Wednesday, August 29, 2007

video #22: Tujiko Noriko - Dead Earth

Directed by Etienne Bideau-Rey, who has a bunch of similarly disturbing animated pieces up on her website. I tried watching the video about the brain but doing so at two in the morning might not have been the best time. Someday I'll have to see how it ends.

Apparently the Mego label no longer exists, so Tujiko Noriko is now putting out her music on... Editions Mego. I haven't figured out if this is the same label, or if it's something new like the "new" Mille Plateaux label, MillePlateauxMedia. Editions Mego also just reissued that Kevin Drumm album that I've always wanted to hear. I guess this entry will just be a note to myself to pick that up sometime.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

video #21: The Presets - Girl and the Sea

Nearly every account I've found online of the 1980 short film Tale of Tales makes sure to mention that it was once voted as the greatest animated film ever made. I'm having a difficult time understanding what this really means. I can't tell exactly when this poll was taken, who was invited to vote, whether any similiar polls have been taken since, and if not, why no one's tried to conduct one. The scant background information that's actually included with the list seems to indicate a terribly small sample size -- only 35 out of 100 invitees actually participated in the poll -- made up of an unknown "international committee of journalists, scholars, festival directors and scholars." I guess that's better than asking industry people to vote. But still, I've watched this movie and I admire it greatly, but it's a dark, cryptic, and ultimately impenetrable work. It's certainly not fair to compare it to anything from Disney, Pixar, or Studio Ghibli, but it's hard not to in 2007, especially if it's still being proclaimed as the best animated movie ever made.

That said, I am looking forward to the next film from its creator, director Yuriy Norshteyn. His next film, The Overcoat, is supposedly going to be released, or at least previewed, at some time before the end of the year. Then again, he's been working on it since 1981, so who knows. His craft involves a ridiculously time-consuming style of time-lapse photography involving cut-out drawings, glass plates, and lots of other things I don't understand. I can't seem to find it now, but I read a quote from him where he stated that computer animation makes him physically ill to watch.

I doubt he'd approve of the well-intended homage by The Presets in their video for "Girl and the Sea." It borrows heavily from Tale of Tales and attempts to recreate the same dark, multilayered look of the film, though surely it was arrived at through cheaper, quicker methods than his own. "Girl and the Sea" keeps several symbolic visuals from its source -- the golden apple, the abandoned infant in the woods -- but apparently had to take its own title extremely literally, so we have a mermaid in half of the video for some reason. I sort of doubt that it was supposed to "mean" anything at all.

The Cut Copy remix of this song is infinitely better and should be pursued by anyone who likes the original version in the slightest.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Erik Satie - Gymnopédies I - III

Erik Satie - "Gymnopédies I-III"

Nothing to say about these that hasn't been said already, so I won't bother remarking about how remarkably "modern" they sound today despite being almost 120 years old. Though I guess I just did, anyway.

I've been meaning to get around to hearing these for the longest time. I can't count the number of times I picked up and pondered buying an Erik Satie CD during the years I worked at Borders. I really don't have any excuse for passing them up time and time again, especially since they were often under $10. But I was broke then and had a shopping list several hundred dollars deep that I needed to use my monthy $30 employee credits on instead. Surely I could have just downloaded them, too, but I was too confused about where to start, and worried that I'd download a bad or incomplete version of it by mistake. If I did, how would I know? Then again, by editing all three pieces together into one mp3 file, I've probably further soiled the original integrity of them more than a decade of file sharing could have ever hoped to. But they're supposed to go together and be played in order, right?

Most people have probably heard these before, though probably as non-obtrusive background music, so they might not even recognize them anyway. Happened to me last week with this.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

video #20: El-P - Stepfather Factory

When I first got my hands on the Definitive Jux DVD, Revenge of the Robots, I was actually pretty disappointed by the quality of some of the videos. The label had been putting out some of the best hip hop I'd ever heard -- though this statement probably says as much about than the label -- so I expected their videos to meet the same standard. But the quality of the DV footage on Murs' "Risky Business" and RJD2's "The Horror" left a lot to be desired. I realized that shooting with real film is exponentially more expensive, and that it's not realistic to expect an indie label with a shoestring budget for promotional endeavours to match the quality of anything on MTV. Nevertheless, I felt let down, if not for any truly fair reasons. ("Deep Space 9mm" was the exception to this; dim lighting, shaky camerawork, and a simple but effective concept can go a long way to overcoming such lo-fi limitations.)

I felt the same way about "Stepfather Factory." I can't imagine why, but I just didn't like the way it looked. This seems so strange now, since it's so clearly a work of art as far as videos go. What was I thinking? "Stepfather Factory" was never my favorite song off Fantastic Damage, either, maybe because it was specifically about something that I could not personally relate to. It was also one of the only tracks where the lyrics were completely understandable, so I couldn't just appreciate them for how they sounded. Now they had meaning, and were no longer subjective to me. El-P is a great lyricist, but in this case, I didn't really want to listen to what he was saying. The song sits right in the middle of the album, and always kind of broke up the feeling of nonspecific urban dread that I'd get whenever I'd listen to it. Anyway, Fantastic Damage spent a lot of time in my portable CD player as I walked from the train station to my job in Chicago back in 2002, which is probably the best sort of setting to experience it in, at least compared to suburban commuting or sitting on my butt in front of the computer or anything like that.

The video is directed by some people called Plates Animation, whose website doesn't seem to do anything when I go to it. Apparently they've done a lot of music videos, which I'll have to seek out somewhere else.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Yum Yum - Apiary

Yum Yum - "Apiary"

I really don't remember how, when, or where I first heard Yum Yum. It was probably on Local Anesthetic or Local 101 or some other program highlighting "local" music in Chicago. I might have read about them in Alternative Press. Yeah, they weren't always the official magazine of the Warped Tour.

Eventually, I think this song broke through to MTV and alternative radio. My memories of this time aren't the best, but it was 1996, so who knows? Apparently the album it was released on, Dan Loves Patti, was a flop, which is why no one has heard from Yum Yum since. The man behind Yum Yum, Chris Holmes, may or may not still be working in music. The few references I've been able to find online, which refer to him working as a producer, DJ, and commercial composer, might be referring to someone else. And even if it is him, I wouldn't know whether to believe it or not.

At least we'll always have this.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

video #19: El-P - Flyentology

After my last entry, this is as good a time as any to post this, I guess. Without turning this into a long journal entry full of pitiful agnostic angst, I'll just say that this video is relevant to my interests.

I don't watch any of the programs on Adult Swim nearly as much as I used to (the free cable connection I inherited in this apartment only works when it wants to, anyway) and I was never as devoted to it as a lot of people apparently were/still are. So I still don't really understand what "Williams Street" is or what they do, aside from producing those mildly amusing/annoying bumper cards that are always getting people on the internet so fired up and angry. Apparently they also had a hand in this video, too. Looking over some of the other work that their animators/producers have done, it's not hard to see why Definitive Jux would want to team up with them, and vice versa. After all, surely a few years of instrumental hip-hop music in their promo spots has (hopefully) primed viewers for something new and different. That is, assuming these viewers are who Adult Swim and Def Jux still think they are (college students) and not who I suspect they've largely become (preteens with inattentive parents).

So on the heels of last year's partnership/collaboration with the Stones Throw label, Adult Swim is offering a free compilation of Definitive Jux music on their website. I don't know how long "Definitive Swim" will be available for download, but it's worth checking out. Unless you're one of those "indie rap sucks/T-Pain rules" dudes. I know you're out there. Hopefully people will actually download this. I know this is some questionable, broken window parable-logic that I'm about to use, but I'd like to think that at least some good could come out of the return of Family Guy or the popularity of Robot Chicken. As awful and unforgivable as they are, they're indirectly paying for projects like this.

I'll Sleep When You're Dead is still one of the best albums of the year, and definitely worth the wait, even though it should have come out last year. Lord knows we needed it, though this year hasn't been much better for hip-hop, either.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Jars of Clay - Liquid

Jars of Clay - "Liquid"

I spent most of my childhood living (or "stuck," as I often complained) in an isolated subdivision surrounded by cornfields on all sides. It might as well have been an actual island, for my brother and I were strictly prohibited from venturing beyond the boundaries of it and out onto the dangerous highways that lead to promising but forbidden evidence of real human civilization and commerce. The gas station 3 miles west of our home was off-limits to us. My friends, on the other hand, routinely made this journey without fear of punishment. This filled me with a sense of envy and humiliation that I can still feel today; looking at the journey now, it's almost insulting to think that my parents felt I was incapable of undertaking it without, well... dying. In hindsight, though, I can clearly see that it was more likely that they proposed this rule to protect my brother rather than myself. I can understand their dilemma but I wish they would have chosen to address it differently than they did. Perhaps, maybe, by allowing me to go out with my friends by myself? But no, nearly every bicycle ride, every trip to a neighbor's house, every trek into the then-undeveloped, wooded, and empty lots of our subdivision was tainted by the unnecessary and often tragic complications of having a rude, obnoxious, and confrontational younger sibling tagging along on every outing. When he was not instigating fights between himself and my friends (causing me to choose sides, where I would inevitably lose face in front of my peers or come home to face the inevitable discipline of my parents, eternally unsympathetic to my plight), he was outright challenging me in front of them. Again, there was no way for me to "win" in these situations, no possible positive outcome, no way out other than simple retreat. I'd go home and hide in my closet with a book while my parents wondered what on Earth could possibly be troubling me.

Even more alluring was the city to the east, a busy suburb full of stores, malls, streets with real sidewalks... I only made this trip once, somehow unaccompanied by my brother, and only in total secrecy. It was an exhausting three-hour ride best taken down the local bike trail. My parents had warned me of its dangers, the attackers/molesters lurking in the bushes, ready to spring out at any moment to do (literally) unspeakable things to you. I certainly wasn't the world's most precocious child, but even I knew better than to believe those stories. I hopped on my new mountain bike (several sizes too big for me, but I couldn't have asked for a bike smaller than any of my friends', naturally) and followed my friends into town. After going to the bike shop and Dairy Queen, we started back. My pedal fell off halfway home and I was abandoned at a country store with some of their pocket change. I don't remember any specific punishment that followed after my parents drove out to pick me up; perhaps they thought that I would learn from the experience, that God would know what I was up to even if they didn't, and that little accidents like that were His way of keeping me in line.

Clarification: my parents were not (and are not!) the insensitive Christian stereotypes that I just described them as. But like any new believers, they experienced a long period of adjusting their faith from strict dogma to practical, flexible, and compassionate understanding. From an Eriksonian point of view, though, their strict adherence to James Dobson-style parenting and excessively freedom-curbing limitations at the dawn of my adolescence was developmentally disastrous to me. Isn't this supposed to be a magical time in every young man's life? Taking risks, exploring, learning how to work with and relate to others? Every time I see a group of 12 year old skaters in my neighborhood today, I cringe, wondering what that kind of freedom must feel like. I won't even go into what was going through my mind this week when I saw one of them pull out a videocamera out of his pocket to film his friends doing ollies off the sidewalk. Holy shit. Kids today, etc.

I have good memories too, though. Sometimes I was able to escape, and found refuge down the street at my friend Ken's house. He was one year younger than me. His sister Cara was in my grade. We'd hang out in their basement playing pool and darts and making chalk drawings on the wall. We'd spent hours jumping on Cara's backyard trampoline, listening to her CDs: Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, a few others that I won't mention but surely many other good ones that I've forgotten about. She had a good collection of cassingles, too. Gin Blossoms, Radiohead, Silverchair... there were times back then that I felt completely powerless and at the mercy of my circumstances, but whenever we were together, just listening to music in their house or in the backyard, everything felt just fine and right. We were, at least for a while, quite a team. They were youth group kids too, and like me, they'd probably Accepted Christ at some point before high school as well. But that didn't stop us from having fun, being kids, and rebelling against our parents to a normal and healthy degree. I can only imagine the kind of trouble we could have gotten into if nothing had changed. It would have been good for us, really.

In the middle of the summer before high school, my family moved away from that subdivision. It was a short move, just into town about ten minutes away, so I didn't have to change schools or anything. But this was ten minutes away from them, by car, so it might as well have been a hundred miles to me. Getting my parents to drive me there was difficult and mildly awkward to have to ask for, so for much of the next year, I saw them less and less frequently, and became less and less involved in their lives. I don't remember exactly when it happened and I still don't understand what could have prompted such at change, but at some point in 1995, Cara found Jesus again and never looked back.

What followed was a fundamental change in her entire personality. She grew more involved in our youth group, and over time took on the role of spiritual leader among the small group of us who'd congregated together both there and at the lunch table at school. She made clear her intentions to dispose of her old CDs, and I can remember fruitlessly trying to convince her to at least sell them away for cash (or at least letting me take the burden of them off her hands). It was painful to think of those perfectly good/expensive Nirvana and Green Day CDs going to waste, but there they went. Her brother soon followed her lead, and soon my teenage utopia was infected with WWJD bracelets, Third Day concerts, and youth group sing-along/hop-along songs that I had no choice but to participate in. There are long stories surrounding each of these incidents but I won't dwell on them any longer for now.

By this time, music had become a very important part of my identity, one that I was now destined to explore alone. My friends were suddenly obsessed with bands like Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys, and Johnny Q. Public (this was at least a year or two before they moved on to Five Iron Frenzy and All Star United, which I could enjoy in moderation). Most of this was embarrassingly bad, full of lyrical cliches and devoid of any imagination or experimentation. I was growing more and more obsessed with Sonic Youth, REM, and electronic music, so most of what my friends were listening to just felt... childish? Choosing to listen to and spend money on this stuff seemed like a masochistic act of pointless self-discipline or even intellectual self-censorship. I don't even know how they chose to define or understand "Christian rock." (I suspect that to them, it was anything that was played on the weekend Christian rock show on WCFL -- 104.7 FM, Morris, Illinois -- or anything that was sold at the Christian store at the mall.) This would at least explain why my later attempts to share my enthusiasm for Danielson Famile or Pedro the Lion were met with confusion and indifference. Being trapped in a car with them and a 20-CD case full of this stuff was horribly annoying. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's probably comparable to how most people would feel if they were stuck in a backseat listening to Merzbow or Twin Infinitives or something.

The first time that our youth group ventured out to the Cornerstone Festival, it was probably the summer of 1996, so I would have been a few weeks from turning 17. We loaded up in the van and I prepared myself for the road trip from hell, knowing my companions' choice of soundtrack and their fondness for singing campfire hymns with their hands in the air. Instead, we probably listened to a lot of MXPX, who we later saw that night at the main stage. Inspired by the sight of some crowd surfers near the stage, Cara asked us to lift us up and onto the crowd, which was actually did despite the fact that doing this from the back of the crowd and trying pass a person forward is a foolish and dangerous thing to attempt. Somehow we lifted her up -- doing this without grabbing her ass was incredibly difficult and impractical, but somehow I was able to muster up the strength -- and away she went. Suddenly, everyone was asking us to provide the same service, so we spent much of the rest of the show lifting people into the air, sometimes nearly dropping them on their heads in the process. Like so much Christian rock, we were doing our best to imitate the real thing, but failing in embarrassing fashion.

But MXPX wasn't the only thing we listened to in the van. The first Jars of Clay album, which apparently had been out for nearly a year (Wikipedia says it was released on October 24, 1995), was played in its entirety. By then I'd surely already heard "Flood," which was fast-becoming a crossover hit on... secular radio! It peaked at #37 on the Billboard 200. It also got heavy play on alt. rock radio (#88 on Q101's year-end list, fwiw), which seems inconceivable today given the takeover by nu-metal anger merchants in the following years, but completely natural given the ambiguously spiritual overtones that half of those bands (Creed, Evanescence, P.O.D.) commonly dealt with. Jars of Clay could never quite match the success of "Flood" or their first album, seeing diminishing returns with each follow-up, even to this day. But their first effort was enough to place them among the greats of Christian rock: Larry Norman, Petra, or DC Talk.

But Jars of Clay sounded nothing like any of those bands, or like any band at the time, though their influence on a generation of Christian bands to follow is impossible to overstate. They weren't merely "better" than other Christian bands. Maybe they were, but that in itself would be a misleading statement. They didn't invent anything "new," but certainly weren't content to be another carbon copy band on the "if you like... then you'll like" posters on every Christian bookstore's wall. Christian rock has never been known for its subtlety or restraint, but Jars of Clay were, at least for their first two albums, content not to mimic the styles or sounds of other bands. The lyrics are never preachy, trite, or sophomorically metaphoric. What they are is hard to categorize. They're certainly "Biblical," but more than just scripture set to music like the dreadful trend of Praise & Worship music that's dominated the last ten years of Christian music.

"Liquid" was the lead track on Jars of Clay, and along with "Flood," was produced by Adrian Belew. I don't know much about Belew and haven't listened to much King Crimson, but those two songs just happen to be the best ones on the entire album, and I get the feeling that's not a coincidence. The song opens with strings, some great vocal harmonies, and (sampled?) Gregorian chant could be hilariously bad in the hands of lesser bands, but fits into the mix beautifully here. Christian rock production is characterized by terrible emphasis on bass and drums. Fat, "funky" bass sounds and loud, overmixed drums are usually all you need to hear to identify a Christian rock song in the first few bars, even before lyrics come into play. "Liquid" hopefully inspired a more efficient, economic use of these sounds, doing more with less, never pushing the needles into the red, but still packing a punch when it counts. When all the elements come together exactly thirty seconds into the song, it's a beautiful moment.

I've bought more Christian rock CDs than I care to remember, even into college. They've all been sold/given away by now, all but the first two Jars of Clay albums, which sit between Skip James and J-Live on my CD shelf. None of their later albums interested me very much, as they began to sound more and more like the "Christian Toad the Wet Sprocket" that they've so commonly been described as. By the time "Unforgetful You" hit the airwaves, their muted sound had been polished into bright, shiny, modern rock for "work radio" playlists.

The first album, as much as I always find myself returning to it, isn't without its flaws. The eighteen and a half minutes of string rehearsals and barely-audible studio banter at the end of the album makes for a strong contender for worst "hidden track" ever included at the end of a CD. The sampled children's voices on on "Like a Child" sound inspired by Precious Moments figurines. And the strings, the Celtic arrangements... they pile on thickly over the course of the album. Is this really rock? I know that doesn't matter, but... did they have to play recorders?

So it's good music to fall asleep to, but more than that, listening to it brings me back to a time when I was struggling with simple problems: identity, friendship, belonging, connecting. At least then I was sure that there was something beyond all of this, something bigger than myself that I could appeal and connect to. When you lose God, nothing can ever quite take His place. Believers can never understand this, but neither can atheists. No matter what I know now, or just think that I know, I don't think I'll ever be able to completely let go of those beliefs. They're always there in the back of my mind, always making me believe two things at once. Maybe people just need to believe in God?

Cara married a boy at Bible college and moved to Florida. Ken is about to earn a master's degree in theology from a prestigious Midwestern private college. The pedals on my bicycle were fixed but the brakes soon froze up, and it now hangs from the ceiling in my parents' garage. And Jars of Clay are now busy recording classic hymns, soundtracks, and... a Christmas album. I hope it at least outsells the one from Barenaked Ladies this year.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

video #18: Radiohead - Paranoid Android

I passed on buying The Bends when it first came out, probably choosing to spend my allowance on some crappy sports collectibles or something like that instead. So I didn't get into Radiohead until well after OK Computer had come out. Yeah, not until college. There were actually a few cool kids there who were into them, but they were all Visual Arts/Architecture majors who drank and smoked, and wore better-matching thrift store clothes than I did. I was never able to get into their clique, but the fact that I viewed them as a clique in the first place was my own undoing.

"Paranoid Android" was #4 on the "Top 10 Animated Videos" special that first aired on MTV in 1998. Certainly should be higher than the overrated "Sledgehammer" or the terribly dated "Money For Nothing."