Dawes – Nothing is Wrong (ATO)

About ten seconds into ‘Nothing is Wrong’ you figure out that Dawes is either the next big thing, or perhaps it already is. The band is more polished than Wilco was at the beginning, and with a real knack and ambition to write legitimate pop songs – a lot like mid-career Ryan Adams. Not only are they great songwriters, with a gifted lead singer, they have a genuinely rootsy sound that is considerably more commercially accessible than Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Midlake and the rest of the modern Americana canon. In fact you’d have to go back to the California scene in the 60’s and 70’s which included the Byrds, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac to get the kind of authenticity you hear on ‘Nothing is Wrong.’

From the apropos and radio friendly opener ‘Time Spent in Los Angeles’ to the anthemic ‘My Way Back Home’ you hear greatness, both mass and indie. When the band isn’t channeling “Music From the Big Pink” they are lyrically and vocally more in sync with Jackson Browne (I say this in a good way) whose write sweet, honest largely upbeat songs about love, loss and everything in between (see ‘Fire Away). I listen to music to trigger a variety of feelings, each band and each song its own little drug to twist and contort my state of mind into a conducive place. With Dawes it’s mostly a happy pill that works every time.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before  five bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies, Van Morrison ‘Astral’ meditations and meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists Mumford and Sons, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect- earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, these songs were recorded, scrapped and rerecorded a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes the just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” to the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a remendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many who will grow to love it more with each passing year.

The Bestest 2010 Filmage

I write this while sitting on a plane back from Sundance, where I managed to see eight films in 48 hours. To be at Sundance and dedicate yourself to films intensely, even for a few days,  is one of the most liberating experiences I can imagine for a few reasons. Beyond the abundant quality and gritty humanness that tends to be woven into the fabric of most Sundance films, the stories behind the making of these films serve to inspire you to do more, try harder, and to never surrender. The fact that the festival runs at the beginning of each year, provides eleven months for you to follow through with the energy and the possibility that Sundance affords those who care to hold a mirror up to themselves. Of the eight films I saw this year, six were devastating yet beautiful sketches of modern life and familial dysfunction, most will never find a large audience, but to affect a few people passionately is to have accomplished more than most people will ever say. The good news is that now you can watch a seemingly infinite number of films, many of which in the past would never have had any kind of distribution before, instantly on a whim thanks to Netflix, xbox, Roku, and AppleTV and others.  The release window is now incredibly fast for challenging films like the ones that come out of Sundance, as evidenced by the fact that ten of the films on this list are already available on demand.

Every year is a great year for films if you are willing to look hard enough. It would appear that the broad unifying theme among my favorites for 2010 would be bleak, gritty, and hyper-real films that depict a realistic human condition, versus those that provide a superficial escape.  In fact, almost no film featured here is merely light hearted and fun. Even “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Cyrus,” two movies that come the closest,  deeply explore characters who are fighting the good fight for happiness.  So, if you are looking for cheery fare, this Bestest will seem more like the Worstest.  So enjoy, or at least endure, these films that put modern life into perspective.

1. Animal Kingdom – Dir. David Michôd (Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton)

There is an odd calm that hangs in the air during the first few moments of the ultra-cool Aussie film “Animal Kingdom.” In it, a teenager, Jay, sits on the couch staring blankly at a game show. Next to him sits his mother. Time passes and then the paramedics show up, try to revive her and then wheel her away. The boy picks up the phone, calls his grandmother and informs her that his mother has just OD’d and he doesn’t know what to do. You can tell he is a good kid, but he is neither scared nor sad. It is this same voice that so matter-of-factly narrates the hugely compelling, rapid unraveling of Melbourne’s scariest family.

Jay’s estranged mother’s family consists of four brothers, each scarier and more unpredictable than the next. Two rob banks, another deals drugs, and the fourth and youngest just seems to reluctantly do what he is told by the chiseled, tattooed others. But despite their indisputable thuggishness, these guys are strangely, and handsomely charming, and each of them also has a genuine goodness about them. On top of the heap sits their mother, a relentlessly upbeat lady, so genuinely in love with her boys that it is almost as if she is genuinely proud of what they actually do. But as Jay says in the beginning, “like all crooks, they are scared, they need to block out the thing they must know, which it that crooks always come undone, one way or another.” “Animal Kingdom” is a great film, and watching it is like placing a big ball of twine at the top of a steep hill and watching it race down, getter faster and smaller with each rotation, but impossible to take your eyes off of.

2. Winter’s Bone – Dir. Debra Granik (Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes)

Every year there seems to be a film cast entirely with unfamiliar faces, shot on a small budget that captures an incredibly specific slice of overlooked America. Films like “Frozen River,” “Sling Blade,” and “Lars and the Real Girl” hold a microscope up to the small communities, seemingly isolated from the rest of the country, that still have a character grounded in something other than the mass ubiquity reflected on television. “Winter’s Bone” is a film every bit as powerful, unexpected and real as anything you will see this year. It tells the story of a small Ozark town where the local economy has become increasingly dependent on meth production, populated with bleakly colorful characters all connected by hostile blood ties, and haunted by paranoia and revenge.

But the story is really the journey of a 17 year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played remarkably by Jennifer Lawrence, and her search for her missing father. The estranged Jessup Dolly, a notorious meth cooker, has gone missing and has left the family home as collateral for his bail, leaving two small children and his disabled wife hanging by a thread. The film is honest and authentic, yet moves along at just the right pace to make you feel their race against time. It never feels contrived or over dramatized. As Ree sets out, combing through her disparate family members, there is a stunning intensity and control, amidst a kind of raging chaos. There is always something thrilling about directorial breakthroughs and star-making performances that could only exist far away from the pressure associated with box office receipts and Oscar nominations. “Winter’s Bone” is not only the most natural feeling film of the year, it is the year’s most compelling.

3. A Prophet – Dir. Jacques Audiard (Tahar Rahim, Neils Arestrup)

The ambiguity of guilt, especially when the “guilty” is an orphaned, illiterate teenager born into a hostile racially divided world, serves as the jumping off point for one of the most powerful  crime films in a long time. “A Prophet” is one of those films that resists the urge to answer questions, but is satisfied to pose them through the hollow eyes of an actor who most convincingly grows into a man in front of the camera. There has neither been a prison nor gangster film as good as this since the Coppola and Scorsese classics, and certainly nothing this profound, in the past decade.

Much of the film is shot on the drab and decaying grounds of a French prison, but really this is the story of two people. The first is played by Tahar Rahim, who at 19 is thrown into prison with $50 to his name, and no friends or relatives waiting in the outside world. There he meets one of the unofficial Corsican prison leader played by the explosive Niels Arestrup who gives the new inmate a chance, after forcing him to murder a fellow Muslim inmate within days of arrival. But the story of these two men, one learning how to survive, and the other losing his long held control has such a perfect symmetry that it keeps the film from ever seeming too heavy or relentless to bear. This is a classic in a genre with incredibly high and thick bars. [Read more…]

The New Pornographers – Together (Matador)

TogetherFor five records now, indie rock’s most shameless optimists have been pushing the same wonderful pop boulder up and down a most lovely hill. To the unexposed, the Pornographers are one of the rocks most accomplished super groups featuring leader A.C. Newman, of early Zumpano fame, Neko Case the great alt-country goddess, and Dan Behar from the lesser known but incredibly accomplished Destroyer. Together the band creates infectious pop classics, where vocal duties alternate between the angelic Neko, the boyish A.C., and the warbling Behar, with almost “Glee-like” harmonizing throughout.

It is rare for band to make it this far into a career without a record that even remotely resembles a miss. Almost every song on “Together” has the potential to get under your skin, and with “Moves” an anthemic opener, “Crash Years” which already seems like logical soundtrack music, and the ten other addictive epics. Mass success or not, this is a band who has made me smile for years, and “Together” although not in any way groundbreaking is perfect just the way it is.

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.