Friday, September 25, 2009

Rediscover: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

if the Confederacy had won, there's wouldn't be a so be thankful.

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

"What if?" is perhaps the most common, if largely pointless and entirely speculative, question raised about the American Civil War (or, for those stuck in an antebellum mindset, "The War of Northern Aggression"). Despite its inherent absurdity, this question's bastard offspring - the alternative history genre - remains popular, as people of a certain persuasion will never tire of fantasized accounts of how Lee's rout of them foul Yankees at Gettysburg reshaped the course of American history for the better.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America begins with this familiar premise of a victorious Johnny Reb army but presents the aftermath in a far different light. Directed by Kevin Willmott, this 2004 mockumentary depicts America as a slave-owning and homogeneous Christian nation of the worst kind, its citizens convinced of their racial superiority and its government dominated by leaders singularly dedicated to maintaining the segregationist status quo. Cynical without being preachy and never prone to bouts of self-righteous proselytizing, C.S.A. is alternative history that is humorous, sobering and provocative.

C.S.A. is presented as a British Broadcasting Service documentary finally being aired on American television after a couple years of censorship; hinting at the prevalence of American xenophobia, the network warns that the documentary "is of foreign origin" and "may be unsuitable for children and servants." The film is presented from three different and usually contrasting perspectives. In his objective and detached tone, the British narrator actually advances the central theme of how racial prejudices become ingrained in a given society. Historian Sherman Hoyle, portrayed with just the right amount of exaggerated Southern mannerisms by Rupert Pate, advances the official party line and offers a window into how the Confederacy's legacy has been sanitized and white-washed for mass consumption. University of Montreal professor Patricia Johnson, convincingly played by Evamarii Johnson, is essentially the voice of dissent, her calm and matter-of-fact demeanor exposing the many social injustices that followed in the wake of the Union's surrender in 1864.

Willmott subtly inverts and reshapes the country's history based on actual events. In this way, the Great Depression is ended not by an increase in manufacturing brought on by World War II, but instead by a revived slave trade, while December 7, 1941 is marked by an American attack against Japan as part of the nation's "divinely ordained quest for world domination." Willmott mixes actual reel footage with doctored or invented footage to telling effect. Abraham Lincoln is shown as a frail and defeated old man in 1905, as the historian Hoyle describes the former president as a "lonely and bitter man...almost entirely forgotten by history." Viewers are shown clips of Adolf Hitler's visit to the Confederate States in 1935; the narrator later notes that the country opposed Hitler's eradication of the Jews, instead favoring their enslavement. Demonstrating a sardonic and pessimistic humor of the darkest kind, Willmott suggests that the Confederacy's brand of racial superiority was closely mirrored by that of Hitler's. Willmott's alternative world is also notable for what it excludes: there is no Civil Rights movement or cultural advancements to speak of, the obvious implication being that the systematic persecution of minority groups would have been inevitable had the South actually won the Civil War.

Equally suggestive are the commercials and PSAs that offer glimpses into contemporary Confederate life. Slavery drives the economy in various ways, with most of the products, services and advertisements being presented ironically with a nostalgic quaintness. Several commercials focus on the trappings of fine American living: a spot for Confederate Family Insurance, its logo a dignified image of Jefferson Davis, features a pretty wife, wide-eyed daughter and smiling slave, while viewers are later reminded to tune into the next episode of American Homes and Plantations. Others are more low brow: Sambo Motor Oil is the best way to keep your authentic "Dukes of Hazzard"-model General Lee running, while a law enforcement reality program called Runaway is accompanied by a bluegrass variation of Cops' well-known theme music. Astonishingly, not all these products are as far-fetched or exaggerated as one would think. As the movie closes, it's noted that Darkie Toothpaste and the Coon Chicken Inn actually existed; in the latter case, the restaurant's entrance was that of a wide-grinning train porter.

C.S.A. isn't just a study piece for academics, as this challenging gem is thoroughly compelling and manages to avoid becoming pedantic or dogmatic. It's a film about consolidation of power and how a country's history is framed by the victors. Regardless of whatever euphemisms Southern sympathizers have used over the years to justify the Confederacy's motives - "states rights," "Southern independence" - Willmott suggests this mythologizing has masked one of the defining features of the Civil War-era South: the institutionalized belief of Caucasian superiority and its possible impacts. Whether this forecasted vision of America is accurate - indeed, it presumes that the Confederacy had a realistic chance of winning the war and ignores the fact that slavery was already in decline as the war started - is irrelevant and of course impossible to prove or disprove; in his exaggerated depiction of a country segmented along racial lines, Willmott simply follows the Confederate philosophy to its logical conclusion. With a blend of satire and social commentary, C.S.A. ultimately concludes that America would have been a far less progressive, tolerant and culturally relevant nation had the South prevailed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut

read more kick-arse stuff at

If as a culture we prefer to keep our mortality at a safe and comfortable distance, such an approach has never found its way into Vic Chesnutt's music. The musician whom Michael Stipe rushed into a recording studio for fear of Chesnutt's songs never getting recorded has now been plugging along for more than 20 years, reminding us of our ultimate demise with a mixture of humor, pathos, derision and sympathy. Amid all the bizarre weirdos, tragic figures and other conflicted characters that populate Chesnutt's songs, death has been among the most frequent themes in his music. In most cases these meditations on the Great Beyond have been accompanied by the musician's darkly cynical humor, whether it's in the starkly arranged suicide lament of "Florida," the ancestral invocations of "Aunt Avis" or the poor, "coldest cadaver in the state," who meets an icy and altogether unpleasant end in "Mr. Reilly."

Chesnutt again stares down death throughout much of At the Cut. The suicide fantasy of "When The Bottom Fell Out" can be interpreted either literally or metaphorically; minimally arranged with just Chesnutt on acoustic guitar, its narrator describing himself hurling toward the earth, sardonically quoting Woody Guthrie on the way down ("So long/ It's been good to know ye"), eventually crashing into "that verdant grass." "Flirted With You All My Life," an alternately strong-willed and cowering address to death, is impossible not to view as autobiographical, with references to both Chesnutt's own suicide attempts ("I flirted with you all my life/ Even kissed you once or twice") and a friend's suicide (perhaps the poet John Seawright or Steve Buczko, who "hit those nails on the head" in "Florida"). The song is ultimately ambivalent; though the singer realizes that he's not ready to die, the last image we're left with is of Chesnutt's "cancer sick" mother reduced to begging for death to come.

A sense of remembrance ties several songs together. Though these tracks stop short of consolation, they nevertheless imply that there's some comfort to be found in such fleeting memories. Chesnutt offers a somewhat uncharacteristically straightforward vocal approach on the delicate "Concord Country Jubilee" as he recalls a series of childhood events and images - scraped knees, homemade ice cream and an adolescent kiss - that take place within the innocent atmosphere of a county fair. Chesnutt's grandmother, a frequent figure in the musician's songs, makes an appearance in the sparsely arranged and truly heartbreaking "Granny," in which Chesnutt recalls snippets of phrases and mundane everyday details from his beloved grandmother. The song speaks to the sense of loss that is felt throughout the album as well as the tight bond that unites family members across different generations. When Chesnutt quotes his grandmother - "You are the light of my life/ And the beat of my heart-" it's both tender and troubling, the type of simple phrase from a loved one that we all carry in our minds and remember with both affection and a sometimes unshakable sadness.

Musically, At the Cut recalls both Chesnutt's folk leanings as well as the jagged edges that dominated North Start Deserter. In some ways this isn't surprising, as the singer sometimes carries songs with him for years before they land on an album (some fans may recognize "Coward," "When The Bottom Fell Out" and "Granny" from various live recordings). Regardless, the album is better balanced than Deserter, which sometimes sounded overly abrasive just for the hell of it. Deserter collaborators, including members of A Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi and producer Howard Bilerman again give the album muscle: after a tentative beginning, "Coward" explodes with an imposing wall of noise and severe strings that cut and stab, "Philip Guston (with Clark Coolidge)" finds Chesnutt snarling his vocals over a flood of guitars and the hacking-the-shit-out-of-a-tree tale of "Chinaberry Tree" is suitably aggressive and tense. A flood of images cascades over squalls of guitars and piercing strings in "It Is What It Is," which in many ways sounds like an updated version of the atheist declarations of "Speed Racer:" "I'm not a pagan/ I don't worship anything/ Not gods that don't exist/ Nor the sun which is oblivious/... And I don't need stone altars/ To help me hedge my bet/ Against the looming blackness."

This assertion is perhaps At the Cut's most singular vow of defiance in an album littered with conflicting emotions. Mortality and memories flood its songs in an unnerving mix of hope and despair, determination and defeat, and Chesnutt's self-described tendency towards being "painfully nostalgic" takes on a more urgent tone throughout the album. Though a few songs never quite emerge from these dark shadows - the falsetto singing of "We Hovered With Short Wings" deadens one of Chesnutt's more poetic efforts, while "Chain" is the record's least memorable track - this release contains an affecting and moving set of songs that mostly plays to Chesnutt's strengths as a musician and lyricist. While its inclusions offer numerous parallels to Chesnutt's back catalog, rarely have his songs sounded so unflinching. When it comes to songs about dying and the past Vic Chesnutt has never bullshitted. Judging from this album, it's clear he doesn't plan to start that anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Damon & Naomi: The Sub Pop Years

everyone cool is going to they told me so.

The Sub Pop Years will try the patience of even the most enthusiastic and sympathetic Damon & Naomi fan. At 15 tracks and over 70 minutes, it paradoxically showcases everything great about the duo's blend of understated arrangements and hazy atmospherics, while also exposing the group's tendency to hit on a formula and repeat it well past the point of decency. The result is a steady, if largely underwhelming and predictable compilation that serves as a passable introduction to the duo for the uninitiated but offers nothing for long-time fans wanting to view the duo's body of work from a new perspective.

At its best, The Sub Pop Years confirms that Damon & Naomi's greatest strength has always been their ability to craft melodies, accentuating them with layered instrumental accents and ethereal vocals. Drawing from material from the band's four Sub Pop efforts - The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi, Playback Singers, Damon & Naomi with Ghost and Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian - nearly every song is expertly arranged and executed. The best tracks here - "Forgot to Get High," "In the Sun" and "How Long" - unfold deliberately, maintaining their dreamy dispositions without resorting to needless embellishments or clutter. This compilation is at least a reminder that the two are masters of utilizing music to create moods and convey tones.

Despite these charms, the release is ultimately a disappointment that's plagued with many of the shortcomings that listeners have come to expect from such compilations. The band's first (and some would argue, most consistent) post-Galaxie 500 effort, More Sad Hits, is excluded, as it was released prior to the band joining the Sub Pop stable. The result is an incomplete overview: neophytes looking for a good starting point will miss one key piece of the puzzle, while long-time fans will likewise have little incentive to purchase the album, as there are no outtakes, b-sides, alternate versions or even botched cover songs to whet such appetites.

The track order is equally perplexing and doesn't appear to follow any appreciable or recognizable pattern, with the songs sequenced randomly. Though the duo will never be accused of experimenting wildly with new styles - in hindsight, the overdubs and other embellishments of with Ghost weren't a dramatic departure for the band - they have made some minimal stylistic changes throughout the years, and a chronological running order might have made this evolution, however slight, more apparent.

There's also plenty to quibble about regarding the songs chosen: nine of the 15 tracks are drawn from with Ghost and Siren, which haven't aged particularly well and still border on being tediously monotonous. Most of the selections are cut from a very similar cloth - falsetto vocals, gentle arrangements, simple and inoffensive flourishes - and quickly become repetitive. Ultimately, The Sub Pop Years reaffirms that Damon & Naomi have always been best served in small doses. Though the duo hasn't exactly remained musically static since Galaxie 500 disbanded, such shifts have been via small, careful steps and not giant leaps. Such an approach is reliable and safe but makes for an unsurprising and mostly inessential retrospective. With nothing new included on this release - surely there's some worthy material in a vault somewhere - and a heavy emphasis on the band's less enthralling records, casual fans will get only part of the story, while lifers will have already heard it all before.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Brown Recluse [sings]: The Soft Skin EP

go to again. and again.

As music fans, many of us tend to approach the EP with all the disdain and loathing usually reserved for a contagious disease or a crazy uncle, and in many cases for good reason. Numerous EPs have been executed poorly and were rightly met with a critical and commercial thud, these releases often being little more than a rushed and hurried document of a young band blindly groping in the dark and getting nowhere. Though there are exceptions, too often it's hard to shake the feeling that an EP offers nothing more than a band's scraps, droppings and rancid leftovers.

The Soft Skin EP, a concise and infectious piece of indie pop from (currently) five-piece band Brown Recluse [sings], shows that this stigma doesn't always apply. If one of the goals of an EP is to spark interest in a band and whet a listener's appetite for a full-length album, The Soft Skin is a success. Though it's difficult to get too amped up about this EP due to its length - its 4 songs barely break the 11-minute mark - it does enough to confirm the band knows how to present its stylistic strengths on record.

It's likely that The Soft Skin will be most listeners' first introduction to the band. Though Brown Recluse [sings] eventually received a proper but belated label release for their 2006 EP, Black Sunday, their previous efforts were self-released in extremely limited quantities. For those unfamiliar with the band, this new EP is a worthwhile starting point. The band's bouncy and dreamy arrangements recall Os Mutantes and especially Belle & Sebastian; the latter band's influence finds its way both into Timothy Meskers' vocals and the songs' frequent use of horns. Each song is insidiously catchy, though in a good way; both opener "Rotten Tangerines" and closer "Contour and Context" display hints of country rhythm liberally mixed with horns, while "Night Train" offers a nice blend of keyboards, horns and backing vocals and "Rainy Saturday" rolls along with a quirky vocal and musical cadence. Meskers' vocals are occasionally deceptive, as sometimes the song's sentiments - "the pressures of the working world" hang ominously in "Rainy Saturday," for example - sharply contrast with the songs' upbeat arrangements.

The question now is whether Brown Recluse [sings] can sustain its style over the course of an album without sounding repetitive or derivative. This EP is certainly promising; there are no sour notes and the self-indulgent pretentiousness that plagues countless indie acts is entirely absent here. While the band's sound and approach aren't revolutionary or even very experimental, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Soft Skin might just be a tiny little taste when listeners want a great big gulp, but the band's latest EP is solid and surprising enough to both separate Brown Recluse [sings] from the hordes of like-minded bands and suggest that they have potential to spare.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

by Barney Hoskyns

Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Broadway Books

That's right: another fucking Tom Waits biography. Despite (or perhaps because of) Waits' consistent refusal to sanction an authorized overview of his life and work, in recent years we've been subjected to a steady piss stream of disappointing studies of the musician that relied heavily on previously published material. Separate entries by Jay S. Jacobs and Patrick Humphries glaringly revealed all the pitfalls in examining Waits, offering few insights into either the artist or his albums. Both books were largely inessential; any reader with an internet connection and a functioning frontal lobe could have simply read the interviews that formed the basis of both books.

Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits does little to deny that another Waits biography is wholly unnecessary. Although Hoskyns managed to wrangle fresh quotes from a few Waits associates like Bones Howe and Ralph Carney - both of whom have an axe to grind about perceived slights from Waits - Waits and his inner circle clammed up and denied access for Hoskyns. Thus the majority of the information here will be redundant to anyone familiar with Waits' work and the various half-truths, fabrications, total bullshit tales and rare bouts of genuine sincerity with which he peppers his interviews and concerts. Despite its ambitious reach - it's exhaustively researched and runs 500 pages in length - Lowside too often reads like little more than a flat and generic rehash of Waits' life and music.

First the good stuff. For those unfamiliar with Waits this book is a decent starting point, as it covers the musician's career in painstaking detail and is up to date as of the recent Glitter and Doom tour. Like almost everything Hoskyns has written (his Across the Great Divide: The Band and America is indispensable), the book is well composed and carefully crafted, with a readable style that is never tedious or plodding. To Hoskyns' credit, he offers a balanced and impartial portrait of the musician, despite apparent attempts from Waits' camp to discourage various artists and producers from contributing to the book (the author even goes to the trouble of documenting such cases in an appendix). If Hoskyns' felt slighted or pissed off by such roadblocks, it never comes through in his writing, and in fact, his portrayal of Waits is largely sympathetic and flattering.

Despite these charms, Lowside is ultimately underwhelming and exhibits the same flaws as every other Waits biography. Foremost is its reliance on Waits' old interviews. Since the typical Waits interview, with its tall tales and bizarre metaphors, is akin to negotiating a minefield of lies, it's a dicey proposition to use such interviews so extensively. Of course Hoskyns isn't to blame here, though it begs the question of whether another Waits biography is even worth the author's or reader's effort.

Other shortcomings are less forgivable. Too much time is spent debating the closely guarded persona of Tom Waits, with Hoskyns coming precariously close to armchair psychology in trying to analyze Waits the person vs. Waits the persona. The book is also excessively long. With an approach that only the most dedicated fan will likely appreciate, Hoskyns offers a song-by-song interpretation of virtually every Waits tune, with page after page dedicated to this analysis chock full of the usual buzzwords used to describe Waits' songs. Many of Hoskyns' conclusions and assumptions are debatable; worse, he periodically makes the classic critic's mistake of taking too much license when analyzing the songs, frequently going outside the songs' boundaries or viewing them in entirely biographical terms. In this way, Hoskyns describes "Ruby's Arms" as a "gesture of concern" for former flame Rickie Lee Jones and short-changes the geographically ambiguous "Hoist That Rag" as little more than an example of "anti-Rumsfeld rage," with no evidence offered to support such conclusions.

Though Hoskyns is usually rightly skeptical of much of what Waits has said in interviews and concert performances over the years, he sometimes accepts some of the Waits lore as pure fact. Did the Ox-Bow Incident story, recounted in hilarious detail in Waits' 1999 "VH-1 Storytellers" set, actually happen? Was the "Mr. Sticha" name-checked in "What's He Building?" actually a neighbor of Waits? Though Hoskyns' bullshit radar is usually attuned - he does a nice job of including quotes from Waits that seem sincere and honest - these stories are presented as fact without any skepticism. And, last but not least, the author misidentifies the surreal country-nightmare Missouri town of Branson as "Branford."

Certainly Hoskyns was dealt a difficult hand, as Waits and many people he's worked with declined to contribute to the book. That Waits is interested in maintaining a sense of privacy and managing his public persona is well known by now. One can't help but think the artist takes a perverse pleasure as writers and fans alike trip over themselves trying to understand him. Lowside of the Road is a good introduction to Waits for the uninitiated, though hardcore fans - and really, with Waits is there any other kind? - will likely be disappointed with this biography. Despite Hoskyns' best efforts, Waits remains elusive. One can't help but think this is exactly what the musician wants.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Drive-By Truckers: The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008)

A vault-clearing project is, by definition, at a disadvantage before its content even reaches a listener's ears. Usually consisting of sundry and substandard outtakes best suited for the guillotine, drunken "interpretations" of other artists' work and other abominations, such releases tend to offer little more than an artist or band turning their unwanted children loose, quite literally, at the listener's expense. Of course there will always be notable exceptions - the first Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, the more-recent Tom Waits Orphans set - but too often these releases simply remind listeners why such songs were originally relegated to the dustbin of a band's history.

Drive-By Truckers mostly manages to avoid this stigma throughout The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008). Featuring select recordings from the band's post-Southern Rock Opera period, with a slight emphasis on the Dirty South era, the album is consistently strong and cohesive, often sounding more like a proper studio album than a collection of discarded refuse. Perhaps this is to be expected, as the band spent time in the studio pounding the songs into shape, instead of leaving them in various states of undress and foisting the scraps onto the public. Likely to appeal to both those familiar with the group as well as fans who stopped listening after Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South, this release shows the band occasionally wandering outside its comfort zone, showcasing the fine qualities that separate DBT from its less innovative country-rock brethren.

While no artist will likely ever match Dylan for bizarre and inscrutable album omissions - think "Blind Willie McTell" and go from there - one has to wonder why several of the stronger tracks here didn't appear on one of the band's previous releases. Opener "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues" takes the country music icon's 1999 automobile crash as its starting point and finds the Truckers at their raucous best: Patterson Hood's drawled vocals, a driving rhythm and a few testosterone-laden guitars. It's a road song from a band whose catalog is dotted with them, its images whirling by in a blur. An alternate take of "Goode's Field Road" is likewise muscular and aggressive, actually surpassing the cut included on Brighter Than Creation's Dark. "Uncle Frank," with its perpetually beaten-down hero, whose life ends in suicide, is similarly reworked to devastating effect. The album also suggests that the band is equally adept at interpreting other artists' songs. Looking past its tortuously sincere Southern mythologizing, the rendition of Tom Petty's "Rebels" could actually pass for a DBT original. The Warren Zevon songs "Play It All Night Long" and "Ain't That Pretty At All" are cross-bred with bastardized lyrics but stay true to both songs' manic intensity, paying tribute to the deceased musician, while album-closing "Like a Rolling Stone" doesn't massacre the Dylan classic like countless other versions.

Yet, it's when the volume is turned down where The Fine Print's best moments occur. Sung by Jason Isbell in his best wounded voice and utilizing only sparse instrumentation, "TVA" is a beautifully moving track that traces a family's history against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the economic and cultural changes brought about by the FDR's New Deal. Far bleaker in tone but equally reserved in execution, the band's cover of Tom T. Hall's 1971 soldier's lament "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)" is impossible not to view in contemporary terms. Though the song and its lyrics won't ever be accused of being subtle, the interpretation here retains a certain poignancy and relevance for modern listeners.

Other songs, like the Santa-slaying sex and murder fantasy of "Mrs. Claus' Kimono," the somewhat tedious "The Great Car Dealer War" and the plodding "When the Well Runs Dry," are curiosity pieces at best and far from essential. Even if Drive-By Truckers' unique blend of Southern hypocrisies and dignity can become repetitive at times - "a bunch of sharecroppers against the world" indeed - The Fine Print is about as good as a compilation album can be. Those looking for the Southern desperation and dignity that have made the band's name will find plenty of that here, but other songs break from these confines and prove that the band, despite its popular image, does not always operate within the boundaries of the South's conflicted past. One wonders what other gems are still safely tucked away inside that vault.