10/10/07 12:00am

Movies about suicide tend to paint bleak, unhappy pictures of the world we live in. Wristcutters: A Love Story  boldly takes the opposite tack, passing on all that plumbing-the-depths-of-the-human-condition garbage to suggest that killing yourself might actually be a fun opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth.

The setup — in which moony-eyed placeholder Patrick Fugit searches for his lost love in a poorly explained afterlife populated only by other suicides — smacks of shallow gimmickry, and while director Goran Dukic gestures towards morbid black comedy and some kind of metaphysical angst, Wristcutters is in the end just a sleepy road movie too lazy to capitalize effectively on its own conceit.

The sheer brashness of the concept at least promises shock value and bong-session philosophizing, and the glib treatment of suicide is certainly exploitative, but the movie never really manages to be edgy or provocative: Dukic has nothing urgent to say about life or death, or about the reasons that some people choose to forego the one for the other. But even he must agree that life is too precious to waste on movies this vacant, glib, and cowardly.

Opens October 19

10/10/07 12:00am

Baltimore’s Celebration delivers on a steadily mounting stream of hype with The Modern Tribe, a sprawling psychedelic swirl of a record. Produced by TV on the Radio’s David Andrew Sitek, Tribe has some of the scope and grandeur of that band’s sound, thanks mostly to the dramatic wail of singer Katrina Ford (who also sang on the first TVOTR EP). Sitek’s production is densely textured, but it doesn’t overwhelm the foundation provided by Sean Antanaitis’s organ (Antanaitis and Ford are also married) and David Bergander’s drumming. If anything, it seems like Sitek could have reined them in a little: the trio can kick up quite a storm on its own, and the songs sometimes get lost in the ecstatic freakout-breakdowns. For the most part, though, that ecstatic release is just the point, and at its best — like on the standout ‘Heartbreak’ — Celebration’s music is so passionate and nakedly emotional that a few detours through the psychedelic wilderness are well worth it for the big rock euphoria payoff.                            

10/10/07 12:00am

It would be easy to write off Jens Lekman as yet another fragile Swedish songwriter who plays mostly upbeat songs that are actually about heartache. In ways that would be infuriating from almost any other artist, he’s endlessly self-referencing and tours with a gimmicky (but very talented) all-female backing band. Yet somehow, despite his precious, funny, sometimes melancholy personality being the sole focus of everything he does, his music is still singularly great. All of Lekman’s records are collections of songs about random funny things that happen to him, sometimes surprisingly poignant and sometimes not. Night Falls Over Kortedala finds him in Berlin trying to convince a lesbian friend’s dad the two are a couple, in an emergency room after a hug gone awry (Jens Lekman in a nutshell), and at a party, trying in vain to flirt with a deaf girl. Nothing’s really changed on his end, though something about Kortedala feels cleaner than his past records.

Lekman’s basic layout was that his songs were sort of played on a guitar or ukelele while random string or harp samples actually held the tune. He’s either using less samples on this record, or he’s working the same amount in a lot more smoothly — in either case, it’s harder to hear the rough edges. In turn, though, it feels like he just recently discovered an orchestra at his fingertips. Big, grand songs like ‘And I Remember Every Kiss’ and tighter ones like ‘Your Arms Around Me’ alike get the John Williams treatment. The only exception is the comparably bare ‘I Am Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You,’ which is also possibly the best song on the record. It is, as the song says, “brutally, honestly cold,” but what really makes it is the sample — four swung bars of a tinkling piano looped endlessly, sounding like it’s rubbing itself off the record every time it repeats. It’s got the warm, almost lo-fi sound of his early EPs that, though largely missing from this record, pops up just enough to make clear that Lekman hasn’t really changed at all.

10/10/07 12:00am

Though it’s hard to imagine them recording for anybody else, Old Time Relijun can seem a little out of place on the K Records roster: while their twee labelmates mine childhood memories for nostalgia, Arrington de Dionyso and company seem more inspired by all the monsters that must have been hiding under their beds. The band’s lurching Beefheart rhythms, crazed vocals, and wailing horns — all present in full effect on their new album, Catharsis in Crisis — are enough to give a small child nightmares, or to encourage anyone else to really cut loose and hold some kind of pagan animal-sacrifice ritual. Old Time Relijun have always managed to be both tuneful and abrasive, in the pocket and totally off-kilter, and that balancing act shows no signs of growing old on Catharsis. Songs like ‘Indestructible Life!’ and ‘Daemon Meeting’ are executed with irrepressible energy and flair, while ‘Garden of Pomegranates’ and ‘Dark Matter’ could soundtrack some yet-to-be-made Jim Jarmusch film-noir. With all the rhythmic spasms and guttural exhortations, Old Time Relijun sounds like indie rock speaking in tongues, only more fun.   

09/26/07 12:00am

The Pipettes are so easily reduced to a blurb — a girl group, with all the wardrobe coordination and synchronized dance moves that implies, but for indie-pop fans — that at first glance it might be tempting to dismiss the whole venture as merely a clever bit of opportunism and commercial calculation. But to be fair, all the original girl groups of the 1950s and 60s were no less calculated enterprises. More importantly, We Are the Pipettes is executed with such charm, style, and terrific pop instincts that the band needs no justification beyond its music. The record itself is agreeably concise, running through 14 songs and a gamut of retro styles in a little more than half an hour before it ever has a chance to wear out its welcome. The disco-fied ‘Pull Shapes’ is the only flat-out homerun here, but (relatively) lesser tracks like ‘Dirty Mind’ and ‘It Hurts to See You Dance So Well’ are still enough fun that you might not even mind when they start to spur all manner of obnoxiously twee dance parties.

09/26/07 12:00am

The songs on Iron & Wine’s first album came cloaked in a hushed, intimate sound that made it almost a surprise to learn that they were recorded by a Florida film professor and not some heartbroken teenager singing to the night sky in the backwoods of Appalachia. Five years later, Sam Beam, the man behind the moniker, has an established place in the music landscape as one of those sensitive indie singer-songwriters and a third album, The Shepherd’s Dog, out on Sub Pop.

Rather than let the back-porch lo-fi sound of The Creek Drank the Cradle turn into tired shtick, Beam has expanded Iron & Wine’s musical palette with each release. The Shepherd’s Dog follows that course, dressing up the songs in busier arrangements and more musical styles than ever before. The delicate melodies and whispery vocals remain a constant, but here they are also laden with the production wizardry of Brian Deck, who makes his presence felt from the opening of the record.

The tinkling pianos, layered background vocals and electronic squiggles of ‘Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car’ start the album on a bold note. ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’ takes a stab at (not exactly raucous) roadhouse R&B, and the buoyant single ‘Boy With a Coin’ gets carried along by handclaps and steel guitar. Less successful is ‘White Tooth Man,’ which has a stinging electric guitar part, but never manages to actually rock — accomplished as the production is, at times it can feel more like pretty adornment than a necessary component of the music.

Ultimately, Beam has a lot more in common with the preciousness of Sufjan Stevens than with modern-day desperadoes like Will Oldham and Jason Molina, so he’s most comfortable with settings that don’t challenge him too much; the warm church-organ of ‘Lovesong of the Buzzard’ is a much better fit than the faux-dub textures of ‘Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog).’ Overall, the hits outnumber the misses, but it’s hard to believe that Beam can continue on this more-is-more trajectory without running into diminishing returns. If he keeps writing songs as good as the showstopping closer, ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’, however, he won’t need to shoehorn new instruments into every track.

09/12/07 12:00am

Like the “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootise Roll Pop?” commercial, Silk asks: how many gorgeously rendered landscapes and meticulously constructed period sets does it take to make you care about one rich guy’s feelings? Unlike that sneaky owl, though, Silk doesn’t rely on lazy shortcuts — you know, like an engaging story, or rich characterization, or dramatic tension.

Canadian director Francois Girard takes his time setting up the plot, in which local businessman Alfred Molina sends young newlywed Michael Pitt to Japan to procure the silkworm eggs on which the future prosperity of their scenic French village depends. The plot may not be Casablanca, but the film has an appealing specificity of time and place, which makes it all the more frustrating that Girard declines to mine the setting and milieu — rural France and feudal Japan in the 1860s, silk production and international smuggling — for anything more than eye candy.

Instead Girard, whose last film was The Red Violin, another stately period piece, focuses all his attention on Pitt’s romantic obsession with a Japanese concubine and the toll it takes on his marriage to Keira Knightley. The story plays out without any real substance, though, as if Girard filmed a synopsis, not a finished script. What meager plot he can be bothered to provide is often related through Pitt’s clunky voiceover narration; presumably, Girard was afraid to actually dramatize his story, lest he interrupt the mood of repressed longing. In the end, Silk suffocates in its own self-importance, packing about the same emotional wallop as a particularly majestic travel brochure.

Opens September 14

08/01/07 12:00am

If audiences approach Common’s new album, Finding Forever, with unfairly high expectations, the Chicago rapper has only himself to blame. Common pulled off one of the neatest tricks of his career with Be in 2005. Thanks to sympathetic production from fellow Chi-town stalwart Kanye West and a newfound sense of focus and discipline, Be was Common’s most consistent record since he first turned heads with his mid-90s conscious classic Resurrection. Even more impressively, it managed to stake out a new territory in the musical (and commercial) landscape for Common, who flourished in the positive-rap boom of the late 90s but seemed unlikely to ever shake the backpacker tag and break out to a wide audience.

It should be no surprise, then, that Finding Forever repeats the basic formula of Be’s success: lush production spearheaded by Kanye West, a concise running time mostly uncluttered by skits or filler, and a few crossover-friendly guest spots. Sadly, this time around the approach yields greatly diminished returns. Common has always had a conspicuously soft side, but the music here skips smooth and heads straight to gooey. Kanye deserves credit for continuing to step outside his sped-up-sample comfort zone, but lacking memorable hooks, most of the songs get stuck in a mire of MOR nu-soul pleasantness, all cooed background vocals and tinkly vibes.

‘Misunderstood’ dives into cliché with an extended Nina Simone sample, cashing in on the hook without bothering to build a new song around it. ‘I Want You’ suggests previously unknown reasons to hate, and the Lily Allen collaboration ‘Drivin’ Me Wild’ is a future easy-listening radio staple. DJ Premier makes a welcome appearance scratching on ‘The Game’, but his presence only serves to underline Common’s lapse into self-parody, never more so than when he raps, “My daughter found Nemo/I found the new Primo.” (Perhaps he’s courting the middle-aged suburban mother set?) Common may have found a new niche, but it is a place where few of his long-time fans will care to join him.   

08/01/07 12:00am

How, oh how have we managed to survive so very, very long without video screens in the back of our taxis? What were we doing with all that time on our hands? All those under-stimulated moments when we were forced to talk with our companions or, even worse, with the cabbie? Thank god we won’t have to think about stuff anymore. Thank you advertisers, thank you Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). Thank you all.

Where I hailed him: Gramercy
Where he hails from: Ghana
Years as a cabbie: 12
Previous profession: Hospital worker
I don’t know much about it, but I don’t think it’s going to work very well. The passengers have the computer in  back where we can’t see what’s happening, so they’ll mess it up. But it’s not between us — it’s between the medallion owners and the TLC

Where I hailed him: Greenpoint
Where he hails from: Bangladesh
Years as a cabbie: 2
Previous profession: Fast food worker
It’s really horrible for us because when you turn on the meter the sound and the ads on the screen start and it’s noisy and you can’t control it, only the passenger can. And it’s very expensive to install, and all the medallion owners are being forced to install them. And always with electronics the passengers can be very stupid — especially at night they get drunk and they play with the screen — pushing, pushing, pushing it — they’ll break it, and it will be very expensive to fix.

Where I hailed him: East Village
Where he hails from: Senegal
Years as a cabbie: 1
Previous profession: Parking attendant
Yeah, it’s a good idea. Wait — who has to pay for this? The medallion owners? Oh, no, it’s a bad idea then. If someone else is paying for it, why not. But if the medallion owners are paying for it then they will just pass the costs down to the drivers. So the drivers will end up paying for it. Always. .

Where I hailed him: Lower East Side
Where he hails from: Bolivia
Years as a cabbie: 3
Previous profession: N/A
It costs money, and we’ve gotta see how it comes out. I don’t know how it’s gonna be, and it’s gonna probably be bad in the beginning. But you know, everything goes bad in the beginning. It costs — I’m paying $1,500. I could get it for free, but I’d rather pay $1,500 because they said I could get advertising money. So that’s gonna be a little better. If I own it, you know, it’s mine. I don’t have to worry about nothing, no one taking money from me or nothing. A lot of people don’t like it, because you have to pay, the credit card machine, all that…

07/18/07 12:00am

If director Phil Grabsky is really searching for Mozart, as the title of his new documentary would have you believe, he doesn’t seem to be looking very hard. While Grabsky and many of the talking heads who populate his film acknowledge many of the challenges inherent in trying to understand a figure as significant as Mozart — separating the man from the myth, actually explaining the nature of his brilliance without simply repeating the fact of his genius over and over again — they only sporadically manage to do anything about it. For his part, Grabsky takes an utterly conventional approach, mixing filmed performance segments, slow pans over 18th-century paintings, interviews with musicians and Mozart scholars, and solemn, deep-voiced narration. It’s no surprise, then, that the final product is hard to distinguish from something you might see on PBS, the History Channel, or A&E’s Biography (of which Grabsky is a veteran). This is not to say the film is totally without insight, but it never scrapes together an overarching thesis about Mozart either, except that he was a genius and that that movie Amadeus was, like, totally inaccurate, man. That may be forgivable in a 44-minute television episode, but in a two-hour-plus film it makes for a grueling slog.

Opens July 20 at Cinema Village