposed to setting out with our own story. We wanted the people who populated [the North] to speak for themselves.” The result was a feature-length documentary that won an award for Best Art Documentary at the Mountain Film Festival in Colorado.

While taking the structure of an oral history, Lutener insists Up North is first and foremost a documentary. Exploring rapid and fundamental change in progress and being invited into their private lives, including the Council of the Yukon First Nations General Assembly and being allowed to document those proceedings were, for Lutener, “an incredibly humbling and powerful experience.” The lives of First Nations residents factors heavily into Up North’s observations, documenting “their reclaiming of their political and civil destiny.” From conversations with survivors of residential schools and Nation elders familiar with the Canadian government’s attitudes and policies governing the area, Up North paints a living portrait of the “past half century and beyond.”

“We knew there was a story up there, but we didn’t know what it would be,” he says, but describing how a lack of a political bent or message from the outset enabled the North to find them, not the other way around. “We discovered that much of the cultural impacts of development . . . has had a significant impact that was completely unexpected.” It was a life-altering experience for Lutener. “I cannot express the gratitude that I have for the people that invited us into their homes and their lives and their history.”

The enthusiasm to participate spanned their journey and came in the unlikeliest of places. “We were crossing the delta on a ferry and we met this woman, Kerry. She had her motor home with her husband and was selling snacks. She came out and asked us what we were doing and we told her and she said ‘Well I’ll talk, won’t I?’ looking at her husband. He says ‘oh yeah, you will!’. We were given the most amazing . . . to me one of the most important parts of the entire film.” Using the lens of her experience to describe what has happened to her homeland, her contribution is a microcosm for the film and an emotional peak in documentary with many such moments. The destruction of her way of life weighs heavily on Lutener, a personal anger that doesn’t detract from the objectivity of the film. “It’s a heinous injustice on a grand scale. It’s remarkably dreadful. The last residential school in this country closed in 1996. An apology and some cheques don’t necessarily equate justice. But a more determined and courageous group of people I have never met in my life.”

The film begins with a lengthy calculation of the carbon footprint inflicted by the production, and while mindful that a discussion of the Arctic usually finds its foundations in discourse on global warming, Lutener is emphatic about the lack of an environmental bias. “It’s up to the viewer, I think. We were asked the question on a continual basis, people asked us ‘What’s the bias?’, and the answer was always ‘Well, it’s your bias’.” Lutener hopes that the film can be used to make people better informed about change in the North and the world.

Armed with little but the money in their pockets and camping gear in a temperamental minivan, Up North succeeds in being a story of parallel journeys, the change evident in both those filmed and filming. It’s a compelling look at Canada’s uncertain northern land mass. Like Klondike forays into the Yukon, Lutener says the experience was well worth its trials. “We pretty much went out there blind, and we came out with gold.”

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Review – Star Wars: In Concert July 2, 2010

Did you guys know I like Star Wars? I do.


The problem with tributes and spinoffs is the added challenge of anyone organizing one to convince a person that their time and money is better spent on the derivative work than on the source. Star Wars in Concert tries to do that with an art form that has become as niche as it gets. Travelling with a full orchestra and outfitting GM Place with a set of giant screens to display appropriate montages from the films their music is taken from, the concert series is a compelling distraction but falls short of satisfying your Star Wars itch.

Star Wars is notable for many reasons, but the scores by John Williams are placed front and centre for this event. While some scores sit idle in the background of movies, it’s hard to imagine Star Wars being what it is today without the evocative sounds accompanying the action. Indeed, Williams’ contributions to the two trilogies are likely the most memorable suites in film history, and while others have gained similar notoriety (Vangelis for Blade Runner, Clint Mansell for Requiem for a Dream, John Murphy for Sunshine), none have the breadth to encourage a stadium event. From the “Imperial March” to the iconic Star Wars main theme, the songs he created have become shorthand for cinematic musical achievement.

Star Wars in Concert does its best to do justice to that legacy, and musically does so in spades. The orchestra travelling with the show put on pitch perfect renditions of every moment from the films. One wonders if any of the people (and children in incredible numbers) in attendance would ever experience a full symphony in their lives were it not for the films attached, so it’s a credit to the music’s popularity that it can pull in an unlikely crowd.

Stellar band aside, the production had its flaws. Ticket prices were on the high side ($41 for one adult) putting it fairly out of reach for students, and the exhibit of classic costumes and props were sparse, hardly justifying the premium. Anthony Daniels (the voice of C-3PO) acted as narrator and host for the evening, but his overenthusiasm bordered on mugging the entire night. Instead of providing any insight into the scores or the films, he opted instead for grandiose stroking of their brilliance, replete with sweeping physical gestures and out-of-place, “are you ready to rock?”-type pump ups for the audience. What’s worse is that the program ran canonically through the films, starting with The Phantom Menace. It broke off occasionally to play themes associated with various characters (Anakin and Padme, R2D2, and C-3PO, Luke on Dagobah), ignoring the obvious choice to put the brilliant Revenge of the Sith duel suite at any sort of climax and burying the series’ best musical moment. The montages played behind the orchestra simply made you want to go watch the movies, a problematic evocation as the music was already ripped from context. There was little to argue you should be there and not a home with a stack of DVDs.

Star Wars in Concert is a brilliant idea in theory, but the entire package cannot justify the ticket price. For half the price, it would have been incredible.

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Review – Year of the Carnivore June 28, 2010

I really meant the last paragraph of this. Hugely disappointing.


One of the best parts of Year of the Carnivore is the poster. A scene illustrated by accomplished Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel), it’s not only excellently realized, but philosophically appropriate. Where Brown took a comic strip biography about Louis Riel and made it into a subtle look into the nature of that figure’s neurosis and psychology, Vancouver filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus) makes similar observations about Sammy Smalls (Cristin Millioti). Like a twee and twenty-something answer to 2007’s Young People Fucking, Year of the Carnivore explores the nature of adversarial sexuality at an awkward stage of adulthood and at the same time makes a statement about the current state of Canadian film art. The result, however, is almost as confused as its main character.

Sammy Smalls lost partial use of her leg fighting cancer as a child. Her overbearing narcissist mother and weakling father want her to quit her job as a grocery store “detective,” thinking that running down shoplifters stealing flank steaks is too dangerous for someone of her stature. The film’s runtime is preoccupied with Sammy getting “experienced.” That is, she hops from one awkward sexual encounter to the next in the hopes of getting good enough to impress a boy, Eugene (Mark Rendall). While these encounters are filmed in an attempt at humour, they’re incredibly hard to watch and leave you wanting to give Sammy a shake and ask her what the hell she is thinking. While this could be leveraged as good drama, it’s instead an air ball lobbed and missing its target through an unfocused script. If the aim was to instill Sammy’s sense of frustration onto the audience, it’s mission accomplished.

To be blunt, Cristin Millioti deserves to be a star. The amount of humanity and depth she gives to an uneasily written character is admirable and to not walk out of the theater impressed with her performance would be impossible. Her supporting cast (including Will Sasso) are fairly strong, but Sammy Smalls is a star-making role. It is unfortunate then, that the script and film as a whole (as beautifully shot as it is) do not elevate a commendable performance.

Sook-Yin Lee made waves a while back for taking part in sexual acts on film in Shortbus, an act that royally irked her employers at the CBC and made her a news story for a couple of months. But while that film took all the eroticism out of sex as a stated goal to explore sex-as-mechanics, Year of the Carnivore does the same with a shudder-inducing lack of compassion, a detachment that edges on sociopathy. Each of the characters operates out of a strange, intense selfishness that totally breaks any connection with the audience and shatters the suspension of disbelief with uncomfortable scoffs. Its disconnect with actual sexual relations between young people is disturbing and its attempts to be iconoclastic take priority over being entertaining. Most egregious is a scene that is tantamount to depicted rape, but its implication is that if a female is the aggressor, the male will just enjoy it. Were this reversed, the backlash would be deafening. While the film makes a half-assed attempt to call this action immoral, it seems to do so with fingers crossed behind its back, some dialogue thick with shallow psychoanalysis a stopgap for actual emotion.

Did I say scene? I meant scenes. Plural. In an attempt to be unique and edgy, it comes off as creepy and objectionable. With each scene of torrid sexuality, a clear attempt is made for a condom to be applied. This restraint and modesty is horribly Canadian and turns the confusion of youth into the measured mistakes of an adult. It’s personally destructive performance art, the conscious martyrdom of Sammy Smalls. This is a Woody Allen film, courtesy of the new millennium. Be afraid.

It seems impossible for a film to fail with such an interesting leading lady, but Year of the Carnivore does. It tries to preach a muddled philosophy (I still can’t figure out what it was trying to tell me. Convenience conquers love? Change yourself to gain the love of others? I have no idea) and attempts to be an uplifting tale of a young woman exploring her sexuality, but instead rings out like an exploitative farce. I’ve never wanted to love a film more, and have never been so sad to see one fall short.

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Review – The A-Team June 24, 2010

The following originally appeared in The Peak. This movie was a quarter good. I really wanted to like it.


That this movie exists to be reviewed is a depressing fact, but that such a ridiculous premise could not be leveraged into a thoroughly ridiculous and entertaining package is even more so. The A-Team is an oddly appealing film, one that could easily be dismissed as yet another of this summer’s string of cinematic abortions, but defies becoming a total write-off. Unfortunately, being within arm’s reach of fun is just another one of its many crimes.

The A-Team follows the titular group — Hannibal, the idea man (Liam Neeson); Face, the charmer (Bradley Cooper); Murdock, the driver and pilot (Sharlto Copley of recent deserved District 9 fame); and B.A., the muscle (Quinton Jackson) — in what amounts to the exposition of how the group came to be the mercenary organization explored in the original television series. Their betrayal by the United States Army (represented by Jessica Biel, someone people keep confusing for an actress) and Central Intelligence Agency (moreover a rogue agent, played convincingly as always by a strong Patrick Wilson), force them to use their particular and varied skills to bust out of incarceration and clear their names, dismantling a shady conspiracy, and doing some spectacular property damage along the way. The central MacGuffin revolves around some thinly explained plates used to press greenbacks, but they serve only to facilitate a string of even thinner stunt set-pieces.

Perhaps even more perplexing than The A-Team’s existence is the way it entered kicking and screaming into the world. Helmed by the (previously?) promising Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, Narc), the film clips along in a familiar way: its lack of interesting plot developments is masked expertly by sharp editing and an eye for bombast. Neeson remarks that overkill is underrated, a tagline that clearly influenced the production, but after over 10 years of development hell that saw half of Hollywood take a crack at writing a script, that excess reads like too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The A-Team defies almost every expectation it could muster. First, it is not completely terrible; its entertaining moments come from some fairly ridiculous action sequences that take the material just as seriously as possible. While trying to weave in some sobriety, the film forgets itself. It is at its best when spouting one-liners and putting the charm and insanity of Cooper and Copley centre stage. The comedy and action are almost enough to plough through painful attempts at drama and a patently horrible final climax, but it falls just short of being dismissible summer fun. Further, Carnahan is totally wasted on the film. After having made a name for himself on the spectacular Narc and the confused but wildly compelling Smokin’ Aces, he dumps his trademark analog brutality in for some half-baked CG. On its own, this wouldn’t sink him, but it is compounded by the fact that he fails to be himself. The A-Team is an almost perfect xerox of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films, but with enough Carnahan flair thrown in to defy the plagiarism charges. Right down to the excessive extended flashbacks to fill in twists, Carnahan phones in the direction and tries a bit too hard to be the arguably more appropriate director.

Neeson, Copley, and Cooper are all charming and suit their roles perfectly, but are failed by a production mired in its own excesses and greed. Part of that greed was to truncate a search for an actual actor to fill in Mr. T’s role as B.A. Baracus and instead try and tap into the UFC market with the casting of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He is a dead physical ringer for the character, but his screen presence peaks at grating.

Like so much this summer, The A-Team reeks of a bunch of well-meaning people working on a project their studios could care less about. They see an established franchise and decide that any amount of meddling is unlikely to affect the box office take. If there is any bright side in the release of The A-Team, it is that this is likely a major nail in the coffin of these quick cash-in adaptations. Perhaps we are only a few more of these types of summer movie seasons away from some original creations, or, at the very least, adaptations made with a little more care. We can dream, can’t we?

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Live Review – Friendship and The Fawn June 21, 2010

The following originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. I first saw these guys play ahead of an acoustic set by Asobi Seksu (I know, I know, I may as well change the name of this blog to Goodnight Asobi Seksu) and they blew my damn head open. I’ve seen crooners and folk pickers open for big bands at The Media Club before and there is usually a dull hum of conversation, half the room listening and the other half just there for the headliners. These guys struck the whole room dumb. Maybe that’s their game, play so quiet everyone has to shut the hell up to hear you (it’s what Teller did and does). Whatever was going on, it stuck with me and I seized an opportunity to hear them play again. So should you.

Article photo by Sarah Kloke. Additional photography from the Asobi Seksu show courtesy Rachel Hurst.

F & F

The way they play, you would think they’re scared to break their instruments. So careful is Friendship and the Fawn with the strings of a banjo and the keys of a xylophone, you almost wonder if the instrumentars are heirlooms on loan from an obsessive relative who will inspect them later for wear. The result is an incredibly quiet performance, even with the aid of microphones and speakers. The library whisper of their sound, however, is in no way a negative. Instead, it stands as the fragile trademark of one of Vancouver’s most compelling groups.


The project of Merida Anderson and Lindsey Hampton, Friendship and the Fawn played a candlelit show at the Little Mountain Gallery. The effect was arresting and onlookers were struck dumb – not for fear of drowning the band out, but just so they could drink in every precisely chosen note. Hypnotic doesn’t scratch the surface.


The duo’s minimalist folk sound relied heavily on the talented vocals from both members, with plinking banjo a staple of their sparse soundscapes. They juggled instrumentation, playing tambourines with their feet, and used mallets and violin bows interchangeably on xylophones. This display of virtuosity was balanced out by deep emotion and moody climaxes.


For a band that sometimes opts to hum instead of sing and manipulates silence like some bands wish they could use guitars, Friendship and the Fawn never become boring or stale. Yuki Chikudate of Asobi Seksu once described them as “hauntingly beautiful,” but that description doesn’t convey the group’s warmth. It’s as memorable as Vancouver music gets.


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Review – Splice June 17, 2010

This originally appeared in The Peak. The movie is great, I wholly recommend it.


It’s great when good movies are failed by the marketing departments of their studio partners, as it always makes success all the more satisfying. Splice is thus afflicted in spades; its trailers and promotions billing are a lame science-run-amok horror cash-in with a low IQ, and the entire merit requisite that genre. While the former is mostly correct, the latter characteristics are absent, resulting in one of the most interesting and entertaining science fiction films since Aliens.

Splice follows the exploits of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), a scientific Brangelina and the current darlings of their field. Their work, involving the recombination of various animal genetics, has resulted in a viable new species that produces a commercially valuable protein of some sort. On the edge of even greater achievements and medical breakthroughs, their research is threatened with being turned into an expensive farming operation, their ambitions to work with human DNA being shut down before they start. In an act of rebellion, Elsa and Clive disobey the law and their company, bringing a life form with part human and part animal DNA to term. Their interactions with what they create, the sentient and semi-lethal Dren (Delphine Chanéac, heavily modified with makeup and CG) and their struggle with creating something they cannot control, form the basis for the film’s second and third acts.

Like the trailers, this summary is a poor reflection of what this film is. On paper, it reads like any other sci-fi/horror film, which is to sell it short entirely. In actuality, it is a deep, layered film exploring paternal and maternal interplay with the couple’s new “offspring.” While it occasionally falls short of delivering compelling dialogue between the characters, its subtexts and intricacies are enough to put you on the edge of your seat. Every moment comprises some instance where a lesser studio thriller would shy away, hiding behind banality to inflate box office take or reach the coveted PG-13 threshold. Splice revels in these moments of shock, but never comes off as exploitative. Each is surrounded by a disturbing rationality, its character failings and instances of sheer horror coming only on the coattail of a well-constructed logic. It is this understanding that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Paris Je t’aime) instils on his audience that makes Splice so terrifying. There is no moment of emotional or physical brutality that is senseless, and the audience can nearly sympathize (or at the very least see the reasons behind each, be they animal or cerebral). This makes for a psychologically chilling experience and one that will walk out of the theatre with you.

Polley and Brody picked a winner with this film, one that balances with ease its interest in Dren as the “monster” and the monstrosity of its creators. Both characters attack their roles and any frailties in the script dissolve in their performances. Polley expertly projects her character’s own mommy issues onto Dren: her motherly instincts taking on a frighteningly casual tyranny, the relationship between mother and teenage “daughter” finding a new, awful context. Just as deft is Brody’s struggle with a rapidly-aging Dren. An animal, an experimental subject, and ward of his protection, Splice shows its true fearlessness confronting him with Dren’s most problematic characteristic — the body and desires of an adolescent human female. Delphine Chanéac does exactly what is needed in her role, balancing a total animalistic streak with enough humanity showing through as to raise the question: Where does the animal stop and the human begin?

Its direction (and, particularly, art direction) are top notch, with the film’s drama never seeming tired and its action cohesive and smooth (take notes, Paul Greengrass). So tight is the experience, that to divulge much more than a brief synopsis is to start a domino effect of spoilers that would utterly undo its multiple satisfying twists and turns. Splice is science fiction without pandering, horror without restraint, thrilling without relying on pop-out scares, and infinitely exciting. It’s solid almost without exception and is one of the first truly great films of the summer. You’ll be shocked, disgusted, horrified, and happy with every cent spent on your ticket.

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Why Slasher Horror Can Never Die May 27, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. It was written for my friend Brendan Levesque, who knows far more about these flicks than I do. Hope I did them justice.


I was always more of a Jason man myself. Call me crazy, but a machete-wielding madman using an occupied sleeping bag as some sort of Cabela’s catalog morning glory to attack a tree always tickled me in an immeasurable way (R.I.P Judy).

That kind of terror is minimalist and embodies a kind of punk, DIY spirit that I gravitate toward — grab your biggest knife and a hockey mask and you’re in business. That being said, I was always intrigued by the nuance of fellow triumvirate member Freddy Krueger. Nuance might sound funny to describe a man with a lethal manicure coming to kill you through your dreams, but this concept played with the idea of mental illness and the intractability of deemed insanity. Invariably, telling even your nearest and dearest that a man is trying to kill you behind your eyelids is a quick route to a tidy lobotomy, and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise plays with the loneliness and eventual independence that came with triumph. It pulled the slasher film away from an explicit external force with a neat mask to an internal struggle, an invader incurring on the most personal of human experiences. Further, the overtone of fearing your dreams is delicious.

It’s due to this level of nerd affinity that I can’t get too cynical about the recent rash of horror remakes. The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, and now the resurgence of A Nightmare on Elm Street are only partly the fault of a Hollywood that is out of ideas and clamouring for the shrinking box office take. The fact is, there are a ton of profitable, remake-ready franchises out there that don’t carry with them the lexical baggage of the horror genre. This recent Elm Street is mindful of these tropes, ones that — if not present — would represent the failure of the movie in the eyes of the horror cognoscenti. Paradoxically, their inclusion makes sure the genre never moves forward, that stagnation being both its hallmark and kiss of death.

Before remakes became the norm, Neil Marshall’s The Descent made the horror fanbase step back and ask if these tropes could be dismissed in favour of layered, smart, and engaging horror. 2010’s Elm Street takes that idea, gives it the finger, and bastardizes it in an incredible way.

The movie itself is mediocre. The inclusion of Jackie Earl Haley (Shutter Island, Little Children, Watchmen) and Kyle Gallner (who stole scene after scene in Veronica Mars) inspired some early hope for the film, but it falls on its melted face pretty hard. The script has interesting ideas that are relegated to vestigial status one by one. From interesting subplots regarding academic reliance on alertness medication and the disadvantages of the buddy system (it’s hard to convince people you’re innocent when you are drenched in stage blood), this Elm Street abandons smart ideas methodically, peaking with a fantastic sequence involving a video blog. It even starts toward an incredible character rewrite of Krueger, casting him as a kindly janitor unfairly lynched for child abuse. Instead, they take the easy way out, throwing away a very modern story of a persecuted innocent man and turning it into the standard “Yes, all single men over 40 are pedophiles.” Stacked against blatant quotes from Psycho, Pulp Fiction, and the aforementioned The Descent, it all comes off as thoughtless cash, desperately trying to be cool, and collapsing under the weight of its could-have-been innovations.

However, despite its overall failure, A Nightmare on Elm Street demonstrates why the genre is endlessly perpetuated, and why it can never and will never die. Elm Street is perhaps one of the most astute mirrors held up to our generation, and by far the most tongue-in-cheek comparison of Millennials to baby boomers to hit film screens yet. That lexical precision of the genre prescribes a few things; among these, the philosophies represented by the harbingers of death in them. Some trends border on the silly: minorities die first, mirrors are untrustworthy, running is pointless, and the virginal type is likely to slay the antagonist with some sort of phallus. In fact, these are so well documented that a fantastic mockumentary was created around them in the form of Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Most pressing here, however, is the changing social landscape seen in these films.

In previous decades, boomers were being punished for their teenage decadence — drugs, alcohol, fornication, and the ingratitude toward the Greatest Generation were punished mercilessly by those film’s antagonists, a kind of reaper acting in the interest of ‘50s American values. Here, the violence lacks that kind of engine by virtue only of what we have become. The characters are depressing modern archetypes — sexless, tepid, wannabe artists without a hint of warmth or confidence, toiling away on homework in their rooms instead of the standard vacationing in abandoned cabins ripe for coitus interruptus. In context, you would expect this film to be a mirror bent to fun house specifications, but Elm Street opts for realism and just shows us ourselves. It’s terrifying.

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Live Review – Immaculate Machine/Sun Wizard April 6, 2010

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for photo/moral support.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green-2.jpeg

Two reliable west coast stand-bys took to the stage at the Biltmore for some energetic and well-received sets. Though the start time was greatly delayed, a good sized crowd stuck it out to end a string of tour dates for the Victoria-based Immaculate Machine, and they punctuated with flair.

Warming up the crowd was Vancouver-based Sun Wizard, a band that is almost as famous for their controversy as their talent. Sun Wizard took to the stage with all the confidence and swagger their reputation entails, for a moment halting discussion in favour of rocking out. The set seemed to drag in the middle but was more than made up for with a solid send off and an appreciative charisma that perfectly set up the veteran headliners.

Immaculate Machine’s set – as usual – proved that they are among the most talented (if least heralded) groups in Mint Record’s intimidating stable. Their songwriting has gained dimension and maturity over a string of LP releases in the recent past, but by and large, their back catalogue sounds as refreshing as always. Favourite “Phone Number” came off slightly dated in comparison to richer material off Fables and new release High On Jackson Hill, but the one-two punch of “Broken Ship” and “So Cynical” remain a pillar of the Immaculate Machine live show. If one criticism existed, it would be that some parts of their more serious lyrics fall flat when the band looks as if they are having the time of their lives playing music together. Always entertaining and at their utmost in front of a crowd, Immaculate Machine demonstrate time and time again that they stand among the very best in the country.

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Live Review – Midlake/Matthew and The Arrogant Sea

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for sitting through this with me.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green-1.jpeg

In previous decades, the keys to success were acid wash jeans and the occasional robe of sequins and leopard skin. Now, it seems the shortcut to popularity is the one-two punch of a buttoned plaid shirt and a mass of facial hair. Playing to a packed Biltmore Cabaret, Midlake seemed ready to up the ante with some cross-demographic success and copious flute embellishments in their music. Touring with Denton, Texas cohorts Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, Midlake brought their brand of pretty acoustic folk-rock to an appreciative (if overly reverent) crowd.

Matthew and the Arrogant Sea were almost too appropriate for the bill, their style blending so seamlessly with Midlake’s as to feel too similar. Where they diverge is Matthew’s penchant for drum-driven epics. Whereas Midlake feels like a walk through a forest, the Arrogant Sea evokes a more powerful intensity, a Tarzan to Midlake’s Mowgli. Being joined onstage by members of Midlake (the added manpower and chemistry was beneficial) and mentioning a meal they had at Foundation were just the right notes to make the crowd show some love.

For Midlake, even stepping onstage seems like an act of logistical might, as the ensemble packed the Biltmore’s stage with band members. The group powered through he majority of their LP tracks and were amiable and entertaining throughout, garnering applause only when it was polite (after each song) and prompting at least one fan to throw up the devil horns during a particularly moving flute section.

Midlake, for better or worse, garners an exaggerated amount of comparison to fellow crooners Fleet Foxes. This is unfortunate because this comparison will always serve to expose the truth about the band: their output is neither exceptional nor poor, just as middle-of-the-road as their name would suggest.

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Live Review – Postdata/Julie Fader/Clinton St.John

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for making it out.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green.jpeg

In 1999, a movie called Detroit Rock City added a little KISS to a tired college road trip subgenre. In it, Sam Huntington would remark to his cohorts about how in 1973, KISS was opening for Blue Oyster Cult, and how in one year to the day, B.O.C. would open for KISS. This conversation was running through my head all through the set A Place To Bury Strangers played for relative newcomers The Big Pink.
A Place To Bury Strangers brought their noise rock styling to an increasingly likely place at Venue. As if to emulate the fuzz and obfuscation of their sound, they turned their stage into a photographers nightmare with about a cigar bar’s worth of smoke. Slicing in and out was an epileptic lightshow, one that elicited at least a few pointing fingers from the sparse early start crowd. If anything, The APTBS experience is heightened by the theatrics, owing in no small amount to the fact that their sets are, while remaining true to their trademark sprawl, a markedly tight, rehearsed feel to them. Album standout “Ego Death” was particularly exciting, and they ended a short set with “Ocean”, the outro to which had them sounding like Hell’s own string section. It was the opening act any band would be lucky to have, with an energy following that was ripe for the picking.
The Big Pink followed and seemed oddly out of place. Gaining all kinds of popular momentum off the strength of a well received series of singles and an album, they differentiated themselves from APTBS well – something that should have been a bit difficult given their similarity. But the way in which they differentiated themselves was less desirable.
The Big Pink simply could not follow the powerhouse that was A Place To Bury Strangers. Their set paled in comparison, and while it would have been merely uninspired in any other situation, following a atypically strong opening act was unfortunate. Despite their enthusiasm, they failed to reach any meaningful climaxes.
Which is what brought me to a late 90’s film about KISS. Just like the young men in that film, I am incredulous that The Big Pink follows A Place To Bury Strangers on the bill. Maybe next year things will have changed.

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Live Review – A Place To Bury Strangers/The Big Pink

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Sarah Kloke for coming out and fighting the fog with her camera.

The Big Pink.jpeg

In 1999, a movie called Detroit Rock City added a little KISS to a tired college road trip subgenre. In it, Sam Huntington would remark to his cohorts about how in 1973, KISS was opening for Blue Oyster Cult, and how in one year to the day, B.O.C. would open for KISS. This conversation was running through my head all through the set A Place To Bury Strangers played for relative newcomers The Big Pink.
A Place To Bury Strangers brought their noise rock styling to an increasingly likely place at Venue. As if to emulate the fuzz and obfuscation of their sound, they turned their stage into a photographers nightmare with about a cigar bar’s worth of smoke. Slicing in and out was an epileptic lightshow, one that elicited at least a few pointing fingers from the sparse early start crowd. If anything, The APTBS experience is heightened by the theatrics, owing in no small amount to the fact that their sets are, while remaining true to their trademark sprawl, a markedly tight, rehearsed feel to them. Album standout “Ego Death” was particularly exciting, and they ended a short set with “Ocean”, the outro to which had them sounding like Hell’s own string section. It was the opening act any band would be lucky to have, with an energy following that was ripe for the picking.
The Big Pink followed and seemed oddly out of place. Gaining all kinds of popular momentum off the strength of a well received series of singles and an album, they differentiated themselves from APTBS well – something that should have been a bit difficult given their similarity. But the way in which they differentiated themselves was less desirable.
The Big Pink simply could not follow the powerhouse that was A Place To Bury Strangers. Their set paled in comparison, and while it would have been merely uninspired in any other situation, following a atypically strong opening act was unfortunate. Despite their enthusiasm, they failed to reach any meaningful climaxes.
Which is what brought me to a late 90’s film about KISS. Just like the young men in that film, I am incredulous that The Big Pink follows A Place To Bury Strangers on the bill. Maybe next year things will have changed.

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Live Review – Vacant City/The Stumbler’s Inn

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for her war photography.

Vacant City - Photo Credit: Katherine Green.jpeg

Vacant City invaded the Anza Club to release their new album Forgotten Street. Sharing the stage with the Stumbler’s Inn, they aimed to usher in their recording with gusto. Gusto was had, but not from the headliners.

The Stumbler’s Inn played to a large crowd, but it was about half as large as they deserved. Their mix of rock and blues is infectious, with much of their charm attributable to a dynamic onstage charisma and fantastic songwriting. One of the highlights of their set was a song called “The Blues,” a masterful mix of compelling songwriting and hilariously ironic lyricism that had more than a few audience members laughing in between shouts and applause. It is unfortunate for Vacant City, however, that they set the bar so high.

Vacant City seem to have a dedicated following. Though there was a definite drift to the Anza basement (and to the door) a few songs into their set, the remaining fans were treated to a good mix of new and old material. Dressed like the Hives and sporting the requisite fedoras, they interspersed their songs with detailed descriptions of their content, revealing that one song was about making love in the back of a pickup truck. After a brief encounter with a guitar knocked out of tune by “rocking too hard,” their set concluded with a few less than it had to begin, but with satisfaction all around.

The CD release party was a success, but that success is not reflected in the new material. Despite their enigmatic presence, their tracks hearken to a dated era in rock, sounding like Stone Temple Pilots without the drama. Fans will find the new material more than satisfying, but newcomers may find the first half of their name a little too apt.

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Review – The Monitor by Titus Andronicus March 23, 2010

This review first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Before I wrote it, I listened to the album front to back twice. I was intrigued, as you can probably tell. By the fifth listen I realized I was listening to nothing else. By the tenth time through, I was plotting it’s position in my Top 50 Albums Of All Time with great prejudice.

If given an opportunity, I would probably recant what I said about the way this album develops; it’s savvy didn’t dawn on me until way after the copy date. Titus Andronicus injects a ton of an arrested adolescence we have seen spoken of in recent albums by The xx and others, but then they decide to just grab their crotches and rock out. The QOTSA comparison holds water in the sense that this album is good and whereas the other album failed to inspire me, but the gloss and pop sensibility that characterized Songs For The Deaf is not present. The Monitor finds it’s voice in as many places as it possibly can, finding refuge in punk and rock, anthems and dirges, post-rock and alt-country. As a loose concept album about the American Civil War and as a something to bang your head to (against?) to it succeeds on levels of nothing else I have heard in quite some time. Not that I listen to concept albums about national struggles over slavery very often or anything…you get what I mean. It’s awesome.

The gravel in Patrick Stickles’ voice might not evoke the response often, but a friend of mine mentioned how it sounded like Bright Eyes. I was kind of aghast at this comparison (Desaparecidos maybe, but Bright Eyes?), but as I thought about it more, it really is fairly apt.

The major reason (in my mind) that people dislike Bright Eyes is because the lyricism of Conor Obrest makes people intensely uncomfortable. When you listen to a song by Journey or something, the emotion and topics that form the similar foundation of poetry for both exists, but the quality of the poetry and songwriting is disparate enough that Obrest simply expresses those emotions far clearer and more precisely. Emotion is only cool to an extent to that in a group, one would not be mocked for the enjoyment of such language of loss and pain. The word “Emo” was quickly drawn up to disparage an entire demographic that identified with some fairly dour subject matter in their iTunes library. While they didn’t help themselves by subverting that musical subgenre with some fairly shitty material and questionable purchases at Hot Topic, the message was clear: if you are sad or take part in perceived sad-sackery you are uncool and are open to acceptable mockery.

The Monitor is an album that nearly wallows in frustration, and that anger is (as Dr. Melfi would say) depression turned inwards. While it is easy to pin Obrest as “depressed” due to the style in which most of his discography is presented, they meet lyrically like Lego, Titus only deciding to punch a wall instead of weeping against it. Both are perfectly acceptable to some, but will always be rejected by a movement that is as stoney as it is erudite. This anti-sadness brigade is really just a railing against any public inclination towards emotions they themselves share, but are too reserved to share. Which, of course, is total bullshit. Do you think Jim Stark had no emotion? Do you think that wasn’t just a front and a lamented mask? Wasn’t that the whole point of Rebel Without a Cause and the whole brilliance of James Dean?

People are going to point to this album with the same derision they do anything by Bright Eyes, and I still cannot explain why. Maybe it will be punk rock enough not to threaten anyone’s masculinity.

Yet Fleet Foxes and The Antlers are cool. I don’t get it.

Here is the review, as printed. This is the best album of 2010 so far. Seek it out.

The Monitor

Titus Andronicus is a band that never shies away from bombast. From naming themselves after a fairly popular Roman military figure and Shakespeare character to opening their new album “The Monitor” with a truncated speech from former United States President Abraham Lincoln, the band gets as close your face as possible without treating it to a smart head-butt.

It’s strange, however, that this outing has more in common with “Songs for the Deaf” by Queens of the Stone Age in terms of the career arc of a band. “Songs for the Deaf” represented a streamlined QOTSA, bringing out the hooky, accessible aspects of the band’s sometimes monotonous sound. Though Titus Andronicus lacks the extended precedence for such a qualification, the metaphor is fitting; “The Monitor” is an incredibly listenable album, chock full of anthems and entertaining guitar work that the previous “Airing of Grievances” seemed patently opposed to.

Lyrically, Titus seems to want to distract from these dangerous flirtations with pop with full on punk-rock cynicism. The marriage between the two, however, seems to cleanse the sentiments of the scorn. Chants of “You’ll always be a loser” and “The enemy is everywhere” seem less like statements of defeat (or victory, or admonishment) and more a call to community, as if to say you’ll always be a loser, but we will too.

Though “The Monitor” seems to run out of new tricks in it’s last act with shoegaze dirges that would seem more at home on “Grievances”, it proves to be one of the finest albums of the young year. The director of this Titus Andronicus seems more focused, and with that brings out the best in some already promising ideas. Plus, you’ll want to keep it in mind when they tour, as “The Monitor” sounds like it will foment a jaw-dropping live effort.

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Review – Heligoland by Massive Attack

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Massive Attack is awesome and I hope if they meet me they don’t hold my opinions against me. I’m awesome, I swear.


There are very few bands that have reached the almost sacred status with music aficionados like Massive Attack has. The problem with becoming sacred is that it’s a whole lot farther to the ground when you fall.

   Enter “Heligoland”, the fifth collection of original tracks from the group and with it one of the biggest targets for critical vitriol this side of “Dig Out Your Soul”. The problem is that both it and the supposedly final album from Oasis are only middling. It is the history of their respective bands that do them a disservice. Neither of those records is bad by any metric, but they simply lack whatever chemistry that launched previous efforts into the realm of breathless hyperbole.

   There is no “Angel” on “Heligoland”. Certainly not. There is also no “Teardrop” or “Inertia Creeps” or whatever song fans would rather just go back and listen to again instead of hearing new material. Those tracks are memorable and iconic for the sole reason that they are exceptional. Exceptional is, by definition, tough to attain.

   “Paradise Circus” and “Babel” are pretty good tracks. Most of the stuff approaches “Black Milk” levels of energy and prowess, but never quite attain either. Whereas the down-tempo style of Massive Attack was never boring or sleepy, “Heligoland” waxes into some fairly sedate territory. While it never reaches a state of Mum-type lullaby, it is certainly the least sinister and immediate of the band’s material. “Saturday Come Slow” featuring Damon Albarn and “Girl I Love You” are the standout tracks on the album, but again, will not go down with the majority of “Mezzanine” into the canon. While their general thesis’ are sound, their execution fails to arouse the same emotion and interest as anything on “Blue Lines”.

   That said, this is still Massive Attack we are talking about. If this is truly their most lacklustre album, then it is only so in comparison to the rest of their work. Like Yo La Tengo, Massive Attack at their worst are still better than most at their best, and “Heligoland” is still more than worth the time it takes away from playing “Unfinished Sympathy” on repeat.

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Live Review – Peak Performance Finale (Bend Sinister/We Are The City/The Left)

The following was first published in Beatroute Magazine. Photos by Rachel Hurst. Snark by Clinton Hallahan. It appeared with an edit that truncated it quite a bit, so here is the full thing. Big thanks again to Miss Hurst who did a great job with the shots.

We Are The City

   The gong show that was the Peak Performance finale at the Commodore Ballroom was, at times, adorned with an actual gong. Though it’s musical use was limited, it’s symbolic presence behind the drum kit underscored the corporate vapidities surrounding the showcase of the last three bands standing in the contest.

The Left

   First up was We Are The City, a band so youthful it’s unclear whether the Commodore staff could even serve them liquor. That said, their set was the opposite of what one might expect from a band so young. It was a testament to their talent and more than evidence that they deserved to share the stage with their more aged counterparts. Their brand of indie rock was a crowd pleaser driven by tight drumming and catchy guitars. Say what you will about the death of radio, but the sold out event sponsored primarily by The Peak 100.5 (in association with MusicBC) was filled for what casual audience members might consider the opening act.

   But We Are The City was not the story of the night.

   The Left followed and with them brought the comparatively mellow, safe stylings of a band that seemed slightly out of place. Sandwiched between the vigor of their predecessors and the tour de force of Bend Sinister following, their more than competent radio rock that would have killed in many other contexts seem to fall on less enthusiastic ears.

   But this was not the story either.

Bend Sinister - Dan Moxon

   Vancouver veterans Bend Sinister finished out the night in rare form, playing a set that was packed with their hits. Reports of a stellar Bend Sinister show are plentiful to the point of becoming redundant, but this particular show had the atmosphere and crowd energy that each of those shows deserved. Joined onstage by Nat Jay and Adeline, the Bend Sinister experience was only enhanced by a stage that seemed fitting of their talents.

   This, again, was not the story of the night.

Bend Sinister

   The story of the Peak Performance finale was in the handing out of the awards. Running away with first prize and the not insignificant sum of $150,000 was We Are The City, with The Left placing second and Bend Sinister taking third, taking $75,000 and $50,000 apiece. With full knowledge that it was a contest scored by judges (who previously offered a suggestions on how to improve each band at a development camp, imparting such sage advice as “you shouldn’t play keyboard standing up” to Dan Moxon of Bend Sinister) and was not a popularity contest, the crowd revolted over the results. By far the loudest reaction of the night was the boos and anguish of the crowd when it was announced that Bend Sinister took up the rear. In acts that utterly overshadowed a trio of stellar performances, the night’s shrill emcee had to calm the crowd with sadly prosaic admonitions, assuring the angered audience that fifty grand was not “losing”.

Good music with a chaser of righteous indignation was the story of the night. That, and the gentleman screaming “shenanigans” at people being handed what some consider a year’s salary.

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Live Review: Hey Ocean!/Current Swell/The Zolas January 6, 2010

Originally appearing in Beatroute Magazine.


Photo by Paul Boechler

To talk about Hey Ocean! is, inexorably, to talk about Vancouver music as a whole. Being cogent of this fact, the band decided to put a tidy little cross section of the scene up on the marquee at the Vogue on December 18.

The Zolas started the night and set the bar incredibly high. The brainchild of Zach Gray and Tom Dobrzanski playing their first show in Vancouver (despite it being their hometown) added an effortlessness and charisma that only enhanced some undeniably strong tracks off their latest, Tic Toc Tic. Current Swell sought to clear the bar and did so admirably, their neo-blues stylings meshing oddly well with the bookending acts. Their tight set was a credit to a sound they have nurtured to maturity over three albums. Hey Ocean! took to the stage with the buzz of the crowd hovering at a dull roar and managed that energy expertly with a commanding performance.

The show was a worthy milestone in each of the bands’ respective legends. Gathering three of the most talked about Vancouver (and Victoria) bands under one roof for a pre-Christmas show was exactly the no-brainer it seemed. The Zolas racked up a truckload of new fans, Current Swell cemented their status as one of the west coast’s most creative and entertaining group of musicians, and Hey Ocean! used their time at the Vogue to prove what most of the crowd already knew: that their talents are every bit as deserving of headliner status as any band working today. Add in guest appearances by Said the Whale and Dan Mangan and you have an almost parodic number of Vancouver’s finest in one room (and, sometimes, singing into one mic).

Hey Ocean! is, at this point in their career, living up to every shred of hype and promise they have cultivated. They can do seemingly anything; whether imbuing old songs with new meaning and dimension (“Fish,” “Fifteen Words”) or cranking out some remarkable new material (“Last Mistake”), they’re a young band looking like consummate professionals. They capped off a night of music that made it patently clear that any discussion of Vancouver music omitting the three acts is incomplete, and that they are all more than worthy of being remembered as highlights of the closing decade.

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