DiG! – Dir. Ondi Timoner

Directed by: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Courtney Taylor, Anton newcombe

Even if you haven’t heard of The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Dandy Warhols, this gritty, soap-operatic documentary about the friendship and fates of both bands is a genuinely compelling piece of modern pop history. The film picks up in 1996 with the two bands on the verge of what appears will be inevitable rock stardom. Both bands feature charismatic, egomaniacal lead singers who craft psychedelic rock songs cut from a pastiche of old and new. But shortly after “Dig!” begins to explore this early competitive creativity, it becomes clear that what we will watch is the rise of a competent musician and capable businessman (The Dandy’s, Taylor), and the fall of an incredibly gifted but troubled musical genius (BJM, Newcombe).

Not surprisingly the anticipated overnight ascent to stardom is not as easy as it may appear. For The Brian Jonestown Massacre their failure to fulfill on this promise seems intentionally booby-trapped, while The Dandy Warhols merely needed time for their talent to catch up to their ambition and the luck to make it happen. Beyond merely a tale about the music business or indie-culture, this is a film about two people, both flawed but one more vulnerable than the other. Ultimately, as with so many truly gifted musicians, drugs help erode the one thing (music) that could have helped Anton Newcombe escape a society that will have had a hard time finding him a place. Usually the best documentaries don’t know where they are going to end up when they begin. In the case of DiG!, this uncertainly has helped create a truly minor masterpiece!

The Hidden Cameras – Mississuaga Goddam

One of the finest pop albums of the year happens to be an import from a Canadian band led by a gay minstrel named Joel Gibb. “Mississuaga Goddam,” named after Gibb’s hometown, is the third full length by Toronto’s Hidden Camera’s, and is one filled with a litany of toe tapping guitars and melodies that could be just as easily the score from some hip Off-Broadway musical. With lyrics that alternate between comically offensive and unstoppably catchy, the band seems draw inspiration from everyone and no one. Wedged neatly in a collection that would likely be filled with albums by Belle and Sebastian, Robyn Hitchcock, Polyphonic Spree, and fellow Canadians the New Pornographers, the Hidden Cameras live in a kind of adult never never land too clever for MTV watchers and a bit too obscure for the aging hipster who only occasionally manages to find time make it past the music display stand at Barnes and Nobles. This album is pure joy, and one keep your eyes open for.

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Magnet – On Your Side

Digitizing an archive of over 100 gigs of music has afforded me with the much needed impetus to think long and hard about the music I have been collecting for the past 25 years. Much of it, I have found, fall under a few genres that I have distractedly entitled “indie-folk,” “folktronica,” “slowcore,” “orchestral pop,” etc. Being forced to categorize music, that is either uncategorizable or more broadly and easily described as “rock,” is both an invigorating and frustrating intellectual exercise. But in the end it has helped bring some definition to my own tastes – whether or not I want to acknowledge what they have become over time – softer, gentler, and more focused.

It was while struggling to figure out how to classify the new epic, sweeping masterpiece of an album by Magnet (aka Even Johansen) that I become mesmerized with yet another young Norwegian wunderkind. Cut from the same quiet, velvet-beatles inspired cloth, as fellow countrymen Kings of Convenience and Sondre Lerche, “On Your Side” is part Thom Yorke (Radiohead) part Elliot Smith and part Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters). The music is both majestic and somber, at times cabaret inspired at other times trippy weed soaked rainy day music. If nothing else Magnet is one of the most talented and honest writers in a long while. He manages to avoid clichés and yet still speaks about the most commonplace emotions in a new way accompanying himself with a creamy guitar and orchestral backdrop that allows you to merely drift away. I will be surprised if this record ever falls out of rotation. It is timeless, and near perfect.

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Garden State – Dir. Zach Braff

Directed by: Zach Braff
Starring: Natalie Portman, ZachBraff, Peter Scarsgaad

Only a few times a year are we lucky enough to stumble upon a perfect movie. In Zach Braff’s tastefully sentimental “Garden State” we are treated to one of year’s quietest gems. At times the story feels like a chapter from a yet unpublished Nick Hornby novel. In it a young man, coming to terms with his family and future, returns home from California to his hometown for the funeral of his mother. Under a dreary New Jersey sky he is faced with a heavy air that hangs between he and his father, and the anesthetizing numbness of too many years on antidepressants. The central character is a struggling actor named Andrew Largeman, played with a gloomy but restrained precision by Braff, who meets a similarly pained soul played by Natalie Portman. Slowly, but with a kind of acceptable inevitability, the two help to pull each other from a their own personal abyss.

For those of us stuck in that hazy dream world filled with an eternal search for happiness, much of the struggle is one filled with music that accompanies this endless search. In “Garden State” the soundtrack to these lives is impeccably sung by The Shins, Nick Drake and others whose words seem to say much more than would have otherwise been possible. In the end life is about the little steps that we take and the care in which we take to make them. This is a movie about just that, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.

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