Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » August
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A Neil Young trait that has shaped his longevity is his wide range of tastes. From his teenage years fronting the Winnipeg-based band The Squires to his latest solo sojourns, Young has been a sponge who has absorbed diverse musical styles and genres in his process of creating new music that has almost always been of his own making, rarely derivative or squeezing out material which mimics his influences. That’s the basic premise and focus for director Alex Westbrook’s two-hour, unauthorized, direct-to-DVD documentary film, Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years. Viewers get an exhaustive – and at times tiresome – examination of Young’s inspirations, from early rock’n’roll (Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison) to folk and country (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) and right up to the 1990s grunge rock movement.

As with almost anything put out by UK outfit Sexy Intellectual and their parent company, Chrome Dreams (which only coincidentally shares a name with an unreleased Young album that has been heavily bootlegged), Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years features very little material from the main subject and quite a lot from a plethora of talking heads, including but not limited to music journalists and biographers. Either due to shoddy editing or more likely copyright protection, Young’s music is almost entirely absent, found mostly in just quick clips from live appearances, movie projects, and television performances.

Despite Young’s non-participation, there is some interesting information and trivia to discover. Early in the DVD, which runs chronologically through Young’s career, viewers can find an interesting tidbit concerning Orbison and how his songs’ melodramatic and emotional undertow affected Young’s future work, in particular in what manner Orbison’s “It’s Over” shaped Young’s fragile and gentle “Birds,” from Young’s 1970 masterpiece, After the Gold Rush (Reprise). Another tidbit: George Harrison was the Beatle which had the strongest impact on Young. One interview subject suggests Young’s “When You Dance You Can Really Love” (also from After the Gold Rush) has a guitar tone and melancholia similar to Harrison’s best Beatles-era tunes.

Westbrook belabors how instrumental rock artists such as The Fireballs and The Shadows encouraged Young’s formation of The Squires, who were initially in the same mold as The Fireballs. Westbrook includes an obligatory interview with former Squires drummer Ken Smyth, who credibly relates The Squires’ 1962 formation and imitative sound. But then the DVD takes one of several unnecessarily lengthy divergences to explain the importance of instrumental rock music, with extended interviews with The Fireballs’ guitarist George Tomsco, who pointedly has no connection whatsoever with Young.

There is not much time spent on Buffalo Springfield, the band that first brought Neil Young to prominence, although there is mention of how much The Rolling Stones stimulated Young’s burgeoning songwriting, in particular how his composition “Mr. Soul” broadly borrows from The Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The Jagger/Richards partnership later exerted more force on Young, which is indicated effectively by a side-by-side melodic comparison between Young’s “Borrowed Tune” (released on Tonight’s the Night, 1975) and The Stones’ “Lady Jane.” How Young was never sued for copyright infringement is a mystery.

When the film shifts to Young’s solo releases, the proceedings pick up a bit, in particular how the Canadian and British folk movements impacted Young’s songwriting. Bert Jansch and Ian & Sylvia were as much a part of Young’s folk-tinted compositions as Bob Dylan, and Young’s folk-rock ambitions bloomed when Young met his future Buffalo Springfield (and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) compatriot Stephen Stills. But again, Westbrook makes another unneeded digression as he lets multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow (Kaleidoscope, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) explain how folk-rock came to exist. His history fills in the blanks, so to speak, but Darrow had no musical relationship with Young.

Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years finishes up with chapters on the punk and new wave era, as well as the 1990s grunge period. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Young was drawn to the energy, irreverence, and puncturing of pretentiousness offered by The Sex Pistols, Devo (whom Young invited to co-star in his 1982 apocalyptic comedy movie, Human Highway), and Kraftwerk. The music pundits overstate how much Kraftwerk’s synth-driven pop ventures may have instigated Young’s move to electro-pop on Trans (Geffen, 1982) and the film’s over-extended examination of Kraftwerk adds little to understanding the creation of Young’s songs, such as “Computer Age” and “Transformer Man.” The documentary concludes with resurgence and loss. Several Seattle bands lumped into the grunge genre acknowledged Young as an icon, which led to Young’s collaborations with Pearl Jam: Young’s Mirror Ball (Reprise/Epic, 1995) and Pearl Jam’s EP Merkin Ball (Epic, 1995). Sadly there is the linkage with Kurt Cobain’s death, when Cobain’s suicide note quoted Young’s famous line, “It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps,” from Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” (from Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise, 1979). Although Young and Cobain were not friends, Westbrook’s film implies that Young was emotionally affected by the loss of yet another young musician.

The DVD extras are minor and include a seven-minute extended Ken Smyth interview where he explains the birth and break-up of the short-lived Squires (Young was more committed to music as a career than the other young men in the band). There are also textual biographies of the interview subjects, such as music scribes Anthony DeCurtis and Richie Unterberger and Young biographers Nigel Williamson and Johnny Rogan.

Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years proves over and over again that Young is a repository of music, which is an acceptable point to attest. But unfortunately the DVD’s various detours and the lack of Young’s involvement keeps this project from being much more than a curiosity, not to mention that reading a couple of Young biographies would suffice just as well.

The Chicago indie band’s ninth album, The Moonlight Butterfly is a laid-back and cool affair.  Producing music of subtlety and nuance, The Sea and Cake sounds suave, a bit continental or cosmopolitan.  Sam Prekop’s trademark vocals are wonderfully light and lissome, always a standout feature of the band.  The quartet is comprised of some notable musicians: drummer and producer John McEntire is a keystone of the influential post-rock ensemble Tortoise and has worked closely with Stereolab, among many other notable musicians; guitarist and keyboardist Archer Prewitt pursues a solo career and is a cartoonist and illustrator; vocalist and guitarist Sam Prekop has released a few solo albums; and bassist Eric Claridge — who played with Prekop in Shrimp Boat from the mid-1980s through 1993 — is an artist, and drew the elephant in profile that graces this album’s cover.

Using space artfully, The Sea and Cake draw from lounge, indie-pop, jazz, krautrock, and analogue electronica.  On The Moonlight Butterfly they quickly draw in the listener with “Covers,” which uses an insistent, hypnotic beat and slightly phased, spacey guitars.  “Covers” flows nicely into the oneiric “Lyric,” which psychedelically shifts between two jazzy chords.  Like the opener, “Lyric” is also atmospheric but gives a sense of constant, steady motion.  The dreamy “Inn Keeping” is another lovely track in that vein, propelled by John McEntire’s steady, controlled motorik beat.

Using vintage synthesizers and a play of repetition and difference, the drum-less but pulsating title track is an appealing homage to 1970s German electronic groups Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.  The Chicago-referencing “Up on the North Shore” is a breezy and handsome indie-pop song with an awesome rideout — by rights, it should be on the radio.   The closer, “Monday,” a mellow, acoustic guitar-based tune, is reminiscent of Air’s “All I Need” from their debut album Moon Safari (1998).  Sometimes I am reminded of another French band, Phoenix, if they were more chilled-out, or Blonde Redhead’s later albums on 4AD Records.  Although different in overall approach, these bands are all sophisticated, thoughtfully-produced, and featuring standout singers.  Oddly enough, the wistfulness and the vocal style that Prekop employs recalls the graceful, esoteric 1990s band Butterfly Child, led by Belfast’s Joe Cassidy.

My only and minor complaint is, with only six songs here (albeit one is ten-and-a-half minutes long), one might be left craving a bit more at the end of this nevertheless fine album. The Moonlight Butterfly is a strong and enjoyable collection of songs that, with the exception of the title track, bears the clear imprint of The Sea and Cake.

You probably know better than to expect that The Pale King will give you, the David Foster Wallace fan, a measure of closure. So go in with your eyes open. For casual readers, there are so many other works of his to tackle before this one becomes necessary. And for those completely unfamiliar with Wallace, those who have only looked at the size of Infinite Jest (1996) and shuddered, turn back. Here be dragons.

No one knows what this book was intended to be. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor for Infinite Jest and the man responsible for assembling The Pale King into something resembling completion, admits as much in the preface: “Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here.” But it’s equally difficult to escape the heart-compressing feeling that The Pale King is only getting started when it comes to an end.

And boy does it take a roundabout path to get there. It’s true that the novel centers around the IRS, but it’s not about the IRS. In part, this is because The Pale King is boldly polyphonic in a way few novels are. Narrators come and go; chapters float in space, unmoored to surrounding ones or even anything at all; one of the characters is named David Foster Wallace, and keeps insisting he’s the author. There are doubles, then, and even triples, extending literary tools well past the breaking point. The closest comparison is to Evan Dara’s sprawling The Lost Scrapbook (1995), where voices merge mid-paragraph until the entire thing rises to a symphony by the book’s end.

From a reader’s standpoint, the symphony never emerges from The Pale King. It is replete with brilliant passages so emblematic of Wallace it’s very nearly painful. There’s the IRS’ official seal, “depict[ing] the mythic hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, as well as the Latin motto… which essentially means ‘He is the one doing the difficult, unpopular job.’” There is Lane Dean picturing himself “running around on the break waving his arms and shouting gibberish and holding ten cigarettes at once in his mouth like a panpipe”; and a put-upon assistant Leonard Steyck who at 16 was “5’1” and 105 pounds soaking wet, which he was (soaking wet) when the boys in his PE class’s shower all urinated on him after knocking him to the tile floor.” These are gifts, and devoted Wallace followers will no doubt crack a smile at the characterization of one character’s hands as being of different sizes from extensive writing — the same thing was true of the forearms of the tennis prodigies at Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest.

But beyond his undeniably unique voice, what remains most impressive in his writing is his colossal empathy for thinkers. Wallace is unfairly knocked for being brainy, characterized as acting like he’s smarter than you, but what he shows here is his enormous capacity for sharing the suffering of those trapped in their own heads. He’s not showing you up; he’s showing you how hard it is to think like this. In one of the book’s most moving passages, he tracks the thoughts of a man named Bondurant from staring at a cornfield through thinking of the girl he’d taken to prom, who wouldn’t have sex with him, to his greatest moment, hitting a hanging slider for a pinch-hit triple in college to finally bedding said girl, one Cheryl Ann Higgs and how “he had avoided her eyes because the expression in Cheryl Ann’s eyes, which without ever once again thinking about it Tom Bondurant has never forgotten, was one of blank terminal sadness, not so much that of a pheasant in a dog’s jaws as of a person who’s about to transfer something he knows in advance he can never get sufficient return on.”

For some of us, passages like the above will be enough: overwhelmingly sad and glorious at the same time, both an affirmation of the human condition and a condemnation of our own shortcomings. But it’s clear that Wallace was simply mobilizing these little troops — these passages of startling insight — in service of a goal that was perhaps unattainable: a book centered around boredom and its toothier friend, depression. Over and over again here and in other works, Wallace talks about the black, winged thing that emerges from nowhere and looms above his characters. In the light of his untimely death, there’s an inescapable sense that he was very much engaged in trying to wrestle this thing by going directly at it in his writing, unwilling to soften its blows through any kind of mental legerdemain. This struggle oozes out into The Pale King.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the colossal 22nd chapter, which takes up 100 pages and is nothing but an uphill fight. The narrator of this chapter describes everything from high school through several abortive attempts at college and up to his joining the IRS, beginning paragraph after paragraph with “Anyhow” before launching into another digression into the minutiae of his struggles to find a place in the world. It feels Sisyphean and one gets the sense that Wallace is doing the work he feels is most important here, even as the book is at its most satisfying when it keeps the chapters short, the observations pointed.

In the context of a fiction writing workshop, author Wells Tower opined that Wallace was perhaps too smart to write fiction. On the surface, it’s a weird statement for a profession we tend to associate with the very brilliant, but it might just be right. Successful fiction is most commonly the province of people banging their heads against human nature, fighting to define and redefine what it is to be human and, ultimately, succeeding. Maybe Wallace was running out of winnable victories, crossing battlefield after battlefield until something insurmountable rose up before him. The Pale King is not a triumph but it is a testament to the fight, a document capable of revealing to us both the terror and the overwhelming beauty of the mundane.

Something about My Morning Jacket’s Circuital, perhaps its total lack of innovation and generally unchallenging nature, invites derision. I found the experience of listening to this middle-of-the-road album to be acutely disappointing.  I wanted to like it. I have enjoyed scattered tracks by this country-tinged, classic-rock styled band over the years, ever since I first heard them as a promising, if out-of-place band on an early Darla Records compilation (Darla being a label better known for indie space-pop) sometime in the late 1990s. But before assessing shortcomings, there are positive aspects. I like the tasty and sometimes moody pedal steel and electric guitar leads on this album. Moreover, Jim James has a strong, appealing voice.

Diving in, however, Circuital stumbles out of the gate with a plodding, soporific dirge, “Victory Dance,” which begins with a ludicrous bugle-like riff that sounds like it is played on a kazoo. Frankly, if this song were submitted to a record label by an unknown band, even in this polished state, it would likely be rejected. The title track, a comfortable, rootsy folk song, while not entirely enthralling, is more upbeat and builds to an understated guitar solo before dropping down again. The muted guitar riff at the beginning and end recalls Bruce Springsteen’s 1980s hit “I’m On Fire.” Unfortunately, or better comically, on “Circuital” it sounds as though James is earnestly singing, “suck iiiiiiit.” This track, perhaps the best here, would have almost made it onto a Fleet Foxes album. Almost. No doubt, Fleet Foxes were clearly influenced by My Morning Jacket, but that group has, based on a comparison of this album and Fleet Foxes’ recently released Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop), neatly eclipsed their forebears.

“The Day is Coming” is a decent rock song, but fails to develop. Released as a single, “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” has its charms, including its punchy horn hits, but is basically akin to a big, slick, late-Santana pop song like “Smooth.” Its background vocals sound as though young female fans were handpicked to sing with their favorite band. It turns out that the standout horn figures and semi-funky guitar riff are not even original to the band, but were taken from an Asian 1960s group. Ultimately, it is quite catchy, if slightly cheesy. “Black Metal,” similar to numerous other songs here, sounds like a conscious stab at radio airplay.

Repeating its title ad nauseum, “Wonderful” is a fuzzy-headed dream of a Utopia in which the singer yearns for a place with “no beliefs” and “no disease,” just “spirits at ease.”  When you think about it, death provides such an easing of care and tension, but without a guarantee of “sprits” outlasting the body. Or shooting up heroin, but what’s the point?  The Beatles could pull off such a theme, but in the context of a children’s song such as “Octopus’s Garden” or “Yellow Submarine” or as a sparse and radical statement like John’s solo track “Imagine.” Recalling a John Denver outtake, “Wonderful” is flatly embarrassing — in listening to this tripe, one feels as though IQ points are being lost as the seconds tick past. Speaking of The Beatles and their solo careers, this album is in tone particularly reminiscent of non-top-tier solo work by Paul McCartney from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, which is overtly commercial, built on conventional melodies and harmonies, and mostly declines to take risks. Like Paul but less so, the men of My Morning Jacket are obviously talented but they have chosen to tread water or eschew experiment in order to render their music most palatable to a mass audience.

“Outta My System” is mildly redemptive, with lyrics bordering on clever, but on the whole harmonically banal and overly familiar. Still, it definitely merits a listen. “First Light,” however, is bunk: repetitive, mundane, and tiresome. It would have already sounded stale in 1970. “You Wanna Freak Out” is a simple, unremarkable song in 6/8 time, even if it does rock a little.

Although lackluster, Circuital will serve its purpose of building a larger audience and providing new material for the band’s sun-baked festival crowds. In this way, the record resembles a couple of 1970s studio albums by The Grateful Dead, another act esteemed as a live band that didn’t always come across to their best advantage on disc.

Singer/guitarist Dan Boeckner first rose to prominence with Wolf Parade, but there’s a reason that band was looked on as something of a supergroup. With two songwriters in Boeckner and singer/keyboardist Spencer Krug of virtually identical stature, Wolf Parade could sometimes feel like a battle royale between two fighters at the top of their respective games. And yet there’s every reason to think that Handsome Furs provides a better battleground for Boeckner to work out his essential agon when it comes to songwriting.

This is because Boeckner is a writer working at reconciling what are often diametric opposites: rural vs. urban, interior vs. exterior, home vs. the road, flesh and blood vs. gears and metal. His songs explore the places where these opposites collide and are reconciled or else destroy each other. It’s the last of those sets that comes to the fore in Handsome Furs, a more electronic, synth and beat heavy endeavor than Wolf Parade.

Against pulses of static and a crystalline keyboard line, opener “When I Get Back” explores the transformative power of travel and the way Boeckner’s raggedly desperate voice rubs against the coldness of the music that redoubles the sense of isolation the song’s narrator is raging against. “Memories of the Future” could be a Robyn outtake — all kick-snare crispness and burbling monophonic synths — but where Robyn would glide effortlessly across such a track, Boeckner’s voice cracks and slips against it. When he sings “Nostalgia never meant much to me,” you get the sense he’s more trying to convince himself than you. In much the way OK Computer’s ambivalence about technology and the modern world was strengthened by its grounding in its own technology, the musical settings on Sound Kapital reinforce Boeckner’s isolation, the feeling that he’s trapped inside the tracks themselves and kicking his way loose any way he can.

Where Boeckner’s guitar comes in, as on the slashing “Bury Me Standing,” it fits better than it has on previous Handsome Furs releases. It’s as fierce and urgent as Boeckner’s voice, but the sense overall is less and less of rock plus dance (which was how 2007’s Plague Park very much came off) and more and more something without a distinct formula or precedent. If anything, Sound Kapital is weirdly reminiscent of INXS singer Michael Hutchence’s semi-political, slightly dance-y and kinda post-modern side project Max Q.

Maybe it’s just because most of Sound Kapital seems like it could be blasting right now in a basement club in Berlin, but Handsome Furs feel simultaneously global and lost, internationally jet-setting and longing for somewhere to call home. But that’s where Boeckner does his best work: crossing borders, connecting disparate things. After all, every running away is also a running towards, right?

The day I first dropped the needle on Panda Bear’s Tomboy, the carpets in my apartment building were being cleaned. This entailed butter yellow vans idling on the street for hours while giant, snakey tubes ran all through the building, soaking, soaping, and blowing dry the carpets. The voice of Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear, also of Animal Collective, yadda yadda, you know the drill) rose up from the speakers chanting, “Know you can count on me” but sounding like “No you can’t count on me.” The lyrical confusion seemed entirely appropriate, given Panda Bear’s often impressionistic approach to music.

2007’s Person Pitch (Paw Tracks) was a digital swatch of compelling sonic confusion, the kind of album you wanted to drop at your DJ gigs but couldn’t decide where anything began or ended. Tomboy is not like that, not exactly. The songs are more or less discrete units: “Tomboy” itself sounds like a refugee from a 1980s sci-fi soundtrack, discovered and nursed back to health by a tribe of aborigines living in a canyon; “Slow Motion” wouldn’t be out of place on The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.s (Astralwerks, 1999); “Drone” is just what it says, like an early M83 track that forgot the drums — and not in a bad way. Lennox’s unwavering commitment to that drone for the track’s final minute is admirable.

But if the music is more variegated than on its predecessor, Lennox’s vocals are just as washed in echo throughout, resulting in reverb fatigue over the distance. When the music itself was more impressionistic, this over-effected vocal approach was more effective and less affected. In places, melodies do manage to rise above: “Alsatian Darn” has a gently insistent vocal curve in what you might call the chorus, as does “Tomboy.” But overall I found myself wishing for more abstraction in the music, as on Person Pitch, or less abstraction in the vocals.

Not that the music is without its abstract pleasures. Repeated listens, especially with headphones, reveal aural treats aplenty, and on that first day I played the LP, as it spun towards the conclusion of side two, I realized that the last song was never going to end. “Benfica” ends in a locked groove on the vinyl, meaning if you never pick up the needle, the last droning seconds of the song will loop endlessly. When I finally went to stop it, it became apparent that one of the sounds I had thought was part of the record was actually the gentle hum of the carpet cleaning vans, rising and falling outside. Your reaction to that anecdote probably tells you everything you need to know about whether this record is for you.

Wrapping up the totality of an epoch in music’s recent past is a perverse pursuit. Eric Davidson, author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, goes so far as to include an interviewee telling him so.

Fronting the New Bomb Turks for 20 years has apparently imbued Davidson, who also did time editing CMJ, with enough gumption to give his book-length investigation of garage, punk, and its ephemera a proper vetting. Beginning with a bit of Cleveland punk history – Rocket from the Tombs, Electric Eels, and such – distills Davidson’s understanding of the genre, even as his native-Ohioian bias comes on relatively early. Making use of his connections earned touring the world, the author weaves together an admittedly reductive view of underground rock stuffs linking the end of hardcore to bands detailed herein, grunge, and off to garage’s reiteration during the early part of the new millennium.

First hand narratives, as they often do, become a bit tiresome by the time Davidson tells readers about touring Spain. But between the sporadic first person stories, the singer’s able to coax some insightful one-liners from the performers he interviews. Everyone from the Mummies to the Devil Dogs finds inclusion. Of course, there’s an unfocused discussion of Jack White being a monster that crops up every once in awhile. The author, so judiciously, distances himself from the most famous guy in the book, never really weighing in with his own perspective on the White Stripes. There is a bit on Davidson approaching White for an interview and getting some cryptic e-mail in response. What’s funny is that while Davidson’s inexorable gushing about Billy Childish doesn’t approach journalistic detachment, there isn’t a kind word for Jack White anywhere to be found. Maybe that’s deserved, but the Detroit native gets railed for making a boat load of money (and how he went about it) even as some other major label signees are depicted as folks who gave it a shot but got mangled in the machine.

Separating the author’s affection for a number of bands mentioned throughout this volume and the actual impact these folks had on anyone gets a bit difficult. The Raunch Hands may have had a moment of glory and turned in some ravers, but proportional to the impact Mick Collins and the Gories had on folks, the space each ensemble takes up seems curious. But that’s Davidson inserting himself into the book. Despite We Never Learn eschewing even handedness, it winds up being not just an engaging read – and a quick one at that – but also an important first document in what will no doubt be an over-chronicled period of time. Shitting on grunge bands, though, only makes you sound bitter even if Soundgarden does kinda suck.

“Any similarities between certain characters in this book and real people is due entirely to insight into human nature” – Gunther Strobbe

With that disclaimer hovering before us, so begins The Misfortunates, the 2009 film from Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, his third feature. Van Groeningen adapted his film from the apparently semi-autobiographical novel De helaasheid der dingen by Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst. Often bleak, sometimes bleakly funny, the narrative chiefly concerns the family of heavy-drinking, cross-dressing, crude-talking, Roy Orbison-loving, naked bike-riding Strobbe brothers (Beefcake, Petrol, Koen, and Marcel) and their impact upon one boy, Marcel’s son. That son turns out to be Gunther Strobbe, the author whose disclaimer opens the movie, the gangly, tow-headed kid having turned into a slender, brooding artist.

The film opens with a repo man coming to take the Strobbe family TV. The only greater indignity would be if he had taken their stash of booze. The brothers act out, immediately resorting to (somewhat comedic) violence, but it’s their long-suffering mother who will lose her only form of entertainment.

And so begins the chaotic story of the Strobbes. In short, the theme of this tale is that of  the sins of the father being visited upon the son. For Gunther may be more intelligent than his father, but he’s not spared the same stupid mistakes. Just like his father, he accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant. He’s cold, emotionally remote from woman. His father allows him to get drunk and berates his mother before him in the harshest of terms. It’s not difficult to imagine Gunther growing up disdainful of women. Yet, he also maintains an irrational love for his father. At first.

The scenes from Gunther’s earlier life are bleached out. The blown-out color surely representing their blown out lives in a blown out decade, the 1980s. Witihin that landscape, The Misfortunates offers something to offend quite a few folks, including copious underage drinking and hairy male nudity. The Strobbes are a train wreck of a family with few boundaries and nary a role model in sight. And that’s largely the point.

The young and older Gunther are both played convincingly by Kenneth Vanbaeden and Valentijn Dhaenens, respectively. His father and brothers are all played wincingly, comedically, forming a believable gang of incompetents. Gunther’s father is Koen De Graeve, who disappears into the role, portraying Marcel at three distinct emotional and physical points in his life. Marcel isn’t a complete monster, not always anyway. Rather he’s a man-child, a father, biologically, with the mind of a 12 year old boy. His solutions to life’s hurdles typically involve alcohol and violence.

Having escaped this environment, as an adult and a struggling writer, Gunther delivers pizza, answers phones, and pushes a drink cart on a train to make money. (Trains tell us about a country most honestly, he points out, poetically.) It’s ironic, then, at first, that in pursuing his more intellectual path, Gunther still ends up doing the same sort of menial labor his father, the town postman, did. He makes for an angry adult and he confesses to hating two people: his mother and the mother of his own child – the latter perhaps for fear of putting him in the role of raising a child and making the same mistakes his father did. So, too, he seldom returns to his village, the fictional town of Reetveerdegem. But when he does, it’s to join his remaining uncles in their traditional drunken, cross-dressing shenanigans.

“Beautiful things got destroyed or left our village,” Gunther says. Perhaps, it’s with this realization that he finally begins to change. “5 novels later,” we see on the screen a few minutes before the story’s ending. Now, Gunther is comforting his apparently senile grandmother, telling her he’s thankful for her protection, that he’s found the love of his life. He understands that this woman, who if too permissive, was never deserving of the indignities her children heaped upon her. It wasn’t the men who saved him, the women who abandoned him. It was always the other way around.

Then the story closes, with Gunther patiently, gently teaching his own son how to ride a bike. It’s a lovely, idyllic scene. But how did he get here? Five novels later? And what in between? The transformation from callous misogynist to caring father and grandson comes a little too easily. Did his wife leave him, take the boy with her? That’d be a realistic catalyst for change. If the story truly is autobiographical, something happened, even if it were a long, slow turning to the light. There are hints of that process here: Gunther asks to go to boarding school as kid, much to his father’s dismay, where he does better as a student and discovers his flair for writing. And later we learn he may have called in child services to protect himself. These moments are telling, certainly, but only go part way in explaining what changed Gunther from a remote, reluctant father into a more sophisticated, empathetic human being over the course of five novels. More such moments would be compelling to balance the admittedly entertaining portrayal of the bizarre, brutal hothouse he grew up within. That said, it’s to van Groeningen’s credit that he depicts this family so vividly, with heavy lashings of humor and nary a misplaced whit of sentiment. In the end, the Strobbe clan may be safer to watch from a distance than up close, but they’re nonetheless unforgettable for it.

Every one us loves a good recovery story, right? Remember a few years ago when Beach Boy Brian Wilson released Smile (Nonesuch, 2004), some 37 years after he originally conceived it? Was the anticipation around the release of that long-delayed effort due simply to the fact that Wilson hadn’t released much original work in the ensuing decades? Of course not. No, the inescapable themes embedded in our enthusiasm were those of recovery and redemption. Music fans knew the story of Wilson’s decline into addiction and depression, even into madness it was said. Having heard he was working on an abandoned masterpiece, we all wanted this lovable, lugubrious legend to rise again from the ashes. And we hoped he’d come bearing something rarefied. Many believe he did.

So then, consider Edwyn Collins, a witty, acerbic Scottish musician and a founding member of the seminal pop group Orange Juice. Unfairly known here chiefly for his pop masterpiece “A Girl Like You,” Collins is a brilliant solo artist in his own right, with albums to his credit like the groovy, Beatles-mocking Dr. Syntax (Setanta, 2002). Tragedy overcame Collins though in 2005 when he suffered two cerebral hemorrhages, leaving him paralyzed on one side of his body, and the abnormally articulate gent was cruelly reduced to a vocabulary of just four words. It’s an event one can hardly ignore when reviewing this, his first effort after an accident many assumed would leave him permanently incapacitated. You won’t be surprised then to find the theme of morbidity running a thick vein through his seventh solo album. Now, at 51 years old, Collins focuses on subjects relevant to his age and position, subjects made only more poignant when you inevitably consider his health. “I’m losing sleep, I’m losing dignity,” he begins on the first track. And you know as you hear his voice quaver throughout the song that he’s referring to his still imperfect physical condition. Yet, the tone? Upbeat, cheery almost, accompanied by bright horns. If the words are bleak, the tone says, Que sera, sera. What ever will be, will be.

“Sometimes I wonder, what is my role?” he asks next. He’s also “Bored” and “Humble.” Later, he’s even “Over the Hill.” These songs remind us of the human characteristics Collins has so trenchantly satirized in his music before. Here, however, he considers them more tenderly. He’s careful to avoid a pity fest, too: “Humble” actually proves affirming, reverent. So does “Come Tomorrow, Come Today” and “I Still Believe in You,” not to forget the romantic, swirling “In Your Eyes.”

“Fast and quick and speedy” is how Collins has said he wanted Losing Sleep to sound, seemingly in defiance of his physical condition. The effort features an array of collaborations with members of Orange Juice, The Cribs, Franz Ferdinand, The Magic Numbers, The Drums, and Aztec Camera. Despite or perhaps because of those many collaborations, Losing Sleep lacks the wit and depth of Collins’ previous efforts. Compare a tune like the creepy, seductive, ultimately scathing “Back to the Backroom” from Dr. Syntax with the remarkably straightforward, positively jaunty “Simple Life.” Similarly, “Searching for the Truth” sounds surprisingly literal compared to some of Collins’ previous work. Earnest even. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve just been trained to expect something more caustic from Collins. Consider, then, that “Searching for Truth” was the first song Collins penned while recovering from his illness. Or that he still can’t strum the strings of his guitar with his right hand. Perhaps, he’s just been through too much, values his recovering life too greatly to revel in cynicism. He’s moved from the more convoluted trappings of irony to something, in his own words, more “direct.”

In the end then, if Losing Sleep doesn’t tread the path you might expect it to, it’s still a welcome, valiant return from a treasured pop veteran.

This review will start with a disclaimer: I am the biggest Radiohead fan there is. Okay, maybe not in the modern definition of someone who posts endlessly annoying updates on their Facebook and Twitter, linking every news story or remix video, or who updates Foursquare whenever he or she is in a store that sells one of the newfangled “newspaper” editions of this album. If it’s not already obvious from that little rant, I’m too old and cranky for all of that. Still, I freaking love these dudes in a way that only a college-aged guy who spends his textbook money on concert tickets to see them multiple times on a single tour in places he doesn’t live in can. So, it’s hard for me to condemn an album by these habitually innovative Brits, but it must be done.

The King of Limbs, the band’s new eight-song, self-released venture, is arguably the band’s worst yet. Ironically, its low standing rivals only the quintet’s debut record, 1993’s Pablo Honey (Capitol), forming an incongruous career arch to this point. Maybe that’s the karmic purpose of this release, because it certainly doesn’t serve as a solid release from a band with more than a few in the back catalog. In fact, it serves as another reminder of the fall-off of a group once seemingly on top of the creative world.

All and all, The King of Limbs is another spin of a once inspired and categorically immune band becoming insipid where there was once innovation. The formula that once turned songs magical has now turned them into uninspired rants of odd-fitting glitch, house-hop backdrops with meandering vocals and a snap-on guitar riff here or there. It’s like eight half-baked ideas jam-packed into one bland, overflowing bowl. It’s interesting that a band so dead-set on changing its sound and not mimicking what’s previously worked for them has been victimized by their own innovation – trapped in a sound that initially cemented them as sound-shifting elder statesmen.

Leading this journey off are “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie,” both of which define the aforementioned explanation of Radiohead’s current sound: one part scattered synthetic percussion, one part lackadaisical vocals, one part jittery riffage, and boom goes the Radiohead tune. “Little By Little” is more of the same but with a jagged, rhythm and blues delivery that makes what might be described as a chorus as coolly intoxicating. But still, it’s the interesting kind of trinket that made fans initially pick up frontman (and idea man) Thom Yorke’s solo offering, The Eraser (XL, 2006), though not something you’d expect as one of the lead tracks offered up by his proper legendary band.

Next up is a real tough one to swallow from an already skimpy eight song offering from a band whose releases are akin to gold bullion: “Feral,” an instrumental track, and one that sounds like the test backing track to a B-side off of In Rainbows (TBD/ATO, 2007). After that, we are into the strong half of the record, which gives us the de-facto single “Lotus Flower.” This tune offers up more of that same nouveau Radiohead sound as a landscape, but Yorke delivers the melodic levitation that has kept fans and critics interested over the previous pair of post-Kid A/Amnesiac outings.

Nearing closer to closure, the tunes “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” offer up what at least this reviewer thinks the next full artistic diversion should be for the band. Each is led by a strong, solitary instrument – the former in the form of a piano and the latter a simple acoustic strum – which is something that has been the badge of all of Radiohead’s top tunes of the last decade. By the time the listener reaches the finale, “Separator,” we are back to Radiohead B-side territory.

Listen: every all-time great rock’n’roll band reaches the peak of their artistic Everest before eventually ending up in career peaks and valleys mostly the size of cul-de-sac speed bumps. But that doesn’t mean the band can’t take a visit back to the summit every few years. Hopefully the wonderful Radiohead realizes that this well-worn, if once innovative, “more is more” formula isn’t the ticket back.