Fragmented Fish June 11

These days there’s a cottage industry resurrecting not just the glories but also the social and technical inspirations behind your favourite albums. Whether it’s Ashley Kahn’s exhaustive book on the creation of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, or the overly technical Recording the Beatles, which details the knobs on the faders on the panel that they used at Abbey Road, it seems like we’re desperately trying to get in touch with the magic behind the music.

But what if this analysis wasn’t about such elusive long past icons? What if it was about the band that signed your smoking paraphernalia the first time they played at the Evelyn? What if it was about a band who inhaled copious amounts of Scotch Guard to record one of their albums that they named after the fly infected shack they were living in at the time? And what if it was about an album that totally turned your understanding of music on its head?

My first contact with Ween’s 1994 Chocolate and Cheese album was via the clip to the track I can’t Put My Finger On It which featured a couple of Lebanese butchers angrily waving their machetes. At the time my ears were still tainted by their one bona fide hit from their previous album Push the Little Daisies, so needless to say I was more than a little wary.

When I brought the album home the musical dexterity, the humour, the sheer inventiveness of the music was a revelation. More than faux Lebanese butchers there was silky smooth white boy soul, tripped out boogies and wacky songs about diseases. Genres were putty in their hands, but they came from a very wrong place.

It’s a point taken up by Hank Shteamer in his 33 1/3 (continuum) book on the album. He charts their development from an obnoxious band that most hated, through the 4 track stoner antics that landed them a major label deal, and finally Chocolate and Cheese, an album he views as a transition record, a link to their later more lush work, a move away from a drum machine and a duo to a live band and a force to be reckoned with. He goes into detail about each song, listing where it comes from through interviews with the band and assorted randoms like Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age).

It’s also not afraid to stretch; producer Andrew Weiss equates the HIV song with Neil Young’s Rockin in the Free World, which is pretty amazing for a song with just two words Aids and HIV. It was also their first digitally recorded album, in a rented space in an industrial estate; filled with stinking rubbish, empty beer bottles and noise wars with their dentist neighbour. He tells the story behind the infamous cover and the booze filled binge that produced the screams you can hear in the background to Candi. He talks of Ween folklore, the Boognish, being brown and ponies. In short he provides this album the kind of respect and analysis that a great and lasting album like Chocolate and Cheese richly deserves. And it’s endlessly fascinating.

The Leafs – Space Elevator (Flaming Snake Brand Records)

The Leafs are a Melbourne based duo who have elected to remove all of the crap ‘getting to’ bits out of music, all that unnecessary stuff like bridges, hell even verses sometimes and just cut to the chase. So if their charming shambolic infectious tunes only go for less than a minute or so then so be it. That’s why these 8 tracks here clock in at a mammoth 13 minutes. People may argue that this is an EP, and although the band are some of those people, they’re all wrong. This is a full-length album. It’s the perfect length for the Leafs. It’s about as much as our attention deficit mp3 generation can take these days.

We’re in a Guided By Voices, Archers of Loaf, or rough-hewn Pixies territory here, a kind of melodic at times shambolic earnest indieness, except you get the feeling they’re not entirely earnest themselves. There’s no doubting their love of pop guitariness that much is unequivocal, yet take the 2.10 minute Fields and Fences where they spend the entire time trying to work out which one they prefer, fields or fences, and in the end they’re still undecided. This raises some questions. Then there’s Figs, which is about what you’d feed an army of tiny monkeys. There’s humour here, but it’s not ironic or nasty, it’s warm and inclusive. This is how they come across live too, they open up their arms and bring us all into their world. It’s at times stupid, other times earnest, but even then it’s usually earnest about stupid stuff.

You may know both Mike and Gus from their other band the sprawling improvised instrumental post rock three piece Battlesnake where they would commonly play one song for upwards of 30 minutes. This is clearly the exact opposite. With only guitar and floor tom/snare both the pop and the fun is infectious to the point that it’s bouncing around in your head for the rest of the day. And that’s actually a good thing. Embrace the pop brevity.

(P.S It took me longer to write this review than it will take you to listen to this album)

Fragmented Frequencies June 2011

Composer Michael Nyman is best known for his soundtrack work, and in particular the 1993 Jane Campion film The Piano, but prior to this he had a longstanding relationship with Peter Greenaway, and has since worked with Michael Winterbottom, Neil Jordan, Damon Albarn (Ravenous), even Andrew Niccol on the Hollywood sci fi blockbuster Gattaca.

In recent years he has moved away from film, not by choice, as he illustrated in a recent interview with ABC’s limelight magazine. “I think film music is fashion-oriented and there’s a fashion at the moment for rather anonymous, bland, interchangeable orchestral scores that I’m unable to write. So no one asks me to write them.”

Simple.

As a result he’s been increasingly moving towards theatre, ballet, live performance and even opera. 1986’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, and 2000’s Facing Goya (MN/Select Audio Visual) are prime examples of this shift. Goya’s music is immediately recognizably Nyman, vibrant, hysterical, almost seeming to exist outside the text, still quite melodic and harmonic with ecstatic vocals, a series of suites that operates almost as a mosaic, with hints of themes appearing and reappearing later.
The opera stemmed from Nyman’s interest in craniometry, a subsequently disproved notion of the 1860’s apparently ‘scientific’ study of the size of the brain, where the shape and angle of the face was deemed an indication of the character and the personality of the individual. It’s an opera that takes painter Goya’s missing skull as a starting point, though delves into racial stereotyping, gene therapy, and cloning. And apparently it’s a thriller.

Nyman’s involvement in the germination and development of Facing Goya also demonstrates an increasing interest in moving beyond being simply a soundtrack composer and reflects his desire in recent years to develop as both a photographer and filmmaker. It’s the central theme of Sylvia Beck’s film Michael Nyman: Composer In Progress (Arthaus/ Select Audio Visual), a film that captures Nyman at a unique moment in time.

“Michael often puts himself under pressure,” offers one of cohorts early on. “If you don’t challenge yourself you don’t progress.”

The film charts Nyman’s travels through London, Berlin, Mexico, Poland and the Netherlands, through his daily routines, photographic exhibitions, rehearsals and also performances with his Michael Nyman band,
“Playing Michael’s music hurts. It hurts my arm,” offers his violin player, “for the brass players their faces look like they’ll burst and we’ve had trombonists who’s lips have bled.” It’s because Nyman wants it louder, more violent than traditional classical music, and he keeps pushing his ensemble. Behind those tortoise rimmed glasses is a sadist. It’s the combination of the repetitive elements, with the high intensity of the music that make his live ensemble so compelling, as they tour the world playing some of his famous scores.

When Steve Reich met Nyman he was working as a music critic, feeling unable to compose due to the atonal serialism that was so prevalent at the time. Nyman detested it, though Reich convinced him to follow his own path and we continue to bear witness to the results.

Beck’s film is a portrait of a restless creator, constantly attempting to push the boundaries both compositionally and creatively. Even members of his band aren’t always convinced initially when presented with his sheet music. At one point he reflects on the fact that he’s spent a large part of his life putting music to other peoples images. Maybe it’s a good time to take control and offer forth his version of the world.

Which may account for Michael Nyman Collections (MN/ Select Audio Visuals), which offers, a twenty-minute film of his photography and video art, scored of course by him. Whilst it’s clear the elder statesman in the relationship is the truly accomplished music, there’s something about the raw, at times naïve beauty in his photography. He’s also quite self-aware. In the film there’s a great moment where he asks a gallery owner if he’d still be exhibiting his photography if he weren’t Michael Nyman. The owner skips a beat before unconvincingly replying ‘of course.’

The cd features, a hardbound book of his photographs, alongside a twenty minute film entitled 50,000 Photographs Can’t Be Wrong, put to music, as well as a sampler of the first 16 albums released on his label.

The climax of Sylivia Becks’s film is an appearance at the Proms, a symbol of acceptance into the artistic elite for one of London’s most accomplished experimental and at times outsider artists. It seems after all these years, despite being less conventional than ever, Michael Nyman has finally made it.

HEATHERS (Umbrella) – Blue Ray

Back in 1988 Heathers was a revelation. It was the perfect mix of satire, cynicism, and teen angst, one of the first films to acknowledge that for many, high school life can be a living hell. It was played for laughs, but there’s no disguising the bitter pitch-black undercurrent bubbling throughout. This was a film that highlighted the gulf between adults and their teens, so out of touch were the adults and teachers that they were willing to believe the American teenager was capable of anything.

Even 23 years on it’s wilfully scathing. Can you imagine a nasty little comedy about teen suicide being funded in 2011? There is a reason why director Michael Lehmann now works in television (True Blood, Californication, Nurse Jackie).

Three popular hyper bitchy immaculately groomed girls rule Westerburgh High. And they’re all named Heather. Veronica (Winona Ryder), desperate to be popular herself is also part of the clique, being groomed for cool, and having left her daggy friends behind. When a mysterious outsider JD (Christian Slater in his best Jack Nicolson impression) appears she finds a way to get her own back and the bodies start piling up. Suddenly Veronica’s dear diary angst has a body count.

The writer Daniel Waters, who would reach such heights as Hudson Hawk, created a whole new teen language here, lacing his acerbic wit with lines. ‘What’s your damage Heather?’ Or ‘Call me when the shuttle lands,’ and in doing so provided the fuel that launched your Mean Girls, your Juno, your Gossip Girl.

Though there’s something very anti establishment about this film. It sides with the teens, but then delights in their murders and pokes fun at them after death. And whilst the ending feels a little too lucky? Copped out maybe, it’s still black as pitch. Delightfully puerile, yet incredibly well written, teen suicide has never been so much fun.
Bob Baker Fish

Valhalla Rising (Madman)

Valhalla Rising is a Viking fever dream death trip, a violent desolate odyssey from precocious Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Redfn. It’s unrelentingly sparse and brutally minimal, with lingering shots of a brooding unforgiving landscape and little in the way of dialogue. In fact the main character One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen from Redfn’s infamous Pusher trilogy), is mute, his violence does his talking. It opens with One Eye in a Scottish highland mud pit strangling and disembowelling opponents, a prisoner who lives in a cage forced to fight for his survival. When he escapes he joins some Christian Vikings on a quest for the holy land. In Redfn’s hands it’s a mystical quasi-religious El Topo/ Aguirre Wrath of God like trip with strange psychedelic flourishes, surreal set pieces and savage bursts of ultra violence. In the directors commentary Redfn says it’s almost like an acid trip. “How can you make a movie that is like a drug?” He asks before suggesting, “If you’re looking for conventional filmmaking you might not be too happy.” He’s got grand plans here, drawing allusions to both the monolith and the evolution of the species in 2001 A Space Odyssey. It’s not a historical drama, he suggests, before dropping the bombshell. It’s science fiction. With a God complex.

Are we watching the same film here? This is one of those rare occasions where the director’s commentary totally alters your perception of the film. It’s long, beautiful, occasionally slow, violent, gore obsessed, and very self-indulgent. It’s the kind of precocious manipulation of the cinematic form that few filmmakers are able to get away with these days. But from the Pusher trilogy to Bronson Winding Redfn has continued to demonstrate a unique and assured vision. Valhalla Rising, despite being his least traditional and well, weirdest film, is also his most rewarding.
Bob Baker Fish

Gainsbourg (Hopscotch)

Two kids are sitting at the beach. “Can I put my hand in yours?” Asks the boy timidly. “No you’re too ugly,” exclaims the girl as she runs away. Gainsbourg’s ugly mug then proceeds to follows him throughout the remainder of the film. Literally. Offering advice. It’s his Harvey, his Drop Dead Fred, his Donnie Darko. “Django only used 2 fingers the mug says to young Serge. ‘The rest can be sacrificed. “ At one point Gainsbourg pulls a gun on it. Just to get it off his back. But his mug can also be helpful dragging him kicking and screaming where he needs to be. “Make some poisoned apples,” it says. And then he explodes into stardom.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Gainsbourg isn’t your typical biopic. It’s strange and surreal, episodic in structure. Sure it travels through his precocious artistic childhood in Nazi occupied France, through his affair with Brigitte Bardot, meeting Jane Birkin and it’s all tied into his artistic process. His songs with Birkin and Bardot are seductions. The beast who attracted the beauties. Bardot in particular is distraught after singing his first love song with him. Possibly because she was married at the time.
His nose grows, his ears expand. He walks around with a cabbage on his head and his world falls apart, descending into more alcohol and cigarettes. There hasn’t been a biopic like this since Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, so liberal with the text but so true to his aesthetic. The film itself is an artistic development of the themes that consumed him. Then of course it all occurs amongst those incredible tunes like Bonnie and Clyde and of course je t’aime…moi non plus which caused a sensation. A remarkable film about a remarkable life.

Bob Baker Fish