Last weekend The Dude finally got his due. Jeff Bridges, who has been submitting stellar performance after stellar performance throughout his career, received his first Oscar for Best Actor. What makes it all the more redeeming is the fact that Bridges didn’t have to pull the classic “turn toward an Oscar nod” by gaining weight or playing a retard. No, Bridges won it on his own terms.
An example of patronizing the Academy occurred in 2004 when the comely Charlize Theron won Best Actress for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in “Monster”. I’m sure she put on a riveting performance and all that James Lipton-y crap, but let’s get real: she won because she, amidst all her beauty, was able to play a homely woman with mental issues. While reviewers described “Monster” as her “most gripping work”, I would choose to watch a movie featuring the beautiful version of Charlize over ugly Charlize anytime (yes, that includes “Reindeer Games”).
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a couple of my favorite artists following the “Oscar” formula, attempting to gain more acceptance from the mainstream. Back in 2008, both Yeasayer and Ruby Suns came onto the scene with a sound that tetered between freak-folk and world music, with natural, organic sounds ebbing and flowing together in an experimental stream of melody. In 2010, a lot has changed in both bands’ sounds – for one band the change kind of works while the other seems completely lost without their tribal instrumentation.
I must confess: I had high expectations for Yeasayer. I loved the band’s 2008 release “All Hours Cymbals” due to it’s pastoral, spacious approach, featuring a sound that is both vast and sparse at the same time. The new album, “Odd Blood”, is highly produced, and the once barren landscape is replaced with a processed, shiny sound that seems constrained by production value. If “All Hours Cymbals” is whole milk, “Odd Blood” is soy. But you know what? I kind of like soy milk (at least on cereal), and despite my urges to burp it back up, I kind of like Yeasayer’s new sound. I don’t see myself listening to “Odd Blood” as endlessly as I have with “All Hours Cymbals”, but I can’t deny that, amidst its glossy over-extensions, “Odd Blood” is a collection of great 80s inspired synth pop.
At time’s the band’s retro reaching seem like almost a novelty. “I Remember” conjures up images of Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald kissing in a high school parking lot. Fortunately, the band’s signature rumbling drums make an occasional appearance, providing a quick reminder that this album wasn’t recorded 30 years ago in the age of the skinny tie. I can’t deny that “Odd Blood” is loaded with a barrage of catchy tunes; I suppose I should admit that “The Dude abides.” Yet I still yearn for the band’s former sound. Doesn’t the world already have enough pop bands?
The Ruby Suns
“Fight Softly” is a fitting name for The Ruby Sun’s follow up to their highly lauded “Sea Lion”. On “Sea Lion” the band seemed to be entrenched in a battle with the musical Gods, testing the limits of Vahalla, and questioning every concrete rule set by the music sages of old. They combined psychedelia, mariachi, and ambience, resulting in an awakening of a burning, melodious spirit. It seemed that they were winning the war on mediocrity. But just as I was ready to raise my “Mission Accomplished” banner, The Ruby Suns retreated to a bland territory on “Fight Softly”, wallowing in a mix of synths, blaise melodies, and a ho-hum drum machine. Where had the congas gone? The djembe? The mirracas?! Gone! They dropped their weapons and accepted defeat when they once sat on the precipice breaking through front line. They surrendered and aimed their sights on the mainstream, dropping any semblance of their former selves, aiming for acceptance from the mainstream. Or, in “Tropic Thunder” terms, they went “full retard”.