Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bill Callahan - Rough Travel for a Rare Thing

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No one listens to a Bill Callahan album expecting to be cheered up. The singer's best songs carry with them a sense of desolation and loneliness that is impossible to miss, even if these dark overtones are sometimes offset with dry humor, a resigned shrug or hints of stubborn determination. Throw in arrangements that could squeeze an emotional response out of anyone with a pulse, along with the singer's wobbly baritone, and you've got the makings for some of the most introspective and altogether moving songs in modern indie.

It's fitting, then, that the live Rough Travel for a Rare Thing showcases Callahan's unique ability to create primarily somber music without becoming melodramatic. Taken from a November 2007 performance in Melbourne, its songs are precisely arranged, with Callahan on guitar accompanied by a trio of fiddles, bass, harmonica and drums. This isn't to say that all 11 songs are wrist-slashing weepers - they aren't, as "Diamond Dancer," "Held," "The Well" and "Bathysphere" inject some volume and speed into this show - but it's the mostly solemn tracks that stay lodged in the brain long after the record has ended. With Callahan's world-weary voice and the backing band's frequent touches of strings and other instrumentation, there is an almost unbearable sadness to the live renditions of these songs, especially in the familial histories/tragedies of "Rock Bottom Riser" and "Bowery," the introspection of the mortality-tinged "Say Valley Maker" and the mournful distance of traditional song "In the Pines."

The show's lack of frills suits Callahan's style well; the songs are performed in an understated manner with a sincerity and conviction that emphasize each song's content and composition. There are also a few fever-pitch moments that probably left the Aussie crowd floored, most noticeably Callahan's howls on "The Well" and "Cold-Blooded Old Times" and the rising strings that punctuate "Let Me See the Colts" and "Bowery." It's an outstanding show to represent the artist's first officially released live album, with each song performed uniquely enough to distinguish it from its album counterpart; old standby "Cold-Blooded Old Times" in particular is a highlight, slowed down to a near crawl and featuring alternate lyrics and off-center phrasing, especially on the classic line "How can I stand/ And laugh with the man/ Who redefined your body?."

Rough Travel likewise hits all the main checklist points any legitimate live album should. It consists of a single show instead of a couple dozen tracks culled from various concerts, which is preferable to this reviewer at least. Its sound quality surpasses most of the Callahan shows that circulate unofficially; unlike many of the American shows that make the rounds, there is no idiotic audience chatter to fill those uncomfortable silences between songs or, you know, those distracting minutes where the band is actually playing. The record is also fairly representative of both the musician's Smog and solo careers up to 2007, with tracks from five different albums and one EP included.

Some fans will argue that one of Callahan's more recent 2009 shows - which mixed tracks from Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle with other songs from the singer's 20-plus year career - should have been considered for Rough Travel, and they'd have a point. Still, any quibbles are minor. For the most part Rough Travel is a live album done right and again confirms why Bill Callahan's work is consistently just so damn good: like the artist's best studio efforts, this live document offers the types of subtle melodies and poetic lyricism that few indie musicians can come close to matching.

Rough Travel may leave listeners feeling a little bit morose, but that's to be expected with Callahan's songs. Quite simply, this album is the next best thing to actually seeing Callahan live in concert.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Dunce: Napoleon Dynamite

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I'm not sure it's exactly a compliment being asked to contribute to this particular feature. I can only imagine the conversation that took place when this site's editors were considering writers for it:

Editor-in-Chief: "So which writer doesn't know shit about movies?"

Assistant editors (in unison): "Eric!"

If that's how it went down, there wouldn't be any objections from me. The list of "key" films I've never seen is frighteningly long. How long? Let's just say it wasn't difficult to find worthy candidates to write about.

I chose Napoleon Dynamite for a few reasons. As an Elvis Costello fan I wanted to know if it somehow related to Blood and Chocolate. It's been in the shrink wrap since it was given to me a few years ago and I wanted to finally figure out just what the fuck Vote for Pedro means. T-shirts with that phrase were everywhere in the middle part of this decade, usually worn by socially awkward types sporting self-satisfied smirks and who undoubtedly had a hard time getting laid.

So what does a film dunce like myself think of this movie? Not much, really. For all the catchphrases and annoying assholes who still impersonate Jon Heder's title character that the movie spawned, it is mildly amusing at best and satirical to a fault at worst. I will grant that the casting is excellent and the actors play their respective roles convincingly; in addition, these characters - or the inflated and exaggerated caricatures they represent - are quirky enough to give the movie some much needed charm. Heder rightly received praise for his depiction of the liger-drawing, tater-tot, um, toting and well-meaning Napoleon, but the supporting cast deserves mention for giving this movie a bit of additional color and personality.

But beyond that, the film's shtick gets old rather quickly and its humor is sometimes of the most basic and predictable kind; maybe this stuff was funny in 2004, but hell, in just six years' time it hasn't exactly aged like fine wine. Indeed, how many site gags and one-word exclamations does one movie really need? "But there are some great one-liners!" I can hear various fans of the movie screaming right now. True, but all those witticisms that for some reason remain a staple of drunken conversations are mostly buried among a shitpile of banal and clich├ęd humor. To wit: a crotch-zapping time machine, the occasional bicycle pratfall, an excruciatingly lengthy solo dance sequence, bad wigs and even worse haircuts and various physical abnormalities (slack jaws, slow speech, the reaction times of a sea mollusk) that suggest every character descended from the same branch of the Hapsburgs' family tree are what pass for comedy. These might be worth a chuckle or two, but in general the movie's sense of humor doesn't make me regret waiting five years to watch it.

Napoleon Dynamite also fails in walking that fine line between satire and pastiche. At its core the movie is about friendship. It also examines what it's like to be an outsider, particularly in those formative high school years, but its various character types - the cyber-obsessed weirdo, the pervert uncle dreaming of his glory days and concocting idiotic get-rich-quick schemes, the jocks, the cheerleader queen of the school, the rabble of geeks, human punching bags and other undesirables - are so over-exaggerated as to make them both inaccessible and unbelievable. Clearly much of the film hinges on this premise, but all too often it's impossible to care about Napoleon, Pedro and Deb because they don't even seem remotely human. Such lack of realistic characters might make for easy comedy, but it does little to make these various types seem like anything other than freak show specimens.

Though it may be too harsh to dismiss Napoleon Dynamite as a formulaic high school flick masquerading as something more complex and unconventional, ultimately the movie's left-of-center veneer is a smokescreen. Folks love a happy ending, and this movie has that in spades: the slow-witted Pedro wins the school presidential election, while Napoleon and Deb become tetherball buddies. Yet by the movie's conclusion I'd lost interest in these characters, thanks to the film's overblown and implausible brand of satire. The sporadic laughs the movie induces are simply too infrequent to hide its flaws, regardless of what those faithful Vote for Pedro t-shirt wearers will still contend.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Family Happiness" from The Coroner's Gambit (2000)

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"Family Happiness" is a road song from a lyricist who has written his share of such gravel-on-wheels numbers, only this time the road is paved with suspicion, paranoia and imminent violence. Although the long-gestating The Coroner's Gambit represented a subtle step toward the polish and high fidelity of 2002 masterpiece Tallahassee - a handful of songs were actually recorded in a studio and included strings, electric guitar and other instrumentation - "Family Happiness" mostly follows the sparse musical blueprint Darnielle has relied on throughout much of his career. Built around a pounding acoustic guitar and the singer's manic-pace vocals, the track showcases Darnielle at his most lyrically biting and observant.

It is perhaps the darkest song on an album defined by an overt sense of fatalism and a fixation with death. A concept album of sorts loosely held together by an overarching biblical storyline, Gambit presents the listener with a series of lives on the skids and "Family Happiness" undeniably fits within the album's overall tone. Driving in the dead of night somewhere along the Canadian border, its narrator comes across as wild-eyed and several degrees beyond pissed off. The song unfolds like an ugly examination of a relationship in complete shambles, accompanied by the types of subtle narrative details that make Darnielle's music so compelling: a passenger incomprehensibly mouthing Tolstoy into a recorder, "innumerable evergreens," a few impotent pot-shots that won't make a damn bit of difference in the long run ("I mouth my silent curses at you"), the type of resignation that should feel melodramatic but somehow works ("I hope the stars don't even come out tonight/ I hope we freeze to death.")

"Family Happiness" is equally notable for the details it leaves out, a quality that has always separated Darnielle's story-songs from those written by less talented lyricists. We never find out who the narrator is or who he's doing battle with - hell, maybe it's himself - nor do we know exactly how this drive will end. Darnielle's intense vocals on the line "do what you brought me out here for" are impossible to miss though, and it's clear this rotten Canadian trek sure as hell won't end well for at least one person. In an album littered with songs about loneliness and desolation, "Family Happiness" ranks as The Coroner's Gambit's most jarring and memorable track.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor

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Listening to The Monitor is like being shoved face-first into a musical blender, with large chunks of punk colliding with smaller fragments of horns, barroom piano, bombastic arena-ready group sing-alongs, strings, harmonicas and bagpipes. Whatever ambitious starting points its songs might have - Titus Andronicus frontman/howler Patrick Stickles describes the band's newest album as "sort of" a concept album about the Civil War - listeners shouldn't expect a song cycle about soldiers dying for nebulous causes or even South Carolinian thug Preston Brooks beating the abolitionist tar out of Charles Sumner. And that's for the best: The Monitor feels like a perfectly contemporary album that will remain relevant years from now. It is also, to borrow a term used on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, pretty fucking amazing.

To be fair, there are scattered Civil War references throughout the 65-minute album. Several songs begin or end with musicians reciting quotes from famous dead politicians and writers immortalized in very large and professorially serious volumes about the war; the cover art, album title and 14-minute closing track "The Battle of Hampton Roads" invoke the famous ironclad; lyrics speak of "blue trampling over gray," the "terrible swift sword," white flags, gurneys, stretchers, ships heading back into port and other implements of war. Hell, opening track "A More Perfect Union" manages to incorporate parts of at least three different 19th century wartime tunes. But there are also mentions of various things Jersey - the Newark Bears, Fung Wah Bus, Garden State Parkway and a nihilistic Springsteen revision of "tramps like us/ Baby we were born to die" - as well as clever lyrical borrowings of Elvis Costello, the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan ("I'm going back to New Jersey/ I do believe they've had enough of me"). Simply put, The Monitor might be inspired by America's bloodiest war, but its concerns are of the present time.

Throughout their debut The Airing of Grievances, Stickles raged like a sane man locked up in the basement of Ancora State Hospital. On The Monitor, his vocals are placed much higher in the mix, giving these songs the type of vocal clarity that was sometimes missing from Airing's murkier mix, without sacrificing any sense of urgency. There's still a ton of yelling and spitting - particularly in the revenge fantasy of "Richard II" and the vitriolic screed that punctuates "The Battle of Hampton Roads" - but there is also a range to Stickles' voice that the songs on Grievances only hinted at. He'll never be mistaken for a smooth crooner, but Stickles actually has an expressive, evocative voice, particularly on the slow-burn openings of "Four Score and Seven" and "To Old Friends and New." The songs' arrangements are likewise sprawling, whether it's in the two-minute claustrophobic outburst of "Titus Andronicus Forever," the sodden, sloppy honky-tonk of the appropriately boozy "Theme From 'Cheers,'" the rolling keyboards of "A Pot in Which to Piss," or the nearly-symphonic horns of "Four Score and Seven." Few albums have managed to incorporate so many different musical ideas this well; despite their lofty intentions, none of these songs ever sound bloated.

The Monitor plays like a pocket guide to existentialism without ever falling into the type of self-pity that makes emo so unbearable or the proselytizing that makes your garden variety punk band so exhausting. Coupled with the songs' furious arrangements, these sentiments are often cathartic as hell. There's death, frustration, rage - plenty of rage - thoughts of revenge ("There's only one dream that I keep close/ And it's the one of my hand at your throat") and a palpable anger that someone's been royally screwed over and isn't exactly happy with it. It's the same familiar territory as Grievances, but with a more finely-honed edge. A clear line is drawn in the sand; "it's still us against them/ And they're winning" Stickles screams at one point, repeating the line for anyone too attention-deficient to catch it the first or second time.

As on Grievances, there are also frequent bouts of self-loathing, small-town boredom, and sexual frustration - "a hand and a napkin/ When I'm looking for sex" Stickles laments at one point - which are only temporarily dulled, usually by booze or cigarettes or watching sitcoms in the basement with equally miserable friends. The album's fatalism can sometimes come on a bit thick, with a few clunky lyrics to match, but most of the time it works. Life as depicted on The Monitor may be absurd and pointless, but no one from Titus Andronicus is waving the white flag or ready to let the bastards win just yet. They'd much rather cling to their righteous pissed-off defiance and beat their instruments into submission, even if all they can ultimately do at the endgame is "urinate into the void."

Friday, March 05, 2010

Various Artists: Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

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The shitty tribute album has long been a staple of the music industry; the fact that the majority of the listening public has no real interest in such travesties hardly deters some labels from spewing out such trash with alarming frequency. Still, a sucker is born every minute, and there will likely always be a few clueless souls jonesing to hear a bluegrass version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Even a cursory internet search makes a compelling argument for the overall uselessness of the tribute album: symphonic versions of classic singles, the dreaded Pickin' On series and third-rate punk bands paying "homage" to their grandfathers appear in distressing numbers (and, not surprisingly, most often at bargain bin prices).

Of course, occasionally a gem sneaks through this grimy garbage. In the span of less than a year, indie fans have been rewarded with two such products. 2009's Dark Was the Night, though not a tribute release in the strictest sense, was perhaps the finest compilation album since No Alternative, with some of indie's leading artists contributing to an effort whose proceeds went to the Red Hot organization. Likewise, Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox includes outstanding tracks from an impressive number of indie musicians united in a worthy cause; namely, to assist the Tall Dwarfs/Enemy/Toy Love leader in his recovery after recently suffering a stroke. Not every song on this two-disc behemoth will appeal to every listener, but taken as a whole it is almost every bit as good as the higher-profile Dark Was the Night.

Stroke's greatest charm is that its cover songs never sound forced or overdone. Even better, most tracks cover both Knox's band and solo work from every possible angle while remaining true to the musician's original versions in both spirit and tone, if not always in execution. Knox's pop sensibilities are represented right out of the gate, with the now-deceased Jay Reatard opening with "Pull Down the Shades" and the Checks turning in a bouncy, infectious take on "Rebel." Knox's lo-fi and experimental leanings are also given proper attention, via Pumice's dissonant spin on "Grand Mal" and Lou Barlow's reimagining of "Song of the Tall Poppy."

There is strength to simplicity, and throughout Stroke, a handful of songs that feature minimal instrumentation and assured vocals are the most memorable. Jeff Mangum's version of the Tall Dwarfs' "Sign the Dotted Line" features nothing more than a guitar and the singer's wonderfully flawed voice; at a shred over two minutes, it's altogether too brief, but it's nice to hear something from Mangum all the same. Peter Gutteridge reduces "Don't Catch Fire" to whispered vocals and funereal keyboards; the effect is chilling. Elsewhere, Bill Callahan strips down "Lapse" to only guitar and occasional hums of fuzz, Sean Donnelly offers an aching redux of "The Outer Skin" and Will Oldham's plaintive stab at "My Only Friend" could turn even the most cold-hearted bastard to mush.

If Stroke confirms anything, it's that Chris Knox's music has influenced a wide variety of musicians whose styles are quite diverse. A large contingent of New Zealand bands like the Chills, Verlaines and the Bats are included and speak to Knox's impact in his home country, certainly, but the number of American artists included here demonstrates how influential Knox's music has been worldwide. There is nary a throwaway among Stroke's 36 songs; the highlights are simply too numerous to mention in this review and it's hard to imagine any indie fan not finding at least a handful or 30 songs to like here. For once, a record label got a tribute album right.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, by Dan Kennedy

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Much of Dan Kennedy's Rock On: An Office Power Ballad is as tedious and ennui-inducing as the mainstream music acts and corporate culture he lampoons throughout the book. Based on the writer's experiences as an Atlantic Records employee during that label's clusterfuck 2000s, Kennedy certainly had plenty of material from which to base his memoir/200-plus page rambling inner monologue: music industry weasel executives whose wardrobe never advanced past the early '70s but whose self-preservation skills are finely honed; the inherent absurdities of work life as part of a company on the auction block; the mass layoffs that sent both label presidents and lowly grunts cowering under desks as they tried to avoid getting the axe. Yet the book never really manages to say anything more than major labels are prone to the same shenanigans as any other mega-corporation and are primarily focused on pushing image-conscious and blandly generic artists onto the public instead of fostering a musician's artistic growth or providing quality product to the listening public. No shit.

First, a few polite words. The persona Kennedy adopts throughout Rock On - a well-meaning thirtysomething who initially thinks his lifelong obsession with music will be fulfilled when he lands a job in Atlantic's marketing department - is likable. The author brings a modicum of common sense to a frequently bizarre world of major label internal politics, gamesmanship and ass-covering. He doesn't buy into Atlantic's effusive praise of its illustrious artists, nor does he tow the official party line or hold back criticism of the label's outdated sales methods (in print, at least). The book's best moments occur in its latter half - well past the point by which many readers will have lost interest - where Kennedy offers an insider's view of life in a sagging music company whose employees expected to be unceremoniously canned on a daily basis. Kennedy's writing here is both cynical and poignant, exhibiting a flair for dark humor and a keen eye for capturing the company's anxious mood as loyal workers - including Kennedy - were laid off.

Yet Rock On has one significant shortcoming: it's just not that funny, which is an obvious problem for a book whose primary goal is to humorously skewer the music industry. Kennedy's humor is too often of the snarky, smarmy variety favored by a seemingly increasing number of cultural pundits and hack comedians. Moreover, many of Kennedy's witticisms are fairly obvious, beyond stale and grossly repetitive; 200 pages is a lot of paper to waste to simply state that a lot of mainstream acts are lousy and that executives driven more by self-interest than any abiding love of music are hopelessly out of touch with contemporary listeners. The author's first-person writing style quickly becomes rather exhausting and, quite simply, annoying, as Kennedy at times comes across as more neurotic than George Costanza. Readers who aren't fans of inner monologue writing likely won't enjoy this book.

Rock On isn't a total letdown, but it is trite and formulaic, while rarely offering any new insight into corporate culture that can't already be gleaned from Office Space or "The Office." Kennedy gets some points for deftly - and sometimes, comically - depicting what the atmosphere at Atlantic was like when the label began to flatline, but this only accounts for a small portion of the book. It's actually fitting, in a way; Rock On is unintentionally a lot like the mainstream acts Kennedy jabs at throughout his book: there's a decent tune surrounded by a whole lot of filler and banal sentiments, none of which ever really say anything of substance.