Friday, December 16, 2011

New Blog - Of The Hands

I'm now writing at a new blog, Of The Hands. It's a decidedly different affair than this long-outdated site. There I write about homesteading, farming, living off-the-grid, peak oil, environmentalism, hiking, nature, connection to the land, doing good work and learning to live well. Check it out if you're so inclined.

- Joel Caris

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Shins Live At The Crystal Ballroom

The Shins played the final date of their recent tour Monday, May 16th at the Crystal Ballroom in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. I gained access to the show at the last minute and attended with a friend, happy to be able to catch them at the end of their tour. I first became acquainted with The Shins through the movie Garden State and had since picked up their two albums, Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World. I loved the music and wanted to see how they stacked up live.

The Shins' popularity has grown quickly of late, with a definite push from their presence in Garden State. They create upbeat, fun pop songs that burrow into the brain, taking up residence and emerging at the strangest times. There's a lightness to the sound that's not always reflected in the lyrics, but that is immensely appealing and very catchy. Chutes Too Narrow, their most recent album, has a particularly light-hearted and playful feel to it at times, though the songs are not fluff pieces, either.

However, there's a certain lowkey sense to the music that might leave one to wonder what they would be like live—to be curious about just how much energy they might be able to bring to a show. I wondered this myself, having never seen them perform in concert, but I was in no way disappointed with the show Monday night. Perhaps they were particularly pumped up by the fact that this was the final show and that they were back performing in Portland, but The Shins showed up with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm, tackling their set without the slightest bit of hesitation.

It started, though, with The Brunettes—a New Zealand band accompanying The Shins on their tour. They proved to be a great fit for The Shins, offering poppy and upbeat music—almost childlike in certain songs. There were times that their music became almost too ideal, bordering on silly, but overall they put on a wonderful performance that was welcomed and cheered by the crowd. Their final, intricate song brought the set to an exhilirating close, setting the stage perfectly, so to speak, for the main course.

And then came The Shins and the crowd went wild, thrilled to have the hometown band on stage. They launched into their set and James Mercer blanketed the eager crowd with his clear and melodic voice, stretching throughout the venue. The audience cheered, clapped, sang along and swayed and pressed themselves against significant others, enraptured by The Shins. No one could mistake this band as anything less than well-loved and surely no one could be surprised that they were a Portland favorite.

The band played a nice mix of songs from both Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, hitting on their most popular tracks. They ranged from full on, upbeat and raging, energetic songs to a few more subdued, acoustic performances that left the crowd engrossed and entranced, swaying and often touching those nearby. They even found time to sneak in a new song that may end up on the new album they're going to begin working on now that the current tour has finished. The band joked in between songs and expressed their love for Portland on numerous occasions, claiming that their tours would always start and stop in the city, as this one had. "Portland is the beginning and the end," they told the crowd, to many enthusiastic and prideful cheers.

The performance never let up and this band, who can come across so gentle and serene on their albums, never once allowed the mood to sink too low. Slow songs were followed up by faster paced, energetic performances that had the crowd clapping and stamping their feet, jumping up and down and singing along. Their chatter in between songs enlivened the audience and they never were anything but gracious and funny and entertaining. It was clear, as well, that they were having fun with the performance, perhaps most obvious when the band broke into a brief and tantalizing cover of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean before moving back into a song of their own.

By the time the band was bringing The Brunettes on stage to offer them gifts as thanks for their presence on the tour (a blanket, smoked salmon, a sausage and rubber balls—draw your own conclusions) the entire place had an air of intimacy to it, despite the hundreds of people in attendance. There was nothing particularly formal about this show; it was as much a friendly gathering as it was a paid performance. By the end of the night, after the show closed out with a rousing rendition of "Caring Is Creepy," any questions about just what kind of show The Shins would put on had been answered. They put on a damn good energetic one, and closed out their tour on a high note.

Now for that new record.

(Cross posted at Blogcritics.org)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Good Day

Considering that the last few days have kind of sucked in many different ways, I'm quite happy to report that Monday was a great day. First of all, I had a wonderful weekend up in Seattle, which involved a very enjoyable concert, much drinking and good conversation, as well as no less than four bookstore visits and the purchasing of something like fifteen books, which is always good times. It doesn't get much better than buying book with near-wild abandon. I think I've mentioned before that I enjoy the written word.

What else is going on? Well, I must report that the new Hot Hot Heat album, which I finally picked up on Friday, is a fantastic CD. It's just fun as all hell, particularly the first couple songs and then a few more toward the middle, and I am greatly enjoying listening to it. Add in the fact that I've been having much love for Flogging Molly—a band I had been meaning to listen to for awhile now and finally got around to doing the last couple weeks—and, well, the music scene has been treating me just fine.

Finally, I topped off my stellar weekend with a great day that saw me picking up a ticket to a Hot Hot Heat show the first week in June for about $12.50, which is a very nice price, and then—oh, this is the topper—snagging myself tickets for an advance preview showing of Serenity on May 26th. Which is beyond fantastic, I'll tell you what.

What a great damn day.

Now if I could just get my computer working, all would be good. And perhaps I could get back into more consistent blogging.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Down In Flames

It seems that my desktop is currently self-destructing. I have a suspicion that I'm the victim of a corrupted hard drive. Hopefully I'll be able to find my Windows XP disk and start getting things fixed, but I'm also starting my work week tomorrow, I have some fairly major personal issues going on, and I have a trip coming up this weekend. So I don't expect there will be any posting for awhile. I know it's been thin lately anyway, and I apologize. I hope to get back into the swing of things in the near future, but we'll see what happens.

On an offhand note, I've been all about The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy the last week or so. I'm in the middle of the 800 page Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide and I saw the movie today. The movie was good, solid fun. I wish it were a bit more entertaining, but overall I thought it did a fine job of capturing the book's spirit. As for the books themselves, they've been wonderful so far. I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything. I just started So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. All of it so far has been quite magnificent.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Movies To Damn Well See: Serenity

There are a lot of movies I'm anticipating this year. I'm thinking The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy should be pretty good (I'm reading the books now) and Star Wars Episode III might actually be decent. I definitely am pumped up for War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, and I am quite certain that Peter Jackson's King Kong later this year is going to kick ass. No doubt there are plenty of other movies, as well, that I'm not even thinking of right now and, as is usual, I will surely find many smaller movies to get excited about over the course of the year.

However, the movie that I most want to see this year, without question, is Serenity. This is a science fiction flick that is coming out September 30th. Now, this is a movie that you've either probably heard of and are excited about or you have never heard mentioned before. Serenity is a movie written and directed by Joss Whedon which also happens to be a feature film spun off from the television show Firefly, which aired for eleven episodes on Fox before the evil, evil network just up and canceled it after screwing around with the show's scheduling, airing and promotion. Basically, they killed it and it never was given enough of a chance to find an audience.

The show was awesome, period. It was absolutely brilliant. It was a science-fiction-slash-western that had people flying through space with six shooters. They wore western type get ups and flew around in a beat up, run down ship that half the time barely stayed in the air. There was nothing clean and sparse about the sets like you saw with Star Trek but instead was dirty and gritty and none of the characters—save for Inara, the prostitute—were particularly couth or refined. Within the show's future universe, you have the Alliance as the overarching universal government (which is all clean and sparse and sterile) and then you have the cobbled together crew of Serenity (the ship in Firefly) who are rebels and outlaws and shifty characters who are looking to keep away from the Alliance for a variety of reasons, often keeping to the outskirts of the universe. But these people are not villains or evil, they're more scruffy heroes that maybe have had some clashes with the law, but who are ultimately good people simply trying to avoid an oppressive regime.

If the show had been allowed to live, it no doubt would have gone in some incredible directions. As it was, the full fourteen episode run as found on the DVD set was amazing, but it left many storylines unresolved.

Then, somehow, this failed and canceled series was given a greenlight by Universal to be turned into a full fledged motion picture, which is the sort of miracle that makes this world sufferable at times. It was given a fairly big budget (though a bit small by major sci fi movie standards) and Joss seemed to be given quite a bit of artistic freedom to make an awesome movie based in the Firefly world with the Firefly characters.

So what's the point of all this? It's to tell you that the trailer for Serenity has been released today and is available on Apple's movie trailer site. I've watched the trailer four times so far and it is magnificent. All the characters I know and love are back and the wit seems to be there, as most evidenced in the "Oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die" line, which is pure Joss Whedon funny. The action scenes are clearly bigger and better than anything ever seen on the television show and the special effects look to be very impressive. The show was incredibly entertaining, with humor and action and great character development, fun dialogue, excellent acting, a fascinating future world and intriguing plot developments, a great bad guy in the Alliance and horror movie type monsters by way of the Reavers, not to mention all kinds of convoluted relationships and personal secrets and so on. I expect the movie to be the same, but on a much larger and more impressive scale. Which means you should keep your eye on this, because this is a movie to see. It's the movie to see this year.

Go watch the trailer. Do it!

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Coheed and Cambria - Live at the Starland Ballroom

Perhaps a year ago, I went to a concert co-headlined by Thrice and Thursday. I went to see Thursday primarily, but Coheed and Cambria were also the openers and I wanted to see them, as well. I had stumbled upon the band through a recommendation on a website and came to really enjoy their music. As it turned out, though, the entire band had basically become ill before the show and the only person who was even able to make it onto the stage was Claudio Sanchez, the lead singer. I have to give him credit for even giving the show an attempt, as he could easily just have canceled their set. But instead, he showed up, guitar in hand, and proceeded to put on a short, acoustic set, despite the fact that he was sick as well. It wasn't brilliant, but it was a damn good effort all considering and it was clear the audience really appreciated and enjoyed it.

Well, now Coheed and Cambria has a DVD out of their live performance at the Starland Ballroom and I have to say that the performance is awesome, offering up the kind of full and complete performance that, unfortunately, the band was unable to put on that night I went to see them. The band clearly is healthy and enthused for this show and its filled with energy and effort, a real showcase for the band's talent.

First, though, let's talk a bit about Coheed and Cambria's music for those who aren't familiar with the band. They are a mix of punk and hardcore, of emo and a bit of metal, all twirled together in a strange and offbeat, yet impressive and entertaining package. The lead singer's voice is quite distinct, very high pitched at times, although that aspect of his voice is somewhat muted in this recording. There's plenty of the typical heavy guitar and drumwork that is so prevalent in this type of music, but it's all done very well and the band clearly packs a lot of talent.

The best part of the music is the unique vocal talents of Sanchez and the solid lyrical work, while the instrumental part of the music serves as a very solid and workable backdrop—nothing overly unique but very competent and appealing, nonetheless.

Now, for this DVD in particular, the main concert alone—which is a ten song set and runs just under an hour—is probably enough to justify the price of the DVD for fans of the band, but there's plenty more to be found on the discs. The DVD also has three Coheed and Cambria music videos, a making of featurette on the "Blood Red Summer" video, a second live performance from the 2004 Skate and Surf Festival that has four songs and runs about twenty minutes, an interview with two band members—Claudio Sanchez and Travis Stever—and “Mike and Josh in Blizzard '05,” which is basically another (somewhat silly) interview with two of the band members. Best of all, it also comes with a separate audio CD of the Starland performance, for when you just want to listen to the music and not watch it at all. This is a very nice bonus as it is essentially a full-length live CD that could easily be packaged and sold separately but is instead included here.

The DVD is a full-featured package, well worth the price for those who enjoy the band.

Now, let's take a closer look at the disc. First of all, the main concert at the Starland is very impressive. It comes in both stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The difference between the two is considerable and you'll definitely want to partake in the Dolby 5.1 track if you have a surround sound system. The sound is much richer and encompassing, the bass resounding, and the overall mix much more satisfying. In surround sound, this concert sounds absolutely amazing. In stereo, it sounds decent, but you lose much of the richness of the sound. Playing the Dolby track gives it much more of a sense of being at an actual concert.

The camera work during the concert is decent, but nothing amazing. There are no fancy features here like multi-angle or anything like that, but the video is serviceable. It's presented in widescreen and the picture is solid. You can see the energy of the band during the show and that's the main thing. Indeed, they come to this show ready to put on one hell of a show, with raging instrumental work and emotive, at times screaming, lyrics. The band goes all out during the concert, never letting up.

Now for the rest of the extras. The music videos are solid, if far from perfect. First of all, they're presented only in stereo sound, which is a disappointment. While the sound isn't bad, it's far from the quality of the main concert's Dolby track. The videos themselves, as well, are a mixed bag. The "Favor House Atlantic" video is meant to be humorous and playful, but the tone didn't work very well with me. For the most part, I just found it silly. "Devil in Jersey City" was a much more traditional video, with quick cuts and the vague outlines of a story in what appears to be a science fiction, outer space setting. It was decent and enjoyable, but very similar in its construction to a thousand other music videos out there. Finally, perhaps the best video is for "Blood Red Summer." It's low budget and a bit cheesy, but the story is somewhat interesting, with strains of 28 Days Later and the book I Am Legend. The lead singer, Sanchez, is seen holed up in a house in the woods, attempting to fortify the building so as to keep out his fellow bandmates, who we soon see have been turned into some kind of zombies or vampires. It's a fun video and a bit more original than the other two.

The making of featurette on the “Blood Red Summer” video is short but interesting. It gives some insight into the band's obsession with science fiction stories and shows some of the tricks used to film the video. Altogether, the music videos and the making of featurette run about seventeen minutes.

The other stubstantial extra is the live performance from the 2004 Skate and Surf Festival. The video is okay and, like the main concert, it includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track. This isn't as rich or enveloping an audio presentation as with the main concert, but it still sounds good with deep and heavy bass. The concert is short and sweet, cutting out after twenty minutes, but it's still a great extra.

Finally, there are two short interviews: one with Claudio Sanchez and Travis Stever done in a studio and another, less formal, one with Michael Todd and Joshua Eppard, who appear to have been caught in a blizzard and unable to make the other interview, so they did a quick, makeshift taping of an interview that turned out to be pretty silly. Both run about five minutes.

Of course, the best extra in the package is the included audio CD. It's the same main concert that is on the DVD and the sound is great. This band really shines live and this is a fun CD to listen to, combining tracks off both their album and presenting them in a fast and energetic live format. Altogether, considering the DVD you get with all the extras and the bonus CD—which could easily be sold as a separate, full concert CD—this is a great, valuable package that is well worth the reasonable price for any Coheed and Cambria fan. I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Starland Ballroom Set List:
In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3
Delirium Trigger
A Favor House Atlantic
The Crowing
Devil In Jersey City
Blood Red Summer
Time Consumer
Three Evils (Embodied In Love And Shadow)
Everything Evil
The Light & The Glass

2004 Skate & Surf Festival Set List:
In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3
Devil In Jersey City
A Favor House Atlantic
Blood Red Summer

Coheed and Cambria Media:
MP3s
Devil In Jersey City
Delirium Trigger
The Crowing
A Favor House Atlantic
Videos
A Favor House Atlantic (WMV)
Devil In Jersey City (Quicktime)


(Cross posted at Blogcritics)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Crooked Fingers - Live At Berbati's Pan

Last Tuesday, April 19th, I attended a Crooked Fingers concert at Berbati's Pan in Portland, Oregon. The band has been touring in support of their latest album, Dignity and Shame, and I caught them on the final few shows of their tour. Having really enjoyed their newest album, though not finding it perfect, I was eager to see them live and they proved to be no disappointment.

The opening bands, Reclinerland and Dolorean, both put on good shows. They served as great warmups for the main act, with their sound complimenting Crooked Fingers very well. Being unfamiliar with both bands prior to the evening, I was pleased to find their music enjoyable and appealing. However, once Crooked Fingers came on, it was clear they were the main show.

Eric Bachmann, the lead singer, and the band as a whole is well-suited to performing live. They arrived with energy and enthusiasm, launching into their set with an admirable abandon. Crooked Fingers generally has a great sound, with a mixture of subdued and contemplative songs and more upbeat, gravel-voiced tracks that indulge in a greater amount of energy. Both kinds of music translated very well into their live performance, with them becoming animated and energenic during the more upbeat songs and settling into a wonderfully atmospheric and moody tone during the slower songs.

The guitar work was magnificent throughout the show, as were the drums. The interspersed trumpet was also very nice and effective, lending a great mood to many of the songs from Dignity and Shame, an album that used horns to great effect. Meanwhile, Barbara Trentalange did a magnificent job providing back up vocals and taking the lead during a few Dignity and Shame tracks, as well as kicking in with some work on the flute during certain songs.

Trentalange was one of the evening's pleasant surprises. In my review of the Dignity and Shame, I took some issue with the lyrical work of Lara Meyerattken, who shows up throughout the album. While there is certainly nothing technically deficient about her work on the album, her voice seemed ill-suited at times to the overall Crooked Fingers sound. For the live shows, it seems, the band is touring with Trentalange, whose voice came across as much more complimentary for the songs and for Bachmann in particularly. She has a slightly lower-pitched, more smoky and sultry voice that wove in and out throughout the songs, proving to be a very compatible and complimentary presence that added nice depth to the music. She also added her vocal talents to a few older Crooked Fingers songs and that worked out nicely, as well.

The songs from Dignity and Shame sounded better live than they do on the album. This was not just because of Trentalange's presence, either. Rather, the songs seemed deeper and more charged and energetic during the show, really playing to the strengths. For instance, "Destroyer" was a song that I only thought to be okay on the album but that sounded amazing live, particularly when the heavy guitars and drumming kicked in. The band performed with complete abandon, breaking the crowd into a frenzy.

Crooked Fingers performed about an hour long set, ending initially with the closing, title track from Dignity and Shame. It sounded beautiful and showed off Bachmann's skill on the piano. However, once the song was done, the night was not over. After exiting the stage for a moment, the band came back, plucked instruments from the stage, unhooked them, came onto the floor and proceeded to perform three songs without benefit of any sound equipment as the crowd gathered close around them in a circle. While hard to hear the vocals at times—even while standing right next to the band—it proved to still be an intimate and appealing moment. After the three songs, they then returned to the stage and finished off the night with a flourish, performing three more tracks before bringing the show to a close.

Altogether, the concert lasted about four hours with the opening acts, not finishing until about 1:30 in the morning. It was an amazing and energetic show from a very talented band and it showed off their music quite well. The show proved to be one of the best live shows I've attended and any Crooked Fingers fan would do well to catch them live if ever given the chance. Unfortunately, their current tour just drew to a close, but they'll no doubt be back on the road eventually. In the meantime, their current album is a great effort, flexing their musical abilities and broadening the scope of the band while still providing amazing and familiar music that any fan should enjoy.

__________
Crooked Fingers MP3s:
Dignity And Shame
Crowned In Chrome
Doctors Of Deliverance
You Can Never Leave
Sunday Morning, Coming Down


(Cross posted at Blogcritics)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Burger King Will Murder You In Your Sleep

I live here in the modern world that involves this lovely innovation called Tivo. What this Tivo thing allows me to do is watch lots of TV whenever I want and to, just as wonderfully, skip easily right on past those damnable commercials. Because, in this day and age, commercials are just not something that a person should have to endure even if they are what, basically, is financing the whole damn operation.

And yet, despite the fact that I can move on past these commercials, I still often find myself stopping and going back and checking out what the hell that was that I just watched on super fast forward, flashing by. It looked interesting for whatever reason—maybe entertaining or perhaps surprising or maybe just really damn weird—and so I go back and check it out. This I have done with those Burger King commercials they've been showing recently, that actually have the Burger King in them. Now, I'm not talking about that damn Hootie commercial, because that thing is just stupid and ridiculous. I don't know what the hell is going on there, except that Hootie might well have just gone out back to the shed and had himself a good raping is what looks like went down. I guess he needed some change for blow or hookers or whatever because there's no other good reason to explain that travesty, even if his career isn't going anywhere.

But I digress. The point is that these damn commercials with the actual Burger King in them are fucking creepy. In particular, I point you to this little gem. Perhaps you've already seen it—the commercial involves a dog frantically digging at the back door, the owner opening it to see the Burger King standing far off in the back yard and then, cut and cut and back, and HOLY SHIT he's standing right there with that creepy as all fuck wooden face just staring at the poor, confused son of a bitch who had the damn nerve to open his own door in his own house.

And then there's this one which is fucking wrong. Oh, I'm just going to wake up this fine morning here with the chirping birds and the streaming sun and hot damn am I rested and oh holy shit there's a man with a wooden face lying in bed with me! If that wouldn't make you up and defecate in your pants, then I don't likely know what would. Me, personally? I wouldn't be eating a breakfast sandwich with that evil King, I'd be taking a shotgun to his face so he would stop fucking stalking me. But that's just me, I suppose.

It could be that I'm a bit crazy—lord knows, the possibility has been raised—and these commercials aren't nearly as disturbing as I make them out to be. But then, my brother emphatically agreed with me when I brought this up at lunch on Sunday, so perhaps I'm not so crazy after all. At least, in this instance. I'll tell you what, though, if I ever open my window to see the Burger King standing there, I'm sure as all hell not going to start enjoying a hearty laugh with him so much as I'm going to take a hatchet to that face of his and see if I can't make me some kindling. I just think that's a safer course of action, is all.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Two Children Cross A Highway

(Ed. Note: This is a true story—recounted to the best of my memory's ability—written as if it were a fictional story. If that makes sense.)


The two children—one boy, perhaps eight years old, and one girl, perhaps ten years old—wait at the edge of the busy highway, in the summer, in Arizona. Four lanes, with cars frantically passing at fifty miles an hour, sometimes faster. They push and push to maximize their vacation, to run their errands, to spend their money. Four door sedans and pick up trucks and SUVs, American and Japanese, Kia and Mercedes and Subaru, Ford and Honda and Toyota. Their tires buzz. Hot day and pressing sun, the rubber warm and pliable and the two children wait, side by side.

Lakeside, Arizona, a small town in the mountains of the state. A ski resort lays within forty-five minutes, a casino within fifteen minutes, and trees and lakes and all the activities that those who live in the valley travel Northeast to enjoy. Every summer, the four lane highway through town—the only road that goes all the way through Lakeside and its sister town Pinetop—becomes clogged with heavy and unending traffic, the danger rising and rising. Accidents occur and people wait by the side of the road for minutes and minutes, peering both ways for a break in the traffic that rarely comes. The lights are few and far between. Pedestrians make breaks for it.

Across the street from the two children a small coffee house stands near empty. Inside, one worker and one customer, a regular, talk. The heavy hum of traffic from outside has long ago faded into the background of both their minds. The day is hot and oppressive and the inside of the coffee house—not air conditioned, not well ventilated—reflects that pressing discomfort. The worker, Joel, is sixteen years old, nearly a child himself. The customer, Hal, is in his sixties, tall and white haired, grizzled and wrinkled and experienced in life, sarcastic and short-tempered and kind and angry. A camera hangs around his neck and he speaks with his hands, emphatically, and occasionally winks and smiles. He is cynical with an underlying but cautious hope. He likes the worker. The worker likes him, as well, as hornery as the customer can be. They talk randomly, passing the time while outside the world continues and two children wait at the side of the road directly across from them, wanting to leave behind the trinket shops for what lies on the other side. Perhaps the coffee house or perhaps the bakery next door or maybe even the nearby Mexican restaurant.

They are alone, for whatever reason, unaccompanied by parents.

A car halts in the lane closest to them, recognizing their desire to cross the road. There is another lane of Westbound traffic next to this halted car, then a middle lane for turning both ways, then two lanes of Eastbound traffic before the other side of the road and its gravel parking lot that serves the coffee house and the bakery and the Mexican restaurant and a gift shop. The car in the lane closest to the children brakes and stops and the children, together, begin to run across the road toward the middle lane, where they can stop and wait for the Eastbound lanes to clear and give them free reign to explore the other side of the highway.

A gardening truck—short and white and squat, so heavy and thick, carrying equipment in a hurried manner, perhaps, but not necessarily speeding or being reckless, but not paying attention to the side of the road, either, or the car that has stopped—barrels down the road and the two children—for some reason, they do not see the danger (perhaps because they are reckless as well, mere children, unequipped for all the life and death decisions they might face)—run out from in front of the stopped car and directly into the path of the gardening truck, which slams into both of them, hits them, hits them (did it even have time to brake, to swerve, or was it perfect timing?) plows into them, strikes them down in a nightmarish manner, in perpetual horror (it surely must have had time to brake somewhat; it couldn't have hit them unslowed, at fifty miles per hour, without simply destroying them) and the two children are mutilated in a flurry of incomprehensibility.

There are brakes then, screeching, and this sound registers in the minds of the worker, Joel, and the customer, Hal, within the coffee house no more than the other sounds of traffic have been registering. The sound that is made when the truck hits the children is surely small and slight, a crunch of bones and the tearing of flesh, certainly, but not so much to carry through the coffee house's open window and register in the minds of the two people inside, and to make them understand what has happened. There are brakes, yes, but no screeching metal, no echoing crunch of vehicle on vehicle that brings people running to view the proceedings, to gawk and stare and point and determine who is at fault, to make instant judgments and express their consternation.

But then there is screaming.

The screaming does not come from the children, for they are far beyond screaming at this point. They are not conscious (are they even alive?). It is the parents that scream, or one of the parents, but who can say which parent? There is no way to comprehend the gender of the person who screams—it is thick and guttural and there is terror and fear and horror and anger and the pain, the hurt, the agony that eats at a person just to hear, to hear the misery that tears at the soul, the emotions, at whatever it is (spirit or chemical reactions) that make us something beyond flesh and organs and pumping blood.

Hal rises from his chair and peers out one of the coffee house's windows, into the street beyond. Only for a moment, and then he gestures at Joel and says, "Look at this." As he opens the door to the outside world, his hands are already reaching for the camera strapped around his neck and he steps out onto the coffee house's porch, Joel just behind him. Together they stare out into the road, at the terrible scene.

The gardening truck has stopped in the middle of the road. Traffic all around has halted. The father is in the middle of the road, screaming—he has literally fallen to his knees—and there are people peering under the truck, talking excitedly, making serious gestures. There is a crumpled figure to the side of the truck—a boy—and the mother is coming out into the road, screaming as well.

Joel and Hal watch, and Hal begins to point out details of the scene. "Look at that," he says, "knocked the kid right out of her shoe." He points and sure enough, there is a shoe lying in the middle of the road, behind the truck. It sits alone, upright, innocent in the midst of asphalt. The truck hit the girl and took her right out of her shoe. It sits there. Joel stares at it. And he wonders, for a moment, how such a thing is possible. The physics do not seem right and surely they are not—a dragged body, a lost shoe, a happenstance upright positioning—yet the internal vision of the thick and heavy and deadly truck striking a child and pulling her, magically, directly out of her shoes—a blink of an eye and the horror is missed—and this stays so very stark and strong and visceral with him.

Hal leaves the porch, hefting the camera that hangs around his neck, and begins to snap pictures of the carnage. He clicks and clicks the aftermath, fascinated and focused but with a detachment that the boy tries to understand. But Hal, this man, he has seen war and atrocities and this must be one more small event in a lifetime of terrible occurrences, and he has taken pictures of pain before. How liberating that must be, to be able to frame and focus the scene, to encase it in boundaries and block out all the endless vistas of the world around, to not have to look too far skyward or to peer off into an endless horizon or try to imagine the vastness of space and realize that there are no confines to pain like this—that, in fact, it simply drifts off into the ether and goes on and on forever, like radio waves, information that will never be truly captured and reined in and understood—that, as a very disturbing matter of fact, there is no good explanation for a gardening truck hitting (killing?) two small children and that these broadcasts of pain weave through the fabric of existence; these broadcasts bind together our reality. They are not accidents or mistakes, but make up the very world we live in as crucial and critical moments. Indeed, could we even exist without such happenings?

The boy, Joel, though, has no camera and instead he watches Hal, and he watches the parents scream, and he leans against one of the porch railings. The driver of the gardening truck has stepped outside of the cab, takes tentative steps on the road's hot asphalt, and surveys the scene around him, of which he is the principle focus. Does he think to himself, I have murdered children? Or is he more forgiving of his own unintentional actions? Or perhaps his mind is blank, because he appears uncomprehending, his face taut with the inability to handle the stimulus around him. He stares at the father, who looks at him as well. The father rises and someone holds him back as he screams, "You killed them! You killed them!" And then the driver, whose face simply does not change but, Joel can see now, is in incalculable pain—it can be seen in the eyes—puts an arm against the back of his truck, against the metal (is it hot or cool on this summer day?) and leans his head against his arm while the father is restrained, while the driver tries to comprehend, while the world spins and spins and Hal takes pictures and the boy sits on the porch steps of the coffee house and slips into time-devouring shock and tries to understand how the world continues on with such abundant pain.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why Writing Is The Ultimate Art Form

I love movies. I love music. I love television shows--the good ones, anyway. I think all of these are very worthy art forms. However, they don't compare to books for me--though they all come close in certain ways. Writing and storytelling in general is, I suppose, the oldest art form and it is, as far as I'm concerned, the truest art form.

There are reasons for this and I was thinking about that recently. It came as I was listening to music. Music is something that I would have one hell of a hard time living without. I wouldn't give up books for music, but it's the closest that any form of art comes to overtaking books for me. But the other day I was listening to some music and calculating out how many songs I could listen to on the way to work and I figured about four, based on a three to four minute run time for each song. And when I'm thinking of songs, that's what I figure: three to four minutes. That's how long most songs are. It's not universal, obviously, and there's plenty of variance. But within the genres I typically listen to, a song is most often three to four minutes long.

Which is strange, when you get right down to it. Why are songs so often of similar length? Why is it that when you listen to the radio, most of the songs played will run about three to four minutes? Isn't that strange? Music, after all, is a form of art and so there should be a greater variety to the length of songs, because stories vary so much. Songs often tell a story in some form. Sometimes through the music, sometimes through the lyrics and most often through a combination of the two. They are aiming for emotion and response and all that good stuff, much like any art form. So it would make sense that you would see a wider variety of song length because stories come in all shapes and sizes. Even from the same artist, on the same album, you would think that there would be greater variance.

Except that the commercial aspect of music, to a large degree, dictates the length of a song. Three to four minutes is a good length for radio play. It just fits well for the format. Ten minute songs don't, and neither do thirty second songs. That's a pain in the ass for radio stations. And how long is an album? Well, it's ten to fifteen songs. And albums are now on CD and a CD holds, at most, eighty minutes of music. Most often, though, albums run around forty to fifty minutes. Ten four minute songs is forty minutes. Fifteen three minute songs? Forty five minutes. Twelve four minute songs is forty eight minutes. The math just works, doesn't it?

Television? Let's not even talk about television. Twenty two or forty four minutes. If it's twenty two minutes, it damn well better be a comedy and if it's forty four, then it better be a drama, though you can throw in comedic elements if you'd like.

How long are movies? They're around two hours long. Unless it's a comedy, in which case it's an hour and a half. Or an animated movie, which is usually an hour and a half, as well, or even a little shorter. Eighty minutes is common for an animated movie. Why is that? Because children have short attention spans and unless you're Pixar, you don't keep them occupied very well for more than eighty or ninety minutes.

Movies aren't four hours unless they're miniseries shown on television and split over multiple nights. It's because people don't want to sit in a movie theater for four hours. Just as important, it's because theater owners can't screen enough showings in a day to make enough money. The studios can't make their record opening weekends on four hour movies because they don't screen often enough to get enough people into the theaters. So movies aren't four hours long.

But here's the deal: movies aren't four hours because of economics, not because of artistic visions. Why did Peter Jackson make three Lord of the Rings movies rather than one damn long one? Because of the economics and logistics. In reality, he did make one long movie, he just had to break it up into three parts. Quentin Tarantino was making one movie with Kill Bill, but it eventually was split into two movies because of economics and logistics, not because of artistic vision (though he did, ultimately, end up making two distinct and separate films out of one story.)

Music and movies are wonderful, but they're incredibly restricted. Artists make three minute songs because that's what's expected, so it's in their minds while they make the music. They create forty five minute albums because that's the standard for the market and labels are loath to mess with expectations, lest it lead to lower sales.

Even when the economics change, they stay the same. The rise of iTunes and other digital music services promised to cut loose the reliance on the album format and let artists focus more on the artistic side of music rather than the commercial side. Except that iTunes sells albums for $9.99 and push that aspect of their business, rather than pushing the single track experience. And what if you're Green Day and you want to make a new album that's a bit more experimental, that has a couple tracks stuck in there that are nine or ten minutes long? No problem--so long as you break that track up into four different songs that simply lead into each other, rather than making one ten minute long song. That way, the label sells it as four different songs on iTunes but make it one track on the CD and you get to pretend you're being original rather than just bridging four different songs and giving them an overarching theme.

But books are different--sometimes. In the world of literature particularly, books are different. You get one thousand page behemoths like Infinite Jest sitting next to a quick, two hundred page read. You have Checkpoint, which barely makes it past one hundred pages, taking up space with the five hundred page Cloud Atlas. Writing allows much greater freedom because the commercial restraints are smaller. Even in genre writing, you have more leeway. Sure, you're expected to pump out at least three hundred pages if you want to write a horror novel so people feel they're getting their money's worth--because, at that level, the stories are looked at much more universally as entertainment rather than art, the way music and movies are--but you can go for a mammoth, multi-character eight hundred page novel, as well. Most people aren't going to complain, so long as it's good and entertaining. But there's no real option to make a five hour movie, even if it's the best movie of the year. No major studio is going to finance and release it.

Hell, with books, there are even tricks to massage the requirements. Say you're writing a horror novel and it's a short one--something that would normally come in at around two hundred pages. The publisher might be nervous about putting out such a slim volume and charging the regular price, so all they have to do is bump up the type point, widen the margins and fill up three hundred pages. Simple as that. Sure, anyone paying attention knows what is going on, but that mental barrier of how thick a horror novel needs to be is just that--it's a mental barrier that is unconcerned with the realities of what you're getting. And, again, if it's a good story, people aren't going to complain.

Want to write a series of thirty second songs? Good luck finding a label that wants to deal with that, but you might be able to throw them in during a live show, so long as they're surrounded by more conventional songs. But if you want to write a bunch of five and ten and twenty page stories, then that's no problem. Just write enough to fill a collection and you have your published work--a series of stories told the way you want to tell them. And you're free to mix it up--have a five page story followed by a thirty five page tale, followed by a ten page story and then a hundred and twenty page novella thrown in for good measure, if you so desire it.

And perhaps you have strange and offbeat ideas that you want to explore, something that the mass market will never embrace. Well, you have a hell of a better chance succeeding in the world of publishing than you do in the world of music and movies. Yes, it's still going to be considerably harder to find a company willing to take a chance on you, but they do exist and are out there. The publishing world has it's major players, but it's not dominated to the tune of 90-95% by a few major corporations the way that both music and movies are. There are small and independent publishers. There's a huge world of literary magazines. There is independent publishing online and there's even the opportunity for self-publishing without spending too great of sums of money. Hell, you can start a blog and write whatever you damn well please, for free, and if enough people like you, you could even make some money off it. And again, this comes back to the economics because it's a hell of a lot cheaper to produce a book than it is to produce a movie or a CD (though computers are beginning to change that.)

There's flexibility in writing that doesn't exist in other art forms. A book can be seven hundred pages because you don't have to sit and read it all at once. You can take as much time as you want and you can make yourself as comfortable as you want. You can read it in a couple days of marathon reading sessions or take a leisurely couple weeks--hell, a month if you want. The artists get to tell their story the way they want to, taking as much time and space as they want, and the reader gets to digest the story at their own pace rather than having to go at the pace of the artist.

It's amazing how the simple negation of time constraints makes an art form so much more flexible. It's also amazing how the proper economic model can make an art form all the more freeing. There's no radio play constraints in writing. You don't have to hit a certain time length and you don't have to avoid profanity. The limitations on what you can write aren't there nearly so much, because there's no sanitation necessary for the mass market and there are no government agencies overseeing everything to make sure no one is offended. Sure, there are no doubt commercial restraints within the publishing world--particularly if you work within the genre market--but the amount of freedom when compared to music and movies must be damn near dizzying. It still, ultimately, boils down to telling a good story and not how you tell that story. That's why I love books and that's why no other art form can replace writing.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Sin City Will Kick Your Ass--Then, Perhaps, Take Your Name


Because, yes, I wanted to post it again.

I've been hyped about Sin City, as might have been evident by my two different "Movies To See" posts on it. Then I started to read the reviews and they generally were good. Everything I heard seemed to suggest that I was going to quite enjoy the movie. So last Monday, I took off to the theater in the afternoon to check the film out.

Damn, damn, Sin City is one hell of a great movie. It starts out a bit rough, with an opening story starring Bruce Willis's character. This opening struck me as weak when compared with what came afterward. Also, in the beginning, it's hard to get used to the dialogue. I knew going in that the writing would be that way--I wasn't going in blind, completely surprised by the tone and style of story--but it still was hard not to groan at the lines.

However, then the Bruce Willis story ended and Marv's began. At that point, I was pretty much gone. The movie kicked into high gear, the characters became much more interesting and the dialogue suddenly seemed just fine--perfect, in fact.

The visual style of this movie is incredible. Frank Miller is listed as a co-director because, basically, his graphic novels were used as storyboards by Robert Rodriguez. And there is no question here that this is an incredibly faithful adaptation. In fact, this may be the best comic book movie--if you want to call it a comic book--in terms of capturing the look and feel of the source material. Spiderman has been done very well, without question, but Sin City goes above and beyond in staying true to the original material.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, the visual style is black and white for the most part, with occasional splashes of color to enhance certain effects, characters, or items. Digital effects are used widely and effectively to create a world that is the equivalent of what is seen in the graphic novels. The city is brought to life wonderfully, beautifully, and the visuals do exactly what they should do: better pull the viewer into the story and capture not only their attention, but their imagination. When color shows up on the screen, it really stands out but it never acts as a distraction, either. It works wonderfully with the way the movie is laid out.

The movie is not one long story but rather a series of interconnected tales weaving together a wide cast of characters. The stories interrelate and overlap, but they stand on their own, as well. They don't fall quite in chronological order, either. Of the stories, Marv's is easily the most entertaining and fascinating, but the other ones hold their own, as well. While the story of Hartigan (Bruce Willis's character) starts out somewhat slow, it becomes much more interesting when it reemerges later in the film.

The cast is great, particularly Mickey Rourke as Marv and Clive Owen as Dwight. (In general, I'm becoming more and more impressed with Clive Owen. His turn in Closer was flat out amazing.) Everyone seems to delve into the movie whole heartedly, without a bit of hesitation or uncertainty. They commit themselves to bringing this very peculiar and distinct world to life and allowing it to grow and breathe over the course of the movie. Robert Rodriguez, the director, does an amazing job, committing himself just as much to bringing to life Miller's graphic novels. It's pretty clear that he has a real love for these stories and that he was determined to represent them properly on the screen.

This movie is sick and twisted and dark and completely unapologetic. It thrives on violence and vice, the characters often sympathetic but always on a dark and dangerous path. The world is oppressive and dark and yet it somehow manages not to be too overwhelming or depressing. The film stays entertaining and enjoyable even as terrible events are constantly occurring and characters that we are rooting for are meeting terrible fates. It's an interesting and impressive balancing act.

There has been talk about the similarities between Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in the sense of the extensive use of digital imagery in both movies to create the worlds in which they're set. While I did quite enjoy Sky Captain, there's no doubt that Sin City is a more impressive movie and a better story. Sky Captain used it's digital wizardry, in large part, as an impressive effect meant to dazzle the audience. Meanwhile, while Sin City is, without a doubt, very impressive, every bit of digital imagery is focused on the goal of creating this world that is necessary for the story to thrive in. It all comes back to the characters, to the writing, to the story and is never exclusively about wowing the audience, which is sometimes how Sky Captain seemed to be. In that sense, Sin City is a more mature and accomplished film and it better shows the way in which pervasive digital imagery can benefit and advance the art of movie-making.

So I loved Sin City. All those great-looking trailers proved to be in service of a complete pay off. The movie was everything I hoped it would be and I'm left with the great desire to see more of this dark and disturbing world, to spend more time with the characters--particularly Marv. Hopefully we'll see a sequel before long and hopefully many of the original actors will be back along for another ride. Because I want to visit again.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Suffer

I struck on a thought while emailing Ralph--a reader who I originally met through Iron Blog--that I wanted to expand on here.

I've written before about how I like my art to be sad. That's not to say that I deplore happiness or satisfaction, that I hate a good happy ending or anything like that. It's just that I have no problem with the sad endings, the tragic ones, with the stories that dwell on misery and suffering and all the pain inherent in living on this planet. It seems to me that existence is brutal, to varying degrees for various people, but universally painful on certain levels.

Now, life is worth it, I believe. For the pain and misery and suffering that seems always around the next corner, there is also joy and happiness and great elation. Life is pretty damn cool, when you get right down to it. That's my thought. Therefore, I don't want this to be taken as some sort of downcast condemnation of existence, as a hopeless screed.

But the suffering is there and I don't believe it will ever go away. I do think the human race is capable of great gains and achievements, of righting wrongs and carrying out justice. I believe that we can make lives better and that we can improve the world. I do believe in progress. But I also believe that pain is a constant, that it will always exist and that the only difference is in how it manifests. Pain changes and morphs and puts on new faces, but it never disappears. It simply takes a different form, the way energy does.

So I like my art to deal with that. I like my art to dwell on it, to tackle it head on, to exhibit and try to make sense of all the pain in the world. However, I don't want my art to try to provide me answers for the pain. I don't want to be told the details about why we suffer and I don't want people to tell me how to make it end. I don't want a lecture or a grave explanation of just how the human race has gone wrong and how it can correct itself. Give me a break--we don't have the answers. No one has the answers. If they existed, we would be a hell of a lot better off. We've tried, oh how we've tried to make the world right and perfect. We try governments and economies and religion, we proclaim the Golden Rule and talk to our neighbors, we put ourselves into therapy and make friends and find lovers and it never goes away. The pain doesn't disappear. The best we get is a retreat--temporary--and then the return of pain in a different form. Or, hell, half the time it comes back in the same damn form. We thought we beat it; we didn't.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't defeatism or misery, this isn't even a dark night of heavy thoughts. I've been in a good mood today. I just like to face up to the reality of pain in this world and I always have. I think it's one of the key reasons I consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be one of the greatest shows of all time. It dealt with pain forthright, head on, without ever hesitating or pulling back to give the viewer a breather. The show--specifically, Joss Whedon--had no trouble piling tragedy upon tragedy on the viewer, inundating them with pain and misery and heartbreak, great loss. Whedon said multiple times that his goal was to pile on the pain until the audience felt they couldn't take any more--and then hit them with something else. He always wanted to see how far he could take it because he wanted to be honest about life, about what happens in this world. Because the pain is always there, it's ever-present. You don't get a breather, no one decides that your life needs to be made happier so as not to alienate the audience. If there's any audience to this existence, then it's an audience with endless tolerance.

Give me the misery. Give me the horror, the tragedies, the injustices. I want all of it, because that's what this life is. Give me the pain, let me feel it. Rip my fucking heart out; this is what I want. I can take it. I'll have to take it, because how can I manage real life pain if I can't take the pain that artists feed me? How do you survive your own very real life if you can't even handle the imagined lives?

Yes, I know, for many people art is about entertainment. They want the movies that make them feel good, that distract them from the pain of their lives. But I've never been that way. I'll take the entertainment, mind you, and I'll enjoy it and won't have a problem with letting my mind wander for a couple hours or however long it takes. When you get right down to it, though, I could live without the mindless entertainment, but I would have a much harder time getting by without the vicarious pain and misery. It's that kind of art that leaves me thoughtful and contemplative, that leaves me feeling just a bit closer to making sense of the world. I don't think I can ever have a true understanding of the scope of this life, of its purpose or meaning or why people suffer the way they do, but I do believe I can gain a better grasp of it. I think that I can come to terms with it and I believe that examining pain and suffering through art is a crucial component of coming to accept life, to dealing with the intricacies of our existence. I think art can make the pain more bearable, but only if you're willing to experience the painful art. It just makes it easier when the real pain comes around and you realize that, yes, this all happens to you, too. It's not just something you read or watch--it's how the world is. And it's how the world will always be. So if art can confront it and help you to handle it when it raises its head for real, then all the better. Then suddenly art is not just entertainment and escape, it's a crucial element of life. It becomes an integral part of existence, which makes it richer and fuller, much more visceral and emotional. It enhances life, and that is something special.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Using Casey Kasem To Hate America

Norwegian rap group Gatas Parlament created a music video recently for their song, "Kill Him Now." Early on in the video, it talks about killing President Bush and, under pressure from the United States government, the Norwegian government banned the video. However, because of this little thing called the internet--which has a way of spreading around various types of speech that people find distasteful--the video can be viewed in full with English subtitles on iFilm.

The existence of the video brings up some interesting questions about freedom of speech, particularly when that speech is being used to possibly advocate murder. The other question, of course, is whether or not the damn video is any good.

The most controversial part of the video is the beginning and the end. At the beginning, you have a news announcer reporting that the (real) site killhim.nu has raised enough money to hire an assassin to kill President Bush. At the end of the video, we see the actual killing of Bush--or, the implied killing of him, through some juxtaposing of images of the president with images of an assassin carrying what appears to be a missile-launcher.

But this video isn't just about hating Bush, it's about hating America as a whole. The group has a litany of complaints about U.S. foreign policy dating back before Bush's presidency. These complaints run by quickly, accompanied by graphs that appear to be very informative, though I can't say for sure since they're not in English. Mixed in with these graphs and the lyrics and various other images, though, is what perhaps is the real source of the group's hatred toward America: clips from Saved by the Bell. Particularly, clips from the episode of Saved by the Bell that involves a dance competition.

Now, the group might have some fair criticisms about U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps they have some legitimate beefs with President Bush--I know, personally, I haven't been the biggest fan of his. However, I really would expect Saved by the Bell is the true source of their ire. Because, in case you've never seen the show, it's bad. I mean, it's really bad. And if I were watching that show and took it as any sort of indication of America--especially if I were watching an episode guest-starring Casey Kasem, for god's sake--well, I would probably hate America too. I'd be wondering just how we might bomb it right off the face of the earth.

So is the video any good? Well, actually, it kind of is. I mean, it seems like a decent rap song, despite the fact that I can't understand the lyrics. Something a bit along the lines of a Norwegian version of Sage Francis, perhaps, who I quite like. I mean, they seem to have some talent for this rapping thing, whatever you may think of the substance of the song. Again, I say this with the caveat that I'm kind of guessing, since the actual sound of the lyrics is gibberish to me. (Though fun gibberish, I must say. It's an interesting language.)

The other question is whether or not the video goes too far and whether it should be allowed to be seen. This is a trickier question. Personally, I'm loathe to infringe on free speech rights, but there are always certain limits, and those limits generally come into play when the free speech puts someone else at risk of harm. I remember the trial awhile back of some anti-abortion activists for making up wanted posters of abortion doctors and basically calling for their killing on websites. They were found guilty of making illegal threats that went beyond free speech and the ruling was upheld--just barely--by an appeals court. Much like the appeals court, I was very divided on the decision, but ultimately leaned more toward finding them guilty. They were basically advocating the killings of private citizens, and that went too far in my mind.

Yet, I feel a bit more lenient toward this video. Now, I realize that my political beliefs may influence that view, but I would argue it's more the fact that I think politicians and other people who have made a conscious decision to put themselves on a public stage are a bit more fair game, as well as the way the threat is carried out in the video. Basically, I find the video to be more a skit than an actual call for Bush's assassination. Basically, I don't see it as a true threat, but rather as fiction. That's how it's played in my mind, which is the real dividing line. They talk about an assassin being hired, but they don't explicitly call for someone to go out and kill Bush.

It's a fine line, without a question, and I think the band purposefully walked that line in a very careful manner. So I say let the video play, if for no other reason than for the fun of hurting your head by watching a rap video that attempts serious critiques of U.S. foreign policy while interspersing it with clips of a Saved by the Bell episode guest-starring Casey Kasem. If it's an attempt at subversion, then . . . hats off to you, Gatas Parlament.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.org)

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Love In The Fascist Brothel

The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower's newest album, Love in the Fascist Brothel, is a CD that's hard to summarize. It's punk and hardcore, screaming vocals and furious sound. It has a touch of jazz, it has screamo, it has post-punk-hardcore--or whatever you want to call it. There are guitars and drums and saxophone--oh yes--and vocals that, unfortunately, are not as easily understood as they should be. The album has Nazi and fascist imagery, terrible (albeit purposefully terrible, it seems) artwork and it runs about twenty four minutes, so it's hardly a long and arduous trip. It's more short and loud, which works well enough but certainly leaves room for a longer run time.

I enjoyed seeing The Plot in concert recently (make no mistake, they are damn good live) and much of what I wrote in that review stands in regards to the CD itself. The layering in of the occasional bit of saxophone is a very nice touch that sets this music apart from some of The Plot's contemporaries. The record is overflowing with energy and enthusiasm as the band rips through the album's ten songs. The music is full of fury and invigoration and it's a performance that can certainly be admired.

However, the album has its problems, as well. The vocals too often become lost in the music. This might be a matter of poor mastering on the record or it could be a problem with the band itself--I suspect it's a combination of the two, based on their live show. Many of the lyrics are solid and interesting, creating intriguing imagery, but they are typically obscured by the music to the point that they cannot be understood. Too often the lead singer, Brandon Welchez, seems to be mumbling in the background when he should be grabbing the listener and dragging him through these songs, demanding attention. He has a great and unique voice that mostly feels wasted on this album, shunted into the background.

There is still a lot to love about Love in the Fascist Brothel, though. It's bursting with creativity, for starters. The music is fascinating, constantly changing and shifting and morphing. These guys are never satisfied with the sound they have, constantly moving it forward, adjusting the level, changing tempo and switching up the pace. The tempo, though, typically remains a fast one as The Plot push ever furiously forward. The music is crazed and chaotic and it works wonderfully. There is a strange mix of control and chaos, of a tight sense of random noise that adds up to something greater. The Plot does a magnificent job of straddling a fine line between noise and music. They constantly assault the listener but typically do it in a compelling way.

The constant change, however, intrudes upon the ability of the songs to distinguish themselves. The album begins to blend together, with little in particular truly standing out and impressing itself upon the listener. There are moments here and there, from a variety of the songs, that do become recognizable--the frayed opening of "Exile on Vain Street" and the epileptic cowbell on the same track; Welchez's clouded voice repeating, "I'm choking on the sweet taste of honey" in "Drake the Fake"--but even with these moments, they're just snippets of songs and the complete tracks themselves mesh together with their counterparts, failing to find consistently distinguishing traits.

There's plenty to be impressed with on Love in the Fascist Brothel, but the album has its share of faults. For those who enjoy hardcore music, they may find themselves really appreciating The Plot's approach. There's no doubt that this is fascinating and original--the work of a great talent. Yet, the album burns out early, the vocals are too often obscured and unintelligible and the songs could stand to separate themselves more. I would recommend the album for fans of this type of music, but still hope for better from The Plot in the future. They have a ton of promise, without question, and it will be interesting to see how well they live up to that promise.

__________
"Exile on Vain Street" - MP3

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Worthy Remake

The Office--the original British version--was hilarious. It was dry and witty and very low key at times--though it could get silly, too--and is one of the funniest shows I've ever had the pleasure of watching. It ran two short seasons and had a two hour special to round things out. The special was awesome. The seasons were great. The show just sparkled, from the beginning to end.

The cast was brilliant, with Ricky Gervais--one of the creators of the show--as the boss, David Brent, being particularly impressive. He played Brent as a complete jackass, a sleazeball, an egotistical idiot who was so full of himself that he could not recognize the reality that constantly stared him in the face. And yet, he was always just shy of being overbearing as a character. You could watch the show and squirm in your seats at his antics, but you never actually would turn off the television and stop watching. It never became too much. It bordered on it at times, but it never crossed that line.

The balancing act within the show was impressive. The humor came straight from uncomfortable situations, from long and awkward pauses, from just the right comic beats. Time and again, it could have devolved into a disaster, but it never did. It was consistently hilarious.

So an American remake airing on NBC seemed like a complete disaster in the making. I read the news with great trepidation and even when Steve Carell was cast as the boss--now named Michael Scott--I still did not even dare to hope that the show would be any good. Yes, Steve Carell is genius, hilarious, a master at comic timing. Just watching him perform on The Daily Show over the years makes that clear. But it did not matter that he was hilarious--there seemed no way that even his talents could manage to move The Office away from its place as a disaster-in-the-making.

And yet, somehow, the show is funny. Now, I've only seen one episode so far, but it showed considerable promise. It certainly was not as good as the original British version, but it still played very well. There were laughs, the cast was largely likable, and Steve Carell did a pretty good job of playing a role that had already been perfected. I don't attribute the show's success simply to Carell's work, though he does do a great job. Instead, it seems that Ricky Gervais is not only talented at creating a hilarious British comedy, but is also pretty damn talented at then translating that comedy to American sensibilities. From what I read, he played a large role in adapting the show for NBC and it seems to have worked out beautifully.

The cast is solid enough, though the first episode would suggest that it is not nearly as talented--as a whole--as the cast from the original series. Still, these people seem funny and competent, able to take this show forward into future episodes. Carell, as I already said, does a great job of taking on the main role. He plays the character in an even harsher manner than Gervais did in the original, and it is yet to be seen if this can be maintained. Brent is brutal under Carell's stewardship and he could easily slip too far into unlikable territory--a troublesome development that Gervais managed to avoid. But the character was rough in the first few episodes of the original, as well, so we'll see if he becomes a bit more likable over time--or at least sufferable, to be more specific.

The other standout in the cast is Jenna Fischer as Pam, the secretary. She is instantly enjoyable and alluring, even more so than the character was originally. She brings a sly sarcasm to the role that benefits the character greatly. And she is someone that the audience can easily empathize with and root for, setting her up early as the show's emotional center.

We'll see how the future episodes go, but so far things are looking very good. I had little hope that this remake could succeed, especially with the track record NBC has had of late with sitcoms. However, against all the odds, they managed to succeed. Color me shocked, but happy. I'd love to reexperience these characters and--if the show is successful--see their storylines evolve beyond the limits of the original series.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Blood Brothers - Crimes

The Blood Brothers, on their latest album, Crimes, are a mess of sound and fury, macabre lyrics, screaming and throaty singing and fast, fast songs that, nevertheless, are often times not nearly as fast as on past albums. The Blood Brothers have evolved with their latest album, injecting at least a partial sense of pop into their hardcore past. It's still an incredibly unique sound, though, and terribly entertaining.

The level of intensity that the two singers, Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie, maintain throughout the album is impressive. They scream their way through the songs, track after track, laying themselves out with such energy and enthusiasm that it becomes certain that they'll have to collapse at some point. But they keep going, never losing the overall intensity and manic energy that constantly propels the record forward.

There are moments, though, when they slow down to some degree--though "slow down" is relative to this band, not to the music scene as a whole. The screaming will abate from time to time to create a dark mood, a black atmosphere in which the twisted and imaginative lyrics shine and take hold, tunneling into the listener's mind. You can hear this at the beginning of the third track, "Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck," as the song opens with the whispered lyrics, "Those tire tracks / zigzag your torso like the Devil's self portrait." This is one of the quieter songs on the album. It sacrifices some of the energy of other tracks for a focus on moodiness and macabre story-telling. Ultimately, though, to say it is quieter is to speak in relative terms, as it is not actually quiet, which becomes apparent when the screaming kicks in, laden with dark emotion and disappointment, pain and loss.

With this album, listeners will find longer and more layered songs than they did early on in The Blood Brothers' career, a change that works very well. While this is no pop album, by any stretch of the imagination, there's far more melody on Crimes than on The Blood Brothers' early albums. They have moved beyond the hardcore scene without completely abandoning it, creating a fascinating mixture of musical genres that still manages to assault the listener, just in a more melodic way. There are still short and crazed tracks, but they are mixed in with more complicated songs that serve to give a slight breather.

Their two singers create a strange but enjoyable mixture of high- and low-pitched vocals that can quickly grow on the listener. The juxtaposition can perhaps best be heard on "Live at the Apocalypse Cabaret" as the two singers trade off lines, alternating and at times overlaying each other to create a wonderful mixture of high and screaming and low and grumbling, gravel-voiced lyrics pressing up against a screech that threatens to disintegrate under its intensity.

Some of the change ups on the album are near-breathtaking. In "Rats and Rats and Rats For Candy," The Blood Brothers throw nearly everything at the listener, switching maniacally between high and low vocals, throwing out constant tempo changes, moving from slower and more pronounced lyrics to intense screaming. The song is pandemonium, yet it never becomes frustrating or annoying. It enfolds the listener in energy and insanity, driving forever forward.

Then the album shifts gears again and moves into contemplative and dwelling lyrics with the title track. This happens again and again, the switch between different musical styles, a variety of tempos and intensity, never long being content with one pace. It offers a great variety and ever-changing musical landscape. It's hard to lose interest in this album as it barrels along, always morphing and evolving.

Try to understand the lyrics as Johnny Whitney screams, "The carnival's glossy ghosts, / zebra-painted horses parade, / the cotton candy prostitutes, / caramel apple corpses singing, / 'Just this way to the neon orange gallows! / Tonight we tie the noose around the killer's collar! / Watch him play his wind pipe organ!'" Listen as Jordan Blilie growls, "If the brick / you throw / puts a bullet in your skull / and a police boot lands atop your gaping jaw?" on the song "Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers." Then revel in the pure and dark macabre as the two of them together sing, "If tuxedos slither off corpses / and copulate wild on wedding cake, / and the priest starts snapping photos?" These songs are in no way tame and seem specifically designed to evoke emotion and drag up dark and imaginative imagery, to slither and snake their way into the listener's mind. The album evokes a black world, complete with dysfunction and pain and descriptive horror. Yet, this does not come across as a depressing album, either, with the malevolent lyrics consistently expressed in a playful and at times taunting manner.

Crimes is an impressive balancing of moods and sounds. It's an amazing mixture of hardcore and melody, with a touch of pop thrown in to keep everything off-balance. The Blood Brothers are not producing the same music they once were, but this is not a bad development. Instead, they have evolved and created a style of music that stands apart from the crowd and that deserves wide recognition. I'm excited to see what they'll come up with next.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Withheld Touch

by Joel Caris


He sat in the coffee house, across the room from the two girls. One of them stared at him and pointed, surreptitiously but still visibly, lightly touching her friend on the shoulder to gain her attention. “Look at him,” she said. “His eyes are so dark; they're ringed. He looks like death and madness, restricted freedom. Do you see?”

Her friend nodded and smiled. The coffee house vibrated, the screech of milk being steamed and the angry buzz of brewing espresso. Customers walked in and out the front door. They were a steady stream of need and desire, fulfilled satisfaction and expectation. The girl loved the smell of sweat on the hot day and the pheromones the customers exuded, lust for flesh replaced by lust for substance. They shook and tapped their fingers on the counter, eagerly counted out their money and handed over their pieces of plastic, desperate for milk and caffeine and chocolate, syrups and brownies and pecans, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, tea and small, pre-packaged sandwiches, cookies and peppermint and foam, fix upon fix upon fix.

The friend left and the girl walked over to the boy, admiring the way his eyes wandered and he cocked his head slightly to the side, appearing thoughtful and considerate and deeply hungry. She sat down and he looked at her, stared at her, drinking slowly from his coffee and he smiled just hesitantly and slightly, with only his top row of teeth visible and only this for a moment. “Hello,” she said, and she placed her elbows on the table and squeezed her breasts together slightly, angling so he could see down her shirt. She smiled. She could not laugh until he said something.

“Hi,” he said, but she still could not laugh.

His life roiled behind his eyes--she could see years and months and days, hours and minutes boiled down to simplistically complicated emotions and conflicting thoughts, anger and desire and pleasure. Death, she thought, and it did seem as if he exuded this essence, this thought of drifting non-existence, as if life had tried to be something for him but had managed only to disappoint and fail extravagantly.

After peering down her shirt a moment--but not overt and he did not leer, did not even seem particularly motivated to look--he put his own elbows on the table and leaned in toward her, flashed again his smile and he asked her her name, which she told him, then he made a small joke about the customers--in and out--slightly sexual to gauge her reaction. She laughed at the joke and he touched her on the arm, lightly dragging his fingers down across her skin. She tingled. For a moment, she did not know what to do. He had taken her move and confused the situation. So she touched her dark, long hair and smiled enthusiastically and asked him why his eyes were so dark and abandoned.

All the way back to his house--"So big!" she exclaimed--she imagined him fucking her, again and again and a variety of ways and wondered if the death behind his eyes would rub off on her, if it would enter her and fester and where exactly it would stake its residence. But when they arrived, he took her into the living room and sat her down on his couch, offering food and drink. She told him that whiskey or vodka would be perfect--a request he accepted without hesitation. He returned with both and with two shot glasses. One for each drink.

They alternated and each had three shots--her two of vodka and him two of whiskey, then one of the others for both. The room grew hot and charged, electric, while she touched him tirelessly, again and again, and he touched her but neither become bold or forward and their clothes did not rustle or fall. Arms and legs, a shoulder, he stroked her hair and she touched him lightly on the neck, just beneath his jawline. They stared at each other and saw familiar hatreds and desires. They could understand each other and each touch brought everything closer and caused the night to become more stark and honest. It began to disturb her.

She tried to kiss him once, but he pushed her away. It somehow seemed appropriate. She drank another shot of whiskey at this point--which made three shots of vodka and two of whiskey--and they were both drunk and lost, with black eyes and constant touches--the way he stroked her hair--and at one point they simply sat with entwined fingers, palms touching and both of them staring intermittently at the ceiling and then at one another. She chafed at the intimacy of the moment but refused to listen to the part of her mind that screamed for her to leave or fuck, to take something or go. Calm calm calm, she repeated to herself, dared herself, and continued to let him touch her in brief and intimate and non-sexual ways.

Three hours after arriving at his house, she asked him, “Would you drive me back to my car if I asked, so I could go home?”

“Of course,” he answered.

But she did not ask.

Later--as they both struggled with consciousness and alcohol--he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where they took off their clothes. They stared at each other a moment and she felt both ashamed and exhilarated, wanting to grab hold of him and make him touch every part of her, to force him to see every thought that had ever entered her mind. Instead, though, they climbed into bed and pushed themselves close to each other. He touched her stomach, her legs, her breasts, her shoulders and face and hair and once he massaged her feet, only for a few moments, and another time he traced up her inner thigh and then over her hips. She ran her fingers along his chest and stomach, traced circles on the backs of his knees, put both hands on his face, dragged the back of her hand across his stubble, squeezed his shoulder and ran her hands up and down his back.

Then they fell asleep, innocent, and throughout the night she woke up again and again. She cried in her sleep and trembled and every time she awoke he would be staring at her. He would wrap his arms around her, sometimes placing his palm flat against her stomach and other times his arm across her breasts. Heat poured off him. Yet he kept his death to himself, offering only his quiet touch and eventually she stopped crying. She slept deep into the next day before she woke up confused and uneasy, searching the boy next to her for his darkness, for all the promised touches he had withheld.

Fade Out

I did a bit of shopping today. I picked up James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners. I'm feeling the need to read the story, "The Dead." According to Sheila, it has the best ending ever and it does sound quite enjoyable. Plus, I'm not sure if I've ever read James Joyce before and I feel I should.

I also went looking for some new Tobias Wolff books, since I enjoy him much. I didn't have any luck at the smaller used bookstore here in Vancouver, so I hit Powell's in Portland--which is, uh, kind of big--and I picked up four books, including another short story collection from Wolff. I'll probably be reading that soon.

I also bought a new CD--Never Take Friendship Personal by Anberlin. They're a rock/punk/emo band--whatever you want to call that brand of music that includes Thursday and Taking Back Sunday and The Used and so on. It's nothing amazing or original, to be sure, but I'm enjoying it. It's overly produced, very slick and certain of itself, lots of raging guitars and heavy drums and intense, emotional, loud vocals--all of it overlayed with a heavy sense of melody. It's good stuff, even if I've heard it all before and heard it done better. Still, I'm enjoying it.

Except for this one song, "Audrey, Start the Revolution!" The song is fine, for the most part, until it comes to the end. Then it does something horrible, awful, something that I simply cannot abide. It fades out. I fucking hate fading out. It is utterly inexcusable. There is no reason for it at all. It's lazy and pointless, a total cliche, so horribly unthoughtful that I want to gouge out my eyes. Why would anyone ever fade out a song? What, you just couldn't come up with a real ending so you found a line to repeat over and over for thirty seconds while you make it quieter? What kind of crap is that?

I don't want to be lulled out of a song, I want to be punched out of it. I want to gasp, not drift away. There should be a final line and it should kick my ass. Hell, it doesn't even have to be impressive, just give it a proper ending. Fading out is a complete cop out. It's pathetic. It's boring. It's evil. I thought I had largely heard the end of the fade out, but every once in awhile it pops back up to annoy the hell out of me.

Just end your songs, people. Don't back slowly out of the room and hope I don't notice.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Aqualung - Strange and Beautiful

Strange and Beautiful, releasing on March 22nd, is lovely and melodic, overfilled with quiet piano work and brooding vocals, moody stories that seem perfect for a quiet and rainy day or a thoughtful night. There are songs on the album that are catchy, as well, but Aqualung never ventures into upbeat pop territory with this album. Instead, the listener is treated to contemplative melodies and the inner peerings of a talented musician.

Aqualung is, essentially, Matt Hales. He hails from the U.K. and has made a name for himself there with two albums: a self-titled debut and his follow up, Still Life. For his U.S. debut, songs from both of his U.K. albums have been pulled together to form Strange and Beautiful. The album starts off with the title track, which introduced the U.K. to Aqualung when it was used in a Volkswagen commercial. Hales sings the simple refrain, "I'll put a spell on you / and when I wake you / I'll be the first thing you see / and you'll realize that you love me." It is instantly appealing and one of the most pop-oriented tracks on the album, yet manages to not be forgettable, either. It's a sorrow-tinged love song that introduces the listener to Hales' voice, which comes across throughout the album as contemplative and searching, sad and thoughtful without succumbing to outright depression.

The album is mostly coherent, yet also varied. Being a mix of tracks from two different records, one would worry that the music would not always flow as a whole. However, some of the songs have been remixed to address this potential problem and the album does indeed flow very well, moving from track to track without ever jarring the listener, though it flows better in the second half than the first. While the album as a whole is strong, there is certainly a differing level of quality amongst the songs. The title track is great but the next two are merely decent songs, never reaching the sort of heights as the first. But the fourth track, "Brighter Than Sunshine," then comes in and picks the record back up. This is a much more positive, upbeat track that, pardon the pun, really shines. The album then moves into a mixture of strong and simply good songs before flowing into an amazing second half.

Interestingly, as "Brighter Than Sunshine" makes clear, even an upbeat song from Aqualung feels mere steps away from tumbling into dark corners of the mind. This is a strength of the album--the ability to always be within reach of the more melancholic states of mind. Combine that with the fact that this tactic never seems indulgent or tiresome and you have the perfect album for when you're in a quiet mood. Hales' voice is smooth and soothing, confident over his piano work and always imparting a sense of weariness that, nevertheless, does not overwhelm or depress the music. It's a fine line he straddles, being able to perform an upbeat track while keeping the listener aware that sorrow often comes hand in hand with happiness and joy, feeling it lurking there under his words, ready to come forward at any moment.

Pain, meanwhile, is readily apparent throughout Strange and Beautiful. Loss and disappointment is a constant refrain. Yet, the album seems full of hope, as well. This is not the work of someone who has given up on life or become defeated by disappointment, but rather by someone who recognizes setbacks, appreciates challenges, and uses failure to push himself forward.

Aqualung is original, yet familiar. You'll hear definite strands of Coldplay throughout the album and there are moments that sound like less-eccentric Radiohead as Hales' voice takes on qualities of Thom Yorke. Thankfully, though, the songs never come across as derivative. Aqualung's music is clearly its own, building on the artistry of others rather than attempting to mimic it.

The first half of the album is solid but a bit uneven, moving through a series of songs that vary in their sound. The greatest strength comes toward the end of the album, starting with "You Turn Me Round." This is where the record's atmosphere fully kicks in. The songs become darker and more melancholic, laced with pain and too much experience. The vocals are gorgeous and the piano work encompassing. "If I Fall" is soft and subdued, plaintively asking for safety and comfort. The following song, "Easier To Lie," is a strong and subversively up-tempo track.

Strange and Beautiful's final two songs are magnificent, offering a wonderful cap to the album. "Extra Ordinary Thing" is a haunting lullaby, with Hales' voice sounding consistently on the verge of being overwhelmed with emotion. The piano is perfect, building on and accentuating the lyrics to create a pervading sense of beauty and unease. The final track, "Another Little Hole," perfectly sums up the album, continuing the quiet and haunting tone of "Extra Ordinary Thing." Hales bookends the opening song's tale of putting a spell on his love by singing, "The day is breaking / and time is taking / the love we're making away. / The gods have spoken / the spell is broken / and love will tear us apart." It's a sorrowful song and not particularly hopeful, but it is beautiful. And that, perhaps, is how best this album--and Hales' expressive lyrics--can be described: beautiful. Sorrowful and lilting, yes, and haunting and thoughtful, without a doubt, but first and foremost beautiful. How appropriate the album's title turns out to be.