Monday, October 15, 2007

The National Play Terminal 5 (NYC, 10/11/07)

Brooklyn-based The National played the inaugural concert at New York City's Terminal 5 last Thursday to a sold-out crowd of approximately 3,000 attendees. 

Frontman Matt Berninger put on a mesmerizing, if slightly conflicted performance. He spent most of the night with his eyes shut, clutching the mic close to his body as he sang to his adoring audience. But while Berninger typically seemed awkward and somewhat unaware of what to do with himself in between songs, he also displayed a more lighthearted side by joking with the audience before the concert began. Later on, right before the band's two-song encore, he poured a bottle of champagne — which he then passed along to the front row — onstage to celebrate the venue's opening.

The rest of Berninger's bandmates were also a delight. The music was spot-on, the Dessner brothers provided lush guitar and bass backdrops, and Padma Newsome — who accompanied the band on violin and keyboards — nearly stole the show at certain points. Highlights of the show included "Fake Empire" (the opener on this year’s Boxer), which resulted in a majestic climax featuring a trumpet and trombone player. By the end of the song's performance, the entire band seemed exhilarated as members grinned at each other onstage. Other songs, like "Secret Meeting," contained an extra energy that the album versions lack. And Berninger performed the second and final song of the encore, "Mr. November," with wild abandon, screaming and kicking at speakers as he darted around the stage. 

The National may not seem like the sort of band destined for superstardom; their slow rise in popularity is an indication that the band's music tends to grow on its listeners. But the energy and beautiful musical arrangements at their live shows demonstrate that this is a band that deserves the acclaim it receives. And they're most certainly a band worth checking out in person.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"In Rainbows" Marks Radiohead's Triumphant Return

It's been a few days since Radiohead released their seventh LP to the masses — via a digital download offered through their website — and fans all over the Internet are already discussing whether or not this record can be considered one of the band's top albums of all time.

After repeated listens, one thing's for certain. This might very well be the band's best offering since 2000's Kid A.

Upon first hearing the album, it was hard for me to figure out whether or not it deserved such accolades. Was I being biased? Was I formulating this opinion simply because I expected Radiohead — a band almost universally known as one of the world's greatest contemporary musical acts — to put out something great?

Possibly. But though In Rainbows is somewhat sparse when compared to some of the band's previous work, it still contains those unique moments that make Radiohead records what they are. From the dance-like beats found on the album's opener, "15 Step," to the slowly-paced, mournful closer "Videotape," the songs on In Rainbows flow together almost flawlessly. While some songs, like "Bodysnatchers" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," seem to "rock out" the way the band's earlier works did, the majority of the tracks carry a subtle sense of majesty.

Each song contains carefully layered instrumental arrangements, some of which may be designed to catch listeners off guard. The fifth track, "All I Need," starts out as a quiet, relaxed piece that only evolves into one of the album's most breathtaking musical highlights — featuring the escalation of piano, percussion, and Thom Yorke's trademark wailing vocals — albeit for a very brief minute or so. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" is another track that features layer upon layer of sound. By its conclusion, the song sounds as though it's taking place underwater, transporting listeners into a completely different realm.

The interesting thing about this album is the fact that the majority of the tracks aren't particularly new. Radiohead spent a good part of their time off after releasing 2003's Hail to the Thief, playing around in the studio and touring to test out new material. "Nude" is at least a decade old and a good chunk of the songs made their debut sometime last year while the group was touring, or even while Yorke played a few gigs around the time his solo album (The Eraser) was released. But while some of the songs are somewhat similar to their live versions, other songs are almost completely unrecognizable.

Case in point: "Reckoner." The track originally debuted a few years ago, rife with rollicking guitars and Yorke shouting "Reckoner! Pa pa pa!" But now it has turned into a more atmospheric piece with a repetitious percussive backdrop, strings, less in-your-face guitar parts, and more haunting vocals. Despite these drastic changes, it can also be considered one of the album's most memorable tracks.

Perhaps In Rainbows doesn't break new ground in the way that 1997's OK Computer or the previously-mentioned Kid A did. But the mere fact that it has caused such a stir amongst listeners, not just because of its unorthodox method of release, is a sign that the band is back in top form. It will be most interesting to see what the upcoming December discbox release of In Rainbows will have to offer.

Rating: A -

Sunday, August 19, 2007

'Becoming Jane'

Jane Austen purists have been up in arms about Becoming Jane — even prior to its theatrical release — due to its liberal take on the author's early life. But if you take it with a grain of salt, the film is ultimately an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed, work that might be perfect to watch on a lazy weekend afternoon.

No better or worse than your average period piece, the film attempts to capture the essence of English country life during the late 18th century. With scenes that depict a world filled with country dances and a society obsessed with following rules of propriety, the filmmakers definitely succeed in their attempts to show viewers where Austen might have received the inspiration to write her major novels. In fact, many of the characters and scenes echo elements of Austen's work — most notably, Pride and Prejudice. Mr. and Mrs. Austen (played by James Cromwell and Julie Walters) are reminiscent of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, whereas Maggie Smith's formidable Lady Gresham shares numerous qualities with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And there is no doubt that some viewers might feel a bit of a thrill during the scenes where Anne Hathaway's Jane first sits down to begin her initial drafts of the beloved novel. These little bits and pieces, along with a few verbal spars between characters, certainly provide the film with an Austen-like quality even if they do seem a little overdone from time to time.

Of course, like many Austen novels themselves, the film focuses on romance. The film is based on Jon Spence's Becoming Jane Austen, a book that uses some of the author's letters to her sister to chronicle the former's relationship with a man by the name of Tom LeFroy (played by James McAvoy). LeFroy, as seen in the film, is a bit of everything — a handsome young man with simultaneously caddish and romantic qualities. It has even been implied that he may have been the inspiration for Mr. Darcy, though this is ultimately a disputable fact.

But some of the liberties taken with the romantic storyline do prove to be somewhat problematic. The film's ultimate descent into a melodramatic final hour does take away from some of its believability, and it doesn't matter that the studio has emphasized that the film is a work of fiction merely inspired by real-life events. We are subjected to witness LeFroy and Austen's attempts to make something of their ill-fated romance, while numerous scenes feature dialogue that emphasizes the importance of marrying well and behaving in a more prudent manner. And well-played as it is by the film's main leads, the two characters' final desperate attempt to elope doesn't ring true at all (even if Austen really was that invested in her relationship with LeFroy, which it doesn't seem she was). Much of this could have been trimmed and perhaps some tighter, less anvil-like dialogue during the last portion of the film would have been a great improvement.

While it contains some lovely moments and is well acted by Hathaway — who has come a long way since her origins as a Disney princess — and a charming McAvoy, Becoming Jane is far from perfect. But though it's not the best Jane Austen tribute out there, it's really not all that blasphemous either. If you're not a devout Austen follower and you have a soft spot for period pieces, it's worth checking out.

Rating: B-

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Yeah Yeah Yeahs play NYC's Webster Hall, 8/7/07

There's no doubt about it. Karen O is most definitely a rock star. And her antics — and concert-goers' reactions — at Tuesday night's Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert are certainly proof of this fact.

Now it's true that Karen O's been doing her schtick — which involves bizarre dance routines and contortions, spouting water or beer out of her mouth in a manner reminiscent of a park fountain, and toying with her mic in what some might consider a fairly "inappropriate" manner — for quite some time. Even the bondage-inspired costume she wore at the Webster Hall show was remarkably similar to the one she wore at Lollapalooza. But that doesn't mean her shows have gotten any less thrilling for those (such as yours truly) attending.

If anything, Tuesday night's concert showed that the singer is more than willing to give her all to her audience. At most concerts I've attended, the frontman or frontwoman will only take a couple of brief obligatory seconds to walk out towards the audience and touch a fan's hand. Sometimes, they choose to take a few teasing steps without even trying their hand at actual human contact. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially considering the fact that there are bound to be some overenthusiastic types in concert settings. Nonetheless, this just doesn't seem to be Karen O's style.

In fact, she made it a point to get as close to her fans as possible, numerous times during multiple songs. Teetering dangerously close to the edge of the stage from time to time, she crouched in front of her adoring fans and held out her hands, grinning slowly as they clamored to get close to her.

And yet in the midst of all this rock star adoration and all her crazy antics, the music never suffered. For all Karen O's screaming and dancing, the vocals were spot-on and the singer was even able to switch in and out of her punk rock sensibilities to sing with vulnerable intensity during songs like "Maps" and "Turn Into." And while the other two Yeah Yeah Yeahs may seem a bit subdued next to their bandmate, Nick Zinner's guitar and Brian Chase's drums were also played with an equally intense energy that mimicked and even improved upon some of their studio recordings.

Those of us in the crowd were treated to samplings from each of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' EPs and LPs. And each song was greeted by roaring enthusiasm from the crowd (especially those of us getting jostled around in the pit). Capable of playing compelling music while creating a spectacle, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are pretty brilliant at what they do.

Setlist: Sealings, Untitled New Song, Honeybear, Rockers to Swallow, Phenomena, Cheated Hearts, Gold Lion, Pin, Kiss Kiss, Down Boy, Art Star, Maps, Turn Into, Date With the Night

Encore: Y-Control, Black Tongue, Our Time, Tick