Tagged: Baltimore

Musical cameos: L7, Serial Mom

L7 as Camel Lips in Serial Mom; image courtesy of flickr.com

Today is the first installment of a new series I’d like to start here on musical cameos in movies. It’s akin to the “Scene It” posts, except these entries would only focus on musical artists who make brief but noteworthy appearances in certain movies. At my friend Jacob’s nudging, I thought the perfect inaugural entry of this series would be L7’s supporting role as a rock band in John Waters’s 1994 feature Serial Mom.

First, I’ll preface by saying that I’m not so well-versed in Waters’s singularly tacky ouevre. I saw Hairspray at some point during my childhood. I later watched the remake, which didn’t make me as mad as purists. Sure, the remake was tame. But as it’s also not a remake of the original, but as a reboot of the Broadway adaptation. Thus I don’t think of it as a Waters movie and instead view it as an enjoyable, if defanged, movie musical. I viewed Female Trouble before starting grad school, which I thought was visually arresting and at times wickedly funny, but also plodding and meandering in the second half. I happened on Pink Flamingos‘ singing asshole scene once at my parents’ house, but haven’t watched the rest of Waters’s directorial debut as yet.

I am a fan of Waters, however. He seems like a swell guy and I wish we could be friends so we could watch movies together and trade mix CDs. He’s also the central character of “Homer’s Phobia,” one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. I can also say that as relative Waters neophyte, Serial Mom delighted me.

John Waters, real and in the Simpsons universe; image courtesy of totalfilm.com

There’s so much going on here. For one, it’s of its era. It can easily be read alongside several American movies from the 90s that indict celebrity scandal and tabloid culture, like To Die For, Natural Born Killers, SFW, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Kathleen Turner stars as seemingly perfect homemaker Beverly Sutphin, could be lumped in with lethal blondes like Madonna and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell, and has a love for Godfather of Gore filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis that she shares with Waters and her son Chip (Matthew Lillard). And while Sutphin is certainly in a higher class bracket than ABC’s titular domestic goddess Roseanne, several times the movie reminded of season two’s “Sweet Dreams,” wherein matriarch Roseanne Conner wishes for five minutes alone in the bath and dreams of killing her entire family. Both women are well aware of the strain that comes for some women who try to perfectly embody the seemingly natural roles of wife and mother.

No wonder Betty Draper broke a chair on Mad Men. She couldn’t get a hold of Don.

Betty Draper's chairs must be perfect or they will be destroyed!; image courtesy of flickr.com

Yet I assumed much of this might be apparent on the surface. I also anticipated that Sutphin’s excessive femininity and blood lust could align her with Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s construction of the unruly woman. However, I was pleasantly surprised that Sutphin killed largely to protect her family instead of commiting psychotic behavior in response to feeling trapped or tied down by them. Most notably for me, she defends the honor of her daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) by killing her philandering boyfriend. What’s more, her husband, son, and, daughter are ultimately quite supportive of her. So while it’s bad to kill people, I was pleasantly surprised that this killer wasn’t pathologized or villified for her actions. It’s an unsettling sense of satisfaction, to be sure. But it’s comforting to know that Suthpin would only sink her scissors into my stomach if I really had it coming.

I was also pleased by L7’s performance as punk band Camel Lips. True to their name, the members sport considerable ‘toe further emphasized by their stretch pants. L7 confronted many people with its own caustic mutations of conventional femininity. They left David Letterman aroused and startled after an appearance on Late Night.

Leader Donita Sparks also dislodged her tampon and threw it at a disrespectful crowd at the Reading Festival, which I hope is being preserved properly. If Kathleen Hanna’s papers are getting archived, there should be a place for this artifact too. Finally, the band’s interest in surf rock and rockabilly indicate that, much like Supthin’s idealization of the 50s housewife and Waters’s love of pulp and gore, there’s nothing innocent about the past.

SXSW Day 4 and 5 recap

More like SXSWTFit’s cold! Remember how I mentioned earlier that you should opt for comfort over fashion during the festival? I really ate my words on Saturday. It was in the 40s and windy, but I thought I could brave the weather wearing a peasant skirt I converted into a sundress paired with a cardigan, pleather jacket, and tights. I was very wrong.

Wye Oak – My partner and I checked out their show at the Galaxy Room’s outside stage. This is the third time I’ve seen the Baltimore-based duo and they get better and louder and more sonically interesting each time I see them.

After that, we grabbed spicy lamb kebabs at Kebabalicious, which made the wait to get into the Mohawk more tolerable. When we got in, some power pop group was wrapping up their set outside.

Dum Dum Girls – They played inside and were fine. Much in the vein of Vivian Girls.

Demolished Thoughts – This is a supergroup with Thurston Moore and J. Mascis (Andrew WK was billed, but absent). Awww, dad’s got a punk band. Because he is in Sonic Youth and his band mate led Dinosaur Jr., he gets to play outside at the Mohawk. He sings songs about adolescent disaffection that he scrawled in a notebook, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Kim is bemused. Coco is embarrassed.

Rye Rye – She takes it back to block parties and Roxanne Shanté 45s. And I was a mere few feet away from Ms. Ryeisha Berrain, who was flanked by two male back-up dancers who sported leather jackets and tank tops that said “Rye.” It’s always nice to see cocky, bubbly girls having fun and I’ve been having fun with her since my neighbor Rosa-María brought “Shake It to the Ground” into my life.

Broken Bells – Obviously the Danger Mouse/James Mercer collaboration drew a lot of attention. They played several shows to maximum capacity crowds. And good for them. But it’s only okay to me — give me Brian Burton’s collaborations with Cee-Lo Green and Damon Albarn over pleasant 60s power pop that basically sounds exactly like The Shins (and a little like The Dandy Warhols) any day.

After that, I kind of hit a wall because I was cold and therefore cranky. Kinda paid attention to Real Estate’s set inside.

The Black Keys – They got a late start and it was effin’ cold outside but still well worth it. I’ve never seen the Akron duo and they were killer.

From there I had to change clothes. On the way downtown, we ran into our friend Jessalyn, who was feeling the chill too. When Canadians think it’s cold, I feel quite validated. We headed back over to Frank where we saw Hector, a fellow KVRX alum, and those nice folks we met from KALX yesterday. Glad they got to find out the magic that is Austin’s artisan sausage haven. We also saw Irene from The Real World: Seattle, who I think walked past me right as I was explaining her “celebrity” to my partner. A similar incident happened with Emily Mortimer in New Orleans last spring. Both ladies gave me a bit of a stink eye.

YellowFever – Back at the Mohawk. I’ve actually never seen this Austin duo before, but have liked them for quite a while. Lovely sound, warmed my bones a bit.

Total Abuse – Noise band that played over at Barbarella. Something tells me they’ve listened to The Jesus Lizard. Especially the lead singer, who was working quite a crazy eye.

Kings Go Forth – Back at Galaxy. Ten-piece Midwestern funk ensemble who have clearly spent time listening to Curtis Mayfield and Earth Wind and Fire. Pretty fun, though looser than, say, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. Also, I wonder how they will be marketed. Because I saw lots of cool kids at the show, but the band is itself pretty uncool. You know, they’re mainly paunchy older dudes in tunics. I don’t have a problem with it — as a matter of fact, it’s kind of nice that some older musicians are getting attention from younger people. I’m just curious as to how their image will be spun. That said, there were a lot of older people there too. If ever there was a band I saw that I could recommend to just about anyone, this’d be the group.

Oooh, and speaking of older people, this one grandpa in a sport coat and cap got me real mad! As I noticed with several acts at SXSW, Kings Go Forth played their best-known hit, “One Day,” at the end of their set so as to avoid a mass exodus of dabblers. When the band said they had one last song, Pappy rushed the stage and yelled “ONE DAY!” which of course they played. But this jackass started gyrating and trying to get people to dance with him like he didn’t just order the band to play a song. Ugh. They aren’t your monkeys, old man.

Tried to see Best Coast back at Barbarella, but had a feeling we should return to Mohawk in anticipation of a big turnout for Death at 1 a.m. Sure enough, the venue was at capacity . . . for Surfer Blood. Ya’ll, I know they’re a big buzz band and I was pleasantly surprised that anyone could form a band in West Palm Beach, but I was unimpressed. One minute they sounded like The Smiths, then the The Shins, and their hit sounds like The Offspring covering Big Country. Ho hum. Lots of people came only for their set, including MTV VJ/walking exoskeleton John Norris.

Once Surfer Blood wrapped up, we got in to see Dâm-Funk, which was totally worth it. His voice was great, the band was tight and, as the kid next to me texted to a friend, “the mother fucker had a keytar.” I’m sure a lot of folks got pregnant after his set.

And then . . .

Death – I was stoked that they played Fun Fun Fun Fest, and I’m still excited. These guys were making this music in Detroit in the mid-70s before punk officially happened and long before it merged with funk. And they’re still killing it and keeping it positive and politically conscious at the same time. Just sayin’.

On Sunday, we met up with our friends Karin and Jacob to see Jacob’s friends’ band RICE at Beerland for Panache‘s post-SXSW showcase. Good screamy fun from the West Coast by way of the East Coast. We also saw Screens, who I liked a lot. Then we ended the night at Emo’s to see the way ruling Paradise Titty play another rousing show.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of shows I missed. However, I’m excited that I saw so many female artists and yet missed these acts: YACHT, The Coathangers, Grass Widow, Talk Normal, The xx, Psalm One, and Invincible. And while I wish that damn highway didn’t divide the town, I think I got to see a lot of great shows. Please feel free to share your thoughts on SXSW 2k10 and we’ll do it again next spring.

Scene It: Aretha Franklin and The Blues Brothers

Aretha Franklin making a strong case for staying in both a marriage and the food service industry; image courtesy of photobucket.com

I finally saw The Blues Brothers a few weekends back. Even for someone who hasn’t seen the majority of SNL-related movies from the 1980s, it’s pretty weird that I haven’t seen this one. My parents were moving from Chicago to Houston around the time it was shot. They actually lived near the mall that got demolished by one of the movie’s many car chase sequences.

Barring my parents’ living situation and my interest in music, it’s also strange that I’ve been in a relationship with someone who notes John Landis’s 1980 Dan Akroyd/John Belushi vehicle as a childhood favorite and hadn’t seen it in our six years together. It led one of us to a lifetime following the blues and launching KVRX’s “Blues At Sunrise.” In addition, Briefcase Full Of Blues has always been go-to cooking music at our house. So when Wax Fax decided to devote a category to the movie for last month’s game, it seemed like the perfect time to bring me up to speed.

As for the movie itself, I liked it fine. It had been talked up so as to fall short of expectations, but I like car chases, black suits, Steve Cropper, and shit getting blowed up as much as the next girl. I still don’t get the appeal of Akroyd or Belushi, but I’m not a Chevy Chase fan either. Bill Murray is another story, and a welcome second season replacement for Chase on SNL.

For me, the movie’s appeal was the music, particularly its musical cameos. Cab Calloway as Jake and Elwood’s mentor? Sure. Ray Charles as a gun-toting music store owner? Sign me up. James Brown as a gospel minister? Of course.

(Note: Do seek out James Brown’s short-lived Future Shock. My friend Evan brought it into my household before he moved to Baltimore with his partner Kit, and we’re all the better for it. Basically, it’s an Atlanta-based public access version of Soul Train hosted by Brown around the time he released Body Heat. In other words, it’s amazing. Tim and Eric can’t make this up.)

But ya’ll know why I really wanted to see The Blues Brothers. Her name starts with an “A.” Before she wore the most amazing hat ever to sing at Obama’s inauguration, she’s was doin’ it for herself with Annie Lennox. She built Atlantic Records. She was young, gifted, and black. She demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Franklin at Obama's inauguration -- even the Clintons can't compete with the hat and the voice; image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Aretha Franklin has a cameo in The Blues Brothers. The general premise of the movie is that Blues BrothersJake (Belushi) and Elwood (Akroyd) are reuniting their band upon Jake’s release from jail for shoplifting. One member being brought back in the fold is guitarist Matt Murphy. Trouble is, Murphy is manacled to his wife (played by Franklin), who runs a diner. She doesn’t want him back out on the road, and explains why with “Think,” a Franklin classic.

Rousing, right? Fuck yeah, I’ll stay home and fry chickens and toast white bread for your customers. Why would I ever leave when I’m married to a goddess? Better yet, why don’t we put our own project together because you have those pipes? At the very least we can make room for a Blues Sister.

But the scene ends with Murphy handing in his apron, a symbol of his emasculation, to split with the Blues Brothers. In doing so, not only does Murphy abide by the conceptualization of musicians as feckless nomads, but he also plays into the stereotype of the noncommittal heterosexual black man.

I feel like Franklin is totally cheated here. In addition to playing a supposedly unsympathetic character, employing one of Franklin’s own songs in this way seems a way to cuckold both the character and the actor, who is also the singer. It bums me out.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the sequel. I know that Franklin reappears with a cadre of ladies in some snazzy duds. I also know that Erykah Badu also makes a cameo and am curious about her involvement. Until then, I’ll cross my arms and hope Mrs. Murphy gets the last laugh, or at least her own Dr. Feelgood. For now, Franklin can play herself off.

Multi-tasking Auteuse: M.I.A.

Just as I think it’s important to recognize female music video directors, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge female musicians who pick up the camera and direct videos for other female artists. Tonight, I’ll focus on M.I.A., who got her start as a visual artist (she made the cover art and directed some music videos for Elastica in the late 90s). Specifically, I want to plug her music video for Baltimorean rapper Rye Rye’s “Bang” (which she also guests on). You can view it here.

M.I.A. and Rye Rye

M.I.A. and Rye Rye

A whole lot to love. Dancing. Lo-fi. Vocal loops. Bright colors. Two female MCs helping each other out. Female artists establishing a collaborative relationship that doesn’t strictly adhere to the mentor-protégé binary. Women of color not relying on a man to put them on. You know.

I celebrate the body spastic: Why I’m all about Molly Siegel

Siegel at CMJ 2008; photo originally taken by Michael Falco for The New York Times

Siegel at CMJ 2008; photo originally taken by Michael Falco for the New York Times

So, Molly Siegel has been on my mind for a while now. When I was conceptualizing this blog, I knew I wanted to talk about her. For those who don’t know, she’s the lead singer of Ponytail, a Baltimore-based experimental pop band. In terms of sound and composition, they aren’t that far off from Deerhoof, a musically adventurous band I got into during my salad days ias a deejay at UT Austin’s KVRX (aka, fall 2002). I’d listened to Ice Cream Spiritual, Ponytail’s first full-length a bit last summer when it first came out. It was okay, but kinda all-over-the-place and I just don’t think I was ready to listen to it. Then I looked on Pitchfork’s year-end lists and the album was selected by Sarah Lipstate of Parts & Labor (who also worked at KVRX) as one of her favorite albums of the year. And, you know, Sarah was always a cool kid, so I thought, hmmm, okay, let’s try this again.

And then shit blew my mind. I went from thinking the single “Celebrate the Body Electric” was kinda okay to a magical place in which I wanted to inhabit. So I played the album and Kamehameha, their first EP, on a loop in anticipation of their attendance at SXSW 2k9. Long story short, their performance at Club de Ville the Saturday that I saw them was one of the best shows I saw during the festival. So great. Damn can they play. And they’re really fun live — they smashed a giraffe piñata and threw candy at the audience. I ripped off a leg for my desk.

But I didn’t just see Siegel on stage. I saw her at the Mirah show (wearing a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey, no less) and also PJ Harvey‘s set as Stubb’s. (Aside: Michael Azerrad, who I saw at both the St. Vincent show at Central Presbyterian and the PJ’s show at Stubbs’ was also at Ponytail’s show. He stood right next to me and took pictures of the piñata. I’m pretty sure my shoes are in some of those shots. If you see a pair of blue Reeboks on the Interwebz, they’re mine). So, I guess I have Siegel’s (and Azerrad’s) taste in music. I’m okay with that. I at least think we could be music geek friends.

But the more I kept thinking about the show, the more entranced I became with Siegel’s performance and style. Anyone who’s listened to Ponytail knows that Siegel’s not one for words, instead usually preferring to coo, grunt, or scream in a sort of automatic language, foregrounded all the more by her spastic, confrontational stage presence. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson asserted in his review of their first full-length that the stream-of-conscious, pre-verbal stages of childhood was a potential influence on both Siegel’s vocal approach and the band’s musical sensibilities (an approach he aligns with the work of fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon). While there’s definitely merit to that argument, I think there’s something else going on, perhaps a site through which queer, non-normative girlishness can be accessed.

No, I don’t think we can wrench Siegel’s lesbian identity from her persona or performance style. Nor should we. Nor do I think she’d want to, if her casual references to the Indigo Girls (who were playing the same time as Ponytail when I saw them) are any indication.

I can’t speak for Siegel, but I can’t help but wonder if her sexuality is central to how she views her place in music culture. For one, she’s the only woman in the band, no less a band with a noisy, chaotic approach to music. For another, she is not an instrumentalist in that band and is thus in what many folks conceptualize as an objectified, often feminized position for a band member to occupy. To add to that, she doesn’t fit the standard female body type long adhered to within hipster culture. While short, she is far from gamine — a bit stocky, by no means dainty. Also, she doesn’t outfit herself in youthful, fashionable, traditionally female attire (think Jenny Lewis). Instead, she clomps around in Timberland boots and football jerseys, garments traditionally aligned with masculine dress made frumpy and destabilized by her petite figure.

In short, Siegel’s presence is unquestionably queer, a fact which informs her vocal style. Rather than infantile, as others may suggest, I’d argue that Siegel’s voice is actually quite complex — at times angry, giddy, abuzz with sexual delight, flip, petulant, seething with contempt, or uncertain of either herself or the world around her. In short, she seems to occupy a more complex matrices in which women (masculine women, no less) can claim space for themselves.