30 October 2013

“Give Yourself to Dreams”: On Wax Idols

In this season of mists and spookiness, now is the best time to discuss Wax Idols. As much as I hear different influences through punk, post punk, and riot grrl or even specific vocal influences like Corin Tucker or the occasional Joey Ramone, I’m not interested in comparisons as a way to critique. Hether Fortune is more than capable so let’s leave it at that. There’s only one Siouxie, one Blondie, one Wire – so let there be one Wax Idols. I will single out influences, but only to indicate how well the band uses them. Capable musicians refine with intelligence rather than reproduce mechanically. Wax Idols is exciting because of its talent not its record collection.

No Future is quite a winning record because it’s an exciting sprint through their strengths. It’s also an incredibly fun album because of its lack of bullshit. The point of the debut is announcing itself and doing so without fuss. Sparse production and bare arrangements like any great, classic punk record of yore are evident much to its power. “Dead Like You” is a fine introduction with some strong guitar playing, but the next song “Hitman” really shows the band’s style. The song builds to two climaxes: the exclaimed “Let’s go!” (who on earth wouldn’t want to follow?) and the closing repeated “Kill ‘em all (kill ‘em kill ‘em).” Already two songs completed and you want to hear more – or hear them again. Another blast of the same energy ending with a frustrated scream ("Dilno") and the record has made its challenge. Then you get "Gold Sneakers" with “I I la-la-love you” as its refrain – quite a change, but a welcome one after the opening intensity. “Nothing At All” features an acoustic performance that gives way to the band roaring back. “Human Condition” opens side two with some feedback reminiscent of latter-day Mission of Burma. A manifesto on social torpor, it’s followed by a more dynamic evaluation of the first world working week, “Bad Future”. Engaging and unrelenting, whatever the lyrics each song is excellent.

Truly amazing is the cover of Wire’s “Sand in My Joints” because of how the band punches it up. It bristles with even more energy and attitude than the original. It’s a great instance of musical scene chewing and it works so well. Then with easy enthusiasm, they close with one of the record’s most exciting songs: “Grey Area”. This is a wonderful anthem showcasing No Future's strengths.

Discipline + Desire then came as quite a surprise. Stylistically, it felt like the band had jumped from The Damned (Damned Damned Damned) to Interpol (Turn On the Bright Lights). That said, by no means is it a sophomore slump. Actually, the increase in quality is more pointed as it’s a forward stride in imagination as much as sophisticated production value. The element that stands out immediately is the drumming. A feature of both records, it’s refreshing to hear a band with such a great sense of rhythm. The guitar feedback and singing prove to be even more explosive. It’s a superb blend of strengths that make the album such a tour de force.

Discipline + Desire is an appropriate title in terms of album sequencing: the first half aggressive and the second half more seductive. The Teenage Jesus vibe that announces the record – aggressive and stabbing a la “Orphans” – only begins to scratch the surface of new influences as well as unique talents within the album. The menace of side one begins with “Stare Back” as it stares into the recesses of humanity. (A typical day at work?) The playing like the singing is cold and imperious. Never aloof, the songs are exciting and brash much like No Future. It culminates in “Scent of Love” with a remarkable performance worthy of Jarboe circa Sacrificial Cake. The second side eases back on the sonic assault, but stays strong on its influences. A less abrasive side of songs, they’re among my favorites. Chief among these pleasing characteristics is the ballad-like nature of the songs. Engaged with the subjects of the songs, the singing is more introspective and highlights the beauty of Fortune’s voice. This culminates in “AD RE:IAN” with some excellent Daniel Ash-like guitar playing. A contrast to side one, the nuance in the guitar playing is beautiful to hear. Ending on a high note much like No Future’s “Grey Area” is the introspective “Stay In” which caps the many strengths of the album's new directions.  Self-seriousness is no crime so it’s nice how the album ends on a silly note with an unlisted track called “Dead Boys Can't Say No”. Part of me wondered if it was a cover of some lost 45 Grave song. It takes some confidence to end such a dark, brooding record with dry humor like this.

Which album is the best? I think this is the wrong question - especially as both albums showcase different, excellent sides of the band. No Future says "Kill 'em all" and Discipline + Desire says "Dethrone them all" with equal amounts of malevolence. The reason for artistic change is continued growth and here Wax Idols shows its talent. Consistent to both records is the quality of singing. The singing is genuine and effective without being too earnest or distant. No Future is effective to the point of little nuance although that works very well to show where the band and the songwriting excels. Clipped, but not diffidently so. The emotion carries each song to provide extra force. No Future, contrary to its title, explores what the band can do. Their next record, however, threw down the gauntlet. Discipline + Desire is colder, but the vocals have a richer palette. Bewitching, nuanced, and layered in a way that only practice and confidence affords. She knows that we’re listening. On the strength of these two albums so will we.

19 October 2013

Angel Olsen in Lexington

Angel Olsen with her guitarist and drummer played in Lexington a week ago. Based on her album, Half Way Home, I wasn't sure what to expect in the live setting. The album is stark, dark, and introverted. The spare musical accompaniment seemed like it could not be bested at a concert. I was wrong. Not only did Olsen play electric guitar, she was complemented by a drummer of great capability. I cannot overstate how wonderfully these songs bloomed on stage that night. All traces of Tarnation - whom I love, incidentally - that I heard on her album were stripped away to reveal a lean, fierce, smoldering fury. Something had pissed her off; I was riveted. Under the spell of the musicianship and the singing, I had no idea what would happen next. Her eyes sometimes locked on me as I sat near the back, all the hairs on the back of my neck tried running away. Sadly, soon something would piss her off. Playing at a bar, the number of patrons was much greater than the number of her audience. No-one in the bar would shut up to make space for her songs. It was heartbreaking and infuriating. Just the way she played guitar scared me so god knows what fate an errant barfly would meet were the artist beyond good and evil. The set was cut short, unfortunately. She ended the night solo on that electric guitar playing a song of Polly Jean Harvey or Townes Van Zandt levels of fatalism. Contemporary examples would be Cat Power or Sharon Van Etten, but in terms of musical terror and lyrical potency I'm thinking PJH and TVZ. Her playing was simple but fluent. It was an attack with exact grace. I was stunned, but I didn't want it to end. Still, it did end. This was one of the best evenings that I've ever witnessed. 

For another perspective and a full set, let me defer to Jennifer Kelly's review.

03 October 2013

Frank X. Walker

Walker spoke here the other day. I was unfamiliar with the man's work so I wasn't sure what to expect other than a lecture. I couldn't have been more impressed.First, he spoke about the diversity of Appalachian culture and some of the specifics of Affrilachian history. My familiarity with the history of Black America was lacking here so his introduction was helpful. Second, he read from his poetry. The canon of Western poetry did not prepare me for Walker so here he blew me away. He read Death By Basketball, My Boy D, In Hell Exhale, Rock Star, Cold Still, and My Poems Been Runnin' They Mouths Again. A live reading never hurts, but the formal beauties of the work couldn't be louder: subtle emotion, warm humor, and straightforward expression. Walker turned on a light and as your eyes adjust you see the details. The poems were not complicated or abstract. They were narrative, but boiled down to the emotional subtext we intuit when we get down to what another is saying. He records the struggle of life with great sympathy. Rock Star was especially impressive in its assured use of metaphor to discuss drug use as bad candy that eats away at you. My Poems Been Runnin' They Mouths Again was also impressive in how Walker simply showed the ways art communicates back to us just as we try to use it to communicate with others. Straightforward, measured craft that expressed the maximum of emotional and truthful nuances of life and our relationships with others. Walker's work opened my mind to new ways of expressing love and truth.

06 April 2013

Life, Itself by Roger Ebert

Before I read this book, I wasn’t informed in any considerable way as to Ebert’s past. I figured that he had a boring life that nonetheless was full to the brim with observations and anecdotes about movies, actors, and the business. Imagine my surprise when I learned in instance after instance about the tumult in the man’s life. We’ve got anecdotes about everything from school, Catholicism, racism, family, cars, sex, Robert Mitchum, alcoholism, television, death, his own brushes with death, the Chicago newspaper scene, Steak ‘N Shake, bars, books, women, and travel. I had no idea in the least that he’d been around the block so many times. As Ebert makes clear, he misses some of it, but a good deal of it is seen with the pain that only a hard won wisdom seems to make tolerable. “Bitter” or “lonely” are the last words I’d use to describe Ebert. Still, many regrets are registered, but all in a tone of gratitude and good humor. This aspect of the book fascinated me greatly. The animating force seems to be his curiosity about the world and his joy at being part of it. Perhaps this is natural for a man who almost died on a few occasions, but what impressed me was the humility related in these stories. I almost wish it could have been longer as the range of his anecdotes and opinions rarely grew stale. While it was somewhat disappointing that the book wasn’t filled entirely with info about the movies – the sections on Russ Meyer, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog were excellent though to my mind too brief – he has many great stories about being a newspaper and television critic. Anyone interested in Chicago newspapers should read this book at once as Ebert makes this lost era glow with nostalgia even though he never romanticizes it. (His well-timed digs at Rupert Murdoch are priceless.) I loved the discussion of his library as the man’s passion for books and reading is so familiar to the many of us who share it that it soon becomes likely that an entire book on the subject by Ebert would be a gift from heaven. His late chapter on religion is one of the most moving anecdotal treatments of the subject that I’ve ever read that I wonder at how many of the present world’s so-called experts in theology and philosophy could be so boring and tone deaf. In addition to his humble curiosity about the world, his joy around others – whether it was family, Chicago newspapermen, friends at film festivals, or characters in books – emerges as the strongest testament to the man’s love of life. He captures the sights and rhythms of life with lovely detail and a paucity of affectation. He also gives equal time to his triumphs like having his television show for so long and getting to interview the likes of Robert Mitchum and John Wayne – he never brags about that Pulitzer, though – as well as his failures such as the medical history of radiation in his late life being a very painful example. I wouldn’t call this one of the greatest memoirs ever, but it’s still a very strong achievement for what would seem to be a very ordinary life.

04 April 2013

Roger Ebert

He was, in short, the very best kind of middlebrow, an earnest enthusiast who took his work seriously. - Terry Teachout

I came late to Ebert's writing. In high school, I read his essay on swearing in movies - Bogie saying "fuck" after losing Ingrid - but that was it. The popular dismissal was a major factor as well. (His opinions of David Lynch's movies didn't help, either.) I was too busy reading John Simon, taking his recommendations, and watching other art films. Then reading more on film and its creators. I even bought a copy of The Great Movies and Awake In The Dark. I wasn't drawn to the man until Twitter, however. His interest in politics intrigued me then encouraged me. Here was a dimension to the man that I hadn't known existed. I read his reviews more and more. Then I read his memoir Life, Itself and it changed me. I was very impressed by his humility and curiosity. A new respect grew in me. I read his reviews for fun more often as I enjoyed his style and outlook. His evaluations were quite different to every other review that I consulted. It became a pleasure to take part in what he offered to the world. He's offered so much. Now his work awaits the rest of us too slow to sit beside him. He waited - now we can only say thank you.

25 March 2013

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

The central story of this book held my attention: the attack on King’s Landing by Stannis and the city’s defense by Tyrion. The actual events of this attack are less interesting – anyone who’s seen the episode ‘Blackwater’ from season two of Game of Thrones gets more for seeing it than I did from reading it – than the strife in the camps of Stannis and Tyrion. After all, Tyrion takes off from Cersei who utterly resents his involvement in any of this planning. In any case, Tyrion’s plans of defense and conduct during battle were the most interesting parts of this book. Stannis faces some challenges as well. First, he has to win the assault on King’s Landing and, second, he has to bring others to heel as they resist the plans of his advisor, Melisandre of Asshai. Demonstrating this resistance are two men loyal to Stannis: Maester Cressen and Ser Davos. Both of whom in loyalty to Stannis try to kill Melisandre. They fail, of course. (I won’t reveal who fails most spectacularly, though.) Davos tries to be the conscience that Stannis seems to have forgotten. He speaks many times throughout the book so he stands close in loyalty to Stannis and makes his thoughts known to his king. Making a prominent appearance early in the book, Maester Cressen is especially interesting to me. He gets short shrift in season two, but here in the book he appears for some time as he voices major resistance to Melisandre. Cressen has served Stannis for a very long time and here he reflects on his loyalty towards and love for Stannis. It’s quite moving as well as saddening once it becomes clear that the old ways as represented by Cressen have been replaced by Melisandre. An old advisor has been taken out to pasture and his love for his king now forgotten. It’s to the author’s credit and talent that a small character like Cressen is given such history and texture. All of it shows the stakes of the struggle in Stannis’ court. Also of interest to me as it was omitted from season two is how Stannis feels about his brother Robert. Now that Robert is dead, Stannis sees that the throne is his. He reflects on his anger and bitterness over the ingratitude and betrayal by Robert. While I’d love to learn more of what’s going through Melisandre’s mind, what we have here in Cressen, Davos, and Stannis is very, very good. The book is focused on the politics of alliance, loyalty, and betrayal in equal measure while not sacrificing it to double crosses and anger just for the sake of a plot. This is a world rich in resentment and intrigue. Add to it all the growing character arcs of Jon Snow at the Wall and Daenerys Targaryen in Qarth – both of whom are getting used to power and intrigue – and you have a growing story quickly maturing. As ever, Arya and Dany are very interesting women fighting to gain the control that their lives deny them and that deep resentment keeps alive in them. Sansa and Cersei are contrasting figures in the arena of court politics, but no less compelling. For all of her plots toward Tyrion and indulgence of Joffrey, she’s a woman central to the story and always moves the plot forward. A step forward from A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings adds to the continuing plot and gives us many deeper characters who raise the stakes of the story in their own unique ways.

13 January 2013

The Best of 2012

Grimes, Visions
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
Dum Dum Girls, End of Daze
Solange, True
Marissa Nadler, The Sister
Allo Darlin’, Europe
Tu Fawning, Monument
Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
Alcest, Les voyages de l’ame
Mission of Burma, Unsound

page daily hits
Promo Numbers