Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone and Mamma Roma)

Though Pier Paolo Pasolini has a reputation as a great filmmaker, there seems to be no consensus on which of his films are classics, or on what qualities make them great.  Many of Pasolini’s contemporaries have at least one commonly agreed-upon essential work that is (rightly or wrongly) treated as critical shorthand for their style.  Jean-Luc Godard has Breathless (1960), Francois Truffaut has The 400 Blows (1959), Michelangelo Antonioni has L’avventura (1960), John Cassavetes has Shadows (1959), and Federico Fellini has both La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963).  While a number of Pasolini’s works have earned substantial critical praise, none of them are as famous as the aforementioned films, and none of his works has been singled out as a definitive representation of a consistent aesthetic.  While Pasolini is frequently cited by critics and film buffs as an important figure, it seems that his work is somehow more respected than it is well-known.

Perhaps the reason for Pasolini’s somewhat ambivalent cultural status is that it seems that he evolved quickly, changing his aesthetic according to the needs of each individual film.  There are certain thematic concerns that do carry over from one Pasolini film to another, and from these it is actually fairly easy to discern the director’s lifelong obsessions.  Yet these fixations often seem contradictory, as if Pasolini spent his career as a filmmaker trying to figure out what his point of view was.  Pasolini was a gay man with a mother fetish, a Marxist who dabbled in Christian worship, a middle-class citizen with a deep respect for the poor, a realist with a love for fantasy and spirituality, and a forward-thinking taboo-breaker whose films tended to be set in the past.  Each of these concerns figure into most of the Pasolini films I’ve seen (seven of his twelve features), but because the contradictions in Pasolini’s recurring themes are never resolved, these obsessions don’t add up to any sort of obvious composite portrait of who the director was.  Many of Pasolini’s films are based around classic texts which are then tailored to the director’s unique fixations and social concerns.  But even taking these common aesthetic traits into account, it is hard to see how something like the neorealist, earthy The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) could’ve been made by the same filmmaker as the deliberately controlled, brutally hopeless Salo (1975).

With his myriad contradictions and his chameleonic filmic style, Pasolini is an ideal subject for Understanding Auteurs.  His is one of the most confounding bodies of work in the history of cinema, and sorting out his many competing ideas – or at least figuring out Pasolini’s approach to exploring those contradictions – should be fascinating whether it ultimately proves illuminating or mystifying.  This will be a somewhat incomplete study by default, as I’ll only be looking at his twelve feature films (and his most notable short, 1963’s La ricotta) and not his documentaries, many of which are difficult to find.  Pasolini was also a controversial novelist, poet, and essay-writer – with the exception of Orson Welles, it’s hard to think of a filmmaker who was accomplished in so many fields – and ignoring Pasolini’s literary works will obviously have its disadvantages when trying to understand his oeuvre. 

Given the difficulties inherent in Pasolini’s cinema, it is somewhat surprising that the director began his filmmaking career with two relatively straightforward examples of Italian neorealism.  Though Pasolini hated the term neorealism, his debut film, Accattone (1961), is undeniably an example of the genre.  The definition of neorealism offered by Wikipedia could double as a vague yet accurate description of Accattone:  “…(a story) set among the poor and the working class, filmed on location, using nonprofessional actors.”  Vittorio (the magnetic Franco Citti), a low-rent pimp nicknamed Accattone (street slang for “beggar”), drifts through the film, splitting his time between bullshitting with his friends and dealing with various hazards of his profession.  The story, such as it is, mostly revolves around Accattone’s various, constantly thwarted attempts to go strait.  Like most neorealist films, Accattone is less focused on narrative than on realistically capturing the life of poor Italians struggling to get by in post-WWII Italy.

Accattone succeeds marvelously as a convincing depiction of everyday life among Rome’s petty criminals and poor workers.  Simply taken as a slice of life, Pasolini’s debut is nearly as compelling as Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist standard bearer Bicycle Thieves (1948) and far less melodramatic than Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).  Even the faces of the people appearing in Accattone seem somehow more authentic than they do in the average movie.  Though many of the actors in the supporting cast deliver rather stilted line readings, their awkwardness in front of the camera paradoxically seems to make their performances feel more realistic than any professional work could manage.  For the most part, the events of the film unfold in a natural rhythm that gives a genuine feel for the daily lives of the characters.  By the end of Accattone, the anguish that the street hustlers hide as they laugh through their directionless daily activities is palpable.

The film includes many memorable scenes that realistically convey the characters’ plight with a tragicomic tone that is enormously engaging.  A scene where Accattone conspires to eat most of the small amount of spaghetti that he and three equally starving friends are cooking is particularly amusing, though even as the viewer laughs the full tragedy of the friends’ situation is unavoidable.  There are a handful of moments where it seems that Pasolini is straining to make a point – as in Claude Chabrol’s contemporaneous Les bonnes femmes (1960), it sometimes feels like the film is exaggerating the boorishness of the male characters’ attitudes toward women to the detriment of the film’s credibility – but in the context of lower-class Italian culture circa 1961, the characters’ dated attitudes toward gender issues are probably fairly accurate. 

Pasolini’s direction is fairly basic; aside from a strikingly beautiful recurring use of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion on the soundtrack, the first-time director seems to mostly be working from a “neorealism 101” handbook.  The director also falters in his one major break with neorealist convention, an awkward dream sequence toward the end of the film that clumsily underlines the themes of inescapable poverty that Accattone otherwise handles with such grace and subtlety.  Despite this one truly flawed scene, Accattone is a tremendously impressive debut film.  The film genuinely feels like “poetry written with reality,” and its unsentimental tone manages to stave off the melodramatic tendencies that mar the supposed truthfulness of many neorealist films.

Mamma Roma (1962) is a logical follow-up to Accattone.  While Pasolini’s second film once again takes neorealism as a stylistic jumping off point, it has a more dynamic tonal range, a more ambitious scope, and more assured direction than his debut.  Franco Citti once again appears as a pimp, perhaps as a nod to his debut role, but the focus of the film is on spirited call girl Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) and her troubled son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).  Mamma Roma claims to be retired from her profession, but her plans to move with her son to Rome are continuously thwarted by her lack of bourgeois social skills and by her son’s petty thievery. 

Once again Pasolini captures early-‘60s Italy with a cinema verite sense of realism, but the tenor of the film is complicated by his treatment of Mamma Roma and Ettore as simultaneously realistic and iconic figures.  Pasolini reportedly regretted casting Magnani in the title role, as he preferred to work with nonprofessionals and she apparently disregarded many of his suggestions, but her boisterous, full-bodied performance doesn’t make her seem out of place in this mostly amateur cast.  Even though it is evident that Magnani is a more skilled actress than everyone around her, her performance has a remarkable lack of obvious polish.  Garofolo also makes his character feel like a real human being, albeit in the opposite way that Magnani does; like the amateur cast of Accattone, his true nature comes through almost because of his lack of thespian skills.  His seeming embarrassment in front of the camera makes Ettore’s shyness around love interest Bruna (Silvana Corsini), as well as his awkwardness around the bourgeois Romans whom his mother tries to get him to befriend, palpable. 

Layered on top of Mamma Roma’s verisimilitude is a mythic, spiritual element that seems like a big departure from neorealist orthodoxy.  Pasolini believed that the middle-class luxuries that were becoming increasingly prevalent in Italy in the ‘60s were destroying the country’s spirituality and that only the working class were in touch with Italy’s peasant and religious roots.  He hinted at this religious dimension in Accattone, both with his use of Bach’s Christian-themed music and with the title character assuming a Christ pose before diving into the river, but this thematic element is much more pronounced in Mamma Roma.  The wedding party in the beginning of the film is shot in a way that deliberately recalls The Last Supper, and Mamma Roma and Ettore are frequently depicted as modern versions of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  After Ettore is arrested for petty thievery toward the end of the film, he is placed on a wooden slab in a crucifixion position, with a Vivaldi spiritual playing on the soundtrack.  Depicting the Virgin Mary as an aging prostitute and Christ as an incorrigible young thug may seem blasphemous – and this element of the film may explain why Pasolini was attacked by fascists as its premier – but it is clear when watching Mamma Roma that Pasolini is not treating his themes irreverently.  While his conflation of the everyday working class and heavenly religious figures is certainly provocative, it is obvious that Pasolini cares deeply about the relationship between God and man and truly feels that only the poor are in touch with this partnership.

Pasolini proves up to the task of conveying this strange but potent mixture of realistic and iconic tones.  While Accattone is a terrific film in many ways, it appears that Pasolini’s main skill as a director at that point was to stay out of the way of his material, with the awkwardly handled dream sequence being the only obviously “directed” scene in the film.  Mamma Roma continues the first film’s documentary look, but also uses that aesthetic in some very beautiful and subtly ambitious ways.  The highlight of the film might be a lovely reverse tracking shot that follows Mamma Roma down a street as she relates her life story to a revolving succession of strangers who join her under the lamp flickered night sky.  There are a number of other examples of terrific black and white cinematography in the film, with Ettore’s quasi-crucifixion standing out in particular.  With his second film, Pasolini turns the priorities of neorealism on their head, using reality to convey the spiritual psychology of the underclass characters that he refuses to sentimentalize but obviously has a lot of genuine affection for.

UP NEXT  La ricotta and The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Year of Release  2001
Country  USA
Length  146 min.
Director  Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter  Steven Spielberg (adapted from the short story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss)
Cinematographer  Janusz Kaminski
Editor  Michael Kahn
Set Design Rick Carter
Visual Effects  Stan Winston
Score  John Williams
Cast  Haley Joel Osment,  Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson

A.I. Artificial Intelligence had one of the most unique inceptions of any project in the history of cinema.  Initially the film was developed by Stanley Kubrick, who hired a small army of screenwriters and storyboard artists to help him adapt a Brian Aldiss story called “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.”  At various stages of the project’s three-decade development, the plan was for Steven Spielberg to produce while Kubrick directed, or vice versa.  After Kubrick passed away in 1999, shortly before the completion of post-production on Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Spielberg crafted his own screenplay based on the mountain of A.I. preparatory work completed by Kubrick and his collaborators.  Working with his usual ace technical team (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, special effects wizard Stan Winston, composer John Williams), Spielberg managed to film the elaborate, decades-in-gestation production in a handful of months.

There has been relatively little collaboration between name-brand directors in the history of cinema, and fewer still made on a blockbuster scale.  Certainly there have been cases of filmmakers picking up where others left off, as when Claude Chabrol filmed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unrealized script for Inferno as L’enfer (1994) or when Tom Tykwer took over the Krzysztof Kieslowski project Heaven (2002).  The closest comparison to Kubrick and Spielberg’s collaboration of A.I. is probably Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s co-development of Tabu (1931), though Flaherty left that project fairly early on after a number of disagreements with Murnau, and few traces of the pioneering documentarian’s aesthetic remain in Murnau’s final product.
 The oddest thing about the collaboration between Kubrick and Spielberg is not simply that two massively renowned directors worked together (and separately) on the same film, but that the two filmmakers in question seem completely at odds ideologically.  Kubrick and Spielberg’s films do share some common superficial traits, such as a virtuosic mastery of the technical side of filmmaking and a predilection for science fiction and military settings.  But the attitude that the two filmmakers have about those settings, and the way that they approach “perfectionism,” could not be more different.  Kubrick’s films are all, on some fundamental level, about complicated flaws in human nature, which ironically prevent “foolproof” plans (the heist in 1956’s The Killing, HAL in 1968’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the rules of society in 1975’s Barry Lyndon, the family unit in 1980’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut) from working despite the protagonists’ best intentions.  Spielberg’s films tend to be reassuring statements about man’s importance in relation to awe-inspiring nature (the shark in 1975’s Jaws, the aliens in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1982’s E.T., the dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park), in which the audience surrogates are either able to conquer or befriend the forces of an unruly world.  Where Kubrick’s films deal with emotions so convoluted and discomfiting that we don’t have names for them, Spielberg’s works tend to be nakedly sentimental and comforting even when he is dealing with ostensibly heavy subject matter.  While 2001’s narrative structure pointedly (and reasonably) posits the human race as a mere “missing link” in an ongoing evolution, E.T. is a celebration of human compassion, with its titular alien functioning as a sort of pet/kid-brother hybrid. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about A.I. is that it consistently carries simultaneous traces of both Kubrick and Spielberg’s opposing aesthetics while maintaining a mostly coherent point of view that isn’t obviously the product of either individual.  Anyone hoping that A.I. would simply be another Kubrick or another Spielberg film would undoubtedly be disappointed – which probably accounts for the mixed reaction that the film received from critics upon its release, and the ambivalent stature that the film holds over a decade later – but the hybrid of two very different aesthetics creates an utterly distinctive tone that neither individual could’ve created on their own.  This makes A.I. difficult to analyze in some ways; with the idea of artistic intentionality thrown out the window (or at least made highly speculative), the film can’t be reviewed under traditional auteurist guidelines.  But the best works of art always make their own rules, and being confounded by complicated ideas is the first step to understanding them.  Whether the fusion of competing ideologies was part of either director’s intentions for A.I., the awkwardness that results registers, for the most part, as a purposeful and pointed embodiment of the film’s ambivalent and questioning attitude toward the philosophical and moral quandaries it proposes.
The odd clash of tonalities in A.I. aesthetic creates a unique tension not unlike that experienced by the people forced to deal with David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic boy programmed to feel human emotions.  David is a walking contradiction; an unlikely cross between 2001’s HAL 9000 and E.T.’s titular alien, he is able to feel a superhuman amount of love for the human beings he worships, but is dangerous and destructive when he’s confronted by anything that confuses his basic emotional programming.  In the first act of the film, David is adopted by a couple (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) who are using him to compensate for the void left by their comatose son (Jake Thomas).  During the early scenes where the Swinton family is struggling to get used to their new living situation, David is consistently filmed in ways that emphasize his alien nature.  But after the robotic boy gains the trust of his mother, and undergoes an “imprinting” process that forces him to love her forever, the cute little boy half of his personality is brought to the fore, making it easy for the Swintons (and the audience) to perceive the protagonist as human.   This idealized vision of the nuclear family is frequently brought back to reality by startling flashes of David’s mechanical nature, such as when he holds a laugh for an uncomfortably long time at the dinner table. 
The complicated tone that the film establishes in its early scenes suggests a sentimental Spielberg film being interrupted with jarring frequency by the icy creepiness of a Kubrick film (or vice versa), and the unbalanced feeling that this creates in the viewer makes the Swintons’ ambivalence toward their robot son palpable.  It is unlikely that either director could have achieved this bizarre tenor – which might be referred to as “visceral ambiguity” – on their own.  Kubrick likely would have kept emphasizing David’s strangeness, while Spielberg would probably have humanized the character to the point that his robotic background would seem moot.  The once-in-a-lifetime combination of the two approaches is perfect for the character and for the film’s complex moral inquiry, because it destabilizes any attempts to read the character as obviously robotic or obviously human.  It should also be stressed that Osment’s outstanding performance is consistently tuned into the disturbing contradictions inherent in his character.  Osment’s portrayal of David is one of the most impressive child performances in all of cinema.

Of course, great science fiction is never merely about robots.  The genre’s great strength is its ability to defamiliarize certain aspects of humanity in order to tell us something about ourselves that we couldn’t learn from a more conventionally “realistic” story.  A.I.’s view of us is very dark indeed.  The film presents a disturbing vision of a human race desperate to receive love but categorically incapable of giving it.  Almost all of the human characters are defined by their pathological (though distressingly understandable) need to hang onto the feeling that somebody cares about them.  It is revealed in one scene that David’s creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), modeled the robot boy after his own deceased son, a plot point that simultaneously makes it easier to understand and harder to accept his smug joy in discovering that his experiment in emotional robotics was successful.  The toy boxes of the David model and his female equivalent feature the tagline “at last a love of your own,” a slogan that sums up the sadness that drives the characters to pursue a destructive form of one-sided love that backfires when the creature providing the affection becomes inconvenient. David’s relentless, unblinking affection is a nightmare version of the undying devotion that all of us want to feel from our loved ones, even though that type of obsessive love would inevitably prove untenable and insufferable.   
 Much of A.I.’s plot is set in motion when David’s mother/owner abandons him in the woods (in a wrenching, frightening scene that probably would’ve been too emotionally distanced in a Kubrick solo project, and too watered-down and sappy in a standard Spielberg film).  David’s quest to reunite with his mommy leads the film into a series of episodes that are admittedly a bit uneven, and sometimes awkward in unproductive ways.  A lengthy sequence devoted to a “flesh fair,” an elaborate carnival event where human/robot hybrids are tortured and destroyed for the amusement of an enthusiastic audience, is a didactic and garish blemish on an otherwise poetic and visually stunning film.  There are also a few distracting voice cameos by famous people (such as Chris Rock and Robin Williams) and a few uninspired visual homages to films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968).  At times, the film’s clash of ideologies produces out of place moments such as the one where an advanced alien species tells David that “humanity must be the key to the universe,” a sentiment that certainly doesn’t belong in a film with such a bleak view of the human race.
Ultimately, A.I.’s flawed moments are forgivable, and heavily outweighed by its many brilliant scenes.  Certain allowances need to be made for the film’s unusual production history, and the utterly distinctive tone that results from the partnership of two very different directors is more than fair compensation for the inevitable handful of incongruous bits.  The film works on a number of different emotional and intellectual levels simultaneously, combining traces of Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s very distinct aesthetics to create something that neither director could have made on their own.  This is the most emotionally visceral film in Kubrick’s oeuvre, and the most thoughtful and moral one in Spielberg’s filmography.  Spielberg’s gift for smooth blockbuster pacing allows the film to temporarily gloss over certain disturbing thematic suggestions that nonetheless are so heavily ingrained in the film’s very design that they inevitably surface when one thinks about the film later, in much the same way that David’s convincing boyish appearance can never entirely conceal his true nature. 
 The odd clash between Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s aesthetics reaches its height in A.I.’s controversial finale, which has the exact feel and appearance of a typically sappy Spielberg ending, and an undercurrent of the intense and uncomfortable ambiguity of a Kubrick climax.  David fails to reunite with his mother, and is trapped underwater for many years before being discovered by an advanced alien race.  The aliens explain that an ice age has killed off all of humanity, and that David’s memory banks provide the only remaining evidence of the human races existence.  The aliens grant David one wish, which of course is to be with his mother.  Naturally, David’s mother isn’t the real Monica Swinton, who died along with everyone else in the ice age, but a projection based on data retrieved from David’s memory.  David now has his own super-toy, an idealized version of his mother who exists solely to love him.  Monica and David lie in bed together, and the robot boy is able to shut his eyes for the first time.  The implication is that David has finally become a “real boy,” which would seem to be a happy fairy tale ending.  Except that the film’s suggestion of what a real boy is – obsessive, self-involved, wanting to be loved at all costs while being oblivious to the desires of others, full of raging and frustrated Oedipal desires – is not so sunny.  The ending of A.I. is all the more subversive because it isn’t even clear whether the film’s credited director understands its full, dark implications.

A.I. passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A comparatively direct challenge to the Auteur Theory, Orson Welles’ F for Fake.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Catching Up With 2011: Music

The increasing ease of hearing new music, whether through streaming services, legal or illegal downloading, or CDs burned by friends or bought in stores has made it relatively easy to keep up with the state of the art.  Still, so many releases come out every year that even the most devoted Pitchfork columnist can’t possibly hear everything that’s worth hearing.  Here are some of the most interesting 2011 albums that fell through the cracks for me until I caught up with them in the early months of this year.

Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
Cass McCombs sets himself apart from the singer-songwriter pack with his unique nasally voice, his predilection for dense productions, and his willingness to let his songs run as long as they need to in order to make the loneliness and despair of his lyrics physically palpable.  Wit’s End finds the singer evolving from a relatively conventional broken-hearted troubadour (opener “County Line”) to a bored, debauched libertine straight out of Edgar Allen Poe (closer “A Knock Upon the Door”).  B

Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape
Some of the high-end praise for this collection of hip-hop beats has gotten out of hand.  New Jersey producer Clams Casino’s debut solo project doesn’t revolutionize instrumental hip-hop the way that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing did, nor does it flow as elegantly as J Dilla’s classic Donuts.  Still, while the modest title of Clams Casino’s album sums up its content accurately, it doesn’t hint at its cohesiveness or polish.  Without the vocals of regular collaborators like A$AP Rocky and Lil’ B, Clams Casino’s eerie minimal beats reveal him as one of the most promising producers working today.  B+

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 2 (Judges)
Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson has worked with everyone from avant-garde jazz conceptualist Anthony Braxton to arena rockers Arcade Fire, yet his music is so distinct from anything happening in modern music that it’s hard to even determine what genre it belongs to.  Stetson uses a circular breathing technique that allows him to create swirling, impressionistic loops of sound, and he puts the microphone close enough to his instrument to turn the sound of his fingers tapping the keys into percussion.  The periodic attempts to vary the sound of Stetson’s extremely specific aesthetic have mixed results – a creepy take on the traditional spiritual “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” with vocalist Shara Worden works better than most of the poetry readings by Laurie Anderson – but even if the tracks do become a bit repetitive, this is still undeniably one of the most distinctive albums of last year.  B

Four Tet – FABRICLIVE 59
Motor City Drum Ensemble – DJ-Kicks 37
DJ mixes are minor works by definition, and the fact that these albums are, respectively, the 59th entry in the FABRICLIVE series and the 37th DJ-Kicks would seem to highlight their inessentiality.  But the tracks on each disc are so smartly chosen, and the flow from one track to another is so seamless, that these mixes are at least as compulsively listenable as the best of 2011’s electronica “artist albums.”  Each mix has its own strengths – Four Tet’s, which focuses on obscure European house music, has a pair of excellent originals by the British producer, while the Motor City Drum Ensemble set boasts an impressively varied mix of soul, jazz, disco, and R&B.  (Grade for both albums):  B

Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean has somehow simultaneously maintained a position as the singing member of shock-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang and a ghostwriter for pop artists like Beyonce and John Legend.  Idiosyncratic perversity and undeniable pop smarts share equal space on the singer’s debut solo project, which wound up being self-released after Def Jam dragged their feet on sample clearances.  Nostalgia, Ultra is a mixtape rather than a proper solo album, with original songs sharing space with tracks where Ocean puts new lyrics over famous backing tracks (from a surprising group of sources, ranging from The Eagles to MGMT), but the curious mix of decadence and sensitivity belongs to Ocean alone.  B

Iceage – New Brigade
On their debut LP, Danish quartet Iceage take the arty songwriting style of Wire and Gang of Four and drag it, kicking and screaming, through a bruising instrumental assault that would make most thrash metal bands wince.  The results are viscerally exciting; aside from noise specialists Lightning Bolt, it’s hard to think of another band whose sound is this consistently ferocious.  It’s possible that Iceage is a one-trick pony, and that the 24-minute length of this album is designed to disguise their limited range as much as it is to avoid filler.  But even if Iceage never expand their sound or fully live up to their promise, New Brigade will stand as one of 2011’s most impressive debuts.  B+

Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
The Magic Place’s gorgeous soundscapes are as haunting and otherworldly as anything released in recent memory.  Julianna Barwick’s music sounds dense and detailed, despite being made up almost entirely of loops of her wordless vocals (with occasional spare piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment).  There is something rough and ghostly about Barwick’s style that keeps her music out of Enya territory and puts it more in line with what Werner Herzog would call “the ecstatic truth.”  A-

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Kendrick Lamar is an ambitious, visionary MC with a smooth, elastic flow and an eclectic taste in beats.  Unfortunately, on his official solo debut (after an EP and a few mixtapes), Lamar keeps getting in the way of his own talent, smothering many of the tracks with ill-advised choruses or subpar guest verses, and giving the album a conceptual structure that is too muddled to be interesting.  While Lamar’s ambition is laudable, he tends to be at his best when he sticks to nimbly rapping over smooth productions, as on “Rigamortus” and “HiiiPower.”  B-

Moonface – Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
Spencer Krug has received a lot of acclaim for his work with Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, but he won’t be winning any points for originality with his solo project Moonface.  It’s impossible to imagine the lengthy, keyboard-heavy tracks on this album existing without the influence of Joy Division and Gary Numan, but the lyrical and musical quality of tracks like “Shit-Hawk in the Snow” justify Krug’s theft from the darker side of ‘80s New Wave.  B

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
With Taylor Kirk’s lonely croon and swelling strings sitting on top of eerie midtempo ballads, Creep on Creepin’ On sounds like it was somehow recorded in black and white.  But Timber Timbre’s debut LP is not a nostalgia trip, and it also doesn’t sound particularly indebted to any current indie rock.  The band has a few kinks to work out – the modern classical instrumental interludes are impressive in their own right, but seem to belong on a different album than the more conventional songs – but Timber Timbre seem like they are on the verge of a monumental breakthrough.  B