Tagged: Stereolab

R.I.P., Trish Keenan

Broadcast's Trish Keenan; image courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Yesterday, it trickled through Twitter that Broadcast front woman Trish Keenan was battling pneumonia. It’s just been reported that she lost that battle. She’ll definitely be missed. In Austin, it’s currently cold and overcast. In other words, it’s a perfect day to throw on a Broadcast album. If you’re looking for suggestions, you can’t go wrong with any of them, but Haha Sound and Tender Buttons hold special places in my heart. “Color Me In,” to borrow from my review of it for KVRX, sounds like an overture to a musical where the wistful female lead is dreaming of an imaginary beau as the floorboards creak underneath her. “Arc of a Journey” recalls a rollercoaster rider’s lone assent to heaven. And if you want to loop “And I’m Gone,” her collaboration with Café Tacvba that closes Prefuse 73’s Surrounded By Silence, you wouldn’t be the first. It’s powerful stuff.

Like Maura Johnston, Keenan possessed one of my favorite voices. At once saturnine and deceptively expressive, Keenan’s alto seemed a derivation of Stereolab’s Letitia Sadier but was evocative in its singularity. No one made sadness and longing sound quite as tangible yet remote as Keenan. I saw the band once, and they were kind of distant. I think the once-Birmingham-based outfit must have had some ugly run-in with Texan police officers and thought the crowd at the Parish were a bunch of hicks. One guy yelled “Free Bird!” which must have confirmed their suspicions. As a result, KVRX couldn’t get an in-studio recording or an interview out of them. Nonetheless, their hypnotic, esoteric pop entranced me. A pity we couldn’t be closer and we lost her so soon, but as we can gather from a band who knew full well about the unsettling power of melody and memory coming together, we’ll always have the music.

Bradford Cox’s mission to queer the guitar

Deerhunter's Bradford Cox; image courtesy of seattletimes.nwsource.com

It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.

I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.

The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.

However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.

My sentiments exactly; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.

Cox on the cover of Logos (Kranky/4AD, 2009); image courtesy of stereogum.com

First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.

I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.

I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.

Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.

At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.

Sounds of October

Stereolab, circa 2008; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

We’re a week into my favorite month of the year. In Austin, we’re finally getting some semblance of autumn weather. We’re also in the midst of a season where lots of new music gets released. Thus, it seems time to celebrate some music that represents that idyllic time when the air turns crisp and cool and brittle burnt orange leaves gather with shades of ocher and rust and juxtapose with a sky that’s the complimentary shade of a robin’s egg. The Sea and Cake and Van Dyke Parks are two seasonal favorites. Everything on Tavi Gevinson’s witchy music mix would apply. The new one from Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Yuka Honda, and Dougie Brown is sure to make it into rotation. Here are some blog-appropriate selections. Yours are welcome too.

Few acts provide better aural companionship for scarf weather better than Stereolab, an opinion I’m proud to share with media scholar and Twitter acquaintance Derek Kompare. If fall represents, among other things, returning to academic pursuits, than this band make intellectual rigor look easy, obscuring the cross-outs, highlighter stains, and eraser skids that suggest the educational process as surely as they bury their socialist politics under analog kitsch.

Twee gets a bad rap with detractors often missing the politicized amateurishness, irony, and resistance surrounding all the saccharine. Heavenly suggest its irresistible qualities while Thee Headcoatees gleefully bring the subtextual smut to the surface.

Don’t let the college radio staples fool you. Jean Grae is the smartest person in the room.

Singer-songwriter Judee Sill recently got a critical renaissance after decades of obscurity. Her elegant introspection is perfect for solitary walks at dusk and makes the case for why we should listen and remember her.

I’ve been listening to Georgia Anne Muldrow on a consistent basis since spring. I may as well extend it into another season.

Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig capture the season’s hazy qualities.

Austin’s own Soft Healer make music that’s perfect for getting lost in the woods. I was at this show, to the right of the camera.

Magik Markers ramp up the dread when those woods turn ominous and the nocturnal temperature drops.

Sharon Von Etten’s assured vocals will guide you out of the woods. Sandy Denny’s crystalline voice is the clear sky above it all.

Slumberland’s once-forgotten Black Tambourine reminds you that winter’s long dark nights are just around the corner. By that point, I’ll be cozying up to Wooden Shjips and Christmas albums from James Brown and Ze Records. I’ll also be sipping cocoa while revisiting icy offerings from Tim Hecker and Fever Ray, as well as El Guincho’s Pop Negro and Q-Tip’s The Renaissance.

Scene It: mix tapes and Morvern Callar

For today’s entry, I consider two scenes from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, her second feature and an adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 novel of same name. I wanted to see it for these reasons.
1. My friend Kevin’s birthday was last week, and as he studies Scottish media culture and hipped me to Ramsay when we were in school together, it seemed a fitting tribute.
2. My friend Curran thinks highly enough of this film and its titular protagonist that he named his cat after her.
3. The AV Club put this one in the New Cult Canon. In fact, they regarded lead actress Samantha Morton’s work here so much that they considered it one of the last decade’s best screen performances.
4. I haven’t seen Morton in much past a few music videos (ex: U2’s “Electrical Storm“) and movies I didn’t like (Minority Report) or felt torn about (Synecdoche, New York). But I like her and thinks she possesses one of the most interesting faces.

Samantha Morton as Morvern Callar; image courtesy of daily.greencine.com

As this is Ramsay’s sophomore feature, it is also the second movie of her’s that I’ve seen. I saw Ratcatcher, a surprising and assured debut about working-class Scots trying to endure 1973’s particularly hellish summer. It’s great and I highly recommend seeing it, along with reading Caitlin at Dark Room’s entry on it. But Morvern Callar meant more to me. I had little expectation or preconception going into this movie, but was left haunted and dazzled by it. A wonderful surprise.

Without giving too much away, the movie is about a young woman who is coping with her boyfriend James’s recent suicide. Clearly shellshocked but ambivalent about his death, Callar spends much of the movie figuring out how she feels and what she should do. The caliber of Morton’s performance is evident in how successfully she conveys much of Callar’s conflicting feelings without words. Callar disposes of the body, empties his bank account, and takes her co-worker friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a trip to Spain. She uses travel as an attempt to clear her head. She’s particularly haunted by two souvenirs James left her: a novel Callar successfully passes off as her own to an interested publishing house, and a mix tape he made for her called “Music For You.”

As we never meet the deceased James Gillespie and thus never learn of his motives, I’ll give the selfish fucker this: he put together a good mix tape. The movie boasts songs by Can, Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Broadcast, musical acts that could easily be on a young person’s mix tape (mine, for example). Yet we don’t know whose taste the mix is reflecting. They seem to be songs that reminded James of his relationship with Morvern, but we never learn who influenced who. As one of the last scenes in the movie shows Callar packing a bunch of CDs into a suitcase and leaving the apartment she presumably shared with James, I like to think they shared similar musical taste.

There are several scenes in the movie that show Callar listening to his mix tape. I have selected two particularly arresting ones that work wonderfully with the visuals. It might be easy to read these scenes as James serving as narrator through popular music, but the subjectivity is solely his girlfriend’s.

The first scene is Callar reporting to work at a non-descript supermarket. The accompanying music is Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.” Shortly after this scene, Callar and her friend leave town.

The next scene is the last one in the movie, accompanied by The Mamas and the Papas’ poignant “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Callar is alone at a rave in some unnamed part of the world. She’s away from her hometown and presumably living on the novel’s advance. She’s alone, though I’m not convinced she’s lonely. Grief is complex, and may not feel like grief at times. However she might be feeling, she can always press rewind and play and start the tape back over again.