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Indie 500: Radar Bros., The Magnetic Fields, & Cardinal

Like tectonic plates, Radar Bros. move exceedingly slow but eventually build up something momentous.

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Indie 500: Radar Bros., The Magnetic Fields, & Cardinal

Like tectonic plates, Radar Bros. move exceedingly slow but eventually build up something momentous. Auditorium (which comes out next Tuesday) is the band’s fifth album, their third from Merge, third this decade, and possibly their best. They’re a band whose appeal is nearly impossible to explain: a minimalist combo of sorts whose drummer (Steve Goodfriend) nearly always keeps a steady 2-4 going and whose bassist (Senon Gaius Williams) rarely gets to exceed one note per bar. The sum far outweighs the parts: Radar Bros. are the unlikely triumph of method over monotony.

2002’s And The Surrounding Mountains is a concept album of sorts: smiley major chords and the kind of melodies that get mandatorily labeled “sun-dappled” play counterpoint to vicious little lyrics about family members in turmoil—the “Sisters” taking a weapon that “looks clean,” a family member simply summarized in the song “Still Evil,” etc. Writing disturbing lyrics for pretty songs is nothing new, of course, but the just-vague-enough thematic arc gave that album focus and edge. 2005’s The Fallen Leaf Pages is an album I remember hating, spinning the mandatory three times and tossing aside; there was no audible progression from song to song, and song titles like “Is That Blood?” seemed to be skirting self-parody. Auditorium’s big joke is that the title’s a fraud; these are nature songs, from “Watching Cows” to “Brother Rabbit.”

Happy fun titles aside, this is the most intense, diverse album they’ve ever made. If the first four tracks are excellent business as usual, “On Nautilus” brings the unexpected to the forefront, with pissy synths that sound ready to vomit foregrounding a song that’s not just ominous lyrically but musically. “Hills of Stone” follows, daring to sound not just stoned and grandiose but genuinely aggressive; this may be their first album where you don’t need multiple listens just to tell the songs apart. Pissy quotables to horrify your friends are still there (“Fat cops make better targets,” “Happy Spirits” cheerfully announces), but the music’s attained a new level: still recognizably them, yet tweaked just enough so as not to require infinite patience. This is the first great album of 2008, even if it’s aimed more at the devotee of glacially paced pop than anyone else; there’s few bands that write verse-chorus-verse songs with less cross-over potential than these guys.

~

In light of all that praise, I’m about to turn into a complete hypocrite with regards to The Magnetic Fields’s latest, Distortion. Isn’t Stephen Merritt’s project also fundamentally dedicated to maximizing intentionally limited resources? Maybe, if I didn’t have the sneaking feeling that 69 Love Songs already accomplished everything that band (OK, outlet for Merritt’s formal experiments disguised as a band) set out to do. I’ve always been mildly annoyed at Merritt’s insistence on turning simple lo-fi songs into elaborate experiments that still sound perversely under-recorded (if you don’t believe me, read the little booklet that comes along with 69 and find out exactly how much exacting electronic dicking-around it took to make the album sound that tinny). He’s the Lars von Trier of indie rock, constantly setting new rules for himself (69 songs on one theme, then insisting that every song on his follow-up begin with the letter “i”).

But I wish that, like von Trier, Merritt would just break the damn rules every once in a while, because sometimes a whole album of constraints gets baffling. Distortion begins with a fuzzed-out instrumental, “Three-Way,” to set the mood, and it’s the last time I could relax. The basic idea here, as far as I can tell, is to match the harsh wall of distortion with some of the harshest lyrics Merritt can come up with, which is how we end up with wailing about how sobriety is intolerable, but when you’re shit-faced people find you charming. Then there’s “The Nun’s Litany,” which plays the simple trick of giving a nun dirty thoughts (“I want to be a topless waitress”). “California Girls” has a mean-spirited buzz to it, with self-made New Yorker Merritt cranking out lyrics articulating every East Coaster’s not-so-secret hatred of those happy-go-lucky, cocaine-snorting, warm-weather enjoying, fake-tan minxes, but it just sounds like a meaner version of the equally rough and clang-y “When My Boy Walks Down The Street.” The album is, honestly, not that bad: like 69, it’s better taken in small doses, contains some peaks and valleys, and listening to Merritt’s melancholy voice is always a pleasure. He can give as good as he gets, so—on the off-chance he reads this—I feel no compunction saying I think this record kind of sucks. In 2004, when the Onion A.V. Club asked whether he could see himself writing a whole record around one theme, he answered “Sure. But it would be an arbitrary theme.” So it is: Distortion doesn’t do much with its meticulously controlled guitar haze besides blanket it over everything and hope the songs sound fresher that way.

~

Speaking of the A.V. Club, now might be a good time to mention that part of the diminished word count this week is at least partially attributable to repeat listenings of and cranking out tiny little capsules about fairly unremarkable records by The Whigs and Eric Matthews. Before listening to Matthews, I finally got around to the album that made his name, 1994’s Cardinal, the only collaboration between Matthews and Richard Davies. Davies hasn’t put out a solo album in 8 years, while Matthews is still cranking out unfocused songs with great arrangements. Cardinal is one of those albums that’s never really gained any status greater than indie cult fave; no Nick Drake cross-over potential here. “Baroque-pop” it might be, if by “baroque-pop” you mean “involves trumpets”; Davies songs are surprisingly oblique and hard to get a handle on. “Delicate insight/I can’t hold a Christmas card” is how “You’ve Lost Me There” begins—and yes, Mr. Davies, you have lost me there. This is an album that revels in unexpected time signature changes that seem to be trying too hard the first time around before they prove as oddly, inexplicably catchy as the Fiery Furnaces. I have little to say about this album, except it’s one most people are unlikely to hear about unless you spend way too much time digging around for vaunted obscurities; the 2005 re-issue is surprisingly essential for an album that neither sold a lot of records nor was particularly influential. Hearing the songs as stripped-down demos points out how Davies seemed to leave blank spaces in the structures deliberately, counting on Matthews to fill them in (the man’s a whiz with ornate, unexpected arrangements). There’s also enough goofy out-takes to lend the whole project some much-needed humor, something Matthews seems to have left behind entirely at this point.

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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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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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 welcoming 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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