TWEE: THE GENTLE REVOLUTION IN MUSIC, BOOKS, TELEVISION, FASHION, AND FILM
A critical look at the cultural trends that inform the creation of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Whole Foods, and shows like Girls (to name just a few) is long overdue, and, in other hands, could easily tip into a Portlandia style parody of our attempts to be better than good as expressed in our arts. Marc Spitz’s Twee saves some of that for the cover (yes, there’s a bird on it) and for the tail-end of his examination of how things got this way. But what lies between is a thoughtful, occasionally witty connection of dots drawn from early examples of the gentler sides of Western culture: Capote’s Holly Golightly, the works of Dr. Seuss and J.D. Salinger, the diary of Anne Frank—all the way through to the idealism of punk and DIY. It may perhaps depend on a particular reader’s viewpoint, but for me, the standout chapters of Twee carefully dissect Jonathan Richman’s relatively folk-y musical naïvete winning over audiences of British punks, the many facets of Kurt Cobain, and what the characters of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Zooey Deschanel’s Jess in New Girl signify with regards to feminism and race in a world where being girly and dorky is fashionable. Supplemented in the back by large lists of books, movies, and music (twee culture is an informed culture), Twee puts a large amount of food for thought that is debated endlessly on social media these days between two covers, gives it a name, and shows us how far we’ve come, leaving us with the not-so-gentle realization of how far we have yet to go. —Leigh Checkman
(FARRAR, STRAUS, & GIROUX)
As indie/mainstream shock film directors go, John Waters is without peer. Despite the current financially- imposed hiatus on his filmmaking, Waters is still chock full of the warped yet screamingly funny ideas that imbued now-classic gross-out films Female Trouble and Desperate Living with a rough, audacious attitude.
In Carsick, Waters decides to go on the road, sticking out his thumb and hitching his way across I-70 from his native Baltimore to his other home in San Francisco, just to see what a new adventure will bring. But first, he indulges in some fictional (and occasionally wishful) thinking, plotting out best-case rides and worst-case rides in two novellas, whose plots come on faster and more furious than any road trip this side of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and, at times, it gets difficult to discern what really makes up a dream or a nightmare. Immersion in Waters’ fantasy world somehow makes the nonfictional trip Waters embarked upon both more pedestrian and more strangely optimistic, as he encounters helpful cops, men who actually love their wives, and a young Republican who goes well out of his way (and out of his family’s comfort zone) to get Waters to where he needs to go. Carsick is an entertaining read––complete with a suggested soundtrack––that eventually strips away the inspired insanity that is Waters’ usual stock-in-trade and finds nuggets of sanity in what is these days a crackpot notion: that trust can reside, for a time, in the very act of getting and giving a ride. —Leigh Checkman
On a high-speed train circumnavigating the Earth 17 years after scientists’ attempts to control global warming have plunged the planet deep into a life-extinguishing ice age, the remnants of humanity relegated to the untouchable class at the back of the train are planning a coup. Led by an absurdly reluctant hero, a rag-tag team of bedraggled citizens are determined to make it all the way to the engine room at the front, dismantling the established hierarchy along the way.
This science-fiction/action/comedy has been made all the more enticing by the outrageously limited release offered by Mr. Weinstein, known in some circles as Harvey Scissorhands, relying almost entirely on word of mouth for its promotion. The film careens precariously across a couple of hours of screentime, providing moments of divine comedy, particularly when Tilda Swinton’s toothy grin fills the frame, along with sickeningly sentimental and unnecessary intervals of exposition.
If your interest in seeing the film lies in experiencing a well-imagined social philosophy or an explanation for how this perpetual motion machine has overcome the laws of thermodynamics, you will likely be disappointed, but if you are looking for a raucous good time and spirited post-movie conversation then this hidden Korean gem shouldn’t slide by unnoticed. —Alex Taylor
ELECTRIC BRICK WALL
Living in a dumpster somewhere between Camaro-rock, cocky old school hip-hop and experimental noise, Electric Brick Wall is a grungy soup of sound. There’s a sleazy sweet spot Black Bananas hits that no other band really does. Riffs barely scratch their way out of a dank mire of burbling electronics, beat claps 808 style, and Jennifer Herrema’s give-a-fuck delivery, which sneers like a dopesick Billy Idol. This record wallows even deeper in a mud bath of glitchy electronics and waves of echo and distortion. Sometimes the songs lose themselves in their own mess and melodies and chords get buried in the mix. There are a few songs on the album that get stuck in place and the core of the track just doesn’t break out of the mire. But then there’s cuts like “Hey Rockin,” a chugging knuckleduster with a central riff as big as a mountain that threatens to dominate speakers. Electric Brick Wall is heavier on grooves than its predecessor. The house party bumping “Physical Emotions” pairs a chewy synth bassline with trunk-rattling thumps, while the funky grind of “Ride the Chump” rolls with the top down. Black Bananas records are like little nasty onions in stinking leather jackets; peel away a layer of grimy gutter rock and maybe there’s a neon middle finger waiting for you. Electric Brick Wall isn’t as mighty as Rad Times Express IV, but somewhere inside the swirl of grubby electro and cock rock lurks a great record with a bad attitude about excess. —Mike Rodgers
CLEAR PLASTIC MASKS
(SERPENTS & SNAKES)
With their debut album, Nashville’s Clear Plastic Masks showcase a deep and reverent mastery of the rock’n’roll canon, from gospel and R&B to straight up blue collar rock, though it’s impossible to dissect each influence, since the Masks have cooked it all down to the basics. Production by Nashville sound wizard Andrija Tokic (who has helmed projects from Alabama Shakes to Natural Child) brings it all to a rolling boil. Lead off track “In Case You Forgot” is a stuttering, sputtering hot mess of a song (as is the song ’s protagonist, who is clearly not taking a break-up well); it opens with an organ- vocal duet but quickly explodes with piano and drum blasts before settling into a short-lived groove. “Alien” is a reverb-heavy ballad that lurches along like a slow train—a Farfisa even hisses along like a whistle—while the instrumental “Dos Cobras” sizzles briskly for almost four minutes, though I could’ve gone for 40 more of that dark jammer. Album closer “Working Girl” concludes Being There in epic form by spotlighting guitarist and singer Andy Katz’s sublime charm and poetry. Katz is truly a frontman with all the charisma and expressiveness of Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison, but without any of the machismo bullshit. You can tell this album is one from the heart. —Dan Fox
From candy-colored Euro-flavored dance-pop to eerie goth house music, The Knife cultivated an audience who should have expected constant evolution. Shaking the Habitual wasn’t Silent Shout. It ditched the former’s moody, dim atmosphere for something more abstract, skeletal and tense. Shaken-Up Versions runs through their current setlist, remixing tracks both old and new to fit their current mode. If you didn’t enjoy Habitual, then this record’s plastic percussion and jitters won’t convert you. “Got 2 Let U” is transformed into a jumpy shuffle of junkpile percussion, ragged bass buzz and jabs of synthesized saxophone, a far cry from the whispery original. “Bird,” freed from its goopy analog beginnings, is almost unrecognizable in its nimble, skittering drumming. The repetitive beats, the rows of cascading toms, the slavish devotion to rhythm–– the music of these Shaken versions evokes tribal music, but artificial and intellectual instead of soulful. “Pass This On” crowds the steel drum melody of the album version with outer space techno and pitch-shifted vocals that undercut the airy beats in that typical Knife way, like an alien pretending to be human. Nowhere does the band’s inherent eeriness overtake the music more than on “Stay Out Here,” a dim, endless cut that drives forward on squelches, hypnotic kick drum, and the Dreijer siblings’ crisscrossing vocals. The Knife always deliver music with layers to it, and their records may not please everyone, or even fans, but they’re consistently some of the most exciting albums of their years and even a selection of remixes is as bold as most other bands’ new releases. —Mike Rodgers
The rhythm section of New Orleans’ own Rotary Downs anchors the sound of Traces from the album’s opener “Orion” onward, leaving James Marler’s and Chris Colombo’s guitars to hurl the band’s latest into orbit along with keyboard work subtly reminiscent of prog rock and ‘80s New Wave. Traces starts out sounding fairly clean, with only Marler’s vocals hinting at how earthy and grainy things will get. The more studied pop gives way to the stomping funk of “Country Killers” and climaxes with the most slinky and infectious of the album’s tracks, the Big Country-esque “Incognito.” The warmth of the bass cushions “The Sandwich Islands” in a cozy embrace, but the wheels come off with “Flowers In Bloom,” which hearkens back to the band’s earlier releases in structure and volume. Meant to be heard on vinyl and turned up—way up—Traces is a rarity in rock these day: a joyous trip that goes by so fast, you could miss it. Don’t. —Leigh Checkman
Intended as far more than makers of hip-hop tunes, the collective known as Shabazz Palaces is pushing the genre’s boundaries, first with Black Up and now with music that comes on like Brian Eno, Metal Machine Music, and dashes of prog rock effects and beats filtered roughly through a beat box dating from rap’s earliest days, all propping up the most intense lyrics this side of early Kanye West. Lese Majesty is a heavy aural document, a meditation on the personal and the political, eminently quotable as much of good hip-hop is… but to constantly single out quotes would be to miss the layers of meaning within. Majesty is a forest of themes giving not only eminent leaders the proverbial finger (even going so far as to call many out by name in “Colluding Oligarchs”) but also the reasons why we lead our lives the way we do. Whether it’s a set of thoughts on where material wealth leads in “They Come In Gold,” or a twist and beat on Marie Antoinette and being seated in privilege in “#CAKE,” Shabazz Palaces aims high from some deeply contemplative wells. All Majesty demands via its humble sonic trappings is that you demonstrate the patience and knowledge to let their rough diamond slowly shine. —Leigh Checkman
WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM
Wolves in the Throne Room always dabbled in grandiosity. Their lightning fast guitars and hurricane-force blast beats are almost always following some gigantic riff or accompanied by chants or strings and the band’s self-mythologizing image as agrarian philosopher-metalheads lends itself to the idea that one of their records was more than just songs, it was grounded in an idea. I’m assuming the idea behind Celiste was, “How do we completely alienate our fanbase?” Did no one bother to listen to the synth-cheese that was Burzum’s prison output? Celiste is not what Wolves do best. Gone are the majestic, craggy riffs and throat- shredded vocals, the mountain-sized epics their records used to cultivate.
They’re replaced with TV movie score synthesizers rambling aimlessly in simple, repetitive movements. The band is out of its element here. The infrequent moments when the atmospherics match up just right, or the band acquiesces to include just a hint of guitar provide some excitement, but the sub-Sunn O)) feedback drone is a poor replacement for what Wolves did so very well. I’m all for a group changing styles, experimenting and keeping themselves fresh, but the results have to be interesting or challenging. Celiste is a hard left turn for the band and one that all but eliminates their strengths while playing up a previously appreciated aspect of their music that just can’t sustain in the spotlight on its own. —Mike Rodgers