Real Life Rock Top Ten – June 2013
(1) Blind Lemon Jefferson in Lore, directed by Cate Shortland, written by Shortland and Robin Mukherjee (2012, Music Box Films). Germany, 1945, immediately after the surrender: the older sister in a Nazi family tries to lead her siblings to safety. At an American checkpoint, a scratchy old song that in the next years will be recorded by Carl Perkins and then the Beatles is playing on a portable phonograph; the sound rises, then seems to fragment in the air. It’s “Matchbox Blues,” from 1927. Whatever the idea behind its use in the film—literally, working as a refugee song: “Standing here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes”—it waits on the screen as a harbinger of the postwar world these children will be entering. The sound is archaic, the specter is modern.
(2) Nomi Kane, Jingle Bell Rock, SXSW 2010, and Namaste, Home Is Where the Boss Is in Wings for Wheels and Sugar Baby (brewforbreakfast.com). Kane is an autobiographical Berkeley comix artist. Her thin, plain lines and utter refusal of caricature or exaggeration produce a pathos and sweetness that capture the pain of children that parents can’t touch. That’s true even when the child and the adult who can’t save her turn out to be the same person—as with Home Is Where the Boss Is, the chronicle of an entire life, from five or six (“For a time I was convinced Bruce and the Big Man lived behind the speaker grate in my Dad’s Honda hatchback”) to adulthood. And there is Sugar Baby, the diary of a little girl diagnosed as diabetic. Her doctor gives her “an old friend to help [her] practice injections”; it looks like a Raggedy Ann inflatable sex doll. In “Family Restaurants,” the girl goes into the restroom to inject herself in the stomach; two older girls come in, see the needle, and walk right back out. “This place has really gone downhill,” one of them says.
(3) Hollis Brown, Ride on the Train (Alive). Presumably named for the Bob Dylan song about a South Dakota farmer who kills his five children, his wife, and himself, this four-piece guitar band from Brooklyn is keeping forgotten Lynyrd Skynyrd [promises. The title song, the first track, goes far enough, but with “Walk on Water,” near the end, the stops come out, the rivers are crossed, and you can see all the way to the Pacific.
(4) Phil Spector, written and directed by David Mamet (HBO). This isn’t about Phil Spector. It’s about Al Pacino, and the way actors carry their roles with them all across their careers. At the end of The Godfather: Part III, Michael Corleone’s daughter is shot, and then, years later, we see him as an old man, sitting in the Italian sunlight, toppling off his chair dead. This is what happened in between: in a mansion that feels like a haunted house, caution has turned to paranoia, pride to megalomania, resentment to rage, intelligence to suspicion. All of Pacino’s awful tics and jerks and shouting find their vessel, and you can’t bear to miss a word he says.
(5) Mark Fisher, “Eerie Thanatos: Nigel Kneale and Dark Enlightenment,” in The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, edited by S. S. Sandhu (Texte und Töne/Colloquium for Unpopular Culture). In this collection dedicated to the British screenwriter Knaele’s Quatermass TV and film project, which through the 1950s and 1960s pushed the theme of alien invasion ever more steadily as a threat not from outer space but from within human beings themselves, Fisher takes on the final, 1979 installment. Here the scientist Bernard Quatermass, now an old man after his battles to save the world in The Creeping Unknown (1955) and Five Million Years to Earth (1967) is bent on rescuing his daughter from a millenarian youth suicide cult: “In place of the hippie dream of a renewed Earth, his trance-intoxicated postpunk proto-crusties—the Planet People—long for an escape into another world, another solar system.” The analogue in 1979, Fisher goes on, wasn’t Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind but Joy Division, in Manchester, acting out the collapse of the Industrial Revolution in the city where it was born: “The breathtaking audacity of Unknown Pleasures, after all, lay in its presumption that youth culture was essentially thanatoid. Maybe only the Stones had made that equation so starkly, but even they had only hinted at it, returning to more familiar hedonic territory. Joy Division were unremitting: a black-hole effect, an inversion and terrible turning back against itself of rock’s exhilaration and energy.”
(6) Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury). When a young performer receives ecstatic coverage all at once in toney outlets—in this case, “Kacey Musgraves’s Rebel Twang” by Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine, a rave in the daily Times by Jon Caramanica, a celebration on NPR by Will Hermes indistinguishable from a press release, with the adjective “beautiful” applied to conventional song structures and accompaniment, chances are there’s less going on than listening is likely to turn up. When Melissa Swingle called her country band Trailer Bride, you could hear that story in her voice; all you hear in Musgraves’s is confidence, as a stance or a marketing strategy. Musgraves has staked out a position as a fearless opponent of country-music piety (“Ms. Musgraves’s assault is full-frontal,” Caramanica writes), but something else is going on. “If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore,” Musgraves sings in “Follow Your Arrow,” sounding sick of the hypocrisy she’s lived with all her life, “If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a whore”—“-ibble person,” she dribbles off. Cool way to say what you mean while playing by the rules of country music and mocking them at the same time, or flattery of the listener cool enough to get the joke, which is everyone? It’s not the rebellion that sells the song, it’s the coyness.
(7) Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind (Alive). In 1970, Jerry Williams was a very odd, very funny, very catholic soul singer who sang protest songs—his, Joe South’s, whatever moved him. He sang about racism, pollution, alienation, and he never held still; with his crying voice and a lot of wah-wah guitar, he could make the corniest conceit into a true heartbreaker. “Synthetic World” is convincing simply on the basis of its melody, but “The World Beyond,” a very slow ballad about nuclear holocaust, takes every cliché to the edge of tragedy. A man dreams about a little boy listening as his father tells him “of the world that used to be.” But the father never says a word. The song is all the boy’s questions, and each one is more painful than the one before it, sometimes less for the words (“Did concrete cover the land / And what was a rock ’n’ roll band?”) than Williams’s voice, so deep with a plea for understanding, comfort, physical contact, a random smile, that you want to reach through the speakers and tell him it will be ok. Except he’s already convinced you it won’t be, and that you can’t reach him: “What was a dog, and what was a shoe?”
(8) John Parish, Screenplay (Thrill Jockey). An album drawn from pieces composed for various contemporary movies (Sister, Little Black Spiders, Plein Sud), but that’s not how it plays. What you’re hearing is the soundtrack to an imaginary European film noir set in the mid-sixties—maybe the 1965 Symphony for a Massacre, which has disappeared so completely it might as well be imaginary. You watch your movie as you listen, wondering which of the characters you’ve cast will make it to the end.
(9) Nicolas Rapold, review of Love and Honor (New York Times, March 22). “The setting is that tragic time in our nation’s history when federal law apparently mandated the playing of ‘Magic Carpet Ride.’ Predictable consequences occur when . . .”
(10) Daniel Wolff, “Postcards of the Hanging,” Oxford American (Spring). The best art criticism I’ve read in ages: a short, plainly-written walk-around in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” teasing out why the end of the song is the beginning and the beginning the end—and why it is, like so many other tunes that seem like something else (“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “Highlands,” “Ain’t Talkin’”) a protest song. “A bluesy harmonica replaces the voice. It smears across the other instruments, almost knocking the lead guitar off-rhythm. Like a blackout after a string of scenes. Or like speech when speech doesn’t work anymore.”