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The Annie Hall of Asian-American Graphic Novels

Every chapter of Adrian Tomine’s new graphic novel Shortcomings—a collection of issues nine to 11 of his astounding comic seriesOptic Nerve—begins with 30-year-old Asian-American protagonist Ben Tanaka observing what he perceives to be pretentious art. He scoffs at the sentimental award-winning film of the “Asian-American Digi-Fest,” feigns interest in an absurd performance-art band, and stares with bewilderment and disgust at an exploitive photo exhibit. But does Ben obsess over the flaws of others to avoid dealing with his own?

Besides his chronic negativity and cynicism, at the core of Ben’s troubles is his disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend, Miko—an intelligent, attractive, patient woman whose only crime is her growing involvement in the Asian-American film community. “Why does everything have to be some big ‘statement’ about race?” Ben asks. “Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’sgood?” But race is a predominant theme in Shortcomings—particularly the way Ben fetishizes white girls. After finding Ben’s porno stash, Miko says, “It’s like you’re obsessed with the typical Western media beauty ideal, but you’re settling for me.”

Shortcomings follows Ben from California to New York City as he attempts to sort out his love life, and in many ways, the story and its characters bring to mind Woody Allen’s masterpieceAnnie Hall—with the cities reversed. It’s easy to picture Diane Keaton and Allen when Miko accuses Ben of being “pathologically afraid of change.” And Ben is full of witty one-liners, such as, “Well, in this case, my superficiality could’ve overpowered my snobbery.”

Like Allen in his prime, Tomine is a master storyteller with a keen understanding of life’s bittersweet contradictions, and his meticulous drawing style further evokes the confusion and loneliness that his characters experience as they navigate the murky waters between adolescent fantasy and the less glamorous reality of adulthood. When they’re not speaking, their facial expressions scream their true longings—making it easier to view their shortcomings as mere symptoms of being human.

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Breathy Heartbreak, Clever But Never Snide

Almost every song on Jennifer O’Connor’s impressive Matador debut is as heartbreaking as the next. “I don’t want to breathe if I can’t breathe here next to you,” she sings over shuffling drumbeats and a beautifully fingerpicked guitar line on “Dirty City Blues.” A few tracks later on “Today,” her gorgeous vocals lilt and soar as she carefully delivers her most longing lyrics: “I can’t wait to be with you/If only to say/Stay.” But as sad as Over the Mountain is, it’s never oppressive: O’Connor tries her best to grin through the tears on the poppy, Monkees-esque “Exeter, Rhode Island,” and the rapturous “I’ll Bring You Home,” complete with a chorus of angelic-sounding backup singers, even brushes against optimism. As for her overall sound, the closest comparisons might be an equally clever but less snide Eef Barzelay, or an Exile in Guyville–era Liz Phair folking around with Jana Hunter. But whatever it is, this is one of the best albums of the year.


Jennifer O’Connor plays Joe’s Pub Thursday.

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Sonic Swimming

After more than 20 years and almost as many albums, Yo La Tengo remain one of the most vibrant bands in indie rock. Few groups demonstrate as much
range (from distorted, Sonic Youth-esque outbursts, to melodic, melancholy
grooves), and even fewer take such a fearless approach to experimentation.
Tonight, husband-and-wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and bassist James
McNew, play tour guides on an underwater adventure, offering their live
score “The Sounds of Science” to some of the tripped-out sea-life
documentaries of Jean Painleve, who made over 200 short films before his
death in 1989. Swim alongside seahorses and octopi, explore hidden reefs,
and become transfixed by liquid crystals while floating atop Kaplan’s
lulling guitar lines and Hubley’s shuddering cymbal work. Get there early
for a short set by rising folk star Samara Lubelski, whose sparkling vocals
and fluid melodies have a way of making you feel weightless too.

At 7:30, Prospect Park Bandshell, 9th Street and Prospect Park West, 718-855-7882, ext. 45, $3

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Mission Re-Accomplished

While many bands reunite, Boston’s postpunk high magistrates Mission of Burma have resumed—and that’s a big difference. From the start of their “second lap around the track,” as bassist Clint Conley likes to call it, Burma began writing new songs, and their shows in the new millennium have hardly been excuses to play “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” or “Academy Fight Song.” And if 2004’s OnOffOn found the band successfully finishing some ideas they first explored in the early ’80s, their latest, The Obliterati, finds them comfortably evolving.

“We don’t take ourselves quite so seriously,” explains guitarist Roger Miller, seated on an overturned milk crate at the record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where drummer Peter Prescott still works. “The last time, it was exhilarating and dramatic, but hard,” Conley adds. “This time it’s fun. And to come back and put out one album was great. . . . To me it just solidifies us as a band.”

Considering MoB’s newfound, casual approach, Prescott’s song “Let Yourself Go” might have made a more fitting album title. Miller flirts with disco and even borrows freely from a Donna Summer song on “Donna Sumeria”; his voice soars into falsetto at several points on The Obliterati. And Conley ponders one of life’s big questions on “Nancy Reagan’s Head”: “I’m haunted by the freakish size of Nancy Reagan’s head/No way that thing came with that body!”

“I see pictures of it and it’s just so disturbing,” Conley admits now, laughing. “I think there was some weird CIA science involved, I really do.”

But The Obliterati is no joke. Leadoff track “2wice”—with Prescott’s furious, almost tribal drums and Conley’s anthemic shouts of “Don’t make the same mistake twice”—suggests the Who gone punk. The jagged and thunderous “Spider’s Web” could send any Warped Tour band running home to their mothers. And the chaotic, redlined “Man in Decline,” complete with guttural howls, is the sound of a cold-sweat nightmare. “Some reviews have commented on how heavy this album is, and they make it sound like we’re the Melvins or something,” Prescott says. “We’re just playing with intensity, and that’s what is lacking in a lot of bands that are supposedly postpunk influenced—they sound like they’re thinking about what you’re going to have for breakfast!”

“Or,” Conley chimes in, “if their skinny ties are undone at just the right angle.”

Mission of Burma are hardly a group of bitter old men, though. “I love the Fiery Furnaces, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Turing Machine, Clinic,” Prescott says. “We played with three bands at All Tomorrow’s Parties that I really liked—Sleater-Kinney, the Boredoms, and Lightning Bolt,” Miller adds. “They’re all pretty different, and more thinking than most bands.”

It’s curious that MoB formed during the Reagan years, and that they rose again during W.’s reign, but they laugh it off as coincidence. “Yeah, we were on the hotline one night: ‘Fellas, do you see what I see? This calls for . . . ‘ ” Conley jokes, before Prescott yells, “‘Put on your Burma cape!'” But what about the “No New McCarthy Era” banner they flaunted onstage during their first few shows back? Or naming their album The Obliterati? “We did have the banner, which was nice,” Miller says. “The album title came from many pints of beer—I just looked down and I had written ‘Obliterati.’ It does connect to a lot of things that are in the psychic environment these days, but you can’t really put your thumb on it.”

While Martin Swope, the band’s original tape-loop maestro, chose not to join Burma on their “second lap,” they were able to recruit Bob Weston, one of indie rock’s most esteemed engineers-musicians, instead. “He’s completely the fourth member of the band now,” Prescott says. “We played in Brazil recently, and we had these sound guys who were just kind of giving us half-assed attention, and then all of sudden they found out that our soundman was Bob Weston, and they were like, ‘Bob Weston! Of Shellac?’ ” Conley recalls.

“Suddenly,” Miller adds, “We got some cred.”

Although somewhat modest about their legacy, Burma are nonetheless aware of it. “In the larger scheme of music, it’s a little drop in the ocean,” Prescott says. “But when I hear our music, whether or not other people recognize how cool it is, I do.”

“To be lumped in with bands like the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Fugazi—how can you not feel great about that?” Conley adds. And lest anyone get a big head about it, two of the band’s members have their kids to keep them grounded. “My son is 17, and when he saw us play in front of 1,800 people, his eyes were pinned wide open,” Miller recalls. “Now I ask him if he wants to come see us, and he’s like, ‘Nah, I’ve already seen you guys.'” As for Conley’s 10- and 15-year-old girls, “To them, 50-year-old men shouldn’t be doing this,” he admits. “It’s like seeing me in a Speedo or something.”

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Sleepover Camp

If Nine Times That Same Song, the debut full- length from Sweden’s Love Is All, is a 30-minute dance party, it’s a Friday-night sleepover—five friends bouncing around a bedroom, up way past their bedtime, giddy and delirious and completely uninhibited. And if there are posters on the wall, they’re likely of Madness, the English Beat, the Ronettes, Duran Duran, Le Tigre, and maybe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but certainly not of Franz Ferdinand or the Killers. The album’s leadoff track, “Talk Talk Talk Talk,” with its screeching saxophone, bouncing basslines, rapid-fire high-hat taps, jagged guitar, and quirky, high-pitched yelps (courtesy of lead singer–keyboardist Josephine Olausson), begins like a jubilant street fight between ska and disco and ends in a joining of forces. Herky-jerky songs like “Ageing Had Never Been His Friend” and “Used Goods” veer into new wave territory, while “Turn the Radio Off” and “Felt Tip” slow down, showcase Olausson’s tender vocals and thoughtful lyrics, and leave you wondering if she’s Björk’s long-lost little sister. Production-wise, the CD sounds like a worn-out cassette—there’s a thick, lo-fi haze and each player is set back in the mix. But instead of seeming like a cop-out, it’s endearing—it suggests a hesitant confidence, an uncertainty of how likable their music actually is. All 10 songs on Nine Times beg for repeated listens—and LIA’s bedroom is about to get really crowded.

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Beer and Cookies Make Everything Alright

It’s almost impossible to venture into the East Village on a Saturday night without being squeezed into the corner of some obnoxiously loud bar, conversation rendered useless, flailing retro-retards spilling their drinks on your girlfriend. But luckily there’s a place that’s so down-to-earth it’s actually underground: Hidden beneath Burp Castle and Standings Bar on East 7th Street, Jimmy’s dimly lit, medieval-looking tavern has an instant calming effect. Archways lead from one small room to the next, candles flicker on wooden tables, authentic beer casks line the upper walls, and ornate mirrors reflect the faces of relaxed, satisfied, comfortably numb couples. There’s no liquor or wine here—just beer—but they have many rare, high-quality brews, like Ayinger ($6), a crisp and refreshing wheat beer served with lemon in a tall, gold-rimmed glass, or the hearty but smooth Corsendonk Brown Ale ($8), which goes well with a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries ($5). The bartenders and waitstaff are incredibly friendly (it’s not unusual for them to sneak you cookies), and you never have to raise your voice over the music, which ranges from CCR to David Bowie. Why deal with the hell above ground when there’s heaven down below?

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Life Is Like This Bar: You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get

Forrest Gump’s quote about a box of chocolates could certainly be applied to Coco66, located in the nether regions of Greenpoint. Co-owned by the guy who runs the Brooklyn Chocolate & Cocoa Company, which supplies the Ritz-Carlton and Peninsula hotels with sugary treats, this new bar has an eclectic clientele. Barely legal locals (who probably grew up in Greenpoint) down pints of Guinness ($5); well-dressed, fiftysomething businessmen sip Scotch (Johnnie Walker Red Label, $7); greasy-haired hipsters stay focused on the DJ (who played Britpop, punk, and classic rock on a recent Thursday night); and Pearl Jam–loving college types wait for their turn at pool in the large back room. The bar’s decor is a bit of a mix as well: Dark-wood benches, tables, and window frames; pressed-tin walls; concrete floors; an ornate, gothic-looking skylight; a kitschy fake fireplace; votive candles; and red lights. Still, as much as there is to spit out here, there’s just as much to savor, like ultra-stiff vodka concoctions (Stoli and soda, $6), late-night specials (a PBR and a shot of Jim Beam, $5), and freakishly friendly customers. Plus, coming soon: boozy chocolate drinks and Skee-Ball.

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Creating Media That Are Free From Corporate Interests

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that certain details about, say, the war in Iraq are being left out of most six o’clock news broadcasts. It could also be argued that issues affecting minorities are often neglected by mainstream media (how are those thousands of displaced people down in New Orleans doing anyway?). And as for “alternative” newspapers . . . let’s just say that many are far less independent than they used to be. But don’t despair: For the third year in a row, activist group Paper Tiger Television organizes a full day of panel discussions, workshops, and brainstorming sessions, all geared toward those interested in creating fair, diverse, accurate media that are free from corporate and government interests. Among the highlights are the NYC Radical Cheerleaders, satirical singing group Missile Dick Chicks, and Time’s Up Bicycle Clown Brigade’s talk “Making Folks Think, When They’re Laughing Too Hard to Realize It . . . Performance as Creative Resistance.” Members of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and the Philadelphia Independent Media Center examine “Models for Independent Media Making and Political Organizing.” And Adrienne Brown of the League of Pissed Off Voters leads a discussion on “Grassroots Media in an Election Year: Creating Community Voter Guides.” For more information and a complete schedule visit nycgrassrootsmedia.org.

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On First Day of Year, Hundreds of Artists Run Their Mouths Off

For some, the idea of spending New Year’s Day listening to people baring their souls may sound like penance for a night of utter debauchery—and normally, they would be right. But for years now, hundreds of New Yorkers have braved their hangovers on January 1 and flocked to the Poetry Project and Bowery Poetry Club in the East Village—the souls on display at these boho headquarters are not the usual sort. In years past, the Poetry Project has featured readings and performances by the likes of Spalding Gray, Yoko Ono, John Cage, and Lou Reed, to name just a few, and this year is expecting Philip Glass, Eric Bogosian, Patti Smith, Marc Ribot, and over 100 other artists to participate. Just a few blocks away at the Bowery Poetry Club (a state school to the Project’s hipster Ivy League, if you will), the names are a little less recognizable, the performances not quite as polished perhaps, but the characters (over 150 of them) are just as fascinating and talented in their own right. Folks like Big Mike, Helen Stratford, Bingo Gazingo, Nancy Mercado, Bina Sharif, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor will make you laugh, cry, and forget about your pounding headache.

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Single-Malt Scotch Anyone: Welcome to Aging Hipster Heaven

Let’s face it: Williamsburg folks deserve even more options when it comes to places to drink. Luckily, Sean O’Rourke and friends have rushed to their rescue, opening a cozy pub just off the Graham Avenue stop. Being an Englishman of Irish descent, O’Rourke knows a thing or two about adaptability and clearly understands the importance of a warm, inviting drinking atmosphere. Like the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint (which O’Rourke co-owns), almost every inch of Harefield Road is covered with wood, and the large, cavernous space is mostly lit by votive candles and dimmed sconces. It’s the kind of place where bookish-looking thirtysomethings squint at the large chalkboard behind the bar, inquire about unusual beers like Radeberger ($5), and are offered a taste before purchasing. Bearded men—many resembling some of Christ’s disciples—sip glasses of wine (Pepperwood Cabernet, $7) or single-malt Scotch (Bowmore, $7) and discuss nothing much at all, yet nod earnestly. The bartenders make sure the music level is conducive to conversation, and know they can’t lose when playing the likes of Neil Young, Bowie, and Radiohead. Is this aging-hipster heaven? That’s one way of looking at it.