Box of Rocks
Northwest Passage: The Birth of Portland's DIY Culture
Northwest Passage: The Birth of Portland's DIY Culture
Directed by Michael Lastra
A short clip of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic stands as one of the prize pieces of Michael Lastra's documentary film. Cobain proclaims that seminal Portland band The Wipers were "like gods" to Nirvana, and Novoselic deems Portland's music scene "a lot more organic and pure than what has happened in Seattle." This statement perfectly captures what Lastra drives at in Northwest Passage: Portland, while certainly part of the larger punk music revolution, was a little bit different, more impassioned, freer.
Lastra, a musician and recording engineer himself, gives us a glimpse into Portland's late '70s/early '80s alternative music, highlighting legendary Portland bands such as The Wipers, Poison Idea, The Neo Boys, Smegma, The Rats, The Styphnoids, and San Francisco's The Dead Kennedys. The film, a mixture of documentary- style interviews and original performance footage, should appeal to people for different reasons. If you happened to be an early punk yourself or a Portland music scene aficionado, you will appreciate the full-length song footage that comprises roughly half of the film. It might even reignite a little bit of the passion and rebellion that the movement was all about. Those uninitiated in the Portland late '70s punk scene, however, might find it less than tantalizing to watch lengthy cuts of people who "learned to play their instruments on stage" with the sound quality that accompanies an equipment budget of zero.
What we learn through interviews, however, has universal appeal. These pioneers had enough passion, anger, grit, rebellion–whatever it was–to form bands, create venues, and produce a live compilation album at the cost of twenty dollars per band, which should inspire all but the blackest of hearts.
The film's comic twist also makes it worth a watch. Lastra peppers the film with cuts from 1970's era local news features on the emerging punk rock scene. Mainstream media's confusion at the nascent movement is amusing, but more importantly, this addition reminds us of just how foreign and shocking punk and new wave were at their inception. The DVD itself offers some nice bonus features that might be otherwise hard to come by, like the seriously kicky DIY posters and album covers that shed a little light on the design aspect of these bands.
Lastra's film, like Portland's alt music scene itself, turns out to serve a few purposes–it educates, serves up a fair bit of nostalgia, and excites. Its delivery on so many different levels makes it a success.
Movements in Movement
Movements in Movement
(Kill Rock Stars)
A phonetic hailstorm, Moments in Movement was created within two weeks of a sweltering hot Sydney summer. In interviews, Romy Hoffman, a.k.a. Macromantics, has talked about her desire to break away from the dark content of her previous efforts and make something light like summer with her debut album. While not overly cerebral, Moments in Movement is more heavy meal than light summer fare.
Romy raps like she is out to prove something to the world when maybe she doesn't really have to. She admits she doesn't like recording and it tends to come through in the lackadaisical song structures of her debut album. Macromantics is a far superior freestyler than composer. The verses excite more with their texture and speed than their content. She's got some damned witty one-liners, but more often than not they fail to connect with one another in an insightful way. A tension exists between the chunky idea-laden verses and clunky didactic choruses.
It is at times equally inspiring and embarrassing to bear witness to the process of Macromantics playfully putting words together. Rhyming "Faludi" with "your booty" is pretty awesome but putting "ying-yang rap" with "big bang bap" is inexcusable. Still, Romy's freestyles are an unbelievable spectacle live and I am excited for what she might have up her sleeve next.
by Don DeLillo
There are many works of fiction about September 11th, 2001: Updike, Pynchon, Rushdie, Roth, McEwan, and now, Don Delillo's most recent novel, Falling Man. DeLillo is noted for making very personal stories out of public moments and reflecting a frightening new zeitgeist; think of his novels Libra, White Noise, and The Underworld.Falling Man opens with Keith Neudecker wandering the streets as the towers come down behind him; he has made it down from one of the high floors. The language of chaos, smoke, and destruction lies steady on the page alongside a breakfast restaurant, graffiti, Manhattan in the morning. He ends up at the apartment of his ex-wife Lianne. She takes him in, tends to his minor injuries, and lets him stay, and the story of survivors begins there, with Keith, Lianne, and their son Justin. The wandering consciousness of each character creates layer upon layer of numbness. Lianne is an editor working on a book of ancient alphabets; she also leads a writing workshop for Alzheimer's patients. Keith ends up playing professional poker in big hotel casinos. The child Justin refuses to believe that the Towers have actually come down. The Falling Man himself is a performance artist in a business suit who, in the months following the attacks,
Further study is suggested before we make a final decision to continue with this physiological configuration. As aesthetically compelling as a well-kept set of teeth can be, the drawbacks are considerable, and "chewing food" is not a requirement for health and life. Eliminating teeth from future releases must be considered, both as a cost-saving measure and a compassionate one. They appear to be more trouble than they are worth.
If you're like me, and I realize what a baited suggestion that is, then a lot of "noise music" probably bores you to tears. You know the stuff I'm getting at–dudes in black clothes in a dark room who don't move any part of their bodies except for the knob-twisting fingers laying out sheets of pure amplified static while slides of torture porn interspersed with footage of Auschwitz is projected on the wall behind them. Some people actually find this sort of thing "dangerous." Soup Purse, thankfully, has little to do with that dreck, though he isn't at all afraid to play on the ?same bill with such "artists" (he also plays with plenty of other people who are innovative and good, though).
Soup Purse, a.k.a. Todd Dickerson of Portland, Oregon, is an entertaining performer who happens to make noises with electronic instruments to achieve his performance. This is just as evident on his recordings, case in point Nanopocalyptic Profizzy, as it is when he plays live. His audio output is constantly interesting; a look at song titles such as "cohabit, then colonize" and "folding laundry and such" belie a sense of humor to his productions that is sadly lacking in too many noise musicians today. He claims the mighty Crank Sturgeon as one of his influences, which is an entirely good thing.
Nanopocalyptic Profizzy is heavily science fiction themed, and indeed, there is an underlying space rockiness to it for all the lack of rhythm and riffs. No surprise then that he also does time in a group called Space Hawk, as this is often closer to Nik Turner than Merzbow (though not altogether far from the midway point). This is the type of album the Daleks might groove too when their not busy exterminating the universe. If you're not a big enough geek to know what that means, your loss, but you might still wonder what he'll pull off next.
Gang Gang Dance
GGD seem to exist primarily for themselves, to explore any and every kind of music, texture, sound, and psychic communication. Forging songs out of disparate samples, instruments, patterns, and rhythms, the songs blend into one another effortlessly and fold in and out of each other simultaneously. Elements of experimental, house, world, trance, dance, folk, pop, and more can be heard on Retina Riddum, but it comes through as original and consistent rather than annoying and scattered. The album is best when listened to straight through, not unlike a Black Dice record or concept album. Parts of songs are explored in every which way, slowed down, sped up, repeated on stutter until the next filter through. An accompanying DVD with collaged live performances, studio outtakes, and found footage rounds out the experience.
I recently read an interview with Brian DeGraw, one of the bands' members, where he said that his favorite kind of music is the kind that hasn't been invented yet. If you're seeking uncontrived, truly experimental music that twists, turns, and tweaks our brains and perceptions, Gang Gang Dance is the band for you, and Retine Riddum is a recommended listen, whether you're on drugs or not.
Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story
Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story
Jason Summers and Kate Fix
(Magic Umbrella Films)
You can accomplish anything you want; you just have to do it yourself. This seems to be the mantra of Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, which chronicles the adventures of the legendary Northwest rock band Dead Moon. The sheer willpower of husband and wife Fred and Toody Cole and drummer Andrew Loomis is what makes the band, and the film, so remarkable. Fred and Toody managed to cut record masters at home, build a home and store from the ground up, raise three children and tour Europe multiple times, all on an annual budget of about $20,000.
The film is a composite of live performances, interviews, candid tour footage, and archival footage of band members' pre-Dead Moon musical efforts. Its fast-paced and poignant interviews with fascinating characters make it easy to watch. The filmmakers, Jason Summers and Kate Fix, obviously admire Dead Moon and their appreciation translates into an enjoyable and inspiring film.
Fred and Toody's relationship serves as a central, grounding element. They distinguish themselves from many rock musicians in that, for them, rock and roll really is about the music. They steadfastly avoided hard drugs and didn't get mixed up in the free love movement of the 1960s, which Toody refers to as "sad, chaotic, and dysfunctional." Loomis, though lacking a comparable drug history, shares the same passion for rock and roll. He sums up this love and also the central theme of the film with the statement: "Rock and roll is all I got, it's the only thing I can do."
by Amy Fusselman
Memoir has caused a lot of furor over the last couple of years: James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be a fake, although it had prompted so prominent a book pusher as Oprah to rave over its raw honesty (a testament to Frey's voice as a storyteller). Then there were the real deals, like Jonathan Ames and David Sedaris, who managed to be wrenchingly funny as they scrolled through tales of dysfunction. In The Facts, Philip Roth wrote the backstory to his novels, revealing his life leading up to his breakthrough novel, Portnoy's Complaint, covering his childhood and disastrous marriage to a mentally unstable, abusive woman. Throughout this The Facts, Roth referred to the limitations on his self-presentation, the level to which he felt himself spinning himself as a good Jewish boy, until the end section. There his voice morphed into his fictional narrator, who was merciless and nasty, additionally laying some of the credit for the rawness and depth of his fiction at the door of his ex-wife. It seems that Roth was most able to be his unfettered, dirty self when the self talking was not, in fact, himself.
It's a difficult thing to directly discuss one's own life without lapsing into therapeutic regurgitation, to be confessional in a way which is interesting to people who have never met you–Frey's great weakness was that he hammed it up to an extreme degree–and also addresses some relevant, universal insight. Amy Fusselman's 8 manages to accomplish just that, partly because of the book's frame, which is an elliptical, auto-memetic parsing of the number 8, skating figure and symbol of infinite time. Ostensibly a discussion of the effect of "her pedophile" on the trajectory of her life, 8 addresses repetition as a mechanism of learning and automation: that it is our robotic daily routines that in fact allow us to get past what has happened to us, to alter its projection into the future. For example, the Beastie Boys' iterated call-outs and signifying are for her an awesome affirmation between the artists and the audience: that they are here, that we are here, that joy can be a sound or movement deeply rooted in the body as it calls out, traces lines on ice, rides. Essentially, she delineates the effect of time on our lives, the ways in which "you are wearing a breastplate of bloody jewels and bones, and the past is whorling around your heart and the future is rushing towards you...and it is like you are riding a unicycle on a high wire at 100 miles an hour over a canyon."
This idea of time as a cushion is repeated throughout the book as a way of keeping safe, something Fusselman admits that when she was younger, "she could not do at all." Weaving a scooter through New York traffic, skating figures of 8 as a girl, performing the responsibilities of her life as a parent of two small children, accessing of her bodily memories through the touch of cranio-sacrial massage, she is able to get past her losses because of time. The fact the Fusselman is able to evoke all this through the repetitive visitations of key memories of events in her life is testament to an honesty which is both fiercely unguarded and generously humble, not to mention, on occasion, gut-wrenchingly funny.
Perhaps what memoir has to offer, when done as well as in 8, is the intimate meeting of another's truth on the page, a connection with another's experience, a little bit of help in understanding our current environment. Which begs the question, isn't that what a lot of fiction does anyway? To paraphrase Stephen Elliott, speaking at this year's Tin House conference: writers can hide in fiction, but they can't expect readers to believe it.
Driving and driven, and for that matter, good music to drive to, Eric Hausmann's latest solo CD deserves several listens to appreciate its full range of guitar-focused emotion, found sound, and moody soundscape. A widely experienced multi-instrumentalist, Hausmann has played since the late 1970s in a dozen or so experimental bands with names like Locust Pudding, drummed with Lions of Batucada, and established a firm footing playing guitar in Portland-based improvisation projects like The Gone Orchestra. In that band's offspring, Tres Gone, Hausmann also plays Chapman stick, a complex, multi-stringed instrument popularized around this state by former Eugenian and eventual King Crimson member Trey Gunn.
Hausmann is equally adept at heroic lead guitar wankery and incredibly subtle sonic manipulation. The first few tracks here highlight a prog-influenced evolution of wonky guitars and bass grooves, but I'm seduced by the album's quieter melodic musings and noisier escapades. "Took," "Oatmeal Diamond," "Adagio," and "spilstem"–the latter a collaboration with Cystem–dip guitar, keys, cymbals, and percussion in hypnotic washes of sound. Heavy found sound pounds brilliantly in the short "Treblemaker," leading into snarling yet silly punk chaos on "Not My Dad." Madness breaks loose in "The Joy of Electricity," performed with Tres Gone.
Standouts include an inspired cover of "The Overload," the closing track on Talking Heads' Remain in Light, co-written and co-produced by Brian Eno. Hausmann's treatment here as multi-instrumentalist and producer amplifies the stupendously oppressive, nerve-wracking potential of the song, placing guest vocalist Daniel Murtagh in a reverb chamber the size of Tacoma. Pretty keyboards and charming, subtle percussion kick "Secret Cameras" off to a spacious start, holding the song together like the tight wires of ?a guitar when a brief but blistering guitar solo blasts through.
While less consistent and than some of Hausmann's earlier albums, the new solo release continues his tradition of strong and original music-making. And if you like curious, unpredictable musical explorations, Solo Traveller fits the bill.
From the breakup of the unfortunately named LA-based Wives comes a new band from Randy Randall and Dean Spunt, called No Age. Wives (what's with straight dudes taking female words for band names? There's a heavy metal band right now called Lesbians which I'm not sure are chock full of Sapphic sisters. Newsflash dudes: the only band this was ever OK for was Queen) was more of a hardcore band. No Age seems to be more of a pop rock band, with some spacey, fuzzy, guitar-driven tangents here and there.
Weirdo Rippers, their first album, is a fine effort of mostly catchy pop rock. Parts of it, especially "My Life's Alright Without You," evoke Sebadoh or Yo La Tengo. There are some definite shouts out to the '80s and '90s here, particularly in the lo-fi recording of the album. "Everybody's Down" sounds like teenage boys covering parts of an obscure Beach Boys song.
A lot of the songs on the album start out in a sort of space rock jam and coagulate into infectious, chord-driven singalongs. All in all it's quite good, like in moments on "Semi-Sorted" where the aforementioned space rock turns into a nice drum beat, some stridently sung words one can't quite make out before the song fades away into the fuzz of the beginning of the next track. But if I want hardcore sentiment and post-rock white boy yearning that's more developed and less formulaic, I'll listen to a Fugazi record.
Migraine Inducers/Antagonistic Music
Migraine Inducers/Antagonistic Music (Complete Versions)
(Beta-Lactam Ring, www.blrrecords.com)
Martyn Bates is best known to the world as one half of UK duo Eyeless in Gaza, along with partner Peter Becker, the other half. He also has an amazingly prolific solo catalog of hauntingly sweet sounding music with folk rock and psychedelic influences. This re-release on Portland label Beta-Lactam Ring Records, however, is markedly different from that pastoral side of Bates. This goes back to the very root of his musical journey in 1979 when he needed to release the rage that would make his later ambrosial songs possible.
Migraine Inducers/Antagonistic Music was originally released on cassette in tiny editions, and is not infinitely different from the sort of angst that Throbbing Gristle and a handful of other early "industrial" artists were unleashing. There is, however, a distinctly personal style to Bates' wall of noise guitar crunches, and frequently a bit of the melodic intonation he would later focus upon leaks through. In fact, there is almost a war going on in many of these tracks between an artist who truly wants to sound pretty and one who wants to smash all that is pleasing. This dichotomy makes for very interesting listening in the right frame of mind. While the double CD is undoubtedly a fascinating retrospective for fans seeking insight into the artist at his beginnings, it also stands entirely on its own as a document of an intense period of struggle in the audio reality accented by one individual.
By Stephen Shore, Daido Moriyami
Nazraeli Press is the Portland-based publisher of an ever-growing and often highly sought after collection of books on, by, or about photography and photographers. Their biannual series Witness, distributed in collaboration with publisher Joy of Giving Something, invites a selected artist to work as the guest editor of an entire book. So far two books have been published within this framework, one with Stephen Shore and the other with Daido Moriyami, both photographers. Each book features recent work by the artists, an interview with them, and work by additional artists of their choosing.
Judging by the first two publications, the series promises to be both quirky and personable. Hovering somewhere between magazine and monograph, the first books give the reader a sense of how these artists remain engaged with their subject matter and their peers, while maintaining a critical distance from which to observe the world.
Stephen Shore's volume focuses on a recent series of books that he is creating using Apple's iPhoto book publishing resource, allowing for the immediate and facile publication of almost instant artist's books. Often the content for these books is created and sent into production in a matter of just a few days. In a recent project, for example, Shore creates a book of images each day the New York Times runs a six column banner headline–in other words, when some serious shit has occurred. The concept for this body of work speaks to the manner in which we live with the often ghastly knowledge of human suffering whilst filling up the tank of our car or eating a donut.
Moriyami's book is comprised of images made during a three day period of shooting in Shanghai in 2006. Like much of his photography, the images in this book are gritty, crowded, and loud. It looks like how I imagine China to look, though I've never been there. The book also includes a series of truly unsettling images by the photographer Ken Kitano, who photographs multiple portraits of similar types of people (3,141 people living in Japan, 35 Buddhist monks) and layers them into one composite portrait, with compelling and strange results.
While Shore's work presents the opportunity to consider the way in which we are all witnesses to the world unfolding around us, Moriyami's takes us inside one man's personal and exhaustive mission to understand and present the nature of a place. Evident in both bodies of work is a sense of distance inherent in truly looking; the impossibility of simultaneously documenting a moment and being part of it.
It will be interesting to watch this series unfold. The first two books seem to reveal an intention on the part of the publishers to question the process of making books by... making books. The result gives the reader a sense of the people behind the work–a welcome relief from the rather predictable format of most photography books being published today.
The women in Telepathe are truly doing something different. Pronounced "telepathy," the band is comprised of Busy Gagnes and Melissa Livaudais, who are also girlfriends. The band's aural inspirations most likely derive from a mix of '90s house music, booty bass, contemporary hip hop, Bjork, and Animal Collective. Low end bass collides with childish harmonies which flutter over sci-fi synth lines, producing a unique and pleasantly jarring effect.
This short EP features two original songs and two remixes, one by Tyler Pope and one by the Soft Pink Truth, to interesting and enjoyable effect. The first song, "Sinister Militia," is introduced to us in the form of harmonized howls, a slowed down dance beat, and a minor-key, meandering guitar line. The remix of the song by Tyler Pope of dance dub band !!! turns it into an off kilter dance hit, complete with shakies and a bongo beat.
The record's second song, "Islands," is totally taken to a new level by the remix by the Soft Pink Truth. It almost creates a whole different song with a fresh guitar hook and gurgling sound effects; in the orginal, the vocalists harmonize about being shipwrecked on an island, and being told they could not swim or surf. The compositions and their interpretations on Sinister Militia EP is an indicator of how startlingly unusual and fresh Telepathe's upcoming full-length release should be. Go to their myspace page: www.myspace.com/telepathe and listen to "Chromes on it:" you will be hooked.
Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology
Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology
Serene Velocity lines up sixteen songs in chronological order by original release date, selected from Stereolab's years on the Elektra label. Stereolab emerged on London's music scene in the early 1990s, and their simultaneously retro and futuristic sound has been a musical enigma ever since. The anthology's chronological lineup provides a nice overview of Stereolab's progression over a seventeen year period; however, strict chronological ordering results in a lack of flow to the album.
They played it pretty safe with this compilation–largely choosing the catchy, attention-getting tracks from their releases. Their choices fall pretty neatly into the Stereolab sound and mostly ignore the songs that demonstrate the breadth of their discography. Some tracks do manage to stand out a bit from the crowd. The haunting vocals and unusual instrumental interludes on "Cybele's Reverie" provide a break from mid-tempo, loungy songs around it. The album, serving as a good introduction to the Stereolab uninitiated, might be less compelling to die-hard Stereolab fans.
Lauren K. Newman exists in layers; she is probably a multi-dimensional being we are just lucky enough to catch. Even so, our filters are undeniably biased towards the coarser, less subtle aspects of existence, which can leave out a lot. She can appeal to that–her raw physicality and lion-hearted stage persona never fail to make dudes' brains and hearts explode–but she is more than someone who can gracefully fuck her custom-made aluminum-necked guitar as it rings out in the final notes of a solo, invoking the invisible, metaphysical fire of Hendrix. While that in its own right is exhilarating, LKN is a multifaceted artist whose songwriting is intricate, deliberate, and emotionally evocative. Her dynamism is in full evidence on her studio recordings.
LKN originally hails from Pensacola, Florida, a town known for death metal, and Lauren seems of that ilk, with her long black hair, finger-tapping, and double bass sounding style of drum virtuosity. But that's not her only jam. Her new album, Postulate II, evokes favorite female rock artists of the 1990s. Her guitar tone in the song "Mattanza" is reminiscent of early Kat Bjelland (of Babes in Toyland), I imagine a Team Dresch influence in "Strategem," maybe a PJ Harvey nod in her occasional falsetto. Lauren's strong, low voice is all her own though, despite her influences, vocals clear over the thick mix of instruments she arranged and played all herself, habitual piano giving wall-of-sound, dark, dramatic rock an operatic feel, or a joyous, bell ringing, ballad quality like in the luminous and absolutely beautiful "Terrica Jean." This is the kind of song that can make me cry. The encapsulation of undiluted, terribly and wonderfully potent emotion–the fierceness and vulnerability of love–brings to mind Brian Wilson (a high compliment).
Greyday Productions puts out her albums, and the recording quality is good. Part of the key to Lauren's vision is that spontaneity rules, and recording the whole album in a day makes for a more authentic representation of the true spirit of it. I don't argue. I'll definitely take an album that sounds "imperfect" at times over one that sacrifices intuitive realness for someone else's–probably someone boring's–ideal.
Then We Came to the End
Then We Came to the End
by Joshua Ferris
(Little, Brown and Company)
The mid 1990s dot-com boom made temporary millionaires of scores of entrepreneurs. When this economic bubble burst in 2000, a chain reaction of bankruptcies and layoffs quickly spread outward from Silicon Valley. At the Chicago advertising agency where Joshua Ferris's debut novel, Then We Came to the End, is set, the first casualties of this twist of fate are the candy and flowers in the lobby. Soon, nearly every employee is living in fear of being the next to be laid off.
Then We Came to the End is narrated by "we," the collective voice of the agency's copywriters and art directors. This narrative device provides the reader with an amusingly warped perspective on the conflicts that arise among, and within, creative professionals facing intense pressure and uncertainty.
It also makes for some awkward and circuitous writing. For every passage where the plural first person is used beautifully ("Half the time we couldn't remember three hours ago. Our memory in that place was not unlike that of goldfish. Goldfish who took a trip every night in a small clear bag of water and then returned in the morning to their bowl."), there's an expressed point of view that tries, impossibly, to straddle the divide between two or more distinct subsets of "us."
Then We Came to the End is most engaging when the characters expound their philosophies and observations to the reader or to one another. Like many first-time authors, Ferris is more adept at directly describing the poignant and absurd aspects of everyday existence than he is at demonstrating them through his characters' behavior. Despite some missteps, Then We Came to the End is an entertaining and occasionally spot-on examination of the human heart's twin desires for community and autonomy.
The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism
The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism
(Arbeiter Ring Publisher)
David Lester, guitarist for Mecca Normal and an artist, has compiled a shocking and disturbing dissection of human beings at their worst. The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism compiles roughly 100 pages of facts detailing the capitalist machine at work. Mostly focusing on the vast disparities between the richest people in the world (the three richest people in the world possess assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least-developed countries), facts in the book also focus on the environment and gender and racial inequalities. I liked discovering this fact: If women in the U.S. earned the same amount as men, each family with a woman working outside the home would have an increase of over $4,000 in its annual household income. Also this: There are more African-American males in prison than enrolled in colleges or universities.
Put this slim tome in your bathroom, give it to your friends, mention these facts in daily conversation, and take action, using some of the suggestions in the back of the book. David Lester has done a service to us all.
Dance music this is not. So why Dance Positive? The album's title alludes to the stronger backbeats and heightened sense of rhythm that Blau incorporates into his characteristic lo-fi mélange of folk, bossanova, grunge, hip hop, and world beat styles. "Put Me Back" holds a pulsating, entrancing synth line, while "What's Not To Fall in Love With" relies on drums for a heavy dose of rhythm that I might actually see myself dancing to. Blau, based out of Anacortes, WA, bucks the online music trend with Kelp Monthly, the snail-mail subscription service through which he releases his music. The album's unpolished quality and Blau's delivery of intelligent lyrics make Dance Positive worth a listen.
tins and shadows
tins and shadows
(CD EP, limited edition of 49 copies
Inam Records 16, email@example.com)
Five tracks in an edition of 49, tins and shadows was built to be collectible, and is quite worth snatching up. In the old days when punk was dead, this kind of music was often called "post-punk" and then it was sometimes "industrial" until Reznor came around and made a cartoon out of that too. Nowadays, in a desperate search for a genre description, we just cop out and call it "experimental music," which it certainly is, but what the hell does that tell you? There is more rhythm than drone to these instrumentals, which is actually rather refreshing in the grand scheme of contemporary underground music. Olekranon is a focused artist, and this doesn't come off as noodling at all. Track two, "reticence," features bit more heavy noise guitar than the other four pieces. The title track sounds the most like a big-ass full band, complemented with excellent stereo panning, which then melts into a conveyor belt churning out fully-operating cash registers loaded with aluminum foil instead of register tape.
The red side is the side that plays. No, I'm not even trying to be cryptic–this is a statement of fact. Olekranon, a.k.a. Ryan Huber, has released a handmade CDR that is the normal shininess on one side and bright metallic red on the other. When I put it in the player the way it naturally looked like it should go, it no go. Certain that this was that dreaded thing that happens with some CD players and some homemade discs, I was resigned to hear nothing, but decided, just for the hell of it to flip it over and try the red side. Bingo.
In all, tins and shadows is just the sort of artifact that fully justifies the continuance of the practice burning audio onto little metal discs and wrapping them in cardstock and plastic.
You Follow Me
You Follow Me
Nina Nastasia &
Nina Nastasia creates music that recalls a ghost gliding through an abandoned, Southern house. An ethereal vocalist, her songs are haunting rather than frightening, moody without being gloomy. Jim White is a drummer best known for his work with the Australian band The Dirty Three. Together, they have created a significant, contemplative musical statement.
Musicians sometimes base their parts around the main guitar or vocal lines. And while that happens on the collaboration album You Follow Me, something more intellectual and conscious is happening too, an interplay between two distinct voices and instruments communicating with each other and the listener, complimenting and contrasting each other's statements and ideas. On songs like the aptly titled "Our Discussion," White's drumming doesn't keep time with the delicately repetitive guitar line or contemplative and haunting vocals; it's more like a fly in the room, buzzing around and banging against windows and walls of the song. Meanwhile Nastasia's melody and words "I don't believe in the power of love, I don't believe in the wisdom of stone, I don't believe in a God or the mind, and I'm not alone," are firm and resolute without effort, as if she's a monolith in the midst of a maelstrom.
Despite the individuality of their voices, the album reaches its emotional peak when they are in unison, as on the track "Late Night" with Nastasia speaking at a mute companion, "I'm drifting too, does it help you to know?/It's your life, to make a wreck/We grew up together, or did you forget?/I don't understand, why you don't talk to me... I may be the one, the one to save you." A crescendo builds from a strummed waltz as the guitar and drums pummel the beat. The music's cathartic magnetism demands close attention to better comprehend the statements being made. It's like trying to interpret an abstract painting; you know the meaning is there, you just have to spend some time, focusing on what's happening to figure it out.
Hollinndagain and Strawberry Jam
Animal Collective are one of the most exciting bands in the US indie/pop scene. Every album they've put it out is completely different from their previous work, and they continually change and challenge what is pop, what is experimental, what samplers can do, what friendship creates. Their latest release, Strawberry Jam, manages to surprise. As an album, it pulsates and whirs and bounces. It keeps a mostly upbeat tempo, save for a few tracks, including the first cut. Generally, the band is at its height of sound manipulation; there are literally layers and layers of different noises, found sounds, and sampled sounds, all adding interest to songs that already have a solid pop hook.
Domestic themes involving love, relationships, and food pop up throughout the album, turning dinner with a girlfriend or friend into a celebration. "I only want the time to do one thing that I like/I want to get so stoned and take a walk in the light/...At the end of the day when there's no one watching..." Panda Bear sings on "Chores," after a quick beginning riff that seems to focus about getting his work done. Loud, prominent vocals didn't work for me at first, since they didn't seem to mesh with the reverb-soaked and dreamy music; I ended up appreciating them, though, because I could actually make out what the vocalists were crooning about. This album makes me already excited for their next record.
Hollinndagain sounds nothing short of shamanic, and is jarring to listen to after hearing Strawberry Jam, as it sounds like work from another band. Hollinndagain is a live album, culled from their first tour with Black Dice in 2003, first released as only 300 vinyl only copies on St. Ives, then re-released widely in 2006 on Paw Tracks. A stunner is "Pride and Fight", which starts out with hollow, quiet howls, then erupts into thunderous drums, effects, and bells. Achingly intimate, at times Animal Collective stripped their live songs down to only vocals, effects, and silence. It is easy on this record see Black Dice's architectural noise influence, but Animal Collective's originality is evident, with dramatic shudders of sound and the call-and-response harmonies that are clearly their own. Hollinndagain is an archive of a band that might have gone any way they pleased: noise/experimental, tribal/jam bandy, harmony drenched folk, pop, or more straight-up rock. Looks like they ended up fusing all of these, and more, for their future efforts.
My cousin Fern married her long-time beau, Leo, under an elm tree, on the shore of a still, small pond in rural Michigan. She wore a vintage gown glittering with beads, and behind her stood twelve bridesmaids all in black.
Fern and Leo had written their own vows, and as they read them to each other, two snakes twined in the branches above them. Most of the wedding guests couldn't see the snakes, but my cousin could: when it came to the part where she promised to love Leo until death did them part, she did so with those long dark slithering things coiling and uncoiling right over her head.
After the ceremony we stole away behind the bathrooms so our parents couldn't see us smoke. We ran, giggling, down a little hill, and my cousin fell on her face. I was afraid she'd ruined her beautiful dress and that she would forever blame me for it, but she stood up as white and perfect as she had ever been. She lit her cigarette and said, "I've been dying for one of these." When she'd had a few puffs she said, "Do you think it was a sign?" I told her snakes were a sign of wisdom and fertility. I felt privileged to have stolen the bride away like this.
Later I got drunk by myself and watched my cousin and her bridesmaids dance under the big white tent. I had bet on Fern and Leo's first song, and I would have won had there been anyone to wager with me. It was the Flaming Lips "Do You Realize" (Do you realize - Oh - Oh - Oh / Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die?), and they sang it to each other as they twirled beneath swooping strings of lights.
I took a turn around the floor with my Uncle Milo, who never married and who lived in the apartment that his mother did before she died. We felt sentimental together, and I hoped he couldn't tell how many Chardonnays I'd had. Afterwards he drove me back to the hotel where I had a room across the hall from my dad and his wife, who'd gone to bed hours before.
My window looked out over the awning above the hotel's entrance–what a fancier establishment would call the porte cochere–and I could see the glow of a 7-11 across the highway. There were signs and placards on the end tables and on all the doors, each with a picture of a cigarette with a line through it.
It might have been the signs that made me want to a Merit so badly: the best cigarettes are often the ones you shouldn't have. So I opened the window as much as I could, which was only about six inches, and then I contorted my body so that I could hold my face to the screen and blow out the smoke.
I felt my stomach slosh with wine. A lot of the smoke was coming back into the room, even though I tried to exhale with extra power, even though I was practically kissing the screen.
I was about three-quarters of the way through the cigarette when the fire alarm started going off. Oh my God, I thought, my dad is going to kill me.
In the hall I heard Uncle Milo knocking, calling out that I had to evacuate, but I pretended not to hear him. I knew it wasn't a fire.
He wouldn't go away, though, and he began to sound uncharacteristically stern, so I quickly brushed my teeth and stepped into the hallway. People streamed down the hall in their nightclothes. There were old ladies with thin blue legs and men with rumpled, sleep-creased faces. My dad and his wife came out, and my mother's cousins from Ottumwa wandered up in their bathrobes. What happened, they were saying, what's wrong?
Together we walked down the stairwell and into the night. I could hear crickets all around us. We lined up against the side of the hotel like schoolchildren and waited to be told what to do.
Then my dad, who had gone off to investigate, came back shaking his head. "You're not going to believe this," he said.
As it turned out, the fire alarm had been set off by someone barbecuing on the hotel sidewalk. The smoke just rolled right through his open window and went straight for the smoke detector. I felt weak-kneed with relief.
After a few more minutes we got to go back to our rooms. By that time I thought I should have another cigarette. A celebratory one. So I snatched my pack and tiptoed outside again, where I found the scene of the crime. There was a little portable grill tipped over on its side, and a pair of bent barbecue tongs. Between a minivan and an old Cutlass, the parking lot was strewn with blackened bratwursts. Steam still rose from them in faint, delicate curls
I huddled in some bushes to light my cigarette. I'd almost been caught once, and I didn't feel up to any more risks.
True Magic is hip hop that harnesses a great pop sensibility (though isn't always an easy listen) with an experimental and spiritual leaning, while incorporating a sobriety and matter-of-factness that bears witness to people suffering from everyday atrocities that plague this society. It's an extremely political album, calling out our government's evil, especially towards the people that have been the most systematically oppressed. A heavy theme of the record is the culture of violence that emerges from hopelessness. Physical death happens as a result of death on a more abstract, psychological plane that happens when populations are for years manipulated and economically enslaved. I love Mos Def for being so real that he'll call George Bush "a natural ass" in "Dollar Day," his song about New Orleans, and that he'll sing so surely, "God did not intend for the wicked to rule the world."
Musically this album is varied in style, with over half a dozen producers and twenty-plus getting writing credits; stand-out tracks with killer hooks and lyrics are interspersed with songs that, while aren't filler, just seem flatter, more like background music. The Neptunes collaborate on the crushing requiem "Murder of a Teenage Life," and Mos Def produces "Crime and Medicine," composed around the main sample and chorus from the GZA's "Liquid Swords;" he explores how a huge chunk of our culture is self-medicating, even with drugs as innocuous as weed and sex with hot 20 year old girls, in order to escape feeling utterly anxious and depressed in the absence of a comforting social reality. The most heavily featured producers are The Preservation for Preserved Productions and Minnesota, the latter of whom is responsible for collaboration on the individualized, personal heart of the album, "U R the One," a fearless song about the end of a relationship and the true, paradoxical nature of love. It's followed immediately by another Minnesota-produced track, "Thug is a Drug," featuring low piano synths, cartoonishly creepy, pitch-shifted "Bang Bang" vocals, and sixteenth-note tom drum patterns that sound like automatic weapons.
For all the seriousness though, this is not a depressing album because Mos Def really does radiate love to all of us that are down, epitomized in inspirational messages of songs like "There Is A Way." He's also really funny, as anyone who's seen him on Chapelle's show knows, and that too shines through in his music. The act of speaking the truth is necessary for any hope of real freedom, and is less depressing than consuming the lies we're constantly fed. The only use that outspoken activist/artist Mos Def has for these lies is to expose them, and in doing so, he brings attention to and validates the experiences of the people he loves.
Make Up Your Mind
Make Up Your Mind: The Esoterica of Professor Norman Klein's "Buying and Selling the Fantasy of LA"
What distinguishes the rambling of a hyperbolic street corner orator from the loopy-as-all-hell college professor? One a few steps ahead, the other beyond? Audacity in spades, but only one with brain rays? Friends, let me tell you, it is a difference of stamina. The street sage, while world weary, is not, we can agree, weary for their words. Their incessant nervousness comes only naturally. But that kind of foaming at the mouth impresses me no more. I have come to see a brighter light. A rational exuberance has come to the fore! This force of nature is Professor Norman Klein of the California Institute of the Arts, a man who can talk for two hours without ever taking a breath.
Sir Klein is the purveyor of a kind of voodoo, and I was privileged this last semester to be an audience member in this show of shows. His class was entitled "Buying and Selling the Fantasy of LA" and was largely based on his earlier book The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (Verso, 1997). It came to encapsulate my own rough and tumble adventure of moving to SoCal–confusing, invigorating, always surprising. Norman's pop sociology invigorated the banal and cavernous classroom with excitement, dressed up with the resulting fervor of the man's self-deemed "exuberant research." Drawing on a wide array of personal interviews with LA residents, his research and writings for the class explore the truths and falsehoods of recollections versus historical accuracy. With a professorial eye for scholarly accuracy, yet the keen bite of seasoned Private Eye, he turns up magisterial darkness in these interviews.
Take the matter of Bunker Hill. A short hill, largely unremarkable by itself, finds itself today packed to the brim with Angeleno scrapers, square dab in heart of hearts downtown. Many years ago, it was an exclusive residential neighborhood. As time went by, it became slum housing, part of the abandoned inner city plight. One day, developers took out the undesirable Victorian homes, taking advantage of zoning laws, building as high as their dreams could carry, taking the area from squalor to sophistication in a snap. It's a regrettably familiar tale. But what of those who lived through this time, their recollections? Why, it's as if it never happened at all. Many old-timers never bring up the changes. When pressed forward, they pressed back. Drastic changes, drastic memory failure. Into otherwise society-based urban studies, Klein's grab for personal information fills a wide gap here. The multitude of microcosms paint a complicated picture of complicity. How is that that LA's collective memory could sweep up such dirt, so casually, and so badly hidden?
Dug up anew, stories like Bunker Hill's take us in and out of the old and new LA in a jiffy. When we open up too many boxes in the attic all at once, we're liable to hurt ourselves. But Norman can always turn other people's attics into books, both through fiction and non-, the sweet and the bitter, and all the while without exploitation. Like a junk shop, immacatulely unjunked–the objects of these recollections maintained their dusty vigor, but were now placed on the shelf, just-so, better curated, soothingly tackled. The fun of junk shops, of course, is they aren't junk at all; they just take a leap of faith towards personal connection. And yet there they often remain, lost in the back stacks, obscure and yet somehow frank. Waiting for an ear, or perhaps conversion into more Norman Klein esoterica.
We Know You Know
We Know You Know
Lesbians On Ecstasy
(Alien 8 Recordings)
Thank the Goddess! The band we (and by we, I mean people who like to dance and have fun, and people who like cover bands bringing power to the masses, and people who are lesbians, or gay, and people who like and appreciate dancing, having fun, gays and lesbians and gay and lesbian culture) have been waiting for since Margaret Cho made the "F-word" palatable again after the Third Wave backlash are here. And they are from Canada. Lesbians on Ecstasy take older songs from feminist and lesbian history, mostly acoustic songs with lyrics like "We've been waiting all our lives...for our sisters to be our lovers" or "let's join hands and sing together" and revamp them as club hits, complete with synths, live bass lines, and drum machines. And the results are great, campy, fun, and hilarious.
In parts, the album drags from songs a little heavy on gimmick and low-end synth, but the appropriation of certain songs are genius, such as "Is this the Way?" (a cover of the theme song to "The L-Word") and "Mortified" (originally a Reel 2 Reel song, now redone acoustic stylee). All in all, We Know You Know is a brilliant appropriation of songs we used to be ashamed to admit we knew the words to, and a celebration of togetherness and sisterhood, wrapped up in a lesbian history lesson/dance party.
Daydream Nation (Deluxe Edition)
The reigning rock geniuses of the late '80s and early '90s brought a street-smart intellectualism to the scene, departing from the proudly monosyllabic three-chord mantras of early punk and the crossover commercialism of New York's No-Wave, retaining selected influence from their idols while etching their own sound and style of high art. Here was a music that retained the complexity of classical music and modern jazz, but with a subversive pop sensibility (usually courtesy of Thurston Moore) coupled with the intensity of industrial punk and noise. The songs are raw in distorted guitar tones and feedback squall, but utterly complex in arrangements, interplay, tonality, harmony and counterpoint–the sonic equivalent of New York City in the '80s.
For all of its artistic achievement, the album doesn't skimp on white-hot rock. It's dirty, occasionally menacing, often fast, and always tight, like on "Silver Rocket," "Rain King," or "Eliminator" with Lee Ranaldo and Moore's metallic chunks for guitar lines that push and undulate before melting into oozing cauldrons of chemical dissonance. Even on tracks like "Sprawl," in which the music emerges into a open-tuning meditation, percolating with tension as if re-energizing before blasting off again, there is a cognizant cohesion. The band is in total control of the chaos they produce. With their DIY ethic and groundbreaking sound, they opened the door for Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, Blonde Redhead, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, Mudhoney, Pavement, etc., etc., etc. All the cool bands loved Sonic Youth.
Daydream Nation stands as their greatest achievement. It changed the course of popular as well as avant-garde music. The shit is as deep as it is hard. It changed my life and it sounds just as good today. The deluxe edition also features live versions of every song on the original album, a home demo of "Eric's Trip," and other goodies.
Portland's favorite uncategorizable band, Pink Martini, is back with Hey Eugene!, an album that serves up an upbeat, jazzy vibe rather than delivering any particular message. It took me a few listens of the album's title track to realize what the lyrics were actually saying, as the swingy melodies allow the mind to wander. In true Pink Martini fashion, Hey Eugene! skips around the globe, with tracks in English, Spanish, French, and even Arabic. It's familiar and subtly entertaining, which should satisfy Pink Martini's loyal followers and serve as a good entry point to newcomers. "Hey Eugene!" delivers as a backdrop for a laidback dinner get-together or reading the paper with an after-work drink. It's an album that you can listen to without realizing you're listening to anything at all, but that's where Pink Martini seems to shine.
The Book of Ocean
The Book of Ocean
By Maryrose Larkin
Maryrose Larkin's The Book of Ocean is divided into six sections, one of which is "Book of Ocean." Larkin employs a full range of techniques in her lines: seemingly random series of words, well-woven motifs, and subtle syntactic displacements; for example, from "Eating Music:" "music enters: it is over the game of the plan must the plan it". While several of the poems are collage-like, particularly the shorter ones, others flow as smoothly as traditional odes–"Compline," for example–interweaving blues, light, and skin with a most modern lack of sentence convention.
Visually, the poems have a lot going on, with varying line lengths, extra spaces between words and phrases, some poems centered, and a near complete absence of flush left lines and punctuation. These elements add to the fullness and complexity of the work. But this wide range of formats, and the poet's broad intelligence and vocabulary, are grounded in the core human search for meaning and love, belying her strong interest in science. The opening poem, "brief gravity," lays out this dance of flesh and physics, mating Newton and Eve in the first six lines, then speaking as potential couple, potential planet, and an entire race–covering a Whitmanic scope with heartfelt, humble humor.
You can learn a lot about the range of poetic possibilities by reading this book. More important is what it will open you to, in perceiving the worlds outside and inside you: "We cross the phenomena of light/Here is what we have twisted/There is the nature of" ("Changeling").
A Critical look at 25 years of i-D
A Critical look at 25 years of i-D
i-DENTITY, an exhibition of 25 years of i-D, the glossy purveyor of U.K. style and fashion to the world, debuted at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year. The first issue of i-D was published in 1980, and was printed in spot colors on A4 sheets and stapled in a landscape format. The choice of printing method and that the magazine was assembled in Jones' house may have been budgetary, but all of the other risks seemed considered. Going the opposite route from traditional magazine layout was a cause of consternation to stockists interested in carrying the magazine. The format choice indicated an interest in swimming against the current of safety, be it through the fashions covered, design choices, or pure saleability.
Early layouts were a mishmash of taped-together stacks of Polaroids, typewriter range-left text roughly pasted on top of photographs, 2-color overlays, contact sheets run as make-readies, and snapshots strung together with bits of ruby lith; all bravado and d.i.y. cut and paste design ready for the stat camera.
Within the retrospective exhibit, the early issues and the minimal number of ephemera from the early era of i-D are all concentrated in two small display cases, while i-D's second coming, heralded by its acquisition by Time Out Magazine's Tony Elliott in 1985, is what dominates the exhibit.
The early issues are all about experimentation, while everything post-buyout is calculated and strangely redundant: iffy headshots of Kanye West, topless models, minimalist typography and dead rappers dominate the glossy pages.
Quality-wise, the photography runs the gamut from stunning to mediocre, and the design never seems to veer from Jones' desire for the typography or layout choices to not interfere with the photography. A considered choice, but one that makes for a lack of sustaining visual interest.
The same could be said for the design of the exhibition–on the whole, it feels fairly default: free-standing walls and barriers covered head to toe with spreads and no room to breathe, a few enlarged covers hanging above the exhibition space, and a clunky video rack showing promotional loops.
Perhaps the biggest detractor from the exhibition is where it is housed. The exhibition has been seemingly thoughtlessly plopped down just inside the entrance to the Hong Kong Cultural Center with nothing dividing the exhibit from the flow of citizens using the building as a shortcut.
Clear across the Center, unseen from the hub of the printed area of the exhibition lies a bank of television screens playing a series of short films. Even with heavy-hitters like Olafur Eliasson, Terry Richardson, and Hussein Chalayan weighing in, the videos are fairly lackluster: uninspired 3D computer graphics, inquiries into notions of identity, surfing and the requisite performance art on video were all on display.
(Apparently, suspends himself upside down in a rope and harness, here and there around the city, in the pose of the man in the famous and repressed photograph of the same name.
Lianne's mother Nina and her lover Martin are the most articulate in the days following the attack. Nina sits in her chair and contemplates her collection of still lifes. She says, "God used to be an urban Jew; he's back in the desert now." Martin is a European art dealer, possibly with roots as a German terrorist in the 1960s. He says, "We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance...Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It's losing its center. It becomes the center of its own shit."
Three chapters trace the experience of Hammad, one of the hijackers, from Germany to Florida to his final moments in the clear sky on the morning of September 11th, as the story circles back to its beginning. These moments are dream-like and unfocused. Hammad is aware of feeling only "... the magnetic effect of plot."
What we understand is that there is to be no return from September 11th.
DeLillo's prose is gentle, almost tender. Sentence for sentence, Falling Man is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and his layering of metaphor is exquisite. While I was actually reading, I was vaguely aware that parts of the story felt tangential or perhaps underdeveloped, and seemed to undermine the concreteness of the whole. By the time I'd finished the book, I felt that even those parts spoke to a certain hopelessness, and that it all worked.
Jonny X and the Groadies
Jonny X and the Groadies
Jonny X and the Groadies
I was apprehensive about listening to the Jonny X and the Groadies self-titled album. The attractively packaged CD, complete with black-on-black varnish and unusual rounded corners sat next to my CD player for days. JX:ATG are one of the best live bands in Portland. Anyone who has every been to one of their always all-ages shows can attest that the neon spandex unitards, glow in the dark guitars, strobe machines and about 1,000 pounds of gear will leave anyone who is not a corpse a believer. (Actually, their 200-pound subwoofer might wake up some undead.) Their wall of sound never fails to make their 20-minute sonic deluge a set to remember.
How could a recording replicate such an eardrum shattering, invigorating live experience? After listening a few times, I was pleasantly surprised. Recorded well, it is a chance to be able to more clearly make out how differently the songs are composed and the band's influences. The fantasy metal and drama of Emperor, the spastic hardcore guitars of the Locust, and the symphonic black metal stylings of Old Man's Child are all incorporated into the thread of JX:ATG. The album is effectively paced and never tires, alternating creepy synthesizers, brutal guitars and drum machine, and breakdowns. Songs like "Broken" slow it down as a surprise and then end abruptly, and "Unmortal," the last song, ends the record on a triumphant, dramatic chord pattern that morphs into an almost metal dance hit that morphs into a sweet orchestra with piano and violin, then morphs back into a creepy metal song (not a dance hit at all). It is a truly epic song, and it alone is worth the price of the album.
The only real detriment to this record are the vocals. At times distracting, and at other moments downright annoying, this carefully considered music deserves better.
The current release of Human comes with a set of thirty-two bony protrusions that occupy the space at the boundary of the alimentary canal. Users begin with a smaller practice set of twenty, which are designed to fail within a decade or less. The street value of these preliminary bone stubs varies between ten cents and several dollars, regardless of quality. However, oddly enough, the secondary set, despite an improved foundation design, is worthless if removed. This value disparity defies logic to a thorough and troubling degree, but perhaps exists to prevent an oversaturation of the market by adolescents seeking to supplement their paltry parentally-dispersed stipends.
To maintain a luminescent visual sheen, frequently compared to the biological excrescence known as "pearls," extremely regular and frequent maintenance is required, with specialized brushes, abrasives, liquids, and fibers. This deceptively simple requirement must also be supplemented with the work of highly paid medical specialists, who, despite the nobility of this unpleasant task, most users despise and fear with the passion and superstition of phobia. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that the most invasive and painful procedures are also the most expensive, setting into motion a cycle of denial and punishment as baroque and ritualistic as a religious rite or deviant sexual practice.
TEN DEPRESSING DOCUMENTARIES EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD SEE
By Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
2006, Magnolia Pictures
Campers, parents, counselors, and camp director are featured in this documentary about the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The camp is dedicated to building an evangelical army of tomorrow, deepening preteens' spirituality, and sowing the seeds of political activism as they're exhorted to "take back America for Christ." One of the most disturbing films ?ever made.
Sir, No Sir
By David Zeiger
2006, Displaced Films
A chronicle of the largely forgotten anti-war activities of American GIs and other members of the military during the Vietnam War. Soldiers disenchanted with the failures of the US efforts in the war began to walk off the job. At first they were court-marshalled. Then there were too many for the military to pursue. Leaflets air-dropped over US military bases encouraging soldiers to walk off the job. It happened in America. Many lessons for the anti-Iraq movement can be found in this recent and largely forgotten history.
When the Levees Broke: a Requiem in Four Acts
By Spike Lee
2006, HBO Documentary Films
A heartfelt documentary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its aftermath. News clips ?are interspersed with a wide range of personal interviews, eyewitness accounts, and footage of the disaster and the following year. Appalling moments abound–from bodies floating in the wasteland of the Lower Ninth Ward to the ineptitude of the initial response, to the complete lack of comprehension that follows. At one point Barbara Bush is caught on camera at the Houston Astrodome during a photo-op with former Presidents Clinton and Bush Sr. telling us that the people sleeping on cots there are actually better off now that they are receiving federal aid than they were before Katrina. This is Bush's America and it is truly heartbreaking. Some of Spike Lee's best work to date.
Why We Fight
By Eugene Jarecki
2005, Sony Classics
The film begins with an unprecedented national television broadcast by President Eisenhower just as he is leaving office in 1961. He warns of dangerous elements in the military industrial complex and the threats they pose to American democracy; the film goes on to essentially prove how all of Eisenhower's worst fears became reality.
Hearts and Minds
By Peter Davis
1975, Criterion Collection
Recently reissued, this 1975 Academy Award-winning documentary directs a critical and unwavering eye toward the US government's devastating war in Vietnam. Director Peter Davis uses his own war footage, newsreels, presidential speeches, and interviews with Robert Kennedy, Gen. William Westmoreland and many recently returned veterans to provide a powerful argument against war.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon
By David Leaf
2006, Lions Gate
A great reminder of the power of John Lennon's anti-war efforts as he sheds his Beatles identity for one of a peace activist. The U.S. government thought him enough of a threat to organize an effort to silence him. The film itself is heavy-handed in places–especially the "America's Most Wanted" style treatment of Lennon's death–but the footage of Lennon and Yoko Ono is excellent.
Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed
By Shola Lynch
2004, 20th Century Fox
Money has always been necessary to run a political campaign for President in the United States, but never so much as it is today. The opportunities afforded to third party or even less popular candidates within the ruling parties is small and getting smaller. Flash back to 1972. Brooklyn-based Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm–the first African-American elected to Congress–ran for President. Chisholm is uncompromising and inspiring in her journey. Well worth watching. Then just imagine if the bought and bossed Hillary Clinton had the balls that Chisholm did.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall
of Jack Johnson
By Ken Burns
In 1908 Jack Johnson, a black man, won the heavyweight title of the world–long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball or Martin Luther King began speaking. For most of his career, Johnson was not given an opportunity to fight a white man, but when he finally did at age 38, he made the most of it. An unapologetic and controversial figure, with a flamboyant lifestyle in an era of circumspection, Johnson is a true American pioneer.
An Inconvenient Truth
By David Guggenheim
Al Gore has been doing PowerPoint presentations about global warming since long before PowerPoint existed. In a way, that's the most startling truth about this film. Really, Gore has been saying the same thing all along–that current human behavior is not sustainable on this planet and if we don't change what we are doing many people and species will perish. It appears he has finally got an audience that will listen. Hopefully it's not too late.
by Morgan Spurlock
2004, Arts Alliance
In this documentary Mr. Spurlock challenges himself to eat only McDonald's food for one month. His vegan girlfriend is bummed. His doctor warns him about halfway through the diet that he may die before the month is out. He pukes in the drive through. If this review hasn't warned you away from McDonald's, the film surely will.
AN OPEN LETTER TO MARIANNE WIGGINS
Dear Ms. Wiggins:
Okay, okay. Nothing is ever going to top that scene in your novel John Dollar where the little girls watch their fathers get eaten by cannibals and burned at the stake and then run around on the beach where it happened. Or maybe the one where the psycho girls who are taking all the quinine, leaving the others to die of malaria, scrape meat off the leg of John Dollar. I may not even have the details right anymore. That book terrifies me so much I can't even open it to check. It is a wonderful book. So The Shadow Catcher isn't quite in the same league, but dang, it's good. Oh how you love to play with the Dear Reader's mind, don't you, Ms. Wiggins? And you're so skilled at it, and your way with words is so impeccable, that We the Readers have no choice but to submit, over and over. In this new one, you take us through intricate descriptions of Los Angelean absurdity, weaving a metatale about how The Shadow Catcher is going to be made into a film. This sounds like the sort of meta-thingy I generally despise. How is it that you pull it off? That it becomes sly and fun and deeply woven into the story–not gratuitous? How do you blatantly explore issues about the American West and Native American identity and feminism and political correctness, things that have been beaten, hacked, trounced to death and beyond, into the afterlife–how do you make these things seem relevant and fresh and biting? How do you do that, Ms. Wiggins??? We the Readers want to know!
The real story in there is the emotional hardscrabble life of Clara-who-married-the-famous-photographer-on-whom-this-book-and-movie-are-ostensibly-based. All the rest is ribbons and bows, albeit very pretty and well-tied ribbons and bows. Ms. Wiggins, your unfolding of Clara's life, her (SPOILER ALERT) dissolving marriage, her (SPOILER ALERT) ungrateful children, her (SPOILER ALERT) suicide on the Sound in Seattle...it is a beautiful unfolding. It is Dickensian, only in the vast isolated American West rather than the teeming streets of London, and of course no (SPOILER ALERT) happy endings for our Clara. The unfolding feels like the unfolding of Everywoman, Every Frontierswoman at least, with her limited options and lonely days and (SPOILER ALERT) gay husband who spends all his time in the woods, dressing up Indians as noble savages in tribal gear they tart up for the benefit of white man consumerism; photographing them. The unfolding feels like the acceptance of all that is harsh and inescapable in a woman's life, as opposed to a man's. Though a bit weak on dialogue (sorry, Ms. Wiggins, but all the characters kinda sound the same when they speak), your writing stops me and shakes me and throws me at the wall. After I've slumped back up to my hands and knees, your writing tenderly caresses me. I'm a sucker for your writing, Ms. Wiggins, because once I'm back on my feet it chucks me at the wall again, and I like it.
Well, Ms. Wiggins, I hope you'll get this letter sometime soon and write me back. I almost can't stand how beautifully you write, on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level. It's perfect and painful and surprising and lovely. Please don't stop.
Aerial Target ("Dart") Shot Down in Ordnance Area (1987), Richard Misrach
Although it still stands rotting and unsecured in the Utah desert, the government continues to deny the existence of Wendover Air Base. Operated only from May to July, 1945, it was here that the U.S. Government modified the components, assembled the parts, and flight-tested the planes for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Thrown up in a hurry and used only briefly, Wendover Air Base was where the Enola Gay was parked, and it changed the meaning of that Utah landscape forever.
Photographer Richard Misrach visited the site in 1987, coming away with his "Desert Cantos," a powerful suite of photos commemorating the weather-beaten remains of the twentieth century. Bomb loading pits look like empty swimming pools. Ammo bunkers are built of mounded dirt. The hangers look like barns, the offices like shacks. "CLASSIFIED-LIMITED ENTRY-KNOCK FOR ASSISTANCE" is hand-written on a plywood door with black felt-tip-marker. Another office has a Don Martin character from Mad Magazine sketched on the wall.
Look more closely at "Aerial Target ("Dart") Shot Down In Ordnance Area," its misty, overcast sky so low its more of an undercast, its two simple little buildings, its fence, the "dart," parched earth, and as much foreshadowing as you'll humor. That drought-cracked dirt always catches the eye. It boots up starving Oakies in a dust bowl, land speed sonic booms, and nuclear wasteland. The first two flash by and the third remains.
The wooden fence-posts are bloated down at the bottom. If they weren't too preoccupied holding each other up to notice, they'd have all fallen down by now. The barbed wire (pre-CYCLONE) fence stretches towards a vanishing point. That it's angled at the top to discourage climbing says it's a people fence. It is not very tall, more to discourage drunken civilian rednecks (healthy sons of aforementioned Oakies) than to stop the true evil-commie pinkos.
Like the fence receding in the distance, the photograph is a time line. Past: Where we practiced our mushroom clouds. Present: where we practiced our mushroom clouds. It stretches back before our friend the atom turned on us. Before three legged dogs, six legged frogs, and hydrocephallic babies. Before backyard bomb shelter provisions got faded and dusty and the silverfish ate the labels off all the cans. Back to a point when something exploded in mid-air, leaving just scraps and metal scattered across the desert floor, and spiraling flight trajectories to reconstruct from below.
Eucalyptus Along Interstate 10, San Bernardino County, California (1980), Robert Adams
Robert Adams' particular artistic vision has been called both "uncompromisingly idealistic" and "hard-nosed." His photographs have been described as paeans to an "untrammeled, undisturbed natural world" and "pictures of suburban sprawl." They could fairly be taken for all of these things. For the last 30 years, Adams, a former professor of English literature and recent MacArthur fellow, has taken pictures of the Western American landscape in such a way as to preserve meadows and strip malls in their natural state: cohabitating the same frame. The photographs–of smoggy, highway-striped canyons in San Bernardino County, tract home developments at sunset in Denver, and sharp rock jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River–shuttle the emotional distance between love for natural beauty and despair over its spoliation. Yet, where they linger is not at the obvious point of general remorse, but at the particular confrontations between humans and "the land"–confrontations which are at times violent, but which also permit transformations of the human spirit.
The caption to this photograph reads "Eucalyptus Along Interstate 10, San Bernardino County, California." On this side of the thin eucalyptus grove lie a narrow dirt track and a hill covered in dry grass and brush. On the other side of the grove, which we can't see, is a highway, from which the photographer has veered his car and stepped out. He hasn't walked far, shuffling along the dusty track where he is likely trespassing on private land; just far enough to feel blood circulation return to his legs and the sun clap a hand directly on his cheek. There's a hint of cool moisture beneath the slouching eucalyptus, and the dry, lemony smell of its leaves mixes with dominant perfume of dust and smog, whose obdurate particles dim the trees standing just 50 yards away.
Like other of Adams' photographs, often featuring sweeps of land fronted by tire tracks and crisscrossed by telephone wires, this picture asks: What happens at the moment one stops to look? When the visitor idles at a point overlooking the ocean, or at the side of a desert highway on a faux frontier of hardpacked earth and strange grasses (there are more towns and highways beyond). What happens upon arriving at a place, with little or much forethought and the uncertain intention of accessing spaces and silences much larger than oneself, of reaching tranquilizing immersion in the unreadable patterns of what we call nature?
The answer Adams' photograph graciously leaves us with is that there's still a distance to travel. Neither grasping the ascendant view of the naturalist backpacking high up in the Sierras, nor testily brooding like a teenager in the mirror over the pustular marks humans have made on the land, "Eucalyptus" simply pulls to the side of the road. And when the ignition has been turned off, feet have met the ground, a breath has been drawn and exhaled, shoulders stretched, a clump of grass pawed absently with the rubber sole of a shoe, it pauses. Stares. Listens. Hears muffled car engines and the wind. Notices ants scrabbling in the dirt. Crushes a eucalyptus leaf and sniffs it. Brings back a couple more to the car. Takes one last look. Something has changed.
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About This Story
- Authors: Katharine Hermann, Steve Gevurtz, Jemiah Jefferson, Ricardo Wang, Sarah Gottesdiener, Nora Robertson, Cassandra Johnson, Jeremy Bittermann, Haley Weiner, Jessica Bromer, Kevin Friedman, Emily Chenoweth, Nate Schulman, Dan Raphael, Joanna Rose, Pollyanna Fishwrap, Joshua Berger
- Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
- Print Publication Date: Jul 2008