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Monday, May 7, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Björk
Volta videocast - Part 1 [M4V]
Volta videocast - Part 2 [M4V]
Volta videocast - Part 3 [M4V]


Our favorite Icelandic pixie songstress is back with her sixth album. Volta is a grouchy affair, whether burning hot with big beats and booming vocals or brewing in a bad mood. Evaluated purely for its placement along her artistic trajectory, the record finds Björk successfully pushing into new realms, moving restlessly and relentlessly forward. As with 2004’s Medúlla, however, the trails that she blazes are sometimes difficult for the listener to navigate. In case you hadn’t noticed yet, Björk is out there.—Michael Keefe, PopMatters review of Volta—7 May 2007


Watermelon Slim [PopMatters review]
The Wheel Man [MP3]
     


I’ve Got News [MP3]
     


Black Water [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Take a peak for yourself as to why The Wheel Man received six Blues Music Award nominations and won Mojo Magazine’s Best Blues Album of the Year. He really is “King of the Blues”.”—Northern Blues [released 17 April 2007]


Benni Hemm Hemm
snjórjljóssnjór [MP3]
     


Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake
Planet E [MP3]
     



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Monday, May 7, 2007

Grant McCracken, an academic who went over to the dark side to become a marketing consultant, had a post about how brands could profit from working in some ambiguity and interpretative possibility into its advertising. After citing 15th-century courtier Castiglione’s notion of sprezzatura (cultivating the air of naturalness; a bit of a paradox) and fop forerunner Beau Brummel’s happy fashion accidents, McCracken encourages marketers to make brands into something like “round characters” from a fiction workshop:


What we want are brands that invite our involvement and then reward it.  Involvement takes complexity and the willingness to open the brand to a variety of interpretations and the possibility that some of these interpretations will prove a little insipid.  What we are doing here is buying sublime brand moments at the cost of some that are ill formed and unsuccessful.  Let us try out Castiglione’s and Brummel’s advice. I mean, we keep saying that marketing is a conversation.  Perhaps its time to make brands creatures worthy of talking to.


Sprezzatura means not getting caught trying too hard; McCracken wants brand builders to seem not to be trying—he wants them to act as if what the brand becomes is a matter of indifference to them: “Sales? Who cares. The brand must become what it wants to be.” The brand will manage itself spontaneously in the minds of eager consumers, who will make it into what it must be to survive. McCracken never questions the benevolence of branding, never doubts that they enrich our lives and that brand equity is manna from heaven, not value expropriated from elsewhere.


The argument McCracken makes seems like an argument in the same mold as Steven Johnson’s case that TV is more sophisticated and its viewers are performing all sorts of high level mental operations in parsing the plot of 24. The complexity engages consumers rather than puts them off, and their brains are so adapted as to not regard this complexity as difficulty; instead they process it as pleasure. McCracken is also advocating a less instrumental approach to marketing, to make campaigns rich with detail and emotive potential but to not have a precise goal—in other words, to make them like character studies.
But brands are not characters; they are not sentient beings, and they can’t hold up their end of a conversation. I’m highly skeptical that marketing is a conversation—it’s a one-way conversation at best and it’s not a very sophisticated one: “Use our crap, it’s cool!” Marketing is a medium for a communication between buyers and sellers, and its purpose is generally to mask asymmetries in information that make buyers generally wary.


Whatever subtleties come out of marketing usually come from marketers’ attempts to adapt to the ways consumers actually use their products in spite of how they are marketed. But this in turn undermines the usefulness to the consumer, who (if he is pursuing cool) is trying to distinguish himself and stand apart from what advertisers hype. Perhaps this is what McCracken means: advertising should be deliberately misleading so that users of the product can more easily feel as though they have outwitted the marketing to penetrate to some authentic usage of a product that reveals the user’s uniqueness in the face of the mass market object.


Anyway, the main objection I have to all this is the idea that brands can come to stand in as people, that we might forget that brands are mediums and anthropomorphize them. That’s why adding brands to friends lists on MySpace seems so creepy to me. Once brands could be indicators of specific qualities, but now they are so fluid in meaning that they obfuscate the nature of the products they represent, and signal something altogether independent of the goods. When brands are ascribed human traits, it masks their true function (signaling that makes status concrete, makes class more impermeable) and gives them a phony agency that conceals the actual operators behind them.


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Monday, May 7, 2007

If the term “citizen journalist” immediately brings to mind Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room calling on viewers to send in their hurricane footage, then think again.


The Sunlight Foundation is tapping public expertise and enthusiasm to investigate federal government waste and corruption. It’s part of a trend toward using the Internet to make a variety of technologies available to the public, and then inviting people to use these tools to participate in an investigation.


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Sunday, May 6, 2007


It used to be a pure Memorial Day kind of thing. Teens, fresh out of classes and ready to spend, would line up all over this great land of ours, celebrating the memory of those who died to keep us free by going to see a major studio popcorn pic. Like Jerry Lewis’ arrival every Labor Day, or the traditional distended credit card bill come Christmas, the Summer Blockbuster season was anticipated and planned for like the exaggerated entertainment D-Day it is. Preview ads would start popping up around mid-Fall, while a teaser would almost always arrive come Super Bowl. Then, just when the marketers thought the masses were growing tired of the title, a full blown trailer would appear, usually formulated to give away as many of the well-kept plotpoints as possible. By the time the end of May rolled around, it felt like you had already seen the overexposed hit. All that was left was to wonder what Will Smith would deliver come 4 July.


Naturally, this commercial course of action needed an accomplice, and for the most part, the co-conspirator was the horribly lackluster spring movie season. For four months (and a few weeks), audiences were expected to attend – and enjoy – studio run-off, bad buzz catastrophes, poorly timed Oscar bait (and switch), and various incarnations of crap cinema. On rare occasions, a good film would actually sneak in, making itself an amiable nuisance for those waiting on the snow and sleet to melt before they’d make their way to the Multiplex again. But more times than not, Hollywood larded its annual landfill with brazen bottom line/feeder fodder. Oddly, all that changed a few years ago. Now, among the slop and stupidity, Tinsel Town occasionally tosses film fans a big fat helping of masterful motion picture.


To be fair, the beginning of 2007 was still pretty pathetic. Ghost Rider proved that Nicholas Cage and comic book super-heroism really don’t mesh, while Oscar winner Hillary Swank battled the Apocalypse, and inner city educational malaise – either one, a daunting proposition. We got a few more horror remakes (The HitcherThe Hills Have Eyes 2Epic Movie) and some less than appealing family fare, including Arthur and the Invisibles and The Last Mimzy. Amidst all the hokum and hackwork, sophomore slumps and high concept crud, a few films actually managed to distinguish themselves. In fact, some of the Spring’s best may end up holding on to that title come the end of December – they were just that strong. And of course, with every stroke of genius, there must come an equal and opposite atrocity – and this year, there were some doozies. In fact, SE&L‘s picks for the Best and Worst of Spring 2007 expertly illustrate the massive chasm between the great and the god-awful quite well.


The Best
5. Black Snake Moan


Trying to top his breakout film about the ‘hard’ life of a pimp (2005’s Hustle and Flow) writer/director Craig Brewer tapped into the forgotten world of Tobacco Road potboilers to tell the tale of a local skank (the fabulous Christina Ricci) saved by the blues-soaked soul of a proud older man (Samuel L. Jackson). The results reminded audiences of the days when Tennessee Williams inspired hundreds of Southern Gothic copycats combined with those sleazoid drive-in delights that promised promiscuousness, but only ended up delivering tons of tease. While some critics complained over Brewer’s reach for smut style over social substance (as in his previous hip hop culture creation), he continued to prove that his is a cinematic voice worth paying attention to.

4. Grindhouse


It’s a shame that audiences didn’t cotton to this clever take on motion picture history. It remains the artform’s dirty little secret that, post Hays and pre MPAA, the exploitation game rewrote the rules on cinematic subject matter – and by indirect design, created post-modern moviemaking. It’s not like this badass ride on the wild and wicked side didn’t have entertainment appeal. Co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez delivered the gory, gratuitous goods in big fat sticky globs of fun. It was another cabal, that rabid and ready to pounce group known as the media, that destroyed this dandy double feature’s chance of gaining major mass market momentum. Years from now, revisionist history will hail this thrill and chill throwback as a masterpiece. For now, it will remain 2007’s most unfairly categorized ‘flop’.

3. 300


Talk about your testosterone laced treats! Frank Miller delivers the epic goods via Zach Snyder’s amazing CG cinematic scope, resulting in one of the biggest, brashest spectacles of the last ten years. A near perfect amalgamation of form and function, this tale of the Spartan stance against Persian insurgency circa 480 BC argues for the aesthetic benefits of technology – not only in the creation of visual splendor, but also in the realization of fiscally restrictive ideas. If Gladiator took home a misguided Oscar back in 2000, this movie should rake in the awards. As much a phenomenon as a feat of pure imagination, it may not reinvent the language of film as we know it, but it sure does provide a pristine new translation.

2. Zodiac


Nothing short of stunning. Rarely, in any period piece, does a director get both the details and the drama correct. One usually overpowers the other, leading to a substantial case of motion picture disconnect. But in taking on the still unsolved case of the ‘70s serial killer of the title, director David Fincher amplified the art of era recreation. Not only did he capture Me Decade San Francisco perfectly, he got the defeated, post-peace generation vibe down pat. Thanks to brilliant acting from Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a narrative device that splits the story into three separate, equally compelling acts, we end up with is a dense deconstruction of the pre-CSI crime game, and a look at how obsession leads to loss – both familial and professional.

1. Hot Fuzz


The comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg is clearly comprised of drop dead brilliance. After the magnificent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (much more than a zombie lampoon, really), they turned their attentions toward the overwrought action blockbusters of the last three decades and came up with Spring 2007’s best film. With the equally astounding Nick Frost along for the ride, this satiric shoot-em up is so engaging, so completely and wholly entertaining, that it reminds you of how exciting a trip to the Cineplex can be. And buried inside the manic montages, the false endings, and the typical stunt sequence clichés, is a clever take on the British way of…being. Fuzz is so good, it makes the wait for whatever Wright, Pegg and Frost do next seem excruciating.

The Worst
5. Wild Hogs


Paunchy old men play biker dudes. Nothing particularly novel occurs. And in the meantime, both John Travolta and William H. Macy destroy whatever remaining star turn screen cred they had built up over the years (Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence were already treading water).  While crowds lined up to give this mediocre middle-aged comedy some unbelievable box office heft, here’s hoping cooler heads prevail come mandatory sequel time.

4. Norbit


Remember the look on Eddie Murphy’s face when the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was announced – and his name was NOT read? That’s the same reaction audiences had to this bumbling, borderline racist affair. There’s no problem trying to recapture the comic flavor and fun of the Nutty Professor films, but does it have to be done at the expense of raging stereotypes and dimensionless characterization? Apparently so.

3. Hannibal Rising


In which Thomas Harris pisses away any remaining semblance of a serious literary career. Apparently, everyone’s favorite cannibal gained his taste for flesh after seeing his sister devoured by Nazis. As if Germany didn’t have enough to be sorry for already. Now they have to take the blame for destroying this once viable horror franchise. Either them or the failed filmmaking.


2. Code Name: The Cleaner


Cedric the Entertainer doesn’t need to fire his agent – he needs to SHOOT him. Looking over the last five films he’s made (from Man of the House to that horrid remake of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners), the stench of sloppy scripting and equally atrocious approach seems to follow him everywhere. This incredibly funny man deserves better.

1.  Are We Done Yet?


Yes, Ice Cube, your career as a serious actor is pretty much finished. The irony over how one of the ‘80s most defiant rappers turned into a kid vid scapegoat is incredibly rich, but if he continues to milk these lame retreads of the same slapstick silliness, he’s bound to hit a worn out his welcome wall. This Mr. Blanding‘s bastardization may actually be it.

 


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Sunday, May 6, 2007
by Alex Rose

I first came across the writing of Charles D’Ambrosio in the waiting room at Cornell Medical Hospital. I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.” With some reluctance, I inched my way into D’Ambrosio’s icy, ashy world only to emerge a half an hour later transformed—my own world refreshed and enriched.


The story (first person/past tense) begins with the protagonist, Daly, and his wife, Caroline, driving North to visit her parents in their remote, winter cabin. There, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast—the in-laws, their friends, one of whom, we do not know which, may have raped Caroline a decade prior. Caroline has hidden the truth from her beloved father to spare him the agony, but her continued silence has bred its own agony, a poisonous secret that rears itself in other, destructive ways.


Having read her diary, Daly is aware that his wife has been having affairs; indiscretions about which he must remain as tight-lipped as she, lest he reveal that he’s violated her privacy. Perhaps as a result of her assault, she has been and remains unable to equate sex with love. The paradox of their relationship, then, is that each day, “I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance without ever arriving at the moment in time when, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.”


Daly’s disclosures are similarly frank: “In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed,” and amplified through his observations, each a sour reminder of something from the past, not completely gone. The taxidermy flanking the fireplace “suggested souvenirs from some gone, legendary time;” the sweater Caroline borrows from her father retains its girth, “a ghostly, orotund presence in the stiff wool.” Does this imply, perhaps, a pregnancy?


The major events in the story, however, are actually non-events. The first is the hunt. Daly, who finds it “effortful” to be around men with weapons, accompanies the grunting old-timers into the snowy woods to claim their nightly feast, only, when he gets the bird in his crosshairs, he squeezes the trigger to discover that the safety catch has vetoed the shot. Who could forget such a pungent image of impotence?


The second is the feast itself, whose awkwardness is intensified by the fact that Daly is struggling to hear the dialogue through the ringing in his ears, the auditory aftershock of his neighbor’s shotgun. All the while, a mirror in the corner of the dining room is canted in such a way as to reflect everyone but the narrator.


What is clear by the end is that D’Ambrosio is not a dramatist but a holder of oblique mirrors himself, a painter of haunting portraits. Drama, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a sequence of escalating power shifts—events which challenge its characters to make decisions that, in turn, alter the course of future events. Rather, D’Ambrosio feeds us a timeline whose constituent moments form a single snapshot indicative of things as they are. There are no revelations or catharses, simply a masterful rendering of an excruciating silence, the waterlogged weight of unspoken things, which press upon the apparently humdrum present with a dreadful and mighty force, forever unrelieved, unresolved.


But even this doesn’t capture what it is that makes “Up North” extraordinary. There’s something musical about the particular network of contrasts—the muffled, protected cabin vs. the expansive, perilous outdoors—something deliciously peculiar in the laid-backness of the language, his words crisp and exact. At the same time, D’Ambrosio is careful not to tip his hand: his virtuosity is subtle, unassuming and tempered, not ecstatic and splendiferous like Nabokov’s.


I later wondered if perhaps I was too quick to trust him. That in my enfeebled state, sitting there apprehensive and barely clothed in that cold hospital waiting room, I’d allowed a certain obsequiousness to color my impression of the work. Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Dead Fish Museum (in which “Up North” is collected), and was struck to discover the same level of power and precision, the same faint irony and sober lament woven into each piece.


Someone recently told me that, for all its beauty, she couldn’t get through the book because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D’Ambrosio world at face value—mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets—a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle, which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort.


Rather, D’Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.


I doff my hat.


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