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."