Monday, August 31, 2009


The 6ths
Asks Asps
Release Date: October 20
Label: Nonesuch

[1] And Didn't We Have Fun (w/ Agnetha Faltskog)
[2] Sunspots on the Moon (w/ Andy Bell)
[3] Learning Not to Love You (w/ Daryl Hall)
[4] Wish You Were Me (w/ Terence Trent D'Arby)
[5] The Day of Your Ceremony (w/ Alan Sparhawk)
[6] He Done Him Wrong (w/ Torquil Campbell)
[7] Rainshowers (w/ Poly Styrene)
[8] I Waited For You to Bring Me A Cat (w/ Satomi Matsuzaki)
[9] She Asks Asps the Way to Aspen (w/ Martin Phillipps)
[10] Losing Ampersands (w/ Alison Moyet)
[11] Thorn In My Neck (w/ Patrick Wolf)
[12] I Don't (w/ Sam Phillips)
[13] Feathers (Where Your Head Should Be) (w/ Alison Shaw)
[14] Museums Could Be Us (w/ Michelle Phillips)
[15] Ages & Pages (w/ Steve Harley)

Note: This will be the third album by The 6ths. Guest vocalists sing the songs of Stephin Merritt.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I went to Chicago last week. This was great for a number of reasons, though I’ll limit myself to the usual subjects.

Twelve years after disbanding, Red Red Meat played their one and only reunion show at the beautiful Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park on Monday. I know because singer Tim Rutili at one point said, “You’re never going to hear these songs again.” That made me feel bad about not having heard those songs before, and not being able to lament their retirement, but Red Red Meat don’t strike me as a band I would ever come to love. When they get going on a blues riff or a steady backbeat or a mountain of fuzz, they’re unstoppable, but too often their idea of “atmospheric” is guitar scraping and cymbal tapping beyond reason. They seem to have soaked up a lot of the Chicago ether back in the old days, little as I know about it, and I fault no one, Chicagoan or otherwise, for missing them dearly.

Canadian indie pop act The Rural Alberta Advantage opened. Excessively frenetic drumming is a modern musical trend I’m not crazy about (No Age, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids), but, unlike the wailing vocals, it is one of the virtues of the Advantage’s moderately charming tunes.

I found a couple record stores.

Dusty Groove America specializes in jazz and funk, but its workers seem like keepers of the entire musical canon. I bought Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, and the cashier told me it was his first Mingus album, along with the one that includes music heard in John Cassavetes’ Shadows. “That’s a great movie,” I said, only to lapse into silence when the cashier’s look indicated to me that he had a better understanding of why it’s a great movie than I do. Anyway, Ah Um already interests me a great deal more than the other Columbia jazz classic of 1959, Kind of Blue, as it is less a sequence of solos and more a showcase for the compositions of a great bandleader.

Reckless Records has three locations in Chicago. The one in the Belmont/Clark area is pretty impressive, especially after you notice that their CD jewel cases are hidden behind the counter and begin to ponder how vast their inventory must be. I bought Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement from one of their cadre of trendy bearded city dwellers, and realize I have been too long without fresh synth pop. Heaven 17 were Human League breakaways; their ambitions are more of the dance-until-the-revolution variety, but with their clunky, now outdated machines, they’re able to put their signature all over some impressive soundscapes.

Fate (and train schedules) conspired against me seeing both You, The Living at Facets Cinematheque and Edward Albee’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© at the Chopin Theatre, but I went inside both buildings, and picked up a top ten compendium at the former in which man of cinema Robert Pollard lists among his favorites Husbands by John Cassavetes, auteur of drunken banter.


Inglourious Basterds finds Quentin Tarantino doing what he does best, relentlessly, for two-and-a-half hours. Minute by minute, it is the most thoroughly entertaining movie of the year. Tarantino’s mythmaking is intact, and I’m surprised after seeing this that his own mythic origins lie not in the theater, but in the video store. I’m surprised because Basterds is a remarkably self-contained movie, tightly bounded by its own structure and locations and framings, nearly as free of context as Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which I’ve also just seen) or any other great piece of drama. Tarantino has never been a director who has thought he can have it all. Sure, he has it all in terms of subject matter—World War II, German cinema, and the rest—but Basterds in particular is built up of the simplest pleasures: well-composed shots, well-chosen gestures and inserts, musical cues, cinematic references, loopy metaphors. The best joke here is the way that the Nazi-scalping plotline is pushed to the margins before it even takes off, giving Tarantino time to let his handful of scenes progress toward narrative dead-ends. Someone said that no one in the movie gets enough screen time. That’s true, but it’s also true that there’s not a scene in the movie that should have been left out, nor anything left out that should have been put in. Everything that happens in the movie could have been told in 15 minutes, but the pace is leisurely, the film not bogged down with story information.

Goodbye Solo
is slightly more artificial than Ramin Bahrani’s previous two films (I mean that only as an observation, not a criticism). In Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, life happens, and the camera is nowhere. In Goodbye Solo, from the moment that we learn that one man has a goal, and needs another man to help him achieve it, events unfold for the sake of the camera, and the film suggests that Bahrani could be very successful as a mainstream director. Solo is not an anomaly in his already impressive filmography by any means, but still, subtly, a different kind of filmmaking.

Weird footnote or accidental masterpiece, Blast of Silence reimagines film noir as a genre whose potential for exciting action sequences is limited to peanut pushing contests. The film was released by Universal in 1961, and not being a fan of B-movies, I sometimes forget that major studios have always been financing movies with such unappealing casts and haphazard thrills as this one. That said, there’s a sort of wayward genius to Blast of Silence. It’s that rare movie with a second person POV, achieved by a growling voiceover narration (You’re alone now… Your hands are sweaty… You hate Christmas… Remembering other Christmases…). That narration must have been an attempt to accentuate the story’s grittiness, but there is at times a Jim Thompson sort of poetry to it, and in retrospect it reads more like a directive or genre commentary, a la the first scene of Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire.

Allen Baron is the film’s director and star, and he looks like George C. Scott in The Hustler with all his sleazy charisma stripped away, or John Belushi with dignity intact. This is one of those movies without stars and without the means of creating new stars, so it makes every attempt to crush its actors under a mountain of style and structure, even as it seems to offer a view of life outside of the world of Hollywood glamour. Luckily, the filmmakers don’t lack for creativity. There are enough great things in Blast of Silence to make it the heir of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, although its virtues are primarily a result of Baron’s inexperience as a director. Anomalies like this film can often be more instructive than great movies. A successful movie forces you to take it on its own terms, while Blast of Silence can be approached with open eyes.


The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty : I like to keep this blog strictly opinionated and impersonal, though I will say that this novel, about an ailing parent and a return home, was a timely read. Eudora Welty has lived more life than me, though. Young writers always let each idea follow logically from the last; Welty’s cast of characters is large and her world is untidy yet contained, lucid detail followed by lucid detail, like Robert Altman on the page. What we learn about the characters depends upon what the characters choose to reveal, and even the title character remains a mystery—“the mystery of how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much”—until she begins searching through the past and “a flood of feeling” descends on her, and she yields at last, weeping in grief “for love and for the dead.” That’s a great moment, and leads to Welty’s culminating observations: “The past can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist.”

Design for Living by Noel Coward : Less carefully structured than the other plays I read, but also more personal and self-reflexive. It’s been misunderstood as immoral, unpleasant, anti-social, on account of its characters who see themselves as set apart from the masses, but I’d say Coward is simply being honest and true to his characters. He’s also very clever in the way the divergent sexualities in the love triangle of Gilda, Otto and Leo are both implicit and explicit, so that I imagine this play wasn’t nearly as controversial in 1933 as it might have been. The phrase “spiritual television,” in regards to communication without words, is wonderful.


Has anyone heard those two new Radiohead songs? I’m holding an informal poll to determine which is better. I vote for the weird “Harry Patch,” as the other one is kind of boring.

I’ve never cared a lot about No Age, but I mean it as a major compliment when I say they’ve outdone themselves with the new song “You’re A Target.” They almost beat Times New Viking in the melody department, and this is the first song I’ve heard in which they don’t sound like a couple of talented bashers and thrashers, but like they’ve studied the classics as thoroughly as Bradford Cox.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I respect some of the critics most of the time and most of the critics some of the time, but in regards to two recent cultural productions, I have to wonder if any of them have their wits about them. Don’t believe any of the good reviews you read about District 9 or any of the bad reviews you read about Wye Oak’s The Knot. The critics are fooling you.

[1] “You can’t say they don’t look like that. That’s what they look like: prawns.” That line seems pretty reasonable at the moment you hear it, and is absolutely saddening a split-second later. A human says these words about the aliens in District 9, and it’s the best thing in the movie, a promise that the movie has thought through its great and original premise (aliens--predictably encrusted-looking but sympathetic--stranded in South Africa and rounded up into slums) and will use it as a vehicle for political and social engagement. Wrong. The premise is instead a vehicle for gore beyond reason and loud, poorly filmed and edited and headache-inducing action.

Action can be fun, but the formal choices here are baffling (though status quo) and obscure any sense of fun. Case in point: the movie cuts between a talking head-filled pseudo-documentary (complete with security camera and news feeds) and a sort of cinema verite shaky cam straight narration. I have no idea why. It’s completely illogical. I can’t say who’s telling this story (public television? God?) or when. But it does allow for whiplash editing start to finish, which is very much the thing these days. District 9 could have been engaging, but instead it plays like a two-hour trailer of itself.

One more thing: Why have the critics been so insistent about labeling District 9 as science fiction or a “genre” picture? How many movies have played at the multiplex this year that haven’t been genre pictures of one kind or another? Three, maybe four? Is that too generous? I’d hardly even call District 9 science fiction, as I believe that to be the “genre” that most commonly transcends its own genre, and District 9 doesn’t transcend anything. It’s a few interesting ideas used as an excuse for a blood-splattered lens.

(Armond White is one of the few critics who has said anything bad about the movie, which resulted in a load of fanboy controversy when his review destroyed the movie’s 100% Tomatometer reading.)

[2] “The bursts of distortion that colored If Children are almost pornographically expanded,” says Pitchfork about Wye Oak’s The Knot. That is a description of the album, yes, but one that seems to be saying something about the album’s quality even though it’s not. Curious word choice there, “pornographically,” which suggests that Wye Oak are some rare breed of musicians that try to provoke a physical response from their listeners, or that they do things to their guitars against their guitars’ wills, or that they are trying to turn a profit from a disreputable use of their talents. I have to disagree, as I don’t imagine Wye Oak will make much money from this album, even though they put those guitars to great use, producing sounds that many listeners, myself included, will have a profound physical response to. Which is what good music results in, I believe.

Friday, August 14, 2009


As promised:

"That reply has broken my heart."

"What does it all mean, that's what I ask myself in my ceaseless quest for ultimate truth."

"Come and kiss me darling, before your body rots, and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets."

Q: "What sorts of books does she write?"
A: "Two sorts. Rather whimsical children's stories about enchanted woods filled with highly conversational flora and fauna, and enthusiastic biographies of minor royalties."

"I long ago came to the conclusion that nothing has ever been definitely proved about anything."

"Supernatural grandmother!"

"She was convalescing after pneumonia and one evening she started to laugh helplessly at one of the BBC musical programmes and died of a heart attack."

"I don't see that you could have hoped to have achieved anything by it beyond the immediate joke of making Charles into a sort of astral bigamist."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mutant Down'ds*

*Short for 'downloads'; rhymes with 'sounds'


I try to avoid all those full album blogs that flood the internets, as they are so overwhelming and morally reprehensible (kidding), but I give in every once in a while. Any lover of music and blogs at least ought to know about Mutant Sounds and the more narrow-focused Commercial Zone, and that gems like the following are waiting on the hard drives of some MegaUpload or RapidShare computer farm out in Wisconsin:

--Confetti are rightly compared to Young Marble Giants, but I would say they have a slightly more maximalist approach to minimalism. Give them a few more pieces of musical equipment and some club beats, and you might have Saint Etienne. I really love this stuff, the Sarah Records sound (a label Confetti had nothing to do with), music so pleasant and pretty and quiet as to be totally audacious. Their take on Josef K’s “It’s Kinda Funny” from their Retrospective LP both improves the melody and drowns it in groovy, yet barely there, atmosphere, and not long after that, there are three (3!) Wedding Present covers lying in wait.

--Spent Bullets is the second straight Adam Franklin solo album that starts with a hazy and off-kilter pop gem and ventures into territory so hazy and off-kilter as to transcend the category of “pop gem.” This guy’s good at what he does.

--Crazy Rhythms-era The Feelies had succumbed to the rise of jangle by the time they released their second album, The Good Earth, in 1986. Thank God, as this is canonical jangle, and features “When Company Comes,” a mostly wordless tangle of jangle that is even moodier and less beholden to conventional song structure than their similarly instrumental-ish greatest song ever, 1980’s “Raised Eyebrows.” This is leafy greens music, very humid.

--The Gun Club: Are they The Leaving Trains with a deeper sense of American imagery, or The Leaving Trains with less memorable tunes? It was The Leaving Trains who advised us to kill tunes, while The Gun Club’s Fire of Love sounds like corpse music, walking undead blues or something. Very good.

On the legal front, I went to the best but most out of my way TC record store, Treehouse, the other day, and bought a compilation by the great 60s British psych rock band Kaleidoscope called Dive Into Yesterday. That’s an unfair genre tag, though, as these guys, unconventional though they were, aren’t nearly self-indulgent enough to manage much in the mind-melting department. Theirs is a gentler pop touch. When you stumble across an 8-minute track called “The Sky Children” from a 1967 album called Tangerine Dream, you naturally expect a thoroughly boring psychedelic jam, correct? But Kaleidoscope take a page from “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna,” and their epic album closer is instead mellow and lilting, repeating its pretty refrain for the duration. I suppose that’s its own sort of self-indulgence, and the lyrics aren’t worth tuning in for, something about “fluffy white tears,” etc., but the band recognizes a soothing melody and how long to sustain it.

Anyway, this is a peculiar comp, as it contains only seven-elevenths of Kaleidoscope’s highly revered debut but the entirety of their slightly less revered follow-up. There are a few singles thrown in too, and those are pretty special. I’d already heard “Flight From Ashiya,” which actually might melt your brain, restrained though it is, one of those songs that seems to be happening at the bottom of the ocean. “Jenny Artichoke” is clearly an attempt to cash in on the rise of Donovan, but this band is so lively and has such good taste that they’re incapable of embarrassing themselves. The shoulda-been-the-A-side B-side, “Just How Much You Are,” is the sweetest piece of orchestral pop I’ve heard in a decent while. Well, I’m always a bit surprised when I hear such savvy music from the 60s that isn’t by The Beatles or The Kinks, as if I didn’t already know that most of what I like originated among that decade’s unsung heroes. I need to make sure I never let the 60s become quaint, and Kaleidoscope certainly helps.


500 Days of Summer, for all its post-modern playfulness, is the most innocent, chaste and conservative love story in ages, and knows it. There’s something almost charming about a movie that tells you, with voiceover narration, that there are two kinds of people in the world, “men” and “women” (or was it “boys” and “girls”?) and that each is meant for the other. In fact, all straight love stories should be required to define themselves in this way, right? It seems like movies, in the 1930s say, used to do that implicitly. So here’s a very self-aware movie; that quality can sometimes be detrimental on the narrative level, but it also results in some perceptive moments, particularly those that acknowledge that our ideas about love are completely dependent upon our experiences with love.

A caveat: This was advertised as a movie about a boy who likes sad 80s British bands, and I am sad to report that’s not what it is. After all, no one’s really clamoring for that movie to be made (though were the masses really clamoring for a Joseph Gordon Levitt-Zooey Deschanel love story?). Anyway, the movie culminates in a scene in which our Smiths-loving protagonist realizes he bought in at an early age to the myth of love and true happiness, and that post-punk is really what cursed him. I guess I’ve always felt that Morrissey’s denial of the possibility of happiness outweighs his belief in the ideal of love, but I believe this movie knows what it’s talking about (what with its plethora of vintage band t-shirts) and would’ve liked to see this developed more. Perhaps they saved that angle for the 500 Days of Summer music blog.

I re-watched two of my favorites of 2005, Mysterious Skin and Me and You and Everyone We Know, which are about—this is singular—real people.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte : There’s scarcely a mention of England in Wuthering Heights, its interior spaces are very lightly rendered, as are its exterior spaces, so it won’t fit into any category of 19th century British literature that I can think of. I don’t know what to make of it except to cherish it as a glorious fever dream. Charlotte Bronte probably learned how to write by reading, and Emily Bronte learned by hiding in caves.

Private Lives and Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward : I’ll quote myself from an e-mail and say that Noel Coward “charms the pantalones [sic] off me, perhaps only literally.” I don’t know what I meant by that, but I will say that I was messily eating popcorn last night and felt utterly boorish, having just finished Act One of Private Lives. I will have to compile a list of the wittiest lines.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt : I was wondering if I could banish any lingering traces of unfulfilled expectation from childhood, so I read this for the first time. It’s a nice piece of writing, with a great prologue that describes with remarkable precision what the first week of August feels like. Most children’s stories at their root are about the first important events of childhood that can’t be communicated to adults, leaving the child feeling lonelier and wiser. That story is told well here, and how lovely that the fountain of youth is described as left over from “some other plan for the way the world should be.”

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams : Williams has been parodied to death, but no one ever tells you how plausible these characters are.