Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy Endings Are For Fanfiction: The Force Awakens Review

(I attended a 7:21 screening of The Force Awakens on Thursday, December 17th, with my best friend and fellow life-nerd who as a young fella memorized the scripts of all three original films, thank you very much.  This review is, then, based off of a single viewing.  Also, spoilers.  Lots of them.)

Born in 1977, raised alongside a brother who had an eleven-year head start and a rapacious appetite for movies, I was exposed to Star Wars early on.  By age five, my obsession with The Empire Strikes Back was such that I had the script memorized and would eschew sheep for the words of Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett on nights when sleep proved elusive.  At age six, I sat with big bro and our mom in the movie theater to watch the third and ostensible final film in the saga,  Return of the Jedi. 

As children do, I hopped from one infatuation to the other--no group of people had more fun doing that than 80s Babies, trust me--but a choice few passions stuck to my temporal lobe like a Mynock to a window.  Star Wars is in that select group.

I made of The Force Awakens the same request I make of any film, album, or book:  Whether I love you, hate you, or think you'll do in a pinch, show me that you care.  What I was shown that evening was a Star Wars movie redolent of the saga's glory days without reeking of feeble rehash.*

The action picks up thirty years after ROTJ, with the conflict now between The Resistance (led by General Leia) and The First Order (commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke).  In addition to staving off evil, Leia is on the hunt for her brother Luke Skywalker, a disgraced Jedi Master who has made himself scarce.

There you are.  Simple story.  Not a whiff of midichlorians.  Possibly no word ending in "-ian" was uttered (again, I've only seen it the once).  No Ian McDiarmid, for sure.  In fact, no Ian's, period.

TFA is distinguished by frenetic action, narrative intrigue, and well-earned humor.  The opening sequence on planet Jakku displays each quality nicely.  Flying Ace Poe Dameron receives a memory drive from wise old guy Lor San Tekka.  Said drive contains a map that leads to the whereabouts of Luke.  On cue, the village is beset by ships and stormtroopers.  Lasers ensue.  Poe is able to pass the map along to his ball-bodied droid, BB-8, before being captured by a caped, masked baddie named Kylo Ren, whom Poe wastes no time in mocking.  Joke's on Poe, though, when he's dragged aboard Ren's command shuttle, tortured (revealing that the map is in a BB-8) and rescued by a conflicted Stormtrooper, who we have already seen as a guy in dire need of a paper bag.  The pair haul ass in a TIE Fighter--eventually--and blast shit to space dust.  It's all very familiar and fantastic.  The turncoat trooper, FN-2187, is rechristened "Finn" by his savior, because it is so clearly adventure time.

So when they crash land on Jakku, and Poe seems to perish along with the TIE fighter, it behooves the audience to remember a great rule of Star Wars:  if you don't see the body, anything is still possible. 

Despite a proclivity for panic attacks, Finn is also easy to root while wondering what exactly his story is.  Likewise, Rey.  Rey is a scavenger who was abandoned on Jakku at a young age.  (5, perhaps?)  She spends her days looting fallen AT-ATs for parts which may then be exchanged for food.  A lonely life, until she prevents BB-8 from certain dismemberment.  Later, she refuses to trade him in for what looks to be half-a-year worth of grub.  Who needs to eat when you've got a droid buddy?

The new good guys are great, so what of the new baddies?  Thankfully, likewise.  The aforementioned Snoke (who ain't Darth Plagueis) appears as a gargantuan hologram with a disfigured face.  Answering to him are stick-assed space Nazi General Hux and Vader yen-to-be Ren.  Hux and Ren have a sibling rivalry thing happening without the added pain of actual blood relation, each young man struggling to prove to Daddy Snoke that they are the most nefarious prick in all the galaxy.  But honestly, that's squat bubkes compared to the battle being waged inside Ren--the son of Han Solo and grandson of Darth Vader.  Light side?  Dark side?  The immovable force meets the immovable force!  Ren seeks counsel from grandpa's helmet, which has gone all cookies 'n' cream in the three decades since ROTJ.  How'd he end up with that old thing?  Guys, guys--we have more movies coming.  Maybe mysteries will be solved, maybe they will remain mysteries. 

Finn and Rey meet because the former is just walking around Jakku with a dead pilot's jacket on, and BB-8 gets all mad and shock-y (not uncommon in this series).  Cute, but not very wise, considering the First Order has been looking for the adorable high roller. Chase!  Chase!  Culminating in my favorite reveal of the entire movie.  The Millennium Falcon is such a magnificent piece of shit (that I futilely put on my wish list for five consecutive Christmases) that even watching it crash and careen is an exhilarating experience.  You know, like when Buffalo Bills fans try tailgate wrestling

With the Falcon's reappearance, I began warming in my seat for reasons unrelated to spontaneous urination.  Star Wars!  Motherfucker!  Star Wars!  Then she gets captured by a larger ship and I'm all, whoa that was quick.  Finn and Rey hide out and await the arrival of whatever well-armed malevolence they fell prey to.  Except it's not bad guys that step on board--it's the best guys.  It's Han Solo and Chewbacca.  If your theater did (does) not explode in non-/pre-verbal exclamations of exquisite joy at the very sight, and you didn't (don't) respond by yelling some variant of "Holy crap you people suck," well, I'm not sure who to judge the harshest.

Han is older and in some ways wiser; when Rey and Finn ask if the Jedi were real, the former skeptic tells them plainly:  it is all real.  But, in other ways, Han hasn't changed at all, so when two gangs bum rush the show, each demanding what the rogue owes them, who's really surprised?  He tries to yak his way out of trouble, but the newbies screwing around and unwittingly unleashing unholy beasts works much better.  The brouhaha results in the First Order learning of Solo's involvement and Snoke ordering Ren to end his internal war by eliminating his useless father and giving himself over to the Dark Side completely.

The heroes escape to planet Takodana, home of a badass catina owned by Wookie-chaser Maz Kanata.  Finn's all, later guys, and Rey wanders around with BB-8, entering a vault that contains a light saber.  Like any sensible being, she grabs it…and experiences a "Force vision."  The Force, that gooder-than-glitterwands energy field that surrounds all?  It is strong with this one. 

Things are getting much too peaceful for a film containing the words "Star Wars" so here come the First Order!  And here come the X-wings ,whaaaaat?!  That's right, led by flyboy nonpareil Poe Dameron!  (What did I tell you about habeas corpus?)   Ren snatches Rey up--he is very interested in this scrappy scavenger trash--and his failure during interrogation further spices an already fragrant dish.  Then Rey uses a Jedi Mind Trick to escape--don't forget, she needed multiple attempts--and it's time for dessert. 

The First Order have figured out that Death Stars are globular blast sites and have instead conjured up something called Starkiller Base--a planet converted into a super-destroyer of other, less fortunate planets.  General Hux has a firm grasp on the importance of pomp and loquaciousness, delivering an oddly-stirring "Dark Side uber alles" speech to an army of arm-hoisting Stormtroopers before the ka-blast! that turns the Hosnian system into space dust, devastating the New Republic.  Next up?  D'Qar, home of the Resistance HQ. 

Of course the Resistance has a predictable plan-infiltrate, handicap, attack--but there's more at stake.  Leia has refused to give up on her son, and will not (or cannot) shake the feeling that some good still resides inside of him, no matter Han's assertion that the Vader influence is by now far too strong to hope for salvation.  Still, he agrees to try.

The confrontation between father and son is gutting.  Han approaches his son--Ben--as a humbled rogue.  There's a metric screw-ton of guilt, shame, remorse and anger happening, evident in the heaviness of their expressions and movements.  Words are exchanged because that's how these things go. 

The moment I realized Han and Ben the Ren had an audience, I knew how the conversation would end.  (Callbacks rule, except when they suck.)  My heart rate went super-hummingbird from Han's first step until his last breath.  He didn't give up on his child; Ben gave up on himself.  He's hollowed-out.  There is no more Ben Solo.

Finn and Rey lost a father figure, and are devastated.  And Chewie?  Oh man.  (Kudos as well to Carrie Fisher for nailing the moment Leia intuits the horrific turn of events. Perhaps once the Starkiller Base is destroyed, Leia should take a moment all to herself, just her and a cup of some weirdly-hued milk, and come to terms with the reality that her son is a cruel, capricious, petulant, traitorous, patricidal butt-berry.)

Aw man!  BB-8 was so pumped to see R2-D2 and so bummed when informed that Luke's old droid's been in "low power mode" since things went ass over teakettle. 

The climactic battles go right in the pantheon alongside the most riveting of the series.  The saber duels (Ren/Finn, Ren/Rey) are sloppier than fans are accustomed to, but what's more realistic?  You want impeccable choreography, watch Revenge of the Sith.  You want to KO the air, wait for the moment when Luke's old saber flies to its rightful home. 

Poe and company (featuring Porkins Jr., or at least that's what I kept calling him) do it to it.  Poe is basically the new Han, a kickass pilot with dashing looks and acerbic wit, a bad boy fighting alongside the good guys for the great cause.  Bye bye, Starkiller Base.  (And see you next movie, every significant villain!)

Back at D'Qar, the celebration is understandably subdued.  But, great news:  R2's back!  One beam from BB-8, another from R2 and boom:  a completed map to Luke Skywalker.  Rey, Chewbacca and BB-8 all take off on the Millennium Falcon (whoa) and head to a remote island.  Rey makes the trek up a stone staircase, until she reaches the last step and sees a hooded figure standing several feet away, back turned.  When finally he turns, he drops the cover and Rey (and we) are greeted with the sight of an older, careworn Luke Skywalker, a master of the Force wounded by wisdom gone awry, good intentions and greater actions all for naught.  I mean, he couldn't turn his own nephew away from the Dark Side.  The same nephew that slaughtered kids.  The same nephew that just jabbed a light saber through his own father.  Luke is therefore indirectly responsible for the murder of his old friend-turned-brother-in-law as well as the two most heartbreaking moments of his sister's life.  (Poor Leia, she must be really yearning for the days when her hugely malevolent father made her watch as her home planet was destroyed.)  Rey holds out the saber, silently beseeching the old master to accept once more what is rightfully his…or is it?

What a goddamn movie.  The conflicts, both on and offscreen, are compelling enough to send an entranced viewers head spinning until it steams.  Compared to any of the prequels--unfair but inevitable--The Force Awakens flows more naturally.  It is, additionally, more fun, funnier, feistier and flashier. 

The (very) minor controversy surrounding Finn and Rey, deeming them franchise-killing concessions to political correctness, should be revisited if only to be pointed at, laughed at, and pitied for perhaps two seconds before laughing at it some more.  These are two well-written, well-acted characters brimming with a strength and decency that represents the best within us.  It's fascinating to watch as each of them struggles to process their individual capabilities and destinies, in search of a man who for most of their lives they regarded as mere myth.  No bones thrown, no tokens inserted, Rey is not only a successful addition to the Star Wars saga, she is already one of the most iconic female characters in the history of cinema.   Girls will want to be her, and guess what?  Some boys will too.

But nah, this ain't The Rey Show.  The Force Awakens benefits from an abundance of engaging players on the classic stage--likable or detestable, I cared about them, their pasts and future as well as their presents playing out in front of me.  Another huge check in its column (for me, given my age) is something that was absent from Return of the Jedi and the prequels: the cliffhanger aspect.  Thus, the questions left unanswered after 134 minutes are multitudinous.

Who the hell is Rey?  There are four schools of thoughts, each built on lots of varying size, and of course I dropped in on each of them.  Took a seat in the back, audibly chewed two sticks of gum at once, skimmed a relevant text, and only ever raised my hand to complain of ovary pain. 

1)  She's Luke's daughter. 
2)  She's Leia's daughter

These seem to be the most popular guesses.  Given that Star Wars is the story of the Skywalker clan, I'd be stunned if Rey doesn't turn out to be the offspring of one of Anakin and Padme's twins (she even resembles Natalie Portman).  I lean towards Luke; wouldn't it be most fitting, most emotional if he trains his own child in the ways of the Force as a massive step towards redemption?  Then you get Ren vs Rey Pt. Deux--Killin' Cousins.

Leia as Rey's mom is the theory clung to most tenaciously by fans who just can't seem to abandon the EU Solo-Organna family tale.  This would set up Ren vs. Rey Pt. Deux--Sibling Rivalry. 

(But then why do neither Han or Leia have any peculiar reaction to her?  Why do we see Rey and Leia embrace when Rey returns to the base on D'Qar?  Surely she wasn't the only character to offer Leia condolences.   Then again, we do see her behind the controls of the Falcon more than once, and Han offers her a spot on the ship pretty damn quick-like...

3) She's Obi-Wan's granddaughter.

About that light saber…yeah, it was Luke's once upon a time, and Anakin's…but Obi-Wan held onto it for longer than either of them.  His voice is one of several heard during Rey's vision.  And hey, Ben and Satine were pretty good friends.  Pretty, pretty good.

Being either a Skywalker or Kenobi also makes her transition from scrounging sand-sledder to saber-wielding star warrior utterly believable. 

Ren vs Rey Pt. Deux--This One's For Grandpa!

4) She was one of Luke's Padawans

One of the luckier ones, more specifically.  Works if you believe that Luke would have imbued her with a sensitivity to the Force and/or futzed with her memory before sending her away.  I'm not a fan of this one because I like keeping it in the family--but it wouldn't be a dealbreaker.

Was Kylo Ren really experiencing a crisis of faith--or was he just carrying out Snoke's order in the cruelest manner possible?  And what precipitated Ben Solo's turn to the Dark Side?  Luke and Leia have Vader in them as well, so was it just a matter of Snoke being the sort of father figure the boy craved?

Is Snoke Darth Plagueis?  No.  Stop wondering.

Watching BB-8 zip and bloop along is so fun I kinda forgot to wonder why the hell there's even a map to begin with.  Did Luke want to eventually be found? 

Where can I get one of those beat-ass X-wing pilot dolls that Rey was chilling with? 

Maz Kanata has Luke's saber.  How?  "That's a question for another time."  Like 2017? 

How will Episode 8 begin?  Ten years passed from the end of Episode I to the start of II; three years passed from the end of IV to V.  There has never been a film in the saga that picked up immediately from where the preceding left off.  I think a year--the same gap between V and VI--would be best for Episode 8. 

See you in two years.



*If director/co-writer J.J. Abrams is slavish to the original trilogy--A New Hope, especially--or attuned to what fans desire/deserve from the seventh Star Wars film--is entirely up to the individual.  Leading the series in a daring direction story-wise is not bad just because Lucas half-assed the prequels, and some have expressed disappointment at the lack of innovation in TFA.  Understandable.  Conversely, returning to a tried-true formula is not good simply because it led to unfathomable success.  Said formula can be misread; the ingredients can be corrupted, corners can be cut. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Peanuts Movie: A Mini-Review

A more thorough review will appear once the film has been released on DVD, with screencaps.

Until then, join me as I think back fondly on yesterday.

My best friend and I went to the 11:20 AM showing of "The Peanuts Movie" (AKA, "The Vicissitudes of a Blockhead") at a theater in Frederick, Maryland.  This necessitated a drive of just under an hour.  Was this the nearest movie house?  No.  Were we willing to brave Rockville?  No.  The idea of seeing the big screen return of Chuck B. and the gang after 35 years away in the city that I once called home, the city that I miss to the point of aches and agonies, was simultaneously too much and just what I needed.

I'd visited the Westview Promenade on Buckeystown Pike a few times during my stint as a Fredericker, but never stepped inside the Regal Cinemas there.  There was some overpriced theater food, some cool, classic upright entertainment, and a smattering of other folks, most probably there to see "Spectre."

Trick and I were the first people in Theater 10.  (By the time the 20th Century Fox fanfare sounded, we would be joined by four other bodies, all tall enough to ride the rides at any amusement park.) We sat in the upper-middle section, loose-limbed and expectant, Charlie Brown and Snoopy hoodie snug on my torso.

The previews were a mixed bag.  "Norm of the North" looks hideous.  A POLAR BEAR IN THE BIG CITY, Y'ALL!  Also, someone allowed another Chipmunks movie to happen.  Jason Lee, what the hell happened to your life?    Your face is the sad crag of compromise.  Both trailers featured overplayed songs:  "Back in Black" for "Norm," and "Baby Got Back" for Chipmunks.  The mental mashup I made of the former's music with the latter's lyrics was and is, I promise you, funnier than whatever the funniest moment turns out to be in either of those flicks.

"The Good Dinosaur" looks, at the very least, mesmerizing.  It didn't make me want to fashion the drawstrings of my hoodie into a noose, so that's something.

My demands for "The Peanuts Movie" were simple.  Be true, be funny.  (I try not to demand more than two things per item/experience.  For onion rings, I ask only--be large, be crunchy.  For flights--be safe, be infant-free.  And so on.)  These demands were met.  Any qualms about the classic characters being rendered in CG, any concerns that the first film since 1980 would kowtow to modernity, any dread that Blue Sky and the Schulz family were co-conspirators in a scheme to deface an icon...all you have to do is watch with a mind and heart both ready to feel. 

The main plot (Charlie Brown's crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl) and the subplot (Flying Ace Snoopy's crush on pilot poodle Fifi, "voiced" by noted fan Kristin Chenoweth) are both as substantial as they need to be, but most of the animated Peanuts offerings depend on so-called "filler" material:  the preternatural musings and puerile frivolities of the kids in the neighborhood.  It makes sense that what powered the comics would locomotion the screen adaptations as well, so, smartly, the creative team borrowed liberally from the source material.  Nothing uttered--or animated--struck me as out of place.  Yes, Charlie Brown takes a blue recycling bin out to the curb, but Snoopy still taps out fantastical tales of wartime on a typewriter.  Still not convinced?  Two words:  rotary phones.

The filmmakers throughout acknowledge the legacy of Peanuts while telling their story. Charlie Brown's thoughts appear in the flat figures and clean lines of the comic strips.  Peppermint Patty is so crushed out on the blockhead that she rings him up just to order him around.  Lucy is Queen Alaskan Crab.  Sally is touchingly naive and hilariously avaricious.  Snoopy is a scene-stealer par excellence.

I (repeatedly) laughed, I (almost) cried, I felt proud to be a Peanuts fan.   I can't wait to see it again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Lyrics For Monster Movie Music" Available Now






LYRICS FOR MONSTER MOVIE MUSIC
48 pages

 My first collection of poetry, containing pieces written between 1998-2003, is now for sale. As measureless as it is bonded, as broad as it is narrow, a long-form mind transplanted into a short-form body after a night of drinkin', dancin' and double vision.



Prices

Friday, March 6, 2015

Album Review: Hunt Hunt Hunt Camp, "Light on a Landfill" (2014)



"A lot of great things I did not do/But there's nothing here to ruin."

Hunt Hunt Hunt Camp is Chicago-based Joseph Starita and whoever's around.  For Light On a Landfill, Joe is joined by a cast of a dozen, aiding and abetting the cause with horns, guit-fiddles, keybs, beats and bleats.  Time to take a short drink from an infinitely flowing fountain.  

The fourteen songs comprising Light On a Landfill were recorded from 2011-2014, and the diversity of moods and textures I expected was indeed present.  The inconstancy in quality I feared was absent.  Result.  

The pieces possess power of a peculiar sort, the most potent sort, in fact.  The sort that sharpens the tongue rather than scrubs the throat.  The type that uses the walls to test slap-echo rather than to discharge fury.  Words are used first as weapons, for as long as the arsenal allows.  The deceptively labyrinthine vineyard that opens the album ("Hellos") is also one of the record's standouts, along with "Handshake," a three-minute track consisting of two similar yet distinct acts:  Mr. Starita on Doomsday, surrounded by the stutters and putters of a dying world; then, finally, the oceans beginning to boil. 

"Missing Persons" is all open heart thumping underneath an aluminum cage, dangling just out of reach.  And it has a fire-ass first line.

My favorite tunes come near the end:  the gorgeous swaths of "Continental Blues" and the ultimate track, "Hunt Hunt Hunt Camp," what feels like (to me, anyway) a tale of survival in the immense outdoors, all splayed limbs, aching skull and treacherous heart.  Harrowing covers it...well, most of it, I can still see the feet poking out. 

There are abstract EVP echoes, tenderly-articulated tracks and songs that lean towards the more standard construction, all juxtaposed wonderfully under the auspices of an even-keeled oddball.  Song after song, logic and emotion tussle to the soul's delight.  There's hope for the analgesic addicts here as well.  Some offerings ("K.I.L.L.S.," "Ginger Unit") hit my ears as Starita and crew making sound because they needed something to perch upon and gaze out from (or stand upon and dive down from).  Others coated my brain like the tree-filtered sunlight hitting bay windows, spreading through a sparsely-decorated living area, blending the light blues and hard whites. 

For the listener who loves to be pulled to, rather than pushed in, Light On a Landfill is worth a purchase.  Not only for the music, but the unique packaging.  Jesus, but do I appreciate effort ever more as the days go by.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Girl In a Band by Kim Gordon (2015)

(You can't borrow my copy; trust me, it's well-guarded.)

"Men's memoirs are about answers; women's memoirs are about questions."--ISABEL ALLENDE

What's it like to want to be a girl in a band?

Kim Gordon.  Not a special name.  Doesn't take up much space.  No uncommon letters were harmed in the making of. 

Names are for tombstones, baby.  Take that superficial way of thinking outside and give it a goose egg.

Kim Gordon has been my hero since 1990.  Since I saw the video for "Kool Thing," the song that was surely the beginning of the end for Sonic Youth, once kings and queens of the American underground.  To have that look, to be a component in that sound.  To know those people, to be that person.  Slim, toned, gorgeous.  Sharp, witty, genius.

I totally wanna.  I know so.


Ever since the first rumblings of a Kim Gordon memoir, it's been at the top of my "must-read" list.  And good lawd, did I; one sitting, five hours.  I devoured Girl In a Band

So you got the name-dropping, the mental illness, the infidelity, but really, the most scandalous thing about Girl In a Band is that one of the most singular American artists of the past forty years even deigned to grace us with a significant account of her life and times.  Gordon is an insightful writer, free of stylistic quirks.  She is more concerned with breadth than depth, more adept at offering revelatory flashes than holding the light on one spot for long periods of time. 

Kim's memories of her family are touching and non-exploitative.  Her love for her resourceful mother and academic father is clear.  Her older brother, however, is the one that will be impossible to forget.

Dedicated SY fans know Keller Gordon as the co-star of a classic image inserted into the booklet of the band's first album, and the inspiration for "Cinderella's Big Score," one of the standout tracks from 1990's Goo.  After reading GIAB, everyone will know him as the most profound influence on young Kim Gordon, the person arguably most responsible in shaping the woman beloved by thousands (shit, dare I say millions?) worldwide for her bravery and savvy.  Unable to compete with her big bro's outsized personality, she retreated, spinning an opaque cocoon around herself. 


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In all my trips to the West (most of them revolving around SY) I've never felt the pull of California's suffusive air.  Well, that's not entirely true; I am asthmatic, after all.  But I've always preferred the density of New York City.  Something about California has always struck me as laughably insecure.  Kim has a more intimate knowledge of the so-called Golden State, though, and it was impossible for me to avoid being sucked into her straightforward descriptions of the places she knew as home.  Equally impossible?  Avoiding sadness when reading about her disinterest in the city that Sonic Youth arguably encompassed with more intensity and intelligence than any other band.  Kim is hardly the first to have expressed disenchantment with the Disney-fied New York, to bemoan the Giuliani-led replacement of unprofitable fetidity with profitable fetidity, but damn, she makes it sound like there's absolutely nothing there for her anymore.  It's amazing for me to consider that, juxtaposed with my own excitement whenever I visit, how I lose myself so readily in the areas outside the touristy disaster known as Times Square, how I emerge out the other side with sharpened edges, ready to set and go…then again, I never knew the New York that the music of Sonic Youth knew.


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Reading her thoughts on select Sonic Youth songs turned me into the person who went three days without any solid food, was treated to a decadent night out at a Michelin-starred restaurant, then bitched afterward about how the creme brulee was "'loose."  Not just because she didn't speak on any of her miniature masterpieces from A Thousand Leaves, 'cause I really didn't expect that.(I guarantee I hold that album in higher regard than everyone actually involved in its creation.) But the insights we are treated to, from Confusion Is Sex to Washing Machine, only confirm my suspicions that if Kim had wanted to write primarily about Sonic Youth, she would have turned out one of the greatest music books ever.   Christ's sake, reading her thoughts about "Shaking Hell" made me want to listen to nothing but that song for an hour.  (Made it 45 minutes, which is almost an hour!)

If nothing else, maybe "Massage the History" will get its proper due now?  Eh?!

                                   -------------------------------------------------------------
Kim was born to be an artist--visual, auditory--but the eagerness to express is frequently wed with the fear of sticking out.  'Cause when you get noticed, you can be judged.  If you can be touched, you can be hit.  The lessons learned growing up with a seriously-ill sibling served Kim well as Sonic Youth's profile grew.  Was she cool, or cold?  Imperious or impassive?  Detached or determined?  All the questions bandied about by fans and media meant she maintained a degree of control.  How admirable.  Or?

"If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a 'strong woman'?" she asks in the one sentence that froze my eyes inside my head.  Of course!  You can't lay it all out there, not if you want to survive.  Picking and choosing what you show is the power.  How it's interpreted is beyond you, and cannot be allowed to diminish the strength.  Of course it's not!  You're letting others--men, specifically, the expectations laid upon women by a world run by men--dictate your image.  You're not a positive role model, you're playing it safe!

And on.

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Prior to publication, click-bait articles Internet-wide suckered in the simples with Kim's passages concerning Courtney Love (she called her mentally ill!  And since this society doesn't understand or respect mental illness whatsoever, this is a horrible burn!), Billy Corgan (self-important rock star, nailed that one) and Lana Del Rey (whose cult attacked Kim over social media re: a potentially-insensitive half of a sentence that ended up not even making the finished book).  Thankfully, Girl In a Band is not packed with these "sexy" reflections. 

There's nothing, and I mean absolutely not a single standing-alone-like-the-cheese thing, sexy about the dissolution of the marriage between Kim and Thurston Moore, the super-tall, lanky Connecticut-bred dude with the hair falling over his eyes that she met and fell for in arty-as-fuck New York.  Before they were the golden couple of the indie-rock scene, before David Geffen, before diapers, before the big house in Mass, there was just Kim 'n' Thurston.  She was young, he was younger.  She thought maybe they could start a band and maybe write some songs and maybe a record and maybe maybe, he knew they could.  From that union of skepticism and faith came Sonic Youth.

The band I adore above all others, whose racket convinced me to keep writing, whose sole female member compelled me to believe that what I was writing was worthy of the world…of course one day they would end.  That didn't upset me.  What gnaws at me to this day, and likely will for most of the rest of my days, is that they called it quits due to something so…banal. 

Kim reserves a measure of compassion for her manchild ex-husband (she makes repeated references to his aptitude for fatherhood, which scores some serious points with this woman, anyway) but Kim is understandably merciless when it comes to "the other woman," this mysterious figure who materializes onto the scene like some super-ambitious Dementor, attempting to ingratiate herself into Kim's life before moving on to not one, but two other members of SY.  Kim graciously resisted the urge to boldface announce "I'M DROPKICKING THAT BITCH BACK INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE NEXT TIME I SEE HER, YO" but make no mistake, the hatred is high. 

These are the "juicy" chapters, and goddamn is much of it hard to stomach.  I never thought of Thurston Moore as anything other than one of the great re-imaginers of his much-abused instrument, but taking in the many examples of his gross duplicity, the "darkness" that took over and separated him from his wife, his child, his band…you know, I could have gone my entire life without reading about what caused the Moore marriage to "combust."  But I doubt that Kim Gordon could have gone her entire life without writing about it, and that is what matters.  The amelioration of suffering. 

(Mind you, there were moments my heart went out to Thurston.  It must be horrifying to realize you just wrote and recorded an album as devastatingly trash as Demolished Thoughts.)

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I think it's worthwhile to ask:  if called upon to write at length about my life, could I write as bluntly and boldly as Kim Gordon?  She shows no interest in romanticizing or de-romanticizing anything, least of all herself.  I honestly don't know.  She makes me want to, though.  Frequently--too frequently--as of late I have found myself ready to put pen to paper, prepared to bleed cold red everywhere, when a sudden paralytic attack hits.  Forces invisible and incomprehensible render me useless.  Soon enough, I am convinced of my utter and complete futility--as a writer, as a friend, a daughter, a lover.  The attack passes, and my mind is mine again.  This can take as long as two hours, as little as twenty minutes.  What isn't variable is my fear.  Past be damned; I just know, this time of all the times is the one, this isn't just mud, this is quicksand, and there's no hope now. 

Forget therapy; forget medication and meditation.  The homilies and bromides that worked for others simply will not work for me.  The next time those demons, those enemies of the expressive soul come for my throat, I'll go for theirs.  Cold red all over the page, everywhere.


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A gaze at the "Autobiography" section of any bookstore can induce depression pretty quickly.  Whether it's some "reality personality" who was paid more than the worth of the average life to put their name and face to a book that someone else wrote, or a blustering cultural/political maven who exists solely to remind me that a full 50% of America's citizenry is 100% unfit to procreate, it's hard to imagine the memoir as a work of art.  But Girl In a Band qualifies.  It is called-for.  It is brilliant.  It assures the questions will keep being asked.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fall Down on the World: The Music of Sleater-Kinney, Pt. 8--Start Again While Unsteady Still

1/20/15

Don't know what you had till it up and left your ass one day.  Then it returns, on some Jedi steez, and you swear up and down that never ever will you take Sleater-Kinney for granted again, not their music, not their message, not the irony in such a proud all-female band being produced by a dude with the last name Goodmanson, you are different now and you know better.

Tricky thing is, so are they.

"Price Tag"--Economic woes lead but to self-cannibalization.  The drums are steady, strong, unshakable.  But that's standard S-K:  the foundation doesn't collapse, you collapse upon the foundation.

Mama Corin is mindful, but on the other side is Carrie, worrying mostly for herself by herself.  Unluckily for us all, life in these 21st-century United States ain't the goddamn Pain and Suffering Olympics.  No gold medals for the procreating competitors, no podium spot for the creating competitors, no nothing but more "no"'s.

"Fangless"--Fans of Sharon Gless?  That's what I've taken away from this song, which features some sweet Janet backing vocals.  If Sleater-Kinney were Cagney & Lacey, Carrie would be the ambitious Cagney, while Corin would be the family-first Lacey.  Janet would be over on Hill Street Blues, which was a much better 80s cop show.

"Surface Envy"--That the band has lost none of their individual or collective acerbity is the biggest reason that No Cities To Love not only works, but works harder longer faster stronger than any other clock-punchers going.   They're not dishing out, they're breaking plates, 'cause the planet is fucked...or it is if people don't dig deeper for some substance pride.

"I feel so much stronger/Now that you're here/We've got so much to do/Let me make that clear!"  Scratch.  Scratch.  Scratch.

"No Cities To Love"--The first real "Carrie" song.  Brownstein loves the feel of the words in her mouth, rolling over under and around her tongue, sticking to the palate and lodging in between most of her teeth.  The verses are brick and mortar, the chorus is fiberglass and plaster.

The city is only what you make it.  But others have made it before you.

"A New Wave"--Ever feel compelled to go all No Wave in life, just throw your arms around the nihilistic impulse, hurling your soul in the direction of the nearest black hole?  All the avarice, all the destruction, all the deterioration, all the goddamn time, all paths lead but to the grave.

A new wave is even scarier, because it represents continuation.  Oblivion is the greatest freedom.  Obscurity is the bitterest freedom.

"No Anthems"--Oh my darling elephantine.

The bread has hardened, but Corin layers it edge to edge with honey.

"Gimme Love"--The album's shortest song is also arguably its most divisive.  Love, lust, lasciviousness, lollipops...every "L" word that sends the brain and body into paroxysms, you can hear it inside "Gimme Love."  The listeners who aren't repulsed by earnest pleas may just place this one near the top.  Those fans who wanna earn their pleasures may feel differently.

That blue Slushee-infused instrumental break kinda has something for everybody, though.

"Bury Our Friends"--Remember those idols we killed years ago?  Time to bring 'em back up, McGarrity.

Carrie's impatience is by turns endearing and infuriating.  She's never as righteously pissed as Corin, but she always collects each stone as she overturns them.

"Hey Darling"--Lita Ford, riot grrrl?  Well, she was a Runaway.  And she used to fuck Tony Iommi.  I've never banged anybody missing a part of a finger before.

Fame!  Anybody can fly; try learning how to land.  Oh, and there are no thresholds on the runway.  FYI. 

"Fade"--All that yelling, an avalanche is inevitable.  What gets top honors on the death certificate, blunt force trauma or hypothermia?

After nine songs of life screaming up and down lush fields, death rounds things out.  The investigator returns to the days-old crime scene.  She stands stock-still, shuttering up the clutter inside of her inquisitive mind, beseeching the spirit to reach out to her, into her, to tell her who it was that wrenched their corporeal form from this realm. 

"The end."

It may just be.




Flock Rock: Sleater-Kinney at the 9:30 Club, 2/24 and 2/25

Patrick tends to be on top of things, while I tend to be on the bottom of them.  Thus, the responsibility of procuring tickets to Sleater-Kinney's gig at DC's venerable 9:30 Club fell into his lap.  And when those tix sold out in one hour, more or less, necessitating the addition of a second show the following night, he purchased those as well.

Patrick does not always stay on top of things.  Occasionally he deems it restful to descend from the peak and snuggle with the rest of us in the mediocre middle.  But soon enough, the clarion call will tickle his cochlea and once more he ascends, more heaving upward than any fanciful climb with ropes and carabiners.  "I'm coming to pick up you a week early," he informed me, and while I would love to tell you (and myself) that the reason for his haste was an aching desire to be in close proximity to my warm glowing warming glow, the rush was inspired by nature conspiring to dump on us.  The meteorological whiz-kids on local TV actually underestimated the impact on the DC Metro Area; some places ended up covered in a full foot of snow.  Hanging with Patrick and his pops in Montgomery County, I watched as "only" eight inches piled up outside the gorgeous expanse they call a mere "yard," and wondered at my use of quotation marks.  My mind marveled at the sights, but my body shivered at the sensations. Temperature extremes are a chore for most anyone to endure, but thanks to a chronic circulation issue, the record lows were utter agony for me.  Even as I increased the layers and bundled the blankets tighter, even as the logs burned in the fireplace under the auspices of a retired firefighter and various vents blew out hot air...I still felt like polar bear balls.

THE BEFORE

By the 24th--the night of the first Sleater-Kinney gig--temperatures were still low enough that Siri made that annoying "BRR!" when asked for the exact number but the roads were clear of ice and the skies held not a single threat.  Such situations are when my English pals would say, "Result!"

By the 25th--the night of the second Sleater-Kinney gig--temperatures were still low enough that Siri made that annoying "BRR!" when asked for the exact number but the utterance was curtailed, an indication that one need not wear three layers of clothing just to go outside and grab the mail. 

Nearly two years had passed since our last jaunt to the 9:30 Club:  May 13, 2012, to be precise, when we stayed just long enough to watch Lee Ranaldo and band open up for M Ward.  Other than trips to see live shows, U and V aren't streets we have reason to visit regularly.  Our loss, genuinely.  Even as much has changed, much has obstinately refused to change, and it is in this way the capital of America most acutely serves as a microcosm for the nation at large. 

Patrick travels to the 9:30 Club via Georgia Avenue, a main arterial road that takes us from small suburban life in Olney to an especially dense area of the much-livelier Silver Spring, on to one of the most scattered sections of DC and then U Street, an exemplar of gentrification.  In many ways, the rougher area of DC we pass through appeals most to me.  One gleaming building with obscenely wide windows here, seven dilapidated storefronts there.  Somehow the Ethiopian-Tex Mex cafe on the corner being watched over by the HIV-positive man who hasn't changed clothes in two weeks (but will, as soon as he gets the nickel) doesn't offend any of my sensibilities, but that new Wal-Mart?  Gross.

Ah well.  I was still able to peer out the window and count four munch-houses with signs boasting of their proficiency in at least four distinct types of food.

One gigantic change that we had not been privy to struck us right as Patrick turned onto V Street.  The Atlantic Plumbing Building that had stood at 8th and V for years had been razed and construction begun on a new apartment complex, a monolith next to the humble club.  Apparently the condos will welcome their first residents this spring.  All I'll say in this space is that the look is very modern.  And that when you are basically homeless--as I am--revulsion is an inescapable reaction.

One reason these shows mattered, then:  to staunch, however relatively briefly, the flow of toxins between my brain and the rest of my body.

Another change:  the 9:30 Club has started letting early arrivals in via their Back Bar.  Instead of hours spent lined up against the unforgiving brick, thirty lucky folks get to get their hands stamped and wait in the warmth, and maybe even create their own at the bar.  Patrick and I are almost always up for the jolly juice--he's of Irish ancestry, and my parents were both born and raised in Kentucky, meaning my blood type is Bourbon--but the nerves were too much.  Soon down, soon up, or at least that was the worst-case scenario.  Besides, The Simpsons Movie was playing on the mounted TV!  Alaska!

The second night was different.  Our bodies had been shaken up in the most pleasant ways by the previous night, and a much-savored drink (cider for Patrick, beer for me) would not only be harmless, but actually rather beneficial.  Also, the TV was off. 

THE SHOWS

You gotta love how I bold these headers, you can just jump right to the part you're most likely to care about!

From the Back Bar, it was two short flights of stairs (and the appropriately stickered/markered walls) then a quick left, and there we were.  The entrance to floor of the greatest place to see a rock show, full stop.  Both nights, we ended up at the far left end of the long metal railing--"side Carrie," to those who know. 

Sober as a bird draped in black robes for the first show, I couldn't beat back that roiling admixture of excitement and dread in my gut.  Patrick picked up on my vibe--sharing it to the degree that he did--and remarked that while the 75-minute wait for opener Lizzo seemed long, it would be nothing compared to the two-and-a-half hours that we were forced to stand around waiting for Devo to take the stage back in 2005.  Yep.  Doors opened up at 7.  No acts beforehand.  Devo onstage at 9:30.  And we did that two straight nights. 

But, we caught part of Bob Casale's Hazmat suit later in their suit, so it evened out.

Goddamn did Sleater-Kinney pick the perfect opener.  When I think "Minneapolis hip-hop," I think Atmosphere, AKA Slug on the mic/Ant on the beats, all heartfelt and introspective, and while Lizzo can be accurately described with those two adjectives, she is so much more.  Wild-haired and outsized, like to the point where I'm sure she not only does not possess an "indoor voice" but if anyone even dared suggest you adopt one she'd shove a package of Pepperidge Farm Milanos up their ass, she took the stage alongside DJ Sophia Eris and drummer Ryan McMahon, peppering her sound with impure funk and pure soul.  Big beats, bigger rhymes. 

Her set remained fairly unchanged one night to the next, causing her on the second night to beseech us repeat customers to resist spoiling her act:  "I'm like M. Night Shymalan in this bitch!"  But how could I complain about anyone who warms up by blaring Gossip, Runaways, and Le Tigre?  (And oh yeah, "Rebel Girl.")  Sure, sure, I could bitch about being front row and still not getting any cookies thrown my way during "Batches and Cookies" (which Patrick legendarily misheard as "Bitches and Cookies") but you know what?  That does not matter.  What does matter, as the proudly "humanist" Lizzo reminded us midway through her incendiary and indelible set, are "all lives" in general and "black lives" specifically.  Her crowd control is impeccable; when she requested all cell phones out and lit up for her finale, she didn't have to ask twice.  She did...but she really didn't have to.

Lizzo proved the perfect act to lead into Sleater-Kinney.  She loosened our limbs, stretched our mouths, and...well, our minds were already opened coming in, we're all Sleater-Kinney fans after all.  What we needed was to have our anxieties allayed, our bodies protected against any sudden physiological revolt...and that's what happened.  (Save for those souls sensitive to the effects of strobe lighting.  Yikes.)

National Public Radio were on hand to livestream the first show, and I'd be hard-pressed to claim they documented either the greater or the lesser of the two performances.  Sleater-Kinney blessed the DC faithful with 23-song setlists for each night, which just so happens to be the same number of counties in the state of Maryland, soo...take that, Virginia!  DC is so clearly ours!

2/24                                                                                  2/25
Price Tag                                                                          Price Tag
Start Together                                                                  Get Up
Fangless                                                                           The End of You
Oh!                                                                                   Turn It On
Surface Envy                                                                   No Anthems
Get Up                                                                             Surface Envy
Ironclad                                                                            Little Babies
No Anthems                                                                     No Cities To Love
Youth Decay                                                                    Hey Darling
What's Mine Is Yours                                                      Light Rail Coyote
A New Wave                                                                   Bury Our Friends
No Cities To Love                                                           One Beat
One Beat                                                                          A New Wave
Words and Guitar                                                            Youth Decay
Bury Our Friends                                                            Words and Guitar
Sympathy                                                                        Good Things
Entertain                                                                          Jumpers
Jumpers                                                                           Dig Me Out

ENCORE                                                                        ENCORE
Gimme Love                                                                   Gimme Love
Little Babies                                                                    Start Together
Turn It On                                                                       Let's Call It Love
Modern Girl                                                                    Modern Girl
Dig Me Out                                                                     One More Hour

Well well well...fuck me till the wheels fall off, why don't'cha.

Patrick and I were thoroughly spoiled re: setlists for this tour, 'cause that's how we are.  If the information is out there, we will find it, see?  We were aware that they were playing pretty much all of the new album, save for the dirge-y "Fade," and we were abreast of all the old faves they were dipping in and out of the sets, like so many Double Stuff'd Oreos into so many cups of whole milk. 

I'll be doing a full review of No Cities To Love later on in the week, but I won't hesitate to tell you all right here right now that 2015 Sleater-Kinney is every pound as vital, every inch as crucial, as the initial Grrrl-y incarnation of some 20 years ago.  The addition of Brit Katie Harkin on guitar/keybs/bonus percussion is a bonus to their overall sound, rather than a detriment.  (Take that, Tumblr-ing worrywarts.  She and Carrie were even synchronized on "Surface Envy."  It was incidental and adorable!)  Of the new tracks, my favorite (both on record and onstage) is the third-degree burner "Surface Envy."  I knew upon my very first listen that it would blow off and then hastily rebuild/replace the roof in a live setting, and I was far from mistaken.  A gorgeously distorted, relentless call-to-extremities that comes as close to a mega-colossal explosion as anyone reading this will experience in their lifetime.  "Price Tag" is another modern classic, a stomper for the cautious consumer that rings up and down every aisle, at every register.  S-K graduated from the Sonic Youth school of live performance, majoring in the refusal to gaze slavishly upon their past. 

In the "revelatory" category, I have to confess that "No Anthems" resonated far more with me in concert than on record.  Patrick has been a champion of the tune since the album's release, and finally, I got the hype.  Likewise, he was converted to the gospel of "Gimme Love."  Was it Corin Tucker stepping to the middle of the stage, mic in hand, free of her guitar, hands reaching out to feel the heat emanating from the ton o' luv accumulated in the audience?  Maybe it was that blue jean baby instrumental stretch, which allowed her to hit the floor quite literally, laying it all out and swinging it all around.  Either road you choose to travel by, they'll both make a hell of a difference.

I'm a member of the freak show known as "'All Hands on the Bad One' is my favorite Sleater-Kinney album, you guys!" (less members than "'Wowee Zowee' is the best Pavement album, dude!,"  more members than "'A Thousand Leaves' was the apex of Sonic Youth's career, y'all!") so to get "Youth Decay" just the once was a blessing so joyous that I damn near punched Patrick in the throat when they tore into it on the first night.  "Ironclad" was much less of a surprise, but no less of a thrill.  The band have been playing it virtually every stop on the tour, but it means more in DC than any other place on the globe.  (Hero warships...they preserve it, we deserve it.)  

Patrick, notorious lover of The Hot Rock, got his off early (and late) with "Start Together."  Who wouldn't want to touch sentient lava?  Other wool-shearing blasts from the past included the stalwart "Words and Guitar," "Dig Me Out," and "Little Babies."  Make no mistake--nothing got to us as instantly, twisted in and around our souls quite as intensely, as "Good Things" on the second night, and I doubt most sincerely that we were the only ones in the packed club that felt that way.  During S-K's 2006 "farewell" tour, they were fond of ending sets with the heart-punch of "One More Hour," bringing already distraught fans to actual tears.  They closed out their delayed DC date of '06 with "Dig Me Out," sparing some upset...but not from me.  See, I was fond of telling friends that I wouldn't cry if they'd played "One More Hour," but "Good Things," yeah, that would get to me.  Luckily for me and the people standing near me, I got to dance instead of blubber.

Not that I blubbered, exactly, but I'm grateful no one could see my eyes fill with tears, or my throat spasm from restrained emotion.  Thankfully, the band knew just how to cheer me up--the suicide song!  Yay!  Setlist construction at its most magnificent.

"Let's Call It Love" was a true shocker, the first time they've played it this tour.  I maintain that Corin is saying "Snoopy, the dog is sick" on the chorus until someone explicitly asks her and she states otherwise. 

THE CROWDS

Wait...header related to the show within the show header?  Put the wheels back on and fuck me again.

The first show was absolute fire, with everybody bringing along their sticks and stones.  Writers paid to express their half-formed, heavily-edited thoughts to the world may tell you otherwise.  They may tell you likewise.  All I can tell you is what I saw, what I heard, and most crucially, what I felt.  Bodies in emotion, true native activism.  A tidy mix of young, old, and the in-betweeners like myself.  Yes, men attend Sleater-Kinney concerts, and they're some fucking great dancers too.  I'm pretty sure people who have no need for corrective eye wear also go see S-K live, but that's just an assumption. 

There were no assholes, thankfully...we dodged a bullet with the small group of people who fought their way to the middle of the crowd during "Youth Decay" on the second night.  I thought I spied a couple ladies shooting me stink-eye for daring to hog the front when I'm damn near five-ten but hey, as I explained to Patrick on the first night--

"It does no good to get mad at me.  I'm five nine and a half 'cause my mom's five eight and a half, and my dad was six foot three.  It's all genetics.  You're five foot two trying to see the stage at a show, get here earlier or get a step ladder.  Ya know?  Not my fault her mom didn't screw a taller guy."

In addition to my height, I also have a head like a goddamn melon about to burst.  I imagine seeing me bop and hop was quite the extra treat.  On springs in the wintertime.

THE CLOTHES

The first night Carrie stole the show with Angus Young's school boy uni, minus the suit.  The second show, though, Corin was stupendously sexy in her white top with red shoulders and black pencil skirt. 

THE AFTER

Arriving home after the Tuesday concert, Patrick and I just concentrated on unconsciousness and recovery.  Going from no shows in almost two years to motherfucking Sleater-Kinney is akin to letting your precious little chihuahua out to do their sinful business, calling them back, and looking over to see a sleek, fierce tiger slowly striding to the door.  Oh, did I mention neither of us had any solids in our systems?  Yeah, that too.

Wednesday night, we treated the hell out of ourselves with hop skip and jump for the love of (veggie) chili cheese fries at the legendary Ben's Chili Bowl.  So hot, cheesy, and bean-y.  Was it real cheese?  It legitimately does not matter.  If Anthony Bourdain doesn't ask such questions, why should we?