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by Thomas Britt

12 Mar 2009

“Freak Folk” was a Trojan Horse of a subgenre, introducing few lasting acts amongst scattered wispy remains. As CocoRosie, Sierra and Bianca Casady present a divisive united front. The sisters have inspired both intense devotion and dismissal, but it seems they are here to stay. Their intentionally over-the-top public statements, zany costumes and occasional mullets combine to sometimes distract from seriously innovative sonic concoctions. Joanna Newsom’s voice is an acquired taste but she comes with a sophistication factor that makes her a safe listen. CocoRosie isn’t having any of that, and as a result its audience is smaller and reviews less glowing.

This new video, posted on YouTube but originally appearing on Whitecanvas, allows the viewer a short glimpse into the world of the Casady sisters. The interview starts with fairies, moves to St. Francis of Assisi and wraps up by finally briefly hinting at the new album. It has been nearly a year since the “God Has a Voice, She Speaks Through Me” single was released, so any new mention of the album is noteworthy. And as with everything else CocoRosie releases, there is a skewed sincerity at the heart of this video.

by PopMatters Staff

12 Mar 2009

Eight years ago this week, French electro group Daft Punk released Discovery, their follow-up to 1997’s Homework. Q gave the record five stars and we thought pretty highly of it too. The album spawned five singles and “Face to Face” went on to hit #1 on the Billboard club chart years later in 2004.

Daft Punk - “One More Time” [single released: 5 December 2000]

Daft Punk - “Aerodynamic” [single released: 28 March 2001]

Daft Punk - “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” [single released: 13 October 2001]

Daft Punk - “Face to Face” [single released: 10 October 2003]

Daft Punk - “Something About Us” [single released: 14 November 2003]

by Rob Horning

12 Mar 2009

For a while, I’ve wondered if I should use cash for more of my purchases. Research has found that we are more conscious of what we are spending when we are peeling off bills rather than swiping a card and signing a receipt. We feel the pain of loss as giving up greenbacks, which is some sort of testimony to their fetishistic power.

Also, the paranoid in me worries that my purchases will be tracked and used in targeting marketing at me or at people like me. It may be forbidden to sell off records of our purchases (I’m not sure), but even then it still may be permissible to lump yours in with others in a demographic, and sell that information. If this is true, aggregate purchasing decisions by a particular group—one assembled by credit-card companies—can develop momentum, shaping the marketing it receives, further shaping the same sorts of choices, until the realm of options open to that group have become curtailed in practical terms. And these groups could end up having less and less in common with one another, leaving us a society segmented into demographics formed not by any voluntary affiliation but by underlying spending patterns—that is, a society defined in terms of how classes shop. This, in turn, probably reinforces the tendencies to self-identify in that way, further entrenching that we must shop in order to be—in order to have social identity at all.

There’s also the matter of credit card fees—I’m usually successful at evading the ones the credit-card companies would love to charge me, but the stores at which I pay in credit have to pay a vig (the interchange fee) to Discover and MasterCard. Theoretically, interchange fees are passed through to we the customers in the form of higher prices, so if we all paid in cash, we all could afford more. (And if we all recycled, there would never be any more trash again.) These fees are why some restaurants won’t take cards—well, that and tax evasion—and why stores like Ikea offer discounts for purchases made with debit cards. But I’m sure that many large-scale retailers prefer when we pay in credit as this cuts down on till tapping and employees’ thieving.

It’s hard to remember when credit cards weren’t so widely accepted; they used to be verboten at grocery stores. And if I’m remembering right, you used to need the specific oil-company credit card to pay in credit at gas stations, and even them there would be a punitive per-gallon markup. Now I experience a weird frisson when I pay for groceries or gas with cash: “Look at me! I’m paying with cash!” It’s as if I’m doing something novel, something almost outrageous—it feels like I am on the lam and trying to avoid leaving a paper trail, or that I am making some laudable gesture of voluntary simplicity. But the convenience of using credit and consolidating my expenses into one monthly payment is hard to resist and seems like a net gain for me—think of all those free short-term loans I’m getting!

Anyway, that’s a long preamble to my wanting to link to a few articles about how credit-card companies are now scrambling to cut credit lines. In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki’s most recent column explains the ins and outs of the situation pretty well, emphasizing the credit-card companies “strange” business model:

credit-card companies have created a strange business, in which there’s a fine line between good and bad customers. Their best customers aren’t those who dutifully pay off their balance every month; instead, they’re the ones who charge a lot and pay only a little every month, carrying a sizable balance and racking up interest charges and late fees. These are the “revolvers,” and the credit-card business feeds on them.

In other words, credit-card companies are always on a knife edge; they have to encourage imprudent—but not too imprudent—behavior in a sizable portion of their customers to thrive. This makes their customers extremely unlikely to be loyal to them, seeing as they thrive by undermining the morals of their customers. (Hence the variety of loyalty programs credit cards routinely roll out. My favorite is Citi’s—the “Thank You” program. No, Citi, thank you.)

The efforts of credit-card issuers to retract some of the credit they eagerly extended during the boom (trying to hook some more “revolvers” on the line) now threaten to put us squarely into paradox-of-thrift territory. Credit lines are being reduced somewhat indiscriminately, worsening consumer confidence and increasing the likelihood of defaults. That is what analyst Meredith Whitney discusses in this WSJ op-ed. Whitney enumerates reasons that credit lines are being pulled—overoptimistic underwriting standards, tarring entire zip codes as credit risks when a few in it foreclose, credit-card companies trying to avoid being the one card in the pocket of a likely defaulter, and coming regulation that makes it harder for companies to change rates on customers. Her conclusion:

Over the past 20 years, Americans have also grown to use their credit card as a cash-flow management tool. For example, 90% of credit-card users revolve a balance (i.e., don’t pay it off in full) at least once a year, and over 45% of credit-card users revolve every month. Undeniably, consumers look at their unused credit balances as a “what if” reserve. “What if” my kid needs braces? “What if” my dog gets sick? “What if” I lose one of my jobs? This unused credit portion has grown to be relied on as a source of liquidity and a liquidity management tool for many U.S. consumers. In fact, a relatively small portion of U.S. consumers have actually maxed out their credit cards, and most currently have ample room to spare on their unused credit lines. For example, the industry credit line utilization rate (or percentage of total credit lines outstanding drawn upon) was just 17% at the end of 2008. However, this is in the process of changing dramatically.

Without doubt, credit was extended too freely over the past 15 years, and a rationalization of lending is unavoidable. What is avoidable, however, is taking credit away from people who have the ability to pay their bills. If credit is taken away from what otherwise is an able borrower, that borrower’s financial position weakens considerably. With two-thirds of the U.S. economy dependent upon consumer spending, we should tread carefully and act collectively.

This is true as far as it goes, but the underlying question is whether most people should be using credit cards as a “liquidity management tool” by revolving debt rather than living on a more consistently realistic budget. Credit-card companies have incentives to find those people and entice them to carry a balance; this increased “liquidity” in practice amounts to consumers reconfiguring their standard of living in unsustainable terms. Some rely on credit in emergencies, but many choose to revolve credit to keep spending more than they make. As Surowiecki explains, “The easy availability of credit cards encouraged people to live beyond their means—studies suggest that people really do spend more when they can pay with a credit card, and that big credit lines further encourage extravagance.” This has externalities to it: the rest of us need to spend more (and go into debt) to feel like we are keeping up, or we need to make the difficult and somewhat isolating choice to fly in the face of new social norms—forgoing the stuff that seems to have become de rigueur for our social class. We experience a kind of declassing even if we are content with what we have. Credit being extended to traditionally poor credit risks exacerbates that tendency further—those we considered beneath us suddenly seem to have more of life’s good things than we do. All of which is to say that accessibility to credit accelerates the cycling through of class signifiers and inflates the value of all of the ones in play. This seems highly unstable—financially and emotionally.

by Bill Gibron

12 Mar 2009

Boy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have sure come a long way since the days when they hand animated construction paper cut outs of various shapes to create their anarchic look at life in a small Colorado town. Over the last 12 seasons, the seminal cartoon series has gone from painstaking grunt work to…well, more painstaking grunt work, except this time, with computers. As part of the added content included on the latest DVD set from Comedy Central (by way of Paramount), we are treated to three separate featurettes which explain in exhaustive detail, the process from idea to on air. And those who think South Park simply springs from the boy’s borderline frat house Id, fully formed, are in for a very rude awakening indeed. In fact, this may be one of the most talent intense shows on all of television - broadcast or cable.

By this time, it’s clear that South Park’s comedy has split off into three specific forms: (1) the pop culture lampoon - taking issues and personalities within current celebrity and the media and mocking the holy Hell out of them. This is specifically true of the Spears’ spoof “Britney’s New Look”, “About Last Night”‘s Ocean’s 11 riff on the Obama/McCain election, and the spoof on take down of the High School Musical/Twilight craze (“Elementary School Musical/“The Ungroundable”); (2) the actual parodies of popular titles, as in Cloverfield/Quarantine‘s “Pandemic” and “Pandemic 2: The Startling”, the Heavy Metal mayhem of “Major Boobage”, and the memorable mistreatment of a certain iconic action figure and his latest adventure with a certain Crystal Skull in “The China Problem”; (3) and finally, the real world/little kids dynamic, where issues like AIDS (“Tonsil Trouble”), the use/abuse of the Internet (“Over Logging”) and the dilemma of fighting a girl (“Breast Cancer Show Ever”) are discussed. Toss in a look at “Canada on Strike”, a town literally screaming “Eek, A Penis!”, and life or death struggle for a “Super Fun Time”, and you’ve got 14 amazing episodes of side-splitting satire. 

For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

Of all the previous seasons of the show, it’s safe to say that twelve is perhaps the most consistent. Sure, it offers the polarizing pleasures of something like “Britney’s New Look” (in which the shrill chanteuse shoots her own face off - and takes America by storm with this new ‘trainwreck’ look) or the “Pandemic” duo (where the only thing standing between the planet and complete annihilation by giant guinea pigs is Peruvian flute band music), but as the bonus features indicate, even these episodes are part of a process that is scattershot in name only. For months, Parker and Stone will agonize over ideas, waiting for the right inspiration to strike. Only then will they cure Cartman and Kyle’s HIV with an infusion of cash - straight cash - or turn the entire country into a desperate Dust Bowl where access to the World Wide Web is the new personal dream. Some inspirations are shelved out of sheer time factors. The breast-oriented “Major Boobage” almost didn’t air because Parker and Stone failed to realize how long it would take to render their ideas in standard pen and ink animation.

Yet all the kvetching and care really shows, from the pristine first person POV filmmaking riffs in “Pandemic”, to the allusions to cinematic rapes past in “The China Problem”. And don’t think our heroes are having second thoughts about skewering Lucas and Spielberg for turning Indiana Jones into an aging joke. On their typical “commentary-mini” tracks, the duo make it very clear that they would stand up to the Star Wars/Schindler’s List pair in a heartbeat, cursing them out for destroying a favored motion picture idol. Elsewhere, they hint at how inconsistent their memories of Heavy Metal were with the film itself, explain the natural defense mechanisms of the Cavia porcellus, and wonder out loud how Comedy Central censors allowed a shot of Randy Marsh covered in “man goo” to make it to broadcast. Indeed, when listening to these crafty creators (or their equally entertaining crew), one gets the distinct impression of artists still rabidly in love with what they do.

Of course, it comes with a price, and the boys love to lament their overwrought work schedule. Watching the behind the scenes documentary for “Super Fun Time” (divided into ‘days’ and spanning nearly 90 minutes), we begin to understand the level of hard work involved. Because it deals in dirty words and tacky toilet humor, critics assume that this stuff is equally simple in creation. But as we soon discover, there is a painstaking process of animatics, rewrites, design changes, and storyline shifts made in the days between the recording of the temp track and the actual airdate. In fact, for the Obama episode, material was being written almost immediately after the President-elect made his acceptance speech. This has also given South Park the difficult task of remaining forever timely. But Parker is quick to point out that they will take on something only when they have something to say, not the moment the news breaks. Fans, however, aren’t so forgiving.

With a genuine masterwork of a series 13 premiere (Disney’s dippy Jonas Brothers ruin Kenny’s chance at some grade school sex), and the promise of more provocation to come, it’s clear that South Park won’t be stopping any time soon. Unlike other popular animated shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, there’s no debate over “jumping the shark” or overstaying their entertainment welcome. It seems like, even when the push the envelope and go further than most funnymen would dare venture, Trey Parker and Matt Stone maintain a kind of integrity that’s impossible to duplicate. Heck, to last in the low profile waystation that is basic cable deserves some manner of acknowledgment. As one of the few water cooler cartoons left, South Park‘s twelfth season stands as an amazing accomplishment. As with previous DVD releases, it certifies that, as long as they have the drive and the determination to keep going, Parker and Stone will remain the rebels of 2D delirium. 

by PopMatters Staff

11 Mar 2009

Michael Kabran thought pretty highly of Wild Light’s debut Adult Nights saying, “all the hallmarks of Indie Pop past, present and future are here: background vocals that would make former tour mates Arcade Fire holler with joy, a terrific bass line that burbles just below the song’s surface and a melody that oozes infectiousness.” Today Spinner.com premieres the video for “California on My Mind”. Also below is a live acoustic performance of “My Father Was a Horse”.

Wild Light
“California on My Mind” [Video]

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