Wintertime is Duncantime
Sheik's Whisper House is a Bleak Delight

I can’t tell you how glad I am that Duncan Sheik isn’t trying to be a pop star anymore.

He was always uncomfortable in the role. His only pop hits came early in his career, and can be found on his self-titled debut, by far the weakest of his efforts. “Barely Breathing” is a fine song, as is “She Runs Away,” but in the spookier, sparser moments of that album, you could hear Sheik reaching for something deeper.

Ten years later, he seems confident, collected, easy in his own skin. And I think it’s partially because he’s not trying to fit anyone’s mold for him any longer. The last flash of pop star Duncan came on 2002’s Daylight, the flip side of his masterpiece, the previous year’s Phantom Moon. On that record, Sheik compressed his layered compositions into three-minute pop songs (and one glorious two-minute love letter, “For You”), in a bid for radio play and higher sales. He got neither, and since then, he’s graciously waved goodbye to that scene.

If not for that pesky second hit, most would consider Sheik a one-hit wonder. But that doesn’t take into account the Tony awards he won for his score to Spring Awakening – if you follow musical theater, that one was kind of a big deal. What the pop charts didn’t want, Broadway has embraced, and Sheik hasn’t had to change a thing about his sound. He just writes the same kind of haunting folk-pop he always has – it’s too complex and low-key for radio, but it works just fine on the stage.

That’s not to say Sheik has abandoned his recording career, but now he’s merging it with his theatrical ambitions, and the results are superb. His sixth album, Whisper House, consists of Sheik’s full-band versions of 10 songs from a musical set to hit the stage later this year. But don’t fret – there’s no Gilbert and Sullivan-style set pieces here. If not for the lyrical nods to the overarching story, you wouldn’t know this is anything other than the next Duncan Sheik record. And it’s his best and strongest set of songs since Phantom Moon – bleak, wintry and oh so pretty.

The story: Whisper House is about a young boy whose father is killed in World War II. He goes to live with a relative in an old lighthouse, and soon finds out that a band (literally) of ghosts lives there too. The ghosts sing him stories about life’s unremitting darkness, and fill the boy with fear – so much so that he turns in the lighthouse’s keeper, Yasuhiro, as a Japanese spy. He has no evidence for this, just irrational fear, and the story is about how he deals with what he’s done.

See? Dark. And the songs fit the mood perfectly. I’d like to say that the narrative doesn’t matter to the music, but that’s not the case – these songs tell the story, and don’t make much sense without it. For instance, you won’t get the morbid joke behind opener “It’s Better to Be Dead” unless you know that it’s sung by the ghosts haunting the lighthouse. Similarly, “The Tale of Solomon Snell” seems to come out of nowhere, unless you realize it’s one of the stories the ghosts tell young Christopher – the story of a man buried alive.

As those who heard Spring Awakening know, the theater has not altered Sheik’s basic alchemy – you can still expect slowly-unfolding songs, lovely textured guitar, a smattering of other instruments (the muted trumpets in “Solomon Snell” are great), and Sheik’s even tenor above it all. On his first few efforts, Sheik’s thin voice was his biggest weakness, but he’s learned to wield it since then, and some of his best vocals ever are on Whisper House. On this album, he’s enlisted his longtime touring partner, Holly Brook, to sing the female parts, and their voices intertwine beautifully – check “Earthbound Starlight,” or Brook’s spotlight number, “And Now We Sing.”

At its best, Sheik’s music drops the temperature of whatever room you play it in. Whisper House is a sad, even tragic story, and by the end, the music is almost majestically bleak. “Play Your Part” is about immutable destiny – all the world’s a stage, and you can’t improvise. “How It Feels” is perhaps the album’s most fragile song, our ghostly hosts sounding almost sympathetic until the chorus: “You’ll learn how it feels, hearts break and never heal…”

And “I Don’t Believe in You” gets the Justin Currie Award for Most Hopeless Lyric. The song is a rising storm, as the spectral chorus lays it on the line – life is not worth living, the world is not worth saving. “There’s nothing you can do, and we don’t believe in you…” Strangely enough, this is my favorite song on the album, and it contains a striking extended guitar solo from Gerry Leonard – he’s relegated to textures and accents on the rest of the album, but he gets the spotlight here, and he brings out the harshness of the song wonderfully.

In the end, aside from its theatrical roots and narrative drive, Whisper House is a Duncan Sheik album, and a very good one. If you’ve missed the evolution of Sheik the songwriter and record-maker over the past 10 years, it might surprise you, but if you’ve been following along, rest assured this is another dark and dignified piece of work. Sheik’s songs creep up on you, and only take hold over time, but with Whisper House, he’s delivered his most consistently affecting music since Phantom Moon. As the last song says, Duncan, take a bow.

* * * * *

I hear you, though. It’s February, the snow is on the ground, temperatures are low, and that post-Christmas blues just keeps hanging around. Acoustic folk-pop albums about nihilistic ghosts are all well and good, but you want something fun, something that can help you with the mid-winter doldrums. And I have just the thing.

It’s been four years since Scottish wunderkinds Franz Ferdinand released an album. That’s plenty of time to completely reinvent yourself, and re-emerge with a new image, a new sound and a new shot at some kind of artistic respectability. Franz Ferdinand have done none of that. Their third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, is every bit the fun rump-shaker their first two were, if not more. If you liked them before, you will like them again. And if you didn’t, well, they work harder this time to grab your ear.

I have mentioned my Third Album Theory before – it’s the junior effort, more than the sophomore one, that cements a band’s vision. Bands have their entire lives to write their debut, and only a few months (usually) to create the follow-up, which is why most second albums are slapped-together, ramshackle affairs. The smart bands save some of their material for the second album, but that ordinarily means record #2 is exactly the same as record #1. (That’s exactly what happened with Franz Ferdinand’s sophomore album, You Could Have It So Much Better, a clone of their self-titled debut.)

Ah, but the third album, that’s the one to watch. Bands usually have time to craft that third record, and the whirlwind of those first couple of record-tour-record-tour cycles is behind them. The third album, in most cases, is where the ambitions come out, and it most often points towards future directions. The things that haven’t changed by the third album are the things the band wants to keep.

With that in mind, here’s what hasn’t changed on Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. The songs are still jaunty dance-rockers, and they still sound like Morrissey’s disco band. The impressive, creative guitar lines are still here. Alex Kapranos still sounds like the biggest asshole you’ve ever met, particularly on tunes like “Bite Hard” and “What She Came For,” and though I’m certain it’s all an act, I still want to punch him. And Franz still work overtime to pack as much fun into 42 minutes as they can.

Here’s what’s different, and why Tonight is my favorite of the three. While Franz has always been (and still is) a rock band playing dance music, on this album they’ve amped up the keyboard quotient – most of these songs have cheesy-awesome synth parts that just knock them through the roof. Check out “Twilight Omens” – yes, the hook is the fantabulous guitar riff on the choruses, but try to imagine it without the burbling synth orchestra that fills the nooks and crannies. It’s sweet.

The Franzers make a much more concerted push for the dance floor on this album. Dig “No You Girls,” perhaps my favorite thing here – the drum part is almost mechanical, and every element of this tune, from the ‘70s porn bass line and guitar accents in the verse to the elegantly arranged (and totally awesome) chorus, is designed to get your ass moving. It’s just wonderful, and I can’t understand why this isn’t the first single, instead of blasé opening track “Ulysses.”

But they also pack this album full of little surprises. The first one comes at track four – “Send Him Away” is a lighter-than-air waltz that sounds a lot like the Doors to my ears. (Plus, real handclaps!) Otherwise standard sex-rocker “What She Came For” concludes with a levels-in-the-red punk rock jam that comes out of nowhere. (And might damage your speakers, if you’re not ready for it.) And “Lucid Dreams” starts out like any one of these songs, but evolves into an eight-minute synthesizers-and-drums workout – it’s like its own extended dance remix.

And then there is “Katherine Kiss Me,” the gentle acoustic closer, which finds Kapranos’ arrogant mask slipping a little bit. It’s every bit the come-on that most of these songs are, but it recasts the lyrics to “No You Girls” in a gentler light. Seldom has the dichotomy of the wild night and the morning after been rendered so literally. The song is actually emotional in its delivery, so very close to truth that it makes the rest of this album feel like a glittering lie. Which, of course, it is, but it’s a damn fun one.

So what have we learned from Franz Ferdinand’s third album? One, these guys actually deserved the hype that flooded around them five years ago. Two, their sound is now pretty well established – they’re not going to start baring their souls over string arrangements or anything. Three, they’re just going to keep getting better at this. The songs and melodies on Tonight: Franz Ferdinand are their strongest ones yet, and the record just keeps throwing them at you, as if they’ll never run out. And four, if you’re looking for the most fun you can have with 45 minutes and a CD player, this is a pretty good bet.

* * * * *

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, because I’m not at all a fan, but the biggest and most surprising omission from this year’s Oscar nominees is Bruce Springsteen.

The Academy only tapped three nominees for Best Song this year, in a category that ordinarily sports five. That makes the snubbing of Springsteen’s moody “The Wrestler,” written for the film of the same name, even more inexplicable. I’m not going to quibble with the choices that are there. A.R. Rahman’s score for Slumdog Millionaire is fantastic, and “Down to Earth,” written for Wall-E, is typically excellent Peter Gabriel.

But why not Bruce? Especially since he already won the Golden Globe in the same category. Even if he were nominated, I’d still give the Oscar to Rahman’s “Jai Ho,” the musical backdrop to the year’s coolest dance sequence. But hell, Springsteen deserves to be there.

One rant over, another one queued up. I’m doing that thing I do every year now, catching up with all the movies I missed. I’ve seen all five Best Picture nominees (and by extension, the Best Director noms), and most of the nominated acting performances now. And I have to say, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads the field with 13 nods, may well be the worst film of 2008.

Okay, maybe it’s not worse than The Hottie and the Nottie, and it won’t be picking up any Razzies. (Congrats to M. Night Shyamalan, for getting a Worst Director nod two films in a row!) But Button is an even more insidious beast – a terrible, soulless, boring, trite waste of time disguised as an important, insightful work of art. When I first saw this three-hour snooze-fest, it just sort of annoyed me. But now, with all the thunderous acclaim it’s gathered on its race towards Best Picture, it truly pisses me off.

What’s wrong with it? Too many things to mention, honestly. I’ll name a few, though. Aside from aging backwards, nothing interesting happens to Benjamin Button at all over three excruciating hours. He grows up, he fights in a war (for about five minutes), he meets a girl, he likes the girl, they break up, he gets old and dies. That’s it. Button learns nothing from the people around him, is not at all affected by events (such as they are) in his life, and dies the same person he’s always been. He has nothing to teach us.

But director David Fincher (seriously!) believes he does, and he tries to convince us of that by giving every little action or moment INTENSE SIGNIFICANCE. The movie is framed by a sequence that takes place in New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina bears down on a hospital, and you’d think there would be a reason for bringing up a disaster of this magnitude, but there isn’t. It just Feels Important. It’s a splendidly-shot disguise, a veneer of gravity the threadbare film doesn’t earn.

Brad Pitt, inexplicably nominated for Best Actor, resurrects his performance from Meet Joe Black here. He’s blank-faced and expressionless for most of the film, as life goes on around him, affecting him not at all. By the end of the movie, I felt like Fincher and his team wanted me to really feel something, wanted me to come away with life lessons. But I didn’t find any. I just found a second-rate Forrest Gump knockoff, and I lost three hours I can never get back.

Thankfully, I liked the four other Best Picture nominees, with varying degrees of intensity. I went into The Reader expecting this year’s Atonement, but it’s pretty good. Its uneasy mix of Holocaust drama and soft-core porn never quite coheres, but each half is true to the characters and their experiences, and in the end, the story is one of uncomfortable sadness. (Here’s an interesting bit of trivia – Stephen Daldry has now been nominated for Best Director for all three of the films he’s made. Quite the streak.)

The two biographical pieces, Milk and Frost/Nixon, are excellent. Sean Penn is rightly nominated for his spot-on portrayal of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. The movie is rousing, but never cheesy, and Josh Brolin (also justly nominated) brings assassin Dan White to sympathetic life. Meanwhile, Frank Langella looks nothing like Richard Nixon, but he embodies him in a way no other actor has quite managed. The movie is a delight, a genuinely tense affair, even if you know how it all turns out. My only question is, where’s Michael Sheen’s nomination? He was superb as David Frost, unafraid to show his careless and egotistical side.

But the clear winner for me is Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s delirious Bollywood-influenced romp through the streets of Mumbai. Everything – every single little thing – in this movie works, and though it’s a slight fairy tale when slotted next to its competition, its magical qualities set it above the rest. I don’t know where to start with Boyle – he’s never made two films that look and feel alike, and he shoots Slumdog in a kinetic, joyous style that shouts its presence from the mountaintops. In the end, it’s about a kid who goes on a game show to find a girl, but I left Slumdog Millionaire feeling more alive, more in love with movies, than I did after any other film this year.

So that’s the one I want to win. And it has a chance – it did win the Golden Globe, after all. While I think the sweeping sham that is Benjamin Button will probably pull it off, I’m going to go with the audacity of hope (ahem) in calling the Oscars this year. Here are my picks in the major (and some minor)categories:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Supporting Actress: Taraji P. Henson
Best Director: Danny Boyle
Best Original Screenplay: Milk
Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Animated Film: Wall-E
Best Documentary: Man on Wire
Best Song: “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire
Best Score: Slumdog Millionaire

Some of these (Ledger, Wall-E) are no-brainers, but the rest I have obviously weighted in favor of my favorite. I hope I’m not just whistling in the dark, and Oscar night sees a surge of support for the coolest movie the Academy has chosen to nominate this year. (In the absence of The Dark Knight, of course.) I’ll be watching with fingers crossed.

Next week, Roger Manning’s pure pop genius. Yee hah!

See you in line Tuesday morning.