Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ooh, SNAP!

Mess Up the Mess, You Remind Me of Summer Vacation, Paroxysm

My friends say you're cute
You're just my style
You've got a cherry scooter and a winning smile
You've got rave reviews, but I don't believe the hype
Honey, you're not my Myers-Briggs Type!

-- "You're Not My (Myers-Briggs) Type"

Mess Up the Mess is an appropriate name for this DC quartet's smart alecky punk-pop. Not that they sound messy--loose is a better word--but their name brings to mind the B-52s ("Dance This Mess Around"), and there's just as much "bounce to their ounce," to paraphrase Zapp (although I think Roger Troutman may have had something more salacious in mind). Further comparisons to Delta 5, the Go-Gos, and Le Tigre would not be misplaced.

That said, You Remind Me of Summer Vacation isn't quite new wave or even new new wave. It's lighter than NYC's Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but heavier that Portland's All Girl Summer Band. In other words, it's somewhere between the two and beholden to neither.

Elizabeth's subjects include personality typing ("You're Not My Myers-Briggs Type"), racism ("Crystal Pools"), feminism ("F-Bomb"), and pop stars ("Morrissey Already Ate"). The bassist is joined by vocalist/keyboard player Jeanni, drummer Julie, and guitar slinger Matt (no last names, please). All shout along.

There's a fine line between clever and novel, as in novelty. On their smart and sassy debut, I'm pleased to report that Mess Up the Mess remain firmly on the right side of it. Long may they rave.

He would tell you not to be foolish
Better to be sullen and mulish
The only way to keep your heart unbroken
Is to leave these words unspoken.

-- "Morrissey Already Ate"

Endnote: "Ooh, SNAP!" comes from "Esprit de Lescalier." Click here to sample "Esprit," "Myers-Briggs," and "Ton of Bricks." Images from the official MUtM site and The Washington City Paper.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Tortoise and the Hare

The Chinese Stars, Listen to Your Left Brain, Three One g/Skingraft [3/20/07]

Christened after the "Chinese Star Epidemic" of the early '80s which found legions of grade school kids across America armed with "shrunken" throwing stars, the band vowed to reinvent what they have already invented in their previous bands. -- From the Chinese Stars biography


I'm fascinated by CD art, because it's one of the ways a band presents themselves to the world, along with posters, handbills, and the like. The music may be of greater significance, but that doesn't mean the packaging is irrelevant. So, the first thing I noticed about this release was the unappealing artwork.

The combination of pink and black appeals in a new wave/post-punk sort of a way, but the design is a dud. As a general rule, brains are neither attractive nor compelling--not even when depicted in fuschia. The title may be Listen to Your Left Brain, but I'm sure this Providence quartet could've found a more effective way to illustrate the message (which I heartily endorse, by the way). Alas, the brain in all its moist, rounded folds reminds me of nothing so much as intestines. It's an image I could do without.

As for the music, it isn't bad. On their second record, this Arab on Radar/Six Finger Satellite off-shoot hits the same sweet spot as Vancouver's Hot Hot Heat or Portland's late, great Exploding Hearts. The Chinese Stars are more raw than the former, less pop than the latter, but I bet they put on an equally energetic show.

Paul Vieira tortures his guitar, Craig Kureck (ex-AoR) beats his drums, Rick Ivan Pelletier (ex-SFS) attacks his bass, and Eric Paul (also ex-AoR) invests lines like "Your love is like a cold war" with more urgency than they deserve, but you can't fault a guy for trying. (Pelletier has since left, to be replaced by V. Von Ricci.) Bonus points for the cowbell, the snare, and that weird rumbling, buzzing noise. If only they had put as much effort into their cover art...

A Northern Chorus,
The Millions Too Many,
Sonic Unyon Recording
Company [3/20/07]

We're still wading through that fog of disparity and trying to maintain a clear sense of immediacy. Hopefully, 'The millions too many' points towards minimizing the excesses of this world and bridging the gaps between us.
-- From the A Northern Chorus biography


On The Millions Too Many, their fourth full-length, this Canadian sextet has constructed a rich, multi-layered album. Unlike previous recordings, the songs are shorter, but they're still given room to breathe. There's nothing rushed going on here. Though the vocals are up front, that doesn't detract from the prowess of the playing. Arguably, Peter Hall overenunciates, but his gentle style renders the point moot (Stu Livingstone is also credited with guitar/vocals, but I'm guessing that refers to backing vocals).

Aside from the usual instrumental line-up, ANC includes violin (Erin Aurich) and cello (Alex McMaster), yet I wouldn't describe them as baroque or orchestral. That implies something more precious than what I'm hearing on this record. Not that I can't appreciate a little preciousness from time to time (hello, Camera Obscura!), but ANC sounds more like Game Theory or Arcade Fire than most other indie pop acts with strings. Some of the other artists to which they've been compared include Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós, Death Cab for Cutie, and Explosions in the Sky (the Texas four-piece responsible for the music in Friday Night Lights).

Unlike many musicians, they're also better at evoking a general feeling rather than a specific sound. I don't really know how to categorize ANC as they fall between a number of cracks--alternative rock, alt-country, etc.--but I can say that they conjure up a pastoral mood. Maybe it's because they hail from Golden Horseshoe, Ontario. Maybe it's because they're a laidback lot. Either way, it isn't folk and it isn't rock, but there's this small town thing going on, like the soundtrack to an independent feature about a young woman who lives in the country with a shaggy dog and an old pick-up truck. I can hear ANC playing in the background as she drives into town on a sunny day with the trees vibrating past and the clouds dancing above. It's a nice image.

Endnote: Images from the official Chinese Stars and A Northern Chorus websites. The CS homepage features a more pleasing representation of a brain, mostly because it's more stylized, less realistic. ANC plays Seattle's Crocodile Café with Aereogramme
on 4/13/07. Click here to sample some of their material.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Treasures of the Internet

Every few months, I search Google to see where my reviews are ending up. Here are some of the more interesting results. AMG review of Craig Armstrong - The Quiet American

Cartype: Amazon review of Who Killed the Electric Car? 

GreenCine: "It's hard to be objective when a film features all my favorite stuff," writes Kathy Fennessy at Seattle Film Blog. "The Treasures of Long Gone John concerns art, music and cats. Mostly, it concerns Long Gone John, founder of inimitable indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry." 

It's My Heart: Amazon review of Something the Lord Made 

K Blog - All About Kieslowski: Seattle Film Blog review of the Krzysztof Kieslowski retrospective

The Kuepper Files: Kathy Fennessy has made an interview with Ed via email and put it up on her blog. Well worth a read! Go on, go there! Many thanks, Kathy! 

Killer Movies: Amazon review of Duran Duran - Live From London 

Per & Marie - Roxette News: Amazon review of Roxette - A Collection of Roxette Hits 

Rotten Tomatoes: review of The Doom Generation 

The Willowz Blog: AndMoreAgain review of the Willowz - Chautauqua 

Also, I got a shout-out in the 1/11 Northwest Film Forum Digest: Some late breaking news - We're going to have a special guest at the Friday Jan 12, 7pm screening of 51 BIRCH STREET. Director Doug Block thought it would be a good idea to have his cousin, David Vogel show up to add another perspective on life at 51 Birch St. 51 BIRCH ST is an amazing first-person documentary about Block's own parents, but with resonance for anyone who's ever had parents. Guess that's most of us, isn't it? Local writer Kathy Fennessy wrote a nice little piece on it. Check it out here. Tix are available here.  

Endnote: Images from the archives: Long Gone John, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Doug and Mina Block. If you're not familiar with early Kieslowski, I suggest starting with 1979's Camera Buff featuring actor/director Jerzy Stuhr (Three Colors: White).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What He Is To Me

Bill Withers, Just As I Am/
Still Bill, Raven [Australia]

***** ***** ***** *****

Ain't No Sunshine

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
It's not warm when she's away.
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
And she's always gone too long anytime she goes away.

Wonder this time where she's gone,
Wonder if she's gone to stay
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
And this house just ain't no home anytime she goes away.

And I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know.

Hey, I ought to leave the young thing alone,
But ain't no sunshine when she's gone, only darkness everyday.
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone,
And this house just ain't no home anytime she goes away.

Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.

***** ***** ***** *****

I grew up with Bill Withers. Not literally, but he was part of the
soundtrack to my childhood. Withers and Stevie Wonder were two
of the towering titans in my world, circa the 1970s. The thing is,
my parents, who divorced when I was three, didn't actually own
any albums by Withers, but they both owned copies of Wonder's
Talking Book
(1972). Dad's copy was on eight-track. (Hipster
that he was, he also had Curtis Mayfield's Superfly on vinyl.)

So, it isn't as if I grew up with
the uncut stuff, like Funkadel-
or the Ohio Players. My
parents weren't that cool. I
discovered those Westbound
wonders on my own a few
years later, but I still think of
Withers as cool in a relative
sense. You know, cool for Top
40. The AM station I listened
to--I can no longer remember
the call letters--played the hell
out of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me." That was
it, really. Just two songs. But they made a big impression.

Withers had this deceptively casual style. On the one hand, it was
conversational, like Mose Allison, Taj Mahal, or Gil Scott-Heron.
As Terry Reilly states in the liner notes, it was "anything but slick,"
yet "carried the dual stamp of unhurried soulfulness and sophisti-
cation." On the other hand, there was this gospel thing going on,
similar to that of the Chambers Brothers, the Staple Singers, and
the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose (the Staples covered Just
I Am 's "Grandma's Hands," while the Cornelius crew cover-
ed "Ain't No Sunshine"). I use the word "deceptive" because
Withers could jettison the casual as needed. Just listen to
the "I know" section of "Sunshine." The breath control!
Next time you hear it, try to sing along. You'll run
out of steam long before Bill. Deceptive indeed.

As the 1970s progressed, and I moved from elementary to high
school, Withers remained part of my life as new acts took on his
catalog. Initial interpreters included Isaac Hayes and Scott Walk-
("Ain't No Sunshine") and Ike and Tina Turner ("Use Me").

In the decades to come, they gave way to Grace Jones ("Use Me"),
Me'Shell NdegéOcello ("Who Is He And What Is He to You"), and
Club Nouveau ("Lean on Me"). Chances are you've forgotten all
about the latter, and I couldn't blame you. Well, their biggest hit
just happened to be a Bill Withers cover. But that isn't the only
reason I remember them. It's because I grew up in Alaska and
the band had roots in Anchorage. Not many do, so that made an
impact. (I even reviewed one of their concerts for The Anchor-
age Times
.) Interestingly, it was Club Nouveau's now-forgotten
rendition that led to a songwriting Grammy for Withers in 1987.

More Withers covers came along in the 1990s and 2000s. Artists
of note include Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mark Eitzel ("Ain't
No Sunshine") and Aaron Neville and Holly Golightly ("Use Me").
He may not have the name recognition of Stevie Wonder, but
Withers will never be forgotten. And I realize they don't sound
much alike, but I'll always associate the two because of "Ain't No
Sunshine" and Talking Book's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."

This 2003 remaster features his two best long-players on one disc,
Just As I Am
(1971) and Still Bill (1972). (The All Music Guide
claims that Withers was born in 1938, while the liners claim '41.)
According to the sticker on the front: "Session backing by Booker
T. Jones and the MGs, Stephen Stills, and the Watts 103rd St.
Rhythm Band [the architects behind NWA favorite "Express Your-
self"]." That's a partial explanation for his success right there.
(Booker T. also co-produced Just As I Am.) I mean, it isn't just a-
bout the relaxed voice and the plainspoken words, but the music--
and the music is good. Folk, funk, jazz, and blues: It's all in there.

Aside from the hits and other
self-penned songs, the set features
two covers and two bonus tracks.
"Everybody's Talkin'" and "Let It Be"
appear on Just As I Am, and
they're not bad, but I prefer the
originals. Then again, Harry Nils-
son was another childhood favo-
rite. He may not have written Mid-
night Cowboy
's "Everybody's Talk-
in'"--Fred Neil did the honors--but
his rendition will always be definitive. The added cuts are "Better Days" from the Man and Boy soundtrack (1971) and "It's All Over Now" (1975), a crazed duet on the Dylan classic with Bobby Wo-
mack. (Man and Boy, incidentally, was a Bill Cosby Western.)

If you don't own any Bill Withers recordings, bypass the great-
est hits collections and start here. All of his best material is on
these two albums. A darker, more distinctive proposition, Still Bill
may be superior, but both are great. (The way "Lean on Me" fol-
lows "Use Me," which follows "Who Is He and What Is He To You"
makes it one of the great trilogies in modern music.) Like a lot of
my favorite artists from the early-1970s--Stevie Wonder and
Harry Nilsson, to name but two--Bill makes the kind of music
that always sounds just right, no matter the time or place.

***** ***** ***** *****

Lean on Me

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you're not strong

And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

Please swallow your pride

If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you don't let show.

Lean on me, when you're not strong

And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

If there is a load you have to bear

That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me.

So just call on me brother, when you need a hand

We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'd understand
We all need somebody to lean on.

Lean on me when you're not strong

And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
Till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

Lean on me...

Endnote: Images from the AMG, lyrics from Lyrics007. Fun
fact from his bio: "Withers was briefly married to actress Denise
Nicholas (ABC-TV's Room 222 and the 1972 horror film Blacula)
in the early '70s." (The paranoid numbers on Still Bill were, sup-
posedly, inspired by their relationship.) Other notable singles in-
clude "Lovely Day" (1977) and "Just the Two of Us" (1981). Other
soundtrack appearances include 1997's Jackie Brown ("Who Is He
And What Is He to You?"), 1999's Notting Hill ("Aint No Sunshine"),
and 1999's American Beauty. Also, the Morgan Freeman film Lean
on Me
(1989) takes its title from the song of the same name.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Children of Men

Various, The World Is Gone, XL Recordings

I like the style of the pen and ink drawings that decorate this debut, but I find illustrator David Bray's imagery kind of, well, icky, i.e. topless women battling forest creatures. Perhaps, if he'd rendered them with some degree of humor, but no, it's all pretty po-faced, expect for the sleepy-eyed lass on the back, gratefully accepting a cherry from a bird. The woman on the front [right] is wreaking havoc on an elk's antlers (the beast's intricately-rendered form is depicted on the second panel). The woman inside appears to be pleasuring herself with one hand while a wolf devours the other [below left]. Both are wearing black string bikinis and spike heels. If there's a message here, I'm missing it.

But as they say on KEXP, it's the music that matters. The World Is Gone isn't a various artists collection, and yet it is. I mean, Adam and Ian are producers who call on a number of unnamed vocalists. They are, therefore, like a various artists collective. The singer on the folk-oriented "Circle of Sorrow," for instance, sounds a lot like Helene Gautier of Starless & Bible Black, which is a very good thing indeed (even if she isn't). The rest were unfamiliar to me.

Like the much-admired Burial, Various are practitioners of dubstep. There's a lot of deep, echoey reverberation going on here (and I don't mean the psych-flavored 13th Floor Elevators kind). Bristol's Massive Attack and Tricky
are two acts that come to mind, but I'm reminded even more of the New Age Steppers--again, a very good thing indeed. That said, I'm not sure why writers don't refer to this kind of music as dub, electronica, or
trip-hop. Are these terms considered tired or played-out?
(My guess: yes.) The unintended consequence is that the sounds emerging from Various and Britain's other dubsteppers may end up having a short shelf life. Why condemn them to such a fate when they're just getting started and haven't infiltrated the US
yet? This is a fine album, and it deserves a wide audience.

My point is that I hear a continuum between this record and those of Adrian Sherwood's UK-based On-U Sound label, which was most active in the 1980s. Besides the Steppers, his stable included Tackhead, African Head Charge, and house band Creation Rebel (all of whom, like Various, depended on the kindness of guest vocalists). There isn't any reggae on this release, but then not all On-U Sound acts utilized Jamaican riddims. Because these 12 tracks are dark, yet melodic, I'm also reminded of 4AD supergroup This Mortal Coil. The vocalists, both male and female, are subtle and yet they can really sing. Think Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Elizabeth Frazier (Cocteau Twins), etc. I don't think any of them would take offense if someone described their work as "pretty," even if the lyrics are on the introspective/despondent side.

The reason for the lack of press photos is because Adam and Ian prefer to be known by their music and by Bray's distinctive art. I'm not sure I agree with that approach--there's nothing crass about taking credit for your work--but two first names are better than none. It remains to be seen whether Various has a long career ahead of them or whether their anonymity gives way to pop posturing. Whether you call it dub, dubstep, or even dub-folk, all I know is that they've released one of the best albums of the year.

Endnote: Various plays their first-ever US show on Saturday, February 17th at Seattle's Chop Suey (21+, $10 advance).
Images from XL Recordings and Igloo Magazine.

Friday, February 02, 2007

My Funny Valentine

These are the reviews
(and other assignments)
I'm working on this month.

Amazon CDs: Belinda Carlisle - Voilà (Go-Go's front woman takes on the chanson), Sondre Lerche - Phantom Punch (Lerche goes power-pop), Fall Out Boy - In-
finity on High
, Gym Class Heroes - As Cruel as School Children
(dig that Supertramp sample), Hellogoodbye - Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!, and Matt Wertz - Everything in Between.

Amazon DVDs: The Cuban Masterworks Collection (Viva La Revolución!) [five-disc set], Beauty and the Beast - The First Season [six-disc set] [Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman], The Rockford Files - Season Three [five-disc set] (click here for sea.
two review), Family Ties - The Complete First Season [four-disc
, The Silence of the Lambs - Two-Disc Collector's Edition [ex-
tras only]
, Le Petit Lieutenant [click here for Siffblog review], Crossover (Anthony Mackie plays street ball), and My Country, My Country (Oscar-nominated doc about the Iraq occupation).

Amazon Theatricals: God Grew Tired of Us (doc about the
Lost Boys of Sudan), The Lives of Others (Oscar nominee for best
foreign-language film), Bridge to Terabithia (fine family film), and
Amazing Grace
(Michael Apted on Britain's abolition movement).

Resonance: "Songs Destroyed by David
Lynch," sidebar to my interview with the man.

Siffblog: An interview with Robinson Devor and a re-
vamped version of a 2005 interview with Gregg Araki.

Endnote: When I think about Valentine's Day, I think about "My Funny Valentine." When I think about "My Funny Valentine," I think about Chet Baker. Sometimes I think about Elvis Costello, but even he would probably admit that Baker's version is superior.

Personally, I find the lyrics off putting, i.e. I love you despite your
physical imperfections. Why go there? We're all imperfect. I feel
the same way about Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes Are Noth-
ing Like the Sun,"
which seems to have served as inspiration. Bak-
er renders the point moot. He could hum the song and it would be
just as effective. It's the melody more than the words. Give him a
chance, he'll break your heart. Image from the All Music Guide.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Inspiration Information

Shortly after reviewing the Criterion Collection edition of Border Radio, her first film (directed with Kurt Voss and Dean Lent), I stumbled across Allison Anders' list of her top 10 Criterion Collection DVDs. Sure, I'm a fan, but I took a look out of curiosity more than anything else. Her explanations behind the choices, however, are much richer than I had any right to expect. I mean, this is pretty much her history as both filmgoer and filmmaker (the two are indivisible).

Here's the introduction. Click here for thoughts on her selections.

Wow, this assignment kicked my ass in a glorious way!
As with everyone before me, picking just ten Criterion
classics is too daunting; so you have to find a system that
allows you to play a favorites game, all the while knowing
there are others you have left out that you love as much
but maybe have less original things to say about.

Despite our disparate backgrounds--she grew up in a different place (Kentucky) and in a different era (the 1950s)--her personal, yet resonant responses make me want to run out and buy every single one of these DVDs. Right now. Bank account balance be damned. Bless you, Ms. Anders, for furthering the noble cause of cinephilia! And bless you, Criterion Collection, for just being you.

Endnote: Inspiration Information is the title of an album by Shuggie Otis, son of Johnny. It includes the original version of "Strawberry Letter 23," later covered by the Brothers Johnson. One of my favorite funk-pop hits of the 1970s. Image from Rialto.