Monday, July 17, 2006

Punk, Not Punk

SST Records in the ‘80s

In the early to mid-‘80s that musical phenomenon known as punk rock began mutating into what would eventually be called hardcore, a style harder, faster, and more consistently focused on political and social issues than that which had preceded it.

Los Angeles was one of the primary birthplaces of this new genre, which, not surprisingly, was even further outside of the mainstream than its immediate predecessor. The scene’s survival relied utterly on the DIY spirit of those involved. Little record labels sprung up here and there, usually involving the participation of a small circle of bands, often formed by various acquaintances who supported each other’s endeavors. One band would put out a seven-inch recording and all money made from the sales would go into the next band’s recording. It may not sound like much of a business strategy, but it paid off, for some labels anyway, such as Washington DC’s Dischord Records and LA’s SST, the latter of which was founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and which began as an electronics repair business at which a number of future LA hardcore luminaries worked.

While much hardcore punk has a standard, fairly distinctive sound (generically speaking, that is; since its inception many sub-genres have appeared, each with their own distinctive set of characteristics and clichés), many of the bands who gravitated to SST seemed to have a certain something that set them apart. The fascinating thing about SST’s early roster is that these bands, each in their own unique way and each bringing their own particular influences to the table, were expanding the boundaries of a genre that was still at the time in its infancy. I’d like to take a closer look at these releases representing early examples of one of the most vital forms of music the human race has yet to produce. And if that sounds a bit grandiose, well, in the words of Frank Zappa, eat chain.

(Author’s note: These represent some of my first forays into music journalism, and I’m not as used to faking it as I am with film criticism, so if it sounds like I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, that would be why.)

The Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets

Whew. This is a rough one. For their first LP (though in this day and age when bands routinely put out hour-plus albums, calling this barely-over-twenty-minute release an LP seems almost quaint) the Pups don’t hold back on the noise and it doesn’t exactly make it an easy listen. Even having listened to it numerous times with my comparatively experienced ears I still, at this typing, have a bit of difficulty determining the basic melody of a couple of songs.

Both guitarist Curt Kirkwood and bassist brother Cris are credited as doing vocal duty, but I’ll be damned if I can tell them apart. It’s easier to do so on later recordings (they sound a lot alike; Cris’s voice is pitched a bit higher), but here not only do they put no effort into actually singing, they seem to be making a deliberate attempt to sound like they’re speech-impaired. (No more so, admittedly, than any number of other hardcore singers, but it is a marked difference from what they would do later.) This, too, ups the trial factor of listening to the thing. As one might imagine, those who are mainly familiar with the band from their brief moment in the spotlight courtesy of Senor Cobain may find this unlistenable, which is unfortunate, because once you start to get attuned to it, you can hear that, while this is the closest thing to a straightforward hardcore album they ever made, there’s also a little something else going on here as well. If you can get past all the fuzz, you can detect early examples of the kind of inventive hooks that Curt is so good at, the chops of the band in general (it’s nice to hear Derrick Bostrom pounding out some real thrash beats), and some of the southwest twang of their native Phoenix that they enjoyed incorporating. Guitar licks such as those featured in songs like ‘Blue Green God,’ an early ode to their beloved cannabis, and the title track could pass, minus the distortion, for good ol’ hoedowns. There’s even a smidgen of their particular brand of desert psychedelia in their cover of ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.’

Final analysis: while it’s hard at first to believe that this is the same band that produced their later work, digging a little deeper reveals it’s not quite as far removed as it may seem, and the bridge becomes even more apparent when listening to such classic albums as Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun.

Hüsker DüNew Day Rising

Let’s forget about Bob Mould’s eventual and regrettable dismissal of the entire punk scene and the scene’s equally regrettable dismissal of him as a sellout, and focus on this album in which the trio from Minneapolis delivered one of the most seminal punk records of the decade. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s their best album because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to their others and, I’m embarrassed to admit, to this day I still have yet to hear their double album Zen Arcade, which some consider to be their best work. But even if New Day Rising isn’t their best, that in itself is saying a hell of a lot, because it is goddamn good.

Hüsker Dü employed an interesting combination of an aggressive sound, characterized by Mould’s infamous guitar, which sounds like it could be used to cut steel pipe, and a lyrical poeticism that would seem to belie it. I used to think of the Hüskers as being kind of the punk equivalent of The Beatles, what with their ability to mix the simple with the arcane, and, most especially, their ability to infuse their songs with a pop sensibility without grating on your fucking nerves. I may regret writing that at some point, but I know it was what I felt when I first heard Flip Your Wig’s ‘Makes No Sense at All’ back in 1985 with its weird mix of catchiness and violent noise. The songs of Rising, which I didn’t hear until after that, despite pop elements already being in place, lean a bit more towards the darker side of the Dü, which may make it a slighter more satisfying listen to the less flexible punkers than Wig.

It would be misleading to say that the album builds in intensity as the whole thing is an aural assault from the get-go, staring with the diesel train opening title track. But near the end the straight-forward pop sensibility of first side songs like ‘I Apologize’ and ‘If I Told You’ give way to the likes of the quirky, piano-laced ‘Books About UFOs’, the druggy jamming of ‘How to Skin a Cat’ and the surprisingly straight-forward hardcore of ‘Whatcha Drinkin’, culminating with the searing attack of ‘Plans I Make’. And it amuses me to note that I always find myself thinking of the last song as an instrumental. It does in fact have some vocals, but they’re buried so far back in the mix, they don’t stand a chance against the instruments, which sound like they’ve been brought to life, thrown in a room and given sharp knives with which to flay each other into oblivion. A similar effect is achieved in the blistering ‘Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.’ Grant Hart actually sounds like he’s singing from the top of that hill.

And that’s exactly where Hüsker Dü sets itself apart. The punk power of the music is undeniable, but their ability to blend that with the kind of evocativeness found in songs like ‘Heaven Hill,’ ‘Celebrated Summer,’ and ‘Powerline’ represent a subset of hardcore, just as cerebral, but more poetically minded as opposed to politically. One could even make the argument that in a way this music is something of an ancestor to the genre now known as emo, but there are many years of music between then and now, and do we really want to do that to the boys from Minneapolis anyway?

As time went on the pop element in their work would become more and more pronounced, for better or worse, depending on your tastes and/or prejudices, but regardless of what was to come, this is an album that every fan of punk and hardcore should have in their collection.

The Meat Puppets – Mirage

In the liner notes for the Rykodisc re-release, drummer Derrick Bostrom comments that this was the least punk rock record they ever made and he’s right, in more ways than one. Aside from the fact that guitarist Curt Kirkwood barely touches his distortion pedal, tapping it occasionally for solos and only truly opening it up on the last song, ‘Liquefied,’ Mirage also finds the band indulging in a level of navel-gazing one would not normally associate with a punk band (Sonic Youth notwithstanding). The fact that they present a country-folksy musing on natural forces (‘The Wind and the Rain’) only to follow it right after with a dorm-room-bong-session-style rumination on the nature of the number signifying nothing (‘The Mighty Zero’) is clearly indicative of this.

Add to that the fact that the production is a lot glossier then it had ever been before (which sort of befits the songs) and that they dared to incorporate keyboards into the mix (ooh, the scandal) and it’s not surprising that some punks look down on this album. I might have done so too at one point.

But it seems to me that it’s a matter of perspective. You can choose to look at this as an effort by a punk band that’s gone hippie or you can choose to look at it as one of the punkest hippie albums out there. (Sound like a fine distinction? Try not to think about it too much.) I know, it sounds like I’m oversimplifying things, but frankly I just think it’s a shame that some dismiss this album so thoroughly. In places the songwriting here is a bit less inspired than it's been on other albums, but all the songs are at the very least catchy, and some are positively transcendent. Particular favorites include the dreamy, shimmering title track, the moody ‘Leaves,’ and the Hendrix-like, vaguely sinister ‘Love Our Children Forever.’

Perhaps people were jarred by the fact that the Pups had gone from the raw noise of their debut to this in so comparatively short a time; perhaps they were unprepared for a punk band to put out an album that, rather than recalling The Damned or The Stooges, seemed to be referencing Devo ('I Am a Machine') and XTC ('A Hundred Miles'). Or maybe I'm just getting a lot mellower as I get older. I was right there with everyone else who thought The DKs had lost their minds when Frankenchrist had so many mid-tempo songs on it (until I listened to it a few more times and started to get into it). That sort of mindframe, which seems alien to me now, may be the reason some reacted badly to Mirage. Or there may have been other reasons. Truth be told, I don’t really give a fuck. As far as I'm concerned Mirage holds some exquisite moments of magic and that's good enough for me.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

If there’s one thing the multi-textured, loop-de-loop tapestry that is my life has been missing, it would be a forum where I can adequately demonstrate my inadequacies in pondering film on a complexly intellectual level. What better remedy than a page devoted to my brain’s dribblings on a personal favorite and one of the medium’s most revered (not to mention most cerebral) directors?

I’ll try not to get any on you.

Buñuel – In Brief

Susana (Mexico, 1951, 82 min.) Starring Rosita Quintana, Fernando Soler, Matilde Palou, Víctor Manuel Mendoza, María Gentil Arcos, Luis López Somoza, Rafael Icardo, Enrique del Castillo. Sexy, if dramatically unremarkable, variation on the ‘household welcomes interloper only to be rent asunder by same’ story. Quintana plays the title character, a reformatory inmate. In the very first scene, she’s thrown into solitary. Surrounded in the dark by rats and spiders, and bathed in the light from outside, which shines through the bars making a cross on the floor (the role of Subtle will be played in tonight’s performance by Obvious), she cries out for God’s help, reasoning that she’s just as He made her, so why should she have to suffer for it. The Almighty Beard apparently thinks she has a point, as the bars proceed to come out with one pull, scrapping chances of the audience seeing any hair-pulling in the communal shower. Beating a hasty retreat, she arrives at the horse farm of Don Guadalupe (Soler), who takes her in. She immediately begins to play a dual role, sensuous naïf for the Don and his inquisitive young son Alberto (Somoza), haughty princess for Dona Carmen (Palou) and the high-strung head servant Felicia (Arcos). She fends off the advances of one of the Don’s senior workers, Jesus (Mendoza), but then sleeps with him to ensure his silence when he finds out who she really is. But she’s far more interested in seducing the Don and his son, presumably because it’s completely inappropriate for her to do so. This is all in service of an underlying (and familiar) cynicism positing that people are more like animals than we would care to admit, some easily herded like the livestock the Don’s workers guide around his land, and susceptible to those bearing the ability to poison and infect, like the rats, snakes, spiders, and scorpions with which Susana compares herself in her plea to Heaven. This man-as-animal motif also produces one of the somewhat middling script’s best lines: When Susana begs off work by sarcastically telling Felicia that strenuous labor affects her lungs, accompanied by mock coughing, the caustic older woman barks back, “You should wear a string of lemons around your neck; that’s the same cough that killed my dog!”

NEW! El Bruto (Mexico, 1953, 83 min.) Starring Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado, Andrés Soler, Rosa Arenas, Roberto Meyer, Beatriz Ramos, Paco Martinez. Armendáriz plays the title bully, who is hired by Don Andres (Soler) to terrorize the tenants of a housing complex he owns so they’ll move out and he can sell the land. On the suggestion of his vivacious wife, the Lady MacBeth-like Paloma (Jurado), the Don sends Bruto after the lead of the resistance, Carmelo (Meyer), theorizing that with his resolve gone the rest will crumble as well. Unfortunately, Bruto’s ignorance of his own strength and Carmelo’s medical condition result in tragedy. Andres is then forced to send Bruto to lay low in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town, where he soon begins to play house with Meche (Arenas), Carmelo’s daughter, who doesn’t know that her new suitor is also the man who killed her father. Opinions on this one seem to vary pretty widely, but perhaps one of the most interesting things about it is that it represents a kind of laundry list of the filmmaker’s assorted talents. It’s very much the sort of melodrama characteristic of his Mexican period (with a story that’s the closest thing he ever made to a Hollywood style noir). His sly perversity peeks out at times in regards to Bruto’s barely contained violence and the lust it engenders in Paloma. His sense of social justice is in evidence through the struggle between the working poor and the wealthy landowner, although it feels a bit like a perfunctory factor of the story. On the other hand, that may not be completely fair. While I don’t know that Buñuel could have possibly topped himself for tales of proletariat misery after 1950’s Los Olvidados, an interesting dimension is added in as much as Bruto readily accepts Andres’ contempt for the plebes, seemingly unaware that he himself is one. This lack of self-awareness smacks of the same man-as-animal motif from Susana, and leads to what is perhaps the most telling Buñuel moment in the film. In the simple gaze of a rooster, the condemnation of one character’s unthinking self-interest is thrown back at them with power all the greater for its suddenness and brevity.

The Exterminating Angel (Mexico, 1962, 95 min.) Starring Sylvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Jacqueline Andere, Jose Baviera, Augusto Benedico, Claudio Brook. The director’s first full-scale piece of surrealism since 1930’s L’age d’or is also arguably his most disturbing film. Guests at a dinner party find that they are utterly, and inexplicably, unable to leave their hosts’ house, eventually finding themselves confined to a single room. This has been described as a satire of upper middle class decorum and rightfully so, but there’s more to it than that and this is where it starts to become unsettling. Along the way, Buñuel begins to equate what they are going through with a religious experience, particularly in the rhapsodic visions the characters describe after spending time in a small closet with a picture of an angel (the exterminator?) on the door. But if this bizarre circumstance has in some way brought them closer to God, then why are they suffering so? This all culminates in the last scene as the characters, having finally escaped their situation, attend a church service. It is a true celebration in the way a religious ceremony is, of course, supposed to be, until the clergy and congregation find that they cannot bring themselves to exit the church…and here we go again. As violence breaks out outside, the bells toll and the sheep start to run (obvious maybe, but still effective). This time it would seem that God truly has abandoned them, not to mention everyone else, and while they’re singing to him in his own house no less. Keeping all of this in mind, the film begins to seem less like a social parody and more like an all-out spiritual anxiety attack.

Tristana (Spain-France, 1970, 98 min.) Starring Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero, Jesus Fernandez, Lola Gaos, Vincent Solder. Rey more or less reprises his role from Viridiana (and any other number of roles he's played for the director, for that matter) as an aging society gentleman whose noble façade hides an undercurrent of seething perversity and who ends up lusting after and defiling the young woman in his charge (Deneuve). The difference here is that it’s consensual (if not altogether comfortable on her part), at least at first, whereas in Viridiana he slipped poor Sylvia Pinal a mickey and ravaged her while she slept. Deneuve begins to regret her actions after a while and takes up with boho artist Nero, which Unca ‘Nando don’t like at all. Eventually she gets sick, has to move back in with Rey and has one of her legs amputated. All of this, of course, is just a way for the director to hold forth on sexual attitudes, religious attitudes, financial attitudes, political attitudes, etc., but the interesting thing is that this feels sort of like Buñuel returning one last time to the type of melodrama that characterized his Mexican period. And, like many of those films, there isn’t as much humor as he often used in his late-period work. Instead this is marked by mainly somber moments, often reflecting loss, such as the scene where the town bellringer tells Deneuve how the bells used to chime on all occasions and how happy they made the townsfolk, though now the people look upon them as nothing more than an annoyance, merely noise pollution.

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