27 February 2009

Two reasons Calexico is my favorite band

I have to admit being a little worried when Calexico released Garden Ruin. Yes, I'm supposed to be open minded and allow artists to go their way, but GR just didn't hit me like any of the previous records did. A sigh of relief, then, when Carried to Dust was released last year. I hate the "return to form" tag as much as anyone, but it really is just a grand record.

Since is the first mention on surethings, I'll go ahead and post two iconic Calexico songs. The first song up is, for me, the embodiment of the band and its inimitable sound: Crystal Frontier. No other song so perfectly combines all of the elements: subject matter, sound and style, that make up the Calexico sound.

Secondly, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Honestly, could anyone else pull this off? Je taime, baby!:

The band has many great songs, and there is a bunch of video over at YT. If I were to recommend a record I'd have to recommend at least 3-4: Hot Rail, the ep Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Feast of Wire and The Black Light. I also love their collaboration with Iron & Wine: In the Reins. Google, surf and enjoy.

Why We Buy 101: Creativity Magazine

I don't know the hierarchy of advertising journalism, but I'd think that Creativity would be near the top. A bewildering phantasmagoria of television commercials, photography, agency coverage and design ideas, Creativity is the anti-Adbusters.

Though much of the content is limited to subscribers of the print edition (at $99/yr), there are many options to receive content via email and feeds. It is a great site to keep tabs on what might soon be hurtling at you from your television screen, your computer, radio or magazine pages.

I've embedded this video from YouTube because the Creativity one becomes unavailable after one week (the Creativity resolution seems much better, though).

26 February 2009

Bogart That Blog: Noir of the Week

For anyone who ever took a college film course there is Noir of the Week, a blog dedicated entirely to films noirs, those dark and sometimes brutal films that date roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s. The blog is a great read and a great resource, obviously a labor of love.

It's a particular irony that noir, a largely American phenomenon, was not recognized by Americans as a trend or movement. It took a pair of Frenchmen to recognize and give a name to the violent, dark-themed films that were being churned out by the hundreds. The experts on Noir of the Week and its related forum Back Alley Noir will break it all down for you: the European origins, the periods (proto, classic, neo), but if I might offer a bit of amateur advice, just watch Double Indemnity first. If you don't like that flick, then most of the rest of it will probably not appeal.

There are also strong feelings about one of my favorite small films of recent years, the neo-noir Brick. Some of the Back Alley regulars think it is too schtickey to have high schoolers talking like characters from a 1930s gangster film, but I'm not a purist about too many things. Especially pop culture. Brick is clever, fast-paced, smart and just a lot of fun.

So, for a cool, slow Saturday, watch these two flicks back-to-back and get your inner Robert Mitchum (or Veronica Lake) on. You may need to take up cigarette smoking and bourbon drinking to fully engage.

25 February 2009

Geekasm-inducing Netbook: Dell Mini 9 running MacOSX

For those of us waiting for Apple to release a truly compact netbook, this is an unbelievably cool project courtesy of Gizmodo: a $400 Dell Mini 9 hacked into running Mac OSX with virtually no hardware/software/driver glitches.

I love my 12" G4 Powerbook but it is getting a bit long in the tooth, and the G4 chipset is being left behind by the newer Mac OS. And as sleek as the Air is, it is still too big. I suppose Apple feels you should be happy with the iPod Touch or the iPhone as web machines, but I don't relish blogging with them.

The Dell is almost perfect: small, quick and apparently totally compatible. Also, the 3G enabled version is available for net US$99 after a mail-in rebate, the catch being you have to subscribe to a 2-year, US$60/mo. wireless plan with ATT.

The only thing cooler would be a Sony Vaio P running OSX, but that is unlikely. Sony loads their 'books up with so much proprietary crap-ola (give up on the Memory Stick, for God's sake!) that is is difficult to hack.

Someday there will be a totally open netbook that will run whatever 'wares you decide to load. Until that day, this hack looks pretty, pretty ideal.

(photo via Gizmodo)

23 February 2009

Mark Ruwedel's Desolate Western Rails

I was very pleased to see photographer Mark Ruwedel's work highlighted over at The Morning News, a smart and pretty web mag. Ruwedel is a large-format photographer who spent 12 years traversing western North America's abandoned railway lines of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a very nice gallery of large photos over at TMN, with a brief interview of Ruwedel by editor Rosencrans Baldwin.

The Yossi Milo Gallery in New York is hosting a solo exhibition of the project through March 7th, and the book Westward the Course of Empire was published last year.

There is also a sizable collection of photos at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, including some of Ruwedel's related project on abandoned western desert houses. If you've never lived in the western US, these photographs represent a more realistic impression of the landscape outside the cities than any others I've seen. Much has been written about the myth of "The West" as the land of sun, sand and new beginnings. Ruwedel's work, though, is more beautiful in its own desolate way: it speaks to the reality that remains when myths vanish.

(photo courtesy of TMN)

19 February 2009

The Hipster Must Die? Adbusters article generates 3000+ comments

I'm not an anarchist but I still like to read Adbusters, the sometimes frothing-at-the-mouth "anti-consumerist" magazine. It's good to keep an eye on the extreme ends of any debate, and Adbusters seems like the extreme left to me. I sympathize with some of the anti-consumer mentality but the occasional "death to the capitalists" rants send shivers up me timbers.

I didn't have the time or inclination to pore through the 3000+ comments on this article about the hipster-as-demise-of-the-counterculture, but I read a page or two. Basically the argument is that the self-absorbed, dance-club-frequenting, thrift-store-apparel-wearing cool kids should be fomenting some kind of social rebellion rather than pissing away their nights trying to get laid (or failing that, trying to get their pictures taken by "social bloggers"). Yawn. The comments were more amusing: one forwarded the economic thesis of the "productive" vs. the "consumer" hipster--the productive hipster buys his clothes from thrift stores, somehow subverting their original symbology. Imagine that! The consumers, of course, buy the same clothes from the consignment shops that the producers sold them to. I'll have to run that one by my micro-economist friend to see if it makes more sense to him than it did to me.

When I first ran across the magazine a couple of years ago on the newstands I was impressed by the graphic design and the thought-provoking and thought-out articles, but pieces like this are something of a letdown. Being so passionate that you are beyond hip or in denial of your desire to be hip seems to me the essence of one-upmans(hip).

18 February 2009

Flight 3400: A Few Good Links

There is an interesting Flash graphic over at the NYT. Kind of clunky but it gives you a visual on what happened. Also, over at Inquisitr there is a short piece on the Bombardier Q400 and landing gear problems that led to its being scrapped by Scandinavian Airlines. And finally (I'm not one of those airplane crash/conspiracy/pr0n freaks, honest!) a video of what looks to be one of the actual incidents the Scandinavian CEO was citing:

17 February 2009

Pulp Friction: Hard Case Crime's Retro Cover Art

When I was a kid I read whatever I could get my hands on, which meant trips to thrift stores. The books were dirt cheap and I could (and still can!) buy whatever I wanted. Of course, what I often wanted was gritty detective fiction written by Ross Thomas, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane and a passel of others. Can't say for certain, but the lurid covers may have had something to do with the initial appeal...maybe?

Covers like this one (left) from the 1970s also had to be removed--surgically cut off and preserved for, uh, storage. If my parents had seen these covers it would have been bye bye, blackbird. As I often had my nose in a book, my parents either assumed I was reading something harmless or they got tired of asking.

The original covers from the pulp magazines of the 1920s-1950s were both tamer and more provocative. The art was painted by legends like Robert McGinnis and Frank R. Paul. Beautiful art of heaving bosoms and barely constrained/restrained flesh, but not the soft core photography of some 70s covers. The women-in-peril (and women-AS-peril) themes of these earlier incarnations seem both more subversive and more gothic--qualities I didn't recognize at the time. Today there are volumes of this art available and possibly university MFA programs. I'm not a student but I am a fan, though the covers still have to remain hidden--this time from the kids rather than the 'rents.

Niche publisher Hard Case Crime has made a mission of resurrecting the pulp covers of the earlier era--with a twist: their covers are original commissions, not reprints. Many of the books are also originals and you can view the covers and read sample chapters here. These days I am spending more time in the fictional worlds of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, but I am a member of Hard Case's book club--you should always feed your inner curious-eleven-year-old.

15 February 2009

Amazing TED demo: Siftables--mini interactive computer blocks

I have nowhere near the tech savvy to even ponder the implications of "Siftables", alphabet block-sized computers that can sense their relationship with each other. The demo shows the blocks used as math and paint tools, word games (a la Boggle), storytelling tools and music mixers. I've seen earlier videos from MIT's Media Lab but this latest iteration seems more advanced.

There's more info over at the Media Lab's website. You can learn more about fourth-year doctoral candidate David Merrill there, as well.

14 February 2009

TypeBound: Deconstructing the book

An interesting project/exhibit over at the University of Central Florida Art Gallery. Titled TypeBound, it is a deconstruction of the book as object, including everything from sculpture to typewriter art. The site has some irritatingly fast (and small) animated GIF displays but there is a catalog download link available to peruse at your leisure. There's also a Flickr gallery of the exhibit's opening.

It's only a matter of time before someone at Make does something more interesting with a Kindle.

Nikolas Muray Advertising Photo Set on Flickr

A 42-photo set of Nikolas Muray's advertising work has been uploaded as part of the George Eastman House's ongoing Flickr Commons project. Muray was a Hungarian immigrant who attended school in Budapest and in 1913, with war imminent, made his way to New York. He found work as a printer in Brooklyn and opened a home studio in Greenwhich Village.

He quickly made a name for himself as a portrait photographer and was soon taking celebrity photos for Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New York Times. Later in his career Muray turned his hand to commercial ads, and it is these lusciously colorful photos that are on display at Flickr.

One of the juicy sidebars to Muray's life story: he was the lover of the inimitable Frida Kahlo for ten years (including during her marriage to Diego Rivera).

Whither the best weather?

I suppose a weather geek can spend all day on the multitudinous sites but a good snapshot is always available on Intellicast. Your local days are broken down into hourly chunks and there's plenty of geeky satellite and radar tools available.

Also intriguing is DryDay.com, which doesn't give you anything but a bar graph showing "risky" days (on which rain is more likely) and the eponymous dry days. This doesn't sound spectacular except that the forecasts are available for up to 18 months into the future--for a fee. (The 30-day forecast is free). Good for planning your snot-nosed brat's birthday party in those risky spring months.

13 February 2009

Hollis Can You Hear Me?: Bill Gibson's blog ramping up fiction entries

Any fan of what is sometimes called "speculative fiction" should check out the recent entries on William Gibson's blog. There are a growing number of snippets from what appears to be a novel in progress. The characters are from the fantastic novel Pattern Recognition, and some reference is made to the events in that book. It's possible these are just random sketches, of course, but in my book anything by Gibson is worth checking out.

WG has been an astute observer of our culture over the last 25 years, and the books keep getting better. As the future of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive continues to morph into the present, he seems to be consistently a step or two ahead of things. His books are eerily prescient (and a lot more fun than Alvin Toffler).

09 February 2009

Officium: Morales, Gesualdo & The Tudors

Being both cheap and lazy has its drawbacks. For example, being too cheap to subscribe to premium cable channels means I am usually watching shows like Showtime's The Tudors when they hit DVD. Being too lazy to properly study, say, the history of Renaissance and Reformation era polyphony, means I tend to conflate these eras and their respective composers. Put the two together, like I did a few weeks ago, and you end up with gigantic, blood-spattered historical nightmare.

Cristobal de Morales is one of those composers you'll never have heard of if you don't listen to choral music. Even if you do, he's not the first one you're likely to hear. Someone like Tallis, Byrd or Palestrina is more likely, but Morales did write one piece that has earned him a bit more noteriety in recent years. The Hilliard Ensemble's mind-blowing recording of his Officium Defunctorum (ECM[21525]), in which the choral ensemble is accompanied by master jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a relative bestseller when it was released in 1994, and I picked it up due to both a budding love of choral music and the killer looking cover. The music really is fantastic, if you haven't heard it. It might be hard to imagine a choral group, their soaring harmonies rising up in the fantastic acoustic of an Austrian monastery, a gorgeous saxaphone now rising above them, now circling, now just echoing....For the purist it may come as an affront, but for a music lover it is pure joy.

Stay with me, now: because of the Morales disc, I began buying whatever ECM release looked vaguely interesting, and one of those happened to be another by the Hilliard Ensemble: Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories. Gesualdo is a more obscure composer than Morales, but his sordid life story makes for compelling, if gruesome reading. In short, he is most remembered for the murder of his wife and her lover, which couple he reportedly caught in flagrante delicto. He left their mutilated corpses on the steps of the palace and fled to Gesualdo, taking refuge from any possible retribution. The rest of the ugly story from Wikipedia:
Details on the murders are not lacking, because the depositions of witnesses to the magistrates have survived in full. While they disagree on some details, they agree on the principal points, and it is apparent that Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, "she's not dead yet!" The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head; when he was found, he was dressed in women's clothing (specifically, Maria's night dress). His own clothing was found piled up by the bedside, unbloodied. One suggested explanation for this is that Gesualdo first murdered his wife, and after this turned his attentions to the Duke, forcing him to don his lover's clothing, most probably to humiliate him.

The murders were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation; the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print; but nothing was done to apprehend the Prince of Venosa. The police report [2] from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.

Accounts on events after the murders differ. It was said that Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to contemporary sources he "swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body"); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo had employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event; however, new evidence from contemporary sources reveals that these were fictitious rumors.

Needless to say, the Hilliard Ensemble's recording is excellent. The all male group has an affinity for the music and the engineering is top-notch, but I have to admit that reading Gesualdo's history has colored my listening. It is hard to listen and not hear a tortured, fearful and possibly repentant genius at work. All of which made for watching the penultimate episode of The Tudors a peculiarly eerie experience. If you've watched the tense, bodice-ripping drama, you'll know that Season Two is the crescendo of Henry VIII's reign, and that episode in particular is a gory one in which many of the "conspirators" responsible for the bewitchment of the king with Anne Boleyn pay the ultimate price. Most were lucky to have been simply beheaded rather than boiled alive(!) Watching the heads roll with the story of Gesualdo in mind was worse that watching one of those back to back to back marathons of The First 48. The Tudors is engaging throughout the first two seasons, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the ultimate egocentric and the sensational Natalie Dormer as Anne. The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent. No, it's not perfectly historically accurate but it's close enough for government work.

My horror show experience of shouldn't put you off listening to any of this great music or, for that matter, watching the slick, sexy and undeniably fun television show. You should be able to find Seasons One and Two for a decent price. And if you hurry you'll be able to watch them all in time for Season Three, due on Showtime April 15th.

I'll be waiting for the DVD, though.

(from Amazon.com)

Season One:

Season Two:

06 February 2009

DVD: Jules, the Diva and me

I can't say that Diva (1982) introduced me to foreign film, but it sure seemed a revelation at the time. More than the stylish sets or the huge swaths of (French) blues and reds (now referenced as elements of the "cinema du look"), it was the sheer attitude of the venture that won my heart. Our hero Jules is a moped-riding postman with an opera fixation that is concentrated on an American soprano, Cynthia Hawkins (played by the real-life! soprano Wilhemina Wiggins Fernandez). He also has a seriously cool stereo system and recording gear that allow him to make a bootleg tape of the singer, who has a purist's view of music and the audience and refuses all attempts to record her.

This would be story enough for most small films today, but this is meant to be a thriller--based on the short novel of the same name--and there is a second plot involving record pirates, a prostitution/sex slavery ring, mobsters and corrupt cops. The bonus here is the incomparable couple Gorodish and Alba, he a chain smoking Zen philosopher, she a roller skating teenage shoplifter/model. They live in an open, industrial loft that is impossibly stylish and lead mysterious, impossibly swank lives.

I suppose it would be relatively easy to sum up the plot, but you can find that anywhere. You probably won't find much referencing the beautifully sung aria from La Wally that may make you love opera, the Gauloises smoke that flits through Gorodish's loft with a hint of blue, the giant jigsaw puzzle (which I've searched for for years), or the smooth-skinned, sly Alba--a girl any 19-year old could fall in love with. You can find film critics waxing snobbery about how the film looks dated because it has been so imitated.

Do yourself a favor and don't listen to them. Here is a snippet (note the mirror-shaded Taiwanese gangsters behind Jules!):

(credits via Wikipedia):

Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Produced by Claudie Ossard
Irène Silberman
Serge Silberman
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Jean Van Hamme
Based on the novel by Delacorta
Starring Frédéric Andréi
Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez
Richard Bohringer
Music by Vladimir Cosma
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Editing by Monique Prim
Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) March 11, 1981
Running time 117 min (France)
123 min (United States)
Country France
Language French
Budget 7.5m ff

05 February 2009

Hot-Rod iPod Mod: Rapid Repair's 240gig Retrofit

If you're anything like me, poor bastard, your iPod was full after a few weeks. Diligently uploading about 10-15 percent of my pop/rock/country collection and a very puny portion of jazz and classical maxed out my 30-gig iPod video long ago. Anything added now requires removal of something else. Yes, there's probably a lot of junk on there, but removing it is a hassle I just don't want to deal with. This is the problem with technology in a gluttonous consumer culture--you can never keep up. Even my tower computer's hard drive is giving me ominous warnings about lack of disc space.

Financial realities being what they are, it's not likely I'll be able to splurge ($295) on Rapid Repair's solution to the iPod problem; and for me it would be a stopgap, anyway. Just eyeballing my music collection tells me I'd need maybe three of these 240 gb hard drives--and I'm obviously still buying the stuff. I'm also pondering re-ripping the whole mess at a higher bitrate, which uses up even more space but sounds better through my stereo. I suppose the ideal solution would be to have my entire library in lossless format stored on a personal satellite radio channel that is playable from a Nano-sized device. Is that asking too much?

For those who can afford it, this is the bestest, mostest upgrade available for now.

(photo via Wikimedia commons subject to GNU license)

02 February 2009

Waiting for Neko: A Mini-Documentary on YouTube

Fans of a certain kind of alternative music are waiting quietly for Neko Case's new disc Middle Cyclone, due on March 3, 2009. Case's powerful voice, distinctive songcraft and fine recordings stand out as among the best alternative/independent music of the decade.

While surfing around reading about Ms. Case in anticipation of the new record (and revisiting her 2001 EP Canadian Amp for review on the surethings music blog How to Hear), I ran across this video via Jon Rauhouse's site.

I've enjoyed watching Case mature into a full-fledged artist, though the transformation has been subtle. It would have been a challenge to improve on her second record, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000), but in the years since she has gone from strength to strength. The video should provide the uninitiated (under-rock-dwellers) with an idea of her particular charms. Those who know her well will get a sense of the maturity and artistic self possession she has cultivated over the years.