All posts by Jesse Raub

Scott Pilgrim vs World/Michael CeraI almost didn’t write this column this week. No, I’ve a new distraction in my life. Or I HAD a new distraction in my life, but I finished all five volumes too quickly and now have ample time. Yes, I was prepared wholly and totally to abandon all my dear readers for simple entertainment, but it’s been a bit of an eye-opener.

I’m talking, of course, about Scott Pilgrim.

As soon as I heard there was a trailer for the new Edgar Wright-helmed, Michael Cera-starring film, I knew I had to catch up on the graphic novel before I saw it. It was too important to too many people that I know to let any live action preview sway me.

How important it would end up being to me, I wasn’t aware of.

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What in goodness' sake is that guy WEARING?

The curse of the hype band is the ever-looming sophomore slump. A bright and catchy debut catches the critic’s ear, but when number two comes around, the band is old hat and getting enough minor radio play that most self-respecting music snobs are ready to toss them out with the bathwater. Some Loud Thunder, anyone?

Facing an already harsh backlash from their West African/Upper East Side-influenced self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend seemed poised to drop the ball with Contra. The first album was full of energy, lo-fi-ish production, simple, yet smart arrangements, and just enough foray into world music to be a patronizing affectation.

And yet with all the comparisons the band got to Paul Simon and Gossip Girl, Contra has proved that the band sees themselves closer to (something that I’ve always said) the Talking Heads. With Contra, the band has expanded to include dance rhythms, reggae chords, bigger electronics, and a fuller production and range of songs as a whole; they went from ’77 to Speaking In Tongues. They’re a smart New York band with big ideas and punkish roots ready to tackle the world of pop radio.

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RIP Mat Arluck

I’ve seen them blow out the walls of the old Bottom Lounge, I witnessed them tear down the crowd at The Note, and I saw them destroy a cellar basement in Indianapolis, but I’ve never heard them so loud and heavy as I did four days ago in my car, when I blasted my speakers so loud to Forever that they were ringing a bit when I got home.

Sweet Cobra, my friends, are good at tearing shit up.

What separates them from the rest of the gray area movement in metal is their allegiance to the simplicity and repetition of 80s hardcore. Their riffs are huge and overpowering, their drums are massive and skin-shattering, and they bash their way through their songs four chords at a time, way too metal to be hardcore, way too hardcore to be metal.

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R. Kelly is crazy. Crazy AWESOME.
R. Kelly is crazy. Crazy AWESOME.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a man who is named Robert Kelly who is the greatest rhythm and blues singer of all time. I’m sure many of you have heard of him, and heard his claims to the title as well, but I’ve yet to hear anyone dispute his title. Let him remind you that he is the king of R and B. But that’s not a title easily earned, without pain, hardship, and some actually borderline psychotic presence of an ego that puts him in the “slightly schizophrenic” section of the universe.

Let’s focus, then, on his latest album, one that he was too lazy to name: Untitled. A few of the songs were slated for Twelve Play Fourth Quarter, the fourth album in his Twelve Play series, but when the album was scrapped, Kelly wrote a bunch of new hits and titled the album, well, Untitled. But let’s not let this be disheartening.

Since his inception, R. Kelly has built his career on a few different sub-genres of soul/r&b music: slow jams, club hits, inspirational gospel music, and ballads. His breakout album, 12Play, was a collection of the first: slow jams designed to inform the listener that he had twelve ways to pleasure a woman, featuring a song titled “I Like the Crotch On You.” From there on, he branched out, leaving us last with Double Up, a slightly bloated magnum opus that would have otherwise been one of the best albums of all time.

Despite a few clunkers with Nelly and Chamillionaire, we’ve got excellent narrative songs like “Same Girl” with Usher and “My Best Friend,” featuring Keyshia Cole Polow Da Don. Besides those, we’ve got the one-sided phone conversation YouTube sensation “Real Talk” and the super catchy club hits “I’m a Flirt,” preceded by the two best metaphorical slow jams with “Leave Your Name” and “The Zoo.”

So where does that leave us? The man is recently divorced, cleared of charges, and had a miniature breakdown about his fourth album in a series — he’s ready to let it all out.

One of Robert’s strengths has always been his ability to work very closely with extended metaphor, as well as his command of rhythm and melody. Well, metaphor is out the window on Untitled. We start the album with a song about having a great time, moving into a proposition to leave the club with him, and then a tune about having sex all day and all night long. Then we have two songs deeply devoted to performing oral sex on a lady, and we even have a song later on where R. Kelly flat out tells the girl that she can’t be his girlfriend or wife because he already has a special girl, but that he invites her to be his number two (“Be My #2”). Poop jokes aside, Kells isn’t playing around on Untitled. We are treated, however, to “Number One,” a comparison of having sex being like recording a number one hit single. This isn’t really metaphor though, since the song is mostly about them explicitly having sex, and the radio references don’t go far past the radio announcer dropping in on the chorus to proclaim “THIS IS NUMBER ONE.”

Still, this is undoubtedly a classic R. Kelly album, as the man always has his hands on the mixing board in the studio, and his trademark vocal lines and unconventionally rhythmic beats are as strong as they’ve ever been. The best example of this is “Exit,” a song with a plunking piano walk that dominates the melody. But while he follows it when it pops in and out, Kells lets his main vocal lines hop octaves in a technical vocal trapeze act. The quality of the music is at it’s peak: Kelly has never put out an album this tight in melody and production.

But is that what this column is really about?

Nope. We want to address how a man so skilled can be so batshit insane. The Gray Area we’re going to explore is in between the tribute to the Virgina Tech shootings on Double Up called “Rise Up” and the song simply titled “Bangin’ the Headboard” from Untitled. Or maybe how the man who recorded “I Believe I Can Fly” went on to previously mentioned “Be My #2.”

No matter what the subject of his music, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that R. Kelly is one hundred percent committed and serious about every song he’s ever recorded. How is this possible? Doesn’t anybody have a filter that keeps them from going all the way off the deep end?

“Hold on, Robert — maybe not everybody would appreciate the fact that you’re telling them that you would never date them but would enjoy their company as a mistress. You should reconsider the song concept, even though it does represent your honest desires, and maybe find something more respectful of women and commercially viable.”

Nope, doesn’t exist. And that’s why R. Kelly is the only honest true artist out in the world today. He’s never secretive or repressed. He ends “Be My #2” with a chorus of “All you hatin’ motherfuckers” before repeating the word “slap” about three or four times. How does this man sit in the recording studio and say “You know what? I’m going to call out those haters and then let them know that I would slap them” and have the co-producer or engineer think, “Yeah, that’s the way to end the song.”

Who knows? Maybe you just don’t argue with R. Kelly. But at least the American public knows what we’re getting into, and there’s no sense that we’ve been led down the rabbit hole dishonestly.

Gray Area Score: Is Patron gray? I know he sings about it a lot. I think maybe it’s silver. Oh well.

Original photo by Andrew Steinmetz

This post is not about this man, sadly.

I had a brilliant idea in the shower two days ago. I’d write my next Gray Area column about R. Kelly. Robert Kelly, a true American musical genius and auteur. But a lot of you have a hard time taking that man’s work as seriously as he does, and I don’t think you’re ready to write an honest, critical analysis of his work.

So instead, we’re going to chat about Canadian hucksters Fucked Up. Equal parts Pixies, Jethro Tull, and Minor Threat, the band cuts their roots as an 80s hardcore band, but it’s fairly clear from the get-go that their riffing is a bit too soft, their intentions a bit too grand, and their output a bit too well orchestrated. We’re talking about a band here who staged the longest concert ever in Times Square, trashed MTV Canada twice just because they could, and has put hidden grooves in some of their numerous seven-inch singles. It’s hard to really try and pin down their true intentions, or their true musical direction.

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Hey, there they are.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. There’s really only one television show that has it all: The Venture Brothers. Never before has one show lampooned a concept so hard that they’ve developed their own world that’s just as richly detailed as the concept that they’re lampooning. That doesn’t make much sense. Let’s try and sort that out.

The show revolves around the fact that sometime in the late 19th Century, a group of the most brilliant men in society turned villainous. Fast forward to the 1960s, and this Guild of Calamitous Intent is forever entrenched in a comic system of being arch-enemies to the super scientists of the day. There’s no outright murdering allowed, except when you’re the Monarch, as the Monarch describes it as “a deadly game of cat and also cat.”

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Gray Area: the place where Black Metal and White Light/White Heat come together.

These guys are pretty great.

When I first conceived this column, I didn’t have Venom or the Velvet Underground in mind. But both bands sort of staked out new territory that their peers weren’t quite sonically keen to, and ultimately, the new Gray Area is the space between metal and hardcore that can’t quite be musically defined. That was the original idea for the column, and television and movies quickly fell in line as well.

When talking about the Gray Area of music, two labels that stand out are Seventh Rule and Hydra Head. Both labels were founded in the Great American independent tradition, by folks who loved music, and might just need an outlet for their future material. And while Hydra Head has really come into it’s own these past few years as one of the ultimate frontrunners in metal music, Seventh Rule has been rising steadily from a part-time Chicago based label to the signing of Kongh, the label’s first international band, out of Sweden. Fitting, then, that Kongh’s debut should coincide with that of Harvey Milk on Hydra Head. Both albums pull from doom metal and sludge in entirely different ways, and I couldn’t think of two better bands from two better labels in which to write about for this week.

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This week, I’ve fallen behind on my schedule, which means that we’re taking it easy in this column.

Rock 'n roll, dude.

Instead, I’d like to chat quickly about Aerosmith. Now, Aerosmith has always straddled the line but not in the way that this column normally celebrates. A bunch of coked up and strung out Led Zeppelin wannabes, early Aerosmith material was a bastardization of hard blues rock, and progressed into the worst sort of 90s alterna-schlock imaginable. So while we talk about miscegenation that blows the mind, let’s also acknowledge bands like Aerosmith, who just plain blow.

Gray Area Score: Shit Brown (you suck, Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry)

Yeah, this goofy son of a gun.

If Patton Oswalt set out to prove anything with his whole Comedians of Comedy project, it was that stand up comedy never died, and that there were good people telling funny jokes while expanding the scope of the audience comedy used to reach, and the scope in which comedy can be performed.

Continuing in that tradition, Comedy Central has for some insane reason given John Oliver an hour every Friday during prime time to showcase more of those good people. Four years ago, I’d never dream to see a standup show that featured John Oliver, Maria Bamford, Nick Kroll, Greg Fitzsimmons, and Eugene Mirman in a single episode. Alas, there they were.

It was far from perfect, but how is one to complain that their free pizza had onions on it? If you don’t like the onions, just pick them off. Oliver’s opening set featured some political jokes about America, similar to ones from his hour long special, and a bit of personal history. Things were kicked off with a few good laughs. Not sure if his performance was sub-standard to previous work to not outshine his guests, but his political wit was not quite as sharp as it has been in the past.

Maria Bamford killed it with a selection from her last album, (which, of course, I know front to back already), Nick Kroll came out as character Fabrice Fabrice and told terrible jokes with uncompromising personality tics in a loving way that was offensive to everybody. It’s nice to see that he can get past the fact that he was one of the Cavemen from that show about that commercial about Cavemen. Everyone needs money.

Greg Fitzsimmons stunned everybody by still being alive in 2010, and had some fantastic jokes and a few creakers that showed that, yes, he has been a bit behind in the public light in the last ten years, and yes, this may be a great way to jumpstart his career (again). His album, Fitz of Laughter, is still one of my golden favorites from that category of comedians who came up without that punk/indie rock edge, but still saw through the bullshit of the terrible comics of the 80s and 90s.

Mirman closed with a significantly longer set than everyone else, pulling great material from his God Is a Twelve Year Old Boy With Asperger’s album. And though I know that album front to back as well, Mirman riffs and rolls with the crowd with an extremely personal delivery that makes every joke new and exciting.

Hopefully the show makes the numbers that it should, and continues on season after season, and the main reason is that it’s one of the first instances of New Comedy getting a featured voice in a regular setting. Zack Galifianakis may be setting his roots as the new Will Ferrell, but playing dumb in The Hangover or Out Cold is far from his avant stand up comedy, which deconstructs the pure notion of what a joke is.

New Comedy isn’t quite that new — it’s easily categorized as a series of stories or personal tales that eschew traditional setup/punchline formations and has it’s roots in the early comedy of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby. And somehow, everything was lost in the coked-out 80s and 90s, where comedy was billed as “Comedy,” and you wandered in off the street because you had nothing better to do. Try watching a Kevin Nealon stand up performance. As funny as it may be, you’re stuck watching a man deliver, in essence, a series of knock knock jokes. Set up, punchline, boom bam, done. The club has a brick wall, and the waitresses are trying to get you drunk. It was the era of schtick — sound effects, goofy ties, and rubberfaced deliveries. Even Bill Hicks fell prey to some of it. The best comics went into hibernation: Patton Oswalt, the king of the performance, spent years as a sidekick on a sitcom; the same fate happened to Brian Posehn.

So now the collective consciousness of Mainstream American Media Coverage of Pop Culture has acknowledged that these kids (read: 40 year olds) might have something good going on, and maybe it’s time to pay attention. Maybe it’ll last, maybe it won’t. But putting the spotlight back onto New Comedy is the equivalent of adopting a Tyrannosaurus Rex — not many people know what to do with it, and to some, it could be downright offensive, just by existing. The American public has just ruined Conan O’Brien, and he was the closest thing we had for years.

Gray Area Score: Goosefeathers