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by Mike Deane

16 Jan 2009

My first prediction of 2009: Katie Stelmanis is going to blow up. She’s been ignored for too long and after her performance at SXSW this year, it’s going to be “Stelmania” (I stole that phrase from her MySpace).

Join Us

Join Us

Katie Stelmanis was already starting to pick up steam in 2008. Almost a year since her nearly unnoticed debut album, Join Us dropped on Blocks Recording Club (a record co-op based in Toronto), Stelmanis was featured on Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life, and split a Matador released 7” with them in late 2008. In 2009, people are bound to pick up on the ethereal and eerie leanings of this powerful vocalist and songwriter. 

The album shares some similarities with the darker side of Kate Bush, but for the most part it’s hard to find an apt comparison to Stelmanis’s slightly operatic, dark, synth-based debut. Rufus Wainwright shares a couple of her characteristics on his more gothic sounding numbers and one could compare certain songs to that spooky Christmas song “Carol of Bells”(I mean this in the best way possible), but there’s nothing completely comparable. The album is well-paced and there is patience and artistry in each composition and they usually swell to commanding and satisfying multi-voiced choruses.

Album opener, “In My Favour”, and the three following tracks are throbbing slow-builds while “You’ll Fall” and “I’m Sick” are classically tinged balladry. In addition to the originals, a highlight is her penchant for atypical cover songs. The album ends with an amazing interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and on her MySpace page is an equally excellent cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. 
Add this to her already impressive oeuvre and you’ve got a success-prone arsenal set to explode in the coming year.

by Bill Gibron

15 Jan 2009

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the genre, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. Within this formulaic film, new to DVD from Universal, is an interesting tale about one man, his dream of mimicking his idol, the abject racism of the day and how talent and tenacity managed to trump such intolerance…sometimes. Unlike the theatrical experience, however, the disc here fills in many of the gaps the effort failed to address when it was released back in October. It still doesn’t make the experience any more invigorating, however.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X. And the DVD offers up deleted scenes, historical information, and a commentary that explains why some of the facts were “altered” to conform to commercial filmmaking.

Indeed, Fleder seems to think that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Rob Horning

15 Jan 2009

The AdFreak blog noted a report in the Journal of Consumer Research that the TV viewing experience is enhanced with interruptions. Here’s the abstract (since the paper itself is gated. Grr.):

Consumers prefer to watch television programs without commercials. Yet, in spite of most consumers’ extensive experience with watching television, we propose that commercial interruptions can actually improve the television-viewing experience. Although consumers do not foresee it, their enjoyment diminishes over time. Commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and restore the intensity of consumers’ enjoyment. Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable (study 1), regardless of the quality of the commercial (study 2), even when controlling for the mere presence of the ads (study 3), and regardless of the nature of the interruption (study 4).

The idea is that the commercials give viewers a pause to refresh their eagerness for the program when it resumes. In other words, the commercials break a program into smaller episodes, and these 11-minute chunks are what we consume. We can’t handle too long a stretch of the pleasure a show gives; we need to be brought back down off that How I Met Your Mother high with a few commercials, so we can enjoy the build-up of pleasure again. Otherwise, the shows reach a plateau at which they can no longer top themselves, and we grow bored, waiting for a bigger bang. Supposedly we are inherently dissatisfied, because we adapt over time to the pleasure being provided, and always demand one more unit of it. (This is part of the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.) Here’s how Ars Technica sums up the adaptation problem:

Extended exposure to anything, even very enjoyable experiences, leads people to adjust to them—basically, good becomes the new normal. For complicated situations, like winning a lottery, this process can take some time, but it’s possible for it to happen in the short-term, as well, which might make it applicable to TV shows. By disrupting that adaptation process, commercial breaks can keep an appreciation of the novelty of a program alive for longer.

I wonder if causality isn’t reversible here—the commercial breaks train us to expect more novelty at shorter intervals rather than allowing us to become absorbed and develop a level of concentration required for aesthetic engagement.

The study’s findings fit well with assumptions that the human attention span is shrinking, since it presumes that we constantly need pauses to refresh it, to reconstitute it in such a way that we can derive pleasure from our passivity and from shallow surface-level appreciation. This attention-span shrinkage is a fortuitous accomplishment for marketers. Back in the day, only one intermission was deemed socially necessary for three hours of entertainment.  But by the lights of this study, presumably we’d enjoy some more commercial breaks in films—why not break up that tedious and tiring Seven Samurai with a few Miller Lite commercials, a few spots for Rice-a-Roni? Maybe soon all “shows” will be the length of a YouTube clip, leaving more opportunity for commercial refreshment.

(My scare-quote deployment reminds me to recommend this awesome essay about scare quotes in the TNR.)

Before I read the study’s abstract, I expected the logic behind it to have something to do with the way TV shows are written to be consumed in small doses; that the commercial breaks are structured into the shows, which are designed to be disrupted. This is obvious when watching old shows on DVD. It’s clear certain moments are supposed to linger through the laundry detergent ads. And if I watch several episodes in a row, ignoring the buffer of several days’ time that each episode would have had when it originally aired, my sense of time gets curiously distended. I start to feel like one of those space-folders floating in spice gas in Dune. This seems to me a highly suggistible state, a sort of hypnogogic fugue.

While no one admits to enjoying commercials, they do help create an atmosphere appropriate to culture consumption—they flatter us into a state of self-importance by conveying a sense that our every decision is important, or they nanny us into a profound sense of insecurity. Both of these states make us receptive to more messages; whether they act as irritants or tranquilizers, ads help prepare the ground for our emotional responses to bloom in response to the actual programs. Ads also deploy a free-associative logic that has more to do with imagination than depicting reality; it suggests we should not be hung up on reason and plausibility, and take our laughs where we find them. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter if we like ads; they still condition how we consume the medium that they support, and in that sense they will feel necessary even if we succeed in excluding them. Since they are so instrumental in the programs’ being made in the first place, they continue to haunt programming even when we use DVRs to banish them. And that haunting is instrumental in the war on our attention span; we crave the ad breaks, even if we don’t want the ads themselves.

by Matt White

15 Jan 2009

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM.”
—Neil Young, in the biography Shakey


In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.

It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.

Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.

A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.

Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Jan 2009

Neko Case
People Got a Lotta Nerve [MP3] from Middle Cyclone [3 March]
     

Vetiver
Everyday [MP3] from Tight Knit [17 February]
     

Handsome Furs
I’m Confused [MP3] from Face Control [10 March]
     

Cut Off Your Hands
Turn Cold [MP3] from You & I [20 January]
     

The Black Lips
Starting Over [MP3] from 200 Million Thousand [24 February]
     

Fol Chen
No Wedding Cake [MP3] from Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made [17 February]
     

Beirut
La Llorona [Video]

Sing Fang Bous
Clangour and Flutes [Video]

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A Chat with José González at Newport Folk Festival

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"José González's sets during Newport Folk Festival weren't on his birthday (that is today) but each looked to be a special intimate performance.

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