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Indie 500: Emma Pollock, UGK, the Fiery Furnaces, and Superdrag

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Indie 500: Emma Pollock, UGK, the Fiery Furnaces, and Superdrag

“We’re looking at strangers and suddenly we’re free,” sings Emma Pollock on “You’ll Come Around.” Easy for her to say. From 1999 to 2002, The Delgados—co-headed by Pollock and Alun Woodward—were arguably the finest band on the planet. I say this not out of contrarianism or perversity, but because, in my angsty, well-remembered 16-year-old heart of hearts, I know it to be true; I’m still in mourning for their dissolution. Their lack of popularity probably had to do with how quickly they shed their indie roots, debuting as a Pavement-fixated group with 1996’s Domestiques and, in one album’s time, acquiring the heaviness of metal (“Is this Metallica?” once grimaced a girl walking into my room) and the pristine arrangements of Sufjan Stevens. On 1999’s Peloton, 2000’s The Great Eastern and 2002’s Hate, they were the most depressing and musically complex band I’d ever heard. Keep The Smiths and Joy Division; I’ll settle for lush, boy-girl duets over bombastic arrangements.

Aside from maybe Tindersticks, I’m pretty sure The Delgados still remain the most unabashedly morose band on the planet, to a point that would approach self-parody if it weren’t so accomplished. Song titles like “The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger” and “Is This All That I Came For?” tell the premise; lyrics like “Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m going to give up breathing” and “Life isn’t precious and life isn’t special/sometimes relief only comes when you meet death” tell the rest.

The band dissolved in 2005 at the request of bassist Stewart Henderson, who quite reasonably protested putting “so much of my energy and time into something that never quite seemed to get the attention or respect I felt it deserved.” Fair enough; here’s Pollock’s solo debut two years later, and Henderson needn’t have bothered making such a pronouncement. Even before working with legendarily overblown producer Dave Fridmann (he of the epic Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev soundscapes), The Delgados had acquired a knack for figuring out exactly how many layers of backwards-looped children’s choirs, fuzzed-out string sections and glockenspiel a song could survive. Watch The Fireworks sticks to the normal rock band instruments, but they’re so heavily layered that they’re just as epic as what came before (the drums, as always, sound particularly unreal, booming all the way to the back of the empty stadium), and Pollock is typically unhappy, if frequently rhythmically upbeat. The cheery song titles this time include “If Silence Means That Much To You” and “This Rope’s Getting Tighter.”

It’s a Delgados album without Woodward songs; how much you like it will depend directly on how much you enjoy fussy, not-within-an-inch-of-spontaneous indie rock. On stand-out track “Acid Test,” Pollock tames David Byrne’s raucous “woah-oh-oh-oh” scream from “Psycho Killer,” neutering it in what I can only assume is a joke. Pollock is indie rock’s Tilda Swinton: obviously talented, alluring with her songwriting, and always at a chilly reserve (she’s Aimee Mann without the warmth). I enjoy this album way out of proportion to its merits, perhaps, but that’s what fandom is about; perhaps solo Pollock can gain the fame the Delgados never got. She deserves it.

~

Underrated on a whole other end of the charts are UGK, the legendary Southern-rap duo whose Underground Kingz dropped on August 7 at number one on the Billboard charts and has yet to go gold. To a whole generation of kids, myself included, UGK will always be remembered for their guest appearance on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” In the single most informative interview I’ve ever read with a rapper, Bun B—Pimp C’s better half—noted that “in the South, I’m regarded as the guy who, quote unquote, out-rapped Jay-Z. A lot of Southern rappers would say that. Not saying that I’m a better rapper than Jay-Z, but I was able to out-rap Jay-Z on a track.” Still, I missed out the first time round; I didn’t catch on to UGK’s influence until they went on hiatus: while Pimp C was in jail, Bun B went on a spree of guesting on pretty much every single major rap album out there. By the time Pimp C was out, they made a killer reunion appearance on T.I.’s “Front Back,” and I was hooked.

Underground Kingz is probably both the best and most unlistenable mainstream rap album of 2007. By unlistenable, I don’t mean that the lyrical content is particularly harsh or difficult, or that the music is deliberately abrasive; I mean it’s over two hours long, and for an album guy like me (and one without a car to spread an album over a day), that’s a hard sell. Whenever I put it on, it’s consistently awesome: musically rich, expertly treading over the same few lyrical modes (I’m a thug, I sell drugs, I like sex almost as much as my car, and occasionally I regret this life of sin). UGK are gracious party hosts, both for their inspirations (Scarface contributes an awesomely out-of-tune sing-along chorus on “Still Ridin’ Dirty,” the closest we’ve gotten to Biz Markie in years) and disciples (on stand-out track “Take Tha Hood Back,” Slim Thug—whose greatest appeal is a deep Southern drawl deeply indebted to Bun B—provides an appropriately menacing chorus). The samples are unadventurous, sticking to the urban charts: don’t look for Kanye’s appropriations of Can or Elton John here. But this patented southern-soul/funk/whatever rap sound creates a consistently groovy rap album with more wah-wah guitar than any in recent memory. If only I had the energy to listen to it more; highly recommended though, and easily accessible even if you don’t care what they’re saying.

~

Speaking of sprawl: another year, another 70-minute Fiery Furnaces album. Meh…no band I’m a fan of seems so invested in regularly testing my patience. Until now, I’ve dodged the major obstacles—ignoring both Matthew Friedberger’s poorly received solo double-disk and the widely reviled Rehearsing My Choir (although that album has a cult that won’t leave me alone until I listen; I’ll break down one day)—but Widow City, bizarrely, is getting some of the best reviews they’ve had in a while. It’s more accessible, apparently. Like hell it is. For my money, the Furnaces peaked on last year’s inexplicably slept on Bitter Tea. Combining the rewarding, long-form adventurousness of Blueberry Boat with the unusually sweet melodic directness of EP, Bitter Tea capped off its rewardingly spazzy explorations with the pared-down sweetness of “Benton Harbor Blues Again”: it may be a cop-out to call their least adventurous song their best, but it’s true.

Widow City may be their first recording where the sum is less than the parts: up until now, I’ve always thought of their albums as something to be absorbed all at once, with the occasional longeurs contributing something to the overall feel. But Widow City loses nothing when you trim the most annoying songs: it actually becomes much improved. “Restorative Beer” would sound a lot better if it weren’t preceded by “Right By Conquest”—a potentially decent song that goes haywire halfway through. In this it’s basically the album in miniature: the first five songs are as fun as could be, but it’s hard to remember that by the time the album crawls to “Widow City,” which spends a good minute-plus combining random piano chords and arpeggios with what sounds like a drunk New Orleans jazz band plugged in through a cheap synth (all this plus free jazz drumming and bass lines). Because the Furnaces have mastered and claimed as their own a particular studio sound (flat, clean and without a whole lot of depth, heavy on single distorted guitar lines and almost never playing normal rock guitar chords, privileging Eleanor Friedberger’s calmly declamatory vocals over all else), this potentially adventurous detour negates its unusual instrumentation: it sounds like every other seemingly directionless detour the Friedbergers take, except it actually *is* directionless. The back half of this album is a disaster.

What stops the Fiery Furnaces from tipping over into total self-parody is the fact that Friedberger writes way too much material not to come up with some good stuff. Aside from the solid opening third, listen to “Restorative Beer” out of context: ignoring its witty lyrics (probably plundered, like most of their catalogue, from some obscure flea market book or magazine or something), listen to how Matthew Friedberger constructs the song like an 18th-century aria, in its descending vocal line (an elaborate downward scale that normally would serve as a coloratura showcase for virtuosity, tamed here by Eleanor) and the way it introduces said vocal line in an instrumental (“orchestral,” if you want) opening before handing it off to her. Yet the song is never stifling in its antecedents: the guitar sounds glam-rock awesome, and there’s a minimalist Philip Glass keyboard interlude. There’s no one else writing songs like these—potentially disastrous exercises turned pop gems—and we need the Friedbergers around. Maybe next time they’ll stop spending so much time obsessing over weird drum sounds; it’s by far my least favorite Furnaces album heard start to finish. For the first time, the best songs sound better on their own.

~

On the classic album beat: I’ve been meaning to mine my long-neglected obsession with ‘90s indie guitar rock for a while, and I meant to write about Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty. I’ll get around to it (Q: why are Superchunk relatively neglected these days? Is it punishment for not being as obviously clever as Pavement?), but iTunes’ alphabetical arrangement got me to thinking about the perenially underrated Superdrag again. Generally pegged as a sub-Foo Fighters outfit, Superdrag are best remembered (if at all) for their minor MTV hit “Sucked Out,” as succinct a complaint about selling out to the man without getting famous as any: “Who sucked out the feeling,” screamed frontman John Davis, audibly shredding his vocal cords. “Would you go now that everybody knows that we did a couple shows out there? Look at me, I can write a melody but I can’t expect a soul to care.” Self-prophecy in action, but it’s a shame.

Part of the reason 1996’s Regretfully Yours got ignored, I suspect, is because the band (presumably still in thrall to their admitted Husker Du influence) went out of their way to turn off kids who just liked Weezer and wanted more of the same. For a rock album, it’s remarkably impenetrable the first time round: I remember not being able to tell where the first three songs started and ended. Banging around on the same chords, mixing everything into the same dynamic range, all the songs sound the same at first. Opener “Slot Machine” short-circuits itself after exactly one iteration of the would-be chorus. Davis remains an oddly uncharismatic frontman, at least on the record: whiny and forceful, without a hint of the charisma externally directed self-loathing can bring with it, he seemed deadly, maybe cripplingly serious. But Regretfully Yours is a terrific record, although those Foo Fighters comparisons weren’t totally off: meat-and-potatoes rock songs, many hovering under 3 minutes, recorded with a minimum of artifice, more scuzzily garage than all those tinny pseudo-cheap Strokes demos. The album’s got it all: one heartbreaking ballad of solipsistic despair (“Nothing Good Is Real”), a lot of ass-kicking rock pseudo-nihilism (the aptly titled “Cynicality,” which comes dangerously close to biting Radiohead: “make it happen, make it happen, nothing’s happening,” Davis whines), bitching about the music industry. “Destination Ursa Major,” the “Sucked Out” follow-up single rejected by fickle teen audiences, is pretty magical too. “What did I do? Nothing is true,” sings Davis. “Summer is over now.” Summer flings gone bad never sounded so good. True believers take note: the original line-up (with a now devoutly-evangelical Davis) is reuniting this fall for a few shows. Catch ’em before they disappear again.

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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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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