Under the Skin:
After my bloated expectations turned this year's entirely serviceable iteration of Godzilla into something of a disappointment, I needed a break; no more movies that ended by knocking over the city. My quest for something different led me much further from the norm than I could have ever anticipated, and thank god for that. Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as (wait for it...) an often-silent extra-terrestrial being prowling around the outskirts of Scotland, seducing and kidnapping young men, and then harvesting their bodies. Director Brian Glazer's lets its freak flag fly to perilous heights, rejecting expository dialogue whole-sale, allowing his audience to decipher the meaning of his beautiful nightmare on their own terms. The visuals are at once gorgeous and unsettling, the varying vistas and textures all made memorably tactile by cinematographer Daniel Landin, bolstered by composer Mica Levi's score, which makes hair rise, and sweat go cold. Be warned; Under the Skin lives up to its name, and is not for the faint of heart, but those brave enough to stomach and process the picture will be left pondering themes of gender, identity, predation, sexuality, mercy, and a slew of others. I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of the flick upon leaving the theater, but after a week in which its ideas and images have rattled ceaselessly around in my brain, utterly refusing to leave, the truth has become undeniable: Under the Skin is the best movie I've seen in 2014 thus far.
Here and Nowhere Else---Cloud Nothings
It's a standard musical complaint that every one of an individual band's songs sounds the same, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Here and Nowhere Else is nothing if not repetitive, eight tracks that mercilessly slash and pound their way through a tight 31-minute runtime. Drummer Jayson Gerycz, who made his debut with the band on 2011's also outstanding Attack on Memory, has become the outfit's muscular driving force, ripping straight through the core of opener Now Here In, fueling the stop-and-start mania of Psychic Trauma. Like all Cloud Nothings releases thus far, HaNO walks a tight rope between punk and pop, band leader Dylan Baldi's expertly calibrated combination of the two working like gangbusters on early piss-and-vinaeger-sing-a-long single I'm Not Part of Me, as well as the claustrophobia-inducing humdinger Giving into Something. Lovely and delicate it ain't; Here and Nowhere Else is an eruption of brute force that further solidifies its author as a band who demands our attention.
Following up an album like w h o k i l l is no easy task; tUnE-yArDs' previous LP possessed an absolutely insane amount of madcap energy and confidence (not to mention tough-to-articulate pop appeal), prompting a cavalcade hosannas from critics and fans alike, gracing innumerable Best Albums of the Year lists along the way (including this one). As dense and confrontational as follow-up Nikki Nack might often sound, it notably refuses to sock listeners in the face in the same fashion as its predecessor, but then again, what album doesn't? Merrill Garbus is still a force to be reckoned with, many of the band's best tunes wrapped snuggly in her guttural howl and hauntingly evocative lyrics. Nate Brenner, the duo's seldom-celebrated bassist, is given more space to roam this time around, his plunks crucial to the charging Sink-O, even taking occasional center stage on closer Manchild. But he's clearly the Pippen to Garbus' Jordan, the vocalists' enormous personality warping esoteric sounds into ear worms on the brilliantly under-played Wait for a Minute, as well as on the irrepressibly ecstatic lead single Water Fountain. Something tells me that this Merrill Garbus is in the 'making provocative, challenging music,' scene for the long haul.
Phantogram, where have you been all my life? The New York duo's debut disc, Eyelid Movies, met the US over four years ago, and while the LP wasn't a smashing success as a whole, it spawned a pair of undeniable night-time jams (When I'm Small, Mouthful of Diamonds) that still receive independent and college radio play to this day. Voices is the electro-pop outfit's first full-length since, and while it might lack an instant classic like Small, the band's maturational leap is difficult to ignore. They come out guns blazing, opener Nothing But Trouble setting the stage with its jittery pulse and surprise guitar solo, leading into the siren-infused stomp of lead single Black Out Days. As was the case with Eyelid, the record experiences minor setbacks whenever guitarist Josh Carter steals the mic; the real star here is Sarah Barthel, who vacillates between seductive confidence (The Day You Died, Howling at the Moon) and wounded earnestness (Bill Murray, Celebrating Nothing) with ease and aplomb. Please, guys, don't make us wait so long next time!
Tomorrow's Hits---The Men
Everyone's got their pet bands, and The Men are one of mine. The Brooklyn-based five-piece has released one LP a year every since their 2010 debut, peaking on 2012's raw, emotional, exciting, and pulse-raising Open Your Heart. Just over two years since that album's release, the punk-ish classic rockers (with a pinch country... just for added flavor) remain steadfast in their refusal to stay still, releasing this scrappy, joyous eight song collection. Their instrumentation is notably more varied this time around, a jaunty piano-trumpet pairing serving as Another Night's unlikely backbone, while opener Dark Waltz clears out space for a harmonica to cut through the track's brawny central riff. You'd be forgiven for wondering if the boys are losing a bit of their edge, but the manner in which the more pop-leaning tracks (Sleepless, Settle Me Down) bounce off the more rollicking cuts (Different Days, Another Night, Going Down) is quickly becoming one of the band's greatest strengths. Another year, another low-key triumph for The Men.