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In Review
In Review

In Review

What to stream, read, and see this week

EL PERRO DEL MAR
PALE FIRE
(CONTROL GROUP)

Pale Fire, El Perro Del Mar’s fifth album, is an illusory and sensual salute to the perils of love. Like on her 2009 Love Is Not Pop, Gothenburg-born beauty Sarah Assbring buoys her melancholic lyrics and airy vocals with laser-like synth bleeps, slinky rhythms, and skittering beats. This time around, she says she took cues from the early ’90s electronica that she used to listen to, injecting house and trip-hop vibes into the 10 songs. But this is no dance album; it’s a mood piece, music for the post-club wind-down rather than the club itself. The title track begins with a blast of tinny MIDI horns, which are quickly joined by Assbring’s droning alto: “Never grow tired of this pale, pale fire,” she sings on repeat, driving home her point. Standout track “Walk on By,”—a nostalgia trip that sounds like a Sade b-side, complete with a synthetic sax—brings the album’s theme of loneliness to the forefront: “Solitude’s my best friend/ The only one who sees me cry/ I will never need another man/ If I keep my head up and walk on by.” Ultimately, Pale Fire is like a pleasant lucid dream, lulling you through the night. The problem is you might not remember it when you wake up. JILLIAN JOHNSON

MEMORY TAPES
GRACE/CONFUSION
(CARPARK)

Memory Tapes’ 2009 debut, Seek Magic, received universal acclaim despite the fact that it was pegged with the trendy label of chillwave. Last year, Player Piano registered as a sophomore slump critically, due to a pared-down approach and high expectations. But with Grace/Confusion, New Jersey-based producer Dayve Hawk proves that he’s still deserving of celebration. Hawk is gifted with a stylistic liquidity, seamlessly shifting between genres. The new album’s six tracks are each allotted enough time to grow legs and stretch, whereas some of Memory Tapes’ earlier work felt stunted or rushed. “Thru the Field” begins as a kosmische jaunt and builds up to a Yazoo-esque dance track highlighted with new wave guitar riffs. The album’s first single, “Sheila,” sounds a bit like Ariel Pink being produced by M83; the gloomy AM radio love song explodes with glimmering keys, dark synths, and electro-funk bass. Hawk’s meticulous production has made for his glossiest work to date. Memory Tapes’ sound was already adventurous, but this new album finds him expanding even further, resulting in a miraculously cohesive pastiche of a record. EVAN BROWN

AN EXTRAORDINARY THEORY OF OBJECTS
(HARPER)
BY STEPHANIE LACAVA

“Some people’s bodies need to make extra blood cells or insulin for survival; mine manufactured fantasy,” muses author Stephanie LaCava in her memoir, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, which recounts her family’s move from New York to France when she was 12 years old. The reluctant redhead spends most of her early adolescence at her family’s home in Le Vésinet, a small town an hour outside of Paris, locked inside her bedroom in deep introspection or, to her mother’s dismay, taking long walks alone at night. She suffers from deep anxiety and depression, and it’s is only relieved by her collection of tiny treasures and trinkets—among them a red-and-white-capped mushroom, a figurine of a poisonous tree frog, a box of lavender Parisian candies—that she acquires by chance. LaCava tells her story through these items: they’re accompanied by intricate illustrations and footnotes that explain their history and significance in detail. She jumps from one knickknack to the next, seeking poignancy in each, but never quite reaching it. Toward the end of her memoir, the items listed become less and less quirky and eclectic, and more generic (a wrist full of bangles, a bag of tea, a street sign), and as she grows older, her tendency to fixate on objects begins to feel forced. The juxtaposition of curios and memories is a novel one, but it might have read better as a series of essays. Nonetheless, LaCava’s book is a charmer thanks to her perceptive and analytical eyes. CAITLIN SMITH

BETTER LIVING THROUGH PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES
(PINTAIL)
BY ZSUZSI GARTNER

In the otherworld that Zsuzsi Gartner builds across the 10 stories of her new collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Gen Xers age without grace, insular communities collapse under the weight of their own obsessions, and everyone, again and again, turns to pop cultural to help define themselves. “Once, We Were Swedes” begins with one of Gartner’s gracelessly aging women: Alex, a teacher, one-time foreign correspondent, and wife of seven years to Rufus, roadie for a band whose name—Shuffering Shuccotash—and hit song—“Tweety’s Lament,” with lyrics like, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”—exemplify Gartner’s clever ease with pop culture foraging. In “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion,” told in the collective voice of a community (not unlike Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery), there’s a rift between cul-de-sac residents “too old, too divorced, too medicated (too selfish, some said, too lazy)” to adopt Chinese children and the many who do, raising their “tiny, clear-eyed girls” with outdated Chinese customs like foot binding, which creates jealousy among the non-Chinese children on the block. Though the title story suffers a bit from a diffuse ending, this droll domestic tale of “the recovering terrorist” tending to her family, garden, and home could serve as a master class in Gartner’s fascinations: the biting satire, the pop culture vocabulary, the melding of technology and biology. The voice of a man without a larynx, for instance, “comes out filtered, almost electronic sounding, like the Pixar people’s concept of a robotic voice.” Gartner is a world builder; her narratives don’t unfold in a line, not even a crooked one; they accumulate in big, messy piles. When there are enough fragments to make something nearly whole, the story’s over. Along the way, Gartner’s laser focus on the minutiae makes the familiar obscure, like an everyday word repeated so many times that it stops sounding right. MIKE HARVKEY

EX-GIRLFRIENDS

Adrift twentysomething Graham (Alexander Poe, who also wrote and directed) would probably like to change his Facebook status to “in a relationship,” because right now it surely reads “it’s complicated.” Last year, Graham was happy (at least that’s how he remembers things) and in love with the ethereal Laura (Kristen Connolly); before that, he was linked to the feisty Kate (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter), now relegated to “friend” status, a better fit. At the start of Poe’s bare-bones indie, Graham still pines for Laura, or thinks he does when he sees her at a party in lower Manhattan. Smitten all over again, Graham so misreads Laura’s signals that he suggests they get together to, you know, catch up. Reluctantly Laura agrees. Turns out, her relationship status is not so complicated. She’s quite happy with Tom, who Graham knows from the party scene. This news knocks Graham off his game until Kate reveals that Laura isn’t the only downtown girl seeing Tom right now. Talk about “it’s complicated.” Armed with the kind of dirty laundry that he thinks will make Laura a girlfriend again, Graham heads off to wreck at least one couple’s night. It would be easier to love Poe’s scrappy, often charming DIY effort if he hadn’t cast himself in the lead. In front of the camera, his dramatic range is so limited he all but disappears. But, while his character may not know much about women, Poe the filmmaker (a graduate of Columbia’s MFA film program) showed astounding intelligence in casting Carpenter, a fun, fiery natural who commands the screen so effortlessly that you can’t take your eyes off her. She deserves a vehicle all her own. Ex-Boyfriends, anyone? MIKE HARVKEY

ANNA KARENINA

Anyone who’s ever lugged around a copy of Anna Karenina knows that Tolstoy and the other revolutionary writers of Russia’s Golden Age weren’t fooling around; they filled their weighty tomes with big ideas, furious passions, and melodramatic tragedy. And most film versions of Anna have stuck close to that script. But filmmaker Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna), working with a stellar cast and crew, takes a different approach, putting all that old, passionate melodrama into an excitingly fresh context. Stuck in a cold marriage to the high-ranking Karenin (Jude Law), the headstrong Anna (Keira Knightley, working for the third time with Wright) makes the tragic mistake of falling under the spell of lascivious Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who also has his heavy-lidded eyes on young Kitty (newcomer Alicia Vikander), Anna’s sister-in-law. In fact, Kitty is so certain of Vronsky’s intent that she ignores the awkward advances of sympathetic landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), whose heart is far more earnest. Kitty’s dismissal sends Levin back to his fields, where social awakening awaits. Unfortunately Anna’s awakening runs counter to Levin’s; her heedless pursuit of passion ruins her marriage, her reputation, and, finally, her life. Historian Orlando Figes (who consulted on this film) wrote that Russian aristocracy of Anna’s era played out their lives “as if on a stage.” Wright literalizes Figes’s metaphor, setting much of the film inside a beautifully modular theater set (complete, at times, with an audience), and extends the metaphor into every element of the production—from the soundtrack (a lush score by Dario Marianelli that’s supplemented with the actors’ rhythmic actions) to the performances (from quietly restrained to cartoonish) to costume changes (occurring on-screen) to the way actors move (they dance, hold frozen poses, spin into their coats). It’s a gamble, but Wright, whose visionary instincts haven’t always aligned so well with his chosen subjects, strips Tolstoy’s epic down to its essence, and the result is the most audacious—and certainly most fun—Anna in years. MIKE HARVKEY