Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Live Off Blood, Yes...

Let The Right One In - (Låt den rätte komma in)
Tomas Alfredson - 2008 (Sweden, USA)

“Hit harder than you dare,” counsels the seeming-young vampire Eli to main character Oskar who is being relentlessly bullied at school. The film acts upon this advice like a vengeful road to modern relevancy. Is Let The Right One In a vampire film? Well, there are vampires. And this coming-of-age love story with fangs takes care to follow many of the rules that the genre would demand of it. These generic rules, however, manifest into an enchantingly pragmatic narrative that filmmaker Tomas Alfredson adapts, from the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindquist, into a film that works on the levels of metaphor, but fully embraces the reality of its world.

The plot of the two young lovers Eli and Oskar is complicated and contextualized by subplots, including those of Oskar being bullied at school and a father who struggles with alcoholism, while Eli’s vampiric nature is given an added emotional weight by a codependent relationship with a father figure, and an addict-like remorse expressed in the mixture of tears and fresh blood on the necks of slain victims. The film works to spellbind and poignantly disturb throughout with its self-perpetuating violence and portrayal of human relationships always on the brink of being reduced to “predator and prey.”

Through a beautiful attention throughout the movie to snow-laden cinematography and the bloody warmth spilled out upon its exteriors, the film works through the idea of secrets buried, frozen in time in the snow and ice, and the manifestation of the character’s need for connection that so often leaves only the path of bloodshed to achieve this warmth. The film never ceases to indulge the mandated requirements of a vampire film, but the greatest feat of the film is the relevance it manages to situate itself within despite its relentless and fully embraced bloodthirsty nature.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kaki King at Ashkenaz!

(Berkeley, CA: January 29, 2009)

Walking into Ashkenaz for the first time last night I suddenly felt like I was about to watch a niece or nephew in a Grammar School Play with a stage in miniature and its dusty curtain facing the crowd at the front of a medium-sized room. The assortment of Christmas lights, Tiffany lamps and paper lanterns, were reflected and augmented by the large mirrors running along the wall, used on alternate nights for dance classes. Upon closer inspection, the mass array of colorful posters and knick-knacks adorning nearly every surface revealed picketing signs from the Free Speech Movement along the walls. You could feel the eccentric kindness of the establishment. It welcomed you in, reminded you of the struggles and injustices of the past, but offered a peaceful solution in the present: Kaki King.

Doors opened at 8pm, and Kaki came on just after 9pm with no warm-up. She was humbled by the crowd, made up 50/50 by college students and Berkeley families with kids sitting on laps. Her banter style was very upfront and comfortable, she spoke of wanting to do a few small shows in California, and apologized later on for the ticket prices ($20 a head). Ashkenaz was absolutely packed, all of the chairs were gone about 15 minutes after doors opened, and looking back around 8:45, people were standing 10+ deep in the back of the house. Kaki started off the show with her tuning ritual that begins nearly every piece, as she chooses one of her many alternate tunings that corresponds with the following song. Sharper-flatter-sharper quickly turned to a ravishing piece of guitar work that seemed to start as an improvisation, but was of course off of one of her recent albums. Her two hands, one outfitted with acrylic nails for finger-picking purposes and the other its unadorned counter-part, seemed to collaborate like The White Stripes in miniature. The brother and sister took on the burden of the complexity of the pieces, one in charge of the bass lines and whacks of the guitar body showcased on songs like “Playing with Pink Noise” and “Carmine St.” and the other keeping up the corresponding melodies and percussion.

By the time 10pm rolled around children were falling asleep in laps all around us, while the rest of us remained enthralled by our petite musician’s prowess. She was at times a bit rusty and strings buzzed in places they shouldn’t have. She sheepishly admitted to the fact saying that before going out on a solo guitar tour, “Practice before you get to Berkeley.” Despite the musical breadth and experimentation of her past albums …Until We Felt Red and Dreaming of Revenge, the show consisted entirely of Kaki and her two guitars, with 12 instrumental songs including the two encores, “Lolita for Animals” and “How Many Landslides Birds Have Seen Since the Beginning of the World.” She spoke of wanting to return to a simpler format, saying that this was her “No Lapsteel, no Loops, no Singing, and no other BS Tour.”

In addition to the musical highlights of the show were moments like when she started playing in time with a backing up truck right outside the building, or her frequent and outrageous banter always preceded or followed by apologies to the children in the audience and a wry grin. She encouraged all of the guitar players in the audience to raise their hands at one point during the show (“Oh my god how embarrassing, okay fine…”), and encouraged them to come up after the show with any questions regarding alternate tunings or strings. The overwhelmingly guitar-centered aspect of the show was actually pulled off rather effortlessly, despite the few songs it took for her hands to shake off nerves and remember their own talent. While myself and others had been looking forward to hearing some of the vocal accompaniment that has been such a nice surprise on her last two albums, we were reminded just how talented Kaki is. The 80-minute show was a successful return to the basics that stripped away in order to all the better showcase one of the most noted guitar players of her generation.

Flown Back In

When Andrew Bird’s new single, “Oh No,” first hit the blogosphere back in October, the immediate likeability of the single recalled those nervous tics and scientific twists of the tongue that verge on pop alchemy. Noble Beast features another decoupage of violins and whistles, with a more prominent guitar presence than on earlier albums, and an aesthetic that at times borders on the absurd. At his best Bird presents a restrained version of himself that attracts by means of clever mumbles. When he plays the troubled troubadour with a wry smile he is in full control of his strange gift.

Finding low points on Noble Beast becomes a search for things that sound like crowd-pleasers, and “Fitz and Dizzyspells” seems to exist for just that reason. With all of the “Bird” elements intact it does not really surprise its listeners, and seems to function as a filler piece between more notable tracks. His little half-minute gestures sprinkled throughout also suggest an inner distraction of Bird’s, perhaps even an alternate career fashioning sound effects albums or music libraries. These weaknesses however, are seemingly self-addressed in one of the strongest tracks on the record, “Anononimal” where he chants: “Hold on just a second don’t tell me this one I know I know this one I know this song I know this one I love this song.” Bird seems to be stuck between falling back upon the successful formulas he’s employed in the past and reaching forward and producing tracks as imaginative and progressive as “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”

The album seems to take on a more Nashville sound than previous albums at times, thanks in part to Bird’s veteran engineer Mark Nevers (Alan Jackson, Calexico, Bonnie “Prince” Billy). However the album reaches also northeasterly to a Scandinavian acoustic approach on tracks such as ”Masterswarm” and “Tenuousness.” Bird explores a simplified rhetoric on Noble Beast in contrast to a more boundlessly creative “nomenclature” of the past. With reverent sincerity in “Effigy” he speaks of himself as “a man who spent a little too much time alone.” Bird’s self-awareness is perhaps most poetic in the last full song on the album, “Souverian,” and his return to timeless themes as displayed throughout Noble Beast is also epitomized on this track when he pines, “Still my lover won’t return to me.” Far from being an overwhelming truth that the album attempts to communicate, a quiet detachment is expressed beneath the album’s multiple and at times countless layers.

Bird’s niche has welcomed comparisons to other bowing acts such as Patrick Wolf and Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy. Perhaps this has led to a push for self-development that has him reaching in various directions on this album, without ever attaining a fully realized cohesion among the fourteen tracks on his latest endeavor. For Bird fans, the highlights of the album promise to fill that void fans have been feeling in anticipation. For those who can count their favorite Bird songs on one hand, the album replete with its myopic vocabulary obsessions and instrumental goose trails might be too much Bird in one sitting.