Saturday, November 29, 2008

Essential Elegance

Various Artists, Just Like Heav-
en: a Tribute to the Cure, Ameri-
can Laundromat Records [1/27/09]

After Dinosaur Jr. sunk their substantial chops into "Just Like
Heaven," they rendered all subsequent Cure covers superfluous. It's not that Robert Smith's lipstick-smeared combo crafted ridi-
culously complex songs. On the contrary, admirers tend to em-
bellish them needlessly, instead of finding a way to preserve their
essential elegance. J. Mascis, Murph, et al got the balance right.

Of the 16 tracks on Just Like Heaven
, Dean & Britta and the Wedding Present provide the finest. Respectively: a drowsy "Fri-
day I'm in Love" and rambunctious "High." Other than stripping things down and playing with the pace, they honor the original material. Kitty Karlyle provides the weakest, an overly-emphat-

ic "In Between Days." Though perfectly competent, it's just too
emo (the emotion is already implicit in the words and melody).

Other notable interpreters include Tanya Donnelly, the Rose-
buds, and
the Submarines. Overall: neither bad, nor embar-
rassing; the entire enterprise is just largely...extraneous.

Click here for my interview with Dinosaur Jr.

Copper Sails, Hiding Place, self-released [1/13/09]

A lot of bands get compared to U2...because a lot of bands
sound like U2. Virginia's Copper Sails don't sound exactly

like the Irish quartet—they also recall Coldplay—but Boomer
Muth (bass) has a Bono thing going on, while Jonathan Crawley
(guitar) has an Edge thing going on (pianist Kyle Crosby and
drummer Jim Courtney complete the line-up). Even lyrics
like "I'm still lost" recall lyrics like "I still haven't found what
I'm looking for." Similarly, Hiding Place is earnest, melo-
dic, and features mixing by Mitch Easter and master-
ing by Greg Calbi who's done the same for...U2.

Fugitive Kind, You're Being
Watched, Castor + Pollux [1/13/09]

Indie-rock is just a marketing term!!
-- From their MySpace Page

Amen, brothers and sisters. Produced by Ed Stasium (Ramones,

Soul Asylum), Boston's Fugitive Kind grind out hard, danceab-
le rock on You're Being Watched, a throwback to the days of
Heart, Quarterflash, and Alanis Morrisette (Lydia Marsala has a
Morrisette warble to her voice). Like too many indie outfits, they
could pass for a major label act, and this disc is most likely a bid
for a deal, i.e. a demo in all but name. As an independent adher-
ent, it doesn't do much for me, but I wish them the best. Plus,
they give a website shout-out to the underrated Shivaree.

Leopold and His Fiction, Ain't No
Surprise, Native Fiction Records

The important thing is not
to achieve, but to strive.
-- Aldo Leopold (quote

from the CD booklet)

There are no Leopolds in
Leopold and His Fic-
tion, but rather Daniel
James (vocals, guitar, bass, organ, percussion) and Ben Cook (drums, Wurlitzer). To their credit, these San Francisco citizens

don't bring to mind musical images of the Black Keys, the White
Stripes, or any other contemporaneous duos. Instead, they in-
habit the more shadowy, reverb-drenched territory of the Doors,
the Black Angels, and Devendra Banhart. Though the organ and
the tambourine add a pleasingly retro element, Leopold
never enters the living graveyard of '60s revivalists.

Note: the band's bio cites a line-up change. Cook is out;
Micayla Grace (bass) and Jon Sortland (drums) are in.

Sarah Rabdau and Self-Employed Assassins,
self-titled, Say It with Scissors Records [1/20/09]

Alternative pop with a classical swagger.
-- From her MySpace Page

As indicated by the cover—the ivory-complected singer dab-
bled in rose-red blood—Boston's Sarah Rabdau shoots for
the stars. Her method: italicized vocals layered atop cinemat-
ic backdrops (heavy on mournful cello and minor-key piano).

It's pop music as theater; not musical theater mind you, but
Rabdau performs in both the musical and actor-oriented sense
of the word. She modulates carefully, moving methodically from
sotto voce to operatic trill. Truth be told, it isn't my cup of Dar-
jeeling, but I tip my (metaphorical) toque to her talent.

The Refugees, Unbound, Wabuho Records

The veteran musicians in the Refugees pluck, strum, and
harmonize their way through 12 tracks in the country-poli-
tan vein of the Dixie Chicks. No one will mistake Unbound
for a Wilco or Son Volt offshoot. No will they confuse the trio's
full-length debut for any kind of alt-country release, and hip-
sters might not appreciate the way vocalists/multi-instrum-
entalists Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland, and Wendy Wald-
man reference Boomer acts like the Byrds and the Eag-
les. But I'll be damned if they don't do it well.

Endnote: This year marked the release of the 13th Cure al-
bum and yet another covers compilation called Perfect as Cats:
a Tribute to the Cure
(featuring Bat for Lashes and the Dandy War-
hols). For more information about the latter, please click here; for
Copper Sails, here or here; for Fugitive Kind, here; for Leo-
pold and His Fiction, here or here; for Sarah Rabdau, here
or here; and for the Refugees, here or here. Images from
Why Pamper Life's Complexity and Planetary Group.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Revved Up

I first heard Mercury Rev's Yerself Is Steam while volunteering
at KCMU in 1991. My first thought: Wow. Pop-psych nirvana (small
"n"). Tracks like "Chasing a Bee," "Coney Island Cyclone"—I loved 'em
all...even if I had no idea what David Baker was going on about. It
didn't matter. It was the era of the Flaming Lips and the Spacemen 3, and the vibe was king. Even the hazy neon-green packaging was cool.

Click here for the non-LP track video, "Car Wash Hair"

Then came 1993's Boces, and I wondered if I hadn't overeacted to the Buffalo's band's first record. Goofy cover aside, I didn't think their follow-up was bad; just that it was, by comparison, underwhelming.

So I moved on to other mus-
ical space cases, like Spiritual-
ized and Spectrum, and forgot
all about the Rev
(I also lost
interest in the post-indie lab-
el Flaming Lips, but that's a
story for another day...).

From time to time, I would hear a Rev track on KCMU as it turn-
ed into KEXP or I would catch a video, like the Anton Corbijn-directed "Goddess on a Hiway."
Line-up changes aside—like Jonathan Donahue taking over from Baker—they still sounded good. But I remained underwhelmed.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to review this year's Snowflake Midnight, and found myself impressed all over again. Since I haven't heard any of their albums since Boces from start to finish, maybe I've been missing out or maybe the group really did lose the plot for a while there. I have no idea, but this record is a stunner. Click here for the short version; read on the full-length review.

"Butterfly's Wings"

Mercury Rev, Snowflake Midnight, Yep Roc

When they emerged from upstate New York
in 1989, pundits proclaimed Mercury Rev
neo-psychedelic guitar gods to rank with the
Flaming Lips (with whom they shared num-
erous ties). On Snowflake Midnight, the
intrepid trio enters the world of the machine.
Rev's seventh full-length, in other words, is an electronic record. Filled with references to forest creatures, it represents more of a change in tools than direction, since the introspective threesome retain their ties to psychedelia and shoegaze. Better yet, longtime associate Dave Fridmann (the 'Lips, Sleater-Kinney) handles the production reins, and the results, though initially surprising, nev-
er sounds like the work of dilettantes. While all nine selections ebb and flow in volume, like a shortwave radio half-heard in a dream, a few maintain a steadier motorik-meets-mutant disco pulse, such as "Snowflake in a Hot World" and "Runaway Raindrop," which re-
call New Order or the Pet Shop Boys after a dose of Thoreau (no, really). With Jonathan Donahue's woozy vocals bobbing along the waves, Snowflake Midnight proves that a veteran band can re-invent themselves without losing the plot. The revitalized Rev issued the disc alongside instrumental download companion Strange Attractor, available through their website.

Endnote: Though Strange Attractor is a free download, us-
ers first need to sign up for the Mercury Rev newsletter (hey,
there's no such thing as a free lunch). And though I normally
try not to judge CDs by their covers, the backlit bunny photo-
graph emblazoned across Snowflake Midnight only makes
me like it more. Images from the band, their label, and Amazon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Piano Tuners of Strange Imagery:
An Interview with the Brothers Quay

From time to time, I'll be excavating unedited versions of interviews that aren't otherwise available online. To that end, here's the first draft of my conversation with the Brothers Quay. Because I was unable to record our call, there aren't many direct or in-depth quotations, but I took as many notes as I possibly could. The finished edition appears in the 4/07 issue of Resonance, which ceased publication in 2/08.

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

Welcome to a shadow world where plastic dolls walk, stuffed rab-
bits juggle, and dead opera singers return to life. That description
can only apply to the handiwork of filmmaking twins Stephen and Timothy Quay (born 1947), better known as the Brothers Quay.

Starting in January, a program of their short films will be traveling to select US cities. The British Film Institute has also produced a double-disc set, The Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003, which trumps Kino’s single-disc The Brothers Quay Collection: Ten Astonishing Short Films 1984-1993. Due in April from Zeitgeist, the new set includes 13 re-mastered films plus commentaries, an interview, and promotional spots.

Although many twins like to assert their unique personalities, that
doesn't seem to be the case with the Quays. Mention that their entries at the Internet Movie Database are identical, and they con-
firm that their filmographies are exactly the same. Frankly, they would prefer a single entry, suggesting, "If we write 10 letters, and
your friends write 10 letters, maybe we can get them to change that." (Over the line, it's impossible to tell the difference between the two friendly voices—if only telephones were stereophonic!)

Like Joseph Losey, Richard Lester, and Stanley Kubrick,
the Quays moved to England and never looked back. Born
in Norristown, PA, they left for London in 1969. The lure: The Royal College of Art. So, do they feel an affinity with their cin-
ematic predecessors? "Not really,” they answer, almost sad-
ly. "We're just not in the same league." (Au contraire, mes dears.)

What about fellow expatriate Terry Gilliam? "We know Terry,
but he we know him as a friend rather than a fan," they explain. That said, once Gilliam signed on to executive produce The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), in which Catherine Breillat favorite Amira Casar (Romance, Anatomy of Hell) plays the doomed opera
singer, financing fell into place. For that, they remain eternally grateful. After all, 10 years have passed since their full-length deb-
ut, the haunting Institute Benjamenta with future Borg Queen Al-
ice Krige, Mark Rylance (Angels & Insects, Intimacy), and Fass-binder fixture Gottfried John, who returns in The Piano Tuner.

With the extensive in-cam-
era effects that populate their
pictures, amongst other fac-
tors, their features tend to
take longer to complete than those of fellow innerspace explorers Michel Gondry and
Guy Maddin. (The latter, in
his Piano Tuner review for Film Comment, proclaims it “absolutely entrancing!!!")

The Quays, however, are in no rush to start in on a third,
though it isn't out of the question. "We have an idea for some-
thing," they hint. For now, they’re focusing on two installations. "One is in a castle in the north of England, outside of Newcastle." Their task is to fill one of the 25 rooms as they see fit, "to respond to
the space itself." The second is for a Leeds opera celebrating
the 400th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi‘s L’orfeo.

Film, however, is always on their minds, and the brothers men-
tion that they're working on a television project, an adaptation
of Bruno Schultz's Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). Throughout their career, the Quays have often turned
to the Polish writer, along with Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Walser, while artistic inspirations include Max Ernst, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch, and M.C. Escher. For The Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most acclaimed short, they adapted Schultz, and for the B&W Institute Benjamenta (19-
95), they took on Walser's 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten.

In filmmaking terms, the name most often associated with the Brothers Quay is that of Jan Švankmajer, whose latest prov-
ocation is the gleefully wacked Lunacy (2006). Do they remain
in contact with the Czechoslovakian master? "He's a man we made
a documentary about [1984's The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer], and we occasionally meet at film festivals and the like, which is always a pleasure, but we're not in touch. He's just a giant. We
see him more as a teacher and a model." If they had to name one
influence, they insist, it would actually be Polish surrealist-turned-softcore artist Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006).

Like Švankmajer and Borowczyk, did the Quays always intend
to combine animation with live action? (Actors appear in a few shorts, but usually only fleetingly.) "We grew up watching featur-
es and still do," they reply. "It's like a short story writer, who de-
cides he wants to write a novel or a composer who decides he wants to write a symphony. Working in animation allowed both
of us to assemble, to learn all the métiers involved in directing."

Click here to watch the video for His Name Is Alive - "Can't Go Wrong Without You"

The brothers have also directed commercials, MTV promos, and
the 1988-93 "Stille Nacht" video series, featuring the music of Michael Penn and His Name Is Alive (starring a decrepit doll and dexterous bunny). Other efforts of interest: the brothers collab-
orated with Aardman Animations on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgeham-
mer” video and contributed an un-credited sequence to fellow puppeteer Julie Taymor’s Oscar-nominated Frida biopic (2002).

This brings us to computer-generated effects. Are they using more now than when they started out? "No," they
say. Though they shifted from
35mm to high-def, they es-
chew CGI. "Everything is in-camera." Instead, they do "digital replacements” with blue and green screens. Was The Piano Tuner easier to make,
then, because of their experience with Institute Benjamenta?
"Not at all," they lament. "It was like a nail in our coffin. Because
it was so esoteric, it didn't pave the way for a second feature."
(Zeitgeist plans to release The Piano Tuner on DVD in 2007.)

One of the duo’s finest films, Anamorphosis (1991), a mini-
documentary about perspective in art, features the intrigu-
ing phrase, "An image grasped too quickly might not leave a
lasting impression." That could almost be a description of their work. "Yes," they readily agree. "It's a very good term. We're
trying to create a web of sense." But their favorite moviemak-
ing quote comes from Federico Fellini. They paraphrase: "Our duty as storytellers is to bring people to the station.
There each person will choose his or her own train…but
we must at least take them to the station”
with the help
of a few dolls, a stuffed rabbit, and a reanimated opera singer.

Endnote: The Short Films of the Brothers Quay play
SIFF Cinema on 11/23, as part of Zeitgeist: The Films of Our
. The 13-film series, which marks the indie distributor's
20th anniversary, continues through 11/26. SIFF Cinema is located
at 321 Mercer St. in McCaw Hall. For more information, please
call 206-633-7151. While I'm at it, click here for my chat with
Michel Gondry and here for David Lynch. Images from
Time Capsules, Sliced Bread Animation, and Culture Snob.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

November Reviews

These are the reviews and interviews I'm working on this month.

Amazon CDs: Calexico - Carried to Dust, The Dirtbombs -
We Have You Surrounded, Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight, James Hunter - The Hard Way, Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue, M83 - Saturdays = Youth, Mercury Rev - Snowflake Midnight, Shearwater - Rook, and Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls.

Amazon DVDs: The L Word - The Complete Fifth Season
and Up the Yangtze (excellent doc from Canada's Yung Chang).

Amazon Theatricals: Milk (Gus Van Sant directs Sean Penn),
Breakfast with Scot (gay parenting with Ed's Tom Cavanagh),
and Let the Right One In (preteen Swedish vampires are go).

Still playing or yet to open: Burn
after Reading
, I.O.U.S.A.,
Igor, Lake-
view Terrace
Man on Wire, Nick and
Norah's Infinite Playlist
Rachel Get-
ting Married
and Waltz with Bashir.

Siffblog: More chat with Tia
(Trouble the Water)
and a tiny tribute to Catherine Deneuve (A Christmas Tale).

Video Librarian: Frontrunner, Hannah's Story, Like a Ship
in the Night, What's Your Point, Honey?, When I Came Home,
The F Word, In the Family, The Legend of Sasquatch, Hair -
Let the Sun Shine In, Shaun the Sheep - Off the Baa!, Wild
Combination - A Portrait of Arthur Russell [click here for
my Siffblog review], and Wrangler - Anatomy of an Icon.

Endnote: I had the pleasure of writing about the Dirt-
bombs several times this year, and their fourth full-leng-
th, We Have You Surrounded, tops my music list for 2008.

Click here for snaps from their Neumo's gig, here for a con-
cert wrap-up, and here for an alternate record review. The
Detroit five-piece returns to Seattle to play Chop Suey on
11/14. Dirtbombs image from their website, Harvey
image from AfterElton. This is my 300th post.