Friday, May 21, 2010

Sex Mob at the 55 Bar - May 20, 2010

The slide trumpet is an unruly instrument. It sounds more raw than its valved cousin and intonation's just a bitch. When Steven Bernstein puts the instrument to his lips while fronting his band Sex Mob, he doesn't tame the beastly horn, but lets the thing out of its cage. It's hard to imagine anything other than a slide trumpet leading this raucously fun band.

Even after 14 years together, Sex Mob still plays with irrepressible energy, an energy that threatened to blow out the windows of the tiny speakeasy venue. While its repertoire is more indicative of a bar band, Sex Mob deconstructs the cheesy pop tunes with a great deal of subversive wit. The melody's there, but doesn't sound quite right. The groove's there, but Wollesen puts the backbeat just a little too far behind the pulse to make it comfortable. And it's just frickin' hilarious when they transition from Duke Ellington's "The Mooch" to "The Macarena" without blinking an eye.

Bernstein's also one hell of an emmcee. He filled breaks with goofy stories about Bill O'Reilly and doctors of music writing pot prescriptions, and was totally comfortable asking the audience about volume levels during sound check (Somebody should get him on a late night show. Seriously.) This casualness runs into the music as well. Se Mob's not about creating well-manicured works where everything lines up exactly, but that's not to say they aren't a tight band. It's more like wickedly-precise untogetherness, making it sound like a group of four guys just picking up instruments and deciding to play whatever they heard on the AM radio.

Sex Mob is very analog music. There are no quantized divisions between genres, or pitches, or tempos. It's all just a soupy texture of pop tunes you're embarrassed to like and mind-blowing free jazz. And in a digital music world, nothing can be so refreshing.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Painfully Real (Without 3-D!) - Daddy Longlegs

The great irony of reality TV is that in order for it to be effective, the audience cannot feel sympathy for the people on screen. Whether confined to a tropical island or thirty-second singing audition, reality show participants are boiled down to their unsavory antics and personality flaws. Because they are divorced from the rest of their humanity, we can laugh at their ridiculous faux pas without a tinge of guilt. But to see a real human being screw-up in royal fashion is a much more nerve-racking affair. And this is what precisely unfolds before us in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs.

At the movie’s outset we are introduced to Lenny (played convincingly by Ronald Bronstein), a lanky thirty-something munching on a hot dog as he runs through the busy streets of NYC to an appointment. He falls while attempting to jump a fence, loses his hot dog, and lies in the grass, laughing at his own misfortune. Lenny is so irresistibly exuberant and carefree, you can’t help but laugh with him. But when Lenny gets to elementary school to pick up his boys, Sage and Frey (real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for a two-week visitation, he gets into a verbal spat with the school principal due to a lack of discipline. Everything isn’t so happy-go-lucky in Lenny Land, but he tries his best to keep it that way.

Despite his charms, Lenny is a total space cadet and a thoroughly incompetent father. He loves his kids, but as a buddy rather than a friend. Lenny takes his boys on a trip upstate with a girl he met in a bar, leaves them to play with the photocopier at the movie theater he works at, and sends them to the grocery store on their own. And when you think he can’t screw up any worse, Lenny administers sleeping pills that leave Sage and Frey nearly comatose. Each of Lenny’s mistakes is groan-inducing and stomach-twisting. As the blunders pile up, all you can do is put your head in your hands and sigh. Though Lenny is visibly regretful after each case of negligence, he is somehow unable to learn anything from his mistakes, creating an even more excruciating viewing experience.

You won’t enjoy watching Daddy Longlegs, as it creates the unconscionable urge to jump into the film and give Lenny a Homer Simpson-style strangling. But that doesn’t mean it is a movie to be avoided. There are few movies that push the viewers’ buttons in this way, and even fewer that push them as effectively as this one does. Like in many films that look back on youth, Josh and Benny Safdie imbue the film with a sense of altered memory. Events end abruptly and then cut to a scene many hours later, with things seemingly back to normal. Instead of following a traditional narrative arc, the film moves with the unpredictable rhythms of daily life. The film is an oddly idealized portrait of childhood, not in that it smoothes over the ugly parts, but in how it emphasizes certain moments, stretching time out or deleting it entirely. In Daddy Longlegs, the Safdie brothers have concocted a distinctive film with rare emotional intensity. Of course they’re not the kind of emotions we want when seeing a movie, but that’s what makes the experience all the more visceral. Sometimes we need a movie that isn’t an escape, but rather throws us headlong into the pains of reality.

Daddy Longlegs opens today in Manhattan, and hopefully coming to an indie cinema near you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regal Butter on Royal Toast

I know I'm addicted to NPR. You don't have to tell me again. And yes, my mother has every reason to make fun of me for rolling my eyes when she would talk about something she heard on NPR at the dinner table.

But seriously, it's hard not to love it after spending a day there. It's like watching a 6-hour episode of the West Wing in real life. Just tons of smart and funny people saying tons of smart and funny things. And any organization that has 70,000 music CDs on the premises is good by me. There's also NPR goes Gaga.

Not to mention their exclusive first listen is pretty frickin' sweet. Recently I've checked out new albums by Nels Cline, the New Pornographers, and the National, all of which are now on my Princeton Record Exchange watch list. And this week, NPR is hosting a preview of the new album by drummer John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, Royal Toast.

In terms of name ridiculosity, the Claudia Quintet certainly one up's the Ben Folds Five. On this record at least, there are no less than six members in the quintet, none of them named Claudia. The instrumentation's a bit off-kilter too, with the sounds of accordion and vibraphone swirling around tenor sax, bass and drums(with the addition of piano this time around). Over their near-decade together as a band, Hollenbeck and co have staked out a unique musical territory, somewhere in the murk that separates jazz, indie pop, and chamber music. Improvised solos are seamlessly inserted into heavily notated pieces, while Mr. Hollenbeck lays down an almost-danceable groove.

Their self-titled debut album was notable for its hard edges separated by ample space. Accordions, vibes and saxes don't blend very well, and so the music was built on interlocking and angular melodies, all jumping into the foreground simultaneously. Royal Toast marks a sonic mellowing out of sorts. Gary Versace's piano fills in a lot of the frequencies between the bass and lead instruments, smoothing over the music's stark lines. After playing with this particular combination of instruments for so long, Hollenbeck is uncannily attuned to how they sound together and so Royal Toast is oh so carefully orchestrated. The instruments jump in and out of the mix gracefully, creating blissful sonic landscapes. In a lot of ways it's reminiscent of good pop production, except for being totally acoustic and all.

Especially on Royal Toast, Hollenbeck's compositions sound like an audio analog of Charlie Kaufman's films. They're subdued, a bit cerebral and carefully controlled, but with a good dose of deadpan humor thrown in. On the two part tune Keramag, Hollenbeck begins with an admirably sloppy drum solo; the drums aren't falling down the stairs by accident, he's dropping them at exact times. Then suddenly the rest of the band jumps in and it all turns into a broke-down dance party, with the backbeat uncomfortably loose. This may be the only time the music gets louder than a dull roar, but that restraint only brings the listener in more. Despite a harmonic palette and gain level reminiscent of ambient music, Royal Toast certainly isn't an album that fades into the background. There are just too many little jokes and "aha" moments to find in this lush music to tune it out.

So pull out your good pair of headphones and head on over to NPR to check out the Claudia Quintet and Royal Toast.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coherent Babblings

So it's the night before all written work for the semester is due here at Princeton U and about an hour ago, a large group of students in the courtyard of nearby Holder Hall screamed like a pack of teenage banshees pissed off that the next episode of "Glee" was postponed because of the World Series or something.

Yeah, not so pleasing.

But at least there are somethings that scream beautifully. Like Little Richard. And Bill Frisell's guitar.

To hear some of the wonderful sounds Mr. Frisell coaxes from a modest piece of wood and steel, check out the audio piece below. Think of it as a segment from the "All Things Considered" rejection bin. (sorry for the cheesy photos but I have to put it in video format).