Beach House:"Bloom" (2012)

Beach House:"Bloom"
"It's a strange paradise," Victoria LeGrand sings at one point on Beach House's fourth album Bloom, and there isn't a more apt description of the beautifully heartbroken mood that she and Alex Scally create here. Reuniting with Teen Dream engineer Chris Coady, the duo designed the album to be listened to as a whole, and fittingly, it often feels more like a suite than a collection of songs. This ambition is admirable, but it also means that it takes a while for individual moments to emerge from the album's beautiful haze. Indeed, Bloom may be Beach House's most sonically gorgeous album yet, with an icy sheen that doesn't warm up much, even when recordings of locusts and seagulls show up between tracks; it's easy to imagine LeGrand exhaling clouds of mist while singing the backing vocals on "Lazuli." While the endearing, sometimes awkward intimacy of Beach House's earlier work -- which felt like LeGrand was crooning confessions over creaky, vintage keyboards and drum machines just for you -- is missed, Bloom's shimmering remoteness enhances the album's philosophical, searching approach to love and loss. It's a mood and setting perfect for LeGrand's vocals, which have never sounded richer or more world-weary: "What comes after this momentary bliss? Help me to name it," she calls out on the opening track "Myth," a sentiment echoed later by "Wishes," where she wonders, "How's it supposed to feel?" Emotional moments such as these take their time to emerge, but when they do, they're riveting, particularly on "Troublemaker," which recalls Beach House's previous albums in its delicate dance between sad, stark verses and more hopeful choruses, and on the beautifully resigned "Irene," where a whimsical keyboard melody offsets and underscores the feeling of loss at the same time. Since Bloom's suite-like flow downplays Beach House's poppy side (with the notable exceptions "Other People" and "The Hours"), it's not the band's most immediate music, but the album's challenging mix of heartbroken words and aloof sounds rewards patient and repeated listening.

David Fincher:"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
A literary phenomenon that has swept the globe, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo arrives on the big screen courtesy of director David Fincher and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian. The result is a sturdily scripted, assuredly directed thriller that gradually lures us into a labyrinthine mystery involving a discredited journalist, a cryptic computer hacker, and a wealthy family harboring some particularly dark secrets. Notably absent outside of the visually striking (yet somewhat inexplicable) black-drenched credit sequence set to Trent Reznor and Karen O's pulsing version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," however, is the dynamic and innovative visual style that has defined much of Fincher's finest work.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a highly publicized court battle against powerful entrepreneur Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) when he is summoned to the remote island estate of aging businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who makes him a most-unusual proposition. Forty years ago, Henrik's beloved great-niece Harriet vanished without a trace. Henrik is convinced that someone in his family -- where greed and Nazism run rampant -- has gotten away with murder, and despite the firestorm of controversy over Blomkvist's credibility, he's certain that the seasoned reporter can root out the killer. Meanwhile, as Blomkvist submerses himself in a mystery decades in the making, misfit computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) finds her violent past returning with a vengeance thanks to her twisted new parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen). Before long, Blomkvist and Salander are working together as a team to investigate the Vanger family, who all live on the same island yet display an indifference to one another that often spills over into outright animosity. But with each new clue that Blomkvist and Salander uncover, the more apparent it becomes that Harriet's disappearance may in fact lead them directly into an even darker mystery.
In Seven and Zodiac, Fincher used masterful pacing, atmospheric cinematography, and acute attention to detail to seduce us into grim worlds of murder and obsession. Those familiar themes are still very much propelling factors in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though this time Fincher comes off as much more restrained than usual. It's unclear whether that's a result of his not being as emotionally invested in the material or simply recognizing the need to get out of the way of a good story, but by reteaming with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Social Network), Fincher still gives The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo an exquisitely chilly visual scheme that provides a palpable sense of atmosphere while holding the audience at arm's length. It's a good match for a such a pulpy mystery, though a little of the director's trademark inventiveness could have gone a long way in not only distinguishing Fincher's take on the story from the previously filmed Swedish-language version, but also in helping to connect the dots of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's somewhat contrived storyline.
An astonishing blend of dark allure and damaged brilliance, Mara is compulsively watchable as Lisbeth Salander, while Craig effectively embodies quiet integrity as the humiliated reporter fleeing the limelight while sharpening his investigatory skills. Compelling as both characters are, however, Fincher's cool direction stunts any attempts to form an emotional connection with them, even when Mikael and his daughter have a gentle conversation about faith, or the scene in which Lisbeth bares her soul to her investigative partner by confessing how she got caught up in the legal system in the first place. And while a scene of shocking violence between Lisbeth and her sadistic parole officer may be off-putting to some, its contextual relevance is all but undeniable once we've learned her darkest secret.

Given the lurid nature of Stieg Larsson's story, it's easy to see why Fincher would be compelled to adapt it for the big screen. But it's impossible not to feel like we've been down this road numerous times with the director before. In The Social Network, it felt as if Fincher were truly growing as a filmmaker both thematically and stylistically. Despite being a solid mystery assuredly told, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like something of a regression -- one that's largely absent of the factors that established him as one of his generation's most innovative filmmakers.


The Shins:"Oh, Inverted World" (2001)

the Shins:"Oh, Inverted World"
The Shins’ first full-length is a definitive indie rock album of the 2000s not just because of its thoughtful, tuneful songs, but also because of the vivid portrait it painted of indie culture. After the high irony of Pavement and other ‘90s standard bearers, indie rock began moving into more emotionally forthright territory. Oh, Inverted World is the sound of realizing there’s more to life than being a smart-aleck -- but also not being ready to open up completely. The album’s first song, “Caring Is Creepy,” sums up the typical indie response to emotional situations with its title alone, but it also introduces James Mercer's delicate, dryly witty take on that attitude. Hyper-literate lyrics like “It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks” suggest someone who’s better with words than with feelings, yet Mercer’s high, wavering tones -- which are as awkward as they are beautiful -- prove otherwise. Caring might be creepy, but it’s hard to avoid; the rest of Oh, Inverted World chronicles this post-ironic vulnerability, wrapping it in jangly guitar pop that echoes the Kinks, Zombies, and Beach Boys. This may not be the most innovative sound, but it makes Mercer’s boy meets girl, boy runs away, boy comes back, girl runs away travails all the more familiar and relatable. And, of course, just how good the album’s songs are can’t be overlooked. “Know Your Onion” practically jumps out of its skin, bursting with British Invasion riffs and angst that goes way beyond adolescence; “New Slang” tempers a yearning that curdles into bitterness with a beautiful melody and a ghostly falsetto coda. More importantly, all of Oh, Inverted World’s songs hang together in an immensely satisfying way. “Weird Divide” is a backyard Pet Sounds: its winding melody channels that point in the summer when it’s too hot to care much about anything, punctuating it with percussion that evokes incessant sprinklers. An airy feel runs through the album, from “Girl on the Wing”’s bird imagery and pristine harmonies to “Girl Inform Me”’s giddiness to “One by One All Day”’s psychedelic coda. As things wind down, “Your Algebra”’s spooky chamber pop and “The Past and the Pending”’s acoustic musing foreshadow the experiments the Shins undertook on later albums. Oh, Inverted World is so full of ideas and emotions, and so fully realized, that it’s hard to believe it’s just 33 minutes long. Whether or not the album lives up to the breathless “It’ll change your life!” claims made about it in Garden State, the less ironic direction of 2000s indie begins here.


John Schlesinger:"Midnight Cowboy" (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
After earning notoriety as one of the first major studio films to be given an X rating (it was later re-rated R), Midnight Cowboy made history as the first X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. A brutal depiction of broken dreams and lives asunder in the fetid backwash of the swinging Sixties, Cowboy shocked audiences with its squalid subject matter and signaled a trend towards films that explored lurid and personal material. Whereas the mere suggestion of a blow job in Cowboy was scandalous in 1969, the film helped pave the way for later mainstream films in which a blow job might have as much shock value as the weather forecast. For that reason, Cowboy loses a substantial part of its impact when viewed all these years after its original release. That said, as a buddy film and as an ode to the impossibility of liberation from reality, the film retains a certain timelessness. Jon Voight's handsome but stupid Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman's desperate, verminous Ratso Rizzo remain iconic figures, symbolic of the resigned, bitter ending of a decade built on the tenets of liberation, progressive change, and the promise of collective struggle. The fate of Buck and Rizzo suggests that such liberation is illusory, and that human relations, no matter how tender they ultimately may be, are part of a quiet, desperate bid for acceptance and belonging.

Tricky:"Maxinquaye" (1995)

Tricky Maxinquaye
Tricky's debut, Maxinquaye, is an album of stunning sustained vision and imagination, a record that sounds like it has no precedent as it boldly predicts a new future. Of course, neither sentiment is true. Much of the music on Maxinquaye has its roots in the trip-hop pioneered by Massive Attack, which once featured Tricky, and after the success of this record, trip-hop became fashionable, turning into safe, comfortable music to be played at upscale dinner parties thrown by hip twenty and thirtysomethings. Both of these sentiments are true, yet Maxinquaye still manages to retain its power; years later, it can still sound haunting, disturbing, and surprising after countless spins. It's an album that exists outside of time and outside of trends, a record whose clanking rhythms, tape haze, murmured vocals, shards of noise, reversed gender roles, alt-rock asides, and soul samplings create a ghostly netherworld fused with seductive menace and paranoia. It also shimmers with mystery, coming not just from Tricky -- whose voice isn't even heard until the second song on the record -- but his vocalist, Martine, whose smoky singing lures listeners into the unrelenting darkness of the record. Once they're there, Maxinquaye offers untold treasures. There is the sheer pleasure of coasting by on the sound of the record, how it makes greater use of noise and experimental music than anything since the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy. Then, there's the tip of the hat to PE with a surreal cover of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," sung by Martine and never sounding like a postmodernist in-joke. Other references and samples register subconsciously -- while Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Rap II" flows through "Hell Is Around the Corner" and the Smashing Pumpkins are even referenced in the title of "Pumpkin," Shakespear's Sister and the Chantels slip by, while Michael Jackson's "Bad" thrillingly bleeds into "Expressway to Your Heart" on "Brand New You're Retro." Lyrics flow in and out of consciousness, with lingering, whispered promises suddenly undercut by veiled threats and bursts of violence. Then, there's how music that initially may seem like mood pieces slowly reveal their ingenious structure and arrangement and register as full-blown songs, or how the alternately languid and chaotic rhythms finally compliment each other, turning this into a bracing sonic adventure that gains richness and resonance with each listen. After all, there's so much going on here -- within the production, the songs, the words -- it remains fascinating even after all of its many paths have been explored (which certainly can't be said of the trip-hop that followed, including records by Tricky). And that air of mystery that can be impenetrable upon the first listen certainly is something that keeps Maxinquaye tantalizing after it's become familiar, particularly because, like all good mysteries, there's no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how hard you try.


Samuel Fuller:"The Naked Kiss" (1964)

The Naked Kiss (1964)
Kelly (Constance Towers), a prostitute who wants to transform her life, beats up her pimp, takes the 75 dollars he owes her, and leaves town. Winding up in the small town of Grantville, she turns a trick with Griff (Anthony Eisley), who is actually the sheriff. After paying her for sex, Griff tells Kelly that Grantville is a clean town and orders her out, though he refers her to a brothel in a neighboring city. Instead, Kelly makes a final break with her past and becomes a nurse's aide at the local children's hospital. In that capacity, she meets Grant (Michael Dante), who is a benefactor of the hospital, a descendant of the town's founder -- and Griff's best friend. As Grant and Kelly fall in love, Griff viciously accuses Kelly of using her hospital job to hide ongoing illicit activities. When Kelly tells Grant about her past, he seems to accept her without reservation and proposes marriage; however, Kelly soon learns the perverse truth about her fiancée and takes matters into her own hands. Samuel Fuller's raw film noir exposes the hypocrisy of a supposedly proper society. Beneath the veneer of respectability lies an exploitive abuse of power, no different from that of any pimp.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds:"Let Love In" (1994)

Let Love In
Keeping the same line-up from Henry's Dream, Nick Cave and company turn in yet another winner with Let Love In. Compared to Henry's Dream, Let Love In is something of a more produced effort -- longtime Cave boardsman Tony Cohen oversees things, and from the first track, one can hear the subtle arrangements and carefully constructed performances. Love, unsurprisingly, takes center stage of the album. Besides concluding with a second part to "Do You Love Me?," two of its stronger cuts are the (almost) title track "I Let Love In," and "Loverman," an even creepier depiction of lust's throttling power so gripping that Metallica ended up covering it. On the full-on explosive front, "Jangling Jack" sounds like it wants to do nothing but destroy sound systems, strange noises and overmodulations ripping throughout the song. The Seeds can always turn in almost deceptively peaceful performances as well, of course -- standouts here are "Nobody's Baby Now," with a particularly lovely guitar/piano line, and the brooding drama of "Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore." The highlight of the album, though, has little to do with love and everything to do with the group's abilities at music noir. "Red Right Hand" depicts a nightmarish figure emerging on "the edge of town," maybe a criminal and maybe something more demonic. Cave's vicious lyric combines fear and black humor perfectly, while the Seeds' performance redefines "cinematic," a disturbing organ figure leading the subtle but crisp arrangement and Harvey's addition of a sharp bell ratcheting up the feeling of doom and judgment.

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