Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive…

Readjusting to living in New York has been a fairly smooth transition, all things considered, but every once in a while I have a moment where it hits me what a different life I lead in France, and it feels like coming home. Last night’s sold-out Passion Pit show was one of those moments. Before I left for Europe, I probably saw a concert at least once a month–I’d go with friends or on my own, scour the calendar for my favorite venues ages in advance. If I could, I’d spend every penny I own on live music–and that’s because I can’t think of anything else that makes me feel the way a great show does.

The first show I went to was the 1997 HFStival, which was an incredible line-up of late ’90s alternarock from Live and the Goo Goo Dolls to the Chili Peppers. At 14 years old, I was too nervous to brave the crowd for most of the day, but made it down to the stadium field for Live’s set–and what I remember most is how comfortable I was, the sensation of someone gently moving me aside to get closer to the stage, dancing to “Lightening Crashes” and feeling connected to a crowd of thousands.

I’ve told the story of my first Radiohead show hundreds of times, but it bears repeating. They happened to be playing in Oxford, England the same summer that I was there doing a pre-college program. On the day of the show, a handful of us wandered down toward the concert site hoping to listen from outside the gates, but only three of us had enough money to buy tickets off the scalper who approached us. I actually didn’t have enough, but Tom, a boy I’d met that day, paid the difference–the first of many generous moments in one of my most cherished high-school friendships. The three of us sat on the grass and chatted while a little-known band called Sigur Ròs bowed their electric guitars to create long, keening whale-call notes (almost a decade later I’d close my eyes and let that sound wash over me as it filled the glorious United Palace theater). Almost from the moment Radiohead came onstage, I knew something essential had changed about the way I loved music. That sense of connection I felt at 14 was nothing compared to how I felt at hearing these guys transform the subdued tones of Amnesiac into a live set that crackled with energy. “Fake Plastic Trees” was the only song that I actually watched  the whole night, trembling from vertigo while perched on Tom’s narrow shoulders. As they ended their second encore, we held hands and ran through an apocalyptic rainstorm to make it back to our colleges before curfew. I’ve rarely been as moved by a show as I was that night, and was euphoric for days afterward.

That fierce joy is addictive, and best when you least expect it. I found it at my first Of Montreal show, watching Kevin Barnes shake his hips to “Wraith Pinned to the Mists and Other Games;” bouncing around to Camera Obscura at the original Knitting Factory; flouting fire safety laws in Constitution Hall to dance in the aisles to Belle and Sebastian; hearing Morrisey launch into “There is a Light That Never Goes Out;” at the sound of several hundred hipsters belting out Mandy Moore while Girl Talk climbed all over his laptop; watching the near-orgy unfolding onstage as Devendra Banhardt and the Hairy Fairies closed out their set.

Last night was the first time in nearly a year that I’ve been to a concert, and there were times (like Michael Angelakos’ uncanny cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams”) when I just stopped moving and closed my eyes and grinned from ear to ear. I missed this so much.

I’m an entertainment addict–I love film, and theater and television–but all those are such a one-sided consumption. The reason I’ve held on to the idea of being a music writer, despite lacking a certain technical vocabulary, is what music does to me. It brings me closer to other people, takes me out of my head, has the power to make me deliriously happy.

To quote The Office, “I’m gonna chase that feeling.”


Rec Room: Janelle Monáe, The Archandroid

The first time I saw Janelle Monáe perform, she took my breath away. I don’t think anyone in the crowd at the Of Montreal show had heard of her, but the minute she bounced onto the stage in her crop-legged, jacketless tux and afro pompadour, we were hooked. As she wailed through the first song, treating the small Bowery Ballroom crowd as if she were performing for an audience of thousands, I heard someone behind me go “Holy shit!” Each and every one of us had fallen in love.

The wait for her full-length debut, The Archandroid  (Suites II and III), seemed endless, and while I swooned over the single “Tightrope” (not to mention the accompanying video), the album itself comes as a bit of a surprise. Monáe’s EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite is fairly cohesive in terms of style—an Outkast-tinged r&b glam sampler of the singer’s considerable talent. And though Archandroid keeps up the narrative thread of Monáe’s dystopian sci-fi alter ego Cindi Mayweather, that’s where the continuity stops.

With help from an eclectic group of special guests including Saul Williams, Big Boi and Kevin Barnes and citing influences from Parliament-Funkadelic to Disney films, Monáe offers up a veritable smorgasbord of sound. Want to hear her rap?  Check out opener “Dance or Die.” Bombastic classical? There are two orchestral overtures to introduce the album’s titular suites. How about a ‘60s-style British folk ballad? Here’s “Sir Greendown” for you! Just want to hear her formidable pipes at work? Give “Cold War” a listen.

I meant to review this album when it came out, but it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate what Monáe is trying to do. At first I was somewhat let down by The Archandroid, finding some songs too predictable (“Locked Inside”), or too strange (“Make the Bus”). The constant changes in style were jarring, and as much as I enjoyed many of the tracks, I felt like the album didn’t work as a whole. But man, what a gutsy move. The album was a joint release between Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records and Monáe’s own Wondaland Arts Society, the result of which is a truly independent album with a slick, mainstream production. After being signed by Combs’ Monáe could easily have morphed into another anonymous r&b diva. But it’s clear that this is one performer who will not compromise her vision, however schizophrenic it may be, to gain widespread approval. Should I have expected anything less from someone who paints onstage and calls her LP an “emotion-picture experience?”

Janelle Monáe is something special– that much is clear, and I have nothing but respect for her efforts. She has such an unwavering commitment to herself as an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, and if I don’t completely enjoy everything she’s doing, somehow I feel it’s due to my lack of imagination, rather than any failing on her part. The Archandroid is nothing if not ambitious, and suggests a world of possibility in the future works of its creator.

Stand-out tracks: “Faster,” “Tightrope,” “Babopbye Ya”

Check out the album on www.jmonae.com

And the kick-ass video for Tightrope after the break:

Continue reading

Rec Room: Party Down

Party Down is the best show nobody’s watching. That is, unless you’re one of the few who routinely watch underdog cable channel Starz, or are an adventurous Netflix Instant Viewer (and oh, you should be—it’s hands-down the best way to swallow up a weekend. Sometimes I pretend I’m bedridden just to assuage the guilt of not moving for five-hour stretches).

Like many things, I got into it thanks to critic Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic blog, “What’s Alan Watching?” and it’s easily one of my all-time favorite comedy series. It’s also probably heading towards cancellation, and you know what? I’m fine with that.

The show follows the on-the-job exploits of a group of misfit Los Angeles cater-waiters. In the series pilot Henry (Adam Scott), a failed actor who almost made it big with a ubiquitous beer commercial, returns to the team and quickly establishes himself as the series’ deadpan protagonist. While most of the other employees are using the gig as a way to pay their bills until they make it big in L.A., Henry is completely disillusioned with the Business, and is just treading water enough to avoid moving into his parents’ garage.

The show’s producers have referred to it in interviews as the anti-Entourage, which is pretty on the nose. The lives of these people are far from glamorous, and unlikely to change anytime soon, but a combination of sharp writing and a brilliant cast make for a show that is alternately crude, offensive, witty, cartoonish, painfully awkward and always, always hilarious. In addition to series regulars including The State’s Ken Marino and Freaks and Geeks’ Martin Starr, Party Down boasts a who’s who of comedic guest stars like Ken Jeong, Thomas Lennon and Jennifer Coolidge.

So why am I not gnashing my teeth over this show’s imminent demise? Because I’d rather see it end near perfectly than drag on until it hardly resembles the series I know and love (see: The Office Season 6). Jane Lynch left after season 1 for Glee (and as much as I love Lynch no matter what she’s doing, she’s better on Glee), Adam Scott is joining Parks and Recreation, and several other cast members have had pilots picked up. Given that it’s on a little-watched pay-cable channel, it’s hard to resent any of them taking on new opportunities. Even if the show stays on with a mostly new cast, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be the same without Scott’s dry wit anchoring the show (not to mention his cute smirk). I doubt I’ll have much interest in a season 3.

Party Down may be the show no one’s watching, but it’s one of the most deserving of viewership. And if I were you, I’d catch up with seasons 1 and 2 via Netflix in time for the finale this Friday at 10pm (on Starz).

Recommended Episodes: Season 1: “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen,” “Celebrate Rick Sargulesh”  Season 2: “Nick DiCinto’s Orgy Night,” “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party”

The Idiot Savant Box/Rec Room: Coupling

If I described a television show to you by saying it was one part Friends, one part Sex in the City with a generous dash of Home Improvement-style misogyny, you’d run screaming, no? I consider those last two examples to be claw-your-eyes-out offensive 90% of the time. And yet Coupling, the UK’s raunchier version of Ross, Rachel & co., manages to charm me despite embracing every possible gender stereotype imaginable.

I think the show works in large part because it manages to simultaneously embrace the traditional multiple-camera, live-audience sit-com format while playing extensively with narrative structure and language. We  have our three guys (Steve; bumbling everyman, Patrick: macho player; Jeff: goofball catch-phrase machine) and our three girls (Susan: slightly uptight everywoman; Sally: superficial, neurotic “spinster”; Jane: Steve’s grating, delusional ex). We have almost everybody pairing off at one point or another. We have nearly constant sweeping generalizations of the “Mars/Venus” variety. But we also have an episode where the same 9-minute scene is shown from three different perspectives. Or another shown entirely in a split screen, following a couple immediately post break-up. Or one that features a subtext translator.

Each character has his or her gimmick, and Steve’s tendency to speechify on behalf of Men Everywhere gets tired more often than not. But then you have a scene like “Lesbian Spank Inferno,” which is just unapologetically goofy and hilariously uncomfortable in that way that only British shows tend to be.

I keep asking myself: what kind of show is this? I can’t always tell if we’re supposed to take the characters and their “Men act like this, women act like this” proclamations seriously. These people are absolutely cartoonish most of the time, which, if I’m giving creator Steven Moffat a lot of credit, could be seen as a satire on the genre itself. If you’re going to do the traditional sit-com thing, why not take it to its logical extreme? On the other hand, given the particularly one-dimensional, often shrewish portrayal of women on the show, I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with that interpretation.

That said, I think Moffat’s work on the new Doctor Who is pretty brilliant (though Jacob of Television Without Pity has a lot of interesting, if obtuse things to say about the gender politics on that show under Moffat’s direction), and I loved his Jekyll miniseries. Is Coupling a great show? Sometimes. I’d recommend any number of series before this one, but it satisfies a certain yen I have for frivolous yet smart television, and clearly, it makes me think.

Recommended if: you’ve got Netflix Instant Viewing and some time to kill. (Stand-out eps: “The Man With Two Legs,” “Size Matters,” “Her Best Friend’s Bottom,” “Naked.”)

Not for you if: Cutesy takes on the War Between the Sexes make you foam at the mouth.

A Little Sincerity Is a Dangerous Thing

Ahem. So once upon a time, I started this media blog. Then I moved to France for a little while, and said blog took a backseat to, you know, living in another country. And while that experience certainly might seem “blog-able,” my feelings about it were too complex to be expressed in that particular format. That said, I kept a regular journal and devoured more pop-culture (Anglo and Francophone) than was probably healthy in an 8-month time span. My work was part-time and there was very little to do in the charming little alpine town where I lived, especially in the winter months. To give you a sense, here are all the movies I watched for the first time while I was abroad:

35 Shots of Rum
Breaking the Waves
Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
The Believer
The Big Lebowski
Bright Star
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Ultimatum
Crazy Heart
Dead Ringers
Death at a Funeral (original)
An Education
Ensemble, C’est Trop
Entre Les Murs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fish Tank
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Gone with the Wind
Gosford Park
House of the Dead
The Hurt Locker
The Informant!
Inglourious Basterds
Jeux d’Enfants
The Last King of Scotland
New Moon
Le Petit Nicholas
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Rachel Getting Married
Les Regrets
The Road
A Serious Man
Sherlock Holmes
A Single Man
Soul Kitchen
Up in the Air
The White Ribbon
The Wrestler
Where the Wild Things Are
Whip It

Forty-one movies. Forty-one. That’s not even counting television shows or films I re-watched. My brain should be leaking out my ear at this point.

So now I’m back in New York, and if this time away proved anything to me, it’s that 1) this city is my home for the foreseeable future and 2) There’s nothing I want to do more with my life than write. What that means in terms of my career is yet to be determined, especially given the state not only of journalism, but the economy in general. I know that books, film and television and music engage me more than anything else in the world, and whether or not I’m paid for it, those are the things I want be absorbing—and writing about—as much as possible.

Consider this a statement of purpose.