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Indie 500: David Byrne, Elliott Smith, Daft Punk, & Andrew Bird

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Indie 500: David Byrne, Elliott Smith, Daft Punk, & Andrew Bird

I’m probably the only person for whom David Byrne’s 2001 album Look Into The Eyeball was a formative experience, which is kind of a shame. Poised at the odd crossover moment between embracing pop/rock/whatever whole-heartedly and firmly pushing away the classical music I was raised with, Byrne’s with-strings experiment made perfect sense, even if we were seemingly going in opposite directions. (In retrospect, Byrne was obviously preparing me for Andrew Bird; more on this below.)

It was a transitional moment for Byrne too: ignoring the wretched run he’d had in the ‘90s (the nadir culminating in 1994’s self-titled monstrosity, as ugly as its cover), he threw away Talking Heads once and for all. Eyeball was warm, direct, and surprisingly well-crafted. Its follow-up—2004’s Grown Backwards—isn’t half bad either, a considerably more sedate jog through increasingly beefed-up string arrangements: Eyeball is a bit of a chamber music piece, while Backwards is ambitious enough to find Byrne tackling not one but two operatic staples, one a duet with Rufus Wainwright no less.

If all of that’s a tough sell—and most people had trouble with the idea of a newly vital Byrne, as with most solo artists abandoning what made them famous—Live From Austin, Texas might be a good place to start. 13 tracks gives you 6 from the Heads-era catalogue (if you count “What A Day That Was”—technically a solo song, but popularized by its slot in Stop Making Sense), 2 covers, and 4 highlights from Byrne’s solo work. It all hangs together beautifully, integrating Byrne’s new aesthetic into refreshing covers of earlier work, so you can just skip to the back half and hear songs you already like if you’re suspicious of where this is going. Before the strings come in, Byrne works through a few staples, allowing some of the more dated aspects of late-80s production to be sloughed off. Beginning with the first verse of “Nothing But Flowers” solo on guitar, Byrne seems to mean it this time around when he sings “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” Serenity rather than irony’s the new tone of the seemingly satirical post-apocalyptic song (“This was a Pizza Hut/Now it’s all covered with daisies”), which makes a lot of sense: Byrne was the man who moved to shit-tastic New York in the mid-‘70s and promptly advised all his art-school friends to do the same. Ironic about squalor and conflict though he may be, he loves that big-city stuff, and “Nothing But Flowers” seems quite genuine in asserting that he’ll take a parking lot over nature any day, now that nuclear apocalypse is seemingly not quite as relevant.

Sung directly, without production gloss, “And She Was” sounds better than ever; “Once In A Lifetime,” instead of a dutiful slog through an overheard song, is a joyous flashback. It’s Byrne’s one chance the whole night to break out the freaky, silly voices that initially made him the world’s most instantly compelling frontman. The song works well, even without the shock of stream-of-consciousness in the top 40 and the treated Brian Eno production. But things really kick up a notch when the Tosca strings finally show up: their 1:20 intro to The Great Intoxication” has no vocals and hardly any percussion. When Byrne kicks in, it’s just him, percussion without a traditional drum kit and Tosca in a serene acoustic landscape. Much of what’s striking about the back half is how little amps are used: Rei Momo highlight “Marching Through The Wilderness” only has an electric bass, with the extensive percussion filling in everything and the strings providing the melody. Never listen to electric guitar if he can help it.

If you’re still not willing to take a chance on Byrne’s recent solo material (and you weren’t one of the many people who heard “Like Humans Do” involuntarily while starting up Windows Media Player on Windows XP—the savviest marketing move imaginable), check out some of the excellent back half remakes: “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” swipes out ‘80s keyboard for an excellent string arrangement, while “Life During Wartime” gets a Motown gloss. If you’re just looking for the novelty-cover-that-transcends novelty, skip to Byrne’s version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which is joyous and soaring and is one of the best kinds of covers, where the original structure is preserved with all the crap peeled away so that a song you grudgingly appreciate when it gets stuck in your head becomes what it should’ve been. (Cf. Clem Snide’s version of “Beautiful.”) With ‘80s-crap-gets-peeled-away, replaced strings and thoughtful percussion, it’s the near-disco classic it always wanted to be. It kind of gives me chills, especially if, like me, technically great but soulless vocalists like Houston—who never miss the big belt and never seem to care what the melody is—scare you. Byrne’s thin, endearing voice is never better than when it’s straining extra hard to go high and hold a note.

On the other side of happy and intricately arranged: “I’ve got nothing that I want to do/more than another sonic fuck you” sings Elliott Smith on “Looking Over My Shoulder,” one of 24 near uniformly impeccable songs from New Moon, the anthology recorded in the period encompassing 1995’s self-titled and 1997’s either/or—i.e., the transitional period between the sparse second album that most non-fans despise (unofficially sometimes referred to as “The Heroin Album” and possibly his darkest album in general), and the prettier, more user-friendly acoustic album that followed and let Elliott pump out something suitable for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Personally, I love it all, but I thought I’d sated myself on the collected discography in high school—the proper time, really, to listen to the 90’s most talented incarnation of the eternal teenager. For all his musical talent—and the big surprise to me was how exacting these songs are, many of them more melodically fleshed out and complicated than anything on the first 2 albums—Smith’s lyrics alternated between the smart, funny-sad and outright self-loathing, a mixture only to be taken seriously when your hormones are going crazy. To be blunt, it’s got the stigmata of high school all over it. (At least it’s more respectable than my other high school angst staples, Placebo and Travis. Oh well.)

There’s nothing hard to take seriously, though, about the melodic twists and overall excellence on display here. Heavy on the sturm-und-drang of the first three acoustic albums, New Moon’s biggest contribution is letting some of the sunnier acoustic moments out of the vault. Aside from either/or’s “Say Yes,” there’s virtually no upbeat moments before the studio-enabled lift of XO and Figure 8; now, there’s a lot more to prove that Smith didn’t need to rely on his producers to sound upbeat. “Whatever (Folk Song In C)” is anything but the Bright Eyes its title suggests; C Major and endearingly shy, it’s as close to a sunny day song as he ever got. “All Cleaned Out” is practically martial in its grandeur—as huge as the twin-drum kit of “Coast To Coast” in its own way, which is all the more impressive considering it’s just two guitars and Elliott’s characteristic double-tracked vocals, as close as he got to belting it out.

Even more impressive is how full all these songs sound. The common, misinformed rap on Smith is that his first three albums are “poorly recorded,” because they’re full of analog tape-hiss and dead air hanging heavy; on Roman Candle, recorded in privacy on a 4-track, it’s common for the end of a song to be signaled by the cutting off of one layer after another. I can’t help but think it’s deliberate: the studio recordings are as clean as can be, and he could be a notorious perfectionist about tone etc. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s a brilliant strategy for saving Smith from the death of the boring singer-songwriter, where cleanly recorded guitar and vocals are all you have to occupy you for the album’s length. The sound creates texture, and New Moon confirms how much can be done with, at most, guitar (a very vigorous guitar, with plenty of lower bass lines for bass and complicated melodies and none of the lazy, rote chord-strumming that gives SS’s a bad name), vocals, one bass, half a drum kit, and maybe an organ. Maybe. (This is also why his live bootlegs sound better than most: that audience chatter is almost integral.) Mixed exceedingly well, it’s got the full range of sound from high to low the best bands strive for. I hate to say it, but I think I’m starting to fall back in love with Elliott Smith, even if I don’t think externalized self-loathing is a positive character trait anymore. Here’s hoping the estate keeps the unreleased material coming: I have enough B-sides and live recordings stocked away to know that until, say, “I Figured You Out” is available legally, everyone’s missing out.

Things I’m falling out of love with: Daft Punk, thanks to the inexplicably acclaimed Alive 2007. It sure looks like an awesome party I would’ve loved to been able to afford. I’ll keep it simple: aside from the fact that my computer freezes every time I play it—which I suppose Daft Punk can’t reasonably be held responsible for—this is a pretty lousy live album. Sound-quality wise, it’s only slightly above a bootleg, which I can live with. But it’s a damn long album, and without the in-concert quality of “OH SHIT THEY’RE MASHING UP THAT SONG WITH THAT ONE,” all I really learned is that a lot of Daft Punk songs have pretty similar backbeats, so it’s pretty easy to put them together. I guess sugar rush + sugar rush should = EXTRA SUPER AWESOME SUGAR RUSH, but it doesn’t, not really. Discovery is one of the most perfect albums I know for making me giddy in record time, partly because the songs are so ridiculously excessive and gaudy, and partly because they’re songs. I don’t need to skip to the good parts; they’re all good already. And when you ask me to accept that one of the songs will get better if you isolate a riff and throw in a stupid raspy steam voice rasping “STEAAAAAM MACHIIIIIIIINE”…well, no. Sporadic highlights stick out—I dig the way “Face To Face”’s vocals are put on top of “Faster Harder Stronger Better,” both slowed down, and then sped up until they’re in sync and racing together, so you can hear the BPM increasing bit by bit—but it’s mostly a slog. Buy me a concert ticket already; I will try to repress my sneaking suspicion that all the positive reviews are from happy critics having acid flashbacks.

And one thing I’m glad I did spend the money on: Andrew Bird, for which I will offer a few token notes. Live reviews aren’t really my bag—I hadn’t been to a show since Pitchfork Music Festival this summer—but keeping up with everyone’s favorite Squirrel Nut Zippers-assistant turned only violinist that matters in the pop music scheme seems worth it. A few general notes, seeing as there’s little to be gained from a detailed appraisal of a nearly 2-week old performance:

1. The Beacon Theater has excellent sound and a cool light show, but really uncomfortable seats if you’re gonna be leaning forward for two hours. Seated shows suck in general. Pass next time.

2. Dude knows how to put on a show. By the time he “spontaneously” kicked off his shoes and settled in for the long haul, he had everyone who wasn’t a girl dreamily mooning over his undeniable good looks eating out of his hand.

3. Bird is an interesting violinist: he’s not interested in “good technique” per se—although he’s a very good violinist indeed—and I doubt he could pass the traditional classical music trial-by-fire of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. He hits his notes cleanly and clearly and in tune (although weird fact that you’ll only be able to pinpoint if, like me, you have the fairly useless attribute of perfect pitch: he doesn’t whistle in tune with his violin, which makes things sound subtly off sometimes).

4. Nonetheless—despite the fact that his violin, and its relative novelty in the pop context, have definitely helped make him pretty famous pretty fast—Bird seems kind of minimally interested in playing it. Sometimes he’s got his guitar slung over his back, ready to put down the violin in a second and start strumming. When playing a song like “Heretics,” with no violin, he seemed peppiest: while everyone was wishing they could play a non-traditional instrument and the death of the traditional rock band prayed for by Brian Eno and other progressives, Bird seemingly wishes he could be a guitar star. Weird.

5. The songs from Armchair Apocrypha sound a lot better live; on record, a lot of them seem to be missing the X factor that would make them cohere. But Bird live is a lot different from the meticulous, near-fussy recordings; he has the unnerving habit of rushing through entire lines (generally, the lyrics I’m most fond of), pausing, and then catching back up to the verse by the chorus. The performances are wilder, more intense, occasionally on the border of histrionic before rescuing themselves.

6. Martin Dosh is the most stoic drummer I’ve ever seen in my life. Traditionally the drummer in bands generally resembles Animal from The Muppets; Dosh resembles an unusually talented accountant with perfect posture. He’s awesome.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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