Narwhal Party

New Terrence Mallick? Yes, Please.
01/24/2011, 5:38 pm
Filed under: Movies | Tags: ,

Seeing Black Swan is quite an experience, but one of the most striking moments of my night at the theater was being treated to the trailer for Tree Of Life (starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn), Terrence Mallick’s highly anticipated film that’s apparently been wrapped up for two years.

Of the people who consider themselves fans of Terrence Mallick, most of them would consider the writer/director some sort of genius. He made his name with Badlands and Days Of Heaven in the 70s, and then blew moviegoers away twenty years later with the WWII epic, The Thin Red Line (starring everybody, ever, and pulling in seven Academy Award nominations in 1998). And though The New World received mixed reviews, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.

Seeing the Tree Of Life trailer on YouTube is intriguing and piqued my interest, but seeing it in a theater emphasized what an auteur Mallick really is. All of his films rely more on meticulous cinematography and space and light and symbolism much more than dialogue or conventional storytelling, and require patience and focus (these aren’t the kind of movies to watch with your laptop open or in the background while you play drinking games). The theater setting enhanced the trailer significantly, and made the 50s period details, the enigmatic shots of space and deserts and churches and water, and the beautiful natural light all the more arresting.

And needless to say, with the growing trend of movies shot digitally (Michael Mann’s films, Aronofsky’s last two, Blue Valentine, etc.), it’s refreshing to see something that LOOKS so fantastic. This will definitely be one to see in the theater. I’d highly recommend revisiting (or visiting) Mallick’s previous films before this one comes out this summer.

For more info and a higher quality trailer (worth it), head to the film’s official site.

Favorite Things: Sam Lipsyte
12/31/2010, 10:01 am
Filed under: Books, Words | Tags: ,

Sam Lipsyte is another author I’m happy to have discovered this year, whose writing is also very funny and often ridiculous, therefore, shockingly real. His novel, The Ask, is fantastic, and easily one of the best books I read in 2010. His skill lies in the inclusion of achingly beautiful sentences and turns of phrase into profane and often silly situations.

The Ask is satirical and clever, but never mean or without heart (The UK cover is above–it’s much more attractive than its US counterpart…). A glimpse into what Lipsyte can do:

The privileged of our generation did what they could, like the rest of us. We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.

He also recently published a story in The New Yorker, which can be read online.
“The Dungeon Master”
is sort of, kind of about D&D and growing up.

Favorite Things: George Saunders
12/31/2010, 9:44 am
Filed under: Books, Words | Tags: , , , ,

One of my favorite endeavors of 2010 has been delving into the stories of George Saunders. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t find his work earlier, but this year I read his three collections, Pastoralia, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, and In Persuasion Nation (in that order). Most of his stories are build on some strange, vague premise, absurd and funny and often unsettling. But Saunders’ power lies in his ability to create these absurd circumstances and, just when you’re getting your footing, take a powerfully human turn that is usually packed with startlingly authentic emotion and power. Most of the time, these turns are shocking, especially when they are in stories about extreme reality shows, unnecessary inventions, strange theme parks, ghosts, and television commercials. Yet he draws so much humanity out of such ridiculous circumstances.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s blog, The Book Bench, Saunders touches on this skill of his:

If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.

Are people made of sugar? Is it raining? How often does a guy get cut in half on his birthday? Still, the story about the sugar-guy being cut in half on his birthday in the rain is not saying: this happens. It is saying, If this happened, what would that be like? Its subject becomes, say, undeserved misery—which does happen. We know that, we feel it. And maybe (the argument goes) it was necessary to make this exaggerated sugar-guy and cut him in half in order to remind ourselves, at sufficient volume, that undeserved misery exists—to sort of rarify and present that feeling so we might feel it anew.

Read the fantastic new story, “Escape From Spiderhead” from a recent New Yorker, here.

R.I.P. Dave Niehaus, 2010
12/30/2010, 4:08 pm
Filed under: Sports, Words | Tags: , ,

Dave Niehaus passed away in November, at the age of 75. He was the voice of the Seattle Mariners for all 34 years of the existence of the franchise.

Sometimes the most insipid proceedings are made extraordinary in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Dave Niehaus was the voice of the Mariners from the franchise’s first pitch. That voice will never be unraveled from the fabric of Seattle sports. Dave was the Mariners, Dave was baseball.

Here’s a nice montage of some of Dave’s most memorable calls:

And, of course, The Double:

For other Mariners milestone news from 2010, read my post on the retirement of Ken Griffey, Jr., here.

Favorite Albums, 2010

This list is mostly obvious, that’s fair. But it is what it is. These are the albums that I continued to come back to, continued to get excited about, continued to think about and still love. Hopefully I’m not parroting other reviews and lists. NOTE–this is a list, in no particular order, of my favorite albums of the year. I’m not suggesting these are the “best.” That would be silly.

Sufjan Stevens, Age Of Adz
Continuing his exploration of combining the sacred and the chaotic, beautiful and ugly, Stevens put out an album that is so uniquely his, it’s unmistakable. Yes, there are grating electronic noises, synthesizers, strings, choirs, horns, woodwinds, and everything else you’ve come to expect from a Sufjan album. But they are arranged in such unique, unexpected ways, that each song is full of thrilling moments. “Now That I’m Older” is haunting and gorgeous. The title track is truly epic and the melodic shift is subtle but powerful. Big sounds can be distracting but are critical to the fabric of these songs. Where some artists try to pile on extras and end up with a mess, Stevens’ songs are enhanced and built into something inimitable and breathtaking.


Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Their iconic debut was followed by a somewhat divisive record of dark, heavy, and often murky songs that seemed to lash out in broad strokes. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire proves that they really are the iconic band everyone hoped they were. The Suburbs mixes the internal and the external with confidence. Musically, it’s a much more subtle, controlled effort, with the bombast in check. The result is a long album that doesn’t feel overstuffed—they still channel Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and Talking Heads, but the focus is undeniable. “We Used To Wait” is sleek and steady, “Sprawl II” is a disco anthem, “The Suburbs” is jaunty with wilting strings, and “Modern Man” has a bar of 5/4 that tries to disrupt the groove but only enhances it. And “Half Light I” and “Half Light II” and “City With No Children” and the transition from “Month Of May” into “Wasted Hours.” Again, there’s a lot on the album, but I don’t think you could take any of it out without damaging the mammoth that they’ve built.

The Walkmen, Lisbon
The Walkmen are one of America’s most reliable bands. But when I read that they had scrapped an entire album’s worth of songs—ballads full of horns, like the best parts of their previous album—I was a bit nervous about what would come of it. Thankfully, they put together one of their most focused collections of songs yet. Where You & Me felt overfull and long, Lisbon keeps it brief. They make new strides in sound—they had said in interview that they were highly influenced by the Sun Records catalogue. And while it isn’t a classic country album, there are certainly obvious touchstones: shining, sustained back-up vocals (“Torch Song”), slap-back reverb on clean guitars (“Blue As Your Blood,” “All My Great Designs”). But on songs like “Angela Surf City” and “Victory,” they still retain the explosive immediacy that initially drew so much attention nearly a decade ago.

Beach House, Teen Dream
I can’t think of any other bands that have made such significant leaps while retaining their core, defining sound. It’s still a simple set up, but their Sub Pop debut significantly widens the sonic scope, resulting in their most dynamic album of their career—the haze is gone, and everything here is rich and clear. Each song on Teen Dream has significant hooks, riffs, and moments, but I’d have to say that “Norway,” “Walk In The Park,” and “Take Care” are its highest achievements. It’s cool and relaxed, but haunting and intensely memorable.

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
It took me a while to give LDC Soundsystem a fair shake. But when I gave “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” (from Sound Of Silver) a chance, I realized there was something powerfully human and insanely catchy lurking in each of James Murphy’s songs. This Is Happening boasts much more melody than previous LCD albums, and is more immediately accessible. The lyrics are funny and poignant (“We have a black president and you do not, so shut up,” “Love is like an astronaut—it comes back but it’s never the same” “Like kissing under a bridge, it’s an entirely new discovery” “All I want is your pity. All I want is your bitter tears” “Like a book of your bad poetry, and this is coming from me” “You wanted the time, but maybe I can’t do time—we all know that’s an awful line, but it doesn’t make it wrong” etc. etc. etc.). Songs like “I Can Change” and “All I Want” are honest and candid, and “You Wanted A Hit” and “Pow Pow” rely on drawn out grooves. “Home” has to be LCD Soundsystem’s approximation of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.” Which is important to note, because while Murphy and co. often utilize the sounds of influences (the guitar on “All I Want” is overtly similar to that of Bowie’s “Heroes”), he creates something significantly modern and current and thoroughly loveable.

The Morning Benders, Big Echo
Aptly titled. This album sounds fantastic. Like a sunnier, more romantic Grizzly Bear, or a more plaintive Shins. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor shared production duties on the album, so there is cavernous reverb, each instrument is given precise space, etc. But most significantly, the songs are memorable. “Excuses” is sweeping and lush, “Cold War” is a brief, bouncing pop song, and the ballads build and swell with wide-eyed sincerity.

The National, High Violet
On the surface, The National is exploding less. Weirding out less. But High Violet is their biggest sounding album yet. The lyrics are still fantastic, dealing mostly with domesticity, fear, and longing, and the music is significantly darker than their last album. At times, it blows up, but in other spots, they show a disciplined restraint (the drums on “Runaway”). The big moment is the propulsive “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” but “Lemonworld” has to be one of the best songs of their career.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The magic here is that Kanye is firing on all cylinders: conceptually, lyrically, musically, etc. The sounds are thrilling (the synthetic marching band on “All Of The Lights,” the stark simplicity of “Runaway,” the classic ‘Ye soul beat on “Devil In A New Dress,” and the immense size of “Power”), and there are quotable lines in every song. It’s always a thrill to see the way he owns up to his shortcomings with an enigmatic blend of arrogance and humility. It’s embarrassing. It’s strange. It’s a blast.

Wolf Parade, Expo 86
How can a band this good be so underrated? It’s probably due to the spark of their first album and the fact that the two that have followed are different—not necessarily worse, but different. Regardless, Expo 86 is without a doubt one of the years best rock albums. Krug and Boeckner are finding new ways to intertwine absolutely gigantic riffs, cryptic lyrics, and stadium-sized choruses. Dante DeCaro seems to have taken a bigger role with his auxiliary guitar and keyboard work, allowing for an even bigger “wall of counterpoint,” as Boeckner described it to Pitchfork back in April. I can’t think of a better way to describe their sound at this point. If you haven’t given this record a fair shake, or it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and spend some time with it. “In The Direction Of The Moon” is a force and “Pobody’s Nerfect” is Boeckner at his absolute biggest, while “Little Golden Age” and “Yulia” are up there with his most triumphant moments. And the driving disco-punk of “Ghost Pressure” and “What Did My Lover Say?” puts the songs up with the band’s best.

Twin Shadow, Forget
This album grew immensely over time. At first, it felt like another 80s throwback, but over time, the precise production and remarkable melodies proved George Lewis, Jr. as a legitimate songwriter. Forget, along with The Morning Benders’ Big Echo, was produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. It shows in the crispness and precision of each instrument. Most songwriters operating in the one-man-band format would probably continue to add more layers of synthesizers and guitars, but Forget works on a deliberately limited palate, drawing comparisons to Depeche Mode, New Order, and (particularly in the vocal delivery) Morrissey (synth piano, organ, flute, guitars with chorus effect, dry, punchy bass guitar). “Slow” is the closest thing to a rock song, with strummed guitars and strained vocals in the chorus, but most of the songs take a relaxed new wave or slow disco approach. Lewis’ songwriting skills are most apparent in his arrangements—his patience on opener, “Tyrant Destroyed,” or the way “At My Heels” begins with such a driving beat, but it’s clear by the chorus that the easy move would have been to make the song a half-time power ballad, but the result is the record’s most propulsive moment. This was my least expected album to fall in love with this year, but I can’t seem to leave it be.

Honorable mentions:
Damien Jurado, Saint Bartlett
Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
Foals, Total Life Forever
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Caribou, Swim
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor

09/26/2010, 9:07 am
Filed under: Words | Tags: , ,

Oh, for the love of RadioLab. If you haven’t subscribed to (and gone back to listen to every previous episode of) the RadioLab podcast, I pity you. There, I said it. If you are unfamiliar, RadioLab takes relatively scientific topics, dissects them, and scrutinizes them from all angles. There is fantastic audio post-production and an accessible story-minded approach (like a Discovery Channel This American Life). Check out for downloads, additional stories, and some accompanying videos. Here is the companion video for the episode, “Words.”

Updike on Williams
09/26/2010, 8:46 am
Filed under: Books, Sports | Tags: , ,

The New York Times has a nice write up on John Updike’s fantastic Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu–his 64-page essay on the final game of Ted Williams. It’s a fast, easy read and includes and essay on the essay, which is heralded for changing the face of sports writing as we know it. From the NYT article:

It’s not too much to say that “Hub Fans” changed sportswriting. Affectionately mocking the tradition of sports clichés (as in the title, which didn’t actually appear in any of Boston’s seven dailies at the time, but easily could have), the essay demonstrated that you could write about baseball, of all things, in a way that was personal, intelligent, even lyrical. Updike compares Williams to Achilles, to a Calder mobile, to Donatello’s David, standing on third base as if the bag were the head of Goliath.


What beckoned was the heroic example of Williams. He wrote: “For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.” And reading “Hub Fans,” you even sense at times a hint of self-identification. Williams and Updike were physically alike. They were tall and slender, with exceptional eyesight. (This was literally so for Williams, and metaphorically true for Updike, who, as the essay demonstrates, was an uncanny observer.)

Read the full article here, and buy the book at a real-live book store, if you’d like. Highly recommended.