Thursday, August 25, 2011

Record Review: Richard Buckner - Our Blood

Here’s a potentially misplaced but genuinely held theory for you to consider: Richard Buckner’s new album, Our Blood, is so casual in its execution that many listeners may be overlooking the fact that it is, in most every respect, totally inspired. I mean really, truly inspired—a streamlined, no bullshit singer-songwriter effort rendered as acutely affecting and quietly soul-piercing as anything released all year. So while Buckner’s nonchalance is a big part of his and this album’s charm, the unexpected frustration Our Blood occasionally elicits in me has an equal amount to do with the fact that most other artists working this vein are simply lazy in comparison. Sure, if Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo proved anything this year, it’s that slackers can still pull it together every so often, but nevertheless there’s something beautiful about hearing professionalism chiseled to its bare essence. From this perspective, then, Our Blood is something of an anti-Smoke Ring: laser-focused melodies, expert, unfussy musicianship, and an intricate, crystal-clear mix. It’s disarming in its immediacy, and impressive in its narrow yet rich home studio aura.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 8 - Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut

This week's edition of ReFramed tackles yet another legendary director with a masterful but deeply misunderstood final film... in this case Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, an incredibly dense and sophisticated work that's been widely and unfairly panned since its release.
Calum Marsh: Well, Jordan, here we are again: we’ve found yet another legendary director with a masterful but deeply misunderstood final film. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme and John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, both of which we’ve celebrated in these pages before, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is an incredibly dense and sophisticated work that’s been widely and unfairly panned since its release. The film does have its vocal defenders, of course, and its reputation has improved marginally since 1999, but the pervading critical sentiment seems even now to be one of confusion and disappointment. This attitude of dismissiveness persuaded me to avoid Eyes Wide Shut for years, in fact, because I’d been so thoroughly prepared for something incoherent or half-baked—and I’m sure I’m not the only person who approached under a similar assumption. When I finally gave the film a chance, at the behest of some very trustworthy cinephile friends, it was downright revelatory: here was a rich, beautiful film that had so much to say about guilt, obsession, love, commitment, and, of course, about sexuality, and not only was it not a complete mess, it was pretty much pitch-perfect in every way. I literally do not understand why this isn’t universally adored.

Jordan Cronk: I actually feel like the film’s reputation has grown quite a bit since its release. Of course, that could just be amongst film fans that I correspond with, but there is no denying that the film still carries with it an air confusion. I think that partly comes down to subject matter, but also expectations for a filmmaker who was at the time returning to the medium for the first time in a dozen years. To me, however, that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the film: I’ve always been intrigued about why Kubrick wanted to make this film. Thematically it fits within his oeuvre to a much more appropriate degree than most give it credit for, but judging by the results, this was an extremely personal film for Kubrick to make. Its austere veneer—something that Kubrick detractors always single out with little regard for his motivation—can be off-putting, but it’s a such a soulful, honest film about relationships that I get the distinct feeling we’ll be talking about this film as one of Kubrick’s finest achievements for years to come. Films such as these don’t age—if anything, they grow far richer with prolonged exposure. I’ve seen Eyes Wide Shut literally a couple dozen times, and it continues to change shape and speak to me in different ways with each subsequent viewing. That’s a special, rare effect in modern American filmmaking.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Film Review - The Traveler (1974)

Note: This review is part of InRO's "Directrospective #10 - Abbas Kiarostami's Self-Reflexive Cinema."

Future Iranian arthouse figurehead Abbas Kiarostami arrived in 1974 not only with his first feature-length film, but also a set of stylistic and thematic inclinations he's spent the better part of three decades refining and expanding upon. It wasn't until this year’s very different yet equally noteworthy "Certified Copy" that Kiarostami largely broke away from the distinguishing, highly influential stylistic conceits that had marked a majority of his narrative work from the beginning of his career. This makes the neo-realist inspired "The Traveler" not only a key work for Kiarostami, but a bellwether for many of the trends which would come to be the norm in various strains of '90s world independent and arthouse cinema. It's convenient to make these connections in retrospect, but it's equally easy to forget Kiarostami was all but unknown in the West prior to the early '90s, when a few intuitive festival programmers brought highly idiosyncratic works to Locarno and Toronto, and where a handful of key critics, including Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (to my mind, the two foremost authorities on Kiarostami), were finally able to absorb a sizable chunk of Kiarostami's work in close succession, thus bringing a new movement even then being dubbed the "Iranian New Wave" to the States for the very first time, decades after its inception.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Record Review: Marissa Nadler - Marissa Nadler

One thing Marissa Nadler’s fifth full-length can’t be accused of is false advertising. If anything, it largely delivers what one would expect from a Marissa Nadler album, though not necessarily at this point in her career. Nadler’s last album, the wonderful, unexpectedly far-reaching Little Hells found the Boston-based songstress occasionally experimenting with a synthetic dream-pop aesthetic in the lineage of Kate Bush or the Cocteau Twins, alongside her more typical forays in acoustic, séance-worthy folk. It’s a restless record, and still her best from my vantage, but it also seemed to hint at Nadler’s ambition to step outside her chosen idiom. By evidence of her new, mostly fan-funded self-titled effort, however, these moves may have been more diversion than groundwork. Her robust production sense and vivid songwriting imagery continue to advance, but musically she’s reverted to a most intrinsic state, deploying eleven commanding tracks that, in every sense save perhaps sonic depth, could have flowered at any point in her career.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Record Review: Noveller - Glacial Glow

Ambient music seems to be at a bit of an impasse, which is a weird thing to say in a year that’s given us Ravedeath, 1972. This feeling—and at this point that’s all it really is, a feeling—can probably be partially attributed to the fact that indie rock has gone so synthetic over the last three years or so that genres have begun to blur. One prominent example can made of indie pop, which in 2011 correlates less with the shambolic guitar strum of old and more with the synth-based, textural explorations of eras unlived. And with a portion of the old guard—save Tim Hecker—drifting somewhat toward the predictable (Fennesz; Loscil) or completely receding from the spotlight (Stars of the Lid), it’s fallen to a younger generation of analogue fetishists such as Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and Jonas Reinhardt to tap into this celestial, once-so-novel strand of drone-based ambience.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 7 - Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself

In this installment, Marsh and Cronk champion a film that cogently summarizes a hundred plus years of film history, creating a work that says more about the power of the medium than any other in recent memory.
Calum Marsh: As I’m sure you know, Jordan, I’ve been looking forward to writing about Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself since we began working on ReFramed together, and there’s so much that I’d like to say about this film that I’m not even sure where to start. I suppose I’ll kick things off by sharing a brief quote from the great film theorist Raymond Bellour:
“On the one hand, film spreads in space like a picture; on the other it plunges into time, like a story which its serialization into writing approximates more or less to the musical work. In this it is peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce: a movement, the illusion of which guarantees the reality”.
This is the most basic difficulty of all film criticism: writing seems an inadequate tool for interrogating film, since the cinema’s spatial and temporal characteristics are in a sense ineffable. No matter how lucid or compelling the ideas conveyed, to write about film is to regard it across a gulf of untranslatable medium specificity; it is, as the old saying goes, about as useful as dancing about architecture. And yet film criticism seems not only intensely enjoyable but also absolutely crucial to our understanding of the cinema as a whole. I think criticism is to art what philosophy is to life, in that it deepens and enriches our experience of it.

Which is probably why I regard Los Angeles Plays Itself as not only my personal favorite film of the last fifteen or so years, but also the most important to cinematic history in at least as long. “Important” is a bit of dubious word, I know, but Thom Andersen didn’t just make another great movie here: he cogently summarized a hundred plus years of film history and, in doing so, created a work that says more about the power of the medium than any amount of brilliant writing on the subject has or maybe ever could. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a nearly perfect movie but it’s also, perhaps more remarkably, one of the best works of film criticism ever—and not least of all because, rather than using the written word, it is itself cinematic.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fading All Away - Jay Reatard: A Legacy

Note: I wrote this piece for the Cinefamily repertory theater, who are screening the new Jay Reatard documentary, Better Than Something, this coming Thursday, August 11th.

I first became aware of Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr. in 2006, via his first album under the Jay Reatard moniker, “Blood Visions”. It wasn’t until much later, however, that his career began to make sense outside this airtight, sub-30 minute adrenaline rush of a record. Breaking through at a time when garage-rock was at its resurgent peak, Lindsey nonetheless ran his own course around the traditional indie circuit, unloading a barrage of 7” singles in lieu of a proper follow-up to “Blood Visions.” Unlike his contemporaries in the Black Lips or other alter-ego stamped personalities like King Khan or Mark Sultan, the Memphis-based Lindsey seemed ideologically beholden to an era of punk ten-plus years the senior of many of his colleagues’ acid-fired garage rock. Up until his unexpected death in January 2010 at the age of 29, Lindsey kept his priorities set squarely on the music at hand, only returning with another full album after his Kiwi-pop experiments and new adventures in melodic noise-pop had fully developed across these small-run 7″ vinyl releases. It seemed for a number of years that a month couldn’t go by without a new Jay Reatard track hitting the web, despite the fact that his last four years of activity yielded only two proper full-lengths. It never quite seemed like too much, but now, almost two years later, it feels like not nearly enough.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Record Review: Battles - Gloss Drop

Mirrored is a masterpiece. This was an opinion widely floated in 2007, when math-rock supergroup Battles released their debut full-length on Warp. Here we are a few years later and the label has begun to approach what many people, including myself, would call a fact. Here is an album that basically accomplished everything I look for in a debut LP from a modern experimental act: it built upon and refined formative techniques in an effort to expand its aesthetic; it injected an inherently cerebral form—math/post/art-rock—with personality not only unique but infectious; and it did all this in an ambitious attempt to parlay a certain triangulation of genre into one seething, laser-focused whole. That Battles pulled it off with a seemingly effortless display of inhuman chops is no mean feat. I don’t envy any band tasked with following up such a watershed like that, one that is perhaps the greatest consolidation of divergent musical talent modern art-rock has yet seen.