Tuesday, December 29, 2009

THE RUB Presents: The Top 10 Records of 2009


Putting together a "Best Records of the Year" list in these overloaded digital times is beginning to really chap my ass, I don't mind telling you. Since the systematic domino fall that is the demise of the recording industry - and subsequently that of those stores that specialize in selling physical recordings - the digital, DIY age has ushered in wave after wave of obscure bands and solo artists. The static, white noise din is almost deafening.

Scan Myspace.com's music pages (if you can get that site's overloaded and under-powered servers to open, that is), and you will find obscure little bands shoulder-to-shoulder with their heroes, vying for that scant bit of attention that, if ever received, fades just as quickly. The days of latching-on to an artist or band that commanded your attention and kept it for a while seem to be fading.

This isn't to say that music is becoming completely disposable. Not at all. We're simply living in a time where good music (and yes, a lot of it is exceptionally good, if not great) is suffering from an embarrassment of riches. We're on overload here, people. There is now too much music in the world.

"Boo-hoo", right?

Right.

As a record collector and a music critic, it has become a habit to list (inflict) my annual "Top 10 Records of the Year" online, and this year is no different. Compiling this list wasn't as difficult as it has been in year's past, since, quite frankly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the records 2009 had to offer. The Shins are off regrouping, Beach House's new album doesn't come out until next year (same with Spoon), and Lilys seem to be taken with touring more than recording*. Ha-rumph.

Here then is THE RUB's list of the "Top 10 records of 2009." Let the disagreements with my choices begin! (Yes, these really are my choices.)

(All records listed below are in LP format, unless noted otherwise.)

1. Dennis Diken & Bell Sound
Late Music
Cryptovision Records
cryptovisonrecords.com

To call Late Music aggressively power-pop-ish is an understatement. There is no corner, crevice or cove on this album that isn't illuminated by blinding white melodies, harmonies and hooks. In these troubled times, Dennis Diken (he of Smithereens drumming and Shangri La's producing fame) and Bell Sound's album is something of a shiny, happy, Smile-inspired elixir. Just try singing along to "So Hard To Say Goodbye" or "Let Your Loved One Sleep" without a smile on your face or a care in this (damaged) world of ours. Ya can't, so don't even try! Easily, breezily one of the best power-pop albums since Big Star's #1 Record, and, quite frankly, the best album of 2009.

2. The Clientele
Bonfires On the Heath
Merge Records
mergerecords.com

Bonfires On the Heath is a return to form for this soft-spoken British band after the pop-rivets that were Strange Geometry and God Save The Clientele. Everything that made you fall in love with The Clientele upon first hearing them on Suburban Lights and The Violet Hour is in here: Alasdair Mclean's hushed vocals, AM melodies borrowed from a hazy summer day, the hip-shaking pop flourishes, the over-all dream-like serenity, etc. It's all there, painstakingly put back into place. If anything, Bonfires On the Heath is one of 2009's most underrated recordings. You've slept on this album; wake up, already!

3. White Denim
Fits
Downtown Music, LLC
downtownmusic.com

When is the last time you heard record that was actually fun to listen to? Fits, by the Texas trailer-punkers White Denim, is such a rollicking good time, you will have a considerable amount of difficulty sitting/standing still. Mash-up equal parts Talking Heads, !!! and The Minutemen, and the gooey, infectious result dripping through your fingers would be this album. "Say What You Want" is pure garage rock karate on grease-coated cement, while "All Consolation" is the sound of 100 hammers flying toward one very unlucky Pokemon character, and "Regina Holding Hands", with its beautiful aural chorus, is simply mesmerizing amid all the controlled chaos of this record (nab the iTunes "expanded" version of this album and treat yourself to a second 11-song "disc" featuring White Denim's most ass-bustin' ditty: "Shake, Shake Shake.") Tis fun, you'll see.

4. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Contonou
Echos Hypnotique, Vol.2 -From the Vaults of Albarika Store (1969-1979)
Analog Africa
analogafrica.blogspot.com

There seems to be no shortage of obscure, undiscovered albums "...from the vaults" seeing a more appreciated light-of-day these days. Enter the Afro-beat sounds of Orchestre Poly Rythmo deContonou. Four years in the making, Analog Africa (a label that has been compiling and re-releasing some of the best afro-beat gems as of late - seemingly by the metric ton) gives us the sequel to the more lo-fi recordings found on Echos Hypnotique Volume 1. The production level on Echos Hypnotique Volume 2, which come from EMI Studios master tapes recorded in Lagos in the late 60's and early 70's, sound absolutely superb here. This is apparent from the first opening bars of "Se Ba Ho", to the James Brown-inspired funk of "Malin Kpon O", and album closer "Minkou E So Non Moin." And damn if this songs won't put some strut in your butt. Essential, pretty much.

5. Lake
Let's Build A Roof
K Records
krecs.com

If ever there was an album that was made specifically for lazying about on lazy days, doing nothing but the laziest of lazy things, the laziest by far would have to be Let's Build A Roof by the Portland, Ore. trio, Lake. In the opener, "Breathing", Eli Moore's relaxed vocals sound as if the singer has just been roused from his slumber from underneath a freshly collected leaf pile. Fellow vocalist Lindsey Shief follows ethereal suit on "Acorn", a song so languid, it moves like spiritual mist gliding across a still body of deep, dark water. The stand-out track "Madagascar" borrows elements from afro-beat, infused with Lake's minimalist, ambient pace. And for when "rockin'-out" is called for, "Don't Give Up" and "Collapsing Homes." provide all the wiggle space you lazy bastard's will need. For an album that inspires repose and lounging, there is an awful lot of spark and vitality in Lake's still waters.

6. Sic Alps
L. Mansion 7"
Slumberland Records
slumberlandrecords.com

The San Francisco experimental noise rock duo known as Sic Alps are masters of getting their precision perfect folk-tinged gems stuck in your head. Try as you might, those hard-wired songs ain't coming outta yer noggin once they've passed your ears. For further proof of this brash and opinionated generalization, I submit Sic Alps latest 7" recording for your consideration. Try telling me, that upon hearing it, "L. Mansion" isn't a song with gray matter-delving tentacles. The piano-pounding B-side, "Superlungs (My Supergirl)" is the street-walking cheetah Iggy and the Stooges wished The Weirdness would have been. Hey, it could be worse; you could have Lady Gaga trapped in your head. Think about that, and thank the Sic Alps later.

7. Crystal Stilts
Love Is A Wave/Sugarbaby 7"
Slumberland Records
slumberlandrecords.com

Is there any Crystal Stilts song that doesn't sound as if it were recorded from the hallway of a haunted mansion? This isn't a slight, mind you; I wouldn't have this spooky band any other way, and really, neither should you. "Love Is A Wave" is one of the bands more spirited recordings, merging their fuzzed-out 60-psych garage with slight carnival atmospherics (those of the much more dignified European variety, I assure you). Boardwalk rocker "Sugarbaby" is the rare exception to the 7" rule; it's equally as great as the A-side. (One a side note: Talk about a comeback! Slumberland Records - Crystal Stilts current label - is really having a banner year with their roster and releases. Welcome back, you Bay Area dream-o-philes!)

8. Desolation Wilderness
New Universe
K Records
krecs.com

Desolation Wilderness are the perfect in-flight band for long, contemplative walks at night. Their music glides like the drifting clock hand shadows creeping along the sidewalk from the headlights of passing cars. New Universe is the perfect gauzy follow-up to 2008's White Light Strobing, yet with a hint more verve. "Boardwalk Theme" bounces like a balloon off church steeples, while "Slow Fade" sound like the perfect companion for a car ride to a beautiful girl's house, and "No Tomorrow (Version)" reminds you just how great that 7" from earlier this year truly really was. If you enjoy night swimming, blast "You Hold A Power Over Me." from the beach. New Universe is a dream sequence come to life.

9. Yo La Tengo
Popular Songs
Matador Records
matadorreords.com

Yo La Tengo can do no wrong. Sorry, but it's true. You know it. I know it. That guy over there knows it (go ahead, ask him!) With Popular Songs, the Hoboken, NJ trio takes ever element that made their last 9-million records so enjoyable, and condense them into one album. The slow introspection, the squealing guitar solos, the extraction of every ounce of rock-n-roll dynamics out of instruments not built for that, songs that stretch the 10-minute mark: it's all in there. "Here To Fall" is the best opening track of any record produced in 2009 (watch-out for those sharp string arrangements! They'll take your head off.) "Something To Hide" chugs with Beach Boys-esque organs akimbo, while "All Your Secrets" sounds like couples counseling, while the Wyoming skyline looms in the background. Yo La Tengo have a status as indie-rock legends. They've earned it. Popular Songs simply solidifies their standing.

10. Sonny & the Sunsets
Tonight Is Alright
Soft Abuse
softabuse.com

I've never indulged in heroin**, but I can imagine that Sonny and the Sunsets' Tonight Is Alright is what doing so would sound like. This entire album comes across like it just rolled off its thrift store plaid couch, fired-up the works, grabbed a guitar, and went for it, cigarette dangling from a dried lower lip and all. "Bad Vibes and Evil Thoughts" could show The Brian Jonestown Massacre how it's really done. The 50's do-wop of "Strange Love" is both comforting and foreboding at the same time. And "Death Cream"? Like the Grateful Dead met Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in an opium bar to sing a song about grandma's medicine cabinet. And I'll just let the title "Loving' On An Older Gal" marinate in your oogie-woogie region for a spell. That being said, Tonight Is Alright also makes for a fantastic record to get drunk by or get kind to. Just don't go horse riding, okay?

See you in 2010!



*Mr. Heasley, please record a new album!

**Please Note: I do not believe - nor do I have absolutely any knowledge which leads me to know for a fact - that any of the members of Sonny and the Sunsets actually have heroin habits. The mention of heroin in this review was for satirical effect only. Having to state that this was done for satirical purposes so that no one would get "the wrong idea", however, kinda ruins the gag (when did we, as a nation, get so uptight and literal?) Tonight Is Alright, nonetheless, is still an outstanding album.

Monday, December 28, 2009

FILTH AND WISDOM - DVD

Filth And Wisdom
2008, Semtex Films
DVD and Blu Ray
4 out of 10

Filth and Wisdom marks Madonna's directorial debut. Yes, that Madonna. Yes, directing a motion picture. And yes, this movie turns out just about how you would imagine a motion picture directed by Madonna would turn out. If you already guessed that she uses one of her own songs in this movie (during a strip club scene, no less), then you are way ahead of this review.

I'm not quite sure if any movie has ever explored London's sleazy underbelly with this much whimsy and aplomb the way Filth And Wisdom has, but Madonna does so here with blinding gusto. Filth And Wisdom plays like it wants to be Love Actually, tying all of its plot threads together into a neat little bow, but replaces the cloying charm of that film instead with fashionable filth and popped bubblegum remnants.

Eugene Hutz (who essentially stole Everything Is Illuminated out from under Elijah Wood) plays A.K., a Ukrainian Gypsy who makes his money as a dominatrix, a cab driver and an errand boy for his downstairs neighbor, Hugh E. Grant. A.K. lives in a flat with two impossibly beautiful women; Holly (Holly Westen) a ballerina who, at A.K.'s advice becomes a stripper, and Juliette (Vicky McClure), a pharmacy assistant who is raising money for starving children in Africa while stealing prescription meds from her Indian boss, Sardeep (Inder Manocha).

Convoluted? Oh, Filth And Wisdom is just getting started. As it turns out, Sardeep pines for Juliette since he is in a seemingly loveless marriage with his shrill and overbearing wife (Shobu Kapoor) and their seven children. Then there is Benjamin Goldfarb (Elliott Levee), a client of A.K.'s, whose is also married to an equally shrill and ball-busting woman (Hannah Walters), a Londoner by way of John Waters' Baltimore. Grant's character is Professor Flynn, a once great poet who is now blind and defeated. And when he's not dispensing dog-eared Gypsy advice to his lowly friends ("Where I come from, we have a saying... " his chestnuts always begin), A.K. mugs-it-up on stage with Hutz's real-life band Gogol Bordello.

To her credit, Madonna casting Hutz in a starring showcase seemed like a very shrewd move. Hutz is an interesting and rich character unto himself, be it acting, singing or simply talking. But the problem with Filth And Wisdom is that we get too much of Hutz. His A.K. is the film's narrator, and we meet him face to face, as he and his handlebar mustache tell the audience how wonderful it is to be him, and how much better the world be better if we all lived lives full of carefree desperation, mild depravity and tacky tracksuits. Believe me, a little bit of Hutz normally goes a long way. This is overkill.

Madonna isn't a horrible first-time director. She's merely perfunctory; mediocre. There's no dynamic here, which is surprising coming from the Material Girl. For a celebrity like Madonna, who still takes bold and daring chances (at age 50, no less), Filth And Wisdom is pretty tame. A film that cavalierly shoves sexual domination, women in thong underwear gliding around stripper poles and sexy school girl outfits in our faces (but surprisingly no nudity), Filth And Wisdom comes off more gutless than tantalizing.

More vexing , however, are the long, labored musical montages. I counted four. Who knows? There could have been more, but I lost interest. These montages usually consist of Hutz sitting in his bathtub, smoking cigarettes and singing along to his own songs with the camera right there, in his face, just grazing his stubble. Inter-spliced with this are the meh goings-ons of the other characters that populate this film.

It's interesting that Hutz's band, Gogol Bordello, features into this film on three different occasions (the last being the finale), yet we never get to properly meet them, like, at all. In the trailer for Filth And Wisdom, we are led to believe that A.K. lives the life he does so that he can pursue his dream of being a rock star. That makes sense, since every other character in this film has a dream to chase after. In the actual movie, however, there is absolutely no mention of A.K. chasing his dream of rock stardom. Not even a hint. It seems more like his character just happened to show up to the venue as the band started playing, too drunk and cheerful to take the microphone away from him.

Now, I can't write this review without singling-out Richard E. Grant. I am not a fan of this actor's work. In this film, Grant does nothing with his character, a once famous poet who can't confront his sudden blindness and subsequent depression. He goes no where with this guy that isn't pat and contrived. Instead of exploring and mining every corner of this character's psyche, Grant plays it safe and nimble while devouring every scene he's in as if it were English cuisine with generous amounts of salt and pepper seasoned on top of it (witness the tossing-the-books-off-the-shelf tantrum scene for further proof).

It doesn't help that Grant is playing this character from underneath the most wildly ridiculous gray wig and gaudy elderly make-up since the James Dean film Giant. It's as if the make-up department wanted to bludgeon the audience over the head: "He's older, distinguished, professor-y... you know? Smart." To me, Hugh E. Grant always comes across a pompous, self-congratulatory and vain, and these traits seemingly bleed through whatever character he's playing on screen, silly wig or not.

That being said, Filth And Wisdom is not the worst movie I've seen all year (that honor belongs to Eden Log, and Eden Log alone). It is, though, one of the most mesmerizingly contrived and pointless films I've ever seen. Everything about this film feels hobbled-together and tacked-on (guess who falls in love with each other at the end, even though the film made no earlier in-roads for this to convincingly happen!) A movie that puts itself together as it unspools for the convenience of the story is not really a story at all. It's like knitting a sweater from another sweater. What was the point of all this, anyway?

Perhaps Madonna should have worked her way up to movie directing the way most budding Hollywood directors do these days: by directing music videos. I seem to remember her having some experience in that department. Right?

Monday, December 7, 2009

BROOKS LEATHER RING GRIPS

Brooks Leather Ring Grips
Brooks England, Ltd.
brookssaddles.com
6 out of 10


Brooks.

Within the cycling community this name brand is synonymous with quality, elegance and timelessness. When you spot a bicycle with a Brooks saddle mounted on its seat post, you know you are looking at the bicycle of someone who champions craft, precision and, above all else, comfort. Owning a Brooks saddle speaks to its owners intelligence and dedication. Brooks is a company so revered and respected that it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with English brands of the same pedigree: Fred Perry, Aston-Martin, Burberry, and so on.

Over time, Brooks has ventured beyond bicycling saddles to create some of the most functional and aesthetically pleasing cycling accouterments you can throw hard-earned money at: panniers, shoulder bags, bar tape, etc. All Brooks products are fashioned from what seems to be the most durable, functional, supple, and proper English leather known to human being's who enjoy riding bicycles. That being said, it saddens me to report that Brooks foray into the manufacturing of handlebar grips is, well, rather mildly disappointing.

If I were to sum-up Brooks leather ring grips with one word, it would be "drama." While these grips are artfully crafted, I found fitting them onto my Wald retro-style swallow riser handlebars a bit of a workout. In all fairness, this particular set of handlebars are, shall we say, odd, with barely enough handle clearance for both grips and brake lever mounts. Still, these handle bars are 22.2mm around (the standard size suggested by Brooks for the grip to fit on to), so fitting them onto the bars wasn't a problem.

Brooks designed there grips with a theoretically ingenious platform: on each end of the grips are locking collars to-which attach three long bicycle spokes, locked in place on one side and threading on the other. Between this span are a series of leather washer "rings", which can be removed individually depending on the size you need. The handsome packaging (God, I love Brooks packaging!) even includes shortened spoke-threads to allow for mounted shifters. All in all, a fairly intelligent design.

If the grips are too long, remove some of the rings and trim the spoke-threading down to the desired size. Simple enough, right? And what buddy bike mechanic doesn't like tinkering and modifying? But here come the first bit of drama; hacking away are minute, yet integral, components on grips that will set yo back nearly $80.00. Slicing and chopping into these seemingly irreplaceable spoke-threads makes you feel like a surgeon operating on your Sister-In-Law with only three months of medical school under your belt: once false slice and you're screwed.

The next bit of drama came when I realized that both the grips and my brake lever wouldn't fit on the Wald bars. Now, these what-the-hell-was-Wald-thinking-??? handlebars are no fault of Brooks. I'm confident that if Brooks were to design handlebars, they would be spectacular. And expensive. These Wald handlebars, however, were quite inexpensive, and I was now paying the price for my frugal find.

Still, these Brooks grips wouldn't allow for brake lever, lest I wanted the lever mounted on the handlebar's bend between the grip and the rise where it would pull funky (this, of course would not do). I have rather large hands, and shortening these grips any more wasn't an option, either. So, I opted for mounting the brake lever near my bicycle's stem, on the shallow part of the handlebar's rise near the mount. I looks wonky, but it functions.

The most irksome drama came in the form of the dime-sized bar ends. Sure, they look very smart, with the word "Brooks" branded into them. But for some reason, my bar-ends kept coming loose during rides, flopping to the side, and dislodging on their own. The threat of loosing them prompted my to tighten the small screws on each of the collars in an attempt to squeeze the ends into immobility. This, however, resulting in over-tightening one of the screws so badly that I broke it's "head" off. I've since opted to ride sans bar ends with the hollow of my handlebars on either end for the world to see. Woe is me.

Next, is the spoke-threads, themselves. Keep in mind that the leather washers are secured by these spokes. That is all well and good; the leather rings are surprisingly grippy and comfortable. But the spoke-threads themselves are a bit... torque-y. I say this because when you wrap your hands around the grips, there is a fair amount of play coming from the middle of the grips. Nothing dangerous, mind you. But enough to be annoying. Though thoroughly secured on either end by the collars, these grips feel subtly "shifty" when riding.

Once mounting these grips to my steed, I found I wasn't very aesthetically impressed by them. I really hate to admit this, but I'm not as in love with them as I thought I'd be. You see, I've recently reconditioned a fixed gear bicycle by having it powdercoated gloss black, mounting white Vittoria Randonneur tires on my silver Velocity Deep V's , and attaching a bronze Crane bell to the aforementioned Wald swallow handlebars. I was going for modern-classic aesthetic, akin to the new Fiat 500 automobile: classic styling on a modern chassis. Of course I wanted grips to match my Brooks Professional saddle, so these Brooks Leather Ring grips seemed like a natural choice.

These grips simply underwhelmed me, however. I chose the black edition to match my saddle, but the sides of the rings on the grips are raw and distressed (as the edge of leather usually is - yes, I know). Then there's the matte silver collars. I seriously wish Brooks would have made these in the same copper color as the exposed rivets on their saddles. I don't know, maybe it's me, but the silver finish on these four collars doesn't seem very English, or dignified. Last, if I had them to purchase all over again, I would have opted for the dark brown leather rings, instead of the almost green-looking black.

Yes, if I had this purchase to do all over again, I would still buy these Brooks grips. They are manufactured by Brooks, after all; the hand-crafted quality is built-in (hell, even the packaging feels hand-crafted!) Despite the drama and mild disappointment, I still hold these expensive grips in some moderately high regard. However, if I may make some suggestions to Brooks for any future editions of these grips, it would be these: four spoke-threads instead of three, bronze or copper-colored collars, finishing treatment on the side of the leather rings, having a way to secure the bar-ends to the collar screw via a small eyelet or some such thing, and a third middle-sized option for the spoke-threads.

All-in-all, I'd say that if you absolutely require your bicycle be outfitted with as many Brooks accouterments as possible, nothing I write here will stop you from buying these grips (I'm guessing the price tag won't dissuade you, either). However, if a simple pair of leather grips from Dapper Dan will do ya, well then, you're not missing much here. So are these Brooks leather ring grips worth the price? Seeing the quality of craftsmanship that went into these grips, I'd say yes. Worth the "meh" and drama factors despite the name on the side of them? Maybe not so much.





All things considered, these Brooks grips rate fairly nominal, with minor flaws that one can learn to live with. How does that English saying go? Oh yes: "Stay calm. Carry On."

Friday, November 27, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Fantastic Mr. Fox
2009, Twentieth Century Fox
In Theaters
9 out of 10

Writer and director Wes Anderson has made a name for himself in cinema, producing precious, whimsical and hilarious films that, underneath their thrift store veneers, pack a two-note wallop centering around betrayal and redemption. Almost all of Anderson's film involve a self-serving patriarch or protagonist that, by film's end, learns to be a mench, while everyone else learns a lesson in forgiving. Yet, out of all the dysfunctional twee at the core of each of his films, no other Anderson outting has ever been more absolutely delightful than in this, his latest, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Based (loosely) on the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, we meet the "Fantastic" Mr. Fox (George Clooney) just as he's on the cusp of retiring from a career of poultry thievery, and he discovers that his wife, Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), is pregnant. "12 Fox Years Later", Mr. Fox has settled into a life of staid suburban domesticity as a dedicated husband, father and Op-Ed newspaper columnist. Buying into the suburban ideal, Fox even pines for an "above ground" abode, moving his family from their cozy hole-in-the-ground into a lofty hollowed-out tree, against the advice of his lawyer (Bill Murray).

Of course, Fox's new dwelling gives him the perfect view of the factory farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three of the meanest farmers in all the land. As responsibility gives way to animal instinct, Mr. Fox plots three "last big jobs." Enlisting the help of his friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and Nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), the thieving goes off without a hitch. That is, however, until they cross the meanest, most determined-to-kill farmer of the three, Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon), who is aided by his security rat (Willem Defoe) and his lackey Petey (Jarvis Cocker, of the legendary Britpop band Pulp).

Amidst all the mayhem, hole digging and one-upping of the deranged farmers at every turn, is the the plot thread centering around Ash Fox (Jason Schwartzman) competing for the attention of his Father from his intelligent, conscientious, confident, athletic, and warm-hearted cousin Kristofferson. Ash, you see, is "different". He wears a cape and pajamas (with the legs tucked into his tube socks, natch!) at all times. Compared to his Father and cousin's accomplishments, ash is a runt whose defense mechanism is to resentfully spit on the ground and make snide, hurtful comments. In other words, Ash is a bit of an asshole.

But honestly, where would an Anderson film be without the "daddy issues?" Anderson's last couple of movies, The Dajeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and (especially) The Royal Tenenbaums, were packed to the gills with narratives centering around the aftermath of a self-centered Father and the turbulence left in their wakes. Fantastic Mr. Fox, however, takes this Anderson trope to surprisingly precious heights. When the redemption comes (as it always does in Anderson's films), it's gratifyingly magical and heartwarming.

Now, I am a fan of Anderson's work. His second film, Rushmore, still ranks as one of my personal "Top-10 Movies Of All Time." This director's work can be preening and too-precious at times, but beneath the sentimentality and attention to dusty knick-knack detail, Anderson's films have a heart and soul to them that easily transports you to a more whimsical and warm place. Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, is the zenith of Anderson's ability to dispense his magic thus far; as if all those threads in his cinematic canon where leading to this.

Keep in mind that the performances here are one-half animation (stop-motion animation, to be more exact). More-so than in any of his previous films, Anderson has channeled more pathos and humanity through these "dolls" than any living actor he's placed on screen. Take for instance the scene where Fox and his friends are digging below the farmers farming complexes. Fox stops his digging and motions upward as if to say, "This is the spot." Then he looks up, if only for a second, and digs upward. That's it: he just glances skyward. It's an involuntary gesture, but here, in this stop-motion arena, it's subtle. It's human.

In our CGI movie-making world, it's easy to take the impossible for granted. Sure, it still looks glossy, bright and fake, but computer generated graphics are now tumbling beloved landmarks, making bullets fly around people and allowing transforming robots to bore us to death. Stop motion in today's special effects climate is the work of the dedicated and insane. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, I sat there mesmerized by each and every frame. The hours poured into every motion, every glance, every syllable coming out of every characters mouth: transfixing. Here is a lo-fi, outdated discipline of animation unfolding flawlessly on screen, and I was amazed by every second of it.

I dare say that this may be Wes Anderson's finest film so far. Fantastic Mr. Fox is intelligent, witty, funny and accessible to audiences of all ages. And in a rare coup, Anderson has included "inside" gags young and old can enjoy together, on the same level (what a novel idea!) He has also given his audience a world and characters that populate it, making you want to return to over and over again. Every Anderson trademark is in there: the camaraderie, the redemption, a montage featuring a Rolling Stones song, the vintage tchotkes (albeit, manufactured in miniature instead of mined from thrift stores and grade school surplus auctions), the whimsical score augmenting the hand-picked play-list of mix CD-worthy songs, etc.

This director has a seemingly effortless spirit and flavor marking his films as his, and his alone. Anderson stylistically can be placed on the shelf next to other American auteurs with a penchant for aesthetic branding: Scorsese, Tarantino, Jonze, Burton, Jarmusch, et al. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has his most substantial work to date (and that is really saying something, giving this directors proven track record and quality cinematic out-put). Fantastic Mr. Fox lives up to it's title, especially that "fantastic" part.

A cussing good film!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA - DVD

G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
2009, Paramount Pictures
DVD and Blu Ray
4 out of 10.

As a child consumer of the 1980's, a little bit my soul whithers and dies every time I hear that Hollywood is grinding yet another one of my beloved boyhood cartoon shows/toy lines into a fine, powdery feature length film. As with the utterly awful Transformers movies, the Hollywood threshing machine has turned it's sights on Hasbro's other hot toy property from the '80's (other than My Little Pony, that is): G.I. Joe. Of course being the fan of the cartoon, toys and comics that I was when I was a child, duty compelled me to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

If you go into this film with your mind made-up that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is going to be the worst movie you will ever see in your life (and for this, I would recommend either Frozen Assets or Eden Log), you may be pleasantly surprised to realize that Joe is only moderately mediocre. It's markedly better than Transformers 2 (which also came-out last summer), easier to take than a car trip with your boss, and much more pleasant than a small dog humping your leg. Like making a meal out of cotton candy, G.I. Joe is big on presentation, but virtually evaporates upon consumption.

The plot, as far as I could understand it, goes something like this: Arms dealer James McCullen (Chris Eccelston) seeks to avenge a centuries-old grudge against his family (ancestor issues, anyone?) by building intricate weapons systems, selling them to industrialized governments and then stealing them back with the help of a murky mercenary squad which, if you didn't figure-out when seeing them on-screen for the first time, will become (SPOILER ALERT!) Cobra. Oh, and McCullen really hates France.

Luckily for the World, there's G.I. Joe, a (now) international military strike team at the ready to thwart this tech-savvy, pre-Cobra menace (it's fair to say that the Joe's hate France as much as McCullen does, judging by what they later do to Paris). We meet Joe members Scarlet (Rachel Nichols), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park, who is blessed with absolutely no lines of dialog what-so-ever) the way our main protagonist Army grunts Duke (Channing Tatum) and his best buddy-in-arms Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) do: with guns a-blazing!

Duke and Ripcord, you see, are charged with delivering weapon's manufacturer McCullen's nano-warheads to the U.N. (?!?) when they are ambushed by the sultry Baroness (Sienna Miller) and her puffed-up battalion of gimp-masked, laser-rifle toting thugs. With their platoon all but wiped out, Duke and Ripcord are rescued by the Joes, but not before Duke is able to identify the Baroness as his old flame, Ana, whose brother, Rex (Joseph Gorden-Levitt), was killed in action alongside Duke several missions earlier, thus breaking-off Ana and Duke's engagement (you following all of this so far?) Soon Duke and Ripcord are full-fledged Joe's under the command of General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), who trains our heroes at the Joe's under-sand, multi-tiered fun-bunker, The Pit, in Egypt.

Why Egypt? It may have something to do with director Stephen Sommers' (the Mummy Trilogy - *blah*) having sand on the brain. Who knows?

You get the idea Sommers hopes you aren't paying close attention to his movie. Along with this convoluted plot, he gives us an evil ninja so brazen he wears all white, ice burgs that fall to the ocean floor, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, a U.S. president played by a Brit (Jonathan Pryce), and more continuity goofs than an IMDB member can shake an empty Mountain Dew bottle at. And if this isn't enough, how about (c)ramming every G.I. Joe jingoism in the 'verse into this flick: "Realistic hair," "Real Kung Fu grip," "Knowing's half the battle," and the famous battle cry "Yo Joe!" All delivered at odd times, and spoken as if to make you feel slightly embarrassed for the actors saying them. "Cobra!", indeed.

Of course, by the end, you realize that the entire movie you have just digested has been played as a sort of prologue for sequels to come (oh, you know they will!) At least Sommers has spared us the sequel-as-prequel formula inundating lousy action movies as of late (I'm looking at you, Underworld franchise), so there's that.

All-in-all, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn't that bad ...for a big, dumb action movie that has more in common with science fiction than military fact, that is. I've seen worse. And so have you, since I'm assuming you saw Highlander 2: The Quickening. Still, I couldn't help thinking that I've seen G.I. Joe done better, with a better storyline, more action and more imagination. Hmm, when was that?

Oh yeah! It was when I was slightly more immature than I am now, playing with my G.I. Joe toys!


SWOBO "SANCHEZ" - BICYCLE FRAMESET

Swobo Sanchez
Bicycle Frameset (frame, fork and headset)
Swobo, Inc. - www.swobo.com
8 out of 10

I've wanted a Swobo Sanchez ever since I first started riding fixed gear bicycles three years ago, and now I have finally one. Let me just say that this frame-set lives-up to the hype that I had managed to build-up around it t in my head. I can honestly say that I absolutely love this bike.

I had been aware of fixed gear bicycles (a bicycle with a single "fixed" gear that doesn't allow for "coasting") for quite a while before finally cobbling together my own conversion (a road bike converted into a fixed gear). I'd see these bike being ridden around by friends and bathing-adverse strangers every now-and-again, slightly intimidated by the potential for bodily harm (most fixed gear bicycle rider don't use brakes, but rather the torque from their legs to the chain to the cog in-order to stop), yet still intrigued by the sheer simpleness of these machines. Then one day my girlfriend's friend (and by extension, now my friend) Gina came over with her fixed gear bike, and that was that.
As my girlfriend and Gina chatted in the living room, I stood in the kitchen, just marveling at Gina's bike. "No derailer? No gears to 'ka-chunk' and eventually throw? Hmm...," I thought to myself. "Just that one gear. How 'bout that?" And damn if these simple bikes don't exude an clean, sexy aesthetic. I was doomed. I had to have one.

Sure, sure, in the 'roid rage that is hipster-hating (which is, in itself, ironically "hip" these days) , fixed gear bicycles rate about as high as the electro/clash music genre, white belts and the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Fixed gear bicycles are derided by chunkheads, "proper" bicyclists and even "former" fixed gear riders alike (talk about jumping "off" the bandwagon!), and seem to be as far from the subversive bike messenger culture that spawned this "trend" as Urban Outfitters (who just happen to have their own brand of fixed gear bicycles for sale) is from your house.

But even mountain bikes (a multi-billion dollar industry unto itself these days) were once considered a "trend" by spandex-clad "purists"; likewise, this fixed gear "fad" doesn't seem to be fading away anytime soon, either. These days, it seems that almost every bicycle manufacturer has a fixed gear division with a quasi-bohemian, urban slant. Which leads us to Swobo.

In doing my research (wherein I just Googled "fixed gear bike"), I came across an interesting little company named Swobo out of San Francisco. A seemingly little, independent bicycle manufacturer, Swobo may or may not be an off-shoot of the Santa Cruz Bicycles mountain bike division, overseen by ex-professional skateboarding bad-ass Rob Roskopp, and headed-up by former Bianche design chief Sky Yeager.

After patiently waiting and saving-up my money for three years, I was finally able to purchase a Sanchez. It didn't hurt that Swobo had recently reduced the price of this frameset from $399.00 to $199.00, either (sorry, but as of this writing, it looks like the sale is over). This package came with the frame, a straight-blade fork, seat clamp, track-end adjustment screws and a Cane Creek headset. The Sanchez also comes with "complete" with various Swobo parts (wheelset, handlebars, saddle, etc.), but I like this stripped-down arrangement much more; augmenting this set-up with higher quality components of your choosing.

The first thing you notice about the Sanchez is the galvanized tig-welded steel tubing. Actually, the frame and fork are painted that galvanized steel color (from what I understand, early Sanchez frames were actually galvanized steel, but cost became a factor, so subsequent framesets were simply "galvanized-like" painted). The next thing you notice is the weight, as in "light as a feather." Built-up, the Sanchez can be easily lifted off the ground using only your index and middle fingers. The last thing that you will notice is people guffawing "dirty Sanchez" upon telling them the name of this bike.

I built my 60cm Sanchez up using a variety of cheap-ish parts. I purchased the saddle, seat post and handlebars directly from Swobo. The Velocity wheelset was purchased (surprisingly trued) from a dealer on eBay. The Thompson headset, MKS pedels, and Strong V grips were purchased at The Bicycle Business here in Sacramento (www.thebikebiz.com). And the used Shimano Octolink crankset, a new Ritchey bottom bracket and a set of Vittoria Zaffiro tires were purchased where this Sanchez was built-up: at Whitworth Cycles (www.whitworthcycles.com). All-in-all, building-up this bike cost me no more than $600.00.

The Sanchez has a very tight, track inspired geometry which lends itself very well to its tight handling. Even at 60cm, this bike feels bigger than it really is. It's hard to explain: you feel that you are mounted atop a taller steed than it is, yet the Sanchez handles almost as nimbly as BMX bicycle. And I don't know if I just want to believe this, but it seems as if the Sanchez actually absorbs bumps, train tracks and other abrasively hash road anomalies. As my daily commuter, the Sanchez performs flawlessly

So, how about some bad news, then? The Sanchez that I purchased was surprisingly free of flaws, save for two. The first was found on one of the drop-outs on the fork, which was, shall we say, "tighter" than the other. This could be a rare variance (Swobo's frames are manufactured in Taiwan), but annoying, nonetheless. Even after filing the drop-out out a bit, fitting my wheel's hub spindle in was a bit of a tight squeeze. Of course, were some wretched wheel thief to come a-calling on a day when I didn't secure both my frame and front wheel to a poll (I'm ashamed to say that it's been known to happen), they'll have a bit of a time getting this wheel free. Moving on...

Now, I'm not a fixed gear freestyler myself, but Swobo claims its two taller Sanchez framesets (60cm and 62cM only - sorry fans of smaller frame sizes) can do bar spins. I'm 6', 1" so I found the 60cm frame a perfect fit for me. However, one day while lofting my bike over my shoulder, I noticed the very top of my front tire rubbing against the downtube when the Zaffiro spun around 360 degrees (the tires measure 700x23c). Since I'm not a "tricker", this doesn't really matter to me. But a promise is a promise, Swobo. I'm just saying...

That being said, the Swobo Sanchez is a fantastic bicycle, and one that I highly recommend for anyone looking to upgrade from their conversion. Or for those attention-deprived among you looking for a bike that will get "looks." Or for anyone who desires fellow bicyclists to approach your bike, rub it with two fingers and say "Is this galvanized?" (Quick tip: let them believe that!)

For nearly the cost of a Bianche Pista, you can get a complete Sanchez that you can easily assemble in no more than 15 minutes, from box to ride (or so claims the Youtube video below.) For the full "fixie experience", give generously at you local bike shop and slap some higher-quality parts on-to your Swobo rig. Peel-off the oddly-placed top tube "Swobo - Sanchez" badge near the seat post (it's metal, but it's secured to the frame like a sticker), and away you go.

Ride through some mud, even! ("Dirty Sanchez." *snort!*)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

YO LA TENGO Popular Songs - LP

Yo La Tengo Popular Songs
2009, Matador Records
8 out of 10

For over 20 years, 12 albums and countless singles, You La Tengo have been churning-out more wonderfully heart-felt bedroom waltzes than a rock critic could shake an adoring pen at. And while it's unfair that this Hoboken, New Jersey trio hasn't received the same adoration and appreciation lavished upon less talented acts (Cough! The Killers. Cough!), we "cult followers" of the band have been able to secret the their tunes away, keeping them all to ourselves.

Popular Songs finds Tengo'ers Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew back on familiar, soft-focus ground after 2006's adventurous I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. That is to say, really, that the band has returned to it's roots, as they were; introspective songs that feel like a warm blanket made just for you. This is not to say that the curiosity that produced ...Beat Your Ass has left the building. No, not at all. If anything, that album helped Yo La Tengo expand their reach with Popular Songs, and allowed them to spread their wingspan a lot more. Bedroom rock, if the bedroom were a warehouse, say.

"Here To Fall" opens the album with a monsoon of strings, Hammond Organ and deep bass, as if to mark it's territory on your turntable. This is followed immediately by the Mama's and Papa's-esque "Avalon Or Someone Very Similar", and it's here where Yo La Tengo's intentions become quite clear: they have swells of brilliant harmonies and they aren't going to hesitate to use them one bit. In fact, it's as if the band has taken everything they've learned over the years and condensed all of that knowledge into one album.

Take "All Your Secrets" for example; your tried and true YLT road song that hums like a warm breeze on your cheek. Or "By Two's", which finds Hubley whispering plaintively over midnight-hour instrumentation that sounds as if it's weeping. And "Nothing To Hide", a chug-chug rocker that has become de rigeur since Painful. There's even two - count 'em two! - songs that clock-n over the 10 minute mark ("The Fireside" and "All the Glitter Is Gone"). Now, if this sounds like a complaint, as if I was saying each Yo La Tengo Album has seemingly become predictable, well ...it's not, but I am.

But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. And "predictable" is a bit loaded. Rather, let's say, "consistent". Yes, Yo La Tengo's albums have become consistent. The band writes great songs and nowhere is that more obvious that here on Popular Songs. And honestly what's wrong with listening to something that has almost come to be expected?

Popular Songs marks yet another cobblestone in the subtlely inclined road that Yo La Tengo finds themselves leisurely ascending. In a time when music seems so cold, so anonymous, so mediocre, and so overcrowded, it's great to hear a familiar face. Hello, old friend. Let's hear some of those popular songs you've been playing.


THE CLIENTELE - Bonfires On the Heath - LP

The Clientele
Bonfires On the Heath
2009, Merge Records
8 out of 10

Of the select group of my friends who pride themselves on being knowledgeable in music that matters, not one could be counted on to posit an opinion when asked the question “What do you think of the new Clientele album?” One audiophile in particular, who is in possession of a considerably great ear for folk-tinged English melodies, told me that his interest in The Clientele had waned ever since the band’s second album proper, Strange Geometry. How could it be that one of the best slow-rock bands in the World has been reduced to being so woefully under-appreciated by people who (should) know better?

For the uninitiated, The Clientele are three English lads (Alasdair Maclean, James Hornsey, Mark Keen) and one gal (Mel Draisey, added to the line-up in 2007, whom I also presume is English) who produce brilliantly wispy Merseybeat chamber pop that I can only imagine sounds better on an overcast day while piloting a 1967 Jaguar X-Type in the English countryside. Landing somewhere in the neighborhood of Nick Drake, Cardinal, Belle and Sebastian, and Love, The Clientele’s mix of sorrow and whimsy makes for a brilliant lovelorn companion.

On their forth album, Bonfires On the Heath, The Clientele still retain much of what made their early singles so appealing: thoughtfully expansive and melancholy AM radio melodies akin to that of a frozen lake of honey for lead singer Maclain’s hushed vocals to effortlessly glide upon. Due in no small part to Draisey’s myriad contributions, (violin, piano, organ, backing vocals, and even the glockenspiel are employed as a compliment to arrangements), Bonfires On the Heath is a brilliant affair from start to finish.

As with their 2007 release, God Save The Clientele, the band seems to be slowly charting out more – dare I say - "upbeat" tiers of their ivy covered cottage. “I Wonder Who We Are” opens the album with a marimba boardwalk beat so infectious it would make you appear to be a complete ass if you didn’t shake and shimmy along to it. The same can be said for “Share The Night”, “Sketch”, and the Arthur Lee-esque “I Know I Will See Your Face”. Melancholia is, however, The Clientele’s stock and trade, and they do so with absolute heart-breaking aplomb on tracks such as “Graven Wood”, “Jennifer and Julia”, and “Harvest Time”. The title track is the perfect accompaniment to watching yellow and orange leaves fall from the arched trees on your street.



If I had to register one complaint with Bonfires On the Heath, it would have to be the track order. While “I Wonder Who We Are” is a wonderful song, it starts the album a bit abruptly and is immediately followed by not one, but two ballads (which, as I’ve just mentioned are quite wonderful). “Share the Night” is a great Side Two opener, while “Tonight” would have made a much better album closer than “Walking In the Park.” Of course these are the small, irrelevant quibbles of a lowly reviewer for an album that is admittedly near flawless.

As for this record being ignored by my audiophile peers? Well, I must admit that I’m at a loss. How can the honeymoon be over when The Clientele has brought fractured romance to spare?

I’m sure these friends will come back around… at least I hope they will.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Welcome!

Greeting word nerd(s), and welcome to my review blog. Tis nothing extraordinary, mind you, but writing reviews is the absolute best thing I do. You might ride your skateboard extremely well, make the perfect quiche or launder clothing like a seasoned professional. Mozel tov! For me, it's words constructed in such an order as convey a clear and concise review of a said item and/or experience.

This blog, then, is the depot of my written, opinion-based missives. Here you will find reviews on those things I hold near and dear: records, live music events, films, vintage tchotckes, and other such things I'm willing to shell-out my hard-earned money for. In short: worth-while consumer goods.

The breakdown of this blog goes as such: New, recently released albums (in LP form, mind you. CD's are shit.), the most recent movies I've seen in the theater and the latest junk I've purchased (bicycles, toys, food, etc.) Some blog entries will also contain "second looks" at records and DVD's from the past that I feel may warrant more consideration on the part of blithely ignorant bastards that bare absolutely no resemblance to you. Others, may contain a strongly worded essay on my cat's cleaning habits. It's my blog, and I'll review if I want to. Review if I want to...

So yeah, there it is in a nutshell. THE RUB. A blog about reviewing stuff (music and movies, mostly) by a freelance writer with no fixed media address (for more about your nebbish writer, see my profile information over there --->). In lieu of actually writing for an established publication - and getting paid for it, I might add - here is my blog. You know, to keep in shape.

Hey, it's your dime. Let's waste it together.

Love,

-Tony King
Editor and Writer, THE RUB







P.S. Blogs are not a substitute for unbiased, fact-checked news reporting. Read a newspaper, ya lug!