Cyrus – Dir. Jay and Mark Duplass (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei)

 CyrusIn addition to being the funniest film of the year, “Cyrus” is the first big film to have emerged from the ultra-indie “mumblecore” movement. Like the twisted stepchild of an Apatow film, the humor here is much less obvious and a lot more uncomfortable, but much more authentic. I have become a fanboy of the sibling directors, having loved each of their previous films with increasing respect starting with “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” and most recently the perversely hysterical “Humpday.” In some ways it helps to have this insight going into “Cyrus” whose humor might otherwise seem slightly cloying. That said, both John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill have never been better, and taking them one standard deviation away from Apatow and Ferrell gives them a chance to explore something weirder and in some ways more honest than what we have come to expect from them.

The film largely gravitates around the increasingly awkward relationship between Reilly, a lonely heart who has recently been reawakened by Marissa Tomei, and her grown son played by Hill whose odd relationship with his mother spins the threesome into chaos. Unlike most modern comedies, this one is bold enough to explore dark emotional areas generally uncommon in the genre. But herein lies the secret sauce. “Cyrus” is so well written and strangely compelling, it is hard not find yourself sucked into this wacky vortex, laughing unexpectedly and consistently throughout. I will be hard pressed to see anything quite as clever this year.

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)

Gorilla ManorThere are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when watching a band you know very little about play live as your first real exposure. Enter Local Natives, an LA band who I  happened upon at Coachella, and watched rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of “Weekend Foxes,” but to me it more a cross between the percussive side of the Dodos mixed with the intensity of a much bigger band. There are also bits English Settlement era XTC, the rootsiness of Blitzen Trapper and the emotion of the Frames.

With all buzzy SXSW bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill comes in playing live and delivering real energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but there songs are big. On “Shape Shifter” think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on “Wide Eyes.”  I listen to them as I write this and can’t help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.

Midlake – The Courage of Others (Bella Union)

Product DetailsIt took me a month to listen to and process the latest Midlake record before I felt qualified to speak objectively about “The Courage of Others.” I would have to go back to Buckley’s stunning “Grace” fifteen years ago to find another record as important to me as Midlake’s predecessor “The Trials of Van Occupanther.” That record was immediately captivating both musically and emotionally, lifting the best bits from Fleetwood Mac-  a band I never really considered as deeply as perhaps I should have, and combined it with the indie folk I have grown older gravitating towards.

It is rare that I read the reviews of others before attempting my own, but in the case of Midlake my three years of eagerness for the follow-up to left me in some ways too biased to resist the urge. What I found was a massively polarizing reaction to a record that I took longer to fall for than I would have expected. “Courage” is in some ways as satisfying as I could have hoped for, but also perhaps more somber and precious than it needed to be. That said, with every listen, and I have found myself doing so more and more often, I am increasingly drawn into this reflective and emotive masterpiece.

They have grown closer to new influences this time around, but they tend to go further back than Fleetwood Mac, settling into the mid-sixties Brit folk of The Fairport Convention, than they do west coast Americana. Vocalist Tim Smith, has a voice a pure and urgent as anyone making music today, and like previous efforts is bathed in impeccable production. Songs like “Rulers, Ruling All Things” and “Winter Dies” represent the closest approximation to singles or pop songs, but to describe them as such would be to miss the point – this record is takes some getting used to. There is much emotional acclimation, but below the surface where initially there seems pretension, there is joy and hope. The songs build to a triumphant crescendo, and in the end with headphones this is an epic voyage that is both uplifting and contemplative. Just surrender yourself to something truly special, and use the music to help express emotions often to hard articulate.

Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City)

silver-jews.jpgPerhaps my affection for this record and this band reflects both my age and my undying worship for head Silver Jew, David Berman, and his former college buddy Steve (Pavement) Malkmus. Like all of his prior records and, for that matter, those of Malkmus, in addition to the catchy alt-country melodies, it is the quirky literate lyricism that tend to leave the deepest impression.  For example on ‘San Francisco B.C.’ Berman tells the story of a couple who are changing with the times. And so Berman in his familiar brand of talk-singing begins: “Since her Dad the local barber was beaten to death/she had become a vocal martyr for the vegan press.” On ‘Candy Jail’ he begins “Pain works on a sliding scale/so does pleasure in a candy jail.” And so on, this is the essence of the Silver Jews.

On almost every song on “Lookout Mountain” the formula is less about repeated choruses or drawn out grooves, but more about stories- all weird, clever and short succinct meditations through his kaleidoscope world. ‘Lookout Mountain’ is easily the Silver Jews poppiest, most accessible effort yet. And even though this isn’t their best record, that would more likely be “The Natural Bridge” or “American Water,” this time around Berman and Co. are just having more fun, playing largely upbeat songs on lighthearted topics. To me this is like listening to an old friend who is in a really good mood.

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Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant EP (SubPop)

fleet-foxes.jpgThese days I know almost instantly when I am hearing what will become my favorite record of the year. I have been intermittently grinding the five songs on the Foxes debut EP ‘Sun Giant’ (especially the epic ‘Mykonos’ and ‘English House’) and the 11 songs on the self-titled masterpiece ‘Fleet Foxes’ for the eight months since I accidently stumbled in on the band at one of their earliest NYC shows.

The Foxes play a deliciously derivitive fusion of 70’s Americana rock, imagine a bit of CSN&Y or America, mixed with Brian Wilson’s exquisite SoCal choral moments as well as dash of Appalachian gospel. Seattle’s Fleet Foxes are the much anticipated next branch to fall after My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Devendra Banhart. Flannel shirts and beards are back, but with a kind of modern authenticy, led by the exquisite vocals of Robin Pecknold.

But what sets the band apart is more their range. On a handful of tunes the band is able to create multiple songs within a single structure by pivoting off of dead-stop transitions from accoustic harmony to electric rock anthem. It will be hard to unseed a record like for a long time. It will sit comfortably atop that evergreen go-to shelf which includes Buckley’s “Grace”, Midlake’s “Van Occupather,” Galaxie 500’s “On Fire” and another twenty or so records that will never fall from their high perch. This a classic.

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