Milk, Jens and Third: A few of my favorite things..

I had originally hoped to start the new year here with another “Best beats” post similar to last year’s, but as I went to work on the year-end summary, the list format just wasn’t working for me.. I was fortunate enough to engage with art of so many different varieties in the past year, that a bulleted list just didn’t seem to do it justice. Here’s my attempt at encapsulating a banner year of artistic appreciation chronologically-ish.

When I began to think back on all of the live music I have witnessed in the past year, it was especially hard to choose a favorite. And then, my mind drifted back to a lovely spring evening in the history-filled Old Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin’s infamous Bascom Hill. Jens Lekman is a musical genius, and his performance that evening was breathtaking.

Running late to the show, which I was staffing as part of my internship duties with a music promoter, I stumbled into the theater just in time to catch the end of Lekman’s sound check – a nearly private performance of “Your Arms Around Me,” off of the Swede’s critically-acclaimed and fan-adored 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala. Later that evening, before a packed house of university hipsters happy to have such a wonderful excuse to spend a Sunday night avoiding the library, Lekman and his band lilted through their set list with a whimsical and charming style that filled the room. This show certainly deserves the stamp of “best show of the year” from me.

Springtime was home to a number of other fantastic shows which served as excellent distractions to my final semester as a college student in Madison. Leslie Hall made me a believer, once more, in the power of the gem sweater with her sparkling (though too short) set at the High Noon in March. Stars sparkled at the Barrymore. Ra Ra Riot proved why they’ve received blog buzz up to wazoo — these kids are going places fast. Tegan and Sara were their adorable, witty selves — though the mostly 18-minus audience of screaming adolescent girls made me feel out of place and… uncomfortable. And in May, at the Annex, The Kills killed. Their shows have a performance art, voyeuristic quality to them – like you’re watching a private, intimate moment between lovers while peaking through their living room window.

The spring also brought with it the release of my favorite album of the year. Around a month after the Lekman show, on April 29, I ran to the record store to pick up Portishead‘s first original release in over a decade, Third. To say that the album exceeded my expectations would be one sin of an understatement. The album is brilliant, continuing Beth Gibbons and company’s pension for music that creates the soundtrack of loneliness and despair. The single “The Rip,” featured in the video below, is a particular favorite of mine. This is music that, much like P-Head’s previous releases, will stand the test of time and cement their position as rock, er, so-called “trip hop,” legends.

And then it was summer. The official new owner of a very expensive piece of paper, I began waiting tables with the same zeal I had usually reserved for racing through poorly-written essays toward the finish line of a rapidly-approaching due-date. I also sold edible, flower-shaped fruit baskets to middle-aged women. But more importantly than that, it was my last summer of pure “freedom.” Of course, I saw the Sex and the City movie. And of course, I cried. This was required — otherwise, I risked losing the precious gay card (on which I’d only recently had my credit limit increased..). And there were Hellboy and Twilight, both of which were less impressive. Thanks to more recently viewed films like Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk (which I’ll talk about more later), the year’s unimpressive cinematic lineup was mostly salvaged in my mind.

The summer’s main jewel was a weekend trip to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival. The hot, summer weekend spent out in the sun basking in glorious sets from Animal Collective, !!!, Dodos and M. Ward, to name just a few of the highlights, was a fantastic send-off to summer, and an excellent preview to the city which I would shortly thereafter call home. Bon Iver was a particularly great way to wind down from Sunday’s craziness, as his music played just as well to the sweaty, dehydrated masses as it did at the Orpheum Stage Door for his April show in Madison. Only disappointments: Vampire Weekend‘s far too tame set (are they the most overrated band of the year? Discuss) and missing Cut Copy‘s set due to their tardiness and my own lack of sobriety/patience.

Since calling Chicago my permanent home, my financial position has precluded enjoying as much live music as I would’ve liked to, but I still managed to make it out of the apartment for quite a few notable shows: Andrew Bird, free of charge, at Jay Pritzker Pavilion; Lykke Li, bouncing around the Empty Bottle stage; El Guincho, launching a hipster dance pit to their infectious fusion beats. In early December, Amanda Palmer played the Metro, proving that she can rock the stage solo just as well as when she performed as half of the Dresden Dolls earlier in the year at a January show at the Vic. Another bonus of the Palmer show, which surprisingly had the most diverse audience in terms of age and appearance of any other show attended this year, was the on-stage appearance of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman read had an excerpt from his upcoming book collaboration with Palmer. The show kicked outrageous amounts of ass — don’t miss any opportunity that you have to see this fabulous performer live. You won’t regret it. Not a chance.

And finally, I have to give a shout-out to the movie that really made me cry like a baby — moving me to the core with its ironic relevance to today’s political landscape facing the LGBT community. Milk is an incredible film, and it (as well as Sean Penn) deserves all of the accolades coming its way. Harvey Milk died at the hands of misunderstanding and ignorance of the same grain as that which allowed Prop. 8 to pass in California. Although it is true, as the movie said, that “you have to give them hope,” hope alone is no longer going to cut it. I hope that this film inspires all those who see it to call out and stand against prejudice and double-standards whenever you see them — such as the apparently new law that it is illegal to fly while Muslim.

Yay for art! I need a nap.


From vampires to scientologists, a weekend in the city

Temperatures in the windy city have begun to plunge, transforming what was formerly a leisurely fifteen minute walk to the train from my apartment into a brutally chilly venture. Although the weather makes it tempting to stay indoors, there’s simply been too many exciting things going on around the city to miss out on. I trudge forth into the winter “wonderland.”

Friday night, original plans fell through and my boo and I decided to go and see what all this Twilight fuss was about. Much like the respective Jonas Brothers-Miley Cyrus-owning a cell phone before high school crazes of teens and tweens in the past year, I had apparently missed the boat on why the Stephenie Meyer novel was on the “hot list” of every girl and sexually-confused boy between the ages of 11 and 16. With our sudden lacking of plans and mutual fandom of vampire cinema taken into account, we decided to brave the crowds and shell out the dough to check out Hollywood’s latest box office sales savior.

TWe definitely underestimated the militancy of the crowd, even at the latest Friday night showing, which was predominately a non-teen demographic. Ten minutes before the show and we were left scrambling for far-left, second-row seats — only to avoid front-row seats. My neck and upper back have still not forgiven me for that lapse of judgment on the seating situation.

And, unfortunately, neither have my eyes and ears. Yes, the film was entertaining — the score, by Carter Burwell, was quite good and the eye candy was pleasing, for two of its strongest points. A vampire love story told competently from innocent beginning to dramatic end. That said, the storyline was somewhat tedious and one-dimensional, owing to the pedestrian acting, save from the odd, jarring special effects that took the visual experience of the film from average to ridiculously hokey in a matter of seconds.

It also didn’t aide my experience when I later learned that Meyer is a devout Mormon, planning to donate 10 percent of her earnings from the film to the Church of Latter Day Saints, one of the leading contributing organizations to the effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. This, compounded by the fact that one of the nation’s largest theater chains — Cinemark/Century Theatres — is owned by CEO Alan Stock, a man who donated $9999 to support Proposition 8’s passage equals lots of angsty vampire-fueled dollars for the Religious Right. What will they think of next? A teenage zombie love drama? (I hope so!)

But it wasn’t all bad. The raspberry martini at the attached bar/bowling alley wasn’t too shabby — I think it was called a 7-10 Split. So deliciously clever. And the film’s director Catherine Hardwicke’s breaking the record of highest opening weekend at the box office ($70.6 million) for a female director deserves some props.

Saturday evening was spent learning more about soul-suckers of another kind: Scientologists. After a day spent window-shopping in Lakeview, I wandered to A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town to catch a performance of the Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. The hour-long musical was very amusing, with the troupe of kiddies satirically telling the story of L. Ron Hubbard, dianetics, the E-meter and auditing through the ages. The staging and production values were extremely low-budget, which added to the allure of the message in the intimate space.

The show was first presented in New York in 2003, resulting in the threat of a lawsuit from the Church of Scientology, unless the word “unauthorized” was added to the title. Probably a good idea for the writers — the scientologists have some financial muscle behind them, to the tune of an estimated $500 million+ annual revenue.

Scientology has been in the news this week as Germany’s attempt to ban the cult, er religion, from practicing, on the grounds of its coercion of vulnerable people into financial ruin and personal harm, was dropped. In addition, just yesterday, Mario Majorski, an ex-Sociologist entered a celebrity centre in Los Angeles holding samurai swords and was shot to death by security guards. The man had previously demanded the church pay him $50,000 for “ruining his life.”

How could a loving religion be so life-ruining? What could inspire such seemingly unprovoked rage? As I started to do my homework, I had an answer that made it make a little bit more sense:

[Homosexuals] should be taken from the society as rapidly as possible and uniformly institutionalized; for here is the level of the contagion of immorality, and the destruction of ethicsNo social order will survive which does not remove these people from its midst.

That’s L. Ron Hubbard, himself, explaining his views on homosexuality. And I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Church of Scientology’s brilliance. Any readers have any other favorite nuggets of truth from Mr. Hubbard?