Sunday, January 30, 2011

Burglar, Skully’s, 01/29/11

I’m not a big one for shit-used-to-be-so-much better.  Because in most ways, it didn’t, every year has its own pleasures and disappointments, but one of the things I was talking about with some pals at work I really do think has change: in the ‘90s people cared enough to say so if something sucked.  I only write about things in this blog that flip that switch in my head, and I don’t intend for that to change, but I figure I’ve got to start walking the walk instead of just ranting to my girlfriend for an hour after a show and leaving my blog with a Pollyanna glow.
I’d been wanting to check out the band Burglar for a while, I’m a major sucker for ‘30 cabaret-style music and Tom Waits, and really want to cheer for a band that’s doing something even a little off the beaten path.  So A. and I left the Treehouse after a blistering, joyous set from the Media Whores, a bar full of our friends to go to Skully’s and finally check Burglar out on the night of their CD release show.
We arrived in time to see a large chunk of the Phantods set that sounded great; while I’m on the record as being a little turned off by the Mr. Bungle/cut up quality of their work, it had been over a year since I’d seen them and the edges got smoothed out just enough so all the focus is on the songs.  Less showy and full of little knives, I can’t want to see them again.
Burglar did some very quick setting up, aided by the soundman, then left the stage again.  Whoever was DJing between sets did an amazing job – Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life”, The Supremes’ “Baby Love”, great old doo-wop – to the extent that I joked the band better bring it or we’d see a real life enactment of the Onion article “Band Upstaged by Recording”.  And then they didn’t come out for well over 30 minutes.  At one point, Zachariah Baird – a name now burned in my memory because he organized this show –came out and said it would be another 10 minutes.
After that little announcement, most of the lights went down and what I assume was intended as “intro music”, moody exotica-styled instrumentals, was played by the DJ.  At long last, the band came on, looking like they stepped out of a training wheels version of the Nick Cave GQ article, all dark suits, dark shirts, a good look but nothing snappy except the keyboard player’s fluorescent inserts in his jacket, the women a little more decked out, the mellophone player in a lovely red dress and the singer in a foam-green dress with a Maria Callas neck line and a classic-Cher hemline… and stood there and chatted. 
I chalk this up to a young band mistake, it’s easy to think withholding is going to increase the mystery of your band, make the audience think you’re a big deal. Unfortunately, when you’re playing a club all it does it both irritate the audience that wants to like you (and could be having a drink and flirting somewhere with no cover charge and not paying club prices) and create a harsher light for you to be judged in.  And after that, you need to come out and kick us right in the face.  If you’re going to play the I’m-ready-for-the-enormodome card, you need to back it up by walking on stage and jumping straight into a great song.
They finally start playing and it’s a slow burn, kind of nice, with a sudden rhythmic shift to add some forced drama, but the sound was muddy, not swampy, and the drummer was sloppy, not loose.  It’s a fine distinction but the minute you hear it you know.  The next five songs all went in the same mode, with the same dynamics.  The biggest problem with the songs is no one besides the Mellophone player (who was the highlight of the show) has a sense of space or silence, all the drama is created by sudden tempo shifts which created a career for Ha Ha Tonka but I find cheap and a little annoying.
The singer has a pleasant voice, but it doesn’t have grit, the kind of ugliness that makes it stick in your head.  The playing is all okay – again, except for the terrific Mellophone player – but not spectacular.  The bassist played an electric upright, but he didn’t use it for any of the sounds you want that kind of instrument for, no arco work, none of the way the woody thunk of an upright slips between the shining silver of an electric, none of the glittering melodic stuff that kind of bass can open up in a band.  It could have just as easily been a P Bass and no one would’ve noticed.  The guitar player and keyboard player need to learn what makes a solo good – there was a particularly painful keys solo about three songs in, that came out of nowhere, circled around the drain for a few painful bars, and then just sort of stopped – and also decide which of them is going to be the lead instrumental voice because right now, neither of them are doing it, their instruments blur into one mass of indistinct sound and not in good way.
Separate from how the players play, but in another way, not separate from it at all, is charisma.  The lead singer is lovely and works her ass off, but she has to do too much of that work and it leads to her trying way too hard.  Several times she tried to engage the guitar player in some flirty interplay but he could barely be bothered to look up from his hands.  After the band’s been playing for a year, that’s an egregious mistake; if being stoic is his point of focus, he needs to keep staring at the audience, really intrigue us.  If he’s going to be her one foil, he needs to Keith Richards it up and really be there for her.  Otherwise, she might want to look into switching up who she wanders over and dances with because it’s drawing attention to the guitarist he isn’t interesting enough to keep in a way that might not be so obvious if he wasn’t the only one that’s happening to.  The keyboard player and, to a lesser extent, the bassist had the same problem, too much staring at their hands and not enough looking at the audience or each other.  This kind of music shouldn’t look so damn serious, or if it’s going to be that serious it needs to back that up with songs that kick our asses instead of just being okay.
I wouldn’t avoid them in the future if they were on a bill I wanted to see – they’re close to kicking my ass, but no part of the package is there yet.  Keep fighting the good fight, kids, we’re all rooting for you.
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

“Sundays, too, my Father got up early…”; Just Kids by Sean Lewis, Available Light, January 16

Writer/performer Sean Lewis has this stunning symbiosis with director Matt Slaybaugh, and it hits new levels of fire and catharsis with their new collaboration Just Kids which is having its world premier at Available Light (in the CPAC for this show). 

In a little over an hour, through few props and body language and an added knife in the back of “tapes” of characters who are embodied by Sean and who are not, he draws disparate voices and shows the similarities between them but (and this is every bit as important) he also doesn’t overplay the similarities.  Seamlessly, and with seconds separating them, he goes from his father Rick, to a series of children in a school that’s “one step up from juvenile detention or a mental institution” he taught at for three months as part of the William Inge fellowship in Kansas, and always back to himself, shifting between observer and participant, his voice always the spine of the piece.

What differentiated this work from his previous, also moving and very physical, piece Killadelphia for me was the wider range of rhythm.  It has a very similar tone, death-seriousness with flashes of riotous humor that don’t balance the other so much as throw them into relief, but there’s more space in Just Kids.  He lets the characters and the discrete scenes breath just a little more, and the pace of the characters’ speech is more varied.  The father isn’t just described as a drinker and a charmer and a man who knew money and love and power and lost it, it’s made incredibly clear through the two versions shown.  First up, and directly addressing the audience, is the Rick of Sean’s Youth, half-remembered and invented partly from hearsay but impossibly large with a quick wit, confident gestures and barely repressed rage.  Then there’s the Rick of the final scenes, caved in on himself, still echoing the earlier voice that resonates through almost every second he’s not on the stage but smaller, humbled, hitting in-character false notes in a performance that doesn’t hit any.

And the voices of the children Sean works with, observing their day-to-day struggles and his reactions to them, are stunning.  Sharply understood and also baffled, slowly realizing their scars aren’t like his, and grasping what made that turn where he was in a very similar place come into the light for him and many of these kids won’t.  That he does all of this without being heavy-handed, without yoking it to a tired redemption story, and still ends with hope – and, in the best showcase for Dave Wallingford’s mostly-invisible-in-the-best-way sound design, a King Lear thunderstorm – is a marvel.  I laughed harder than I have in a long time and shed not a few tears at this. 

Running through January 22.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Each Their Darkness by Gary Braunbeck, Sinister Resonance by David Toop

“We must read their intentions in the puddle of light on the kitchen tiles
understand their presence in our home while the neighbors harass them with greetings

There are two of them like the eyebrows on one face
two guardians of the tide who
knock on our walls at every equinox
and make our mother and the pomegranate tree bleed”
-Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker, “Interments”

A look at two books that came out within the last year that I loved – unfortunately I misplaced the Toop for a few months so it took me longer than usual to finish– that approach their author’s primary subject (music for Toop, horror for Braunbeck) through oblique strategies that make the lesson hit harder and the journey more fascinating. 

In the prelude, Toop talks about trying to hear, reaching forward or backward to an “unverifyable past”,  and reading that sent a shock through me.  I know that feeling, that slow shudder that something happened here and wondering what about the air that’s suffused with that joy or that loss.  Looking at the way the light hits the brick, but also feeling ears stuffed with thick, slow air, memories trapped like the old SF classic “Slow Glass”.  I had a great poetry workshop once upon a time where we had a week’s assignment that required us to focus on one sense, and what I turned in was too literal – it actually name-checked John Cage, for chrissake – but that exercise stuck with me and in the next few months I wrote probably 20 poems using that as a jumping off point, and it surprised me how many of them touched on nostalgia or ghosts.  This book put that together so it hit me like a lightning bolt, of course, things you can barely hear are going to trigger womb-memories and also seem ghostly, film sound designers exploit that and so do many musicians whether consciously or not.

Through the book, Toop connects that thesis with the way sound was depicted before recordings and broadcasts – the writing of Virginia Woolf, the paintings of Teniers and Lucas Cranach and Rembrandt– and he delves into how sound is vitally important to certain wholly visual works of art.  The sound of the water flowing in the background helps us understand the reclining nymph and the way we naturally combine those senses even when evidence isn’t there for it is very similar to the way we see new colors that aren’t on the canvas in Seurat or Olafur Eliasson’s color wheel, and there’s a discussion on Seurat making that process explicit, throwing the unspoken rule that there are things the painting can’t directly show right in the audience’s face.

Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness is also a hybrid form touching on a wide range of sources, parts gorgeous, heart-breaking memoir and parts showing how the sausage is made, the grinding gears behind narrative storytelling, delving into choices that go into his fiction and the fiction of others, and what each does to inform the other.   For my money, Gary Braunbeck is one of the greatest short story writers of the last 30 years (I don’t mean to discount his novels, but his short stories are what stab me in the lungs over and over) and there isn’t a single argument he makes in this book that can be easily shrugged off. 

Braunbeck takes horror fiction, as most of his work is categorized, and draws a series of threads, going back to Carson McCullers and John Cheever and through The Who (there’s a fantastic elucidation of Quadrophenia, particularly “The Rock”) and the films of Jim Sheridan and Sam Peckinpah, among many others.  He puts the names the reader expects in a book about horror: Brian Keene, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, etc, but he puts them in this broader context of literature and culture.  The horror writers exist in that bigger continuum which keeps the wonkier writing about writing from feeling too hermetic, too sealed in.

If there are weaknesses in the Braunbeck, it can get a little defensive.  It’s to its credit that it avoids the fanboy reflex – the tendency to point at things like Future Shock or Frankenstein or One Hundred Years of Solitude and shout, “That’s genre work too!  You do like genre work, asshole!” – but the writing at times takes on the air of a trapped man, someone as defensive about indiscriminate genre fans as well as ivory tower snobs, in playing both ends occasionally it overreacts a little.  Also, there’s some juvenilia in here, especially the reprinted Eldritch Tales columns about Stephen King movies that not only isn’t as good as everything else in the book (which is to be expected), but comes off as way too much ammunition getting unloaded on some movies that weren’t very good in the first place.

Those qualms aside, I came out of To Each Their Darkness and Sinister Resonance with a thousand new ideas swimming in my head.  Things to argue about at the bar, and work into my own writing, and things to watch for as I walk down the street or listen for in those rare moments alone.  Both are very much worth your checking out.