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2004 Pazz & Jop: Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it’s all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who’ve convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it’s good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse — good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets’ Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose “punk opera” not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I’m not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there’s American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity —  Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds — American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft — never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000’s neglected (and no less conscious) Warning — and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side “Governator”), the signature “Don’t want to be an American idiot” was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it’s about punk’s inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I’d rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself — or NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on “Idiots Are Taking Over.” Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley’s CEO-targeting “It’s a Hit” and Tom Waits’s war-torn “Hoist That Rag” and Morrissey’s waspish “America Is Not the World,” in Nellie McKay’s wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers’ worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem’s “Mosh” and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss’s “Why?” And that’s about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists’ and voters’ mindsets. Yet the election’s issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy — belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby — that “art” precludes “propaganda.” But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

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In other words, we weren’t being “liberals,” striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where “reform” would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There’s a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive — namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents’ discretionary income. It’s enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.’s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush’s determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort — to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf — has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries — which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal — and shrinks the arts’ material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, “Redneck Woman” and The Grey Album, Hotlanta’s “Yeah!” and Metropolis’s “Yeah” — all big and rather different stories. Us content providers — many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they’re editorial) — are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they’re worth, meaning more than they’re worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I’ve just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated — palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with — which isn’t required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes — Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because “One’s on the Way” and “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” were truer than “Portland Oregon” or, God help us, “God Makes No Mistakes.” The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back — from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson’s high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse’s time-seizing ’60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. “Hell yeah!” Gretchen’s sisters chorus on cue. “Yeah!” screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don’t Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem’s lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own “Yeah”s: “Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done.” I just wish he’d added, “Including me.”

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Given the general craving for affirmation, it’s no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics — the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron’s Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn’s unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics’ poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they’re the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn’t “rock.”

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year’s major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it’s effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I’d hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies — how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I’m too old to feel threatened — Devendra Banhart’s talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley’s (not just Tim’s, Jeff’s), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41–50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia “Legs” Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they’d planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all — except that she’s a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who’s vegetarian too. It’s enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk’s essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn’t much of a year for disengagement. McKay’s hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman’s solo record outran Neko Case’s solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn’s Hold Steady went alt all the way — Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn’s storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn’t write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than “Take You Out” if not “Somebody Told Me.” And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful “We ain’t going to the town/We’re going to the city,” only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. “See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race,” their charting “Slow Hands” goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

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Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I’ll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé “crunk” are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They’re often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I’ll take Kanye’s guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop’s commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year’s indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area’s arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver’s sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner’s lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal’s up-and-at-’em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC’s DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand’s No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR — dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers’ brazenly mechanical “Somebody Told Me,” the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count “Float On,” and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here’s hoping if not predicting that they’ll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand–Green Day–Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn’t coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there’s only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes — starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that’s gynephobic and xenophobic when it’s rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that — you just know they’d appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan–British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.’s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime “Galang” is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican–I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music’s way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

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Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I’d love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That’s why I was so pleased that Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N’Dour knows he’s heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he’s assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N’Dour’s career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It’s more humane than Nashville’s culture, too — and, sometimes, NYC’s.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I’ve lived for. So it’s salutory to replay The College Dropout — a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin — and hear Kanye’s kiddies wickedly chorus, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive.” That’s how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so’s the end of the world is actually the end of the world — not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f’real, West’s songs import that impulse into modern African American life — music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it’s something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won’t stop won’t stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N’Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson’s good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile — he broke down well before the ’60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to ’60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn’t have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it’s more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that’s only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson’s voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless — the apotheosis of the Beach Boys’ trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously — defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it’s worth battling for.

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

4. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

7. The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)

8. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

9. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

10. Danger Mouse: The Grey Album (djdangermouse.com)

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

1. Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out” (Domino)

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

3. Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: “Yeah!” (Arista)

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

6. Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella)

7. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Doggystyle/Geffen/Star Trak)

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Maps” (Interscope)

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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ARCADE GAMES

Arcade Fire is a band that has managed to preserve the concept of “indie rock,” even while they are playing massive arenas like the Barclays Center, as they are tonight. This carefully-constructed image and ethos is reliant on their ever-evolving style and peculiar band dynamics. They’ve never given in to the draw of radio-ready beats or riffs, instead moving further away from accessibility, even as their fame grows. Last year’s Reflektor was perhaps their weirdest and most critically acclaimed album yet. Another marker of their eccentricity is the opening act of their show—the iconic New York band Television. In a rockist’s world, Television opening for Arcade Fire is a marvelous mishap that is almost an affront to Television’s legacy. But then again, it’s also an indication that Arcade Fire is mindful of the past and producing music that’s valid enough to warrant pairings like this. The Unicorns are also on the bill, so all bets are completely off.

Sun., Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Bertolucci’s Me and You Is Less a Portrait of a Modern-Day Teen Than an Old Man’s Idea of One

Act one of 1900, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 317-minute historical epic, comes to its resolutely ludicrous end when Attila, a budding Hun-like fascist in prewar Italy, head-butts a cat to death in a public square. Later, as if to dispel any remaining doubt about the moral character of these fascists, Bertolucci has Attila bash a small peasant child’s brains in on a whim, which in terms of subtlety is only a notch above a subtitle reading, “This guy is evil.”

It’s been nearly 40 years since 1900 shocked the arthouse with its lurid broad strokes, and it seems that Bertolucci has finally lost interest in filth.

Rather, he’s content to follow the altogether mundane exploits of Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a moony 14-year-old whose interests don’t extend much further than tending to an ant farm and listening to Arcade Fire. Call it The 400 Blows for millennials.

Gone are the buttered-up provocations of Last Tango in Paris and the nubile debauchery of The Dreamers; the only coming Lorenzo gets up to is of age. There’s always something endearing about a septuagenarian auteur building a film around a teenage boy, and Me and You savors the vitality and playfulness afforded by its subject’s youth. But this is nothing more than vague romanticism.

Bertolucci, despite his obvious affection for Lorenzo, can’t help but seem out of touch, and his hero looks and sounds less like a modern-day teen than an old man’s wistful idea of one.

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Colin Stetson

Experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson is arguably indie-rock’s most in-demand woodwind specialist, having performed with Arcade Fire, Feist, and the National in addition to earning critical acclaim for the series of solo albums, the most recent of which was 2013’s New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light. It’s as a performer, though, that Stetson’s formidable technique really shines. Forsaking loop pedals in favor of circular breathing and percussive playing, his physicality makes for an intimate viewing experience that rivals any of his better-known indie peers emotional range.

Sun., Feb. 9, 8 p.m., 2014

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NYFF: Ben Stiller Dreams Big with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a musical-comedy vehicle for Danny Kaye, barely resembles the satirical 1939 short story by the great American humorist James Thurber (who was opposed to the adaptation, and allegedly offered ten grand to producer Samuel Goldwyn if he scrapped his plans). Neither of those versions has anything in common with this, the latest yearning carpe-diem fantasy about the milquetoast daydreamer with a secret life. Ben Stiller earnestly directs and even more earnestly stars as the iconic introvert Walter, a plain and lonely guy who zones out into implausibly lionhearted delusions, slickly actualized through majestic panoramas, dense color palettes and absurdist CGI fabulism.

As the dutiful yet outmoded “negative asset manager” in the photo department of the soon-folding Life magazine, Walter is a virtually invisible drone, too timid to talk to his underwritten office crush (Kristen Wiig) or stand up to a villainously bearded new manager (Adam Scott) in charge of downsizing. In his overactive imagination, Walter becomes a rugged Don Juan who woos by “poetry falcon” and exacts city-destroying revenge on his condescending boss as if he were one of The Avengers. But it’s only when the final print issue’s cover image goes missing that he feels tasked to literally leap out of his comfort zone (into icy, shark-infested waters!) and track down the gonzo superstar photographer (a perfectly calibrated Sean Penn) by way of exotic globetrotting.

What would inspire a man of near-crippling passivity to leave his 16-year job, suddenly fly to Greenland, jump out of helicopters, skateboard towards an erupting volcano, or scale the Upper Himalayas? Screenwriter Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) doesn’t make a convincing case for the Bear Grylls transformation, and the dramatic stakes—aside from romantic rejection or losing a job—are speed bumps ex machina at worst. Ultimately, the story washes over as mildly, delightfully and forgettably as an Apple commercial, which might hit the spot for audiences whose heartstrings swell for get-up-and-go montages soundtracked by Arcade Fire and other anthemic indie rock that sounds like Arcade Fire.

Furthermore, as Walter shifts from dreaming to actualizing, the flight-of-fancy interludes that comically punctuated his melancholic existence during the film’s first half evaporate, which is all that remained of Thurber’s beloved character. Not that the expensive effects deepened the resonance; in fact, one disturbingly funny visual reference to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in which Walter pours his heart out as an aging man-baby is telling of the film’s epic aesthetic ambitions and emotionally distancing flaws. Across the board, the cast has charm to burn (with a shout-out to Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who steals it as a drunken helicopter pilot with a passion for karaoke), but without that reality-breaking gimmick, the so-called adventure becomes as banal as the Walter we first meet.

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The Hold Steady Stay in the Key of E Street

It’s inevitable. Any band soaring high on the hot, blustery air of critical praise and the wildly hyperbolic, extremely premature Best! Band! Ever! proclamations will stumble. Exhibit 408: the Hold Steady, whose old-fashioned, Boss-inspired, blue-collar barroom rock came a-wailin’ into a world awash in rock-writer platitudes with 2004’s Almost Killed Me. From there, it has only been up. Until their latest album, Heaven Is Whenever, which was absolutely no one’s favorite.

This is a big band grappling with big moves in a pivotal moment: the rebound. And though the early bluster might have been a bit much, the Hold Steady’s impact on the musical landscape nearly a decade ago is hard to overstate, comparable to that of Radiohead’s: They made indie-rock earnest. The year was 2004. Arcade Fire released Funeral, and singer/guitarist Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of the Twin Cities’ beloved Lifter Puller moved to Brooklyn and formed the Hold Steady, a band that sounded a lot more like E Street than anyone else in indie rock had ever dreamed. It even had a keyboardist.

After Almost Killed Me, the critical acclaim only snowballed for the born-again drug lore of Separation Sunday in 2005, and then even more in 2006 for the stadium-size Boys and Girls in America, probably the first record Finn ever made with clear verses and choruses—hell, singing notes—on every track. If you’re unfamiliar, Finn barks out his hyper-referential character sketches “like the sketchy drunk guy yelling in your ear at a show,” as former Voice writer Tom Breihan put it in his Pitchfork review of Sunday.

In fact, sincere as the band’s love of classic rock is, it’s that incredulous delivery that served as the Trojan horse for highly non-classic-rock people to embrace them in the first place. To not chuckle so much when these middle-age dorks called bullshit on Radiohead, eventually going on to tour with Dave Matthews and Counting Crows, and even covering frickin’ “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

We watched the Hold Steady grow sincere in public, and the influential effect has been staggering: from Titus Andronicus to Against Me! to the Gaslight Anthem to this year’s cause célèbre Japandroids, every notable capital-R “rock” band of indie’s past decade owes the Hold Steady a big beer.

Finn and Co. aren’t quite Grammy-friendly like the now Album of the Year winners Arcade Fire, who debuted simultaneously—they don’t have a U2 side. But they’ve written a bounty of great songs that can be enjoyed within their own universe or in the real world.

The elephant in the room is that the band—made up of surprisingly indistinct players; you wouldn’t know a Kubler solo in a blind test—is what makes Finn’s ceaseless hoarse cleverness palatable. Separation Sunday connected them to the rest of the universe. When “Lord to be 17 forever” turns into “Lord to be 33 forever” on Sunday‘s tipping point, “Stevie Nix,” the lead guitar doubles itself. Mournful organ adds gravitas. All this after Holly Lujah—who began the record debating whether Jesus or her dealer’s gonna get her the highest—ambles into the ER “drinking gin from a jam jar.” It’s patently ridiculous, and it resembled a musical far more in 2005 than the thus not yet Broadway-bound American Idiot did. From this stuff, rabid fan bases mushroom.

The Hold Steady perform with Lucero and Kurt Braunohler on New Year’s Eve at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey.

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Of Monsters and Men

The 2011 debut album from this Icelandic indie folk-pop band combined tricks culled from the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists but avoided the sprawl of either. Group singalongs are present, but only to mask a delicate and rewarding sensitivity. Hope you guys are having fun with the new Mumford & Sons album, but I’ll be off listening to this instead.

Tue., Nov. 20, 8 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 21, 8 p.m., 2012

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Kopecky Family Band

Co-ed folk-rock rabblerousers from Nashville, the Kopeckys come on like a more sensual Arcade Fire—or maybe a Mumford & Sons with a sense of humor. With MyNameIsJohnMichael, a young New Orleans outfit with some hats and some horns.

Sun., June 3, 8 p.m., 2012

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Inni

Fellow anthemic NPR darlings Arcade Fire and Radiohead might fiercely divide public opinion, but there aren’t a lot of Sigur Rós haters: People either love the Icelandic post-rock band or are content to let their ethereal sounds fade into the background. It follows that there probably aren’t going to be a lot of people who dislike Inni, their second concert film. Directed by Vincent Morisset, this mostly black-and-white, moody exercise in making digital footage from 2008 look like long-lost video from around the time when Ian Curtis was still doing gigs is radically different from the first Sigur Rós cinema project, 2007’s heima. Although their earlier film showed a band at the height of indie fame serving as ambassadors for Iceland’s culture, folklore, and colorful, epic landscapes, the sparse Inni (the title translates as “inside”) comes in the middle of a long hiatus, with the band members pursuing solo projects. Canadian experimentalist (and Arcade Fire associate) Morisset transferred the digital performance footage to 16mm film and continued filtering, reframing, and refocusing it, using color archival material of early TV interviews and backstage outtakes as separators between songs. The result is a hazy, shoegazy visual tone that is both elegiac and eulogistic, at once meditative and funereal. At a time when most U.S. music documentaries have devolved into either artist-endorsed EPKs (see Scorsese’s Dylan and George Harrison docs) or predictable Behind the Music–style fables of redemption, it’s refreshing to see state-sponsored artists still flying the flag for the rock film as an art film.

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The Airborne Toxic Event

At their best, the Airborne Toxic Event features Stephen Merritt’s baritone voice and wit, Arcade Fire’s orchestral arrangements and pacing, the Strokes’ catchy choruses, and the reference to a pomo novel to round them out as yet another indie rock outfit almost fit for the radio. Even if some continually accuse them of imitating their contemporaries, they’re good at what they do, and if you’re sick of listening to The Suburbs on repeat or could use a straightforward rock show bound to get your foot tapping and your heart swelling, head to Terminal 5.

Fri., Nov. 18, 8 p.m., 2011