Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???) exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009’s Moon managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.

TIGHT.

Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.

3.5/5

Ripcord Reviews: Japandroids – CELEBRATION ROCK

Coming off their infectiously energetic debut LP, Post-Nothing, Vancouver rock-revitalizers Japandroids aim to continue their frenetic take on punk anthem-building with their anxiously-awaited followup record, Celebration Rock. Is this the aptly titled opus that will push the two-man act past their noisy, angst-y cradle, or a sophomore misstep that keeps the boys in song-writing safe-zones.

You have no idea how right this picture is.

Let me get this out of the way (before my preface has me playing the part of critical waffler): part of Japandroids’ undeniable charm, as evidenced on their fantastic 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, is their heart-wrenching appreciation for simplistic and yet brutally energetic anthem howling. Did it matter that the majority of their first LP’s songs were predominantly composed of two or three lyrical lines shouted out over guitar-blasts and a sea of cymbal crashes? Not really: the album was so enticingly rapturous, it was hard not to smile or sing along or make it a permanent iPod fixture (guilty on all accounts). It also helped that these Canadian dudes put on a hell of a live show, complete with heavy duty fans to blow Brian King’s hair around. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had a small venue show, and probably any show I’ve ever been to. So yeah, I’m impartial to these guys, but that impartiality is warranted by the undisputed air of grandiosity and genuine passion Japandroids pump into every two-minute explosion of noise-pop genius they pump out.

Now that the disclaimer’s out of the way, we can approach the topic at hand: Celebration Rock. The band’s second LP has been self-described as a significant maturation marker on King and drummer, David Prowse’s, songwriting skill-sets, particularly in the lyrical department. We’ve actually seen evidence of this popping up over the past few years anyways, as the eponymous track on the Younger Us 7″ delivered some of the most poignant punk-rock lyrics this side of the apolitical sphere since the mid-80’s. When King wails “Remeber that night you were already in bed/said ‘fuck it’, got up to drink with me instead”, what’s amazing is that you do: between the sonic assault and King’s engagingly familiar voice crying out for raucous abandon, the collective experience of being a twenty-something cascades over that four-second musical peak and suddenly everything is relative. Deep, I know…

But all existential yahoo-ism aside, Japandroids are one of those rare acts that truly manage to pack a decade’s worth of life-experience into three minute rock songs, a skill they aim to utilize for the full 35 minutes of Celebration Rock. Where Post-Nothing was an album built as much on dynamism as it was on beat-to-sh!t drums and hammered guitar riffs, Celebration takes Japandroids down a decided path to full-frontal sonic assault. From the time that familiar blast of distortion kicks-in about a minute into “The Nights of Wine and Roses”, the band maintains a breakneck pace and volume all the way to the exuberant (and appropriately titled) finish of “Continuous Thunder”. And, unlike similarly energetic moments on Post-Nothing, here each headbanging piece feels fully crafted: the lyrics are exponentially more literate across the board (“The House that Heaven Built”), Prowse tightens up his game, and King mercifully spares us from another “Crazy/Forever”. The results are decidedly poppier, but in a good way: Japandroids were always at their best live when a crowd could bounce around, crying out lyrics with King at the mic like a club-bound echo. It’s the kind of record that plays like a bar-scene performance where you buy the boys a round of Jameson for the times and sweat and tinnitus.

Oh wait: been there… done that…

So, while Japandroids haven’t taken drastic steps away from their debut’s relentless rock n’ roll rampart, they have managed to hone their craft in a way that evolves previously unrefined facets (lyrics, musicianship) into sharpened sword-points of fuzz-blasted bliss. Enormously rewarding, energetic, and talent affirming, Celebration Rock offers a musical rarity these days: the feel-good record that won’t find its way into a Glee episode (if there is a god, thank him). So do yourselves a favor: go out, find the record, put $10 on the counter and the LP on whatever you have to play it with, and crank the volume to max. You’ll appreciate it later.

Crack Tracks (courtesy of Soundcloud):

“The House That Heaven Built” (Celebration Rock, Polyvinyl [2012])

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Moonrise Kingdom

Indie filmmaking darling and eternal retrophile Wes Anderson sets his heavily stylized lens on sleepy New England coastal communities in his new adolescent love yarn Moonrise Kingdom. Does this jaunt into 1960’s fantasy escapism mark a return to Steve Zissou-esque majesty or is it just another dull ride a la Darjeeling Limited?

It’s hard to believe it has been over a decade since Wes Anderson became a household name in the cineniche with The Royal Tenenbaums and, still, nearly fifteen since his first major breakout with appropriated celebrated Rushmore, especially in light of how fresh and glaringly hip those films continue to be even by today’s standards. Anderson’s story-book approach to the cinematic narrative that surrounds is wholly human and relatable characters often proves the perfect balancing act between the fantastical novelty of their circumstances and the sardonic commentaries about relationships that permeate and sizzle in each film with understated immediacy. In this sense, Anderson is a rare auteur capable, at his best, of incomparable storytelling satisfaction when it comes to character arcs, stylistic presentation, and ironic appeal. In other words, the guy’s a deserving hipster magnet.

He saved Latin… what did you ever do? (Wes Anderson)

That said, Anderson’s career hasn’t been without it’s fair share of missteps and mixed reception. 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, for example, proved relatively disappointing despite the exceptional cast and setting, mostly because it buckled under its own thematic pretensions. The same can be said, at least in my opinion, about Tenenbaums, where precocious and intriguing story-lines end up sacrificed for overly sentimental undertones midway through the film. In both cases, the films are eventually redeemed through excellent and bittersweet final acts, though, when held next to gems like Rushmore or the criminally underrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s crushing commentaries on the nature of broken family-life tend to overwhelm his lesser pictures, removing his audience from the sense of wonder and stylishly ridiculous excitement he is fully capable of bringing to the table.

Okay, where do we start?

Lucky for us, Anderson’s newest flick, coming-of-age fantasy Moonrise Kingdom is far and away better than Darjeeling Limited, and, in many ways, his most readily accessible film (yes, even more appealing to mainstream audiences than Fantastic Mr. Fox). Shot with his signature eye toward retro-stylism (aided by the 1960’s setting) and intimate attention to subtle human eccentricities, Kingdom is the rare movie that strikes its audience as elaborately constructed without ever feeling contrived; formulated without feeling formulaic. Sure Bill Murray mopes around and Bob Balaban offers whimsically informative on-screen narration every so often, but it never comes across as pretentious as much as it does engrossing and engaging in familiar yet novel ways.

“Oh hai, Bob!”

The set-up is simple enough: orphaned and jaded Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) runs away from his regiment with pen-pal/first-crush Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as both seek solace from broken homes, bullying, and adults brushing their feelings aside. As their adventure is paralleled with the small-knit island community’s rally to find them, Anderson puts surprising emphasis and depth into seemingly cookie-cutter characters like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s Scout Master Randy Ward charged with rescuing them, painting them less as antagonists and, rather, as kindred spirits capable of empathizing with Sam and Suzy even as they seek to tear them apart. The same can be said for Billy Murray and Francis McDormand’s performances as Suzy’s fractious yet aloof lawyer parents, who slowly grow to maturity, much like Sam and Suzy do, throughout the film. Yes, there are a couple villains sprinkled here and there: Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts agree early on to hunt him down with weapons against their Scout Master’s wishes; Tilda Swinton’s late-game turn as the ominously nameless Social Services plays bad with icy demeanor, but as her lack of name implies, she’s less of a character here than she is a looming, dangerous situation Sam has to avoid in the last 30 minutes of the film, leaving her character feel a little wasted in hindsight.

Cool cast, bro!

Moonrise Kingdom is, however, replete with Anderson’s noticeably eclectic and approachable humor: his situations are almost always brimming with humor and magic that manages to come across as both ridiculous and totally appropriate. Pairing absolute stylistic likability with sincere commentary about learning to love and live (and learning to love and live again), Anderson once again crafts a rewarding yarn that manages to both entertain and enlighten audiences. So grab a ticket when you can: I guarantee it’ll be an illuminating experience (okay, pun aside, you’ll dig it)!

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Kill List

Genre-bending UK thriller Kill List has been turning heads on the festival circuit for a while now. Does this independent darling bring the goods to match the hype or does it buckle under the weight of its own twisted ambitions?

Hearts in darkness: hitmen of Kill List caught in a deadly, nightmarish game.

Ever since catching websphere rumblings about Ben Wheatley’s hitman-horror hybrid back in March, I’ve kept my ear close to the ground when it came to Kill List and its eventual theatrical release in the states. Well, despite a lengthy delay, the film has finally made it to limited release here in the US, and, rest assured, the wait has been worth it.

Every bit a disenchanted love letter to two of film’s most iconic (and maligned) genres, the seedy underworld/hit-man narrative and 1970s psychological-horror, Kill List immediately sets itself apart from the contemporary cinematic crime exploration in tone and (pun intended, I guess…) execution. Twists, turns, and torment abound, Wheatley daringly takes narrative niche on a slow-burn to the maniacal, the likes of which have rarely seen comparison.

That "Oh sh*t..." moment you get when you realize this isn't the movie you thought it was going to be.

If the ominously etched rune introducing the film doesn’t cue you into the devious intents lurking just beneath the surface of the first half hour or so, than you’re in for way more than you probably bargained for. Nestled in an unassuming British suburbia, Jay, an Iraq War veteran who’s turned to contract killing to make ends-meat for his family, finds himself deep in paralyzing emotional turmoil after an enigmatically botched job in Kiev. With the fam in dire financial circumstances and Jay unable (or unwilling) to find work since the incident, tensions run high between him and his wife, Shel. Explosive spats during listless days and dinner parties leave Jay seeking refuge in best friend/partner-in-homicide, Gal. At said dinner party, Gal propositions Jay about a potential job, eventually convincing Jay to get out of his psychological rut. All the while, Gal’s new girlfriend is stealthily carving runes on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, and the “WTF”-fest begins!

Deals with the devil? Explorations on the cunning nature of evil in "Kill List".

What follows includes blood-pacts, necrotic wounds, clergy assassinations, overzealous fake-swordfights, mercilously beating the sh*t of a pedophile with a hammer, droning chants, enough cult-based weirdness to make Kubrick cringe in his coffin. Wheatley goes heavy on violence, light on the dialogue, mysterious on the backgrounds, and deep on the connotations: who are the guys Jay and Gal are working for? What happened in Kiev? Do the desired ends justify the deplorable means? The film’s at its best when exploring the complexities of human relationships (whether familial or fraternal) under terrible ethical circumstances, and engrosses with a convincing portrayal of man split between his morals and his job. The horror aspects, which play significantly into the narrative in the latter half of the film, are quite effective and intense, though less impressive than the preceding melodrama. The finale in particular, while shocking, desperately lacks satisfactory conclusion, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers. That said, its obvious Wheatley’s aims for such an abrupt and brutal ending were meant to leave the film feeling shrouded and hauntingly mysterious.

Oh that crazy last half...

While it does some things better than others, Kill List is nonetheless an unnerving jaunt into unique film-making territory. Grounded by a strong cast, jarring style, and unsettling atmosphere, it definitely managed to surpass my expectations and slay the stale image of the cinematic hitman saga with brutal effectiveness. Consider yourselves warned!

A Year for Growing Old? 2012 and the Advent of the Maturing Indie

As we enter the 12th year of the 21st century, an increasing number of young independent recording artists are shedding their “bratty” images. Are these true moves toward a “matured” sound or just away from the risks of cliche?

Best Coast promises a "grown up" record (preferably with less words like "baby", "crazy", "lazy", "hazy"- ... you get the picture...

(Classic Best Coast track: “Crazy for You” [mp3])

It had to happen eventually: Bethany Cosentino is giving up on words that end in “y”, writing a “grown up” record that’s apparently less about lethargy and cat obsessions and, rather, more “emo” (which I guess she’s trying to tell us is an album about feelings… whatever that means…). In her recent interview with Pitchfork, the Best Coast front-woman mapped out her plans to release a more matured album sometime later this year, describing her work with producer Jon (Mr. I-scored-I ❤ Huckabees-what-did-you-ever-do?) Brion and a significant step away from the simplistic songwriting that both drove and diminished her highly listenable first LP. While Crazy for You was a pop gem, it lacked the lyrical prowess and compositional complexity needed to truly warrant the artistic acclaim in managed to garner. It felt more like a guilty pleasure than a fully realized masterpiece back in 2010, and while it catapulted Best Coast to the forefront of indie’s most popular acts, one couldn’t help but ask whether Cosentino’s bratty lo-fi tunes were worth hailing her the queen of the scene.

Totally ready for a mature followup record... totally... (Tyler, The Creator)

Best Coast is hardly the only indie mega-act looking for a little adult credibility. One of 2011’s most controversial and unapologetic indie fixtures, Tyler, The Creator of Wu-Tang Clan part-deux (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), is reportedly in the works of a followup to last year’s Goblin LP. Having built his career (or hype, as it were) around an aggressively nihilistic image of contemporary youth culture, rampant disregard for authority or self-reservation, and disrespect for just about everyone and anything around him, the idea of a human-caricature like himself turning away from lyrics about rape, killing people, and generally acting like an all-around a**hole seems to go against the unrelenting pseudo-realist aggro-principles he’s built his image around. While Cosentino’s move toward mature songwriting at least hints a step in the right direction, Tyler’s works against the only thing going for his buzz-machine: unrestricted mania and a dedication to shock-value.

Before (The Walkmen's "bratty" beginnings...)

After (now that's how you do it RIGHT!)

The idea of the “mature” followup has been in place as long as recorded music has been a medium, and the move toward softened songwriting is an omnipresence especially in the independent music scene. One of my personal favorite groups, The Walkmen, jump-started their career with garage-rock revival and now stand as one of the most thoughtful and “grown-up” acts in the scene (along with bands like the National or *shudder* My Morning Jacket… The Walkmen are exponentially more poignant than both). The late Jay Reatard took similar strides toward a matured sound with Watch Me Fall and even the recently disbanded LCD Soundsystem saw significant maturation after their first record (let’s be honest, guys: “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” pales in comparison to just about anything on the two latter LPs or subsequent EPs). Still it’s often difficult to gauge how ready an act is to truly move past “bratty” songwriting: take for example Cloud Nothings’ new record (which you can read a review for HERE). Where their first true LP was an energetic blast of youthful songwriting, the second album drags under an ambitious emotional weight the band simply can’t carry yet.

(The Walkmen [doing it right] – “On the Water” [mp3])

Why'd you boys have to go and get grown up on us (Cloud Nothings)!

At risk of saying “if it ain’t broke…”, I do feel like many acts (especially in the independent music scene) feel pressured to move past the workable styles and structure of previous records merely out of a fear of losing relevancy with contemporary audiences. And while tastes have certainly shifted towards the quieted sounds that dominated critics’ and listener review polls last year (Bon Iver, I’m looking at you… drowsily…), hasty departure from a sound and vibe that compliments the actual maturity of the songwriting (and songwriters) can only stand to detract from the credibility of a “matured” followup, and in turn, its relevancy. So don’t feel like you have to plug us with a “grown up” record, guys: just do what you do best, and take it in strides. After all, most of you have only been with us for less than three years anyways!

Review: Guided By Voices – “Let’s Go Eat the Factory”

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

The original line-up of lo-fi luminaries Guided By Voices have produced their first album in nearly 20 years. Does it live up to their own massive legacy?

The boys at Penn's Landing (down in Philly)

For a line-up that hadn’t played with each other in nearly two decades, the Guided By Voices I saw this past summer was a tight rock n’ roll muscle-machine. Front-man and ceaseless song-writer Robert Pollard could still pull off a mean jump-kick. Mitch Mitchell still chain-smoked during the entirety of the three hour-long set. Greg Demos still knew how to rock pajama pants. And Tobin Sprout still seemed really serious when he sang “Awful Bliss”. The music growled the way it should have. The beer flowed freely, and the Tequila was drank heavily. For a few twilight hours, an otherwise awkward match-up of indiecentric Gen-Yers and blue-collar, middle-aged men huddled around Penn’s Landing in mutual joy that the boys were back together and rocking just as hard as ever.

Pollard fueling up...

When I heard GBV was making a new record (a first for the original line-up since 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars), I knew it was going to be amazing. These were the dudes who pretty much established the lo-fi rock scene and were responsible for some of the most memorable and endearingly well-written albums of the 90’s. I was even more thrilled to learn the band was returning to a 4-track sound, something Pollard had set aside (along with most of the original band members) in the latter half of the group’s career. With the prospect of becoming a worthy followup to Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand of the 21st century, Let’s Go Eat the Factory had a lot riding on it from the very start.

Rocking into their mid-50s...

The band’s 17th record starts off promisingly enough. The raucous growl of “Laundry and Lasers” recalls some of the driving rockers of the group’s late-80’s records with youthful energy rarely heard from dudes teetering on senior citizen status. The following set of songs are classic GBV affair, short and sweet, if somewhat unassuming: as passable as these mini-ballads may be, they lack the pop-y punch of their progenitors on earlier albums. “Spiderfighter” is something of an enigma: though it starts with a classically distorted, repetitive riff it abruptly collapses into a piano-based finale. While this thoughtful second half of the song aims for emotional peaks, it’s jarring transition mars the final product. “Hang Mr. Kite” relies far too heavily on ugly Moog compositions where guitar-based attacks are clearly needed.

Hard at work?

Still the record finds footing on certain stand-out tracks. “God Loves Us” is fantastically anthematic and “How I Met My Mother” recalls some of the better burst-rockers of the band’s stand-out records. “Waves” showcases Sprout’s writing capabilities, as well as the band’s flair for eccentric sound manipulation. “Chocolate Boy” stands amongst the best balladry Pollard has produced in 20 years. If not for some head-scratchingly weird underwater-esque vocal-distortion and volume manipulation on “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”, the song harks to the better aspects of the badass-ery in classics like “Hit” and “Hot Freaks”. The finale, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race” is both the record’s longest track and most intriguingly realized, featuring full breakdowns and an evolving composition rarely seen in most of the otherwise dwarfed songs of Factory.

At least they still kick ass live!

Unfortunately, despite the occasional standout, Let’s Go Eat the Factory is less of a triumphant return to a band on the top of its game than a struggle to re-adapt to the genre they were birthed in. While GBV have adequately mimicked the lo-fi sound they are famous for, they have as of yet to prove they can write a truly memorable song fit for the new century. To be fair, these guys haven’t written cohesively in over 20 years, so the rust is completely forgivable: let’s just hope the next go-around they’ll be back in full-swing, offering those awesome hooks worthy of jump-kicking and drinking tequila to.

Stand-out Tracks: “God Loves Us” (.m4a)

“Waves” (.m4a)

Pitchfork and the Death of Telling It Like It Is…

Online indieculture mecca Pitchfork has decidedly expanded its focuses past mere music news and reviews, but with so much of it built around viewpoints of a jaded generation, is this turn really a good thing?

Like so many of the “hip” interweb-idlers of my *ahem* digital generation, Pitchfork (or Pitchfork Media for all you “cool dads [or moms]” present at its mid-2k heyday) has been my go-to site for all things cool this side of an Altamont-sponsored LA showplace since I was a 16 year old wannabe undergrounder. The reasons for my continued loyalty lie in their musical tastes: the glorification of the late 80’s noise rock scene, a soft-spot for D.I.Y punk, and general openness for anything willing to take sonic risks for an evolution in sound and style. For the past two or three years, however, it seems like Pitchfork’s original aims at serving niche audiences have shifted irritatingly toward (dare I even say it… I can practically hear the backlash) trend-setting.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2010, the site started focusing less on music and more on specified scenes, particularly those with mass appeal. One of the main draws, for me at least, had always been Pitchfork’s expansive tastes and relative blindness to music I heard blaring from the ear-buds of my popped-collar, polo-and-Timberland-clad New England high school peers. And yet, almost out of nowhere, Lil Wayne was earning high marks for “well-placed” nasally cackles and an affinity for copious amounts of dank. Vampire Weekend, as contrived a concept band as there’s ever effing been (worshiping Wes Anderson shouldn’t constitute inconceivable amounts of creativity), had the site gushing more ham than a Gap ad running between TRL segments on MTV. By the time Kanye earned his 10.0, I’d come to the overdue conclusion that Pitchfork had decided that the underground was not enough: the idea of the “niche” was slowly evaporating, and soon everything was encompassed by the mere labels of “cool” versus “rated under 6.0”.

Knowing the pop-hungry world (or at least those with their parents money ready to spend on American Apparel) was eating from its digital palm, the staff at Pitchfork set its sights increasingly less on music analyzation and more on scene-making and culture-defining. Pretty soon, everything earning marks higher than 7.0’s were regulated to all of about four places (NY, Chicago, LA, and France) and P4k hardly bothered with anyone who hadn’t made it onto Levi’s “Fader Fort” yet… for all intents and purposes, the site chiseled an “In Memorium” on the underground’s tombstone and became a TMZ for anyone with an avante-garde hairdo and a preoccupation with bleepy-bloops. It was only a matter of time before music as a whole took a backseat to an ever expanding number of “Features” and articles aimed at intellectualizing the growing cult of faux-Brooklyners lined up for the proverbial Cool-Aid (ironic pun intended, geniuses…).

So BLEEPING cool (Neon Indian and the advent of “chillwave”)

I guess I’ve failed to appreciate these brazen attempts at cultural analysis, if that’s what you can even call them. Reading through the “Kill Screen” (Pitchfork’s unwarranted exploration into the cultural connotations the video-gaming movement) is literally akin to having physics professors write about film-making: what results is completely affect-diluted bullsh*t aimed at breaking down meanings where, quite honestly, there’s NOTHING to break-down to begin with. Let’s take, for example, a review (if you can even call it that) of LA Noire they did a couple months back: where Kirk Hamilton could have focused (noticed my suggestive use of bold there, if you can) on the advantages of semi-linear storytelling as opposed to recent trends against narrative driven gameplay, he chose to dedicate his article to his in-game abandonment of the narrative all together. Considering that LA Noire is a game based entirely on contextual interactions within the confines of the storyline (as the player is literally unable to engage in the game-world in meaningful ways outside of mission-based objectives), his seven-paragraph description of literally running around the digital LA city-scape aimlessly seemed as pointless as his critiques of the constraints the game put upon him to begin with. Instead of summing up his frustrations with the game for refusing to offer him all the facets of real-life freedoms concisely, he chose to meanderingly critique artful direction and a dedication to storytelling simply because it failed to grace him with the option to play pool with the main character’s deadbeat cousin.

Story apparently isn’t equitable to free-roaming rampages with a Russian immigrant…

Pitchfork’s further “analytical” explorations into online sensationalism with its “Resonant Frequency”-series strikes me as blatantly hypocritical. In its most recent piece, “Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures“, the segment eludes to trends of pop-culture recycling on the internet leading to the creation of buzz-tastic acts like (one of my personal favs) Dirty Beaches and (*shudder*) Lara- I mean, Lana “Angelina Jolie-Wannabe” Del Rey. As writer Mark Richardson points fingers at the Tumblr-ization of popular culture as a regurgitation of faux-art forms (ala “the scene that celebrates itself”), he fails to note that Pitchfork itself has become a textbook example of such unabashed trend-setting. In case he forgot, the only reason why 12 year old Tumblr-addicts post the song “Video Games” on their “blogs” is because Pitchfork posted it on their “Best New Tracks” months ago. If everything works in cycles, isn’t Pitchfork just as guilty of pop-art vomming than these alt-tweens are? As far as I can tell, pop-culture in general seems to operate along the lines of constant recycling anyways: so if “cultural evolution” is a loop, call me crazy but I consider myself an entirely new species.

Rest in Peace, my peers.