Monday, July 31, 2017

AFI Docs 2017 - Icarus

The opening night film of AFI Docs 2017 was Icarus. I must say, I was surprised to see them pick a sports film as the opener, but as I learned more about the film, the choice began to make more sense. The film starts out as a sort of Supersize Me on steroids (and I mean literally on steroids). Amateur endurance cyclist Bryan Fogel decides he's going to start doping to show how Lance Armstrong and other athletes have managed to use performance-enhancing drugs undetected, despite a system that tests them frequently to prevent that.

But then Fogel's American specialist decides he doesn't want to risk his reputation by helping Fogel do this and refers him to a Russian specialist, Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russian anti-doping lab. The film begins to pivot to be not about Fogel at all.

Rodchenkov is quite the character - he's brilliant, hilarious, a dog-lover, and generally incredibly cheerful. Fogel and Rodchenkov quickly become friends, even visiting each other in their respective countries so that Fogel can give Rodchenkov his pee to create a profile for him that will help Fogel cheat the testing system while doping.

A little ways into their relationship, Rodchenkov casually mentions "have you seen the film about me?" He is referring to a German film that claimed that basically all Russian athletes in the Olympics and other international competitions have been doping for decades and that Rodchenkov is the brains behind the state-sponsored operation.

As those claims get picked up, examined, investigated, etc, the film starts to turn more thriller, and the film becomes a window into the Russian psyche and what they'll do to win - something that has much broader implications for us here in the US right now. Not only that but Rodchenkov begins to suspect his own life may be in danger when Russian officials ask him to resign. Without giving too much away (even though it's real, googleable events), the film from here becomes devoted to keeping Rodchenkov safe and also getting out the truth about the Russian doping situation.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. I will say that I think it's maybe 20 minutes too long, and there were times I was a bored. But Rodchenkov is a wonderful character, and there were also times I was completely riveted. I am not a particularly sports-inclined person, so my personal reaction was essentially "all this just to win some games?" I realize that sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, but that fact itself bothers me when we live in a world where people are starving or dying in conflicts. During the Q&A people kept saying "this is such an important story" and to be perfectly honest, I kept thinking to myself "is it though? There are so many much bigger issues that threaten the lives of millions in this world." To me the only way it's important is as a lens into the lengths Russia will go to achieve their goals. If they'd go this far and game a very detailed system to win some medals, what lengths do you think they've gone to in order to influence America's election? That said, not every documentary has to be really important. Sometimes a film is worth watching because it's an enjoyable story and I would recommend this film for that purpose. I am hoping that they continue to fine tune it before it's released on Netflix though - apparently it's changed a great deal between Sundance and AFI Docs, and I think it could still use some tightening up. But even if not, it's definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

AFI Docs - An Inconvenient Sequel

I have to first admit I never did see An Inconvenient Truth, but I'm not someone who needs to be convinced of the urgency of climate change. At AFI Docs this weekend, I did have the privilege of seeing An Inconvenient Sequel, the 10-years-later look at how much more urgent it's become. The film follows Al Gore as he educates people on how to be climate activists all over the world, and then to Paris where we watch the drama of that climate agreement play out. Unfortunately, we Americans are all too aware of the fact that Trump is trying to pull the US out of that climate agreement, a fact which was not in this film but which the filmmakers said would be added to the end of the film before it hits theaters at the end of July.

The film is quite well done. Some of the imagery and information shook me to my very core, and yet the film has a good amount of comic relief and several messages of hope. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll have a rage blackout or two... All the feels that good documentaries can cause. But I think, unfortunately, because of the fact Al Gore is the main character, the film will really just be preaching to the choir. I don't think any conservatives are going to watch the film. That said, a strong box office showing can still show public support for this issue. And there are interesting bipartisan moments, like when Al Gore goes to Georgetown, Texas, which will be one of the largest towns in the US using 100% renewable energy very soon, and yet the mayor is Republican, as is probably much of the town. Honestly, someone should probably make a short documentary about that town - that might go a lot farther convincing people on the conservative side that renewable energy is beneficial.

Definitely I recommend seeing the film when it comes out July 28th (select theaters) or August 4th (Nationwide).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

AFI Docs 2017 - Nowhere To Hide

Nowhere To Hide is a film about life in the dangerous "triangle of death" in central Iraq after the US pulls out. It is told from the perspective of Nori Sharif, a nurse in Jalawla. At first the film starts with him sharing the stories of people he knows whose lives were destroyed by the US war. But as Al Qaeda and ISIS begin to cause increasingly more havoc in the area, the story becomes more about how they are stuck in a war they don't really understand, unable to do anything to fix it and then later trying to escape it.

In the beginning, despite the carnage Sharif has already seen, he seems happy. His own family had been lucky to be relatively unaffected. He jokes and laughs. Even some of the people whose lives have been destroyed by the US war still manage to joke and laugh. As the film goes on, the smiles disappear and you can see the toll the war is taking on Sharif. You witness some of the carnage from his perspective, and I cried at multple points in the film. The one glimmer of hope throughout is the children - despite everything going on, the children still find joy is running, playing, dancing, listening to music. Of course they're not unaffected, and you wonder how this desensitization to extreme violence will affect them in the future, but to see the resilience of children is a reminder that the natural state of our spirit is joyful.

I think one of the more interesting things I learned was actually in the Q&A, in which director Zaradasht Ahmed said that at the beginnings the Iraqis were celebrating the arrival of the Americans. I always took that to be American propaganda. But then how from there, we did it all wrong, destabilizing the region and turning the Iraqis against us.

The film is a horrifying personal account of war. It will definitely make any American who supported the Iraq war think a lot harder about what we did over there. And it's also just a really well-told, touching story, particularly since it takes place over the course of several years.

It is a very sad film, but one I wish this film would become required watching for every American. I think it would create a lot more empathy, and make us think a lot harder about entering future conflicts.

Friday, June 16, 2017

AFI Docs 2017 - No Man's Land

I must admit I was a little hesitant to see No Man's Land. The film is about the armed standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, led by the Bundy brothers. Part of me didn't want to give these radicals any more attention than they had already gotten. But I went and saw it anyway, and I'm so very glad I did.

Documentarians tend to be a relatively liberal bunch, myself included, so I was mostly expecting to be angry. At a panel about documentary in service of civil discourse this morning, one of the panelists said, "the best thing I can hear at one of our community events is 'I never thought of it that way before,'" and that's exactly the reaction I had to this film. And part of what attracted me to the documentary field in general was the ability of documentary to help people see others' perspectives, but I still hadn't really ever seen a documentary about conservatives that made me see their side of things before. For example, I loved the film Jesus Camp, but I left it mainly feeling like those people were completely out of touch with reality.

This film was different. In our incredibly polarized society right now, this film showed all sides of the argument equally and fairly. Their access was amazing. And what struck me the most were the number of things I had in common with the militiamen. For example, some of the issues that come up that some of the characters oppose are things like the Patriot Act and the militarization of the police force, things every liberal I know is against. These men feel their way of living is being taken away - a feeling most people I know in the cities share, albeit in different ways. And while I don't think fear of change is productive, most Americans agree that things are changing primarily for the worse: there aren't enough jobs, wages suck, we're running out of options, and people are angry. This is a feeling it seems most Americans share right now.

When it comes down to it, these people want what is best for their families. They want to do more than survive, they want to thrive. And even survival feels increasingly difficult for many Americans right now. That feeling that the government isn't listening to the people anymore is something most Americans can relate to and the desire for drastic action to get them pay attention rumbles within many of us. What we differ on is how to achieve this, and that's where it does start to feel a little hard to stomach. I fully believe in peaceful approaches. I'm a strong advocate of gun control, and I think any militia that thinks even their automatic weapons can stand up against the government's drones, tanks, missiles, etc, seems naive at best to me. Situations with weapons involved can escalate unnecessarily, as it did in this standoff, which led to one of the leaders of the militia getting killed. People in the nearby towns were scared. They felt like they were being bullied, which is ironic because on of the militia leaders later says (without irony) to the camera something to the effect of "the government can't come in here and bully and intimidate people with weapons."

Anyway, the point is, this is a riveting film, and one that is incredibly fair to everyone involved. Every character is treated with respect. There are some really great insights from both sides. And it shows how truly complex this situation was. It really made me think and it inspired me to try to find the commonalities I have with people on the other side of the political spectrum, which is something I think we all should be doing if we're going to keep American democracy in tact. I definitely recommend the film.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New music video from Sylvan Esso - Radio

One of my favorite bands of all time, Sylvan Esso's new music is on point. Here's the video for their single, Radio.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The best bands I stumbled upon at SXSW2017 - part 1

The great thing about SXSW is that there are more bands converging on Austin that week than probably just about any other music festival in the world. And they're all on their A-game.

While of course I try to see bands I know and love, I leave a little room for spontaneity and wandering too (and free-drink-chasing!). Plus sometimes the lines are just too long to get into the shows you want to see (a problem getting worse and worse each year unfortunately).

But whether they were opening for bands I wanted to see, or I wandered into their show by chance, every year I discover artists that I'm really excited about. In past years, this list has included Fantastic Negrito, Magic Giant, Melanie Martinez, Joseph, Priory, Christine & the Queens, and more.

So without further ado, here is who I was most excited to stumble upon this year:


I was actually familiar with Lizzo before because I had seen her perform with GRRRL PRTY at Paisley Park for Prince's last album release party before his death. GRRRL PRTY sadly broke up last year, but Lizzo had a growing solo career even before they parted ways. This was the first time I got to see her live on her own and she was freaking incredible. She's a powerhouse with awesome style and dance moves. Plus all her music is very feel-good and upbeat so it's a really fun show in general. I wasn't surprised by her talent but I hadn't honestly realized she was part of the lineup (I had gone to see Sylvan Esso).

Good As Hell [Spotify - iTunes]

The National Parks

The National Parks might have one of the worst names I've ever encountered from a Googleability factor (and from a merch factor because a fan in the audience at the show I was at was wearing a shirt with their name but outside of their show, I imagine most people think it's a shirt for the National Park system of the US). That said, they were fantastic. If you like Ra Ra Riot, you'll love The National Parks. With a full, melodic folk-pop sound that incorporates violins, trumpets, banjos, and other instruments, their music tells contemplative stories. Fittingly, their songs are full of nature references and odes. I see these guys going on to big things if people can find them, haha.

As We Ran [Spotify - iTunes]

Close Talker

Canada House was one of the places with the most free drink events so I ended up there a few times when I didn't have other shows on my schedule. There were a few gems there, but my favorite was Close Talker. Catchy hooks, solid vocals, and syncopated rhythms make this trio one to add to your playlists. And good news: they're going on tour (mostly around Canada but there are US and EU dates too!) starting April 12th and releasing a new album on April 21st! So check them out, follow them, tweet at them, help spread the word about these awesome Canadians.

Waking Up [Spotify - iTunes]

The Britanys

Hailing from my former hometown of Brooklyn, The Britanys have a jangly, catchy, pop rock sound similar to The Strokes. From what I can tell they've only been around two years but I think they have a lot of promise and it seems other music publications agree. Check them out so you can say you discovered them before anyone else! 

Basketholder [Spotify - iTunes]

Part 2 of this list coming later this week! Stay tuned!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Album Review: Rainbrother - Tales From the Drought

Rainbrother's upcoming album, "Tales From the Drought," isn't just music - it's a musical experience.

Rainbrother is fronted by the former frontman for The Migrant - Bjarke Bendtsen - and the sound is both new and familiar all at once.

The vast expanse of musical influences are impossible to categorize, but the first half of the album's strongest musical influence almost sounds like it's Ennio Morrocone. (Yes, that Ennio Morricone.) I'd say that listening to the opening track - "Riverside" - sounds much like what I'd think the first movement of an indie symphony would be.

It's weird to call this a departure from the psychedelic folk rock of The Migrant: though it's different, there's a common thread that you can hear running through it, especially when you get to the second song on the album, "East African Dream." This song somehow sounds like The Shins, but with its own twist on its vocals.

The album goes back and forth between soaring instrumentals and poignant verses, and while the opener is my favorite, the energetic track "Break Out" is one of my new go to work out songs... even before I saw the video:

The mellow "Crow" and the upbeat "Juggler" also help round out the album. The final song - "The Sun" - clocking in at a similar length to the opener (about seven and a half minutes long) has beautiful vocals that compliment the instrumentals that helped to open the album.

I've had this album for nearly a month, and each song has at least 30 plays. I can listen to it no matter what my mood, and as I've stated before about my old-man preference for "back-in-the-day," it's not just a collection of songs: it's a great album.

It has shades of Ennio Morricone, I have a new workout song, and every single song is awesome and musically eclectic.

You can find out more about Rainbrother here. They're touring Europe in February, and they'll be in the US at SXSW in March!

You can see more of their music here: Soundcloud | YouTube

You can pre-order the album here: Bandcamp

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Album Review: Griff's Room Band - Heartbreak/Desire

Griff's Room Band sounds a lot like what it would be if Dave Matthews Band and OAR had a baby as a band. If you know me, you know that's actually one of the best compliments I could give a band!

They have the fun, plucky guitar sound that makes OAR and Vampire Weekend super fun listens, and they have the fiddles that sound weirdly perfect in any mode, whether the country-adjacency of Boyd Tinsley's DMB fiddle, the Blue October power violin from Ryan Delahoussaye, or the perfect Petra Haden wistful indie sound.

This album starts off with the great track called "Wasting Time." This is a poppy track that sounds like it traces its roots to OAR, and it's a solid 4 minute-song with a great hook that has dueling melodies from the fiddle and the guitars. The subtle background fiddle jousting with the electric guitar is a compelling background track, and the rhythm guitar pulls everything together. The lyrics almost get lost in the musicality of all the instruments, but you can't discount them, either!

"Bad News" follows that song up with a completely different fiddle/guitar dynamic - bowing the fiddle classically against the wah-wah electric guitar. Pair these with a fun vocal harmony and fast lyrics, and you've got another song that's fun!

"Could Be," "Tie Me Down," and "Don't Fly Far" each have their strengths. "Could Be" is definitely a song that straddles heartbreak and desire, and in this song, the rhythm guitar is the part that shines the most. "Tie Me Down" is a Vampire Weekend-type song that plays with the acoustic guitar interplay, layering both guitars and vocals with major chords and syncopation that makes it so you can't help but smile while listening! The bridge, about two and a half minutes in, builds slowly, but to such soaring melodies that the buildup is worth the payoff. "Don't Fly Far" is a southern rock track that continues to show these guys off!

My two favorite songs on the album are back to back: "Reputation" and "Honey."

"Reputation" is a song that has a super energetic chorus, punctuated by verses that show how much heartbreak - and desire - the singer has for the "her" that this song is about. Again, these guys keep doing interesting things layering their different instruments, and the interplay between the electric guitar, the drums, and the fiddle during the bridge is perfect. These bridges - and most of their outros, too - would provide them with perfect jamming material in a live concert.

"Honey" is one of the longer songs in the album, but it plays with vocal harmonies, as well as intelligently using finger snaps for much of the percussion. The guttoral wailing during the chorus is a powerful foil to the note perfect timing and notes of the verses. This bridge has the most different themes, and I'd really like to see how they would jam this song live.

The rest of the album is also excellent, from the vocal harmonies of "Part of Me," the Reggae-inspired "She Gone," and the rock-blues guitar driven "Stranger" that almost hints at a gospel sound.

In the 10 songs of this album, each band member shines multiple times, and they span music genres from Motown to indie, the 1960s to today, and I really don't know how they get so many sounds out of just four people!

In addition to having great individual songs, the entire album works together as a delightful fusion of alt-country, pop, Americana, and indie. I look forward to hearing more from these guys and trying to see them if they come to town!

You can pre-order the album here, find more about them here, and find them on twitter here.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Album Review: Menace Beach - Lemon Memory

This album is the height of noise, mixed with the perfect amount of garage. Not "noise" like "random sounds" but "noise" like "The Velvet Underground" meets "The Melvins" "noise." If you're looking for varied male and female vocals and note perfect production that makes it sound like these guys are playing in your next door neighbor's garage, this is the band for you.

Their opening track - and first single from the album - "Give Blood" drops you right in the middle of the action. It feels like you're in on a soundcheck and their monitors are off by just enough to let their true talent shine - it feels like you're listening to a hot mic on what was supposed to be a test run for the "real" track. It's raw, it's fun, and Liza's vocals soar when she's given a chance.

But that's nothing compared to "Maybe We'll Drown," where she gets to take the lead and it's difficult to say where her voice ends and the guitar riffs begin.

It's hard to choose a favorite song, but the title track - "Lemon Memory" - is a psychedelic-punk trip of a song that, while perfect on this album, would be just as at home on a "Sonic Youth" album, and it's definitely my favorite of the 10 songs on the album.

"Owl" is another song that lets Liza have the spotlight again, and she doesn't disappoint, carrying us through the whole song on the back of her powerful voice. Her vocal range is beautiful, too.

The final song - "Hexbreaker II" - is a song that starts soft and then crescendos throughout the song to end the album on a high from all the members of the band. It's a superb hammer to drop for the end of the album.

Every single song on this album is not only great in its own right, but they work together as an album experience. (I'd go more into this, but I'm dangerously close to veering into "old man yells at clouds" levels of navel-gazing, so I'll let it go for now...) I also don't want to sound like I'm discounting the songs that are helmed by Ryan, which are excellent as well. Liza's vocals, though... they're just hauntingly great!

This album takes me back to the early days of noise (which, honestly I know about more through the power of the Internet and Pandora than from having followed or lived it), and it is a new addition to the genre that stands up to Sonic Youth's Confusion is Sex, Social Distortion's self-titled album, and  Butthole Surfers' Electriclarryland. I look forward not only to hearing more from them, but I need to go back and check out their other releases from the past couple of years. These guys are a group to watch.

You can pre-order the album here, and find more about them here.

If you're in the UK, you can catch them on tour:
1/23 London - Rough Trade East
1/31 Sheffield - The Picture House
2/01 Leicester - The Cookie
2/02 Birmingham - Hare & Hounds
2/03 Cardiff - Clwb Ifor Bach
2/04 Southampton - The Joiners
2/06 Oxford - Bullingdon Arms
2/07 Brighton - The Hope & Ruin
2/08 London - Moth Club
2/09 Cambridge - The Portland Arms
2/10 Liverpool - The Magnet
2/11 Manchester - Deaf Institute
2/14 Glasgow - Broadcast
2/15 Edinburgh - Sneaky Pete’s
2/16 Newcastle - The Cluny
2/17 Leeds - Brudenell Social Club

Friday, December 30, 2016

Stimulating Station Seeds

Here's a couple bands to set up stations on, in case you need music to get you to and through the New Year. Just remember, these stations are here for you as-is, no thumbs-up/favoriting needed!

Bob Moses:

These guys are a fun alt-electronic dance act, and in addition to getting all their great music, this station will take you on a musical journey from alt-J to Yeasayer. Glass Animals also show up on this station, and it's a great station to discover acts on the line between alternative and dance.

Twenty One Pilots:

I'm sure you've heard these guys on both rock and popular stations, but in addition to their great stuff, their stations take you through other bands like AWOLNATION, Panic at the Disco, and The Neighbourhood. There's also a pop side of this station that will give you softer acts like Vance Joy and Lukas Graham. If you like variety, this is a great band to build a station on.

Thought of the Week:

"Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't." - Eleanor Roosevelt