27 December 2006



This was a profoundly mediocre year for new albums: nothing here is fit to spit-shine the shoes of my top five or six from last year. Maybe I'm finding more solace in mixes and shuffles these days. Anyway, I admit I had difficulty selecting a single favorite LP this year. What ended up # 1 did so because I continue to get more out of it on each listen.


Not an entirely original choice: practically every best-of list I've scanned over this year has a place for it. Whatever--this finally lives up to the promise of their wonderful debut EP from three years ago, and then some. Still adventurously constructing their own meta-genre as they go along, this stuff is dense, demanding, draining and ultimately exhilarating, reaping vast rewards for those willing to spend a little time finding out what's all there.

2. Belle and Sebastian - THE LIFE PURSUIT

Having stopped trying to make another record like IF YOU'RE FEELING SINISTER last time out, they continue to hone and perfect their stylistic dexterity. From swaggering bubble-glam and blue-eyed soul to new wave brit-pop and squishy '70s funk, nearly every song here could be a single. And if the very best one (the resonant, chiming "Dress Up In You") could still neatly fit on SINISTER, it proves they haven't at all lost what made them so special and worthy in the first place.

3. Regina Spektor - BEGIN TO HOPE

Somehow this lovably quirky expatriate Russian singer/pianist remained under my radar until she released her third album this year. Her first for a major label, it makes no qualms about wanting to sound more commercial and produced than what came before. All the more impressive then that she remains as much of a kook as ever (the way she spurts out, "So cheap and JU-cee!" on "That Time") while the radio-friendliest songs (especially "Better" and, ahem, "On The Radio") convey a great deal of artistic growth as well.

4. Roisin Murphy - RUBY BLUE

Beguiling and often frightening ex-Moloko vocalist Murphy works with innovative producer Matthew Herbert and makes the forward-looking record Madonna should have done instead of the comfortably-retro one she ended up doing. Of course, this is all old news to everyone but us Americans (it was released in Europe last year), but better late than never that we get to revel in the 21th Century disco of our slinkiest, snappiest dreams.

5. Paul Brill - HARPOONER

The best singer-songwriter you've never heard of continues the sonic experimentation he began on his last record, and pushes it almost to the point that his pop songs are sound collages and vice versa. Every time he comes this close to losing us in a sea of layered effects and tape loops, an old-fashioned melodic hook pulls us back in, like the sea shanty chorus of "Don't Tell Them", which itself is a refreshing plea for not giving every single thought away.


Following an eye-opening live album and ever more astonishing stints with The New Pornographers, her songwriting finally begins to match her peerless siren of a voice. It's also harder to determine exactly what genre her music falls into (Alt-country? Alt-pop? Alt-gospel?)--always an encouraging sign for an artist destined for timelessness. The best lyric of the year: "I leave the party at 3 A.M., alone, thank God."


She got dropped from her Major Label because she refused to prune this 23-song sophomore effort down to 16, and good for her. It plays like a bizarro-world cast recording for seven or eight musicals stitched together, many of them fabulous. Oddly enough, I adore the silly throwaways most, like the meow-saturated, 56-second-long "Pounce" or the self-explanatory "Yodel" (I dare Gwen Stefani to come up with such a hummable hook!), though nobody in their right mind could possibly hate the excellent Cyndi Lauper and K.D. Lang duets.

8. Junior Boys - SO THIS IS GOODBYE

Although it loses steam towards the end (despite a Sinatra cover!), the first six songs make for a compelling sequence that rivals anything on this list. As heartbroken and seductive as ever, this mostly eschews the start/stop rhythmic crunch of the first record for cool, smooth, majestically perfect synth-pop meant for middle-of-the-night, drown-your-sorrows-in-gin listening. The grand exception: the itchy, pulsating single "In the Morning", which doesn't stick out so much as expose the turmoil (and burgeoning enlightenment) within.

9. James Hunter - PEOPLE GONNA TALK

Singer/guitarist Hunter isn't exactly an original; just as Chris Isaak worships at the altar of Roy Orbison, this guy bows down to Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, and all the other greats of post-Elvis, pre-Beatles R&B. But Hunter more than knows his stuff--he writes sharp songs, he never overplays, and he keeps the arrangements clean, crisp and subtle. That he's both white and British is unexpected and yes, fascinating; it's also irrelevant when the music's this strong and affecting.


After two interesting albums of covers and a slightly overproduced one of originals, Gryner finally delivers another solid album of her own material--perhaps her best to date. The overall mood is slow and sparse, which is not to say it's reserved or minimalist. "Girls Are Murder", "All Time Low" and "Queen of the Boys" are all ringing, anthemic pop while "Almighty Love" could be her greatest composition to date: if its soaring, magnificently warm invitation of a chorus doesn't give her a deservedly larger audience, nothing will.

ALSO RECOMMENDED (in alphabetical order):

Calexico - GARDEN RUIN
Herbert - SCALE
The Hidden Cameras - AWOO
Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins - RABBIT FUR COAT
Joanna Newsom - YS
Puffy AmiYumi - SPLURGE
Sufjan Stevens - THE AVALANCHE
Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 - TICK, TICK, TICK

all tracks are from the albums listed above, unless otherwise noted:

01 Marit Bergman, "No Party" (single/mp3)
02 The BellRays, "Third Time's The Charm"
03 Regina Spektor, "On The Radio"
04 Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On"
05 Hot Chip, "Boy From School" (from The Warning)
06 TV On The Radio, "Hours"
07 Belle and Sebastian, "The Blues Are Still Blue"
08 Puffy AmiYumi, "The Story"
09 The Hidden Cameras, "Awoo"
10 Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, "Rise Up With Fists!"
11 James Hunter, "People Gonna Talk"
12 Paul Brill, "Don't Tell Them"
13 Camera Obscura, "If Looks Could Kill" (from Let's Get Out of This Country)
14 Emm Gryner, "All Time Low"
15 Roisin Murphy, "Through Time"
16 Sufjan Stevens, "Dear Mr. Supercomputer"
17 Nellie McKay with Cyndi Lauper, "Beecharmer"
18 Calexico, "Cruel"
19 Junior Boys, "In The Morning"
20 Pet Shop Boys, "Integral"

Why, The Village Voice, of course. No one looked good when they fired veteran music critic
Robert Christgau (plus half of their film critics). Thankfully the Consumer Guide has been since resurrected.

20 December 2006


Time for another Chlotrudis poll: following favorite horror, foreign language, and arty films (see LISTS to the right), this year it’s documentaries. And my top twenty are…

01 The "Up" Series (dir: Michael Apted, 1964-2005)
02 Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2004)
03 Double Dare (Amanda Micheli, 2004)
04 Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles et al, 1975)
05 Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 1986)
06 Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
07 Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
08 I Like Killing Flies (Matt Mahurin, 2004)
09 Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2003)
10 The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000)
11 The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker, 2004)
12 Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
13 Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994)
14 This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
15 Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1980)
16 Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
17 OT: Our Town (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, 2002)
18 Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
19 Murderball (Henry Alan Rubin et al, 2005)
20 Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001)

When I started thinking about this list over a month ago, I knew right away what would be number one. Michael Apted’s conceptually brilliant project tracks the lives of dozen subjects born in the UK in 1956 by interviewing them once every seven years. It was originally conceived as 7 UP, a one-time television show about a selection of seven year-olds culled from different classes and cultures. With each installment (7 + SEVEN, 21, 28 UP, 35 UP, 42 UP, and 49 UP), we flash back between the past(s) and the present, literally seeing these people age and evolve before our very eyes. I’ve only viewed the three most recent films, but I don’t think you need to see them all to comprehend what an immense achievement the whole is. Currently an unfinished but rich and revelatory symphony, like the best docs, it encourages us to examine these lives and hold them up as mirrors to our own.

Nearly 70% of the remaining films come from the past decade, which is apt since I wasn’t much of an active cineaste before then. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that documentaries have also enjoyed a spike in popularity and quantity since then. Credit breakout hits like the work of Michael Moore or Errol Morris (though # 15 is probably still the latter’s least-seen, most cultish feature), but also acknowledge the advent of digital video. Either way, since I began making year-end top ten lists in 2000, I’ve made room for at least one doc just about every time, from Jonathan Caouette’s non-paralleled autobiographical collage to Jeffrey Blitz’s cross-section of American pre-teens sifted through the lens of a very particular talent.

Of course there are also classics of the genre: the Maysles Brothers’ unforgettable portrait of forgotten lives whiling away in a decaying mansion, Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking personal essay/travelogue, Barbara Kopple’s depiction of an isolated community and its struggles to be seen, heard and understood. I could rattle off another twenty worthy candidates, from the Soviet silent-era MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA to the contemporary Cameroon judicial system of SISTERS IN LAW. The films that made the cut, however, did so because each one compels and entertains as much as it informs and represents.

13 December 2006


These were taken on November 5: the last vestiges of Autumn giving way to the long hibernation ahead. I've taken my share of wide-angle shots of Walden Pond on past visits, so this time I focused more on light, shapes and patterns.

08 December 2006


I don’t read nearly enough to compile a decent top ten list, but I can name four exceptional new books I read in 2006. Two are memoirs that couldn’t be more different, and that goes for the other two as well, both of them novels.

Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be (Jen Trynin)

Sounding like a beguiling cross between Chrissie Hynde and Joni Mitchell, Boston-based rocker Trynin released two critically acclaimed but little heard albums in the mid-1990s, and then abruptly disappeared. Those few fans (like me) clamoring for an explanation finally get one in this massively entertaining memoir where Trynin relates her rapid career trajectory. She progresses from suddenly rising star to hot property in a major record label bidding war to exhausted has-been seemingly overnight, with enough booze and drama to jam-pack five episodes of BEHIND THE MUSIC. However, Trynin’s riotous sense of humor and refreshing lack of self-pity go beyond that well-worn template. She also has much detailed insight as to how the music industry works—or doesn’t work, unless you have lots of hits and genuine support from your label. Trynin’s sharp prose is enough to make one long for another album from her, although I now totally understand why she’d rather just write.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)

Best known for her long-running comic strip DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir should appeal to anyone lamenting the late TV series SIX FEET UNDER. Similarly an equally comic and morbid confection, the title comes from the family business, a funeral parlor in small-town Pennsylvania. Bechdel’s story primarily concerns her father, a part-time English lit teacher and a closeted gay man who died mysteriously (he may have committed suicide) when she was in college. Using that as a jumping-off point, FUN HOME ambitiously sifts through memories and old diary entries (all meticulously re-created through her clean yet intricate style) and makes literary allusions to reveal and comprehend her father’s secret life and find some catharsis. Flowing effortlessly, it’s as rewarding and engaging as the best work of Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware, yet it also comes from a decidedly original voice.

Lost and Found: A Novel (Carolyn Parkhurst)

At first, Parkhurst’s follow-up to her intense debut novel THE DOGS OF BABEL feels much lighter: a clever satire of reality television, but nothing more profound than your average beach read. Tracking the contestants of a scavenger-hunt type show that bears more than a passing resemblance to THE AMAZING RACE, each chapter is narrated first person, confessional style (a la THE REAL WORLD). Among the tag-team duos are an estranged mother and daughter, two former child TV stars struggling to extend their celebrity into adulthood and a married couple made up of a man and a woman who met each other through the ex-gay movement. Parkhurst lithely nails the genre’s conventions and quirks so as not to feel at all contrived, but she also digs a little deeper than you’d expect. She recognizes how a reality TV series needs drama and suspense in order to thrive, but she doesn’t forget to make her characters relatable or humane.

Winkie (Clifford Chase)

The titular protagonist here is a teddy bear accused of terrorism. That sentence alone should either pique your interest or send you running for the hills. In Chase’s unclassifiable and odd yet incessantly fascinating first novel, we get drawn into the thoughts of an inanimate object that eventually comes to life. However, this ain’t PINOCCHIO. Sometimes WINKIE is a simple fable filled with fuzzy but not altogether warm reminiscences about the bear’s past; other times, it is an exceedingly cartoonish allegory on the war on terror, with a stuffed toy as a scapegoat, a receptacle for society’s ignorance and cruelty. Sometimes Winkie is male and at other times (or simultaneously?) female, giving birth to a philosophy-dispensing cub who may be divine. WINKIE similarly swerves between the ridiculous and the sublime: it’s an extraordinary act of chutzpah and often hard to put down (in both senses of the term).

04 December 2006


Instead of filming a completed screenplay, David Lynch took a piecemeal approach to making INLAND EMPIRE: encouraged by the physical freedom a toy-sized digital video camera allows, he would think of an idea, write it down, and then immediately film it, letting the story develop with each individual fragment or improvisation. It's essential to consider and understand this means of composition when approaching the finished work, and irrelevant to dismiss it for not making sense. This is an avant-garde film that favors texture and feeling over logic or linearity. The director's most experimental effort since ERASERHEAD, it's a challenging ride, but one worth taking.

Most of it centers on Nikki (Laura Dern), a Hollywood actress starring in a remake of a film whose original version was never completed because the leads died of mysterious circumstances while filming. Many early scenes revolve around Nikki, her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) and their director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) as the shoot begins. However, it's not long before Nikki becomes unable to differentiate between herself and her character. From there, it's a slow glide through Lynch's rabbit hole: we see Dern as Nikki but also as a housewife in a mid-20th century tract home and an Aileen Wuornos-like figure in a dingy interrogation chamber where she confesses lurid incidents to a silent bespectacled man. We also see strange, enigmatic sequences shot in the snowy, industrial Polish city of Lodz, snatches of an eerie nuclear family sitcom (complete with laugh track) populated by a cast wearing, well, rabbit suits, plus dancing whores and Laura Palmer's mother, too!

As a long-awaited follow-up to the monumental MULHOLLAND DRIVE, this is not exactly a retread, although it's hard to imagine it existing without its predecessor. Those infuriated by MULHOLLAND'S fascinating final third will probably be annoyed that this one plays like a three-hour extension of its dream logic and shifting personalities. But where that film focused on a dreamer slowly awakening into consciousness before succumbing to encroaching insanity, this one explores more in-depth how a persona gradually shatters and dissolves, its world becoming ever more abstract, with layers of recurring motifs piling up until they resemble something close to madness.

Although this film lacks some of its predecessor's tenderness, it retains its adventurous, twisted spirit. Few directors can still match Lynch in terms of gorgeously sinister imagery, elaborate sound design, and utter originality (and creepiness). An actress I've always admired, Dern is just phenomenal here; she's bravely willing to reach out to the furthest possible limb to display a complexity of emotions, from amiable and heroine-like to frightening and downright ugly. Towards the film's ethereal, almost rapturous conclusion, Lynch temporarily pulls the rug out from under us, offering a fleeting explanation for what we've seen, only to pull back again and offer more reasons to doubt that one exists. INLAND EMPIRE can be frustrating for sure, but Lynch's openness and seemingly endless creativity makes for one compelling experiment and experience.