We've got more coming.

Guys, I haven't been writing here lately, and I'm sorry for that. I promise my Underoath series will continue, and I'll also post about the more recent work of The Apex Theory, now known as Mt. Helium, and maybe even about the first few Gehenna EPs (a band I have tried--and failed--to capture in my writing before). But right now I'm neck-deep in an idea for a novel; I've written 16,000 words for it since beginning it on Tuesday, and I don't want to derail myself now by focusing on other things. It may be a few weeks before I'm ready to step away from it, but I'll be back, I promise.


Part 2: I'm so sick of staring at the mirror.

Though I got into Underoath with the release of their third CD, "The Changing Of Times", the first album I bought by them was the followup, "They're Only Chasing Safety". As I mentioned in my previous post, "Changing Of Times" opening track "When The Sun Sleeps" blew me away with its mix of emotional melodies and metal intensity. That said, the rest of the album leaned more in the metal than the melodic direction, and rather than striking the sort of balance that other bands of the time struck between those two concepts, it really only had two songs on it that sounded like what I wanted to hear from Underoath. I wasn't sure where they were headed in the future, although I was tentatively interested, since I thought they showed potential. When, after the release of "Changing Of Times", they replaced vocalist Dallas Taylor with a new singer, I wasn't sure how to feel. This might be good--Taylor had proven on "Changing Of Times" that all he could do was scream, leaving drummer Aaron Gillespie to do all of the clean vocals. Gillespie had sang at least half of "When The Sun Sleeps", and the lack of Gillespie's voice on the rest of the album was part of why I hadn't liked it as much as that first song. On the other hand, bringing in a singer who could actually sing might push Underoath too far in the other direction; I certainly didn't want their next album to be one with little or no screaming on it.

When "They're Only Chasing Safety" was nearing release date, a four-song sampler from the album leaked. I downloaded it, unsure of what to expect, and was immediately blown away. As good as "When The Sun Sleeps" had been, this sampler was quite a bit better. New singer Spencer Chamberlain could and did scream his head off, but also appeared to be able to sing melodically, which set the stage not only for moments where Gillespie's clean vocals alternated with his own screams but also for moments where the two of them alternated clean vocal lines. "Reinventing Your Exit" was the first song on the sampler and the first single from the album, and on the verses of that song, Gillespie sang the first few lines and then Chamberlain took over, also singing melodically. However, when it reached the bridge, Chamberlain began screaming, and the alternating screamed and sang lines on the chorus had a doubled emotional intensity that reminded me of both Taking Back Sunday and emotionally-driven metalcore bands like Shai Hulud. If you can call up both of those sounds at the same time, it's guaranteed to make me love your band, and I loved these new Underoath songs.

The second song on the sampler, which became the opening track on the album, was "Young And Aspiring", a song that started dramatically with ringing guitars and humming keyboards fading in as Spencer Chamberlain began screaming, "So let's not even try!" On the last word of the first line, the drums and guitars kicked in and began playing an uptempo riff that started the song out with a bang. Chamberlain's screams were an obvious improvement from Taylor's on earlier Underoath records, having a much more sincere component. Taylor seemed to be going for a particular sound, while Chamberlain, both then and now, just sounds like he's expressing an honest emotion, screaming his head off in whatever way it comes out because he's too caught up in his emotions to modulate his voice in any way. "Young And Aspiring" also shows the ways that Underoath had learned to use two singers with two different vocal styles to their advantage. At one point, later in the song and at a point when its reached somewhat of a crescendo, Gillespie sings "You're a classic disaster with a knack for losing your exterior..." As he sings the word "exterior", Chamberlain bursts in, screaming "I'm so sick!" Gillespie's next line is "...from staring at the mirror," which is obviously a continuation of what he'd been singing before, but also has the interesting effect of creating a line from the combination of Chamberlain's most recent line and his own: "I'm so sick of staring at the mirror."

"The Changing Of Times" had been a somewhat experimental album for Underoath, but "They're Only Chasing Safety" took that spirit of experimentation a lot farther. For one thing, there were a variety of experimental textures used on the album, mostly as a result of the work of keyboardist Chris Dudley. Dudley used drum programming in many places on the record to augment Aaron Gillespie's drumming, which is quite accomplished in its own right--singing a good bit of the songs here never stops Gillespie from giving an excellent performance at his instrument. However, the drum machines that interject themselves into breaks and quiet moments on the album add an interesting additional layer to the songs, and are never unwelcome. Furthermore, we hear interesting keyboard textures throughout the album, sometimes taking the form of synth washes adding an additional layer of sonic density to the riffing, and at other times involving melodic keyboard lines that double the leads played by the guitars on certain riffs.

To a great extent, Underoath's sound had changed on "They're Only Chasing Safety" to one that didn't primarily base itself in metal. Things were still intense and heavy, and Chamberlain's screaming kept anything from ever seeming too poppy, but nonetheless, the riffing and song structures were more in line with the conventions of emo than metalcore. "Reinventing Your Exit" was the song that made this most clear, with its verse-chorus-verse structure and its dominance by clean vocals. At least half of the song is sung by Gillespie, the band's drummer, and we're once again left with the sort of situation created on "When The Sun Sleeps"--the supposed lead singer of the band is left with nothing to do but dance around on the stage for a great deal of the song. Chamberlain does take some of the melodic vocal lines as well as the screamed lines he is given, and there's a chunky breakdown in the middle of the song that gives guitarists James Smith and Tim McTague a chance to show their metal inclinations, as well as a chance for Chamberlain to let loose with unrestrained screams. However, for a great deal of the song, its Gillespie's clean vocals that take the starring role, and it almost makes you as a listener wonder how Chamberlain feels about joining a band to end up singing only half the time.

Thankfully, other songs on the album give him more of a starring role, and its songs like these that would ultimately point the way forward for Underoath. The album's second single, "It's Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door", featured screamed verses alternating with programming-and-keyboard passages and more melodic choruses on which both Chamberlain and Gillespie sang, and definitely had crunchier, more metallic moments. However, even this song was restrained compared to songs like "A Boy Brushed Red Living In Black And White" and "I Don't Feel Very Receptive Today", songs on which emo-ish song structures and melodically sung vocals took a definite backseat to crunchy guitars and screamed vocals. Even these songs were still a bit more emo than metalcore, but they made one thing clear--"They're Only Chasing Safety" was not the final stop on Underoath's transitional journey. "The Changing Of Times" had indicated a new direction for the band, and "They're Only Chasing Safety" began exploring that direction, but they still hadn't quite arrived at the point they were aiming for. That fact is even more emphasized by the album's short length--featuring 10 songs including a short instrumental and a somewhat longer chorally-driven finale that is more of an exercise in giving the album an ending than a true Underoath song, it topped out at under 36 minutes, and really only included eight fully formed new Underoath songs. "They're Only Chasing Safety" is Underoath's most "rock" album, its fullest exploration as a band of the potential inherent in their band to play rock riffs and feature melodic choruses. Ultimately, though, they wanted to be a more metallic band than this, and it was on their next album, "Define The Great Line", that they realized this desire.

I'll talk about that album in Part 3, which will hopefully show up here in a few days.

Underoath - Young And Aspiring
Underoath - Reinventing Your Exit



Part 1: "Why is Underoath Christian?"

I'm on my way out the door right now, but there's something I need to bring up here really quickly.

Underoath have released two new albums in the last few months; a live one called "Survive Kaleidoscope", and a new studio venture called "Lost In The Sounds Of Separation". I've been a fan of Underoath since I heard their album "The Changing Of Times", back in 2002. I fell in love with the combination of melodic passion and metalcore intensity that they brought to the fore on the album's opening track, "When The Sun Sleeps". That album and their followup, "They're Only Chasing Safety", represented a gradual increase in talent and creativity from Underoath, and with their 2006 album "Define The Great Line", and on their new releases, they prove themselves to be a band working at not only their personal peak but the peak of their genre.

It's hard to talk about Underoath with the great majority of people who like the style of music that I like, though. They run into a stumbling block that is just too much for them to overcome. That stumbling block is Underoath's stated religion--Christianity. A lot of people in the metal and hardcore undergrounds have a serious aversion to Christianity, and a mere whiff of it is enough to derail them from any further appreciation of a band they might otherwise have liked. The title of this post was the title of a message board thread made in 2003 on a board I used to participate in. It made me sad, not only because of the mentality that inspired the initial post, but because a lot of the respondents agreed, and stated that they had liked Underoath upon first listen but had turned away from them once they learned of their religion.

This kind of thing makes me sad. Personally, I am not a Christian. I'm not someone with any particular religious beliefs, and if I really wanted to nail down my personal inclination, it would probably be somewhere between agnosticism and flat-out atheism. But I'm perfectly willing and able to tolerate, accept, and appreciate the religious beliefs of other people. I'm not one who feels I can state with any authority that my personal beliefs are correct. Hey, we'll find out when we're dead, right? Maybe not even then. What I can appreciate about Underoath is that their music is driven not by overt attempts to preach to people about a particular religious belief (even if it's one that they've made perfectly clear that they themselves hold), but by an attempt to reach out to people, to inspire them to believe most of all in themselves and in the idea that things can get better and that there is hope in the world. "Define The Great Line" is a concept album about a moment of clarity at a personal low point, about finding the courage and strength to continue believing that life is worth it even as everything is falling down around you. It's an album that features lines like, "Why don't you take steps away from being alone? I swear it's not too late for you," and "I hate the me that I've become--this needy, useless, forgetting one." I could relate to what they were saying, about depression and despair and self-loathing, but also about continuing to strive to make things better and to find a way forward. The fact that their personal way forward was towards their Christian God was not something that ever took a major place in the lyrics. It was hinted at a few times, but that was all. It was enough to make it so I could relate to the record on a deep and powerful level without ever feeling like it wasn't for me because I didn't share the religion of those who made it.

See, the thing to me is this: Underoath are on my wavelength. I'm a person who struggles a lot with depression and the pointlessness of life, who reaches for reasons to keep living and doesn't always find them. I seek, in music, for handholds, for things to keep me going. That's why I've fallen in love, over the years, with bands like Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance, bands who play intense music that expresses these sorts of emotions. It's a way to feel less alone, to derive hope in a hopeless situation. A lot of the heavier, more metal stuff I like comes from a place of darkness and anger, and doesn't have much of a positive message at all. I like a lot of that stuff quite a bit, but it's not what I turn to in my darkest hours. The stuff I reach for at my most desperate moments is stuff that has some sort of more positive striving embedded in it, even if that's only expressed in a sort of empathy for those on the bottom. Maybe that's why I love the later Black Flag albums more than the earlier ones; because I can relate a lot more to sentiments like the ones expressed in "The Bars" and "Sinking" than I can to those in "Jealous Again" or "Six Pack". And maybe that's why one of the brutal, metallic hardcore bands that has always touched me the most is Catharsis. A band who wrote songs called things like "Choose Your Heaven" and "Every Man For Himself (and God Against Them All)" would probably find the idea of being directly compared to a Christian band anathema, but it's a comparison I think is fitting. Catharsis were always reaching for something more, something better, in their music as well. Their answers may have been different, ultimately, but there is a dotted line that can be drawn between the last seconds of "Unbowed" by Catharsis, in which singer Brian D. screamed, "I'm still alive in the land of the dead!", and the last moments of "Desolate Earth/The End Is Near" by Underoath, in which Spencer Chamberlain sings, "I roamed around the wasteland and I swear I found something. I found hope, I found God, I found the dreams of the believers." No, they're not the same, but in their own way, they're similar. Maybe we who move through the world without faith in a particular higher power aren't so different from those who believe, after all.

I don't know. What I do know is that I want to discuss in detail the music of Underoath, especially that which is contained on "Define The Great Line" and "Lost In The Sounds Of Separation". However, I'm already late for the things I'm supposed to be doing today, so that will have to wait for another time. Here's a song to tide you over.

Underoath - Coming Down Is Calming Down



Fresh Cream.

I've been playing the first Cream album, "Fresh Cream", a lot lately. It was released in 1966 and, as with a lot of albums I love from that period, the perspective we're afforded now allows us to see it as a time capsule of sorts. 1966 was year zero for a lot of different trends in the heavy-rock world, and this album points the way forward for several of them, as well as following at least one other that had been around for a few years at that point. It's also very good, which is the main reason I've been playing it so much lately. But I can't deny that the time-capsule aspects are also interesting.

The version I have is a recent remastered version that collects all of the songs that appeared on all of the different versions of the album, plus the A and B sides of a pre-LP single. Since it is structured this way, it begins with "I Feel Free" and "N.S.U.", back to back. "I Feel Free" was a non-LP single in the UK, but was tacked onto the beginning of the album in America, in order to spur LP sales through the use of a familiar hit. These two songs work well back to back, as they are both uptempo rockers that would fit in well with the other songs of the time that were later collected for the UK-oriented "Nuggets II" box set. The songs on the British version of this compilation tended to be more psychedelic and less raw and simple than their American counterparts, and the same is true of both "I Feel Free" and "N.S.U." These two are pretty much the only Cream songs that could be said to fit into that genre. Most of their later songs existed somewhere between the heavy blues style that eventually evolved into heavy metal and a more psychedelic heavy rock sound that pointed the way towards the progressive rock of the early 70s. However, at the time of "Fresh Cream", Cream were still working out what their sound would actually be, and as a result, it's a scattershot collection of songs, with many different genres only evident on one or two of the dozen or so songs here.

The only song on "Fresh Cream" that really points the way forward towards the sort of heavy psychedelia that Cream would later refine on songs like "White Room" and "Deserted Cities Of The Heart" is "Sweet Wine", and this song is more prototypical than anything. The full extent of their psychedelic powers wouldn't really come to light until their followup, 1967's "Disraeli Gears". However, some of the elements are already in place--Jack Bruce's powerful vocals on the chorus and the pounding, non-blues-based guitar riff that drives the song being the most obvious examples.

Most of this album, though, focuses on the heavy blues elements of Cream's sound. A lot of the songs here draw from all three members' time in the blues collectives of John Mayall and Graham Bond (Eric Clapton played with the former, drummer Ginger Baker with the latter, and Jack Bruce with both, at various times). Their rollicking take on the traditional blues instrumental "Cat's Squirrel" is a fun little blast, and covers of Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" and Skip James's "I'm So Glad" are probably the most representative examples on the album of how Cream would sound over the coming years. Both songs became live staples, and both were rereleased on later Cream albums in much longer, jam-filled live versions. My personal preference is for these relatively restrained versions. While I can recognize that the lengthy instrumental showcases that these songs often became are a big part of what a lot of people like about Cream and other bands like them, I personally find them boring and self-indulgent. The best elements of the garage-psych era, to me, come from experimentation within the song form and with the sorts of less traditional and melodic sounds players can wring from their overdriven electrical equipment. Endless noodling misses the point completely, to my mind, and therefore I can enjoy the "Fresh Cream" versions of "I'm So Glad" and "Spoonful" much more easily than the live versions on "Goodbye" and "Wheels Of Fire", respectively.

The rest of the album has its good moments and its bad. "Dreaming" is a shmaltzy misstep of a ballad, which doesn't even have that much of a blues sound to recommend it, and the slow cover of Robert Johnson's "Four Until Late" that gives us Eric Clapton's only vocal turn on the album is not much better. "Sleepy Time Time", a Jack Bruce original, pulls off the slow blues sound in a superior fashion, probably due to its thick guitar and bass sound, which is absent from "Four Until Late".

"Rollin' and Tumblin'", a Muddy Waters cover, is another big favorite of mine. On this song, Jack Bruce forgoes his bass completely in order to play harmonica between vocal lines, and he and Eric Clapton double each other on the song's melodic main riff, propelled along by Ginger Baker's frenetic drumming. Between Bruce's frantic blowing and Clapton's overdriven guitar lines, this song is a mighty blues-based noisefest of the sort that I look for when I dig into mid-60s era albums like this one.

There's one other song on "Fresh Cream" that, like "Sweet Wine", steers away from the traditional blues sound that dominates much of the rest of the record. Like "Sweet Wine", "Toad" is written by Ginger Baker, but unlike "Sweet Wine", this instrumental is mainly here as a showcase for Baker's drumming. The first third of this 5-minute track is a catchy, bass-driven instrumental with awesome riffing, but at the 90-second mark, the guitar and bass drop out and leave Baker to play drums by himself for the next three minutes or so. Sure, the guy is a great musician, but as you might imagine from earlier comments, this kind of thing bores me to tears. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought it was a really cool idea, and like covers of "Louie Louie" in 1963-64, covers of "Hey Joe" in 1966-67, and raga-style modal instrumental breaks in the wake of "8 Miles High", the drum solo became de rigeur for a lot of heavy-blues/proto-metal garage bands in the late 60s and early 70s. When I was doing my explorations of Decibel Magazine's top 50 forgotten proto-metal albums list, I found that damn near all of them featured a drum solo of some interminable length. This was probably more due to the 15-minute live version of "Toad" that later appeared on "Wheels Of Fire", than this initial 1966 version, which predates the fad by at least two years (really, it's probably more due than anything else to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", but Ginger Baker undoubtedly had a hand in it). That said, it's still a pretty terrible idea, and I feel that way even more fervently because the 90-second full-band intro to "Toad" is actually really good. I wish they'd turned it into a full-band three-minute instrumental, like "Cat's Squirrel", instead of the drum showcase it became.

There's one maddening element of "Fresh Cream"'s time-capsule feel that I must mention before I'm done. In 1966, stereo recording technology was just starting to become widespread, and as a result, a lot of albums that were recorded with the intent of being released in mono were given post-production stereo mixes of varying quality. Generally, people wanted the stereo versions of the albums if they could find them, and therefore the mono versions are often much rarer--which is disappointing, because the mono versions were always much truer to the band's original intent. Worse, the stereo mixes that were done were usually done with a gimmicky eye towards making the stereo separation as obvious as possible. These two tendencies combine particularly unfortunately on "Fresh Cream". The way I'm listening to it right now, with it playing on a boombox over my right shoulder, isn't all that obnoxious, but trying to listen to this album through headphones or on my home computer, where the speakers are located to either side of the monitor, is an exercise in frustration.

In 1966, most studios had four tracks on which to record, and in order to maximize the overdubs possible on a song, the basic tracks of the song--rhythm guitar, bass, and drums--were generally mixed down to one track. If an album was due to be released in mono, this was no problem, but once stereo came into the picture, it complicated things considerably. The best choice in order to make an album sound as good as possible would undoubtedly have been to leave basic tracks in the center of the mix, and maybe pan some of the overdubs to one speaker or the other. However, with the powers that be desiring to make stereo mixes as obvious as possible, this never happened. A stereo mix with the basic tracks all in the center sounds a lot like a mono mix--too much, to the minds of record executives. So you end up with sonic abominations like the stereo mix of "Fresh Cream". On almost every song on this album, the basic tracks are panned hard to the right. Then all of the overdubs--generally including any lead guitar tracks, percussion instruments like tambourine, and whatever backing vocals there are--are panned hard to the left. Only Jack Bruce's lead vocal generally gets positioned in the center of the mix. This creates two weird effects, one being that the instrumental overdubs stand so far out from the basic tracks that the sounds don't combine at all. Often, a guitar lead will sound off, somehow, just because it's hanging out there in space, completely divorced from the rhythm track. The other weird effect this creates is that only the lead vocal ties the sounds in the two speakers together in any real way. This means that, while Jack Bruce is singing, the sounds from the two speakers mostly manage to integrate as a whole in your brain. However, as soon as he reaches the end of a vocal line and stops singing, the song seems to split in two and move as far apart in your head as possible. Like I said, maddening.

The song that, to my mind, defeats this problem most soundly is "Rollin' and Tumblin'". Jack Bruce's bass is absent from the rhythm track, and his harmonica is part of the same overdub track on which he recorded his vocals. This live switching between singing and playing harmonica on the same track is not something that would be done today (and that's a crying shame), but thankfully, it was done on this track. The way Clapton's lead guitar, panned hard right, meshes with Bruce's harmonica playing, panned hard left, does a great deal to create a real stereo sound on this track. The only real problem is that Baker's drumming is panned hard right, but there's no way to fix it, and in context it's not that bad.

Where it is really horrible is on "Toad". I'm not sure how it was done, unless the drums were recorded beforehand and without accompaniment, but on this track the guitar and bass are panned hard left, while the drums are panned to the right all by themselves. This works pretty well during the sections when the entire band is playing, but for the entire three-minute drum solo section of the song, the drums stay panned all the way to the right, meaning that your left speaker is getting no use at all. On my computer speakers, this is a bit off-putting. Through headphones, it's nigh unlistenable. Honestly, I've been so frustrated by the completely un-optimal stereo mix of this album that at one point I went hunting on the sort of blogs where garage-rock nerds post vinyl rips of entire albums onto rapidshare (I love blogs like this, and I'm eternally glad that there are so many of them) for a mono vinyl rip of "Fresh Cream". I found one, with a 10-song track listing that included "I Feel Free" but left off "Spoonful", but it was such a mediocre quality rip that it was just as frustrating to listen to, in its own way, as the stereo remaster. At this point, I'm stuck listening to the stereo version and dealing with obnoxious panning issues, but I keep on listening to it. Regardless of the obnoxious mix and the two or three less-than-great tracks included on the album, "Fresh Cream" is a pretty awesome piece of musical history, and aside from all that, it's great fun to listen to. I'm sure I'll be putting up with its quirks for some time to come.

Cream - Sweet Wine
Cream - Rollin' and Tumblin'



Movie diary, 9/22/08-10/03/08


So hey, last night I saw John Cassavetes's "Shadows". I hadn't seen any other Cassavetes before besides a failed attempt to watch "The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie" about 5 years ago. I made it through about a half-hour. It was NOT what I expected. This time, after seeing that and "A Decade Under The Influence", I was a bit more prepared for what I was getting into, and I really enjoyed the movie. It was filmed in New York City in 1959, and considering that I've been kind of geeking out about mid-20th century American cities in general lately, and NYC in particular, I found that to be awesome. I expected the movie to have a loose narrative, and it did, but soon I'd picked up on the basic plot: Hugh, Benny and Lelia are three siblings who live together in an apartment in some low rent bohemian neighborhood (which no doubt is a million dollar condo now). Hugh is obviously black, so I assumed that the black and white filming either made Benny and Lelia look whiter than they were or that some unorthodox casting decisions were made, because the two of them sure look white. But anyway, the three of them are all trying to make it in the creative arts in some way or another. Hugh is a jazz singer who used to have more of a career than he has now, and at the beginning of the movie, has to take a gig introducing a line of chorus girls, which he's frustrated about. Benny is a jazz musician who seems frustrated with his day to day life and spends most of the film vacillating between sullenness and violent anger. Lelia is the youngest, at 20, and I'm pretty sure she's still in college (it's never made that clear). She isn't quite sure who she wants to be in life, and spends a lot of the movie trying to decide which of several potential suitors she's interested in.

I liked all of the scenes in the movie for the most part, although I sometimes felt that the interaction between Lelia and some of her beaux were a bit overstated and unrealistic. Benny's plotline was my favorite, and I especially enjoyed the final scene he was in, in which he seemed to have a bit of an epiphany. I won't say more than that so I don't ruin anything for anyone who hasn't seen it. Oh, and the music for most of the movie was done by Charles Mingus, so that totally rules, as do the shots of characters walking around 50s era NYC. I love stuff like that, and was totally geeking out on it.

The thing that kind of blew my mind was at the very end, and I sort of feel bad mentioning it, even though it's probably common knowledge to anyone who knows much about Cassavetes' work and therefore shouldn't really be a spoiler. So I guess you can skip the rest of this paragraph if you want, but I have to mention it because it profoundly affected my take on the movie. The final credit, at the very end of the movie, says "The film you just saw was an improvisation." As soon as I saw that, my opinion of the movie changed greatly. The scenes with Lelia and her boyfriends that seemed a bit contrived at points were improvised, as were the rest of the scenes in the film. I'd never even had a clue. That really impressed me--the fact that the actors were making up what to say as they went along and it came out so very well in so much of the movie makes it a much bigger achievement than I'd originally thought, and made me much more inclined to forgive any overacting.

By the way, looking at the IMDB page, I find an interesting thing--the main thrust of this film's plot is apparently intended to be race, and interracial relationships. I thought the character of Tony, who sleeps with Lelia at one point and then later shows up to her apartment and makes a scene, was just a creepy guy that she got involved with when she shouldn't have, but the IMDB comments make me think that either Cassavetes was much more subtle in making this film than I'd been looking for him to be, or that I'm just dense and missed a level of subtext entirely. The idea that Lelia was passing for white went right by me, and I'm honestly still not sure that's what was going on. I'm just as confused by the idea that Benny was going through his moodiness due to being confused about where he fit in racially. I just figured it was a general sense of frustration that motivated his actions, not anything about race, specifically. So am I just dense? Or could my missing all these elements of the plot have to do with a combination of my initial confusion over what race the actress playing Lelia was, and the fact that attitudes towards race have changed a lot in this country since this movie was made 50 years ago? I really don't know.

"Shadows" was a very interesting viewing experience for me, and the fact that I was left with so many questions after it was over only makes it moreso.


I've seen three movies in the past two days. I'm gonna break them up into different posts.

First, the night before last, I saw "Bullitt". It took me a bit by surprise. Everything I'd ever heard about it made me think that it was just an awesome action movie. People always talk about the awesome car chase, how Steve McQueen is tough as nails, etc. All of this stuff is true, but what surprised me was that the movie had other levels to it. I think it's pretty easy for people to take it simply as an action movie and ignore the other levels, which is probably why it's considered an action classic, but I definitely noticed the other stuff. And I feel I'm going to have to get into spoilers in order to fully explain my reaction to the movie, so if you haven't seen "Bullitt" and don't want it ruined for you, stop reading right here. I'm assuming most people have, though, so I don't feel too bad revealing things about its plot.

OK, "Bullitt" begins with Steve McQueen, in the title role as a police lieutenant, being given the responsibility to guard a high-profile mob witness for a federal trial that's happening as soon as the weekend is over. The witness compromises the protection Bullitt and his fellow cops are giving him, and as a result, he and another cop get shot. The witness makes it through most of the night but ends up dying, and Bullitt hides the evidence of this in order to stop the prosecutor who was relying on the witness from interfering with his investigation into what really happens. This is when the whole big car chase scene happens, and at the end of it, Bullitt has thrashed his awesome 69 Boss Mustang, chasing bad guys through the streets of San Francisco in a black 69 Dodge Charger. This scene was every bit as incredible as I'd been led to believe by years of discussion, by the way, and there was a featurette on the DVD that discussed how Steve McQueen did his own stunt driving, which was even more impressive. So yeah, after that, Bullitt has no car and he has to go down to San Diego to see about a lead. He ends up getting a ride from his girlfriend, whom we've encountered a few times already during the course of the film. When Bullitt gets to San Diego and discovers a grisly murder, his girlfriend stumbles upon the scene, sees him reacting as if he's completely desensitized to it, and they end up getting in a fight about his lack of response to such a thing. Now, I was thinking as this scene happened that I wasn't sure what place it really had in the film, and I'm sure a lot of action-movie fans over the years have felt the same way. But by the end of the movie, it proved not only to add layers to the flim but also to be essential to its underlying theme. The climactic scene of the movie involves Bullitt, having figured out that the witness he and his people were originally protecting was a ringer, tracking down the real witness at the airport, where he's attempting to flee the country. The prosecuting attorney, played in a brilliant display of sanctimonious pretension by Robert Vaughn, has been on his ass through the last half of the film, once he found out that the original witness was killed. Now, though, Bullitt is vindicated, and his superior detective work has paid off for both himself and the prosecutor. But when Bullitt tries to stop the witness from boarding the plane, the guy leads him on a chase across occupied runways--Bullitt nearly gets hit by a plane--before finally engaging in a shootout in the terminal that ends with Bullitt brutally shooting the witness. As the scene ends, he stands over the witness's dead body, looking enraged, like he wants to empty his gun into the guy even though the guy is obviously dead. So now, despite all his efforts, the witness has ended up dead anyway. It's understandable why it had to go down that way, but you can tell that Bullitt is in big trouble with his superiors.

There's one more scene in the movie, and this was the one that hit me the hardest. It shows Bullitt getting home, early the next morning, when his girlfriend is still asleep. He looks in at her, sleeping peacefully, and then walks into his bathroom, splashes water on his face, and looks like he's about to cry. The camera cuts back to a long, silent final shot of his gun, sitting on the hall table. I thought this was a brilliant way to end the movie. In an incredibly subtle way, one that might be missed by a lot of fans who just want to see guns and cars, the film introduces an idea of conflict and uncertainty, an idea that all of the violence that fills the life of a guy like Bullitt does take its toll, just like his girlfriend said. The final scene shows that he himself is finally starting to realize it, and leaves the viewer wondering whether he'll be able to go back to his job after this has all happened. While I was watching this movie, it reminded me at a lot of points of "Dirty Harry", another stark, quiet action film from the end of the 60s that seemed to be influenced by things like spaghetti westerns and noir films and not just a standard action movie. However, I think the ultimate theme and sensibility of "Bullitt" is all but completely opposed to that of "Dirty Harry". "Dirty Harry" is a conservative vision of law and order, and presents the idea that sometimes laws just get in the way of justice. "Bullitt" is a movie about the way law enforcement becomes indistinguishable, after a while, from mindless violence, and how hard it can be to retain one's humanity in the face of such a thing. "Bullitt", in the end, seems to carry a liberal message. I don't know if this was McQueen's vision, or that of the writers or directors, but that's what I took from it, and for that reason, I would have to say that it's far superior to "Dirty Harry", a movie I had trouble liking.


Yesterday I saw two movies. The first was "Invasion Of the Body Snatchers", the second version from 1978 starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, definitely, but upon further consideration I feel that the film has a few flaws. I'd never seen the original version, though I have read the book, and I liked it a lot. I'm glad that this version of the film chose to preserve my favorite scene in the book, where a woman talks about her husband being different from how he was before, and mentions a scar that used to be on his neck, at which time someone says, "So it was gone?" And she says, "No, it's still there!" I love that bit; Jack Finney is brilliant. Anyway, this movie changed the locale from a sleepy little town to San Francisco and as such rendered the attack of the pods much more fraught with negative potential--one can imagine that, once they take over an entire large city, spreading over the world is much easier than it would be from the position of having taken over a tiny rural town. And I feel that a lot of what happens in the city is well done, and has a foreboding tone of creeping terror that works particularly well. What's unfortunate, first of all, is that Jeff Goldblum's character is such an element of chaos in the otherwise orderly proceeding of the movie. He never makes any sense at any point that he's onscreen, and while I like Goldblum as an actor, I think he could have been far better used. Also, some of the sexual relationships depicted in the movie seemed extremely unrealistic. I have to give Leonard Nimoy credit for making me believe in him as someone other than Spock--his constant typecasting seems somewhat unjustified based on his performance in this movie. Really, I just think this movie should have been cut down a bit. Reduce it from 2 hours to 90 mins, streamline the relationship between Donald Sutherland and the superb Brooke Adams so that it's a bit less confusing, and rewrite Goldblum's character. The action/horror stuff works, so it's just the incidentals of character development that I really think need improvement here. And for the record, it's a solid movie that's different enough from the source material to be worth seeing even for those who love the original movie or (like me) the book.


I never did write about "Easy Money", which I saw... a week ago? Something like that. Maybe because it's so hard to write about. It doesn't really make much sense, honestly. Sure, I can explain the plot to you in a sentence--like this one: Rodney Dangerfield plays a drunken slob with a super-rich mother in law; said mother-in-law kicks the bucket and writes a provision into her will that Dangerfield and his wife will inherit all her dough if Dangerfield can clean up his act and lose some weight within a year. Typical cheesy 80s movie comedy, right? Well, sorta. The thing is that there's a lot of other stuff going on besides that plot--which, once it gets rolling, sort of falls apart under scrutiny anyway. And it falls apart COMPLETELY when you see how they end it. But that's OK, because maybe 1/3 of the movie, at most, has jack shit to do with the plot in the first place. There were four writers on this film, including P.J. O'Rourke and Dangerfield himself, and a lot of it just seems like Dangerfield and his straight man, a pre-mob-film Joe Pesci, running around doing stupid shit. There's also this whole other plot thread about Dangerfield's screamingly hot daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) getting married and then freaking out about sex and leaving her husband, and the husband trying to get her back, and all of that doesn't make any sense either. Really, this is the type of movie I suppose one should watch when one is too fucked up on mind-altering substances of whatever sort to follow any sort of plot. Then one could, I suppose, enjoy this movie as the string of unconnected slapstick/absurdist jokes that it pretty much is. I enjoyed it well enough, but I couldn't believe just how little of a plot it had. The friend of mine that I saw it with said it was his favorite Dangerfield movie, but I gotta say I still think "Caddyshack" and "Back To School" are better. Wouldn't really seek this one out again.


The night before last, I saw "Hannah Takes The Stairs". People were leading me to believe that it was a third Andrew Bujalski film, but really he's just in the movie. The director is Joe Swanberg, and writing credits were given to not only Swanberg but also everyone with a speaking role in the film. So it had something like a dozen writers. I'm not sure if this means that each character came up with their own dialogue or if they came up with the storyline as a group, or what. Either way, it had that same sort of loose narrative as the Bujalski films I've seen, and a lot of the conversations that were captured in the movie seemed pretty insignificant, although they eventually added up to something. Basically, it's a movie about Hannah, a twentysomething college graduate working in a film production office, who doesn't seem to know what she wants out of life. She starts the movie with a boyfriend, but it's pretty obvious to the viewer that things aren't going that well with the boyfriend anymore, at least in her mind, and they break up pretty quickly. From there, she starts to engage in relationship type behaviors with a sequence of other boys in her life, mostly coworkers. It seems like she always gets excited about each new boy who falls for her, but soon, the reality of a relationship intrudes and she becomes focused on the hard parts of maintaining a relationship, at which point she generally loses interest and moves on to some other boy. She can't seem to maintain relationships beyond the honeymoon phase. There's definitely a point where she seems to realize this, and gets into a conversation with a boy about it. However, the conversation ends with her crying, the boy trying to console her, and this turning into making out. The film ends with no real resolution, and you, the viewer, feel like Hannah's story will continue on in this way for at least a while longer.

I don't really feel bad about outlining the plot this way, because this movie isn't really about the plot. It's the kind of movie where you could know exactly what's going to happen and it's still worth watching because the real point of it is capturing the personalities and the reactions of the characters to what happens over the course of the film. Personally, I could relate a lot to Hannah's underlying issues with relationships, even if I don't have the same sort of behavior patterns in my life, at all. It is hard to deal with attractions to people once they move beyond the hypothetical, and there are lots of little details in the process of negotiating two people's lives around each other than can suddenly become huge and all consuming in one's mind. Ultimately, the point of the movie is the way that Hannah deals with this, and the way the people around her deal with her decisions. There's a part in the movie where she tells a boy that has a crush on her that "I tend to leave destruction in my wake", and it's true. At the same time she seems really bothered by this, she also seems to have no idea how to change it.

I feel like this movie could have been really well done or a total trainwreck, with no middle ground. That seems to be the case with Bujalski's films and with any that are made in a similar style--which "Hannah Takes The Stairs" is, so maybe that's why people told me it was a Bujalski film. The cinema verite techniques used by the director work really well for me, and I like the way the scenes seem sometimes to shift from meaningless small talk to sudden outbreaks of very serious conversation. It feels real. None of these transitions ever seem forced, and in a lot of parts, "Hannah Takes The Stairs" seems a lot more like real life than most movies I've seen over the course of my life. The fact that this is the case and it is at the same time a quite enjoyable cinematic experience is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.



What happened to the good ones?

About a year and a half ago, I went to a local show to catch the headlining band, Brainworms. There were touring bands on the show, but I'd never heard of any of them. That's just kind of how it goes a lot of the time in the DIY underground. Bands have to tour a few times before anyone knows about them, and when they tour, they open for a popular local band so that there'll be people at their show. When you're a local kid who shows up at these kinds of shows a lot, you come to learn that the touring bands are always a crapshoot. They might be fucking amazing, and you might be bumming money from your friends to buy their record. Or they might be fucking terrible, and you end up standing on the sidewalk outside with your friends waiting for them to finish. On the night in question, the touring band was Each Other's Mothers, from New York, and they were excellent, an all-female instrumental quartet whose songs were both complex and catchy. I bought their CD and still listen to it on occasion.

But the musician that made the biggest impression on me that night wasn't even scheduled to play. She was on tour with Each Other's Mothers, just doing the roadie thing, but while Each Other's Mothers were setting up, she plugged in one of their guitars and played about half a dozen songs of her own. I wasn't even in the room when she started; I was outside on the sidewalk with some friends, having no idea that anyone was going to be playing anytime soon. Within half a song, though, I'd abandoned my conversation, gone inside, and pushed my way to the front of the room. Her first song had caught my attention thoroughly, and I didn't want to miss any more of her set because I was standing around talking. It wasn't until she finished playing that I found out her name: Cara Beth Satalino. She too had CDs for sale, and when I talked to her after her set, she told me that the one I should pick up if I'd liked the songs she played was her new EP, wryly titled "The Good Ones". I took her advice, and was so impressed with it, even above and beyond how impressed I'd been with her live performance, that I hunted her down on myspace and added her song "Shimmering Thing" as my profile music. It stayed there for at least a year.

A year and a half later, I still listen to that CD on a frequent basis. "Shimmering Thing" started out as my favorite song on it, but the longer I've listened to it, the more I've grown to love each of the other songs in turn, to the point where now I probably couldn't pick a favorite. Lately, it's been "Good Ones", which may or may not be a title track depending on how you look at it, that sticks in my brain the most. "Good Ones" is the closest any song here gets to a full-band arrangement. I can hear at least two electric guitar tracks on it, as well as a drum kit, an electric piano, and multiple tracks of background vocals. I'm not sure who is playing the drums, but everything else is undoubtedly Cara, especially those background vocals. "Good Ones" doesn't have that much of a standard verse/chorus/verse structure; there's a chorus, but the rest of the song is best defined merely as not-chorus rather than as verses and bridges and etc. All of the non-chorus parts are quite different from each other, even though they all seem to be based around similar chord progressions (if not the exact same one). It's Cara's vocal arrangement that creates the distinction between these parts. She sings each non-chorus part in a completely different way, placing emphasis on different parts of the riff and using lines of different lengths each time. It keeps the song from falling into the trap that many singer-songwriters can't seem to avoid, of playing music that isn't all that interesting on its own, and really only exists as a bed on which to lay the words.

Honestly, though, she could do that sort of thing with her music if she wanted to, because the words are really interesting all by themselves. I can't tell all that well what any of the songs here are about, but all of them contain lines that stand out, and stick in your head. "Good Ones" is based around a chorus that goes, in part, "What happened to the good ones? They get too bored to do anything fun." This doesn't seem to have much to do with some of the other good lines in the song, such as the opening verse, "If I wanted to, I would go out west searching for water. I'd build a fire and hold it to my chest. There is no other." Again, I have no idea what that means, or what it has to do with the chorus, but who cares? The imagery in those lines is indelible. That "I would go out west searching for water" bit gets stuck in my head all the time. It's interesting, and maybe part of that is because I don't know what it means.

Towards the end of the song, there's a moment when an electric piano line fades in, seeming to emerge from Cara Beth's reverberating lead guitar riffs. As it rises higher in the mix, Cara Beth harmonizes with it, singing "The heart beats harder, it beats harder and harder." There's something about this moment that has a powerful effect on me. I can't really explain what it is I'm hearing in it--there aren't any of the usual musical cues I respond to, and again, I'm not sure what the words even mean, but something about the way everything adds together at this moment just does me right in. It's incredible.

The other songs on the EP are just as good, in their own way. "Gift Horse" starts the record off, and this is the only song here that seems to be nothing more than Cara Beth and a guitar. At one point I hear a tambourine shaking, but it's so low in the mix that I can't even tell if it's present on the rest of the song or not. Cara's guitar on "Gift Horse" is drenched with reverb, and the lack of backing instruments allows it to echo all over the track. Over this, she sings some more inscrutable yet awesome lyrics, imploring over and over on the song's chorus, "Don't look him in the mouth."

"Shimmering Thing" has a bit of a different sound than the rest of the record, and the liner notes explain this by mentioning that it was recorded at a different session. On this track, Cara Beth is playing an acoustic guitar instead of the electric she uses on the rest of the record, and rather than filling the room with echoing reverb, her acoustic guitar sounds tiny and muted, as if she's playing it inside of a box. This causes her vocals to stand out in the mix, which is made even more true by their double tracking throughout the song. Sometimes both tracks are singing the same words and the same notes, but at other points, one track or the other will start to harmonize, or even devolve into wordless crooning. Behind it all, there's some percussion, which may or may not be played on an actual drum kit but certainly doesn't sound like the work of an actual drummer. This percussive backbeat thumps and shuffles and could just as easily be someone stomping and clapping as someone just playing the kick and snare parts of a drum kit (which, in all honesty, I suspect is what's actually happening). It gives the whole song an imprecise, shambling gait, which is the kind of thing that only works sometimes, but it works here. "Shimmering Thing" ends up having a loose, comfortable vibe, moreso than some of the other songs here, which are more melancholy in tone.

That's not to say that "Shimmering Thing" doesn't have some melancholy of its own. This entire EP is at least somewhat downbeat, and this song is no exception. Lyrical imagery that stands out for me in this song include phrases about "dirty hands soaked in bleach-water," "we've been waking up to the same sound," and the song's opening lyric: "There are no ideas left in my head, none left to sit with--just time to wait and trash to take out." If I had to guess what this one was about, it'd have something to do with dead-end jobs, but then again, I don't really know.

The EP's final song, "Easy", is noticeably shorter than the rest, not even making the two-minute mark. It also doesn't change nearly as much, mostly sticking to the same two single note progressions. This is another song with the sort of shambling gait of "Shimmering Thing", and here it sounds less like the tired shuffle of someone staggering in to work and more of an easy, loping stride along next to some railroad tracks. It's the one song here that has any carefree feel to it at all, and even that gets inverted over the course of the song. The first time the chorus comes around, Cara Beth is singing "It's easy," but by the end of the song, she's repeating the phrase "It ain't easy." So which is it really? Depends on the day, I suppose. "The way I walk depends upon the kind of day I want," she says at the beginning of the song, and later: "We're fortunate ones. We know the places where we were named and given birth." But once again, I can't really tell you what it all adds up to. I just know it's good.

That's really why I couldn't say if "Good Ones" counts as a title track or not. The EP could be named after that song, or it could be named after the songs on it, in the sense that Cara Beth had written and recorded a bunch of songs around the same time, and these are the good ones. Personally, I hope there are more good ones than this out there, and I hope I get to hear them sometime relatively soon. But even if not, I'm sure I'll be playing this CD for a long time to come.

Cara Beth Satalino - Good Ones

P.S. I would post more than just one song, as I usually do, but the other song I'd post would be "Shimmering Thing", and since that would leave me having posted around 10 minutes of a 14 minute EP, I don't feel that good about doing so. However, Cara Beth has a myspace page where you can listen to more of her songs and order "The Good Ones EP" and her older CD, "Crowded Mouth", through Paypal. I strongly encourage you to hit that up:




If it's here.

I haven't written anything on here or really anywhere else for quite a while now, and if I were to blame that on anything besides general malaise (of which, rest assured, there's been plenty), I'd have to say it's the fault of my own fear that anything I write will suck. I've lost a lot of faith lately in my ability to write interesting blog entries, but I've thought about it and I think maybe the problem is not so much that they aren't good pieces of writing as that I always want them to be as good as some Greil Marcus Rolling Stone review from the 70s that's now collected in some Da Capo Best Rock Writing anthology. I don't think it's good to churn out crap, necessarily, but I don't really need to be redefining rock reviewing every time I post, do I? No, probably not. So, since standards seem to be the enemy of posting, I'm writing this post to as lowered a standard as possible. Basically, if I finish it, I'll be glad.

I've been playing a certain Texas Is The Reason song a lot lately. It's the first song from their first EP, which is called "If It's Here When We Get Back It's Ours". Texas Is The Reason put out this EP in 1995, an LP and two split 7 inches in 1996, and then broke up. I saw them twice during their brief existence, and played the hell out of their records. I thought they were brilliant. This song was the first one that I heard that expressed what I thought was so great about them, though it certainly wasn't the last. In an interview I read with their guitarist, Norm Arenas, he mentioned that their sound came from the mix of indie, emo, and melodic punk influences with straight up New York hardcore. He figured that singer/guitarist Garrett Klahn would object to this characterization, but since the rest of the band had all played in at least one hardcore band before being in Texas Is The Reason, he also figured that the connection was undeniable. "If It's Here When We Get Back It's Ours" proves his point beyond a shadow of a doubt. Starting out with a driving, uptempo melodic rock sound, it powers its way through two verses and two choruses that are mostly standard indie rock in sound. Things change after that, though. The second chorus leads into a steadily building bridge, and that bridge reaches a drumroll-fueled crescendo before pausing for the briefest second and then dropping into the sort of blatant hardcore breakdown that you'd never expect in a million years to hear in an indie-rock song like this. The breakdown only lasts four short measures before bringing the song back into its usual uptempo speed, which takes it through to the end, but it's such a surprise that it makes a much more powerful impression than four short measures should. It's the kind of thing that could have seemed awkward, but instead works so incredibly well that it seems a revelation. "Why haven't I ever heard any other bands do this?" I thought the first time I heard it. From over a decade's remove, I think I can answer that question--because no one had ever combined the right musical vocabulary that would allow them to think of such a juxtaposition before. In the years since I first heard this song, the throwing of hardcore breakdowns into indie-rock, pop-punk and emo songs has never become commonplace, but I've definitely heard it quite a few times. Once the idea was out there, there were plenty of later bands who would pick up on it and use it. But it took Texas Is The Reason to come up with it initially, and the fact that they did so is but one of many reasons why they were one of the best bands of that era.

It's not the groundbreaking musical achievements in this song that are causing me to return to it over and over lately, though. Part of it is that it's an incredibly catchy song, and that crazy mid-song breakdown is part of what makes it thus. But moreso, it's the lyrics, and the general tone of the song. I'm not entirely sure what the song's about, since the lyrics aren't printed, but I've picked up a lot of it over the years, so I think I get the general idea. It's a song of frustration. It documents that moment in a relationship where all of the unspoken irritations that have been building up over the past however long finally get spoken out loud. I don't think it's so much about a romantic relationship, though, as a friend or group of friends. I had plenty of friends like that when I was younger, who I hung out with because I always had, but who made me uncomfortable and sad a lot of the time. I eventually did have it out with all of those kids, and now I'm pretty sure I don't have any friends like that, but figuring out how to get from there to here was a necessary part of my growth into an adult, and I'm sure it is for a lot of people. Lately I've been feeling frustrated about other things, though. It's not fair weather friends that are getting me down, it's stagnation in general, this feeling that my life isn't going anywhere. There aren't any people in my life that I find myself hating at this point, and there's no one that I want to go away. But when Garrett sings, "I've got to fool myself into believing that I might be stuck," I know how that goes. Because it's the truth--if I want to move, if I want to stop stagnating, it's my decision. The problem is, I don't know what to do or where to go. So it's easier to tell myself I don't have any choice in the matter than to admit my choices exist and then struggle over which one to make.

No wonder I've been walking around with this song stuck in my head all month.

Texas Is The Reason - If It's Here When We Get Back It's Ours