Paranoid Park

•August 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Gorgeous, lyrical, and absorbing, Gus Van Sant’s latest film, 2007’s Paranoid Park, should appeal even to those who despised his so-called Death Trilogy—comprised of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005). Although I happen to be a fan of those three films (Gerry, in particular), they do sometimes feel more like formal experiments than anything else; it’s Van Sant exploring his influences, evoking and at times simply ripping off Michael Snow, Chatal Akerman, and especially Bela Tarr. Paranoid Park, however, is a film teeming with life. Whereas Elephant observed the lives of adolescents from a distance, suggesting a kind of realism (exemplified, of course, by his use of nonprofessional actors and lack of, well, plot), this film is closer to one of Robert Bresson’s 60s masterworks. Not quite Balthazar (1966), but probably Mouchette (1967). Van Sant continues to use mostly nonprofessional actors, but here he is creating a rarefied aesthetic object—as well as a work of fiction, so when people describe Paranoid Park as “Crime and Punishment with skateboards,” they’re not completely off the mark.

The story, adapted by Van Sant from Blake Nelson’s book, concerns the thoughts of a 16-year-old kid who was involved in a terrible accident resulting in the death of a police officer. Out of this rather dramatic situation, Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle fashion a lusciously expressionistic work of art; mixing magnificently lush 35mm sequences with footage shot on gritty Super-8, the film would be a joy to watch even if it weren’t half as engrossing. Van Sant’s use of music here is also his most ambitious to date; the soundtrack includes artists as varied as Fellini’s favorite composer Nino Rota and indie tragic hero Elliott Smith. All in all, Paranoid Park may be the director’s most accomplished film.

The Creek Drank the Cradle

•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Iron & Wine’s debut album The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) is not particularly well-known, even among indie music fans, but, in my eyes at least, it’s simply the best music Sam Beam has written. The opener “Lion’s Mane,” for instance, sets up the mood of the album perfectly: it’s a folk album, but the vocals are elegant, as is all of the guitar work, to say nothing of the wonderful lyrics:

“Love is a tired symphony
To hum when you’re awake
Love is a crying baby
Mama warned you not to shake
Love is the best sensation
Hiding in the lion’s mane.”

The next track, “Bird Stealing Bread,” is even better; it resembles the songs of Nick Drake in that, on first listen, they appear to be at least marginally happy. Listen to the lyrics, though, and it becomes an achingly nostalgic song about lost love. Beam sings about the things he remembers—“I’ve a picture of you/On our favorite day by the seaside.”

Other highlights for me include “Promising Light,” a brief sketch of a song that, like “Bird Stealing Bread,” is about coming to terms with a breakup, or, on more general terms, accepting the loss of something one depended on emotionally. The album’s true masterpiece, however, is the centerpiece “Upward Over the Mountain,” a song of such haunting beauty that it basically renders all other folk music moot. The same could easily be said of this incredible album.

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Bright Eyes’ best LP, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, is not really an easy record for me to love; there are things about it that really annoy me. For instance, I find the opening monologue essentially pointless, and the only thing it really does convince me of is that Conor Oberst’s lyrics work so well (and keep in mind that, through most of this album, they’re nothing short of amazing) because they’re not, um, prose. The rest of that opening song, “At the Bottom of Everything,” is quite memorable, but the sour taste of that opening lingers. Thankfully, the wonderfully maudlin “We’re Nowhere and It’s Now” follows, with its simple melody and barely audible vocals. In its four minutes, the song manages to evoke something as deep and melancholy as a Linklater film—think Waking Life (2001) but without all the philosophy stuff, just Wiley Wiggins’ character talking about walking around Austin. It’s a song, as Coberst makes clear in that last verse, about the things that come to mind late at night, as you sit in a restaurant, alone, looking at the people around you, hoping that a friend (anyone, really) will come along and make it all a little better. “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order” is next, and it follows the same vein as “We’re Nowhere,” talking about a certain kind of unspecific dissatisfaction and search for meaning—“On the way home held your camera like a bible/Just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth,” Oberst sings. “Lua” is the first song to explicitly mention Manhattan (“Julie knows a party at some actor’s West Side loft”), and it does a good job at conjuring up images of the city; the country-tinged “Train Under Water” is interesting, if a bit too long, but nothing matches its opening couplet: “You were born inside of a rain drop/And I watched you falling to your death.” “First Day of My Life” features some of the nicest guitar work on the album, but I hate that it reminds me of that awful video they made for it. Yuck. “Another Travelin’ Song” is, I imagine, Oberst doing Dylan, something along the lines of “Tombstone Blues” or “Highway 61 Revisited,” and he pulls it off pretty nicely. “Landlocked Blues” joins “We’re Nowhere” as the album’s other highlight, and it’s no coincidence that Emmylou Harris does backing vocals on both tracks. As far as I can tell, “Poison Oak” is about a family member involved in all sorts of trouble—“And you wrote bad checks/Just to fill your arm”—and it fittingly has some of the most distressing lyrics and vocals. The album closer, “Road to Joy,” is perhaps the most playful track of the record, if also the angriest. From the opening verse, which includes the album’s title, Oberst sounds pissed off. It reminded me of the Lennon part of “A Day in the Life,” except Lennon would have had to already be in Primal therapy, as this is the only song where the singer screams, and, boy, does he ever. As hard as it for me to like some of the things about I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, it would be even more difficult for me to deny its brilliance; and if I can get over how much I hate that damn monologue, you sure as heck can give it a try.


•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

There’s nothing quite like Tim Buckley’s 1970 masterpiece Starsailor. You could call it folk music, I guess, and songs like the brilliant “Song to the Siren” would certainly fit that description, although there’s something that permeates through all of Buckley’s music that makes it impossible to pin down. In this album especially, he uses elements of jazz, rock, and blues to create his most formally astonishing collection of songs. Starsailor opens with “Come Here Woman,” one of the album’s best (and most sensual) tracks, wherein Buckley sings to a nameless woman, “Give me broken lies/When you don’t feel pain/Let me smell your thighs, mama/Let me drink down a little rain.” After the opener, things calm down a bit; “Moulin Rouge” is one of album’s lightest tracks, but Buckley’s impassioned vocals give it the emotional weight it needs. Next up is my personal favorite, the aforementioned “Song to the Siren,” which contains some of Buckley’s best lyrics:

“Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks,
For you sing, ‘Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow:
O my heart, O my heart shies from the sorrow.’”

Experimental, gorgeous, and dazzling, Starsailor remains every bit as intoxicating almost forty years after its initial release. There’s nothing else like it.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Nothing is bigger than Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Listening to it for the first time, you come to face with god; its orchestrations roar like a typhoon, freeing your bottled-up emotions through endless depth and intensity. Sheer enthusiasm aside, however, there’s an inherent challenge in writing about jazz. The music is sometimes so personal that fans of it don’t need some critic telling them why Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington are great, while most people who don’t have the inclination to seek out the music for themselves might never be persuaded to do so by a 500-word review. And, unlike with rock or pop music, it’s hard to recommend a particular musician based on someone’s preference for another, being that the differences between, say, John Coltrane and Miles Davis are almost mind-bogglingly astounding. With that said, the one jazz album I am not the least bit hesitant to push on every single person I know is Charles Mingus’ 1963 magnum opus The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a landscape so gorgeous, a forty-minute stretch of music so life-affirming, and a work of such rich textures that it’s simply miraculous someone was ever able to conceive of the thing.

The Black Saint could not have been made at any other time in American history. It is irrevocably a product of its time; a bookend and reminder of the Eisenhower era and the McCarthy hearings, but also the prime example of what we now know as the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The truth is, The Beatles and Woodstock had very little to do with any actual call for change; it was Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, avant-garde filmmakers like John Cassavetes (whose 1959 film, Shadows, was scored by Mingus), and jazz musicians like Mingus that exemplified and lived the new social and sexual freedom.

A tour de force if there ever was one, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady consists of a single six-part suite performed by an eleven-piece band. Mingus gathered a wonderful group of musicians, but what goes on in the album far exceeds just great musicianship; listening to it, one gets the sense of people delving deep not only into their own souls, but also to those of everyone around them, and to the listeners’ by extension. From the opening—a six-minute piece titled “Stop! Look! and Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney”—to the even more baroquely-named climax, “Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ‘Till It’s Freedom Day!,” Mingus draws on an array of subjects, themes, and motifs, some political, some personal, all profoundly emotional. He beautifully evokes both his time and that of a long-gone era by biting Stravinsky and Schoenberg, in the end fashioning what the man himself deemed as “ethnic folk-dance music.”

All of the historical reasons aside, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is simply the most sensual and luscious music you’ll ever hear. The title here is not just a label but the introduction of two protagonists. The Sinner Lady, both maiden and vixen, strokes our Black Saint’s ego, whispering sin in his ear with her tender voice as the music plays faster and faster, clutching his heart with a stone cold hold. “Urgent” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“She made my heart soft, wore an aiguillette on her arm.”

If there’s a band in recent memory that’s made a better straight-up rock album than Spoon with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, I haven’t heard it. The White Stripes and The Strokes may come to mind, but neither makes music that sounds anything like this. Spoon, an Austin band now on their sixth album, opens their latest with “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which is reminiscent of their earlier work while still doing a perfect job in setting up the brilliance to come. Next up is “The Ghost of You Lingers,” the most experimental track on the record, with Britt Daniels’ vocals finding their way around while an incessant keyboard plays on. The results, needless to say, are amazing; the lyrics, structured mostly as a series of short phrases, work beautifully (“I had a nightmare nothing could be put back together”). “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” is among the loveliest track on the album, as well as the easiest to sink into, with Daniels sounding both heartbroken and hopeful. “Don’t You Evah” is a cover of a Natural History song, but you wouldn’t know it from the band’s spot-on delivery and playfully aggressive lyrics (“Bet you got it all planned right/Bet you never worry never even feel a fright”); it’s now a Spoon song now, no doubt about it. Following the theme of misspelling certain words, “Rhthm and Soul” has both and plenty to spare. The next two songs are, for me, the highlight of the album. “Eddie’s Ragga” is simply one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long long time. Jim Eno’s drumming is perfect, as is Rob Pope’s bassline, to say nothing of Daniel’s cheekily fragmented lyrics—“Someone that I knew but I hardly met/Told me, it’s hopeless I’m a slut for the New York Times.” “The Underdog” is likewise essentially perfect, but for somewhat different reasons. The song is most notable for its use of horns and some light percussion in the background. Also, the last minute or so of the track may be the best in the entire album. For some, “My Little Japanese Case” is the album’s only true error, but I think its singular sound adds plenty to the album’s unique texture. “Finer Feelings” is upbeat yet restrained, longing yet reserved. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga closes with “Black Like Me,” which, along with a somewhat misleading title, also has some of the album’s softest melodies. And after 35 or so minutes of staggeringly luminous music, we couldn’t really ask for more.


•August 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Carrying on the legacy that John Cale cemented during his time with the Velvets, experimental rock duo No Age (guitarist Randy Randall and drummer/vocalist Dean Allen Spunt) arrive with their incredibly assured sophomore release Nouns, a tightly-crafted collection of songs set against layers and layers of sound. To be perfectly honest, this particular type of rock or experimental music has never exactly been my cup of tea, but I decided to give it a try based on a few convincing recommendations. And while the opening track, a barely two-minute song with indistinguishable lyrics called “Miner,” did prepare me for the worst (though I’ve actually grown to like that song), there’s actually quite a bit of loveliness in what follows. I was even able to make out some of the lyrics after a while. The best of these songs—“Keechie,” for instance, which has more than its share of Enoesque ambiance—work wonderfully as part of the album, making Nouns as a whole quite a compelling listen, if not a collection of tracks that all stand out.