As a freshman, I assumed that if I showed up and diligently scribbled every week for NYU’s student paper, the job offers would come rolling in. Silly me: in the meantime, I honed my craft and, after embarking on a shaky semester-long tenure as music editor—during which time my style of cursing the entire room during meetings and awkwardly sweating beneath the eyes of much cooler contributing writers did little to endear me to anyone—conscientiously listened to a number of promos from bands I’d never heard of, convinced that undiscovered gems were mine for the reaping.
They weren’t—most of the promos were sold to undiscriminating stores around the St. Marks’ area. I’ve only come back to two bands: De Novo Dahl (a Tennessee combo with a knack for instantly infectious pop tunes whose self-titled debut shot itself in the foot by appending a second disk of jokey, lo-fi and stupid remixes of every last goddamn song) and The Comas. I obviously didn’t know how to write about music when I listened to 2004’s Conductor, but I wasn’t wrong to be enthused. It’s a disk of dubious origins—lead singer-songwriter Andy Herod went through a bad break-up with Michelle Williams, then spent a lot of time getting stoned and watching Dark City every night, leading to a lot of vaguely futuristic lyrical bullshit—but solid rock nonetheless. It doesn’t sound quite like anything else I own: a simple but reasonably accurate comparison might be the fuzz of Spiritualized with half the pretension and twice the chord changes or a far more pissed-off Grandaddy, a desire to present straightforward rock songs that somehow end up sounding endlessly fuzzed-out and overproduced.
The futuristic/psychedelic retreads are still around on Spells, another disk that seems destined to be slept on, this time with some justice. “She’s got a telepathic aftertaste” goes “Hannah T.,” which comes off like an unintentional early Beck pastiche. Better to focus on the disk’s instant stand-out, girl companion “Sarah T.,” a perfect example of everything the band can do right. The quiet guitar intro seems to be tapping into some Americana folk-song vibe. That’s not completely misleading: the turbo-charged verse finally takes off with galloping-horse drum beats and an epic guitar that lands somewhere in the middle between a spaghetti western soundtrack and Young Guns. The band flawlessly negotiates the transition between that and the stomping, four-on-the-floor chorus, then ramps down the volume for the conclusion, all while somehow managing to sound consistently wistful. It’s a very difficult song The Comas make sound easy and natural.
Spells is a mixed bag: “Red Microphones” are as simple and infectious as they get, but the band seems to be under the bizarre delusion that writing simple rockers isn’t good enough. The less said about “New Wolf”—a shrill chorus where the same riff hysterically ascends an octave on a crappy-sounding synth while the band gets close to prog-rock with some ridiculous time signature—the better. What The Comas are searching for is a balance somewhere between rock immediacy and recognizable distance and sophistication without succumbing to emo yelping; still, a single like “Come My Sunshine” comes dangerously close to the latter territory. (It’s really cool, however, to hear vocalist Nicole Gehweiler’s increased vocal presence; the world needs more guy-girl duet bands.) A mixed bag from a band still stuck in “promising” rather than arrived territory.
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It may seem like I’m about to go off on an obtuse tangent, but bear with me: immediacy is an overrated virtue in music. The Onion A.V. Club recently let one of their bloggers run amok with memories about The Joshua Tree. (I really don’t get U2, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Steve Hyden makes a point that seems contradictory, but it’s not: on the one hand, for him, the album was the “first time, a lightning bolt in your brain that tells you, ’This is it. This is what it feels like to feel, to connect, to be changed forever.’ ” Ignore the hyperbole; the point is that it’s also an album he only listened to the first three singles from, over and over, until he started listening to the whole album obsessively. In other words, the single “a-ha!” moment pretty much took a whole season. Lightning strikes slowly.
My point is two-fold: one, that I’ve always been fascinated by the listening rituals hardcore music nerds set for themselves (Hyden talks about only really listening to stuff when he was on his bike for an hour or so), and two, saying that an album is “immediate” is like saying some meals take less time to prepare than others. One of my favorite albums is The Wrens’ The Meadowlands, which was a knockout the first time, an impenetrable slog the next three or four, and finally emerged as a masterpiece, like some kind of Magic Eye picture finally popping into focus. That’s part of what I enjoy about pop music: it no longer being the 19th century, we’re no longer required to sit in the concert hall and absorb the whole symphony at once. There’s time to repeat listen to stuff over and over, until it sinks in or we confidently reject it. Immediacy is all well and good sometimes—there’s a reason I’m a Fountains of Wayne fan—but why some people insist on everything hitting at once puzzles me. Where’s the fun in that?
That said: The Clientele are really pushing it. Since we’re getting close to end-of-year list-making season, this column may well get bogged down in remainders from way earlier in the year for a while; in the case of God Save The Clientele, though, we’re talking about an album I listened to once over the summer and it nearly killed me, so I put aside repeat listens ’til recently. I remembered having the same problem with their last album, Strange Geometry: really delightful when you started off, increasingly same-y and tedious until you could no longer remember which string arrangement went with which song. Eventually I sorted them out—“Since K Got Over Me” was the well-done prototypical wistful Britpop, “K” was the one with the ethereal choir intro, “When I Came Home From The Party” was the one with a repeated string hook as insistent as any disco arrangement—and was content to have figured out half the disk. Because of my (somewhat muted) faith in The Clientele’s Voyage Of Discovery, I let God Save The Clientele sit for six months or so, then tried it again.
Is it fair to beat up on a band if they want to write pop songs and end up writing mood music? This album plays best late at night, when I’m reluctantly still working; I’ve always been a sucker for music that sounds demoralized, especially after midnight, and this—their cheeriest album yet!—is still pretty cloistered and fragile. Still, I’ve managed to sort things out a bit: for starters, it’s amazing that they have a song called “Isn’t Life Strange” that manages to be winter-fireside cozy rather than cloyingly smug. They’ve also maintained their inexplicable devotion to spoken-word: the previous album’s nostalgia-fest “Losing Haringey” has been supplanted by the inscrutable whispering of “The Dance of the Hours.” (It has to be a joke that this, one of the fastest and loudest tracks—all things being relative—is also almost completely incomprehensible.)
And yet: tracks like “From Brighton Beach To Santa Monica” and “These Days Nothing But Sunshine” are indistinguishably lovely, except the latter has a slide guitar and the former doesn’t. The exceptions pop into sharp relief: besides “The Dance Of The Hours,” which distinguishes itself through vocal novelty, there’s “Bookshop Casanova.” I have no doubt The Clientele are being totally sincere when they link libidinous bookishness to white-boys playing endearingly textbook disco; still, Belle & Sebastian kicked off these sweepstakes a while ago with the infinitely superior “Your Cover’s Blown” (not to mention Orange Juice et al.). After all this time, it’s still unclear to me if The Clientele are much more than hipster dinner-music.
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This may be a really inane thing to say, but I’m really digging Battles’ Mirrored. I didn’t listen to it for a long time because there were vague comparisons to prog rock, which always makes me reflexively embarrassed; at the tender age of 14, I committed a Dream Theater album (Scenes From A Memory: Metropolis Pt. 2 – yes, it’s a rock opera) to memory; my subsequent disenchantment at a Dream Theater/Joe Satriani concert is something I’d rather not discuss.
There’s a lot to be said for these guys, most of which has been said already. The basic thing I’d like to commend is how light-hearted it all is: they can play as fast as Dillinger Escape Plan or whoever your shredding heroes are, but the potential aggression has been Prozac-ed out. I enjoy the fact that there’s constantly enough demented whistling to power Disney’s inevitable Snow White movie. I enjoy that “Atlas” starts off like a piss-take on Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” before introducing what sounds like a cheerful chorus of helium-abusing Munchkins. I like how “Tonto” sort of sounds like disco-punk, except the vocals are gibberish, kind of like how most disco-punk lyrics are gibberish except they’re supposed to be meaningful words. I like how the chords and vocals on “Ddiamondd” sound like a madrigal 33rpm being spun at 45. (That said: indie bands? Pseudo-illiteracy is still not cute. That means you too, Spoon [“Don’t You Evah”] and Blonde “Dr. Strangeluv” Redhead.)
Most of all, I like Battles because they don’t make me feel hopelessly behind the curve. A lot of the It bands of indie rock the last few years have really puzzled me: Animal Collective makes me queasy, Joanna Newsom is shrill and annoying, I can’t handle Antony’s voice, etc. Battles made me feel right at home the first time I heard them; I didn’t have to keep spinning to figure out if the problem was with me or them. Battles make music of the most immediate kind: repeated listens might pick up details, but you’ll get a gut response right away. For once, I can see the point of that. And that’s about all I have to say about that.
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No wait, one last note about this immediacy thing, and then I’ll let it go: back in high school, I was in Waterloo Records, sitting in a listening booth trying to make out with a girl. (I was a late bloomer.) Our ostensible excuse for being there was sampling Primal Scream’s Screamadelica: I remembered liking it a lot, and patting myself on the back for liking something so “funky” and “non-indie.” What did I know? 5 years later, I finally got around to trying it. And I’m shocked: it’s a masterpiece.
There’s tons of appreciative print on this album, so I won’t waste too much of your time on that. Just a few things: for an album that occasionally sounds like Madchester-come-lately, this has aged shockingly well. Few bands associated with that period came out completely unscathed: if they weren’t putting out bad second albums, they were getting My Bloody Valentine to end Loveless with a bad faux-Stone Roses track. How did Primal Scream get out so clean? At an hour, Screamadelica only has a few bum notes, most of them relating to technological progress: the first minute or so of “Slip Inside This House” could be replicated easily these days with a cheap keyboard with pre-programmed loops for the talentless. Also, subtitling a song “A Dub Symphony In 2 Parts” is a bad idea, but I suspect that was already obvious in 1991.
But it’s telling that when Primal Scream showed up in 2004’s 9 Songs, they played the 13-year-old “Movin’ On Up”: how do you top the best cross-over trend-of-the-moment single the Rolling Stones never wrote? Elsewhere: how do you top inventing a whole vein of music Air strip-mined on “Inner Flight,” or a synth-pop tune as flawless as any Depeche Mode/Dandy Warhols dream collaboration you could think of? You can’t. More to the point, over unexpectedly compulsive listening this weekend, I realized that the dated period trappings don’t matter that much: in some ways, mentally editing out the most dated effects gives me a greater appreciation for what a miraculous hybrid this album is. Lesson learned: drug-addled music with epic, gospel pretensions doesn’t always end up just being nostalgia listening for the old guard. Note to anyone my age or younger: you may think you don’t need to hear this album, but you really do. It just took me 5 years. Without the cloud of “new” hanging over it, it sounds that much better; nearly timeless, really, and what’s timely is endearingly dated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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