Sunday, December 30, 2012

Music I think I heard for the first time this year

(Actually I got into this in August 2011. It's still a good song, if you've never heard it.)

Also: The Ruined Frame .

Thursday, November 22, 2012

More of the year's music

As December approaches, and people start turning the procession of the last twelve months as a narrative, some professionals boil that down further, into a list that can be compiled into a consensus narrative. When it comes to music, I have done a fairly good job keeping any potential readers abreast of the music I thought was notable. But as music continues to come out, there were more things to discuss.

First and foremost is Jeff Zagers' Key Conduction cassette, put out by Human Conduct Records. For all this year's synthesizer music, that uses incredibly expensive equipment to sound like cheap presets, I like Zager's use of MIDI more, hitting upon those "new age" tones, while live instruments, such as drums and saxophone cascade in vague emulation of a Coltrane's spiritual pursuits through jazz. There's also some songs with vocals. I saw Zagers on tour with Russian Tsarlag earlier this year, when he covered a Yoko Ono song, and Yoko fits into the stew of influences on display here. His blog also has a "salute" section, which I appreciate both for the openness and sincerity of the gesture and for the musicians he credits.

(The other things that were available from Human Conduct when I made my order, the Moth Cock cassette and the Bathetic-released Dinner Music tape Tomb Of Comb, are also really good.)

Another one of the best shows I've shows I've seen all year was Alvarius B, Alan Bishop of the Sun City Girls, in Philadelphia. I am really into the lone performer these days, someone who does songs, who leaves enough space around them for the audience to violate, and seeing how they hold that attention. Alan doesn't take shit, stopping mid-song to yell "hey fuckface!" at two talkers in the balcony. That was around the time of the reissue of his 1996 double-LP, which I previously only had mp3s of a crappy vinyl rip of, but now own a nice double-CD with bonus tracks, one of which is a solo version of "CCC." In between the increased fidelity and witnessing the live performance I have newfound love for these songs, somewhat evil in lyrical content and deeply compelling. Hopefully the next new LP will contain the rewritten version of Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man" that slayed everyone in attendance.

(Other notable reissues/archival projects from this year would by My Bloody Valentine's EPs 1988-1991, containing a good deal of bonus tracks, and Can's The Lost Tapes.)

Another solo performer, but one with a completely different stage presence, was Angel Olsen, who kept an audience fairly enraptured with a fairly short set. Her new record, Half Way Home, seems more like a country record than Strange Cacti did, due to an absence of reverb that makes her phrasing more apparent, and the slightly embellished arrangements. I am really into these more uptempo cuts, which were fairly unexpected going in.

For a moment when I was trying to set up that Angel Olsen show, before I gave up completely and Elijah stepped in, I had this idea that it would be cool if that show had Bee Mask playing it as well, despite the completely different styles of music- Bee Mask makes electronic music, the sort of dude who is now playing European techno festivals, which seems like a bad fit to me, but what do I know? I like his Vaporware/Scanops 12-inch and the When We Were Eating Unripe Pears LP fairly well. Somehow the deep psych explorations of this material seems like a useful contrast to grounded songwriting, and while that live show did not happen, they can be juxtaposed comfortably besides one another in record player rotation.

Other electronic music that seems noteworthy is Golden Retriever's Occupied With The Unspoken LP, and Mouse On Mars' Wow. I'm looking forward to the Container and Three Legged Race records set for release on Spectrum Spools by the end of the year, as well as the Form A Log record, from a lebel unknown to me, that spawned this video. (Form A Log is a trio consisting of Ren of Container, Rick Weaver of Dinner Music/proprietor of Human Conduct, and Noah, formerly of Social Junk and presently of Profligate.)

In terms of rap music, I like the new Kendrick Lamar record, as well as the new Aesop Rock and El-P records. I don't like any of these as much as the rap records I've mentioned in other posts from this year (Death Grips' The Money Store, Lil B's God's Father and White Flame mixtapes, Lil Ugly Mane's Mista Thug Isolation). It's been a good year for weird rap, and the fact that Kendrick Lamar's record feels like such a triumph for classicism and conscious rap makes it seem like a good year for the genre all around.

It feels like a good year for music in general, actually, in comparison to the last few years: There is music getting press that seems actually good, and things that seem actually "new." As I've been writing this post I've been listening to Chris Weisman's 88-song digital release, Maya Properties, and just reached a point where the songs stop and a down-pitched voice warns that this is the point where things get weirder, farther out, potentially embarrassing. A very exciting prospect to consider if you don't like the other very exciting prospect of November 22, 2012, which is that the world will end in a month.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Change in service

I started a new blog, solely dedicated to comics criticism, so I will be posting that sort of stuff there from now on. Hopefully some Baltimore cartoonist friends of mine will be contributing as well, but they haven't yet. I still want to maintain posts on this blog, but I don't know what about. Anyway, the new place for comics reviewing is The place for jokes and weirdness remains Twitter, where my handle is @ownyouryogurt. And again, I will still try to maintain this in some form. It might be a lot of music talk, but maybe I will try to get into personal essay writing. Although if you want to read that sort of communication with me, your best bet is just to have personal correspondence via e-mail.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Music of Autumn 2012

I haven't been writing much about music lately. Partly this is because of the difficulty of doing so in a remotely interesting way, but it's also really easy to think it doesn't matter at all. I have pretty much no readership, and in a world where it seems like most music writing is tied to "personal brand" or "curating," it feels like a cool record label agreeing to release something is more of an endorsement than I could ever provide. This sort of defeatist attitude, like most defeatist attitudes these days, cedes a lot of power to people with money, so it's time to get back on the horse. Also, keeping on top of what every cool record label puts out is for record collecting nerds with Asperger's, and "personal brands" are for assholes.

That said: The Editions Mego imprint Spectrum Spools is on top of a sizable portion of the chunk of underground in which my friends reside. Their focus is more on music made with synthesizers than my own instincts lean, but hey, I get it, guitar music is on the way out. Meanwhile, Editions Mego itself put out a new record by Fenn O'Berg, called In Hell, which sidesteps the analog synths in favor of milking the laptop for some gorgeous and subtle music. I don't know how to talk about that if you're not familiar with the Mego label- Its proprietor, Peter Rehberg, plays in this trio alongside Christian Fennesz and Jim O'Rourke, and the beauty I refer to is not of a classical variety but in relation to other abstractions that don't show reflect light so cleanly.

A few years ago, Lazy Magnet released an album with the name "Is Music Even Good." Upon hearing the title, I was immediately won over. When I heard the record, I was blown away: Its constant genre switching appealed to some sort of engrained conception of music instilled by a childhood love of Ween and other goofballs, but was being made by a dude submerged in the noise scene, without finding any champions amongst the set that views that sort of weirdness the summit of all art. Not enough time changes for the Mike Patton crowd, I suppose. This could be due to the fact that Lazy Magnet is not a band, but a solo project, or really an umbrella term for the work done by one Jeremy Harris. Things never get too technical, or session-musician-y. Since moving to Baltimore, I've seen him perform a few times: A few sets were performed with a rock band, but the dominant mode for his song composition as of late has been on electronic equipment (drum machines, sequencers, MIDI). I believe the same equipment is used in his band Meager Sunlight, a duo with his partner, who also shows up on his new release, Crystal Cassette, to do some vocals. They hover along the synth-pop axis, vocals are deadpan, cold, fashionable at this point in time, but because of his past I tend to view these things as "songs," first and foremost, rather than as a set of sound and signifiers- One time I played Is Music Even Good for a friend and heard it through their ears, where the switching of genres, the weirdnesses where a country song would be distorted into clipping noise, these bits of structure were there in place of traditional songwriting chops, and the overall effect was not that of a "mixtape" of songs that were strong examples of their respective elements, so much as a collage that gave the overall effect of a goof. I do not mind these things, at all, but in working within a more defined palette over the length of an album you get to hear a single aesthetic tamed into multiple songs and maybe get more of an appreciation for what he's doing. There's a Meager Sunlight record forthcoming on Spectrum Spools, as well as a Lazy Magnet due out on Bathetic in the months to come. Just the other day there was a Twitter conversation between Bathetic and Jeremy about making a country record, which is also promising. This tape is on Night People, who put out little comps on Mediafire so you can check out songs from pretty much all their releases of a given time period. I'm listening to the latest compilation right now, so I can also add this little micro-review: I like the drum sound on this Peak Twins track.

Happy Jawbone Family Band have a new cassette, The Silk Pistol, available on Night People as well. It's also available for streaming/download on their Bandcamp page, so while I wait for a replacement copy (I got a bad dub) I gave it a listen. I like this band: Their first LP "Hotel Double Tragedy" I first heard on a Sunday morning, when it felt really appropriate to the slightly rainy weather outside. I was not hungover, I don't believe, but certainly other people could've been, and this would be as soothing as a good Amps For Christ record in such circumstances. Was it a Sunday afternoon when I downloaded and listened to all those Jackie-O Motherfucker records a few weeks ago? Yes it was! I don't know how you spend your Sundays (church?), but now you know how I spend mine. Anyway, Happy Jawbone Family Band's music seems like mid-90s Elephant 6's dream of the sixties, this-copy-of-a-copy effect not a watering down so much as it is a distortion into clouds of fuzz and cotton. Their 2011 LP, "Okay Midnight, You Win," recorded by a real producer loses this home-recorded charm and loses a certain essence. This music seems like collapsing, falling down. Maybe partly this effect is that while some instruments are playing wandering leads, others chime in with chords, tones? I know nothing about music composition and cannot really tell what is listening within a piece of music. I can, however, tell when someone is making a joke, and these folks do that on occasion, with the Christmas album on their Bandcamp bringing that element more to the fore. These are charming qualities for a band to have.

Jokes are aplenty on the Angels USA - VH1 Drunk cassette put out on Hundebiss a few months back. It is a sci-fi radio play where the only songs are jingles for flavors of chips- There is a chip implanted in your head that allows you to download flavors. The science-fiction vibe of the plot is abetted by the cold electronic ambiences that are basically this band's stock in trade these days, although the jingles throw in some guitar strums for variety. The jokes are great, actually laugh out loud funny rather than the "I appreciate your light-hearted nature" reaction I have to Happy Jawbone Family Band. One unintended bit of weirdness is that (at least on my tape) the first side is mastered much quieter than the second and needs to be turned way up. The other issue of course is the attention span of a listener- I have become distracted and missed some laste-in-the-tape plot twists. Oh yeah: even though each release lists band membership under different shifting aliases, Angels USA is the same band as Angels In America, aka Miami Angels In America, whose Allergic To Latex cassette I have previously held up as their best work. It still is, but this is an nice insight into their world, deepening an appreciation of the personalities at work for those who haven't hung out with them extensively. I have hung out with them only a little, and so these inside jokes were unknown to me. Nice packaging too.

Esra of Angels USA also recently made a movie with Carlos Gonzalez of Russian Tsarlag, and while there is probably no way you can see that unless you are friends or friends of friends with the involved parties, Carlos has also released three records so far this year, the best of which was probably Midnight At Mary's House, which is also the one with the most copies pressed of it. It's now unavailable from the label, Not Not Fun, but maybe copies can still be found at retail outlets that reliably order Not Not Fun releases even though they are not all commercially viable- one of these would be Baltimore, Maryland's very own The Sound Garden. Ah, but what does it sound like? It is some late night music, not emoting its despair, but speaking of its aloneness- there is an on-record request to be sent old horror movies, and if you haven't watched The Abominable Doctor Phibes in the hours between midnight and dawn then you should: It's a great movie and to do so would put you closer to understanding one of contemporary America's most interesting artists. "Colors are fading fast," the man croons, and surely this is true, away from the day-glo of the internet.

Other listening I recommend: The Mike McGonigal curated compilations of gospel music issued by Tompkins Square, James Blackshaw's Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, Charles Mingus, the two Mount Eerie LPs from this year along with 2008's Lost Wisdom. Yes, it is after midnight now, and these things, these things, this is where I'm at these days- The Mount Eerie stuff and the Russian Tsarlag stuff is maybe of a similar emotional tone, coming from geographic opposites of the USA, the northwest and the southeast, the crispness of the mountain air versus the sludge of the swamp, the moleskine versus the VHS tape.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"the Garo tribute issue"

There was a small controversy a few months back on The Comics Journal website, a website where I am not registered to comment, at least in part because I find their controversies largely uninteresting. It concerned the Kickstarter page for a book that was trying to find funding so it could be printed and released. It's out now, but I'm not sure anyone has reviewed it, which is a perfect place for someone like me, a not-particularly-strong reviewer, to come in and say something insightful.

The book is issue 7 of Secret Prison, generally published as a free tabloid newspaper in the manner of Smoke Signal or Paper Rodeo. Issue 3 had some good comics in it, but by and large, one page comics are not the best way for unknown cartoonists to make an impression. This issue is, indeed, a book, squarebound, and every cartoonist gets a few pages to have their voice be a distinct thing. It is a "tribute" to Garo, but moreso the idea of Garo than Garo itself: Garo is an anthology of manga that began publishing in Japan in the sixties. I have never seen a copy, and even if I had, I would not be able to read it. I would wager most of the participating cartoonists never read an issue. (Besides the translated reprint) But whatever: That's a red herring, despite some contextual essays trying to explain what Garo is. (Probably as a response to the stupid fake controversy. Fake controversy, fake tribute, fake manga.)

The idea, actually, is that there are American cartoonists functioning today who are influenced by comics from Japan who are making work that nonetheless still has a sensibility closer to that found in SPX than what you would find in the sketchbook of the average Otakon attendee. The comics are pretty great, the cartoonists get a chance to impress when given the length of a story to tell a story. A lot of these cartoonists have appeared in Thickness or Sock, but watching them draw non-porno comics gives a better sense of what they do. There's still more penises in this comic than would be in manga, though.

The problem is the editorial decision to tell these people to do comics that read right to left. For someone whose pages are generally pretty chaotic, free-flowing things, like Mickey Zacchilli, this is a problem. Honestly, it's a problem for everyone, it's a contrived conceit. I don't really like reading manga right-to-left: It's how the work was originally drawn, but this idea of "authenticity" seems like the romance of kids. The inside cover cites a list of work, available in English, related to Garo and alternative manga, and, if I am correct, most of those books cited are "flipped," to read left-to-right, because Drawn And Quarterly, along with Pantheon, when they publish most Osamu Tezuka comics, considers that the way that appeals to the adult readers of the work they're publishing.

It's also a problem for reading the text-only essays, in that, when flipping a page (from right to left) it is unclear which page of an all-text spread the reader should begin with. But who cares! That was my point when writing this review, that I wanted to point out that the comics were good. The pages are large- again, closer to the unfolded newspaper page of the previous issues of Secret Prison than that of a collected manga volume (again, the influences are really mixed and matched all over the place here) which is obviously flattering to artwork in a way that manga's expanded pagecount is more flattering to storytelling than the format found in previous Secret Prisons.

Anyway, Ryan Cecil Smith's stuff is fun action-adventure comics, Noel Freibert's comic is sort of based in horror but is more interested in the creepiness of anti-social behavior than anything else, Angie Wang tells a delicate short story, Mickey Z goes for the fury of mark-making and not giving a shit, Chuck Forsman turns his attention to masturbating teens, Katie Skelly makes a comic that's pretty wack. People do what they do. Well, Tom Hart does an adaptation of someone else's work. In general, the art looks good. No one story is earth-shattering the way Tsuge's Screw-Style is but there's an homage to that comic which seems like it's heart is in the right place.

The Small Dog Other

My buddy Brian Blomerth recently completed his first full-length comic, The Small Dog Other, and it is available for purchase on his website. This follows numerous zines of his art, album covers, etc. Due to his color sense and presence in the noise scene, playing a Game Boy under the name Narwhalz Of Sound, it was easy, maybe even instinctive, to label him a Paper Rad rip-off. Some of you might even be thinking that now, if you followed the link and noted the presence of animated gifs. But after a few waves of Ben Jones rip-offs aping the "stoner sitcom" style, seeing Blomerth's comic completed places him in a lineage of underground comics, thanks to the use of some obvious reference points, from its title's reference to The East Village Other, to the violent and sexually explicit content. Brian is completely disinterested in pot, and here, he even seems disinterested in humor, besides a general "funny drawings/funny animals" style. Nothing is mellow, the credo is "Bad drugs or none at all," and psychedelia is a venue for crazy layouts, the same way it would be for Jim Starlin, rather than the internal revelations of Moebius.

I lived with Brian as he initially undertook the task of drawing a real comic. I could be wrong, but I think absolutely none of those pages appear here. There is probably as many pages found here that ended up in the garbage, not up to his standards, dismissed as "too Juxtapoz." References to Ziggy and the Challenger disaster are gone, and what is left is an underground comic that seems like it is about the sixties: Bikers and hippies in Las Vegas, versus the cops. And all of these characters are drawn as dogs, which in this context doesn't read as an alternative to Garfield so much as a reflection of the Floyd Gottfredson/Carl Barks influence on Robert Crumb. The comic is an orgy of nihilistic violence, with occasional interruptions for sex. Brian's sense of verbal humor, rooted in contemporary reference, the sort of puns that make up the bulk of his Twitter feed, is absent, in favor of this primal stew: Sixties culture carrying over into a future where destructiveness is the natural state of being, as well as civilization's endpoint.

The early pages, previously published in color, in a smaller edition, before the switch to a rapidograph, have thicker lines and more chaotic layouts. The drawing is consistently strong. The storytelling is mostly clear, although the "twist," the major plot point that leads to the destruction of Las Vegas, is not really explained in any way, besides its place in the overall logic of "fuck it." Spoiler warning: Everyone dies. It's a pretty great comic, a steal at the $7 price: The dimensions are equivalent to one of Fantagraphics' Ignatz books, there's fifty-two pages, and he self-published it in an edition of 250. And then burned one of those copies for the sake of a Youtube commercial. Anyone interested in sixties undergrounds or contemporary "transgressive" work vaguely in that tradition should be aware of this book because it pisses all over the bulk of that stuff.

He also has copies of a Narwhalz cassette, Future Vegas, for sale, but I can't recommend that, even though I have liked a handful of previous Narwhalz releases, I find this particular tape too harsh and abrasive. It is possible that to some people this description might constitute a recommendation, and I will accept that.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

How Geniuses Party

It is hard to explain how mind-melting Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game was to me and my group of friends back in 2005. This is largely because of the fact that while the other things that constituted our personal canon back in those days- Paper Rad, those Animal Collective records, Trapped In The Closet- passed into the larger consciousness of taste-makers, Yuasa's film seemingly just received the praise of a few critics. Partly this is because it was never really that available: It had a screening at a museum, but then was passed about on torrents, and DVD-Rs sent in the mail.

His most recent series, The Tatami Galaxy, is available as streaming video via Funimation, a partner site with Hulu, but the earlier work has been difficult to keep up with: His first series, Kemonozume, was sent to me on a DVD-R after its serialization was completed; but at the time that his supposed masterpiece Kaiba was coming out, my computer was not powerful enough to track it down. I was just able to do that recently, when cartoonist Brandon Graham tweeted a link to a Youtube video of the first episode, uploaded by an account that had only edited 4 of the 12 episodes in the series, only the first two of which were subtitled, and one of these pages had a YouTube commenter making reference to a torrent site specifically set up for anime, which I then had to register with in order to search. Obviously, this kind of search is nothing compared to pre-internet zine/video store/mail-order culture, but in a world of memes that become ubiquitous within a week, the discussion of things incapable of going viral is a very hard conversation to have.

Kaiba is a weird thing to describe the look of: Its character designs are based on Tezuka, its background textures have a computer-aided lushness that is still basically a subtle effect, contrasted to the feature Mind Game, which has a balls-to-the-wall shifting of styles almost analogous to Gary Panter (even though the actual closest parallel in terms of character design would probably be Seth Fisher). Meanwhile, the story being told in Kaiba is a weird sci-fi thing maybe more like something out of Heavy Metal magazine, but everyone who has seen the whole thing (I'm at the halfway point currently) says it is heartbreakingly sad.

There is what seems to be a heavy Moebius influence in Yuasa's short "Happy Machine," which is a contribution to an anthology film, called Genius Party, which, despite the promise of its title, I found to be pretty disappointing aside from the Yuasa piece: It is all about as unwatchable as I traditionally find anime to be. It is worth noting Yuasa's stated influences, annotated on his wikipedia page, draw from a deep well of world animation, placing him into that stream, while his adeptness at strange computer effects, interpolating live-action video, fits him comfortably with experimenters the world over.

I found a torrent for Genius Party on The Pirate Bay, which I've been hitting up recently to find British comedy, which seems equally as strange to talk about in a real-world context. Trying to describe the conceptual precepts behind something like Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is another one of those things that can only be deeply frustrating, but much of what I've been taking in is so dry, dark, or awkward that I find it hard to even describe to myself, to locate where the jokes are: Watching The Thick Of It, I don't even feel like I'm watching a comedy so much as I am watching a drama where I'm not invested in the characters' lives because they're all thoroughly unlikable. At least this condition can be explained away by citing its setting, the world of politics; the milieu of Nathan Barley is something faintly recognizable but to the best of my knowledge having no real-world corollary.

One of the few British comedies I've seen recently to make it to the laughter centers of my lizard brain without getting lost in a fog of cognitive dissonance is Lizzie And Sarah, a pilot too dark to be made into a series. I loved it. Written and directed by two women, (Julia Davis and Jessica Hynes) who each play dual roles, as elderly women in miserable marriages and teenage girls, there is a certain free-wheeling quality to its plotting that makes one wonder where future episodes would go, even as it stands alone as a work in itself brilliantly.

(I've also been watching Peep Show, which is similarly based on reasonably recognizable character types, and very enjoyable, but I feel like everyone knows about that already: It's available on Netflix streaming, which is how everyone finds out about poorly-made documentaries, and surely the site's mathematical algorithim has recommended it to everyone who's rated Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm/the original version of The Office five stars, which is to say, everyone.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Every Creek That Rises Must Preserve

I've been neglecting this blog lately. Rumblings are afoot for a new comics blog, instigated by a few of the Closed Captioned Comickers, which I will be participating in, as yet unnamed. I think the idea of writing for a blog strictly about comics will be freeing, and I am saving all my thoughts on comics until that gets underway.

So, for today, film. And music. (In the future, all at once, together, forever.)

One of the great things about film, or photography, really, is its sense of place. Beasts Of The Southern Wild, the first feature film of Ben Zeitlin, is shot in Louisiana, and it is recognizable, to me, as the same part of the country where Walter Hill's Southern Comfort was set. While that film, released in 1981, allegorized the Vietnam war, Zeitlin's film, coming out this Summer, feels at least in part like an exploration of issues raised by Hurricane Katrina. Which is to say that I think it is about America in the 21st century. Not in a political way, or a didactic way, but in a mythic way, because it takes place in the realm of myth. It's an American myth the same way that superheroes are the myth of 20th century America, or the cowboy was the myth of the 19th century. This is the story we're telling ourselves about what is happening now, and the failures of Katrina are as foundational as the factory or the frontier was.

The protagonist of the film is a 6-year-old black girl named Hushpuppy, whose father is dying. She is lively, chaotic, natural. I am reminded of David Gordon Green's George Washington, although this film's rhythms are less built on cutting between scenes, and more of an observational stillness and drift. What we see is beautiful, set in its swamplands, and the land on the other side of the levee, of urban civilization, is pointed out as ugly. We are present in the land of folktale, tradition, jazz as folk music. The soundtrack is gorgeous and evocative, and when it comes time to depict a rainstorm, the sound's mixing of water against the scrap that makes up improvised roof shacks comes through with presence, resonance. Afterwards, once the waters have risen, the beauty in the desolation comes through enough to see its world as still being worth fighting for, against the encroaching of civilization's standards.

Honestly, once the film leaves this society, for the land of interiors and tighter spaces, it loses a little something, certain bits of charm. The narrative voice, observing the refuge, the hospital, is still sharp and funny; but the cinematography, without bits of grime to dwell on, in the name of forward narrative momentum, loses a bit of its life.

But that's the story we are being told, one of a dying father, and that is what I'm arguing is the story we need to tell ourselves. If memory serves, one of the first sentiments spoken after the film's title card is that all animals are made of meat. Later we are told that everybody's daddy dies. These are the films truisms, and its parental advice: "Don't cry," and "smile," when taken in conjunction with these ideas lays out the sort of worldview we need as human animals bearing this weight, and also points to the tonal quality of the film, as laid out in its photography of wide vistas, its stillness. This is a film to usher you into the animal world, about a girl learning to navigate the world via talking to animals. This is the apocalypse that is coming; one that already happened, back in 2005.

The music I meant to talk about when I started writing about the film is that of the rap group Death Grips, their loops, their collapses, their noise. The lyrics that are this abstraction of all that is guttural, super-aggressive, but mostly just fucked-up. Thinking about rap music as an extension of oral storytelling traditions, or "the dozens," and the world we're living in.

Obviously all of these things have racial implications that are going to be problematic for some people. The point I am trying to make, essentially, is to invoke the phrase "post-racial" to describe a time, forthcoming, where we will all be the neglected citizens of the city of New Orleans, due to a class structure that wishes for us to be slaves. And then to take this mythology of the wild, of communing with nature- sort of a stereotype, but we are able to use it as an archetype, or a totem, as some kind of navigational tool. Whereby we all see ourselves as six-year-old black girls (sort of the ultimate disenfranchised figure) and learn to cope with a natural and indifferent world and are then able to look into the beast's eyes and see it as something we can coexist peacefully with, against civilization.

Friday, March 30, 2012

"Strong Female Characters"

Does it seem too much like Andy Rooney, shaking his head at popular music, for me to say that I do not understand the popularity of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? There is a disconnect between the imagined audience in my mind and the wish-fulfillment element to its 1990s-extreme protagonist described as being "different in every way" by supporting characters. You would think that the audience inclined towards the titillation of rape exploitation and revenge would be rather small, as well, but you look at the numbers and see that all these traits I associate with modern superhero comics' constantly shrinking audience are there in this current popular fiction.

I saw the David Fincher version on DVD the other night, knowing well enough what I was getting into: It's the third iteration of a story I had already dismissed as uninteresting from the initial synopsis, but somehow David Fincher has made an impression on me as being "worth paying attention to" enough that I felt okay with doing the dollar-rental from a vending machine at the supermarket. (To me, that feels like even less of an investment of energy than watching something instantly on Netflix, because it's more of a concession to popular taste.)

The next day, as I went to return the DVD, I found that the vending machine kiosk was defunct, and so convinced was I that this was a conspiracy to extort money from me I vowed to never use said vending machine again, and to reinstate my Netflix account. I canceled Netflix a few months ago. I chose DVDs over streaming during the price-raising debacle, and shortly afterward found that, while I could fill my queue up with movies I want to see eventually until the end of time, picking out something I was excited to watch in the immediate future felt impossible, as the things I was most excited about were movies I was hearing about that were neither on DVD yet nor in Baltimore theaters- Movies like Margaret, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Miss Bala, which just became available on DVD and was immediately placed at the top of my reinstated queue.

Miss Bala, despite having a premise that seems like it belongs to an exploitation movie, is never as repulsive as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. One of the reasons it's able to avoid certain traps, actually, is by featuring a passive protagonist, and feeling consciously political, rather than simply having some kind of up-with-people "strong female character" who gets to enact vengeance. No, it is about being a body, buffeted by forces beyond its control. The way that it is shot, with one odd composition after another, necessitating long takes because a viewer cannot immediately parse what it is looking at, and where the people are situated in relation to each other is a mystery until they move.

Miss Bala is about a woman who lives in poverty in mexico, who sees a way out by entering a beauty contest. She is then swept up in a conflict between drug lords and the DEA. She stands not for all women, but for all civilians, in a wartorn and politicized landscape. It is about being a victim, and feeling empathy with people in situations beyond their control, rather than playing into a wish-fulfillment idea where people "take action," as the action depicted is psychotic and unknowable. It is not an action movie, although it contains action, or rather, violence, and the tension comes in watching this woman run past people shooting at each other from behind barricades of cars, or curdling in the fetal position in the front seat of a car as its windshield is shot out. It is never "thrilling," never cathartic, it is always tense. The bits that are thrilling are the brief moments where the woman is able to be by herself, and see herself as pretty and possibly possessing a future she can direct herself. The film basically shuns voyeurism, and it is in these moments where the viewer gets to take the lead in as an actress, as a physical body as something other than a stand-in for their own potential victimization. It feels feminist for real, is what I'm saying, and in doing so functions as a challenge to presumptions about action narrative and heroism in so many ways that it is not likely duplicated anytime soon.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thus far this year much of the new music I've been listening to has either been made by friends, friends of friends, or people that seem like they could be friends were we coexisting in closer space. Later on I'll hear the newest work by aging composers, or rappers who rap about selling coke (do those still exist?), or women who insist on glamor in their self-presentation.

Right now I am happy for my friend Ed Schrader, whose LP with his band, just came out on Load Records. It is called "Jazz Mind" despite my argument that it should be called "Why Are You Doing This To Me?" I made that argument when we were washing dishes together, possibly listening to syndicated 1970s episodes of Casey Kasem's Top 40. I don't know how much is talking out of school when it comes to alluding to previous personal conversations, so I will say nothing of them and instead focus on the record that exists as if I were coming to it as a stranger, and so I will not air my grievance that I am not listed in the liner notes list of thank you's, which I am positively infuriated about.

All joking aside, Jazz Mind is a good record, alive with personality and charm, but also completely listenable and possessing real songs. Some of them sound like early eighties REM, some are punk stompers, vaguely comparable to Swans, only they're shorter than even an average pop song's length, rather than extended into a bleak abyss. I use the term "stompers," rather than "rockers," I guess due to the instrumentation, which for Ed is a single floor tom, although the other half of the Music Beat, bassist Devlin Rice, rolls along melodically at all times, excepting the a capella "Air Show." The record's arrangements are also enlivened on occasion by the presence of the guitar from No Age, as well as the occasional embellishments of Matmos.

Ed's Welcome To The Roman Empire cassette on Fan Death Records, credited just to himself, without his Music Beat, is something else. (There are other musicians heard playing, but they are uncredited, and none of them are Devlin, the guy from No Age, or the Matmos folks.) The best reference point I can come up with, actually, is to call it "based," in the manner of rapper Lil B. But while Lil B lets out so much, so un-self-consciously, that he becomes super relatable and human, Ed's self-consciousness (which manifests itself in things that are more obviously jokes, with punchlines) leads to a willingness to be mediated that means that listening to an Ed Schrader record seems deliberately framed in such a way as to present a picture of the artist as raving madman. It feels like id, ego, and superego all sort of battling it out in front of you, to create a portrait of modern man sort of tearing himself apart. That his comedy generally comes in the form of impersonations, of David Bowie, of Rush Limbaugh, of Michael Moore, of his friend's family, of his own family, seems like a way of sorting all of the different drives into something that makes sense, that is somewhat linear. Sometimes it is the funniest thing ever and sometimes it's just baffling. Obviously, the urge to want to edit the work of really prolific people down into something digestible makes sense, certainly economically, but for those who know Ed personally these deliberately sculpted records seem like there's something missing. The records are compelling, but they're not BOTTOMLESSLY compelling, the way a constant stream would be. (I suppose watching an actual constant stream, burbling along, wouldn't be bottomlessly compelling either. I am thinking, instead, of a burning fire.) Hopefully someone else will express interest in putting out a tape of Ed Schrader's pre-music-beat material, where the line between joke and song is blurrier, and the the line between funny joke and unfunny joke is blurred as well, because sometimes those unfunny jokes work perfectly well as songs. "H1N1, running the country, H1N1, we're all gonna' die!"

The two Lil B mixtapes out so far this year, White Flame and God's Father, are both great. No longer in the sort of like conscious rap positive mindset of the majority of his 2011 output, they are both blessedly all over the place, with White Flame making such noteworthy moves as "rapping over a MIDI version of Prince's I Would Die 4 U about how nerds are people" and having a song called "Poppin V" about Viagra, which refers to them as "grampa pills." (I'm also excited about his only-on-Youtube so far songs "Put That Pussy On My Face" and "Ima Eat Her Ass," which are hopefully being saved for a sequel to last year's Bitch Mob Volume One: Respect The Bitch.) God's Father has a brief skit taking place in a pet store that leads into a song about bullying. God's Father, though, by and large seems like a variation on the idea of "New York rap," sometimes more so than others, but the whole thing is cohesive enough. While rapping over a loop of an old soul song is sort of a commonplace rap move, Lil B is more likely to take a loop of an Imogen Heap song and sort of rap, sort of just do spoken word over it, or do just spoken word over ambient instrumentals. God's Father presents a context that sort of allows for these things to be united and bleed into each other. It's two hours long though. White Flame is only an hour and fifteen minutes, and is more of a party record. Both parties and interior worlds of emotion allow a lot of freedom to do whatever, though, so these are broad categories. I have over fifteen hours of Lil B's music on my computer, and some of it is better than others, but all of it is free, and I think Lil B gets the same thing that the Sun City Girls get: That it is totally acceptable to put out crap sometimes, or even most of the time, and you don't have to try to prove yourself.

Lil Ugly Mane's Mista Thug Isolation is not based at all, neither in the sense of overriding positivity or "I can do whatever" freedom. It is intensely focused, a "project," one among many for the brain behind it, but as of this tape it is no longer a highly-specific genre pastiche of Memphis rap. Instead, Lil Ugly Mane takes this cultural moment where rap is open to weirdness and samples obscure industrial records to see if anyone can place the reference. The rapping is on-point, no longer chant-based, being both more technically precise than many of its reference points and also home to some pretty funny jokes. The song for the ladies is named after a William Gibson novel. "I've got ballin' on my mind, Kareem-Abdulla Oblongata," to write down something which scans much smoother heard out loud. This is easily the most catchy and compulsively listenable music to be made by someone I've lived with.

I have also been repeatedly listening to the Grimes LP, Visions. It is actually very similar to Lil Ugly Mane, enough so to be considered its opposite: Both are perversions of certain strains of R&B, but whereas Lil Ugly Mane pitches down the vocals to sound evil, tough, frightening, and more like a certain idea of black masculinity, (perhaps this seems racist but I think it is fine, although it's worth noting that Lil Ugly Mane is pretty clearly operating in a space free of moral judgments) Grimes pitch-shifts the vocals up into this weird ghostliness, that seems delicate and terrified of its own ethereality. "Self" gets rhymed with "health," bodies are longed for, both for the presence of other people and to be reminded of ones own nature. It seems like singularity anxiety, the idea that "you" could just exist on a hard drive somewhere, like an mp3, and then longing for the sensuality of R&B, but still knowing that stuff to be a cultural construct. I don't know if you have read this interview with the poet Tricia Lockwood about Twitter but the fact that she talks a lot about Aaliyah, and deconstructs this tweet: " YO AALIYAH DONT FILL UP ON ALL DAT BREAD GIRL…..GOT A BIG MEAL COMING WHEN WE LAND Really makes ya think. Eat the bread everyone. Namaste." makes me think about the fact that the health/self rhyme cited above does not actually exist, it is in fact me misremembering, stemming from the line "I need someone to look into my eyes and tell me girl you've got to watch out for your health." (Maybe that interview is essential to understanding what I'm talking about when considering those lines as responses to each other, if you don't intuitively get it.) Aaliyah seems like a valid reference point, so does Aphex Twin, so does Twitter, or just omnipresent technology in general. It feels really human to me, and sounds pretty good- I haven't seen this lady live, most recent Baltimore show was canceled, but it seems like it could be interesting to take this thing that I am at the moment considering small and private and put it into that context of dance-party social-ritual.

There is more music I could write about, if I knew how to write about it: I met this guy Female in passing, and his record A Grounded Mound/Widespread Telepathy, available at the Free Music Archive I have listened to a few times. Sort of cold electronic pop music, with detached vocals. The Human Teenager LP on Spectrum Spools is also pretty good, although not necessarily worth the twenty dollars for the vinyl release- probably worth the cost of an Amazon download though. I did, however buy the Keith Fullerton Whitman Mego LP, Generators, which contains recordings of two live sets, although I might prefer the Generator cassette issued in 2010, which is direct from synth recordings, and is both more minimal and more varied. I have been waiting for the new Angels In America cassette on Night People to arrive in my mailbox since it was made available, but cannot weigh in on it yet at the present moment.

Probably the thing farthest afield from my social circle would be the latest Mouse On Mars record, Parastrophics, which I do enjoy and consider to be a good record, but is very much techno, to a degree that it seems almost useless to listen to while simply sitting around thinking: It is intellectually engaged enough to be listened to, and danceable enough to be on in the background while moving in physical space, but not the sort of direct-to-soul thing that can be used to guide for inner journeys. But hopefully the months to come will give me enough opportunity to hear it in its proper context for me to consider it for a theoretically "best of 2012" list, which I mention only because I think it is funny that I have been neglecting this blog so much that my last post was a "2011 in review" post.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

2011 has turned into 2012 on the Julian Calendar, and as we have less than a year until The End Of The Way Things Are, people take stock of 2011, the last full year we will have, and attempt to simplify it into list form, even as the nature of current economic structures means that there has been too much to appraise. Many contenders for the best films of last year (The Last Year) have not even been made available in most markets as of yet.

It is funny to reread a work like The Invisibles, and see its pre-millennial vision of the coming end, set in the year we find ourselves now living in: Virtual reality figured prominently. The Invisibles was famously appropriated by The Matrix, along with much of other "cyberpunk," and while 2011 was the year Grant Morrison really planted his flag firmly in the ground of irrelevance (ground he's been travelling on since 2004-2005 but now the flag is planted so as to be visible to all watchers, whereas before he could only be seen by following at close range in a way that led to a loss of objectivity), that work remains interesting as what might be the last work of future-prediction we have, as the movement of information technology erodes narrative structure and creates a world where predictions seem enfeebled. Having moved to setting his stories in the present years ago, this is the year where the newest William Gibson book is an essay collection.

With the future abbreviated, what's noo in the noosphere? What are the ideas on display in the best narrative work of 2011?

One of the best comics of the year would be the anthology Kramers Ergot 8, introduced by an Ian Svenonius essay that implicates all of western culture as possessing the values of camp as a form of surrender to dystopia, perpetrated by Capitalist powers that be. It is describing the same world that Gary Panter describes in the Jimbo strip the immediately follows and begins the book's comics portion: A world where any pleasures are made available by way of a force that remains sinister in its offer of a panacea. The tone is thus set for an exploration of darkness in the modern era. When Kevin Huizenga then redraws an old sci-fi comic, with a happy ending that feels bizarre and unearned, the reader is left waiting for a twist that never comes, and making one think of what could have possessed the story's original author to create something so narratively unsatisfying.
Most everyone's comics are great, with the exception of some 1970s Penthouse reprints. Ben Jones' comic reads like the "comic strip about being a man" promised to be included in the Men's Group/Black Math book now seemingly abandoned. It's maybe the most hopeful and positive thing in the book, even as the last word it has you read is "racism." Men are dogs, but dogs have qualities superior to that of men enough to be a spirit animal/totem of evolution against the rest of human nature. If that seems complicated or contradictory then maybe you are not familiar with the similarly loaded contradictory exploration of cultural flotsam that makes up the bulk of Ben's work, that considers things as symbols but interprets them differently than the narratives we generally tell/sell ourselves. In its understanding of humanity's true needs, it points a way out of the trap.

One of the other best things of the year has been Jacob Berendes' Mothers' News, a free newspaper from Providence, Rhode Island, which introduced a comics page this year that runs the work of many artists Kramers Ergot also publishes. In the same way that Svenonius' essay needs to be taken as inhabiting the same place as the comics that follow, the comics in Mothers' News can be read as an extension of the Mothers' News voice, which isn't coldly intellectual, but friendly and almost inside-jokey, assuming shared values, which are then articulated brilliantly and inspirationally. Mothers' News is free to readers, financed by advertising, and offered for trade to other producers of things. Mothers' News was around in 2010, but 2011 both signalled an expansion of its scope as a number of imitators from other cities offered their own versions which have not been as inviting and charming. Berendes posted his own top ten list, that ends with an endorsement of bad shows. Bad shows are sort of the lifeblood of noise, and this points to a conclusion that bad experiences are the lifeblood of life. These are the dynamics which we live with, as we go out into the night, away from the mediated "I expect to like this" of consumer culture.

In some ways this a major part of the Occupy movement, or of protest in general: Not the statements and suggestions of reforms that people who "support" the movement but do not actually physically occupy public spaces, but in the act itself of choosing to live in a tent, temporarily or indefinitely, in the name of building a community with the people around you that seems real, vibrant and uninsulated. This has been the major story of 2011, the narrative of reality, of revolution as a thing inside consciousness being made manifest in a way that looks a lot like hanging out. (Although congratulations to those who took the story of the year to be corporate death-throes offering up new panaceas, because that definitely also happened.)

Matthew Thurber was there, at Occupy Wall Street, drawing comics about it, trying to make more directly political artwork, as his 1-800-Mice comic was completed and published as a book. His addressing of politics is an understanding of the way in which the internet is an addictive substance, supplanting real world identities, and what it means for the future of humanity to have our minds confined to satellites as our bodies threatened to be drowned underneath melting ice caps. His strip, found both at his publisher's website and in issues of Mothers' News, is hysterical political cartooning. Meanwhile he has a typeset zine, Are Snakes Necessary, soliciting science fiction movies on VHS to be reviewed.

The other relevant the-internet-is-politics, the-world-is-science-fiction, fiction-is-journalism would be the BBC TV program Black Mirror produced by Charlie Brooker. The first episode is the one that will live in infamy, as its shockingly transgressive black-humor premise plays out as horrific drama, about and the mainstream media's inefficacy in the face of the internet, even as the internet itself is a Pandora's Box exploiting the worst aspects of our nature. Each of its episodes point towards technology not saving us, but will simply pander to the worst aspects of ourselves, including our willingness to be commodified as we obliviously destroy the world. The second episode is considerably weaker but still feels like a potential future, even as it obliquely retells Brooker's biography as malcontent-turned-celebrity. The first episode feels fresh and prescient today, the day after the internet's protest of SOPA, which was seemingly quite effective, in spite of the fact that TV news, being owned by SOPA-supporting-corporations, did not cover the law in any substantial way. That SOPA as a law is not actually as horrifying as bits of legislation like the recent NDAA, but does effect the internet, America's current favorite narcotic panacea, which is why there such an outroar ensued from powerful organizations acting out of self-interest, points to episode two's potential future as being extraordinarily likely to come to pass. Perhaps I should summarize the stories to explain what I'm talking about, but, hey, that's what its no-longer-blacked-out Wikipedia page is for.

My favorite TV show of the year, however, was PFFR's The Heart, She Holler, similarly a horror-comedy but being much more of an actual comedy. Serialized over the course of a week in soap-opera style, but with twelve-minute-long episodes as Adult Swim allows, it was a Twin Peaks riff with lots of jokes, even as its creators' stated intent was to make a show where the jokes were nightmares. I loved it. I laughed a lot, and took more delight in its transgressions and weirdnesses than I did anyone else's. While I enjoyed new episodes of Louie and Parks And Recreation as much as anyone else, this felt more genuinely "new," even as its rural setting and VHS tapes might make it seem like a period piece in comparison. Such is the nature of nightmares.

Norm MacDonald's "Me Doing Standup" was a really funny investigation of all sorts of dark recesses of the human mind that was better than any other standup comedy I saw, and the seriousness of its themes was comparable to any other work of art you might name. As I write this, I realize that the high point of the set, where he talks about how he would commit a murder, is comparable to the Dash Shaw/Frank Santoro riff on To Catch A Predator in Kramers Ergot 8. Norm is funnier.

I don't even know what to say about movies, besides that I think 2011 was a particularly bad year for them. Martha Marcy May Marlene was my favorite American movie of the year, that I have seen at this point in time. It's notable that it's also a horror movie, of sorts, filled with a tension that builds and offers no catharsis, filled with the mind's anxieties. In foreign films, I appreciated Certified Copy's mix of intellectual gamesmanship and emotional brutality, and Poetry's observational grace that genuinely felt like poetry. I thought Hanna was far superior to Drive in all the ways that they were similar, and Drive to be inferior to all the movies it was ripping off in the ways it was different. Carey Mulligan is a good actress though, both in Drive and in Shame, which is actually a good movie in general. I was pretty into the second half of The Future. I liked 13 Assassins, Tabloid, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. There are lots of movies I would like to see but haven't yet and don't know when I'll get a chance to, including Margaret, Kill List, Miss Bala, A Separation, 3, and We Need To Talk About Kevin. I will probably see A Dangerous Method within the coming week.

Other comics that are good and interesting would be Michael Deforge's Ant Comic. I really like the use of one-page comics, serialized over time, to tell the story of a society- Another example of this would be Mat Brinkman's Multi-Force, Brian Chippendale's Puke Force, or Matt Thurber's Infomaniacs. It really feels like the comics form for modern society- like looking at a RSS feed or something. It feels like that's as contemporary a storytelling method as you can get. The bright, built for computer monitors color scheme is beautiful as well, although I look forward to the print collection I assume to be forthcoming. I wrote a blog entry all about Ganges 4 when it came out, and even though I also had written about many of the records I wrote about on my "best records of 2011" list, I will refrain from repeating myself here, save to say that that comic is indeed one of the best. I feel like an asshole for not having read the latest issue of Love And Rockets and trying to make a "best of the year" list. Both Olivier Schrauwen's The Man Who Grew His Beard and Winshluss' Pinocchio are beautifully colored Franco-Belgian comics that feel light years ahead of the sort of stuff would run in A Suivre or Metal Hurlant. Beautifully colored comics feels like a new idea to me, still, something to work out going into the future. It's not a new idea so much as the sloughing off an old one, that associated good comics with an integrity that necessitated black and white printing for economic reasons. Conor Stechschulte gave me a copy of his largely black and white, but printed on a risograph machine, The Amateurs on New Year's Eve and that's a pretty great comic, containing a horror atmosphere but some of the best action sequences I've seen recently.

Ending this year-in-review with a list of the satisfying distractions from the state of the way things are might seem like a deviation from my original intent of discussing the concepts highlighting this year, if I hadn't had it as my thesis that these distractions are the stuff of living in the modern age, the balm to distract from a horrifying political situation where power is consolidated and civil rights are eradicated. It's worth noting that cinema is bad because of how much money is needed to make a movie, and that comics seem a little more hopeful because of their comparative lack of overhead. I wish I knew more about literature to discuss books released in the past year, but the fact remains that publishing is a slow-moving beast, kind of dying, that sort of contents itself with the fact that books will remain in existence indefinitely, after a crash of digital technology. So if anything truly great came out this year I will read it in the sunlight in the years to come.