The Humbling ***1/2 (Out Of *****)



The careers of director Barry Levinson’s and his star, Al Pacino, have reached what is hopefully the end of a long decline. Pacino, so beloved and respected, hasn’t really given a great non-Shakespeare performance since Michael Mann’s Heat. Levinson, the Oscar-nominated director of Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, and Diner hasn’t done anything even close to good since Wag The Dog in 1997 (and even that is stretching the meaning of “good”). So expectations going into The Humbling were low, to say the least. Those same expectations were shattered, with Pacino giving a performance that reminds you how he garnered all that acclaim in the first place.

The parallels between the career of the star and Simon Axler, his actor character, are obvious to all. Comparisons to 2015 Oscar winner Birdman are obvious, but true. Respected actor playing an actor suffering from mental issues. Pacino plays a much different man than Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, though. Simon Axler is suffering through the early stages of dementia, unable to seperate scenes from reality. He takes a tumble during a production and spends a month in a mental institution.

Things get interesting when he gets back home. The daughter of an old friend (played by Greta Gerwig) comes by and starts hanging out with him some nights and weekends. This relationship is a cliché, of course, and is noted as such in Buck Henry’s screenplay. Visitors keep showing up at Axler’s house unexpectedly, and his mental state is tested again an again.

Pacino walks a tightrope between comedic and pathetic. When his agent offers him $150,000 to appear in an ad for a hair restoration product, vanity forces him to reject it immediately. He’s more feeble than ever, so a lot of acting is done with facial expressions and he gets more out of an eye roll than most actors can produce from a full breakdown.

Levinson takes some chances with the camerawork here, and I think they pay off well. When Pacino is talking, the lens will often drift to some random point, focusing on a shoe or something off in the distance. It’s not something you see often in studio films, and I appreciate his going for it instead of just pointing the camera and yelling action.

It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but it is entertaining. Much more so than the trailer would have you believe. If you love Pacino this is a must-see. It’ll help you forgive him for Stand Up Guys.

Shilpa Ray At Burlington Bar 3/4/2015



The harmonium is not an instrument people get excited about. In popular music, only Sharon Van Etten has received any kind of notoriety playing it, and honestly her songs tend to put me to sleep. So imagine my surprise, and great joy, as I watched Shilpa Ray destroy the stage at Burlington Bar by unleashing the awesome power of the pump organ. I have to assume this is the only time a somewhat-punk act has incorporated such a thing, and it works amazingly well.

I’m still new to Shilpa Ray, but this show was a whirlwind of great tunes from start to finish. Imagine Tracyanne Campbell as front woman for The Stooges, and you get an idea of the odd harmony of voice and music I witnessed last night. 



The 13 song set was a mix of material off Ray’s EP It’s All Self Fellatio, Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers LP Teenage And Torture, as well as new material from the upcoming album Last Year’s Savage. My favorite moment came when Ray stepped away from the harmonium and sat down at a keyboard for the song “I Is What I Is.” It’s a gorgeous song made even more interesting with an extended outro.

Another great moment came late in the set. Before launching in to “Erotolepsy” Ray looked back at her band (Russ Lemkin on drums and Jon DeLorme on pedal steel/bass) and said “Play as fast as you can.” It reminded me of Dylan, at Royal Albert Hall, being called Judas and then telling his band to “Play fucking loud!” No malicious words were thrown toward Ray, so not the same thing at all. That’s just where my mind went.



The band played what was to be the final song of the set, and after fans demanded more. Shilpa Ray went back behind the keys for “Genie’s Drugs” and sent the crowd home happy with what she referred to as “my Freebird.”

Last Year’s Savage comes out May 19th on Northern Spy Records. I recommend pre-ordering the clear blue vinyl here.



For a few more photos, click here.

Tobias Jesso Jr-Goon

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If I’m being honest, I had no idea who Tobias Jesso was until the Pitchfork lineup was released a couple weeks ago. I looked at everyone playing, made a list of those I didn’t know, and went about checking out their music. Jesso is the only one that really took me by surprise. He’s got a rich, intoxicating voice that harkens back to 70’s singer/songwriters like Harry Nilsson and Jim Croce. Oddly, I also hear a little Peter Beckett (lead singer of Player) in there too. It’s just a gorgeous tone that flows perfectly through all 12 tracks of Goon.

There is a modern comparison one could make, and that’s Christopher Owens (Ed.Note: and now that I’m thinking of it, Nik Freitas). I’m not sure if that’s real, or just because JR White is one of the producers on the album and that’s the sound he goes for. Jesso also gets production help from The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and chart-topping producer Ariel Reichstand. Add in a drum cameo from Danielle Haim and you’ve got quite a pedigree for someone’s first album.

The talent shines through, and Jesso wins you over even if you try to fight against it. There’s something about the heartfelt delivery of these mostly simple and honest lyrics that is quite endearing. The sparseness of his piano and voice on the record really draws the listener in, making already intimate music into something more. That emptiness also makes the big moments on the record, like the heavy beats and strings on “Crocodile Tears,” all the more exciting.

It’s hard to believe that playing the piano is just something Jesso started doing in his free time after moving back home to Vancouver following a bad breakup in LA. At the same time, it makes perfect sense with these songs. And if he were some kind of virtuoso the record would feel much different, most likely for the worse. Listen to how perfectly the piano and vocals go together in this Take Away Show from La Blogotheque:

There’s still a couple weeks before Goon comes out, so you have plenty of time to get acquainted with Tobias Jesso before you pick up your copy. This is one of those albums you’ll want to get right away so that in four or five months when your friends start talking about him you can say “Oh I’ve had that record since it came out! Where’ve you been?” It trades bangers for beauty, and there aren’t enough artists doing that today.

Go check out his show if you’re on the east or west coast. He starts in Toronto on March 22nd and heads out to Europe in May. You can find all his dates here. And you can pre-order a copy of Goon here.

Ezra Furman-“Restless Year”

My love and admiration for Ezra Furman is well-documented in these digital pages, so no need to get into that again. Quite simply, he’s the best American lyricist working today and it’s not close. Just this morning he announced he’s signed with Bella Union (Flaming Lips, Beach House) and released the first single off the new Ezra Furman & The Boy-Friends album due this summer.

Restless Year” isn’t really like anything else we’ve heard from Furman since splitting from The Harpoons. It almost sounds like Jim Morrison leading Bow Wow Wow through Dead Milkmen covers, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Despite some of the morbid lyrics, it actually feels kind of sunny compared to songs like “I Wanna Destroy Myself” or “Tell Em All To Go To Hell.”

Listening to Furman’s voice always brings a smile to my face, but that smile turns into a sort of maniacal glee when he delivers lines like “Death is my former employer. Death is my own Tom Sawyer. Death waits for me to destroy her. I never wanna die and I never grow older.”

If this single doesn’t get you excited for a new album, I don’t know what will. Before the record drops you can catch the band at Subterannean in Chicago. Tickets here for the April 8 show.

SxSw Send-off For Chicago Bands At Bottom Lounge 3/7/2015

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There’s a party going down at Bottom Lounge this Saturday, and it’s gonna be a great time. 4 Chicago bands will be playing their last sets in town before heading down to Austin, TX for the South By Southwest music festival. Molehill will be headlining the night, and they’ll be joined by some of my favorite acts: The Future Laureates, Vintage Blue, and Steve Stone.

I actually tried to set up almost the same lineup for a show I put together at The Empty Bottle, but schedules weren’t working out for us. Vintage Blue and The Future Laureates have played together once or twice, so really this show is just getting the gang together for one last score. I’m glad they booked this in a venue as big as Bottom Lounge, because each of these groups have a very large following in the area, and I’m hoping I walk into a packed house.

I sat down with Trevor and Peter from Molehill yesterday at Longman & Eagle in Logan Square. The food was delicious, but I was more interested in the conversation we were having. I recorded the whole thing and put it up so everyone can hear.

I’ve posted interviews with Vintage Blue and The Future Laureates as well, but those were both done quite a while ago, so they won’t tell you much about the bands today. The Future Laureates put out a great EP last year called Here And Now. Vintage Blue also released an EP, No Going Back, which builds on their strong debut full-length Strike The Mics. Steve Stone, the opener and one heck of a guitar player, has a new release coming out this spring. He just released a new single in January.

Tickets are going fast, so go get yours now by following this link! Only $10 for all this great music!

Brothers In Yarn-The Musical Book Club

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Have you ever been a part of a book club? I don’t mean Oprah’s Book Club where a tyrant tells you a book to read and then they’re the only one to talk. I mean like a real community-style book club where ideas can be shared and talked about over the course of, say, a month. I think it could be fun, but I’m such a slow reader (and always have been) that I think I’d feel bad about holding people back from moving on to the next book while I try to finish. However, if it was a book club where there would be new music from a great songwriter at the end of every month I might be more motivated.

Brothers In Yarn delivers on this splendid idea. Shawn Fogel, singer and songwriter behind Golden Bloom, started the project at the beginning of the year as a way to get over a case of writer’s block. The club began with a timeless classic, Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,”  and released the song “A Million Tiny Arms.”  The book for February was John Darnielle’s “Wolf In White Van.” The song that resulted from The Mountain Goats frontman’s debut novel is a dark and brooding rocker. The lyrics don’t disappoint, feeling very much in touch with Darnielle’s often morbid words.

I think my favorite line is the one that the title comes from, and also leads the song to its epic finale: “Left with nothing but our own defenses, to make our way across the cruel terrain. Simple math and it’s consequences, frozen bodies on the Kansas plain.” As the last lyric leaves Fogel’s mouth, other voices rise up almost like a church choir. The music in this final passage speaks volumes, and could easily work as it’s own instrumental song.

Yesterday the book for March was announced, and it’s “Confessions Of An Economic Hitman” by John Perkins. Sounds like an interesting read, so if you want to pick up a copy and get involved with discussion about it via the Brothers In Yarn book club you can find it here. If not, you’ll still get to hear a new song by Fogel at the end of March (and every month!).

Shilpa Ray Releases Make Up EP Ahead Of US Tour

February 26, 2015 Leave a comment

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The pairing of Lou Reed and Dinah Washington covers may seem like an odd selection for an EP to some (including myself), but in the hands of Shilpa Ray it makes all the sense in the world. The singer turns both into timeless jazz standards with a brassy voice perfect for the Broadway stage. Both are a far cry from the sounds on Ray’s debut album, It’s All Self Fellatio. Whether these tracks offer any insight into the full-length coming in May, I have no idea. One thing is certain, the musicianship will be top notch.

You may know Ray from other projects. It took me a while to place where I remembered that name, and then it hit me: Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers. I’d seen the band’s name in a magazine at some point and it stuck with me (as great names tend to do). I’d never listened to any of the music, though, and finding out one of Ray’s projects was singing backup for Nick Cave didn’t make me too excited. Glad I decided to follow through, because this is one of those voices you never forget. Like, if this EP came out ten years ago, and some radio station played the cover of “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes,” everyone would have bought the album at Starbucks and Norah Jones would be strung out in a gutter somewhere.

I’ve never been a huge Lou Reed fan, but I can’t deny Transformer is a great record. The songs are so iconic, and the sound so specific to Lou, that covering any track seems like a terribly undesirable task. What Ray does with “Make Up” is impressive on a lot of levels. Not only remaining true to the spirit of the tune, but also giving it a different, dreamy vibe is something not many could accomplish.

Shilpa Ray will be heading down to South by Southwest along with every other band in the world in a couple weeks. Before that a few live dates are on the books, including a show in Chicago on March 4th at Burlington Bar (info here). You can download a copy of Make Up on the Northern Spy Records bandcamp page.

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