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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

Perhaps it is misleading that I am writing this under the banner of Pop Past, given that the band in question released their sole album less than one year ago, but it has nevertheless come to be sadly appropriate in the case of Georgie James. Principle members John Davis and Laura Burhenn quietly announced the band’s breakup on their website yesterday:


After three years, Georgie James is calling it a day. We’re proud of the album we made and everything else that we were able to do during our time together. We are both working on our respective solo projects (John’s can be found at www.myspace.com/titletracksdc and Laura’s at www.myspace.com/lauraburhenn) and hope to have albums out early next year. Thanks to everyone that helped our band over these past few years. And thanks to those who’ve listened to the music and come out to the shows. It is greatly appreciated. See you around soon.
—John and Laura/Georgie James


Their album, Places, was, to my ears, one of last year’s very best, a collection of infectious, gimmick-free pop songs that was astonishing, largely, for just how unassuming it was. Indie rock never seems to be at a loss for bands looking to evoke the virtues of classic rock and pop, but most of these acts are quick to reveal one particular musical fetish or another, whether it is for the iconic songwriting of Brian Wilson or Lennon/McCartney, or for the un-self-conscious maximalism of ‘70s glam pop. While recognizing the greatness of such celebrated retro-poppers as Sloan or the New Pornographers, or the playful Smiley Smile-esque innovations of the Elephant 6 collective, there is a level on which their music is as much about it’s very retro-ness as it is about the band’s own explorations of their craft.


Georgie James were instead much closer in spirit to such pop true believers as Aimee Mann and Matthew Sweet, crafting songs that sounded instantly timeless simply by virtue of never feeling the need to sound married to any particular era, past or present (the closest the band may have come to indulging in retro-ness was with their wispy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, the b-side to single “Need Your Needs”). It was only when listening to this album the first few times through, trying to mentally contextualize it alongside what I assumed to be it’s contemporaries (Burhenn’s voice is not unlike Jenny Lewis’ and it would be all too easy to mistake Davis’ nasal rasp for A.C. Newman, and Places was released within a month of Rilo Kiley and New Pornographer’s 2007 offerings), that I realized that while I had heard countless albums in recent years that I had wanted to sound like this, I had heard very few that actually did sound like this this. Perhaps it was the casual nature of a project born out the experience of its players—most of whom are veterans of numerous other bands, with Davis having drummed in the spastic post-punk outfit Q and Not U—but Places had an assured ease that was rare for a debut album, fully capturing the spirit of falling in love with great pop music (how many albums contain an ode to the perfect pair of headphones?) while never seeking to be anything more than perfect melodic pop music itself. 


I was looking forward to hearing the next five or ten Georgie James albums, but whether it had any relevance to their dissolution or not, Places had the misfortune of debuting amid one of the more dazzlingly eclectic years for music in recent memory, only to become predictably lost in the shuffle. 2007 was a year in which even the most celebrated guitar-based indie bands—Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers again—found their latest albums being met with a relatively muted critical response as the music press found sustenance in the rich genre-bending sounds of Justice, M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution methods, the Kanye vs. Fiddy hullaballoo and the inescapable gravitational pull of a certain “Umbrella-ella-ella”. If Georgie James were admittedly too unflashy to gain even minor critical attention in such a dynamic year, Places will remain a would-be pop classic ripe for eventual rediscovery. Give it a belated listen today on your own pair of comfortable headphones.


Tagged as: georgie james
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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

Despite being restricted to members of the British Commonwealth, the Man Booker Prize is a hell of a lot more prestigious than the Commonwealth Games is for sport.  There are those who accuse it of being a B-league by omitting the United States and any number of non-Anglosphere countries, but it carries a remarkable amount of prestige, mainly because of the continued dominance of the United Kingdom in the literary world.


The other major difference with the Commonwealth Games is that in sport Australia runs rings around the competition but in books it’s not nearly as influential.  Nevertheless, Australia has won the second most Bookers out of any country—with either four or six prizes, depending on whether you count J.M. Coetzee’s two.  I don’t, because he moved here subsequent to his prizes, whereas Peter Carey, Tom Keneally and D.B.C. Pierre are Australian-born.  Pierre is another strange case, having been raised in Mexico and the USA with only a short stint as an adult in Australia.  I guess that’s what comes from being a nation of immigrants.


This year is a good one for Aussies, with locals Michelle de Kretser (for The Lost Dog) and Steve Toltz (for A Fraction of the Whole) both on the long list of 13.  The odds aren’t good, however, with the bookies favouring Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children was recently acclaimed the best Booker winner ever.


Of course, the long-odds books do occasionally win over the judges and the big names can be overlooked.  There were not a few critics that saw Midnight’s Children as a very safe choice for the Best of the Booker and the panel could be conscious of the need to give attention to some lesser-known writers.


The big surprise for the Australian industry is the omission of Helen Garner’s astonishing return to novel-writing, The Spare Room.  Garner is one of the few “big name” Australian writers still residing here rather than in the UK or USA.  In that sense, she’s clearly “one of ours” in a way that Carey or Pierre or Coetzee aren’t.


Of course, the Booker judges aren’t so interested in national pride and literature is (fortunately) less jingoistic than sport.  I still can’t help cheering on one of my own.


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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.


Process server Dale Denton really loves his life. He spends his days smoking pot and delivering subpoenas. He spends the rest of his time doing bong hits and hanging out with his high school aged girlfriend Angie. Dale buys his dope from a well meaning dealer named Saul Silver. Typical with most marijuana merchants, this long haired ‘dude’ feels a close bond with his clientele. When Dale witnesses a murder, he runs to Saul for help. Seems the weed may connect the witness to the crime, and since a local mobster and a crooked cop are involved, our hemp-infused heroes are not safe. With the help of Red, another chronic connection, they will try to survive this trip down the potentially lethal ‘Pineapple Express’.


Wonderfully vulgar, brilliantly performed, and accented with action reminiscent of an ‘80s buddy film, Pineapple Express is one late summer success. It takes the patented funny business formula that resurrected comedy over the last few years and fine tunes it into something both inventive and indicative, retro in its drug-fueled farce while up to date in its more dangerous elements. Concentrating on character more than situations, and drive by expert direction from indie icon David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels) many will find this clever combination off putting. While we like other unlikely cinematic amalgamations (horror/satire, crime/comic book) the often jarring juxtaposition between dope and danger does take some getting used to. But once it clicks, Pineapple Express becomes that rare experience where we’re satisfied on both accounts.


Acting is key to accepting such strategies, and both Seth Rogen and James Franco deliver amazing performances. The Knocked Up/Superbad star finds new ways to turn his hound dog delivery and personal pathos into a winning, often aggravating soul. We want to see Dale succeed, but not in the hedonistically juvenile manner he seems to prefer. Rogen’s moments with Amber Heard as his barely legal gal pal Angie have an uneasy, ‘go on and grow up’ kind of immediacy. Later, when he finally meets her parents, the foul mouthed confrontation confirms that this relationship may not be the best thing for either party. Rogen is the audience’s window into a world most probably never knew (or, at the very least, haven’t revisited since college), and he does a fine job as a narrative casement.


But it’s Franco that’s the real revelation here, offering up a kind of permanently stunned slacker with a code of ethics so scattered they tend to blur the lines between truth and THC. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell who’s talking - Saul or the smoke. With his eyes glazed over and his cadence recalling the classic character type, we expect this performance to be pat and kind of stereotyped. But Franco fools us over and over with his unbridled brilliance. He uses elements that might seem maudlin or meaningless (he only deals so his grandmother can live in a “nice” nursing home) and infuses them with power and emotion. When the last act gunplay hits the fan, we’re struck at how concerned we are for this dope peddling drone’s well being.


Most of this comes from the screenplay, another Rogen/Evan Goldberg gem. But the influence of filmmaker Green should never be discounted. Because his movies have mainly focused on people and how they react to specific circumstances, he’s the perfect guide to turn the outrageous into something believable and worth rooting for. Even when Danny McBride shows up as the weirdly anti-hip Red, with an unreal collection of pop culture leftovers, Green makes him into something endearing. Even better, the direction here flaunts the requirements of a big screen stunt spectacle. The showdown between our heroes and the basic bad guys (Gary Cole and Rosie Perez in sheer scenery chewing mode) doesn’t come as a shock so much as a natural extension of the environment these individuals function in.


This is, in fact, Pineapple Express‘s most interesting conceit. We often fail to realize that marijuana, while somewhat socially acceptable and highly recreational, remains a very illegal substance. Police and Federal Drug Enforcers no longer turn a blind eye toward the casual user, and the money to be made on such an in-demand diversion puts everyone involved on edge. That things suddenly explode between Dale, Saul and Red, and eventually with the local crime syndicate is to be expected. Yet most stoner comedies treat the law and the lawless as something to be mocked or merely ignored. Pineapple Express is perhaps the first pot laughfest that actually takes its crime and punishment seriously.


That sudden shift into outsized reality will definitely lose some fans. ‘Feel good’ should never be combined with ‘feel scared’, at least for most moviegoers. But the brazen way in which Pineapple Express messes with the formula, the way it flaunts genre while moving beyond its limits suggests the future of the format. For a long time now, the movie comedy has suffered from a stagnancy borne out of laziness and a lack of ideas. The Apatow camp consistently proves that almost anything can be added to the satiric mix with maximum results. Whether it’s a hit or not is beside the point. Pineapple Express satisfies on so many levels that to undermine its effectiveness seems pointless.


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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

It’s sure to be one of the most blogged-about stories this season but it’s worth repeating. Finally, what everyone (except the major labels and their RIAA lawyers) have known and admitted is now in a study stating the obvious: Illegal Downloading is Here to Stay. That’s according to MCPS-PRS Alliance and Big Champagne, the later of which measures traffic for illegal downloads, many times used by the majors to get stats about their artists. Granted that Big Champagne has a vested interest here but they’d also know best. Plus, let’s face it… we all knew this already. Artists are already hip to the study’s other conclusion, which is that they are gonna have to find other ways to make money.


Even with the RIAA starting to get pushed back by the courts, the stats have also revealed that far from tapping off, illegal downloads are actually increasing. The labels have to keep a brave face by sicking the RIAA dogs on some users but they’re also hepping to the fact that they better find other sources of income too (i.e. ringtones, licensing to movies and video games, commercial tie-in’s, etc..). Of course, they can’t publicly throw in the towel and admit defeat but behind closed doors, they know they’re in trouble and that they blew it by not trying to turn the original Napster users into customers quick enough.


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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

A few (million) of you have been holding your breath, waiting for the midnight release last Friday of Stephenie Meyer’s last installment of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. Will Bella end up with Edward or Jacob? And what’s this about a wedding scene? (Don’t draw any conclusions!)


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Yesterday, Meyer’s publisher released sales figures for the first day of Breaking Dawn‘s release, and the numbers are big. Really big. MTV.com reports:


Hachette Book Group announced today that the fourth and final novel in Stephenie Meyer’s #1 internationally bestselling Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, shattered first day sales records for the company. HBG estimates that sales on the August 2 on-sale date were over 1.3 million copies.


Julie Bosman of the New York Times writes:


Barnes & Noble planned to hold vampire-theme parties in more than 600 of its stores on Friday night, and invited readers to arrive in costume, socialize and play Twilight trivia. Borders Group was expecting more than 100,000 fans at 900 Twilight-theme parties at its Waldenbooks and Borders stores.


Carol Memmott at USA Today counters: “Still, nothing competes with Harry Potter. Last July, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 8.3 million books in its first 24 hours on sale.”


Fans who needs more Twilight in their lives can recreate the author’s personal soundtrack, created while penning the final volume on her website. Crafty souls out there might be tempted by a free knitting pattern for Eclipse socks, embellished with the ribbon motif from the cover of the third book in the series.


I’d love to say I managed to attend a midnight party last weekend, but I have to admit, I’m waiting for a four volume Twilight set to be released – perhaps in time for the holidays?


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