INTERVIEW: JUKEBOX THE GHOST

by ALEX NAGORSKI

Attention New Yorkers! I know you all have very busy weekends ahead of you crying over not winning the Book of Mormon lotto or waiting in line to check out Lady GaGa’s self-indulgent “workshop” at Barney’s. But if you’re in the mood to do something different, how about grabbing some beers, going bowling and checking out some awesome live music? And yes, I do mean all at the same time.

This Friday, Philadelphia-bred indie pop/rock trio Jukebox The Ghost will be playing the legendary Brooklyn Bowl as part of their current headlining tour.

Following their debut record in 2008, Let Live And Let Ghosts (which was recorded in only nine days!), Jukebox The Ghost released their critically acclaimed sophomore album, Everything Under The Sun, last fall. The record’s release spawned an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman and found the band touring with acts such as Guster and Barenaked Ladies.

In anticipation of Friday’s show, I chatted with guitarist and vocalist Tommy Siegel, who told me all about Jukebox’s creative process, shared some fond touring memories and spilled some details about their highly-anticipated upcoming third album.

ALEX: I read that you originally called yourselves The Sunday Mail but then decided to change the band’s name to Jukebox The Ghost. Can you tell me a little bit about where the name Jukebox The Ghost comes from and what it signifies to you?

TOMMY: Honestly, ‘Jukebox the Ghost’ was just a combination of words we thought would make a good band name. I wanted ‘Jukebox’, Ben wanted ‘Ghost’, and Jesse wanted us to be a ‘the’ band a la ‘The Smiths’ or ‘The Cure’. We put the words together, and voila. We’ve made a habit out of putting darker lyrical material into light-hearted-sounding pop songs, so I like to think that we’re somehow Jukebox-ing the Ghost. If that makes sense. ’Jukebox’ also could just be the name of that ghost drawing on everything we do.

Your music is such a distinct blend of indie pop and piano rock. I’d even argue that there are some significant classical influences in there. Given that your sound doesn’t fit the label of one specific genre, how would you best describe it?

The classical influence you’re hearing is very real on Ben’s part. He was a music major in college, and a serious classical player long before that. As far as our overall genre name … asking someone in a band to describe their genre is sorta like asking a person to sum their life up in a word or two. That being said … Pop-rock? Indie-pop? Pop-pop? Pop-rock-pop?

Pop-rock-pop definitely wins. Being a trio, how do you divide songwriting duties? Do you all sit together and try to write as a unit or do you find you work better writing individually and then bringing songs to the rest of the group?

We generally write songs independently and then bring them to the band to get arranged. Sometimes a song will arrive for rehearsal completely finished in the head of the person who wrote it, and sometimes it’ll be totally primordial.

With song titles like “Summer Sun,” “The Sun,” “The Sun (Interlude)” and “The Stars”, there’s an obvious reoccurring theme on Everything Under The Sun. Would you say there’s a specific narrative you’re trying to employ to string all of your music together (like a concept album)?

Just a happy accident, to be honest. ”The Sun/The Sun Interlude/The Stars” was a long piece I was working on (we ended it up splitting it on the album) and Ben happened to have a song called “Summer Sun” around the same time. We’re big album-structure geeks, so we put a lot of effort into making a tracklist feel like a narrative.

Everything Under The Sun had a significantly more synth-enhanced and polished feel than Let Live and Let Ghosts did. In what direction do you feel your sound has been evolving since this record’s release?

It’s difficult to pinpoint what defines our current state of evolution because our band’s music has always been all over the place stylistically. I can’t really say we’ve gone in one particular direction. In some ways I feel like we’re the same band, just making smarter decisions and learning to calm down and leave some space.

What can you tell me about your upcoming third album? How far into the writing process are you? Any ideas of when it might be released?

We’re about 75% done with our new album. Hoping to completely finish in the next few weeks! We’ve been working in Brooklyn with a producer named Dan Romer, who also happens to be a great friend of ours. He’s been doing a killer job and we had a great batch of songs to pick from, so I really think this is going to be my favorite record we’ve made. I really couldn’t be more excited about this one. Hopefully it’ll see the light of day in the late spring.

In 2009, you toured with Ben Folds on what I like to think of as the “piano rock dream tour.” What were the scariest and most rewarding things about sharing the stage with such a contemporary musical legend?

That was a great tour! It was the first large-club/theater tour we had ever done, so it was a surreal learning experience. His fans have been amazing to us.

I can imagine. So if you could embark on a tour with any 2-3 musicians around today, who would they be?

One of our collective favorite bands, the Dismemberment Plan, recently reunited for the tenth anniversary of Emergency and I (brilliant album). If they released a new album and asked us to go on a national tour, my brain would melt. Should I daydream another act on the bill? I think a resurrected Harry Nilsson would fit nicely.

You guys really seem to tour non-stop. What’s the best prank you’ve each pulled on one another while on the road?

We had Jesse convinced on a long drive that the earth only has one pole. Eventually, he figured it out. As a science major in college and an incredibly smart guy, he should have known better. But I guess we were pretty convincing (“think about the Mercator projection, Jesse!”).

Speaking of touring, you’re about to hit the road with Jack’s Mannequin for their winter tour. Anything especially exciting in store for the fans attending these shows?

If I told you they wouldn’t be surprises, now would they?

Very valid point. What were some of your favorite albums of 2011?

I’ve been floored by a lot of albums this year. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites (in no particular order) are Deerhoof’s Deerhoof vs. Evil (my favorite currently-active band), Ahleuchatistas’ Location, Location (angular and dissonant instrumental rock), They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Delicate Steve’s Wondervisions (perfect, uplifting guitar-led instrumentals), Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 Vol. 2 (I know, I know), Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr’s It’s a Corporate World, TV On The Radio’s Nine Types of Light and White Denim’s D.

And finally, what are you looking forward to most about 2012?

Putting out a new record!

Thanks, Tommy! Can’t wait to see the show on Friday!

See ya there! Thanks!

Everything Under The Sun is available now via Yep Roc Records. Check out Jukebox The Ghost’s tour page to see when they’ll be playing at a venue near you.

Originally published on PopBytes
(Jukebox The Ghost’s music video for “Schizophrenia”)

ANOTHER HAPPY DAY (Film Review)

by ALEX NAGORSKI

Every so often, a movie comes along that completely crushes you. It’s the type of movie that hits every mark on the emotional spectrum. You know what type of film I’m talking about. The movie that leaves you staring at the screen long after the credits have stopped rolling, challenging someone to be the brave audience member to stand first. The movie that makes your soul feel totally drained when you step out of the theater. The movie that triggers a four-hour heart-to-heart with your best friend. The movie that reminds you of the impact cinema can have.

Written and directed by 26-year-old Sam Levinson, Another Happy Day is one of these movies. The plot of the film is one we’re all familiar with: a dysfunctional family reunites at a wedding and all hell breaks loose. Secrets start to come out. Grudges are resurrected. Claws are sharpened. Total chaos and misery ensues for all. You get it.

So how did such a seemingly cliché story win the “Best Screenwriting” award at the Sundance Film Festival this year? The key reason is that, unlike similar movies such as Rachel Getting Married, Another Happy Day is an intricate character study of not just an entire family, but of depression as a whole.

At the core of the film is Lynn Hellman, played immaculately by Bill O’Reilly’s favorite actress, Ellen Barkin, as she travels to her parents’ small-town Maryland estate for her estranged son’s wedding. There, she must deal with not only demons from her own past, but also from the pasts of her four children.

Despite his many trips to rehab, Lynn’s teenage son Elliot (played fantastically by We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller) still can’t resist the desire to use anything he can to get high – including the prescription medication of Lynn’s dying father. And where most movies would cast a drug addict like Elliot as the black sheep of the family, Another Happy Day defies convention by making him the wise character. Besides, there can’t really be a black sheep in a family without any sense of unity to begin with.

“So basically, the only things connecting us are these fucked-up moments that all of us would rather forget?” he asks his mother. And with this question, Elliot sums up the basic plot structure of the film.

Later on in the movie, Elliot questions why people seem to only be able to come together during tragedy. “Maybe we’d all get along if we were here for a funeral instead of a wedding,” he astutely points out to his grandmother (a marvelous Ellen Burstyn). Heavy, right?

But what Elliot truly embodies is the degree of self-sacrifice Lynn must make to keep the shards of what’s left of her family intact. In a particularly poignant scene, Elliot calls his mother a “cunt” before pushing her to the ground. Seconds later, the two of them are sitting together on the floor, consoling one another as they dissect their conditions. It’s little moments like this that make Another Happy Day such a brutally honest film. It’s little moments like this that demonstrate what a martyr Lynn has to be. After all, her children are the only members of her family that haven’t completely rejected her. Yet.

Levinson’s script also expertly showcases the generational pass-down of depression, all the way from Lynn’s mother to the youngest member of the family, her son Ben, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s the various types of depression and the coping mechanisms each member of the Hellman clan have that draw the dividing lines among them.

In some way or another, all of the characters have been the catalysts of one another’s broken lives, triggering chain effects of regret and severed ties. For instance, there’s a reason Lynn’s daughter, Alice (Kate Bosworth at her finest), hasn’t seen her father, Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), since her parents’ divorce nearly a decade earlier. And it’s no mistake that she has sleeves specially sewn onto her maid of honor dress so as not to reveal her bare arms.

By the actual day of the wedding, the audience is already queasy from their ride on an emotional rollercoaster. After watching the days leading up to the event, they have cranked up their anxiety dials to their maximum levels. Just as Elliot wonders the night before, the audience contemplates whether the Hellmans will be able to put aside their issues long enough to celebrate one happy day. Or are everyone’s wounds too raw and deep to be ignored?

With the spotlight on them, the Hellmans must be on their best behavior. But that doesn’t negate the fact that you can still stab someone with a smile on your face. Take Paul’s second wife (a freshly scorned Demi Moore). Although she may not be the groom’s biological mother, she was the one who raised him. After giving a toast full of childhood memories, she challenges Lynn to come to the stage to give a toast about her son. The son who picked Lynn to fill the role of the groom’s mother in his wedding ceremony (#REVENGEALERT!).

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that when Another Happy Day was over, I did not for a moment get the sense that the problems in the family had been patched up. I didn’t think that Lynn would stop crying or that Elliot would stop doing drugs or that Alice would stop mutilating herself. But I appreciated that. Too few films are willing to cut that close to the truth we seem to be culturally afraid of. And in life, we don’t always get that “everything is going to be fine” moment that we count on in the movies.

That being said, a lot of mainstream audiences are uncomfortable with films that end without any happy–or at least just–resolutions. In The Basketball Diaries, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio’s former drug addict character is redeemed by becoming an anti-drug motivational speaker. In Requiem For A Dream, the characters are punished for their illegal habits. But too rarely do films choose not to resolve the conflicts at hand. Too seldom are the questions asked throughout a movie not answered.

Little wonder that Another Happy Day has received a rather lukewarm critical reception thus far. Hearing audience member’s inappropriate bursts of laughter throughout the movie and reading other reactions to it online, I felt that many viewers weren’t prepared for the detailed and often grim accounts of mental illness depicted here. But the sad reality is that a lot of the problems we have in life can’t be wrapped up simply because we crave closure. So why should film representations of these situations imply otherwise?

Yet at the end of the day, Another Happy Day is not a movie that will make you relinquish your sense of hope. In fact, despite the enormity of their problems, the Hellmans are there for one another. They take care of one another in their own unconventional and dark ways. And there’s certainly something extraordinary to say about that.

Another Happy Day is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Originally published on PopBytes 

And a very special thank you to Another Happy Day‘s Facebook and Twitter accounts for the social media love of this review!

MARILYN STRIPPED BARE

A review of My Week With Marilyn
by ALEX NAGORSKI

It’s no wonder that Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women of all time. She wasn’t just the star of such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Monroe was an international symbol of femininity, sexuality and the American dream.

But as is the case with so many stars, the public Marilyn Monroe was very different from her tortured, fragile private persona. Her life followed the classic script about the Hollywood starlet whose life becomes overrun by fame, substance dependency and loneliness.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical when I first heard that a film about Monroe’s life was in the works. We’ve all seen Valley of the Dolls. We all watched as Britney Spears was forcibly removed from her home as a result of her mental instability. By now, we all understand that Hollywood has a reputation for building up its key players only to smirk as they crash and burn. So how was Monroe’s story going to be told without torturing a cliché or exploiting her legacy?

Simple. Instead of crafting a full biopic of the tragic star, My Week With Marilyn paints an honest portrait of Monroe by focusing (as the title states) on merely one week of her short life. By honing in on her daily struggles, the film provides the audience with pieces of a puzzle which, when put together, helps them understand this deeply troubled woman as a whole.

While Monroe is obviously the focal point of the film, My Week With Marilyn is equally the story of Colin Clark (played with fervor by Eddie Redmayne), an assistant on the 1956 British set of Monroe and Laurence Olivier’s co-starring vehicle, The Prince and the Showgirl. During the shooting of this film, Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller, left England to go work in America, resulting in her very brief affair with Clark.

To Monroe, Clark represents a type of innocence. He’s a boy who idolizes her for her celebrity status yet is also able to protect her from it by seeing past her façade. He hasn’t been corrupted by the pressures and politics of Hollywood and provides an alternate reality: one in which she can be free from the “Marilyn Monroe” mask she’s burdened with wearing. It’s a fantasy to which Monroe, self-aware as she is insecure, can briefly escape. Yet, despite Clark’s best efforts, she knows that it’s not one where she can stay.

As a result, Clark becomes Monroe’s puppet of sorts. He attempts to soothe her insecurities by providing her a level of attention that he witnessed Miller failing to give her. When she’s lonely, Clark is at her beck and call. He tells her that she’s the world’s greatest actress. He confesses how much he loves her. He tells her the truth about The Prince and the Showgirl, explaining that it isn’t the movie that’s going to launch her as the serious actress she so longs to be. He convinces her that he understands who she really is at the core. But to Monroe, Clark is nothing more than a hologram – a pretty illusion that acts as a projection of what she desires. Someone to fill the void until her real savior shows up.

It’s impossible, however, to continue writing about this cinematic achievement without discussing its extraordinary lead actress, Michelle Williams. The amount of rawness and passion that Williams brings to the role provides for such a razor-sharp foray into Monroe’s psyche that it’s hard to watch her and not feel intrusive. To not feel like you’re trespassing on a stranger’s innermost private moments.

As she did last year in the devastatingly gorgeous Blue Valentine, Williams demonstrates a firm grasp of her character, conveying an unsurpassed degree of truth. Even in a year of exceptionally strong female performances–Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day–Williams soars above her awards season competition. She does so by channeling this real-life woman with such authenticity that even Monroe’s friends and companions are singing her praises.

Williams doesn’t even appear on screen until well into the film. Instead, director Simon Curtis brilliantly sets up Monroe’s arrival in England by showing the hype surrounding it, paving the path for the events to come. And it’s not until nearly half of the movie has gone by that Williams explicitly struggles with over-medicating or feelings of solitude.

Yet, even when she is first presented as the bubbly Marilyn we all know, Williams masterfully displays a subtle vulnerability that suggests we’re only seeing the surface of this incredibly complex character. She masters Monroe to such a degree that even her smallest facial expressions reveal to the audience that this was a woman in the midst of unraveling.

It’s interesting to think of Williams playing this despondent role. After all, Marilyn Monroe was a much deeper and more elaborate character than any part Monroe herself ever played. And where Williams shines brightest is by showing the juxtaposition of the real-life woman and the hollow character she tries to make into a believable person.

Another reason why My Week With Marilyn succeeds so well is that it is an actor’s movie. And I don’t just mean because of the phenomenal performances from Williams, Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Emma Watson. Similar to The Artist, one aspect of My Week with Marilyn I found to be especially fascinating was the narrative it employed about the tensions between “old” and “new” Hollywood – or rather classical vs. modern methods of acting.

In the movie, Olivier is portrayed as a classically trained actor struggling to adjust to a post-Stanislavski climate. Monroe, on the other hand, is the quintessential manifestation of the contemporary actress. She even has an acting coach on set to walk her through her beats and objectives as she attempts to understand Elsie, her seemingly one-dimensional The Prince and the Showgirl character.

During a particularly memorable moment of the film, Olivier becomes increasingly frustrated with Monroe with each failed take of a scene. Monroe is not able to understand her character’s motives, let alone agree with them. Therefore, she can’t bring herself to shoot the scene because it defies the idea of truth she believes acting is all about.

“Can’t you just be sexy? Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier barks at her in a fury. It is clear that Olivier, as both the director and co-star of The Prince and the Showgirl, is far less concerned with Monroe’s craft than he is with her spectacle.

To a woman who wishes nothing more than to be taken seriously, this is the cruelest directive to be given. It is made obvious that, even among her peers, Monroe was seen as nothing more than a toy to be objectified at the public’s disposal. Her happiness and health were irrelevant as long as she could remain the blonde bombshell who seductively pouted her lips and winked at the screen.

What makes the movie even sadder is that every viewer knows about Monroe’s eventual lethal overdose. A standard biopic would have documented all the specifics of Monroe’s downward spiral. My Week With Marilyn takes a different approach—and packs a more concentrated punch. Williams’ stellar performance, Curtis’ direction and Adrian Hodge’s script showcase just how depressed, misunderstood and frail a person Monroe really was. The result is a truly heartbreaking, beautiful, original piece of art that should be on every Academy voter’s radar this season.

My Week With Marilyn is playing in select cities now.

Originally published on PopBytes

 

A VERY SHE & HIM CHRISTMAS (ALBUM REVIEW)

by ALEX NAGORSKI

So here’s the thing.

Christmas is easily my favorite holiday. There’s nothing that gives me a greater sense of warmth and joy than walking along Fifth Avenue and being mesmerized by the stories the window displays at Saks and Bergdorf. When I was little, I always insisted on trying to count the lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and taking pictures with the FAO Schwarz employees dressed as Nutcrackers. Trust me, they loved it.

However, when it comes to holiday music, I usually want to Van Gogh my ears off. There’s really only so much “cheer” you can get from Julie Andrews narrating the birth of Jesus before you want to burn down the manger, you know?

Then came along Zooey Deschanel. Cute, quirky, perfect little Zooey Deschanel. Just cozily sitting there on the cover of her band She & Him’s new Christmas album, gazing somewhere to the left with her Powerpuff Girls eyes open wide enough to seem like she was watching old Claus make his way down her chimney. “Goddamnit,” I thought to myself the moment I saw the image. “She’s going to exorcise the Grinch right out of me.”

And I was right. You literally need to be the world’s most soulless human being to put on A Very She & Him Christmas and not have it immediately melt your heart. I guarantee that if someone had just played one track off the record for Ebenezer Scrooge, he could have bypassed that whole time-traveling ghost fiasco.

From the moment the album kicks off with Zooey’s illustrious vocals singing about “frosted window panes” in “The Christmas Waltz,” a glow is ignited warm enough to feel like you’re sipping hot chocolate by a burning Yule log in a Zales commercial.

A Very She & Him Christmas is comprised of 12 Christmas standards. And while most Christmas albums are filled with songs with countless references to religion, this record is (thank god!) made up entirely of holiday songs sans any shout outs to Bethlehem or the big J.

Instrumentally, the album uses little more than a ukulele. The result is a refreshingly organic take on music that has been recorded and re-recorded by countless artists for decades. Yet somehow, Deschanel and Ward have crafted a unique spin on these classic songs while simultaneously injecting them with that vintage flair that makes them so familiar.

Not since Judy Garland debuted it in Meet Me In St. Louis has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded so sweet and honest. Deschanel proves that the song doesn’t need to be “decorated” with riffs every two seconds to showcase the singer’s vocal strength (sit down, Christina Aguilera). By stripping it back to basics, She & Him have returned the tenderness that has been lacking from contemporary interpretations of the song.

Most people discovered Zooey’s enchanting voice when she crooned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the film Elf. On A Very She & Him Christmas, she revisits the song – except she switches verses and takes over the male part while Ward sings the female’s. The most up-tempo track on the album, this twist on the classic song had me hankering for Zooey to drug my eggnog and take advantage of me so badly.

The tranquil quality of tracks like “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” provide for a soothing soundtrack to enjoy while quietly cuddled up under a warm blanket. But if that’s not really your thing and you’d rather try to score under the mistletoe at your neighbor’s ugly Christmas sweater themed party, crank up the more upbeat cuts like “Sleigh Ride,” “Little Saint Nick” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and your bells will be jinglin’ in no time.

There’s really no word that describes A Very She & Him Christmas better than “snuggly.” Listening to the record is like being given a Golden Labrador puppy on Christmas morning that you name Kisses because he can’t stop crawling all over and licking you. It releases the same endorphins you would get as a kid when you realized that the cookies you left out for Santa on Christmas Eve were gone in the morning. It’s just the perfect holiday treat from start to finish.

While it may only be the beginning of November, Deschanel and Ward have released an instant classic that has me counting down until Christmas with the same giddy gingerbread glee I haven’t felt since I was a child.

A Very She & Him Christmas was released on October 24. (iTunes)

Originally published on MuuMuse