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Indie 500: Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Joy Division, & Pale Young Gentlemen

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Indie 500: Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Joy Division, & Pale Young Gentlemen

As a rule, rap producers’ albums are poorly received. (And by “as a rule,” I mean Timbaland.”) In light of this (if admittedly little else), it makes sense to compare Kanye West and Swizz Beatz’s recent albums. Both are producers who a) are regularly derided for their technical facility as rappers and b) are occasionally more name-valuable than the rappers they produce. I’m exaggerating the similarities more than a bit: in relative importance, Kanye:Swizz :: David Foster Wallace:Mark Leyner. But still.

Graduation is Kanye’s third and most underwhelming album for reasons that would generally be considered virtues: it’s his most musically streamlined and focused work yet, and also his shortest. But what Kanye excels at is sprawl: the fantastic orchestral excesses of Late Registration, public temper tantrums, and long album lengths all go together. From the moment College Dropout kicked off with the sky-high “We Don’t Care,” Kanye seemed like hip-hop’s Phil Spector, or maybe even its Flaming Lips. On Late Registration, Kanye used Jon Brion to swipe Aimee Mann’s keyboards and explored melancholy introspection, but his best moments were still generally the show-stoppers.

Graduation is sonically excessive, but in the same way on nearly every track: gaudy synths at loud volumes. There’s been a lot of foolish talk regarding Kanye’s alleged fetishization of dance music, which is only half true: yes, the beats would be European-club-worthy if stripped of the vocals, but nothing in these songs indicates Kanye’s prioritized rhythm over melody. “Good Life”’s insistent treble line is this album’s children’s chorus on “We Don’t Care”; “Stronger” is more interested in the vocoder than the rumbling bass.

Alarmingly though, Kanye seems to be more interested in the sounds than the lyrics: for the first time, the “first rapper with a Benz and a backpack” seems to be trying hard not to annoy anyone. Call College Dropout and Late Registration whatever derogatory names you want, but frivolous they’re not: they seem, at times, more socially and politically engaged than most political parties’ entire platforms. Kanye’s not a great thinker in practical ways, but he’s fantastic at raising substantive issues in a normally toothless rap landscape without reaching Chuck D levels of annoyance. Kanye will never be one of the “Top 5 MCs, you gotta rewind me” he claims to belong to on “Barry Bonds,” which means he can’t coast on style alone. Without substance, we have great beats and weak boasts, which is what much of Graduation is; no lyrical highlights, only musical ones. Bizarrely, even while scaling back on the memorable lines, Kanye’s also scaled back on guest appearances, limiting himself to a sub-par Lil’ Wayne turn and a few vocal hooks: a guest appearance like Paul Wall’s substanceless virtuoso turn on “Drive Slow” would’ve gone a long way. Why he’s chosen to foreground himself as a rapper at his weakest moment is beyond me.

Exceptions include, most importantly, the gorgeously bummed-out “Everything I Am”—the album’s simplest production, just a vocal sample, piano and some scratching—and the bouncy “Homecoming,” whose Chris Martin guest vocal just might make Coldplay acceptable for the cool kids again (Jay-Z certainly didn’t pull it off when he got Martin for his comeback earlier this year). Tellingly though, the two best tracks aren’t actually on the album; run to iTunes, or somewhere less legal, for bonus tracks “Good Night” and especially “Bittersweet Poetry”; the only vulnerable songs here, and also the only ones that sound like Late Registration outtakes. “Heard ’Em Say” redeemed Maroon 5; “Bittersweet Poetry” goes one better and rehabilitates John Mayer, who provides a guiltily irresistible chorus while Kanye spells out exactly how much his girl hates him for being an arrogant prick. For the first time, he seems like he’s going back to introspection and thinking about his words rather than filling the silence above the synths. Graduation is a fine dance album, but it’s not much of a Kanye album.

~

So, what do Kanye and Swizz have in common besides brand-name fame (Swizz perhaps best known for producing T.I.’s arguably best single, “Bring ’Em Out”) and criticisms of their style? Both their new albums feature a vocal hook from Chris Martin. The similarities end there: One Man Band Man is eagerly vapid, a concise exploration of a brand name whose very title is unintentionally ironic. “You know I got that product man,” Swizz announces on the opening track. “Beats, hooks, loops and samples.” Liar. What he’s got is three tracks of his own (plus a remix of the lead single and one co-production) and a bunch of producers to imitate him while he’s busy, um, “rapping.” For subject matter, in addition to “Big Munny,” there’s also “Money In The Bank”; you get the idea. The energy level is the same regardless of the subject manner: I presume “The Funeral” is supposed to be sobering or something (“every night I see an old man with black slacks,” which conjures up images of moldy undertakers more than ponderous reflections on mortality), but it’s really hard to tell when it’s the umpteenth song to chop up a drum kit and crowd chants and sprinkle them over a sprightly bass line and/or loud brass/synths.

The best songs, predictably, are those actually produced by Swizz. There’s other names here (Dr. Dre-approved Nottz delivers “Big Munny”), but no one seems to turn Swizz on quite as much as himself. Lead single “It’s Me Bitches” had its name changed to “It’s Me Snitches” without altering its message one bit, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know. It’s typical Swizz: segments of a descending marimba scale, sirens, fragments of crowd chanting. “Take A Picture” may be even better, relying as it does on the all-too-rarely sampled sound of a camera snapping, chopped up and becoming a kind of drum kit element over elated, warm melodies and strings. Swizz Beatz’s trademark swirling hyperactivity—where the hookiest, most instantly absorbing elements of each loop and sample compete for attention—pushes itself too far on “Part of the Plan,” which begins with the simple enough goal of rehabbing Coldplay (yet again!) by popping a bass line under “X & Y,” and devolves into near-chaos by the end as gunshots, random exhalations, and voices talk over each other. It’s the one time Swizz really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. The rest of the time, it’s a somewhat monotonous sugar rush of 38 minutes of uninterrupted bounce, executed with various degrees of skill, a sample beat tape that happens to have filler words over it.

I’m pitting Kanye against Swizz not just for the superficial, easy, producer-vs.-producer aspect (although the monotony of Swizz’s work makes me appreciate Kanye’s range of sample reference and musical styles a lot more), nor necessarily as an excuse to write about Kanye too late (although yes, that too). What I have in mind is more of a cautionary tale, directed at Kanye: if you concentrate solely on the music and let your lyrics diminish, somewhere along the line you end up like rich Swizz, barking out lyrics comparing your prowess at shooting off your gun to making ’em cum. No one wants to be that guy.

~

Because it seems to be the fall/winter of Joy Division—Control raking ’em in at the Film Forum, new album re-issues, another documentary on the way— a few brief words on Closer seems to be in order. Namely, I wanted to voice my deeply held conviction that Ian Curtis was kind of a twit. Granted, I don’t have much information to go on here—the fact that Control opens with Curtis staring into space and muttering about “existence” may not be documentary evidence, but it certainly feels right. How you feel about Joy Division generally depends on whether or not you prefer New Order (which I do). Still, lip service aside—yeah, Joy Division invented a revolutionary new sound, etc. etc.—I’m not sure I like where that takes us.

Closer is an album I’ve been listening to lately, and for what little it’s worth I find it a huge leap forward from Unknown Pleasures (an album that basically has only three modes: stripped down emptiness, crushing proto-metal like “Day Of The Lords,” and “She’s Lost Control,” which is in a league of its own). But it seems like an end-point, not a starting reference point—e.g.“The Eternal,” which is kind of staggering, what with its woozy, indecipherable opening 20 seconds of noise (a recurring sound strangely like locusts), drone-y background vocals, and warm keyboards; nonetheless, what would logically follow from this would be an especially lethargic Cure song, or perhaps a maudlin goth ballad, or perhaps even a lazy horror film score. I dig the sample of manipulated drums doing a downward scale at the beginning of “Atrocity Exhibition” too, but I’m not sure why the song really needs to be called that. I suspect that if Curtis had lived longer, Joy Division might have just gone out of their way to full-bore offend people for no good reason: I like to envision an optimistic scenario where Curtis went to America, perked up, and starting issuing Negativland-style provocations.

I don’t really believe any of that, of course, but I question the value of Curtis’s legacy vs. that of the overall band unit and especially Martin Hannett’s many bizarre, still-compelling production innovations. Curtis, basically, was a high-school poet who wrote things like “Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair” and got taken far more seriously than, say, Elliott Smith ever did, presumably because Curtis was tying in to the Late-20th-Century Sense Of Despair, Manchester version, while Smith was just being a solipsistic jerk. Somehow, I question this version of history. The album is still fine.

~

Finally, I want to briefly mention the Pale Young Gentlemen, who’ve managed the mildly remarkable feat of cracking Metacritic’s Top 30 albums of the year without either a record label or a ridiculously over-excited Pitchfork review. To these jaded ears, any album with the lyric “You can never trust in a sailor’s love” should probably be tossed away swiftly, landing next to whatever faux-Weimar-cabaret bullshit Dresden Dolls fans are listening to these days, but—since they were kind enough to send in their self-titled debut—I can’t deny that I find opener “Fraulein” a pretty irresistible lead-off, a nicely-judged blend of soaring cello hook (this is one of those bands that records seemingly live with little in the way of mixing board tricks) and jazzy rhythms; closer “Single Days” isn’t half-bad either. I don’t find the middle terribly exciting—songs have names like “Me & Nikolai,” seemingly assuming that anything involving nights of drunken would-be debauchery is automatically exciting, especially if it involves a foreigner (the band’s from Madison, Wisconsin, which might have something to do with it), but your mileage will probably vary based on how much you like…you know. Cabaret-influenced bullshit. Or Tom Waits. Or whatever.

The reason I really mention it is this: not that I’ve ever illegally downloaded music myself (too much of a wimp), but a large amount of the music covered here is obtained from sympathetically inclined friends who do the downloading for me. (I’m a ridiculously impoverished college student; don’t even start with the lectures.) Last week, the authorities took the wise precaution of busting Oink, pretty much the holy land of music piracy. As a result, I may have a slightly less esoteric selection of new albums to write on. So: if you’re a record label or even, god help me, an unsigned band, feel free to get in touch with me (vadim dot rizov at gmail dot com) about sending over a promo. My only ground rule: actually read the column first and figure out what I like and if you’re in the paradigm. (I love you Merge Records! Are you listening?) Anything that could be labeled “blues rock” will promptly be sold for scrap.

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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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