Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

10. DeVotchKa : A Mad and Faithful Retelling

Folksy, punky, and full of Slavic, Iberian, and Balkan influences, DeVotchKa's fifth album is as spectacular as the last. One song can jump from Spanish influences, the next can be an entirely instrumental Ukrainian ballad. Amazing that it's only a quartet, as opposed to Beirut's similarly themed 7+ person ensemble. The top track is of course their polished Head Honcho, while Comrade Z adds a certain playfulness. Undone and Strizzalo are romantic and accordion-heavy, evoking provincial France and Italy. Definitely a perfect travelling album.

9. Ratatat: LP3

I can't me more enthusiastic about this album, and the only reason it is no.9 as opposed to 3 or 2 is because of its slight inaccessibility (no lyrics and slightly ADD). Regardless, every song is powerful and has a particular spirit of its own. One is Indian influenced, another Japanese, a third electric-guitar heavy, a fourth drums. The compilation is brilliant, the "hits" spread out evenly rather than lumped into the beginning like with many well-established bands (this is, alas, the fate of the Raconteurs). And as I've said before, Ratatat are best appreciated live, as loud and vibration-heavy as humanly possible. Top tracks: Schiller, Mi Viejo, Mirando, Shempi, Mumtaz Khan.

8. Flogging Molly: Float

You can't go wrong with Celtic Punk! Float succeeds by floating (PUN!) on the strength of two incredible tracks: Paddy's Lament and Float. Which is of course not to say that other songs aren't fantastic as well: Requiem for a Dying Song, Lightning Storm, and Punch Drunk Grinning Soul are just a few of the amazing tracks in this album. If Flogging Molly learned anything from their long career, you can't beat long ballads about Irish nationalism, anti-government sentiments, general melancholy, and of course getting drunk drunk drunk. A toast to fiddles and electric guitars!

7. The Black Keys: Attack and Release
Guitar heavy and formed of only two members, the Black Keys sound like a divine indie rock combo of Jack White and Led Zeppelin. Perfectly packaged, Attack and Release-- their fifth album-- got intense radio play and is undoubtedly one of the best albums of their career. Strange Times and I Got Mine are powerful hits. Other great songs include Same Old Thing and He Won't Break. Attack and Release is the ideal chilling out-music, a type of blues-for-beginners for the indie rock world. Plus, it was produced by Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame). Cool? Most definitely.

6. Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

Hold your criticism, folks: Coldplay came out with a fantastic album! No, I'm not kidding! And the songs don't sound exactly the same for once (the cruel fate of the poorly viewed X & Y)! Before you commence with the scoffing, think about this: Rolling Stone recently wrote that Viva La Vida was the first Coldplay produced by Brian Eno, who proceeded by telling Chris Martin that his songs are monotonous, simple, and conform to the same basic hit-making structure. Thus, Coldplay added bells, violins, more complex melodies, and more profound (and thus less gay) lyrics. And thus Brian Eno has saved another band! Viva la Vida is a veritable wonder. My favorites are the haunting Cemeteries of London, and of course major radio hits Viva la Vida and Violet Hill. And yet every song on this album is unimitatable and just grand; just give Lost, 42, or Strawberry Swing a listen. Plus, I saw Coldplay play this live, and it is just plain magical.

5. The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely

Jack White's 2nd band the Raconteurs have yet another album under their belt, and quite a good one at that. A 2nd album, but no sophomoric attempt. Many think Consolers of the Lonely is even better than the first, Broken Boy Soldiers. The Raconteurs are also no longer hidden under the irresistible aura of Jack White; in concert, White shares the spotlight with his bandmates, and especially Brendon Benson, with whom he originally formed the band. Best hits: the catchy Consoler of the Lonely, Salute Your Solution, and especially the epic The Switch and the Spur. Somewhat Western-influenced, and filled with the sound of trumpets and tambourines, there's nothing better to compliment a hot summer day. Or a blustery Chicago winter, for that matter.

4. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

A debut album at number 4? Get outta town! And no, I'm not putting Vampire Weekend up here just because I go to Columbia, although it often seems as if Vampire Weekend is just one enormous reference to college life. Just look at the lyrics to the song Campus and you'll see what I mean. Point of the matter is, Vampire Weekend is undoubtedly one of the most original bands to surface in the ubiquitous land of indie pop in years. And the arrangement of the tracks is quite perfect for a stroll around NYC. Even the song M79 is named after the NY bus. The only problem (or perhaps it isn't a problem but a solution?) with Vampire Weekend is its lack of enormous hits; all songs are catchy, from the sweet Oxford Comma to drum-heavy I Stand Corrected. A very cute and very simple album, but there's nothing wrong with being cute in the world of indie pop.

3. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular

Another debut! Nobody-- and I mean nobody-- can possibly say that MGMT isn't one of the most exciting new acts of the year. Time to Pretend was an enormous hit, but I actually prefer electronica-heavy Kids and Electric Feel. The lyrics to The Youth say it all: This is a call of arms to live and love and sleep together/We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever/Lock the parents out, cut a rug, twist and shout. MGMT is very conscious of its status in modern hipsterdom, and seems at times a manifesto of modern youth. Of course, this might all be over-analysis, and in that case MGMT's (previously named The Management) Oracular Spectacular is fun, danceable, and totally idiosyncratic... and totally weird. But hey, nothing wrong with being weird.

2. TV on the Radio: Dear Science

This fourth album by TV on the Radio was named the year's best by Spin Magazine, and the only reason I don't put it at #1 is my current obsession with the Fleet Foxes. In any case, Dear Science has some of my favorite tracks of the year, and a gorgeous and highly sentimental compilation. Favorites include Halfway Home, Family Tree, and Love Dog (although I don't quite understand Rolling Stone Magazine's obsession with the bizarre song Golden Age-- they ranked it as one of the best songs of the year!). In my opinion, this is one of the most romantic of all TV on the Radio albums. Especially Love Dog, with its melancholic and adorable lyrics.

1. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

I LOVE THIS ALBUM. Yes, it is a debut, but it is brilliant. Listening to the Fleet Foxes is akin to running through the woods in autumn, something like Henry David Thoreau mated with a Grimm's Fairy Tale. Just look at the cover art-- a Bruegel illustrating children's games. For a debut, it is definitely refined, and extremely lyrical. Your Protector is my favorite track-- haunting and full of longing and desire. Ragged Wood is remarkably upbeat for its somewhat bizzare and enigmatic lyrics, while White Winter Hymnal is just spectacular. The music video shows a claymation of three bearded men spinning the Wheel of Time. Can this band be any more poetic? I advise any indie devotee to buy/download this album pronto, and spend an evening sipping tea and daydreaming about summer and love.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top 10 Songs of 2008

10. The Hush Sound: Medicine Man

Chicago-based catchy indie pop band the Hush Sound have come a long way: Greta Salpeter's soulful and polished voice soars, and Bob Morris's guitar explodes at just the right moments. But really it's the drums that make this track so head-boppingly good, a tempo worthy of the Black Keys or the White Stripes in their best moments (no cracks about Meg White, please).

9. The Republic Tigers: Buildings and Mountains

Somewhat melancholy, somewhat sweet, this title track from the Republic Tigers's debut album glides along effortlessly. It didn't get much radio play, but is slowly becoming more well-known via iTunes, and for good reason. Its sweetly sad lyrics and acoustic twang make it perfect for a solitary drive, or whenever a mellowing-out is in order.

8. Portishead: Machine Gun

Trip-hop is back! Yes, even after the '90s. Darker and somewhat more sinister, Machine Gun is what happens when discotheque music becomes a poetry of its own. Overwhelmingly powerful, especially combined with the passionate sincerity of Beth Gibbons's soprano (the youtube video does not do it justice). Download Portishead's "Third"! Now!

7. Sigur Ros: Gobbledigook

Icelandic post-rock gets playful! And nude. This title track from Sigur Ros's latest album sounds like Animal Collective running through a fjord of sheer sincerity. Simply adorable, simply... simple, and in the best way possible. And yes, there are naked people in the video, just deal.

6. Fleet Foxes: Your Protector

Fleet Foxes are arguably the best new band to come into the scene of 2008. This song in particular is a chilling and expressive anthem of love, depression, and devotion. It isn't one of the title tracks, but it's perfectly magical, and my personal favorite. Imagine running through the northwesterly woods, a copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the palm of your hand. "As you lay to die beside me, baby, on the morning that you came..."

5. Weezer: Pork & Beans

What Best of '08 list can be complete without this veritable radio phenomenon? However mediocre the Red Album was, Pork & Beans is Weezer at their most genuine and most hilarious, even after Rivers Cuomo's bizarre and unprecidented turn towards acetic buddhism. But hey, anyone with a youtube video that ingenious is OK by me. They even have Charlie the Unicorn in there! And the dude from Shoes. Of course.

4. Vampire Weekend: Mansard Roof

Freshly graduated Ivy Leaguers with post-colonialist tendencies play guitars and keyboards! Mansard Roof, the title track of their self-titled debut album, is a delicious nugget of Cape Cod preppiness and nerdy sincerity, marked by hints of Congolese pop music. Disclaimer: can only be appreciated by slightly indie college kids who like to bask in sunshine and discuss literary theory. 99% of their hardcore fan base are probably or have once been ivy league hipsters.

3. Death Cab for Cutie: I Will Posess Your Heart

This over 8-minute long anthem was shortened quite a bit for radio play, but is still fantastic. Death Cab have become much more developed and are thus (hopefully) never lumped into the same category as Fall Out Boy anymore (anyone who believes otherwise shall soon be pummelled into submission). Even Spin Magazine named Narrow Stairs as one of the best albums of the year. At first listen the intro is a bit overwhelming, but the almost painfully slow build-up only enhances the sweet and obsessive quality of the lyrics.

2. MIA: Paper Planes

A political manifesto sung by a daughter of a Sri Lankan revolutionary leader, hidden in the context of what is undoubtedly the best dance/hip hop song of the year? Count me in! Sampling the Clash's "Straight to Hell," politico MIA has created the anthem of every club and dorm party for the next 10 years. Caution: song may elicit bizarre reactions like finger gun pointing and ka-ching noises. Consider yourself warned.

1. MGMT: Kids

Ah, MGMT, lovechild of hipster apathy and electronic goodness. It is absolutely impossible to resist "Kids," one of the biggest college radio hits of 2008. Ambiguous and bizarre lyrics, but one damn good beat. "Kids" is one enormous bubble of happiness, and it only gets better with each succeeding listen. Hands in the air, kids! This is one amazing track. Beware, may induce awkward dancing and/or head-pobbing in subway stations: play on iPod with caution.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Musee d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne

It isn't often you encounter a suburban museum with a substantial art collection, especially one positioned in the banlieues of Paris. In America, suburbs (french: banlieues, or faubourgs) are known for being the "white flight" centers for their impoverished city counterparts. In Paris, however, the "banlieues" are famous for being in fact the poorest areas in and surrounding Paris, particuliarly the banlieues of the west side. (Remember that one short film in Paris, Je t'aime where the guy gets stabbed? Yep, close to the "bad" banlieues).

[for another oh-so-politically incorrect view of the banlieues, check out Justice's extraordinarily controversial video for Stress]

It is thus even more impressive for a substantial art museum in the suburbs (the suburb of Val-de-Marne, to be exact) to rival the Palais de Tokyo and several other contemporary art museums in Paris. It is no Centre Pompidou, of course, but I was quite charmed by it. The layout of exhibits was incredible; the current temporary exhibit of Nathalie Talec was eerie and exhilirating, completely transforming, for me at least, the idea of what an art exhibit could entail for its viewer. To go into the exhibit, you walk into an enormous dark room and see four long walls, connected in a rhombus-type shape and made out of silver and gold material. You walk inside the walls and see eight miniature rooms set up, each demonstrating various artworks by Talec of many different media. I remember one room with photographs, another with drawings inside of a book, and a third with a video and sculptures. The theme was "artist as explorer," and the entire room was made to produce an imaginary voyage to the north pole, something I believe the artist accomplished remarkably well. I was suddenly compelled to fill an entire room with knickknacks and make a pretentious artistic "journey" of my own.

Another incredible element of this museum is its portrayal of a single theme throughout, similarly to the Palais de Tokyo I talked about in a few blog entries back. The theme this particular season was the "voyage," a leaving and returning to home. I was touched, a bonafide "exploratrice" myself. It was a bizarre experience: I became overwhelmed by a type of melancholy only truly good art can produce, a melancholy that related so well to my state of mind as an international traveller. When one talks about voyage, one talks about adventure and excitement, but more often than not, one talks about solitude, depression, and a returning home. All of the contemporary art in the musee du Val-de-Marne contributed to this strange sentiment of traveller's melancholy.

My professor was interested in this analysis, but somehow didn't feel the same thing. "Perhaps," she said, "I've listened to the audioguides too much." And in fact the audioguides are quite the hilarious distraction: in order to draw the "uneducated" suburban crowd to this random-as-heck contemporary art museum, they have given out audioguides that, instead of simply describing the artwork, present a funny little skit. One person in the skit, a man, is an uneducated boor who hates modern/contemporary art ("what anoooother video? Ugh!" "What is this piece of wood? I don't understand it at all!" "I could never imagine this in our living room, what a travesty!"), and another is his more educated and suave art historical-buff girlfriend, who is the one actually describing the artwork to the viewer. Cute, yes, but also incredibly distracting.

Overall I was quite charmed by the museum, which seems so plain and unassuming from its industrial/contemporary exterior:

Frankly I am incredibly impressed that the regional government of Val-de-Marne has actually produced a successful contemporary art museum (as opposed to a mini-Louvre). Most people begin their art historical knowledge with Monet or Van Gogh, rather than contemporary art. In the States at the very least, contemporary art has a tendency of being reserved for the upper "educated" classes, the New Yorkaise bourgeois academia we all know and love. But in the museum (free for students! Vive la France!), children run free and actually seem to enjoy the exhibits! If anything, the country of France disproves the oft-said socialist assumption that art, especially contemporary art, is a bourgeois and relatively useless activity. France proves that contemporary art can, if done correctly, be infused with the essential cultural upbringing of each country's citizens, like the kids of the Val-de-Marne banlieue.

If anything, Val-de-Marne gives this artist-in-the-making a vague hope that art can one day supercede the boundaries of Chelsea (in NY) or the Gold Coast (in Chicago) and present itself, sans capitalist tendencies, to be loved and admired by the citizens of the state. My personal hypothesis is similar to Marx's: art can be used to mold the proletariat. And yet it is also different: art can be used to bring the common citizen to a greater understanding of his or her humanity (via a sort of Stendhal's Syndrome), and to infuse the citizen with a greater appreciation and sense of connection with the human experience at large.

...Or, of course, I may be giving France too much credit. As I usually do.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Daily Dose of Beauty

Just a few inspirational things currently getting me through finals week:

THIS VIDEO of "White Winter Hymnal" by the Fleet Foxes.
Extraordinarily poetic. Makes me want to run through the woods in my boots and flannel.

Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1960).

Some art from WoosterCollective

My old printmaking teacher Dasha Shishkin's stuff, especially this drawing/print:

I've missed making art.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Deal with Blagojevich

Dec. 17, 2008: A federal grand jury charges former Governor Ryan with corruption, alleging that over more than a decade in public office, he granted lucrative state contracts and leases to old friends in exchange for gifts, cash and luxury vacations for himself and his family, and with covering the deals up when quesioned by the authorities... (NYT)

It seems that Illinois can never get beyond its reputation. Of course, this is not to say it isn't true; just think of the Daley's! Indeed, Chicago is the city where dead people vote and people are angrier at the non-plowing of side-streets than a 10.25 income tax (not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.) But after the events of this week, Chicago has been greeted with a veritable slap in the face. Here we are, simply overjoyed by Obamarama (One quote in the New York Times today: "This is Presidential City, dude"), and our governor-- the first democrat to grace the gubernatorial seat in over three decades-- goes and does one of the most idiotic (and least subtle) acts of political corruption in the history of the state.

As a measure of the pride in this city’s connection to Mr. Obama, The Chicago Sun-Times printed extras of its Nov. 5 issue, the one whose front page declared, “Mr. President.” Oprah Winfrey, who broadcasts from here, waved a copy on her television show. In contrast, the front page of Wednesday’s Sun-Times carried the word “Shame.” (NYT)

When I tell Parisians that I'm from Chicago, two things immediately come to the mind: "OBAMA!" has been predominant since mid-October, but before then it was: "Al Capone, eh? Bang! Bang!" followed by appropriate gesticulation. It also doesn't help that the New York Times, in one allegedly objective article, described all Illinois voters corrupt and greedy by nature:

Ms. Smith, the nurse, said she was a “glass-is-half-full girl,” determined that politics would improve, even in Illinois. Besides that, she said, she hoped it was going to be helpful to have a local man as president.
Then she spoke like an Illinois voter.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t forget about Illinois when he’s in the White House,” she said. “Think of all the perks.”

Are Illinois residents really like this? Is the New York Times just being fascitious? Can it be true that after 14 years of Chicago residency that I let the midwestern goodwill cover up what is avaricious and rotten at its core? I think not! Corruption in politics does not equate personal moral corruption of the populace, thankyouverymuch.

Regardless, many facets of this whole debacle just don't seem real to me. Doubtlessly they are, but blatantly saying "I need to make money" over the telephone, while conscious of being under numerous federal investigations, is nothing less than... well, sheer stupidity.

(stolen from Nora's site)

There you have it. Illinois went from being the center of the world on election night to the laughing stock of the USA, and all in one month's time!

Perhaps the most depressing thing about all of this is the fact that Blagojevich was elected in the spirit of "change" and "reform" (ring a bell, anyone?), and yet ended up as corrupt as the rest, and in fact far less clever about it (at least George Ryan had the common decency to be subtle and conniving).

What can I say, Obama? You've got quite a home-state to fix, if such a thing is even possible (and Illinois residents are definitely known for their cynicism).,0,6937546.cartoon

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Palais de Tokyo

What is street art? What is contemporary art? In my opinion, street art is a subdivision of contemporary art, whether or not it is commissioned, whether or not the artist is trained, whether or not it is legal. Graffiti is temporal contemporary art, however rarely we see it in museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for example, has to my recollection never housed a street art exhibit; those you find on the south-side, hidden in warehouses. I remember going to one in high school, a hipster haven complete with noise rock and an impromptu fashion show.

It is perhaps in street art that the gap is bridged between the punk and the hipster, between the world of consumerist productivity and anti-establishment tendencies. This is where Paris's Palais de Tokyo comes in, quite possibly the most fascinating museum in Paris and certainly one of the most unique museums I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The Palais de Tokyo is Paris's contemporary art museum, and yet are not presented with a capitalist market the way you would in, say, MoMA, or the New Museum, or even the MCA. The most fascinating thing about it is its centralization around a theme, rather than an artist in particular. In fact, many times the artist isn't listed. The theme was "folklore," although what I perceived was less folklore and more revolution (in fact, the website titles it "from one revolution to another"). It treated the "folk" of four countries: the US, the UK, France, and Russia. What is meant by "folk" is often misconstrued, but in general, "folk" refers to the lower classes, and the traditions surrounding them. Folk is community, and folk is kitsch.

Folk, however, is also anger and rebellion. So we are presented with the Russian Revolution and its avant-garde, thriving from 1917-1930. We are presented with Rock and Roll in France. We are presented with the punk and glam rock movements in the UK (the Sex Pistols and David Bowie, respectively). We are presented with multiple communities in which the working classes attempted an art devoid of consumerism, an art simply for the act of creation. One of the most moving pieces was a series of photographs of things the artist "happened upon" in the UK-- a poem abandoned on the street, a letter written in chalk on the sidewalk, graffiti. And it is here where street art comes into play: the ultimate working class expression of the desire to create.

I discovered a few years ago, and was hooked. Since then I've been constantly on the look-out for beautiful street art. One of my favorites in Paris was by "Miss Tic," a graffiti artist who uses stencils of sexually appealing brunettes paired with enigmatic philosophical, cultural, or just plain cool statements: "Je suis la voyelle du mot voyou," "Je prête a rire mais je donne à penser," "Idéaliste devenez idéal,"et cetera (translations: I am the vowel of the word punk, I am ready to laugh but I am given to thought, idealist become ideal).

The effect of seeing street art in a contemporary art museum (not the street art itself, but depictions of it and artworks that relate to working class ideology) was overpowering, and magnificent. Somehow I felt that the rest of my Paris Museums class was less than inspired. I, on the other hand, was ready to grab a can of spray paint, buy a leather jacket, and go out into the world. Even the architecture of the museum enhances the "folk," as they call it, or the polemic inherent in the museum. Here's a photo I found online of the ceiling:

It immediately brought to mind the street art show on the South Side, complete with warehouse brick. See how the ceiling, purposely left bare, purposely left with wires hanging in a haphazard manner, immediately brings to mind all things urban, and how the very walls mimic the look of cement?

Magnificent show. I wish it was permanent.

More details at the Palais de Tokyo website

Monday, November 24, 2008


Imagine a band without lyrics
Imagine also that this band has only 2 members, both of whom play guitar, bass, and drums, and often all 3 in a single song
Imagine that this band pre-records samples and rocks out on stage with all three instruments, plus sampling

This is Ratatat, who put on quite possibly/probably/definitely the best concert that I have ever seen.

Set started at around 9 PM at the Nouveau Casino in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris. The venue was small: perfect for Ratatat, and the sound: extraordinary. There was also quite a bit of the laser show, complete with fog machines and flashing lights. Not that they needed it, really... the sound was so magnificent that I would have been content with blindness. What an experience!

How could I possibly even describe Ratatat? Electronica? Indie? But that is only what Windows Media Player tells me. Mike Stroud and Evan Mast (the 2 members) are quite possibly the coolest Brooklynites to hit the music scene in years. Ratatat has had three full albums (Ratatat, Classics, and LP3) and 2 remix albums released: perfect for a full-length concert. Over the years Ratatat have progressed from being simply a cool electronic band with guitars and synthesizers to a more well-rounded and complex sound; their latest (LP3) includes instruments most of you (and I) haven't even heard of, giving it an "international" feel with track titles like "Mumtaz Khan," "Shempi," and "Mi Viejo." Unsurprisingly, "Mumatz" has a Southeast Asian tone, "Shempi" a Japanese one, and "Mi Viejo" a drum-based Latin American vibe. They're three of the best songs on the album, and of course Ratatat played all three. In fact, Ratatat played every single song I wanted to hear-- all 10 of them, and more.

The line-up? Incredible. They began with "Shiller", the shrill, hypnotic first track of LP3, their most recent album.

See for yourself

(no music video, but the song is fantastic, especially 2:25 onwards)

2nd song, predictably low key: new song "Flynn." BUT: 3rd was "Germany to Germany," their pounding and highly emotional single from their debut album. I tried to take a video of them playing it but I kid you not the guitar notes were too high for my camera to record. Thus the video is literally missing the sweetest notes they hit.

BUT! Imagine THIS, live

[side note: that is the coolest music video I have ever seen]

[Yes, it looks like I'm using way too much hyperbole for my own good, but I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Ratatat are live. ]

They played "Mi Viejo" directly after "Mumtaz Khan," which worked surprisingly well, and finished off the 1 1/2-hour long set with "Seventeen Years," undoubtedly their most famous song, which begins with an infamous sample of a man saying: "I 'been rapping for about 17 years, ok; i just don't write my stuff anymore, I just take it from my head, you know what I'm sayin'? I can do that- no disrespect, but that's how I am." Incredible track.

Encores? A remix, plus "Shempi", their latest catchy head-bopping single.

As performers, Ratatat beat the largely uninteresting indie gendre by unfathomable degrees. The long-haired guitarist pulled many a Jimmy Page, hair falling over his face. Extremely passionate performers. At one point both members were pounding on the drums, and we in the audience were surprised: 1. that the drumsticks didn't break, and 2. that the drums themselves didn't fall apart completely. Blue Man Group-style pounding, that. My friend Nate and I were blown away.

And, of course, pictures, for all to enjoy (and yes, I was indeed that close):

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Vampire Weekend at La Cigale

At the gorgeous La Cigale theatre in Paris, wedged between the luxurious 9th (Opera quarter) and the bohemian 18th (Montmarte), 4 nerdy ex-Columbia University students rocked out to a crowd of frenchies, for once enthusiastic, for once open and vibrant.

Vampire Weekend released their first album earlier this year, and slowly the buzz grew and grew until they were featured on Saturday Night Live. Bouncy and almost hypnotically cute, using elements of traditional African music, Vampire Weekend is potentially the complete opposite of Emo. Vampire Weekend might just be the first band without a single song about being heartbroken, or, in fact, a single song that doesn't sound like the musical representation of a warm Spring afternoon. When listening to "Campus," you can't help but picture the four band members laying on the grass in the quad, playing the occassional game of frisbee, lead singer Ezra Koenig whistling a tune while doing his Lit Hum homework. They are the epitome of indie without being at all ironic. There was not an oversized pair of sunglasses or a pair of skinny pants to be found: they're more preppy than scenester.

I was lucky enough to score a ticket to tonight's concert in Paris, the last date of their first ever tour. There was a sense of gratitute in everything the band members did, a sheepishness to everything, as if they couldn't really grasp how famous they were after releasing only one album. They played a short set, which was understandable given the short length of each of their songs, averaging about 3 minutes each. They tried to lengthen the time the best they could, including 2 new songs and a cover, but it was quite evident how simply new they were at all this. The relatively quick and clean show might have been just a bit too quick and a bit too clean-- a definitve drawback.

Vampire Weekend, if given the opportunity to strengthen their sound, release a few LPs, and jump back into the world of experimental indie rock, would definitely improve their showmanship. They need two things: more material, and more spontaneity. Lack of songs regardless (they played every single track off of their debut "Vampire Weekend"), they put a heck of a show. Ezra Koenig was particularly adorable, juxtaposing (very) broken French and American English. My favorite part of the show was actually this quote, by Ezra himself, halfway through the show:

"C'est la deuxieme partie de notre concert. C'est plus energique... et plus... uh, plus... shvitzing."

(It's the second part of our concert. It's more energetic, and more... shvitzing.)

[Oh Ezra, you are so wonderfully New Yorkaise. For the non-Jews, he means sweating, moving around, bouge-ing, if you will.]

Vampire Weekend's sound is so particularly idiosyncratic that it makes distinguishing the "hits" from the rest nearly impossible. When I first listened to the album-- from my point of view, expertly compiled-- I had a few favorite songs, but nothing screamed "HIT". This is not to say that the sound lacks some kind of catchy-ness; au contraire: each song is too catchy to be followed by the next, equally catchy, one. It's a dilemma of wonderous proportions! My favorites pre-concert were: "Mansard Roof," "Campus," and "Oxford Comma." Now, after seeing them live, it's more difficult to tell. Every band's sound is always shifted when live. Vampire Weekend are not the loudest band, but when live, their drums (Chris Tomson) dominate.

"This is a song... about a bus," Ezra would say before beginning a pounding, electrically thrilling version of M79. Thinking about New York City buses made me warm and fuzzy, and the entire concert I was waiting for a pause to yell "GO COLUMBIAAAAA" but couldn't work up the courage. Another hidden wonder was "I Stand Corrected," amplified what seemed like hundreds of times by the soaring crescendo of drums and Ezra's singing in the first minute.

Amazing venue, amazing show, if cut too short by sheer inexperience. I can't wait to see what Vampire Weekend have up their adorably indie sleeve for 2009.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reflections on Obamarama

On the morning of November 4th, all the newspapers in Paris, from Le Figaro to Le Metro to Le Monde, said one thing: TOUT LE MONDE REGARDE L'AMERIQUE: Everyone watches America. Obama shirts flooded the metro; a stagnant tension fell upon the city. I cannot imagine how it must have been in the states, when even four thousand miles away from New York, a city held its breath.

We in Paris fell into the glorious kitsch that is Obama, throwing ourselves at the feet of his legacy. We sobbed together, cheered watching the television in a bar until 5:15 in the morning, when the streets near the Opera erupted, as if ablaze, with sheer happiness. Flags waved, we hugged people we had never seen before, and, for the first time in far too long--perhaps since September 11th-- that I was proud, yes, proud, to call myself a citizen of the United States of America.

And it is time t think about what this means for us, for the country, and for the world. Tout le monde regarde l'Amerique: this title alone speaks volumes about the almost mythological aura surrounding the Obama campaign. That Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, African-American, 47-years old, graduate of my very own Columbia University, has the power to inspire nations across the Atlantic, to bring the highest voter turnout since 1908 (about 65%--astonishing), to bring a roaring crowd at my very own Grant Park in my very own city of Chicago to tears-- yes, tears--and to become president against all odds: this is a historic moment.

And we must look upon it as such, because this might very well be the defining moment of a generation. To borrow a quote from a MGMT lyric, "the youth is starting to change." We are no longer the apathetic isolated individuals of the '80s and '90s; we are no longer the scathingly bitter, ironic and snide youth of even these past 8 years. We have become inspired.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

We must consider, then, what it means to have Barack Obama as our President Elect. Obama has become less a man than a symbol, and for this very reason the 2008 presidential election was as important as it was. This is why the Vespas of Paris have Obama stickers, why even Parisians celebrated 'til dawn, when the results were announced, why journalists flooded the streets, without knowing Obama's foreign policies or the history of his political career. Obama is a symbol of, well, change, however hackneyed the phrase may be. I have seen a few of my friends (thankfully, only a few) turn questioning, apathetic, dubious. And it is for the few like them that I write this, for them to hopefully see that regardless of the kitsch (and there is a lot of kitsch), and the shouting, and the madness, there is a magic here.

At the same time, Obama is a landmark for other reasons, change regardless: he is, by all definitions of the world, a public intellectual. By being the President Elect, he has broken the boundaries separating a world that, since Reagan and especially since Eisenhower, been divided between "the people" and "the intellectuals," the "big-shots" and the "Joe Shmos." That is to say, we elected Obama regardless of his so-called "elitism," something Columbia University has found itself repeatedly attacked for by Bill O'Reilly. The United States is no longer a symbol of obesity and stupidity, of gun-toting cowboys and a fear-based society. We have evolved. We are still obese, but we have, for the first time in a while, made the right decision.

Coincidentally, and somewhat unrelatedly, Obama's success means wonders for the city of Chicago. I have lived in Chicago (Chicago proper, Chicago-the-city-not-the-suburbs, Chicago Uptown, North Side, 7 minute drive from the Loop, child of the CPS), since I was 4. Never in my life has Chicago been more in the spotlight. To see the Grant Park where I ate Rainbow Cones at the Taste, ran around the fountain, sketched and painted, moshed to Gogol Bordello at Lollapalooza--to see it illuminated on a screen in a bar in the 9th arrondissement of Paris-- that in and of itself nearly brought me to tears. Chicago is Obama's city. He taught at the University of Chicago, he *was* our senator. Even when he was just elected senator, there were virtually parades in the streets. Chicago is glowing, and it's not just the electricity. And here we also have the possibility of the Olympics arriving in our hometown in 2016 (we're crossing our fingers until October 2009!), a possibility perhaps augmented by this marvelous election.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. "

338 Electoral Votes. A lead of 7 million popular votes. Florida. Virginia. Michigan. New Mexico. One intellectual, charismatic, and inspirational President Elect.

Yes, America, we can, and we did. From the bottom of this bleeding-heart liberal's secular humanistic soul, I thank you. I have never been happier.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

As a disclaimer, I was warned by several not to see this movie. Paris, however, has been raving about it for weeks. So here, mesdames et messieurs, is my honest opinion.

I cannot claim to be a Woody Allen connoisseur. I humbly confess that I have seen only Manhattan and Annie Hall, which would send many an Allenite to haughtily dismiss anything I say. But I refuse to believe that one absolutely must be fully acquainted with the full oeuvre of the artist in order to critique it. Some movies simply do not work, and you need no encyclopedic knowledge to see it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is of this very breed.

Our story begins with two polar opposites: Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), impulsive and idealistic, and Vicky (Rebecca Hall), rational and clear-headed. One blonde, one brunette; one flirtatious, one standoffish. From the first two minutes of the film, problems arise. The familiar Cartesian division of reason and emotion is simply too stereotypical; no women-- or men, for that matter-- are so distinctly cookie-cutter. These first few minutes that we see of Vicky and Cristina, sitting in the taxi in Barcelona, already become problematic. And not only is it odd from a feminist perspective-- it's also completely uninteresting, and entirely overdone. We have seen this again, and again, and again, and again since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Must we see it once again in 2008, a pre-Freudian, pre-Jungian complete misunderstanding of the human psyche?

Woody Allen, we understand that you do not understand women. But to assume knowledge when you create your female characters is already out of your line. Where is the complexity of Annie Hall? There is even an amount of condescension falling on Vicky and Cristina, as if they were just young and silly and didn't know any better.

Vicky and Cristina are joined by even more stereotypical characters later on, as they are taken in by an American expatriate haute-bourgeois middle-aged couple, and meet the "sexy" "bohemian artist" Juan Antonio at an art auction. Cliches run wild, and soon we see the breathtaking Maria-Elena (Penelope Cruz), the completely insane ex-wife of Juan Antonio. Cristina is whisked into the confusing and somewhat dystopian love triangle between the two ex-lovers, and is enamored by the "bohemian" lifestyle. What this movie makes clear, more than anything, is how little Woody Allen understands of this so-called "bohemian" artistic lifestyle. There is nothing original in his portrayal of what could have possibly become full-rounded characters; they are like Platonic Forms rather than characters, Maria-Elena as the Form of the Mad Genius, Cristina as the Confused Idealizer, Vicky as the Rational Soul Hiding a Wilder Heart. 8th-graders could have created a more interesting plot.

Which is not to say, however, that I left the movie disgusted. Confused, full of criticism, but somehow satisfied. Though the ending was more than unsatisfactory-- a sort of disheartened deus ex machina of the "it was all a wonderful dream" variety-- it was still, well, set in Barcelona. And Barcelona is beautiful. And, of course, those subtle things that make the movie so characteristically Woody Allen-esque (lunettes, overwhelming amounts of unnecessary voiceover, simple beginning and ending credits...) The only quotable part of the movie was Juan Gonzalez near the end of the movie: "We work, and we do not work at all. We are a contradiction, and some would say that is love," or something of that sort. Perhaps an interesting concept amidst a not-so-interesting film.

Dead White Males

Top 10 favorite dead white males

Idea stolen from Lucy

(According to the pre-1940 Chicago census I'm not white anyway, so, no reason to feel guilty.)

(Also, how very Columbia Core Curriculum of me.)

Need help? My full list, more or less chronologically: Alexander the Great, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Hobbes, Peter the Great, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jacques-Louis David, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Charles Baudelaire, Matthew Arnold, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Marc Chagall, Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali, Albert Camus, Carl Gustav Jung, Vladimir Nabokov, Francois Truffaut, Robert Rauschenberg

Monday, October 27, 2008


Last week for my Paris on Context Class: visiting the Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, an enormous Contemporary Art fair in the Grand Palais. Absolutely enormous, absolutely interesting, absolutely cool. I had no energy to walk through all of it, although I did spend over 2 hours there, after all of my class had come and gone, and my feet were near dead.

A picture of the colossal scale of this place, from the upper level:

A strange mix of pieces. As always, drawings and prints were my favorites, and mixed media. I get easily bored with painting. I liked the graphic stuff, too, and some of the photography was brilliant, although honestly I was unimpressed by much of it. There were smatterings of minor things by major modern artists (Calder, Warhol, de Kooning), which seemed bizarre in a contemporary art context.

Also, a lot of minimalism. I desperately hope minimalism is on the decline. It simply isn't interesting anymore as a concept, and its only claim to fame in the past was as a response to New York's abstract expressionism anyway.

I did, however, see a trend that I was honestly excited about: text. As a typical English major, I use text a lot in my art, and was overjoyed at finding it so well-represted in the "haute" version of the contemporary art world.

Another important fact: this was an international fair, so walls were often separated by city and country. Of course, there were many French, and especially Parisian artists, although metropolitan France (principalities of France, etc) were represented. The Moyen-Orient (Middle East) was (surprisingly) well-represented, and, not-surprisingly, Japan. I was not as moved by the Japanese artists as I would have liked, since I couldn't find any of Murakami's, and everyone else seemed to be a (worse) variation of Murakami anyway. China and Russia: extremely well represented. Some of my favorite works (most, in fact) were from China and Russia; they lacked some of the pretention of other countries, for some reason. Contemporary art tends to be too specialized, losing the power of sheer talent in draftsmanship that astounds even the completely ignorant viewer. Is it a coincidence that China and Russia share a tradition of being the major communitarian (as opposed to individualistic) societies in the world? Probably not. That, and their history of technical prowess, makes for fantastic art.

My favorites of the exhibition (not exactly sure if I have full rights to give details of all of these online, but nobody warned against it, so I'll take my chances. If anything I'm giving these artists more publicity) :

Thierry de Cordier, Nuptiale (Jeune Mariee), 2006-2008, Oil, acrylic, pencil, charcoal and ink on wood
(Translation: Nuptial [Young Married] )

Adam Fuss, Untitled, 2007, Unique gelatin silver print photogram

Yan Pei-Ming, U.S. Election: Obama/McCain, 2008, Watercolor on Paper

This last one was one of a diptych, with McCain's face depicted in exactly the same style. Very cool. Very popular with the Frenchies. High-school age pre-politicos were snapping pictures all over the place. I couldn't fit McCain in the picture. Besides, Obama for the win! VOTE Y'ALL!

Pauline Fondevila, La Nuit Nous Appartient, 2008, 4 Drawings under glass and table
(Translation: The night belongs to us)

Valery Koshlyakov. Couldn't find the title. A magnanimous work. Took up an entire wall.

(I. WANT. THIS. Oh my god)

Last two works by Barbara Bloom. Whoever she is, she is clearly obsessed with Nabokov's Lolita. As am I.

Emmanuel Saulnier, Naissance a Venise, 1999, ink and gouache on paper
(Translation: Birth in Venice)

Continuing the trend of text-within-art, this is art-within-text! Love. I've always wanted to draw/paint in a book but could never find a book I cared little enough about. I actually did a project like this in high school that I never completed. Maybe somebody can buy me a book I already have? Perhaps a Vonnegut? I'd LOVE to draw in a Vonnegut. Anyone want to give me a used copy of Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle? Oh wait, the latter has already been loaned to about 10 of my college friends and is currently wandering around New York...

Sun Xun, Shock of Time, Assorted Film Drawings, 2006

This seems like the same as the former, but Sun Xun took it to another level: to the right of this collection of beautiful drawings is a TV playing an animated film of probably hundreds of these drawings, probably all in a book! Brilliant. Beautiful. Sad, somehow.

Cameron Jamie, 2008, ink on paper (title = ?)

Melissa Gordon, Seeing and the Eye (Capturing), 2008, acrylic on canvas

Jorg Lozek, Das Buch (le bonheur), 2008, oil on canvas
(Translation: the happiness; literal translation: the good times)