Val Lewton's "Cat People."

"Cat People" was the first of Val Lewton's ten or so classic horror movies of the mid-40s. These films attained their classic status despite being made as quickie B movies with low budgets, short runtimes, and an almost complete lack of star power in the casting. What made them different, what made them important, was Val Lewton himself, who had innovative ideas about horror and suspense and the way to portray them onscreen, as well as an active imagination which provided him with interesting and original storylines.

At least, this is what I've always heard. I only saw "Cat People" for the first time last night, and I'd never seen any other Lewton films before. Until last night, therefore, I wasn't sure whether the standard line about Lewton was righteous praise or overblown hype. Now that I've seen "Cat People," though, I'm convinced. I'm going to be hunting down more of his films as soon as I can.

The plot of "Cat People" centers on a young Serbian immigrant to New York, Irena Dubrovna, who is played by the enchanting French actress Simone Simon. At the beginning of the film, while making sketches of a panther held in captivity in the Central Park Zoo, she encounters a young man named Oliver Reed, played by Kent Smith. She and Oliver begin seeing each other, and soon fall in love and get married, but always, Irena fears her own desires and passion for Oliver, and will not even kiss him, let alone make love to him. She tells Oliver a story of her village in Serbia, about how a group of Mamelukes took it over for a while, and how King John of Serbia had to retake the village and drive the Mamelukes out. When he did, he found that the people of the village had become corrupt and begun worshipping Satan, and that the women had become witches and developed the power to turn into large, predatory cats (like the panther in the zoo). King John killed many of these corrupt women but the most powerful of them escaped to the mountains. Irena tells Oliver that the evil of these cat women still haunts her village to this day, and makes clear that she is afraid that, if she ever physically expressed her own passion for him, she'd turn into a cat herself and tear him apart.

Maybe a 1940s era audience would see this line of thought differently, but to me it seems full of psychosexual symbolism. Irena is really just a woman who fears her own passions, and any element of her personality that is easily contained and controlled. She fears expression of any emotions other than the most sensible, because she thinks they'll destroy her ability to behave in a socially acceptable manner. What she fears is the possibility that her deep-down true self is something other than the charming, genteel woman that, in the company of others, she portrays herself to be. And regardless of how clear this would have been to 1940s audiences, it's certainly clear to Val Lewton, who spends the rest of the movie expanding on a central question: Is Irena really able to turn into a cat? Or is it all in her mind?

The plot thickens with the contrasting of Irena with Alice, played by Jane Randolph. Rather than having that old-world sensibility that drives Irena, Alice is a modern, independent woman, as close to the feminist model as would have existed at this point in American history. She's a brassy dame who dresses fashionably, cracks jokes with the guys, and works in Oliver's office, where she is basically the equal of the men who work there. She and Irena get along well enough at first, but as Irena and Oliver's relationship becomes more difficult, more fraught with tension, Irena's perception of Alice changes. It's Alice that recommends the psychotherapist, Dr. Judd, that Irena sees, but Irena doesn't know this until after her first visit. When she learns that Oliver has discussed with Alice the problems that are occurring in their marriage, she feels angry at having her secrets disclosed to another woman, but also threatened by Alice's awareness of her vulnerability.

Sure enough, Alice soon proclaims to Oliver that she loves him. It doesn't seem that this is an overt attempt by Alice to take Oliver away from Irena, as she continues to try and help him fix his relationship with Irena for a while afterwards, but one can't help but think that she's also taking advantage of the fact that his relationship with Irena is more vulnerable at this point, which makes Oliver a more receptive target for the affections of another woman. For the rest of the movie, as Irena becomes more and more distracted from her daily life and fixated on the panther in the zoo, the contrast between her and sensible, self-possessed Alice becomes more pointed. Oliver begins to spend more time with Alice, both at the office and in more social situations, and, while nothing untoward happens between them, this nonetheless pushes Irena further and further towards distraction.

Irena's anger at Alice leads directly to the film's most frightening sequences. One occurs when Alice and Oliver share a post-work meal at a diner near their office. Irena has followed Oliver to the diner, and spies on the two of them from outside. When Oliver and Alice go their separate ways after finishing their meal, Irena follows Alice, who walks home down empty streets, moving from pools of light thrown by streetlamps into sections of complete darkness. These moments of contrasting light and dark are but one of several sequences in which light and dark are used innovatively by the film's director, Jacques Tourneur. The stark, heavily contrasted feel that's created during all of these sequences seems like either a direct precursor to or the de facto beginning of the film noir movement. Considering that Tourneur went on to direct the noir classic "Out Of The Past" only five years later, the fact that he was already experimenting with noir effects makes sense in retrospect.

As Alice realizes that she is being pursued and, becoming afraid, walks faster and faster, we are never shown what pursues her. Irena is behind her at one point--we hear her echoing footsteps--but by the time Alice has become afraid, all we see is Alice herself. So what is behind her? It's never certain, because just in the nick of time, a bus pulls up and bears Alice away. Even in later scenes, when we do see something that looks like a panther, it's always briefly and indistinctly. And even then, there's also the possibility that Irena has let the panther from the zoo loose, rather than turned into one herself. During her visit with Dr. Judd, he says something that sticks with her--that many of us carry a desire to "unleash evil upon the world." Irena recognizes this desire inside herself, and that the battle with this desire is the same battle she wages to keep herself from succumbing to her passions.

Dr. Judd and his theories are themselves a pretty interesting element of this film. Horror movies are often driven by a deeply conservative impulse, and one of the main ways in which that impulse is expressed in horror movies is by treating the ideas of psychotherapy with contempt. There's plenty of room for Val Lewton to take that route in "Cat People," and what's noteworthy is that he avoids it. Dr. Judd tries to tell Irena that her fears of transforming into a vicious cat are all in her mind. In fact, he basically echoes the subtext of the entire film, telling Irena that she's really afraid of giving in to her passions and desires and, in so doing, losing control of herself and her life. There could be cognitive dissonance here between text and subtext, resulting in the audience dismissing the subtext with cries of "But she really CAN turn into a cat!" It speaks well for Lewton that he has not allowed the audience to draw that conclusion, maintaining an air of ambiguity that forces us to consider Dr. Judd's theories with at least a somewhat open mind. After all, we really don't know if Irena can transform into a cat.

The ambiguous treatment of psychotherapy in the film ties in well with Lewton's treatment of the main characters in the film. We are shown all of the main characters in a variety of situations, both alone and interacting with others. If any character in the film is the evil figure of a traditional horror film, it is Irena herself, but Lewton does more to make her a sympathetic character than he does with anyone else in the film. In particular, the men of the film, Oliver and Dr. Judd, would traditionally be seen as the heroes, they who maintain control and restore order. However, Oliver seems more overtaken by events than anything. He's a solid person without too much emotional depth, and he seems to understand neither Irena nor Alice on any deeper level. Dr. Judd portrays himself at first as the helpful psychotherapist, only interested in helping Irena, but as the film continues and she struggles more and more with her fears of her potential transformation, Judd grows impatient and frustrated. At one point, he berates Irena for "verging on insanity," and uses the possibility of his having her committed as a threat. He appears intent in this scene on frightening Irena into sanity, while at the same time acting as if her potential descent into madness is the willful behavior of a recalcitrant child rather than something that should by definition be out of her control. This is another scene that could be used by Lewton as an opportunity to show contempt for psychotherapy, but instead, the scene reflects badly on Dr. Judd as a person.

Finally, there's Alice. While the plot of the film sets her up as Irena's adversary, she is portrayed almost as sympathetically as Irena. While we know from early on that she has her own desire for Oliver, she continues to support him in his attempts to treat Irena properly. She and Oliver never do anything that constitutes Oliver cheating on Irena; Alice never even tries to kiss him, instead acting throughout the film as his friend rather than as a potential lover. As the closest thing the time period had to a truly liberated woman, what Alice represents is something that Irena could be if only she would let go of her fears. Alice is in touch with her feelings, secure in herself, and unafraid to express herself even when it means being less than perfectly genteel. The contrast between the two characters is interesting in part because it seems impossible to imagine Irena going from where she is to where Alice is. In many ways, it seems, she is a prisoner of the ideas she was raised with, the opposite of a "liberated" woman, even though she also has a career independent of Oliver's (as a fashion artist). She knows this too, lamenting to Oliver early in the film that she envies the women she sees on the street every day. "They are happy, and they make their husbands happy," she tells him. "They are free." She knows she is not free, and she knows that she is imprisoned by things that lie within her; what she never understands is something Dr. Judd tells her early on--only she can set herself free.

On the surface, "Cat People" is a horror film, one with an original premise, innovative direction, and some truly terrifying scenes. It deserves its reputation as a horror classic. But it's also, at its heart, a tragedy, the story of one woman's fight against the less appealing aspects of her nature. It speaks well for Val Lewton that he seemed to know this, that his film ended up with this subtext not by happy accident but through careful design. I definitely want to see more of his work now.

As for "Cat People," I wouldn't feel right revealing how it all ends for Irena, Oliver, Alice, and Dr. Judd, as you deserve to experience it for yourself. But regardless of the resolution, which does remove a great deal of the ambiguity that permeates most of the film, the tragedy at its heart remains. "Cat People" is not only a horror film but a feminist, even a humanist, parable. Life is hardest for those, like Irena, who cannot accept and love themselves for who they are.



Movie Diary: Three short films by Kenneth Anger.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine gave me a DVD called "The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Vol. One." It includes five of his earliest films, most notably "Fireworks." I was very excited to get the gift, but for whatever reason, wasn't in the right mood to watch it until tonight. I saw the first three of the included films tonight, following the viewing of each with its commentary track by Anger.

FIREWORKS is Anger's earliest extant film, made in 1947, when he was 20 years old. What I'd heard about this film before I saw it related primarily to its homoerotic content, and its place in the history of queer cinema and the representation of homosexuality in culture. Anger was arrested on obscenity charges at the time of release, but was acquitted, as the court judged the film to be art. I definitely agree that it is, and a fascinating piece of art at that. A lot of times, when I'm about to hear a record, or see a movie, that I've been hearing about for a long time, I prepare myself for an inevitable disappointment, as they are almost never as interesting to hear or see as they were to read about. This is definitely not the case with "Fireworks." This 15 minute film totally lived up to its hype, and was equal parts transgressive, fascinating, and frightening. The film is based on a dream, and its plot is as vague and at times surreal, even contradictory, as dreams can be, but it nonetheless paints a powerful picture. Anger is the star in addition to the writer and director, and at the beginning of the film, he is shown being carried by a man in a sailor uniform. This immediately cuts to him waking up in a bed in what appears to be a squalid apartment (in the commentary, I learn that it's the living room of his parents' house with all the furniture cleared out). He stumbles around the room with his shirt off and pants undone, staring confusedly at various sculptures, then gets fully dressed and leaves the apartment. He has a couple of encounters with men that he appears to be flirting with, but gets nowhere. Then a group of rough looking sailors with chains and other blunt instruments set upon him in the street, beating the shit out of him and finally tearing open his chest, inside of which, in place of his heart, is some sort of mechanical dial. More vaguely connected scenes follow, including one in which Anger lies naked and in a suggestive pose on the floor of a public bathroom (cruising reference, anyone?). Finally, the most famous scene in the film comes near the end, as a bodybuilder in a sailor uniform opens the fly of his pants to reveal a roman candle that shoots sparks triumphantly into the air. A burning Christmas tree is dragged through the character's apartment, and then he finally wakes up, to find the sailor lying in bed with him.

It's funny, I expected this film to seem tame now, 62 years after it was originally produced, and in some ways it does, but in other ways, it's just as surprising and transgressive as it always was. And if you think of the original context in which it was produced, it's even more interesting, as there are some pretty direct challenges to the viewer coded within it. One is forced to sympathize with the victim of a gay-bashing, which must have been unheard of at the time. Anger says on the commentary that the idea for the film came from the zoot suit riots of WWII era LA, but one can't help but imagine that he related the persecution of Mexican-American teenagers in those riots with similar persecution dealt out to gay men. A lot of the imagery used in the film is powerful and stays in your mind even if you are a post-milennial viewer with a completely different sociopolitical outlook than would have been standard at the time.

PUCE MOMENT, from 1949, was the least impressive of the three films I saw, and I blame that on the fact that it's actually just an unfinished fragment of a larger planned film called "Puce Women." This film was intended by Anger to be a tribute to the silent-film actresses of the 1920s, and the segment that he did complete, which makes up "Puce Moment," is a sequence in which a silent-era actress, played by Yvonne Marquis, selects a puce gown from her closet, puts it on, puts on some perfume, and takes several Borzoi dogs, which one assumes are hers, for a walk. This entire sequence is passes very slowly, with at least the first fourth of the six-minute film just consisting of gowns of various colors passing in front of the camera. This sequence has an impressive look--unlike "Fireworks," which was filmed in black and white, "Puce Moment" is shot in color, and in fact its colors are hyper-real, seeming even more overstated and glowing than those of the Technicolor process. The colors seem to burn, and when this is combined with Anger's use of variant film speeds in order to evoke silent-era film processes, it makes the whole thing seem dreamlike--a recurring theme in his work. There are fascinating elements to this film, no doubt, and I found it even more interesting that the gowns in it were donated by Anger's grandmother, who had been a Hollywood costume designer during the silent film era. The gowns in it were apparently all worn by real silent film stars. That's really cool, and the look of the film is really cool too, but I just wish Anger had completed the project. As it is, the incompleteness makes it far less interesting than it could have been, had more things actually happened in it.

RABBIT'S MOON, from 1950, was the final film that I saw tonight. I knew nothing about this one before seeing it, but it made at least as powerful an impression on me as "Fireworks." In fact, the reason for that may well have been that I was prepared for what I'd see in "Fireworks," whereas "Rabbit's Moon" took me completely by surprise. The filming for it was done in Paris in 1950, on a stage that Anger only had access to for a month. He didn't complete the entire film until over 20 years later, and produced both a 16 minute version and a 9 minute version at two different times during the 70s. The version I saw was the 16 minute version, and I found it to be sublimely beautiful. I was really surprised to even have this reaction, actually, as the movie is basically a pantomime show. The title refers to a Japanese myth that the moon has a rabbit living within it (similar to the Western concept of the man in the moon, but transformed to a rabbit due to the differing angle from which the moon is seen in Japan than in the US and Europe), and the film combines elements of this Japanese myth with the Italian tradition of the Commedia dell'arte. The main character is Pierrot, traditionally a bumbling, foolish character. He is dressed all in white in the film, which is color but appears very similar to a black and white film most of the time, as Anger uses monochromatic lighting and sets that strongly emphasize light and dark. There is a dark blue tint to the film most of the time, which takes place at night. Pierrot is fascinated by the moon and its glowing light, and the first third or so of the film is taken up by his gazing lovingly upon the moon, timidly approaching it and then dancing away, as if it's a lover playing hard to get. Throughout the film, 50s doo-wop singles play, and they worked so incredibly well as a soundtrack that it made me glad that Anger took so long to finish the film. If he'd finished it in 1950, it would have been done before these doo-wop records existed, and I can't imagine any other soundtrack working nearly as well. The lyrics of the songs coordinate somewhat with the actions in the film, the first two being "There's A Moon Out Tonight" by the Capris and "Oh What A Night" by the Dells. Very little actually happens in this portion of the film, but the sounds and images are so beautiful that I found myself riveted. All of the actors in this film were members of Marcel Marceau's mime school, and all of their onscreen behavior is very much within the pantomime tradition. I've always been someone who made fun of mimes mercilessly, who saw the entire art form as a huge joke, and it was a revelation to see it the way it was used in "Rabbit's Moon." In fact, for me, this film completely validates the existence of pantomime. The extremely stylized gestures and actions of Pierrot and the other characters are completely anti-realistic, and yet it works to tell a story that rings emotionally true, in a manner that I'd say is even more effective than many realistic portrayals.

What eventually happens is that Harlequin, the classic commedia dell'arte character of the trickster, shows up to enchant Pierrot. At first he does this with his miming of illusory feats of acrobatics. Then he conjures up a Magic Lantern, and shows to Pierrot the image of Columbine, the female trickster, who bewitches Pierrot with her beauty. Whether she is even there, or merely an illusion created by the Magic Lantern, is open to question, but regardless, Pierrot falls head over heels for her. The film's predominantly blue color scheme is broken up by her arrival, as the first images we see that are cast by the Magic Lantern (various drawn images of the sun) are all shown with a bright red background. The film returns to the blue color scheme after these images are shown, and as Columbine dances around in front of a flowing silk backdrop, Pierrot attempts to win her over by presenting her with beams of light from his beloved moon. He wants to gain her love by showing her his own favorite objects of beauty, but Columbine dismisses these as trifles, and wants something more material from Pierrot, which he of course has no power to give. Harlequin, watching all of this in the background, is amused at Pierrot's rejection and despair, and eventually joins with Columbine to make clear to Pierrot just where Columbine's interest lies. Pierrot is overcome by this realization, and experiences it as an eclipse of the moon, which is enough to make him pass out in anguish. Throughout this entire sequence, the classic Flamingos song "I Only Have Eyes For You" plays. I've always loved this song, but still, I saw an entire new dimension of it when hearing it juxtaposed with the images in the film. The echoing, atmospheric elements of its performance and production give it an air of sublime, transcendent beauty. The song only has the sound that it has due to the primitive state of the art at the time of its recording, but this is completely irrelevant, and if anything, it's awesome that that primitive state of the art directly contributed to some of the best elements of the song.

Another element of this sequence that I found sadly beautiful was in Pierrot's idealistic worship of beauty for its own sake, and his attempt to win Columbine over through tactics that would only work on someone with a like mindset. This idea resonated with experiences that I've had in my own life, as I tend to care far more about ideals of love, art, and beauty, at the expense of practical considerations like stability and financial success. This has hurt me in my past romantic relationships, and I saw myself in Pierrot, trying to present someone with completely impractical beauty and finding that such things, which seem so wonderful to myself, don't matter nearly as much to the object of my affection.

I really enjoyed seeing these films, and if anything, they exceeded my expectations. I came into this viewing of Kenneth Anger's films prepared to be shocked, titillated, and impressed by his violent, homoerotic content. I found all of that in "Fireworks," as I expected. What I didn't expect was to experience a sublime, heartbreaking portrayal of stylized beauty, as I did in "Rabbit's Moon." Seeing that side of Anger's work, and realizing that he has a lot more to offer than just transgression, made this an even richer viewing experience than I expected. And there are still two films left on this DVD for me to watch ("Eaux D'artifice" and "Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome"). I'm excited to check them out, and hopefully I'll get to them soon.

I don't have mp3s of the doo-wop songs I wrote about above, but here are some posts on my blip.fm account featuring songs from "Rabbit's Moon":

The Flamingos - I Only Have Eyes For You
The Capris - There's A Moon Out Tonight
The Dells - Oh What A Night

Labels: ,


Movie Diary: Two Lane Blacktop.

So last night I saw "Two Lane Blacktop," which came out in 1970 and had pretty much the exact vibe of "Easy Rider" only with two drag racers instead of motorcycle guys. The drag racer guys were played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, both of whom looked like rugged hot dudes that would hang out in my social circle (so, like stoner rock dudes). The basic plot of the movie, such that it has one (see previous "Easy Rider" comparison) was that they had a run in with Warren Oates, driving a brand new GTO, and challenged him to a cross-country race, with the winner getting the titles to both cars. For the record, the young drag racers are driving a souped-up 55 Chevy. A drifting teenage girl, played by Laurie Bird (none of the characters had names--in the credits they were identified as "Driver", "Mechanic", "GTO", and "Girl"), starts out riding along in Taylor and Wilson's car, but eventually becomes just as much of a driving emotional force in the film as the race itself, as all three of the men compete for her affections. After a little while, I started to think that the film wasn't really about a race at all, that nothing I was seeing was as it seemed, and eventually some deeper point would be revealed. Well, I won't spoil the ending or anything, and I'm not even all that sure that I know what the deeper point actually was, but things definitely mutated as the movie proceeded, and by the latter half of it, GTO and the drag racers were collaborating to keep each other's cars moving. The movie seemed less like a race and more like a collaborative cross-country trip. Again, similar to "Easy Rider," in that the drug deal that movie is ostensibly about never really seems like the point.

I really liked this movie. I'm a sucker for those New Hollywood-era barely-plotted slow-moving slices of life, and "Two Lane Blacktop" is a quintessential example of such a thing. There's almost no real dialogue, and a lot of it seems improvised (watching the commentary afterwards, I learned that a lot of it was). James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, being musicians rather than actors, could have been lame pretty faces, but their quiet, stone-faced performances actually fit the characters and the mood of the movie completely, and I think they probably did better in it than real actors would have. Warren Oates is awesome as always, and Laurie Bird... well, she's got a little bit of that annoying chirpiness of Susan George's character in "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry," but at heart her character is probably the toughest one in the movie. She definitely seems the most in control of her destiny, and the question of which of the men she'll end up with is answered only by her, and never by the men competing with each other. In her own quiet way, she's a far more feminist-positive female lead than you'd expect in a film like this, especially one made 40 years ago.

This movie isn't quite as metaphysical as "Vanishing Point," and it's not as weird as "Easy Rider" gets at points, but I'd say it's very similar to both, and fans of either one would probably really dig it. I sure did.



The Jonas Brothers are capitalist pigs.

From an article in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine:

"Though the JoBros' backing band and crew will travel in a fleet of 13 buses trailed by 19 trucks of gear, the boys will fly from city to city with their parents and management on a leased 767, making frequent overnight trips back to [their home in] Dallas. The 53-date outing features their most elaborate and expensive production yet--a multi-million dollar traveling theater-in-the-round, conceived in large part by the trio's hyperactive 21-year-old guitarist, Kevin. Last December, Kevin flipped over a circular couch in their dressing room in Mexico to demonstrate his vision for a round stage with pieces that raise and lower like pizza slices."

This kind of thing both blows my mind and appalls me. I understand that the Jonas Brothers have huge mainstream appeal, that they perform to stadium crowds every night, and that they need equipment that can pump out the kind of volume that allows all of that crowd to hear what they're doing. For this reason, I don't think it would be unreasonable to take two or three buses for assorted band and crew, plus several trucks for equipment, on a national tour. But when we're looking at a total of 32 road vehicles as well as a small chartered plane to whisk the stars of the show in and out, so that they can avoid the "rigors" of over-the-road travel, things have long since passed out of the realm of excuse. I noticed a similar phenomenon when reading a recent RS article about Aerosmith, in which it was chronicled without surprise that each band member has their own entire tour bus. There are five people in Aerosmith; you mean to tell me that they couldn't all fit on one bus? There's no reason for this kind of lavish expenditure. People complain about how the cheap seats at mainstream rock concerts these days will run you over $150 apiece; this is why!

Another thing about the quoted excerpt above that I find appalling is Rolling Stone's complete detachment from the implications of the facts they're reporting. It's like "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous" was back in the 80s: a breathless chronicle of the lavish expenditures that are effortlessly afforded by the super-rich. Rolling Stone might elsewhere run an item about the shamefully high ticket prices in today's live music industry (in fact, there's one in this issue!), and they might even occasionally note the problematic carbon footprints of large-scale touring efforts by mainstream pop music acts, but they'd never let that sort of vague attempt at journalistic responsibility bleed over into their puff-piece features about teenybopper acts, would they? Apparently not. It's ridiculous. And before you ask, let me just assure you that, if it weren't for the high quality of political journalism and commentary that they publish (especially the work of Matt Taibbi, who has an excellent piece about the corruption of Goldman Sachs in this same issue), I would have cancelled my subscription years ago. Where music is concerned, Rolling Stone has long since lost all credibility.



Taking Back Sunday are new again.

I had cause to be nervous about the new Taking Back Sunday album, and it's a cause that I've had before. For the third time in four albums, they've had a major lineup change, and just as in previous cases, I was worried that this change would ruin their sound. Previously, after their excellent first album, "Tell All Your Friends," a rift between main vocalist Adam Lazzara and guitarist/second vocalist John Nolan led Noland and bassist Shaun Cooper to quit and start their own group, Straylight Run. Internet rumors led me to think that Nolan was the injured party in the split, and that Lazzara was the one who acted like a dick and caused the whole thing. And you can read all about my feelings at the time by scrolling all the way back to this blog's very first post, from five years ago. Funny how that works, isn't it? Anyway, Nolan's essential role in the band was filled by former Breaking Pangaea guitarist Fred Mascherino, and TBS went on to make what is still my favorite album by them, "Where You Want To Be." So at least in that case, I needn't have worried.

But now, two albums later, previous saving grace Mascherino has left the band. This felt like real cause for worry. Could they possibly get lucky twice? Or, really, three times? After all, on their out of print and little-heard self-titled debut EP, their lineup had been completely different even from that of "Tell All Your Friends." Original vocalist Antonio Longo sang on that EP, and on the first of two sessions, the backing vocalist role had been filled by bassist Jesse Lacey. If you think you recognize that name, you're right--he left TBS after recording only two songs with them in order to front the band Brand New, with whom he's had a successful career that lasts even to this very day. His leaving prompted the original saving-grace arrival to Taking Back Sunday, that of Adam Lazzara, originally the band's bassist and backing vocalist. After that first EP, when Longo left the band, Lazzara switched to lead vocals and Nolan took the backing vocal role. So really, being able to replace Mascherino on backing vocals would constitute being lucky a good bit more than twice.

Maybe they realized they'd pushed their luck to the breaking point, and that's why new second guitarist Matthew Fazzi seems not to sing at all on TBS's aptly named fourth album, "New Again." There are a few instances of backing vocals on the album, though generally only on the choruses of songs, and even then they are mixed far in the background and appear to just be additional tracks of Lazzara rather than anyone else. Maybe this just means that Fazzi joined the band too late to be written into the songs from this album, but regardless, the loss of a vocal foil for Lazzara changes the Taking Back Sunday sound in very significant ways. A lot of what made the best songs on their previous albums so great was that vocal interplay, as on "There's No 'I' In Team," from "Tell All Your Friends," in which John Nolan's vocals constitute the other half of a conversation/argument with Lazzara's vocals, or on "A Decade Under The Influence," from "Where You Want To Be," in which Adam Lazzara narrated an uncomfortable car ride while Fred Mascherino, often singing at the same time as Lazzara, gave voice to Lazzara's unexpressed feelings ("I've got a bad feeling about this").

The closest "New Again" comes to this sort of vocal interplay is on "Swing," which was the first song on the album to really catch my attention. During the verses of the song, as Lazzara sings his lead vocals, a low, quiet backing vocal repeats the phrase "How long," which Lazzara responds to: "...before I'm just a memory? ...before you can't remember me?" I wish the backing vocals weren't mixed so low, but I'll take what I can get, and they work well the way they're used. The chorus is very effective too. Lazzara sings of a frustrating relationship, in which he, the hopeless romantic that's always willing to take the risk, can't get the object of his affections to take the chance on romance. He urges her to go for it, but phrases the taking of the risk in the form of a punch: "Lover, lover on the fence, bat your eyes, ball your fist and swing." As he reaches the final word, multiple backing vocals swirl around him, repeating "swing" several times in different harmonic variations. It's a gorgeous sound, and probably the single moment on this album that most closely resembles the best parts of previous TBS albums. I'm also a big fan of the second half of the chorus, in which Lazzara sings, "Lover, lover, tell me this: passion over consequence--when did the latter take the lead?" With this perfectly turned phrase, Lazzara encapsulates the entire dilemma that the song revolves around, and makes clear that the cautious path has so much less to offer than the risk of romance.

"Swing" is without a doubt the best song on this album, and it attains a level of greatness that is, if not equivalent to, at least very close to the brilliance of the first three songs on "Where You Want To Be" (for my money, the best 10 minutes of Taking Back Sunday's recorded history). There are a couple of other songs on this album that also reach that level. "Summer, Man," which also features at least limited use of backing vocals (mostly delivering wordless croons), has a chorus just as catchy as that of "Swing." Over a sad, wistful minor-chord progression, Lazzara sings, "The summer is over and I doubt that I'll be seeing you around." This song, about the end of a friendship, seems to refer to Fred Mascherino's less-than-amicable departure from TBS. "Prove to the world what you already proved--that you just couldn't do it on your own," Lazzara sings, referring, one assumes, to Mascherino's solo project, which won't be as good as the next TBS record. And actually, I've heard that The Color Fred is pretty bad, but I guess I should listen for myself before I judge. Truth is, though, I don't like even thinking about this inter-band conflicts. I didn't want to have to worry about taking sides back when "Where You Want To Be" came out; I just wanted to hear more good records from a band that I'd loved. I feel the same way now. The fact that Fred Mascherino was just as essential ingredient to earlier TBS greatness leaves me with equally warm feelings for him and Lazzara. Fortunately, "Summer, Man" doesn't force me to even worry about all of this if I don't want to. It's a catchy song with exactly the sort of melancholy undertone that I like in my modern pop-emo, the stuff that reflects my own constantly roiling emotional sensibility. As I said back in that first post, I'm still feeling the emotional shocks of my day to day life every bit as intensely as I did back when I was 15, so if that leads me to love music that's typically for teenagers, then so be it. Taking Back Sunday is really good at being music for emotionally disturbed teenagers like me, which is why I love them.

Getting back to "New Again," there's one more shining light of brilliance on this album, and that is its closing track, "Everything Must Go." Taking Back Sunday haven't given any of their albums really powerful closing statements since "Tell All Your Friends," which ended with John Nolan singing over and over the opening line from Johnny Cash's "Understand Your Man" ("Don't call my name out your window, I'm leaving") as Lazzara wailed "I'm sick of writing every song about you." That moment still has the power to reduce me to tears if I'm not feeling particularly stable (and lately, I never am). The two albums from the Mascherino era, though, were stronger on beginnings than endings, and neither "Slowdance On The Inside" nor "I'll Let You Live" ever struck me as particularly strong tracks.

"Everything Must Go" is a welcome change from this trend. It's on the slower side of things for Taking Back Sunday, but avoids their tendency towards balladry, instead showcasing their heaviest chorus since "Bonus Mosh Part II," from "Where You Want To Be" (part of that best 10 minutes of their career that I mentioned earlier). The lyrics are both a narration of and an emotional reaction to the breaking off of Adam Lazzara's engagement with Eisley guitarist Chauntelle DuPree. Some elements of these lyrics resonate with similar themes from "Louder Now"'s "Miami," a track on which Lazzara seemed to be explaining to a significant other his own struggles with religion, and reconciling his checkered past with a current need for fidelity. On that track, Lazzara made comments like, "So long as you don't torture me with my past," "You just have to trust me--whoever I was then, I can't ever be again," and "The terror held in wedding bells, the comfort in 'there's no one else'." The line that stands out to me the most (in addition to a tossed off "god damn me" on the song's final chorus) is "The faith you've found I've never felt," which was printed three times the size of the rest of the song's lyrics on the album's lyric sheet. Religion was obviously a tough subject for Adam Lazzara circa 2006, one he was not at all sure of his feelings about. Now, Adam Lazzara circa 2009, on the chorus of a song he wrote about breaking up with his fiancee, snarls: "You quote the Good Book when it's convenient," and follows that with, "but you don't have the sense to tie your tangled tongue. Instead, you're slashing through the mud." If "Miami" was a song about learning to live with the less-than-perfect elements of his relationship with DuPree, "Everything Must Go" is a song about how, in the end, she couldn't do that, and neither could he. My last relationship was a long time ago (ended soon after that first blog entry about Taking Back Sunday, in fact), but it was with a religious person who ultimately couldn't handle my own agnosticism (among several other elements of my personality). Therefore, "Everything Must Go" hits close to home for me. Lazzara's frustrated listing of objects that once added up to domestic bliss and are now just trash for him to clear away ("hand-me-down couch and chair that used to be at your church--we borrowed them from there") is as wrenching for him to make as it is for us to hear. As he is about to launch into the final chorus, he asks, "Oh Lord, what have I done?" The implications are different, more sinister, than you'd normally expect from a cry to the lord, and that's only amplified by his return to the bitter line about quoting the "Good Book" when it's convenient. Oh Lord, I've been there.

There's plenty to like about the new Taking Back Sunday album. In addition to the three major highlights I've listed above, there are several other high-quality anthems here. The opening title track is a driving, catchy track that falls on the melodic hardcore side of Taking Back Sunday's musical spectrum. "Lonely, Lonely" is a more aggressive tune driven by chunka-chunk verses and a moshy half-speed bridge that would be at home on a Glassjaw album, contrasting them brilliantly with another great catchy chorus. "Cut Me Up, Jenny" has a bouncy verse riff that seems like something Jimmy Eat World would come up with, and "Capital M-E" is melodic alt-rock that does the trick for me even if its lyrics are obviously a Fred Mascherino dis.

All of this having been said, I have to admit that "New Again" is a step downwards in quality. It's certainly my least favorite Taking Back Sunday album thus far. Considering that I've adored all of their previous albums, those are hardly strong words of rebuke. Also, considering just how much I've played it since downloading it, and furthermore considering that I'm planning to buy it next time I get paid, none of this is to say that it's not good. It's a good record. I just wish it was a bit better. This album's ballad, "Where My Mouth Is," is interesting due to its forthcoming lyrical content about Adam Lazzara's drug addiction and time in rehab, but features music that only barely keeps me from reaching for the skip button. "Sink Into Me," the first single and the song that seems to get the most praise from mainstream reviewers, is relatively uncharacteristic for TBS. With a bridge driven by handclaps and shouts of "Hey! Hey!", it sounds too much like something from an alternative radio rock band that I don't dig. The chorus saves it, because you can always count on Lazzara and co. to come up with a great chorus, but in the end, it's disappointing. In fact, the first time I heard this song was on the radio, and I didn't recognize it as Taking Back Sunday. I liked it all right, but I was expecting it to be by the sort of guilty-pleasure band that I don't usually cop to liking in public (Matchbook Romance and, ummmmmm, Lost Prophets are good examples of this). When the DJ announced it as the new Taking Back Sunday single, I wasn't sure how to feel. That experience had just as much to do with my trepidation about this album as news of Mascherino's departure, actually.

One more thing I must mention--the production on "New Again" is the worst Taking Back Sunday have ever gotten, and it's almost certainly due to them attempting to get better production. They recorded "Where You Want To Be" with celebrated punk producer Lou Giordano, but the lion's share of "New Again" was produced by David Kahne, who has worked with such worthies as Paul McCartney, Sublime, Sugar Ray, The Bangles, and Stevie Nicks. I don't hate all of those artists, but I certainly don't think that a post-hardcore emo band should be going to someone who has worked with them for production. A few songs on the album were apparently produced by Matt Squire, who typically works with other commercially successful emo bands such as Panic At The Disco, The Explosion, and Thrice. I don't know who produced which tracks, but I'm highly suspicious that my favorite tracks on the album, which all tend to sound less polished and more punk, were produced by Matt Squire. I wish they'd worked with him on the entire album.

In the end, the positive factors outweigh the negatives, and I'm sure I'll continue to play "New Again" regularly for a good while. Taking Back Sunday has been one of my favorite bands of the past decade, and even if their latest album isn't quite up to previous standards, it's nowhere near enough for me to stop liking them. I'm not sure if seeing them live now would be quite as thrilling as it once would have been; after all, who sings the Nolan/Mascherino parts when they play the old songs these days? I'm also not at all sure what the future will bring for them; this album could easily be a transition record that leads to more brilliant work in the future, but it could also be the beginning of an inexorable downhill slide. Only time will tell. For now, though, I'm going to focus on the positives, and rock out to the truly great songs that are here.

Taking Back Sunday - "Summer, Man," "Swing," and "Everything Must Go"