Monday, November 29, 2010

Destroyer- Your Blues

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's one of her masterpieces, but PJ Harvey's last album, White Chalk, was a fascinating detour. Whereas before she was always the alt-rock guitar playing goddess, on that album she primarily plays piano, crafting songs that sound like what I imagine Tori Amos at her best must be like. There's a quote on the Wikipedia page for the album attributed to an interview in the magazine The Wire where she says “the great thing about learning a new instrument from scratch is that it [...] liberates your imagination.” I couldn't help but think of Destroyer's Your Blues when I read this quote, because Dan Bejar's sudden use of MIDI instruments and synthesizers on the album now strikes me as a similar situation.

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't heard any of Destroyer's pre-Your Blues albums, so the divide between it and the rest of his discography wasn't as sharp as it would've been. However, now that I know the rest of his albums fall into the 70s-David-Bowie-meets-mid-60s-Bob-Dylan sound, Your Blues is all the curvier of a curveball to throw. Still, last year's Bay Of Pigs EP and the recent Archer On The Beach, which promises to be even more ambient/electronic than the former (though I haven't heard it yet, so we'll see), show that the name Destroyer isn't synonymous with a certain kind of music. But I digress.

Returning to the PJ Harvey quote above: I feel like by forcing himself to give up his backing band and focus primarily on MIDI instrumentation and synthesizers, Bejar become a much more imaginative and skilled songwriter. Oh, sure, contributing songs to the New Pornographers helped, and his lyrics have always been amongst the most dense, intriguing, and self-referential in all of music—I never get tired of reminding people that he has a Wiki devoted to his lyrics—but I think it was only on Your Blues and after that his gift for music bloomed. Of course I have to immediately say that I love all of his earlier stuff that I've heard, but to me they don't match his post-Blues material in terms of arrangements and hooks.

This record's synth-orchestral pop aesthetic is what makes Your Blues the secret masterpiece of Destroyer's career. Since I normally don't go for music that has a cheesy synth-pop or lame MIDI-based sound to it, I was relieved to find Your Blues never sounds cheap or retro. 'An Actor's Revenge' has all the pomp and drama of the best baroque pop music of the past, albeit played on synthesizers instead of actual orchestral instruments. What should sound like schmaltzy plucked strings and over-done tympani hits on 'From Oakland To Warsaw' actually come off as sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment. Yet as brilliant as Your Blues is, I do prefer some of the Frog Eyes-backed reworkings of these songs on the Notorious Lightning & Other Works EP. In particular, on this album 'Don't Become The Thing You Hated' simply has too many unnecessary layers of sound during its middle section. 'Notorious Lightning' is the other prime candidate for best makeover, since it doesn't sound right to me when it's not a nine minute raucous guitar epic. OK, OK, this is supposed to be a review of Your Blues and not a comparison contest with an EP. Moving on...

Your Blues is that rare record that takes huge chances and delivers every step of the way. It is most assuredly the sort of music that will immediately turn off even longtime fans who can't get past the MIDI/synth instruments. I can understand that. Yet when I called it his secret masterpiece, I meant it, because those listeners who get what it is Bejar was going for on this album will truly love it. It may not become your go-to Destroyer album to throw on in an indecisive moment, but it may become your new favorite album for a week or two. And that, in my experience, is something worth investigating.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Eric Dolphy- Out To Lunch

As something of a dilettante to the world of jazz, I hope it still holds some weight that the first time I heard Out To Lunch I didn't know what to make of it. I had a pretty good idea of what avant-garde and free-jazz were about but foreknowledge often can't quite prepare you for what's to come. Even now when I listen to Out To Lunch it sounds like such a refreshingly bizarre album, operating under its own internal logic. The bass on 'Hat and Beard' drones and groans in a way I would call non-jazzy, and the use of bass clarinet and vibraphones on the album seems more in the wheelhouse of a finicky, eccentric singer-songwriter than a jazz band. What I'm getting at is, this record clearly originates from jazz yet sounds very little like what most people think of when you say the word “jazz.”

It's impossible to calculate the influence of Eric Dolphy on future generations of musicians, but I think it's most telling that some of those musicians weren't jazz players. Frank Zappa titled a track on his Weasels Ripped My Flesh album after Dolphy, and I have to speculate that Zappa pal Captain Beefheart was also a fan. Take the most avant-garde, 'out' moments from Trout Mask Replica and they have the sound of free jazz as played by a 60s rock band. Out To Lunch, like that underground masterpiece, is the kind of music that sounds simultaneously freely improvised and out of control while also being structured and tightly played. I can't explain how, but eventually one learns to tell the difference between random nonsense and expressive/freeform music; Out To Lunch is inarguably the latter.

'Gazzelloni' is a kind of Rosetta's Stone to understanding what is going on in this album. Ostensibly the record's most structured and traditional track, the solos on flute, trumpet, and vibes are undercut, accented, challenged, and cheered on by the other instruments. I almost hesitate to call them solos in the strict sense because of the full group improvisatory feel of this music. An impossibly young Tony Williams on drums is the keystone to it all, snapping off militaristic snare lines on many of the songs and dueling, via cymbals, with bassist Richard Davis near the end of 'Gazzelloni.' Still, it's the final two tracks where Dolphy returns to the more traditionally jazz oriented alto sax that things really get cooking. The towering title track has always ironically sounded more to me like the frantic rush of a person doing physical labor rather than the relaxed afternoon eating of someone on a lunch break. Regardless, Freddie Hubbard plays a patient, burning solo while the rhythm section goes absolutely insane around the 4:27 mark, at once atonal and arrhythmic yet melodic and swinging in its own way, like a machine stamping metal parts in a factory.

I find it a little sad and a little prescient that Miles Davis didn't like Eric Dolphy's music. Sad, because I think if Dolphy had lived longer, he and Davis could have learned a lot from each other's music. Prescient, because I think Davis was one of the few musicians who saw that avant-garde and free-jazz weren't so much a portal to getting some place else as they were an end in and of themselves; there was nowhere to really go 'from' this kind of music. Davis ended up fusing rock, funk, blues, and, arguably, electronic music into his form of jazz, which proved to be of more lasting influence and popularity. Yet I think there is still much to learn from the other direction jazz took in the 60s, and Out To Lunch is one of the essential texts to not merely study, but also to enjoy.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 22, 2010

Silver Jews- The Natural Bridge

I'm going through a period of my life where I seem to be talking about music with people way more than usual, as well as thinking about what bands I think they might enjoy. You could argue that this is exactly what I do when I write reviews or non-review posts for my blog, but it's not as personal that way. Anyway, in thinking about what music would appeal to someone and why, I've been toying with the idea that the lasting appeal of certain bands or artists is their lyrics, and these are the kind of bands or artists that people who are into reading/writing are drawn to. It's a theory I can't prove, of course, but the Silver Jews are definitely a band that only people who pay close attention to lyrics could love. Even at their musical best, the Jews rarely entered into the top spots for album of the year contention, and David Berman's voice is as unique and off-putting as they come, a Johnny Cash baritone with more character.

As Berman himself once put it, though, “all my favorite singers couldn't sing.” If this is the kind of sentiment you could see yourself agreeing with, and you think lyrics can carry the weight of an album, then The Natural Bridge is for you. It is, in many ways, the purest Silver Jews album. Due to the collaborators, guests, and involvement of some members of Pavement, all of the other Jews albums lack the pure Berman as heard on this record. The music is at its most basic, a jangly, country tinged indie rock, almost always mid-tempo and mellow. I would go so far as to say that The Natural Bridge is the weakest Jews album from a pure musical standpoint, because it is their one release that skirts closest to the danger that all singer-songwriter style albums face: coming off as poems set to music rather than music that has especially good lyrics. Other Jews albums have engaging, dynamic music, sometimes even with genuine melodies and hooks, as on the masterful American Water. The Natural Bridge, on the other hand, feels at times like a collaboration between a poet and an band. 'Ballad Of Reverend War Character' has fitting accompaniment and I love the lyrics, but musically it sounds like what happens when music is written or improvised in reaction to lyrics rather than music written or improvised alongside the crafting of the lyrics in a symbiotic give-and-take between the two. For further proof of this, see the instrumental, 'The Right To Remain Silent', which is, in terms of its music, this record's most expressive and interesting song. Understand that I'm not saying the music and playing on this album are bad or boring, they just aren't impressive or memorable.

Still, if you're a fan of the Silver Jews, The Natural Bridge is one of the band's most essential releases. This is simply a result of the focus being placed so squarely on Berman's lyrics; they're allowed to carry the weight of the record on their own, and they do so ably. I'm quite serious that Berman could have released this as a spoken word album and it would have been just as great. Since his gruff, raspy baritone is an acquired taste, these songs might even have been better without trying to be music or Berman trying to sing. Every song on this album has a handful of lines that I've posted to my Facebook or quoted to friends. “Guard my bed while the rain turns the ditches to mirrors”, starts 'Pet Politics', “buy a vase of carnations from central Ohio, where the looking machine can't hear us.” The masterful 'Albemarle Station' offers up “there must be a Spanish word for this feeling/the rush I get when I am stealing.” Album closer 'Pretty Eyes' must top the list of “least impressive music paired with most impressive lyrics” in the Jews discography. Every line here is a winner, from “when the governor's heart fails, the state bird falls from its branch” to “all houses dream in blueprints” to “and though final words are hard to devise/I promise I'll always remember your pretty eyes.”

Even if Berman hadn't published a poetry collection in 1999; even if he hadn't disbanded the Silver Jews in 2009 to focus on his other interests; even if he hadn't published a collection of cartoons/drawings, also in 2009, I would still consider him a poet first and musician second. If you're the kind of listener who absolutely must have some sweet melodies and engaging songwriting in your music, then any other Jews album is a better choice. If you're like me, though, and you get off on great writing no matter what form it's delivered in, The Natural Bridge may become your next obsession.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Modest Mouse- Sad Sappy Sucker

There really is a certain fascinating rawness to the early recordings and bootlegs of bands, isn't there? I don't remember where I got this quote from, but someone once said in regards to music that a band has all of their lives to record a debut album; after that, record companies expect the sophomore release within two years. So it is that the early material of bands is often the most scattered and searching of their careers. Sometimes the sound of musicians discovering themselves and their aesthetic can be aimless and infrequently rewarding. However, just as often it either reveals a nascent genius or intriguing possibilities for what the band could have become. Modest Mouse's Sad Sappy Sucker is more of the former than the latter, a key piece of the puzzle that proves their first two albums were no bolts from the blue.

Sad Sappy Sucker has had a storied history. Initially, it was a 15 track album intended for use as Modest Mouse's debut, yet it went unreleased until a year after they signed to a major label, at which point more tracks were added to it. And now it has been re-issued on main Mouse Isaac Brock's Glacial Pace label. As the band have no concrete plans to release an album soon, it seems as good a time as any to return to their beginning.

Compared to the lengthy, dense albums which would come to define Modest Mouse, Sad Sappy Sucker is well, neither lengthy nor dense. As a matter of fact, there's a charming simplicity and leanness to these songs, even at their most elliptical; 'Classy Plastic Lumber' itself goes through three separate parts, from the lo-fi spoken intro to the thrashing mid-section with vocals to the bright, bouncing guitar solo...and back to the thrashing part. All the while, the song never sounds cluttered or willfully complex, and it's over in a bit over two minutes. Existing as a trio for a long time, Modest Mouse were always brilliant at making their songs sound much fuller than they really are, and I mean this even before their budget got bigger on The Moon & Antarctica and they used more overdubs. This gift was already showing up on tracks like 'From Point A To Point B (Infinity)' and especially 'Dukes Up', which sounds like a blueprint for the band's first two albums with its bounding bass lines, flashy-but-not-busy drumming, and Brock's malleable guitar playing, which seems to exist as both rhythm and lead simultaneously.

As is often the case with the early recordings of bands, the real treats on Sad Sappy Sucker come in the surprises that don't quite fit in with the rest of their discography. Generally these are the shorter, more minimalist tracks that sound like they were recorded alone by Brock. 'Think Long' makes a case for the accordion as a great match for morbid lyrics. 'Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?' would have ended the original version of the album with a haunting guitar moaning along for about a minute as Brock repeats the song title over and over. Admittedly, the songs that were added to Sad Sappy Sucker when it was first issued in 2001 are throwaway sketches (reportedly taken from songs Brock had recorded on his answering machine) and demos that never went anywhere. But 'BMX Crash' has a fidelity and organ-like keyboard sound that reminds me of what early Daniel Johnston might have sounded like if he was into drugs instead of religion, while the final three songs are strangely affecting and resonate with me for some reason.

“Make us depressed or just sad/make us happy or something”, Brock songs on 'Sin Gun Chaser', a sentiment that seems strangely direct and artless for a man who would go on to pen quotable lyrics with sophistication and strangeness to spare. There's a reason Mark Kozelek chose to a do a covers album of Modest Mouse songs, but there is also a reason that he chose to only cover one song from Sad Sappy Sucker. A 'for fans only' release through and through, Sucker is better than many early, raw recordings by better bands though I think everyone would agree their eventual actual debut album, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, is indeed better in every way.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Friday, November 19, 2010

Great Album Covers: MM..Food

The art of album covers is something that has always appealed to me. I even have a half dozen or so of those wall hanging frames you can buy that display vinyl record covers as art. Anyway, since I may never end up doing more videos for Whiskey Pie, I at least want to try to incorporate something more visually oriented. And so it was that I decided to begin a new series of posts about some of my favorite—or anyway, some of the most interesting—album covers.

MM..Food struck me as the perfect place to begin, since I didn't notice how much clarity and detail was found on its cover until I happened upon a vinyl copy. Seeing this cover on a 200 x 200 JPEG on iTunes misses out on all the minutiae packed into it. For what it's worth, the back cover is equally great.

Apologies in advance if the pictures aren't exceptional or perfectly in focus, but I had to take my own rather than hunt online for the exact close-ups I wanted. With that warning out of the way, take a gander at the full cover above and we'll continue on.

Literally every corner of this cover has something interesting going on in it. The simple night scene outside the window, of buildings and the moon, subconsciously lends it a different vibe than if it had been sunny outside or raining or any other meteorological conditions.

The font for both the artist name and album title is obviously graffiti inspired, but the extra touch of a bit of green and white dripping off of both is pitch perfect.

The characters on the milk and cereal box are interesting, especially when it occurs to you that what Doom is actually eating isn't cereal at all. The 'Have You Seen Me?' part is either a reference to Doom's sometimes long layovers between releases or his onetime friend MF Grimm.

Never mind that this isn't cereal. Check out the detailing on The Thing on the right and some kind of woman-looking head on the left. These are the sort of things I never would have noticed and appreciated if not for owning the vinyl. The shadows and detailing on the hand are also incredible.

I'm fairly sure this is all a reference to MF Grimm. The pun of it being a Brothers Grim-style fairy tale book written by/for MF Grimm is a plus in my book.

I'm not sure what this drink is supposed to be, but it says 'Monster' which could be a reference to his early Monsta Island Czars release or his appearances as King Gheedorah aka Monster Zero.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Velvet Underground- 1969: Velvet Underground Live

Despite their critical or commercial success, it's strange how a few of the classic bands didn't have truly satisfying live albums during their existence. Led Zeppelin didn't have one until 2003, I would argue, and even something like Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys is focused on his then-new post-Experience band. The Velvet Underground's 1969 live album falls somewhere in this lineage, too. Released after the band's dissolution, it focused specifically on the post-John Cale/Nico incarnation of the band, culled from concerts that preceded the Loaded album. Precious few recordings and bootlegs seem to exist of the band's earlier, more experimental era, so I guess we should be glad we get anything at all. Luckily the song selection from this differs from the 2001Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes release, which is made up of recordings from the same era as 1969, though it features the lengthier, more improvisational side of the band.

What 1969 shows off, then, is the rhythmic and funkier side of the band, the propulsive rock and roll animal heart beating within. To put it another way, it brings out the band's latent 50s rock/R&B influences, making them analogous to wholly separate from the "lean, clean, and bluesy" Credence Clearwater Revival. Even when the band goes out for a jammy ride, such as on the organ driven, nearly nine minute version of 'What Goes On' on disc one or the 'Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much' medley on disc two, there is a simultaneous looseness and tightness to the band that belies a group of musicians who are comfortable enough playing together to take chances but not too sloppy to lose a sense of structure and restraint. Lou Reed is my pick for most underrated guitarist in rock history primarily because he is equally adept at rhythm and lead playing. What the underwhelming Max's Kansas City live album only hinted at, especially in its original vinyl incarnation, 1969 blows wide open. The lengthy solo breaks on the languorous version of 'White Light/White Heat' prove that he didn't need the brutal-but-admittedly-a$$-kicking distorted snarl of a 'Sister Ray' or 'European Son' to dazzle a listener.

1969 may interest Velvets scholars most for its early versions of Loaded tracks, with different lyrics and slightly altered structures, but its primary value is giving fans a different perspective on who the band were. It's a shame they didn't use the title Another View for this release since it feels more appropriate than it did for that 1986 outtakes compilation. What I mean is, Lou Reed comes close to making 'Femme Fatale' into his song instead of being only known as one of Nico's trademark Velvets songs, and the spellbinding-even-without-John-Cale's-screeching-viola version of 'Heroin' is equally different-but-great. Thus they're both--you guessed it--another view on the band.

In my usual shortsighted way, I assumed that the story about this band began and ended with their legendary first four studio albums. 1969 proved me wrong, and once again I find myself happy that music is the only venue of my life where whenever I'm wrong, I am usually happier for it. The sound quality isn't outstanding, but it's no worse than hearing a parent's 40 year old copy of a Jimi Hendrix album. Besides which I think some imperfections and grit give these performances even more of a raw authenticity than the pristine studio versions. But I digress. This is a must hear for fans, and every bit as key to the puzzle as their studio masterpieces.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lil' Indie Round-Up: The Rakehells, Vita Ruins, Mobile Wash Unit, Brothers At Sea

The Rakehells- Please Yourself Or The Devil Himself

I am convinced that, if not for Jack White dubbing one of his bands The Raconteurs, this band would not be called The Rakehells. I'm convinced of this because The Rakehells are such unimaginative, boring, and forgettable modern rock bar band-esque dudes that I can't believe they would think to pick out such an obscure and old timey name on their own.

This is the sort of band that inevitably gets words like “attitude” and “sneer” and “Mick Jagger” thrown at it when journalists attend their live shows. This, despite the fact that they sound nothing like the Rolling Stones at all. Ten years too late to jump on the Strokes/White Stripes garage rock revival of the early 00s, The Rakehells only work in a culture of drink specials and cheap beer, of poor judgment, of people who aggressively worry about whether a band “rocks” or not.

Well, The Rakehells do rock. I guess. 'Souls For Sale' certainly rocks, but it rocks in that “every song should be shorter than three minutes, every guitar should have some flaccid distortion on it, and every song should sound the fucking same” way that Green Day does. Meaning this is your Dad's idea of what passes for rock music in 2010, and it's no wonder he, to say nothing of you, dear reader, prefers to tune in to the local classic rock station when listening to the radio. I'd rather hear a mediocre 70s era Rolling Stones deep cut or 'Welcome To The Jungle' for the umpteenth time than the Pro Tools sculpted tedium of 'Meat On A Stick.' On the bright side, this album helped me realize that 'hard rock' is essentially 'metal' for wimps and guys who are too old to still be considered metal but have kept the same haircut/facial hair since they saw Motley Crue on a Dr. Feelgood era tour.

Vita Ruins- A Day Without A Name

I swear I know the organ part on 'Godspeed To That Polytheist' from somewhere, to the point where I'm wondering if it's a sample or lifted directly, homage-style, from another song. Yeah, this is the most interesting way I could think of to introduce this album.

A Day Without A Name traffics in the sound of bands who came of age during the post-OK Computer, post-late 90s post-rock boom. Which means, what, exactly? Well, it means they sound like The Doves or any number of other ostensibly guitar-based indie rock bands who use post-rock atmospherics and electronic flourishes to morph their music, and thus sounding less like the Blur of 'Song 2' and more like the Blur of 'Battle.' Maybe Vita Ruins are a bit more intense than 'Battle.' The singer's voice is permanently wrapped in some kind of mid-fi distortion that does nothing and doesn't need to be there. So, I guess, you could also say: a less memorable and enjoyable version of 'Battle.'

I don't intend for this review to be so short, but I simply can't think of a lot to say about Vita Ruins or this album. I feel as though I've reviewed a half dozen of these bands for the Lil Indie Round-Up column over the years, and there is a now epidemic level of faceless competency to A Day Without A Name. If you want more of the same, here it is.

Mobile Wash Unit- Tent

Dig out your copy of Tigermilk by Belle & Sebastian and put on 'Electronic Renaissance.' Do you find yourself wishing that the band had taken up this sort of style instead of continuing on their twee-pop/indie-pop trajectory? At the same time, dig out your copy of Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab and put on pretty much any of the songs. Do you find yourself wishing the band wasn't as experimental and had a male singer?

If you answered “yes” to either of these scenarios, then you'll probably like Mobile Wash Unit. Tent is the sound of a band attempting to reconcile jangly guitar based pop/rock with retro synth-pop/electro-pop. The more clubby/danceable tracks like 'Koko' wouldn't sound out of place in some Manhattan hipster bar, while something like 'Restart', which sounds like a caffeinated Interpol, could slip into a coffehouse's playlist and not offend anyone.

There's really nothing wrong with this album in conception or execution. It is so earnest and digestible, all the potential hard edges and personality having been sanded off and scrubbed clean, that it is like the music equivalent of lettuce. Good for digestion, not enough there to offend or delight anyone.

Brothers At Sea- This Is A Redemption Melody EP

I'm sorry to not get to the music right away, but I'm curious why it is exactly that people romanticize the notion of really young bands who choose to pursue their music career rather than go to college. This isn't the 1960s anymore, and it's no longer cool or respectable, at least to me, to think that you really have anything interesting to add to music, or any artform, at age 20. Hell, I remember being 20 and thinking I was so sophisticated and intelligent, but if I dig out my writing from that period, I recoil in self-loathing.

Admittedly, it would be one thing if said band of 20 somethings were doing anything remotely new or interesting with their music. Bob Dylan worked as a young artist because he was so idiosyncratic and ahead of his time. Some young dude singing old Woodie Guthrie songs about the 20s and 30s politics was a true curio for its time, and there has always been something about Bob Dylan that makes you think he has an old soul.

A band like Brothers At Sea is practically the opposite. They sound exactly like every other post-Weezer, post-Incubus, post-Jimmy Eat World modern rock band, so when the press release reads “...might be oozing with radio-friendly appeal, but for once, this might not be a bad thing,” allow me to ask: when has having a sound that can be described as “radio-friendly” ever been a good thing? The kind of people who make such pronouncements are always A&R reps and faceless PR goons of record labels, and whose idea of what makes good music is everything that was popular five years ago and thus completely safe, proven, and, you guessed it, also radio-friendly.

This is all a long way of saying, I don't understand why bands who sound like this even bother with indie level promotion and labels. They should just keep plugging away and sending demo tapes to the big labels until they get signed and can have a moderate level of success after one of their songs ends up on the soundtrack of the next teen sex comedy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Holy Mountain

While I can't cite any specific studies, I do know it's widely acknowledged that the human mind always attempts to organize and structure our experiences, even when they seem completely obtuse and non-sensical. People are inherently wired to want to tell stories, or hear stories. When relating the series of events which led to a failed relationship, for instance, we generally do so in a linear, chronological way, each sub-story or event along the way leading to the next. This is why, I would argue, most of the highest grossing films of all time have such prototypical, strictly linear and traditionally structured narratives. Understand that narrative and story are not interchangeable terms, so while the Lord Of The Rings trilogy has an epic and relatively complex narrative, the actual story it's relating can be as happily reduced to archetypes as the Star Wars trilogy, itself famously influenced by George Lucas's study of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

However, entertainment, or art if you will, that seems to willfully buck any notions of accessible narrative, story, or meaning captures the imagination of everyone. Even if their reaction is to look at the surrealist and absurdist branch of movies, music, literature, and art and say “this is weird and pointless”, I think it still interests them on a subconscious level. By which I mean, they have a negative reaction to it, but it provokes such a strong reaction because their mind is attempting to piece things together or decode some meaning even while they consciously reject it. The common reaction to watching just the trailer for Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, judging by the YouTube comments seems to be “what the hell is this?” and/or “I bet they were on drugs” and/or “I want to watch this while on drugs.”

Yet there is more to this reaction, and more to the film itself, than just weird-for-the-sake-of-weird or, to paraphrase the Spacemen 3 album title, taking drugs to make movies to take drugs to. To the average viewer, most of David Lynch's films are impenetrable messes that tease some kind of logical, knowable story but obscure it via surreal narrative conceits. Even though I've watched Inland Empire a half dozen times and still can't quite say for sure I know what the plot is, I—and this is crucial—do believe there is some kind of simple story to uncover. It may sound like bragging, but if, as I try to, you spend enough time with willfully perverse or “difficult” entertainment (or, again, art, if you will), then you can more and more easily tell the difference between weird-for-the-sake-of-weird versus weird-but-with-something-to-say-that-couldn't-be-as-effectively-said-in-a-more-traditional-framework.

So, The Holy Mountain. This is an infamous cult film, and easily the most psychedelic movie I've ever seen. It is not psychedelic in the cliched 60s flower power sense, but in the sense of dreamlike, symbolic, spiritual, and philosophical motifs and story fragments. To put it another way, it's the difference between hallucinogenic drug use of the Sgt Pepper's/Summer Of Love sub-culture and the hallucinogenic drug use of Huxley's The Doors Of Perceptionand the avant-garde music/film/art scene of the late 50s/early 60s. So while you might go in expecting a seemingly random and arbitrary collection of hippies freaking out, doing drugs, and having sex, what you actually get is something like a scene wherein frogs and toads re-enact the Conquistadors coming to the New World and the systematic genocide that resulted. Or a scene where a group of people push piles of money into a fire in the middle of a table in some sort of weird, Buddhist-like acceptance ritual of leaving behind property and material goods. Or a scene where an old man with only the left half of a beard/mustache is breastfeeding a dude, but then the breasts turn into growling jaguars for some reason and...I don't know; I think it's supposed to be a dream sequence or some kind of projected distraction meant to keep the dude from ascending the titular mountain know what, forget it.

This is definitely a movie that is impossible to explain or summarize in all but the most vague and lucid of terminology. It exemplifies all that is possible in the film medium, because it would not remotely be the same thing if translated to a novel or album or videogame. It defies categorization or traditional scored reviews because it simply is. Even if you don't do any drugs before, during, or after watching The Holy Mountain, there will be sequences that have you saying “is this really happening?” at least every 10 minutes. You may consciously reject it and say it's pretentious, inscrutable bullshit, but somewhere in the deepest recesses of your mind, Alejandro Jodorowsky is speaking to a part of you that not only wants to listen, but wants to understand. And I don't know about you, but I am much more excited by things I want to understand than by things I can too easily understand, are in fact, mundane. With an open mind and/or ready access to some of nature's finest psychedelic smoke-ables and eat-ables, The Holy Mountain may already be waiting for you, beckoning for your first steps up its strange facade. Just don't get distracted by angry jaguar tits.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cold Blooded

A Person-By-Person Breakdown Of The People In The Bill Callahan 'Cold Blooded Old Times' Video On

Bill Callahan: He is thinking about how it actually feels good to be barefoot on the rooftop of this building in Chicago on a late September night. At first he focuses on the lyrics and his playing, but his mind wanders. He thinks back to the woman he wrote this song about, and how he wishes he had never left her. He is looking at the violinist across from him and regretting the night that he fucked her even though he didn't have feelings for her, and still doesn't. At the end when he throws in that little extra lick on guitar, he is pretending to be in the Kinks.

70s Rocker Dude Who Takes Fashion Pointers From 'Spinal Tap': He ate an entire 1/8th of mushrooms before noon, and they are only just now starting to lose their potency while the video is being recorded. He wonders if anyone will be able to tell he's tripping or not. Near the end of the song, he sees Callahan as a giant snowman in human clothing, his coal buttons dropping off of his shirt and turning into the drum that he is playing, over and over. He is pretty sure something is going on between Callahan and Violinist Chick, and considers this as a good sign he might get to stick her, too.

Vaguely Jewish Looking Skinny Dude: Before coming to the roof, he had offered Violinist Chick a beer, which she declined now but never has before. Already a bit dazed by this, he overhears a Pitchfork staffer saying that “Callahan's other dude, the skinny one in the red shirt...he looks like Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers...well, maybe his younger brother, anyway.” He has been thinking about giving up music and going back to school. School for what, he doesn't know. He's going to be 35 years old next month and has little to show for it, other than a frequently-something-wrong-with-something loft apartment on the cheaper side of Brooklyn. A minute into the song, he realizes that all he's going to do for the next few minutes is clap over and over, and he decides to quit music as soon as this taping is over. In between the end of this song and the beginning of the next, he sneaks a pull on a whiskey bottle.

Impossibly Beautiful Violinist Chick: She still can't believe she gets to be on a website for a music performance. As she is just shy of 23 years old, she still can't believe a lot of things. She had almost drank a beer before coming up to the roof, but remembered that she had found out a few days prior that she was pregnant. Pregnant with Callahan's kid. She still isn't sure whether she wants to keep it or not; she has a thing for him, but he still seems to be hung up on another woman. Maybe even who this song is about. Near the end when she almost-smiles and then sucks her upper lip in, she is remembering her first sex partner.