2011 - %3, November

Meet Shpongle's Zany Ringleaders

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Shpongle—a motly ensemble led by flute-playing senior citizen Raja Ram and Simon Posford, a DJ who travels the world sampling exotic music—occupies a strange place in the already out-there realm of electronic music. And while you may never have heard of them, they've been touring the world for two decades now, and boast millions of views on YouTube.

Though fans identify Shpongle as psychedelic trance, Ram and Posford insist their globally influenced sound cannot be categorized. Sure, plenty of musicians make that claim, but Shpongle's performance at Oakland's Fox Theater on Halloween weekend convinced me that "unclassifiable" is a pretty apt characterization of their audiovisual freakshow.

Most electronic acts merely have a DJ, a mixer, and some turntables. Shpongle is a multi-instrumental, multi-sensory spectacle—an eight-piece band accompanied by neon-costumed singers, samba dancers, horned monsters on stilts, and a human slinky. Yeah, you heard me right. Watch:

Onstage, Shpongle is an amalgamation of world music, psychedelic visuals, and downbeat trance tempos. At one point, Ram, clad in neon-robes, played his flute as he chased a giant horned monster around the stage—even as the aforementioned slinky contorted nearby. 

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A Huge Flag and a Giant Camera for Veterans Day 2011

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 3:53 PM EST

It's Veterans Day, and that means gargantuan American flags, a huge Instamatic camera, and—of course—dancing gophers.

The LA-based Metabolic Studio traveled across the country on their "Flag Tour" to raise their giant Old Glory in front of the US Capitol. The studio photographed the event with their "Liminal Camera," which their optics division spent three months constructing (they claim that it is the "world's largest Instamatic camera").

The tour is the latest in the studio's "artistic and fun...campaign to raise awareness" for veterans' issues, says artist and event organizer Lauren Bon.

Here's footage of the flag being hoisted atop a crane on 11-11-11:

Here's a video of some of the gopher boogie during the event (the gopher was used as a metaphor for how much of the veterans activism in the country has "gone underground"):

And here's a pic from inside the truck-mounted Liminal Camera, featuring the upside-down image of the Capitol building before a photo was taken:

Photographs taken at Friday's flag raising and other tour stops will be showcased at the Hirshhorn Museum over the weekend. War veterans will be present to take questions and tell their stories.

High Fantasy Is A Subgenre of Fantasy

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 11:45 AM EST

El Rey Brujo de Angmartonymadrid photography/Flickr

Erik Kain makes a rather broad statement about fantasy as a genre:

Most fantasy is written by British and American authors. Traditionally, fantasy has woven together Medieval feudalism and faerie folklore in some fashion or other. Yes, there are myths from all countries, and even fantasy literature written in Germany or Spain or elsewhere, but the market has been historically dominated by the Anglosphere, and I think is rooted more in the myths of the Anglosphere specifically than in Christianity more broadly.

What Kain is talking about here is not "fantasy" but Nordic-inspired High Fantasy, a sub-genre he correctly identifies as being rooted in a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian concepts. Calling this "fantasy" rather than identifying it as a specific sub-genre ignores the vast canon of fantasy stemming from other parts of the world, including Arab and Islamic countries (from which Americans get those zombie flicks we love so much) and fantasy from China and Japan. If you accept that fantasy has gone beyond literature into other forms of storytelling, then in the realms of comic books, video games, and animation East Asian fantasy is arguably more popular than the High Fantasy Kain identifies as defining the genre.  Referring to works of fantasy inspired by medival Europe as the genre itself is identifying a baseline "normal" based on cultural perspective rather than objective factors. Tales associated with Jubei Yagyu, Sinbad, or even Anansi are no less fantastic for being non-European. 

To briefly address Kain's other point about the supposed absence of Jewish fantasy writers (actually untrue), the fact that medieval Europe was incredibly hostile towards Jews might explain why there aren't a really large number of Jewish writers who specialize in that particular sub-genre of fantasy. But Kain seems to buy the notion that Jewish authors are hostile to fantasy in general, a theory which, as Spencer Ackerman pointed out some time ago, fails rather spectacularly in the face of the existence of the American superhero. To exclude other cultures' fantasy offerings is to define the genre in a uselessly narrow fashion, and to ask why Jews and Muslims, Japanese and Ghanians don't come up with fantasies that resemble exactly those of British writers is to ask a question with a profoundly obvious answer.

R. Crumb on Album Covers, Charlie Patton 78s, and Occupy Wall Street

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Don't go bothering Robert Crumb. The renowned cartoonist and American expat lives somewhere in the south of France, but when I call him to talk about his latest book, he steadfastly refuses to tell me where: "I don't want people coming here looking for me," he says, "so I don't tell the name of this town." He won't elaborate on whom he might be hiding from, but it's easy to believe that Crumb, 68, has a cult following. Over his nearly lifelong career, this icon of 1960s underground comics has created beloved characters like Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, was the subject of a Terry Zwigoff documentary, and even illustrated the book of Genesis. ("First I was gonna make a satire," he told me. "But the original text is so strange by itself you don't have to satirize it.") In 1991, Crumb was inducted into the prestigious Will Eisner Hall of Fame. Maus creator Art Spiegelman has called him "a monolithic presence, who rewrote the rules of what comics are."

But behind the overt sexuality and anti-establishment riffs that characterize Crumb's comics, his muse has always been old-timey American blues. He's a die-hard collector of 78 rpm records from the likes of Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson. Crumb himself is an accomplished banjo player, and made a splash in the 1970s underground folk music scene with his Cheap Suit Serenaders. He began drawing album covers and cartoon portraits of musicians while living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the 1960s, and has since created an extensive portfolio of illustrations of classic rock figures like Janis Joplin, his old blues heroes, and his own band. This week WW Norton releases The Complete Record Cover Collection, a compendium of Crumb's greatest music cartoons and album covers. I spoke with Crumb about trading records for art, Janis Joplin's fatal quirks, and getting the hell out of the United States.

To view a selection of art from the book, check out our slideshow.          

The Finely Tuned Soul of Fitz and The Tantrums

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Nestled between the folk stylings of Justin Townes Earle and the bluegrass twang of the legendary Ralph Stanley at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last month, soulsters Fitz and the Tantrums took to the Tower of Gold stage to transform the crowd into a hot, sweaty dance party.

Hailing from Los Angeles, the six-piece soul-pop band lays the Motown swagger on thick. But "we didn't want to make our album Pickin' Up the Pieces pastiche or revival, though some are quick to label us as that," says singer Michael Fitzpatrick. "There are a lot of different influences pouring out, hip-hop, new wave, ABC, Talking Heads, and even with the Motown and Stax influences, it's truly a hybrid of our music tastes and sensibilities." 

The fact that I can't stop humming Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces" while writing about them goes to show that good funk is all about the feel. "We're high energy," Fitz explains. "That's where the tantrum comes in. We wanted it to sound like somebody just ratcheted the sound up to 11 and we're careening off the tracks." 

South Park on Occupy Wall Street

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 2:40 PM EDT
Eric Cartman is the 1 percent.

It was only a matter of time: South Park has something to say about Occupy Wall Street. On Wednesday night, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Comedy Central series ran an episode titled "1%" that drew some topical humor and mild-to-moderate jabs from the ongoing #OWS protests sweeping the country.

The analogs are blatant: During a schoolwide President's Challenge exam, the corpulent, Jew-baiting Eric Cartman tanks the fitness test. Because the student body's evaluation is based on an average, Cartman's performance severely slashes the score of the rest of the students, thus condemning everyone to gym class during recess. Cartman is unanimously dubbed the "1 percent" who is dragging down the other "99 percent." Students unite to "fight the system" that's rigged against them, while Cartman grumbles and loudly plays the victim.

To watch the full episode, click here. Here's a clip:

Days before the episode aired, conservative pundits were already quivering with anticipation. Awaiting a harsh comedic takedown of #OWS, right-wing bloggers got all enthused: On RedState, "BigGator5" wrote about how "South Park [Actually] Took Down #OWS, YEARS AGO!" with their 2005 episode "Die Hippie, Die," and how Cartman's "only redeemable character trait is that he's a capitalist." On Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood, "Hollywoodland" looked forward to the show's "first, full-on commentary on the fledgling political movement" that would dole out the barbs fairly.

But many of these commentators, surely itching for a chance to confirm that the hip, politically incorrect Comedy Central satirists are on their side, smugly miss the point.

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Book Review: Blue Nights

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion

ALFRED A. KNOPF

In 2005, Joan Didion won a National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of her husband's sudden death while Quintana, their only child, languished in hospitals, stricken with a bevy of life-threatening diseases. (She died before the book was released.) Blue Nights is also about Quintana, but it isn't nostalgic. Didion interrogates herself ruthlessly about her own mortality and maternal abilities. What materializes is a heartbreaking portrait of the family's implosion. Of the church wall where her husband's ashes were interred, Didion writes: "There had been two spaces remaining, the names not yet engraved. Now there was one."