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Monday, May 5, 2008
by Roman Kuebler
Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry

Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry


Under Mics with the Oranges Band


PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part four…
Jon Langmead

VOCALS


I really have a great time singing in the studio. For some reason the set up seems so pro. The room is cleared of the instruments, the baffling goes up and instead of microphones hanging all over the place, like when the band is tracking, there is just one. It is a strange experience also, in the context of writing, practicing and recording your songs because, as long as you are a singer who plays an instrument, it is the only time ever you will sing a song without playing it as well and the only time you will sing a song without anything in your hands. So besides being a little anxious and overwhelmed by the formality of the studio setting you also have to approach the song in a much different way. It is rather exciting but also very nerve racking. For me, walking into the room after you do your first vocal take on a song is a roller coaster ride. You’ve worked hard to perform the song but you haven’t any idea what you sound like. The voice is very sensitive to placement of microphones and slight changes in sound can make a huge difference in the perception of the vocal take. It’s like the perfect storm when it happens to come together. And for the first time, you are hearing the lyrics resonate within the song and the voice is totally audible. Anyone in a band can relate to the fact that you never hear the vocals at practice.


caption

Me at the mic part 1. I had to take off my jacket because it was making a ton of noise.


So why, with all these “hardships”, is singing in the studio fun? It’s simple. For me, when it works—when you get a great vocal take—it is the most satisfying part of making, playing or recording music that there is. I guess it is a risk/reward thing. Which is why, in a demonstration of appropriate cosmic duality, that when it doesn’t happen it is the most frustrating part of making music.


In approaching this album I wanted my lead vocal tracks to be distinct and adventurous. I wanted them to be energetic and irreverent. In the end though, I knew I would settle for them to not suck and be on pitch. A lot to ask in some cases I am sorry to say. I guess we are all our own worse critics and for me, if I am ever feeling a little over confident, I could take a crack at singing a song in the studio to bring me back to earth.


But as I said in an earlier installment, a record is a document of what you did when the tape was rolling so you don’t really have much choice but to step up and do something, right? And so I did. When Adam (co-producer, engineer) and I were doing vocals I’d start by describing which song I was trying to rip off and he would respond with an appropriate microphone, mic placement and effect scenario. The best part about trying to rip off songs, though, is that you can never recreate someone else’s magic so you hope to stumble upon your own. So here it goes, first song.


caption

Me at the mic part 2. Less noisy…


We started with a song called “One More Dog”. Why? Well, it was the shortest. Short and fast and to the point. It reminds me of a Pink Flag-era Wire thing so that is where we started looking for sounds. When ripping off other songs (take notes, kids) I like to go right to the source so we played some songs from Pink Flag. We decided they were relatively dry (no reverb), mid-range (not quite a radio voice, but close) with maybe a slight delay on them. We picked out the right mic for the job and ran it through the effects and got the EQ just right… and it sounded nothing like the Wire song. Of course. The other thing about trying to rip stuff off is that what you are hearing is the whole song. You can’t isolate the vocals, necessarily, and predict how they will fit into a totally different song in a totally different context. It’s why trying hard to rip something off is a great way to work. It provides the parameters, the boundaries, and I think I said before that in the context of recording, I need some boundaries.


OK so, here we are with this vocal sound that doesn’t do quite what we thought it might, but it does sound pretty cool so we tweak it just a bit and forge ahead. Once you have a sound you can concentrate on the performance. This song was pretty straight forward, meaning I didn’t expect that it would change much from the practice room to the recording so it was just about getting the lines right—one at a time. I feel like I can always find some reason to re-do a line. A quiver in the vocal, just a little flat, I don’t like the “r” sound in that word, etc., etc. Basically, it is really hard to commit to the idea that the line you just sang will be the way that song exists… pretty much forever. Scared of commitment? Yikes. Oh well, you gotta say yes sometime and I am paying for this thing by the hour so eventually we make it through the song. The funny thing is that when you finish a vocal take you are so sick of hearing it that you can barely listen to it and appreciate it. In fact, coming back to it the next session is always kind of scary… did I really get it right or was I just sick of trying? Am I a hero or a heel? Like I said… a real roller coaster ride.


So instead of recounting my triumphs and tragedies while singing these songs… and there were a few of both, let’s just do a quick run down of what a few of the songs on the record are called and what I tried to ripped off while recording them. I imagine this could be an incriminating document in a court trial, but luckily I was unsuccessful in truly copying ANY of these brilliant works. When our album does finally come out (in 2012 at this rate) you can check these against the originals… you’ll see, total failure!


caption

My view. With my favorite mic, the fabulous Shure SM-7.


“Everyone Burns Out” (working title): The Replacements - “Takin’ a Ride” complete with a… “referential” line.


“When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”: Peter Gabriel “Steam” and “Shock the Monkey” also ESG for the female back up vocals. This one doesn’t sound at all like those things… but it came out ok anyway.


“Gordon’s Night Club”: I thought could be a Kinks song… but it totally isn’t. I did do a Phil Lynotte thing in the beginning that is really funny and a weird trill at the end that was ALL ME (or is that Paul Macca?).


“Absolutely (Instru)mental”: As the name suggests, this song doesn’t have vocals but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to rip something off to get it. Ha ha! It is modeled after Laika & the Cosmonauts - “NY ‘79” a truly complete and catchy song with no vocals. It was recently announced that Laika and Co. will be breaking up at the end of this year… say it ain’t so!?!


“Ottobar (Afterhours)” - Hot Snakes - “Automatic Midnight” and “Salton City” (whoos!)


“I Wouldn’t Worry About It”: This one is pretty original, really. I was going to come up with something to steal eventually but we were doing some back up vocals on a different song (Ottobar) and had a really cool sound going. Really distorted and delayed and weird. When that song was over, this one was next on the reel so we just let it roll and I did the lead vocal… in one take. Easy. It also relieved me from having to rewrite the lyrics, which I was going to do for some reason. I mean why would you need more than two lines in a song?


caption

This is the studio room cleared out for the vox. 


Well, that ain’t quite all of them but it is most of them. All secrets revealed right here. Man… these things take forever; albums that is. There are so many tiny parts to get right and it’s like an automobile or a golf swing… so many things working in harmony that when one things is off, your whole program is interrupted. This is just to say that here we are, nearing the end of tracking and it still feels a light year away. OK well, stick with me here. Thanks for reading.


Roman Kuebler


Tagged as: the oranges band
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Monday, May 5, 2008

Only I stand apart. And secretly, I fear it shall always be this way, me alone, belonging to no one, no tribe, always standing just outside the party. I try to push the thought away, but it has already spoken truth to my soul.


I’ve been pretty focused this last week on finally finishing up Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy with the final book, The Sweet Far Thing. As the third book in the trilogy has over 800 pages (almost as much as the first and second books in the series—combined), this has been a major time investment in my busy schedule.


The series has been enjoyable, though not one I would probably reread the way I would like to reread all the Harry Potter books back-to-back sometime, or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series once the fourth and final book, Breaking Dawn comes out in August 2008.


Bray does a wonderful job of imagining an alternate world, ‘the realms’, that is both magical and frightening. Gemma is a likeable heroine but it is very easy to get caught up in how petty and horrible her school friends usually are. Bad decisions are frequently made and Gemma gets snared more than once in a tangled web of lies and deceit. Luckily she is brutally honest about her feelings to herself, and the reader has access to those thoughts. Always feeling herself to be the outcast, when told by a teacher at her fancy finishing school that young ladies must learn to discipline their own actions and realize the importance of leading orderly lives, Gemma wonders,


Can we really conquer chaos so easily? If that were so, I should be able to prune the pandemonium of my own soul into something neat and tidy rather than this maze of wants and needs and misgivings that has me forever feeling as if I cannot fit into the landscape of things.


She is nothing if not a confused teenager, even with the obligatory corset and skirts. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because Gemma messes up so much and prioritizes so badly throughout much of this book that it is possible to like her. She’s a real person, a fully fleshed out character. In her more serious moods she makes comments like the one above, and then the next minute she’ll be obsessing over her upcoming debut in front of the Queen and whether she’ll trip while curtsying and forever be ‘that girl who fell’.


Historical fiction is especially enthralling when an author goes to the trouble of researching the period properly. Bray’s effort in The Sweet Far Thing is admirable, but unlike the first two books in the series I felt like she was trying to work in every last little historical detail she’d made a note on while researching late 19th century Britain. It’s a little distracting, when the action of the novel is so dramatic on its own.


Any recommendations on historical fiction now that Gemma’s adventures have wrapped up for this reader?


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Sunday, May 4, 2008


What does $100 million mean anymore? Not to the average person, who could bankroll said sum into a whole new life - or at least a pay-off of his (or her) zero down mortgage, and then some. No, what does the figure mean to Hollywood, and specifically, the studio suits and the talent behind the movies. Making that kind of scratch used to be a mind-blowing commercial concept. Ben Hur only made a staggering $39 million in 1959, while The Sound of Music raked in over $70 million. Yet it wasn’t until Jaws that a film officially made $100 million during its initial box office run (and that history has been hacked at quite a bit in recent years). Still, time was that the century mark for money meant something noteworthy. Now, the significance isn’t clear at all.


In 2008, $100 million is not really a milestone, Instead, it’s mandatory. A big budget blockbuster looks anemic without it. In fact, it technically can’t even exist. The faster you get to the number, the better, and it never hurts to do so in record time.  With Iron Man just eking out a $100 million dollar payday over the 2 May weekend (including some early screenings Thursday evening), it joins a very elite group. Few films have done the business it has done this early in the season. It could have taken five days to get there and few would have complained. In fact, reaching the magic number seemed impossible four days ago, according to most prognosticators. They were looking at something closer to $80 million - nothing to sneeze at, but not the cinematic slamdunk $100 million infers.


Of course, there is more cash to be had before Speed Racer and his family step in to rewrite the revenue rules, Wachowski style. Still., by coming in strong, Iron Man settles a lot of questions while raising a few more of its own, specifically regarding the various talents involved. Where does such a fiscal accomplishment lead the powers behind the movie, and better yet, does $100 million really mean much to individuals (and companies) used to dealing in such legitimately large numbers. Of course, we no longer consider a franchise a true blockbuster until it reaches a higher level of accomplishment - say triple the initial take - but in the case of Iron Man, $100 million is major, and here’s the how and why:


The Studios

Paramount
With this long time popcorn factory only handling the distribution, it’s more or less a mixed victory. Success always breeds an aura of same, but without a real stake in the outcome, there’s a hollowness to their dollar sign happiness. At least their next offering, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull flies under their production banner (as does Mike Myers upcoming The Love Guru), so they still have a chance to add real money to their commercial coffers.


Marvel
The decision to drop indirect participation (read: studio made movies) and set up their own projects appears to have paid off - at least for now. Iron Man is a solid mainstream event. The Incredible Hulk will be the real test, considering that there was already a big green meany project a mere five years ago, and the controversy regarding this version’s final cut (suits vs. star Edward Norton) has already tarnished some of its reboot sheen. Still, the new trailer appears promising, and the media’s myopic short attention span means that no one will probably remember the dust up come opening day.


The Producers

Avi Arad & Kevin Feige
As CEO of Marvel and their chief cinematic voice, respectively, Arad and Feige have a lot riding on this Summer. Iron Man is a wonderful first volley, and seems to support their decision to go pseudo-indie. But once again, the Hulk is still sitting out there, ready to divide the devotees and make Ang Lee look like a genius in retrospect. So they better hope Norton and director Louis Leterrier deliver, or this one time windfall will be all 2008 has to offer the duo.


Peter Billingsley
Yes, little Ralphie finally runs with the big dogs. As Favreau’s partner since their Dinner for Five days, he’s been on board for all of his pal’s directorial turns with the exception of Elf. He even gets a clever cameo role. As long as Favreau has a shingle, the star of A Christmas Story always has an awning to hang his burgeoning behind the scenes credentials.


The Director

Jon Favreau
For the actor turned auteur, $100 million means a lot…a whole Helluva lot. It means he can deliver the action goods when necessary. It means a studio can count of him to recognize the difference between art, artifice, and straight up commerciality. It means that film fans can finally embrace someone who shares their aesthetic needs without forgetting that Joe Sixpack also fills theaters seats. Iron Man‘s success may cause some Sam Raimi like repercussions (locked into the sequels, a designer label of his own to distribute subpar genre fare), but for someone whose made respectable, if not quite sensational movies, this opening is monumental. And oddly enough, he seems like the kind of decent, good natured guy who deserves the reward. 


The Actors

Robert Downey Jr.
He’ll never have to worry about money ever again. He can ride this puppy all the way to Westminster if he wants. Here’s hoping he doesn’t do a Michael Keaton and feign disinterest and a “need to grow” instead of hitching his wagon to this inevitable franchise gravy train. There will still be the challenging roles (including comedic controversies like August’s Tropic Thunder), and the ‘aimed at award season’ selections. Clout like this is impossible to come by, and since most reviews have pointed out his crucial role in Iron Man‘s triumph, he’s got more than a couple trump cards up his negotiation sleeves. Let’s hope the contract he signed is flexible, not fatal. 


Terrence Howard
As the next character to get the superhero treatment (along with Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a surprise post-credits appearance as Nick Fury), Howard can bank on gaining some of the series’ cultural buzz. He’s still a very unusual onscreen presence - laconic without being lost, casual while still showing command. While War Machine may be a geek mandate, the novices are still getting used to all the Iron mythos. If anyone can sell future scenarios however, it’s him. 


Gwyneth Paltrow
As Katie Holmes proved in Batman Begins, ladies in superhero films are readily replaceable. Still, Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is pretty great. As long as she doesn’t let the notices go to her head, and doesn’t suffer through another bout of “bored with acting/gotta be a mommy” syndrome, she could stick around for a while. Her cache won’t increase, but she’s already got an Oscar, so what more can she really want?


The Franchise

Marvel’s miracle here is taking a marginal character from their comic universe (unless you’ve followed Stark and his saga since the beginning, you probably only know the hero via the classic Black Sabbath anthem) and turning him into something solid and bankable. Unlike Batman or Superman (and in some post-modern ways, the X-Men), the icon had no real juice prior to the premiere, and they managed to deliver a jolt. Give it up for marketing as well as excellent mainstream moviemaking. If the film goes on to do gangbuster business, earning between $250 and $300 million (as some are predicting), we’ll be involved in this metallic crusader’s cause for years to come. Even with something less in the till, Iron Man is here to stay - that is, until the next tent pole production hits the Cineplex.


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Sunday, May 4, 2008


It sounds both sinister, and kind of silly: vagina dentata - literal translation, female genitalia with teeth. Believe it or not, cultures all around the world have legends about this mysterious gender power, a clear cut allegory for the control women have over men. While much of what makes up the folklore derives from ignorance, imagination, and just a wee bit of old world paternal superstition, it’s clear that the biological battle of the sexes is less than a fair fight. Women mandate conception, give birth to the future, and more or less determines the destiny of the human race. The indie horror comedy Teeth wants to add a few more mixed metaphors to this situation. Sometimes, it succeeds. At other instances, it’s the crotch version of a circus geek.


Abstinent Dawn is dedicated to ‘The Promise’, a school program that promotes purity and virginity. Ever since she reached puberty, she’s been at war with her hormones, and so far, religious fervor has kept them at bay. Then Tobey, a new boy in town, tests her moralistic mantle. When an innocent date turns deadly, Dawn fears something is wrong with her womb. Seeking the counsel of the Internet, she learns a shocking truth - she may have vagina dentate, or a toothed vulva. A horrific trip to the gynecologist confirms the worst. With her home life in shambles - sick mother, distant stepfather, perverted stepbrother - she turns to another neighborhood boy for help. But with everyone’s thoughts on sex, it’s not long before her mandibled mommy parts start seeking revenge.


As a first film from Mitchell, the son of famed artist Roy, Lichtenstein, Teeth doesn’t seem like the work of mature 52 year old. Instead, the tone of this devious dark comedy is like John Hughes filtered through John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. Much of the material here is mired in a too cutesy, too clever idea of how to portray uncontrollable instinct. On the other hand, the performances of Jess Weixler as Dawn, John Hensley as metalhead sibling Brad, and Lenny von Dohlen as tormented stepdad Bill bring a real truth to the subject’s treatment. What could have easily been a Hustler Magazine level joke gets some subtle, somewhat substantive treatment. Yet Lichtenstein never comes right out and shows us the ‘monster’. Instead, we have to view Dawn as a suggested symbol, and that’s where some of the problem lies.


On the newly released DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme subdivision, the filmmaker gets a chance to defend his choices. Over the course of a feature length commentary, Lichtenstein points to the fact that he’s dealing with actual tradition here, and that he’s simply following many of the narratives and myths derived within. Yet he never explains his scattershot approach, randomness taking over moments that need more clarity or focus. Take Dawn’s parents. Bill and his ailing wife Kim seem like nice enough people. But their relationship starts off ambiguously (shown in flashback at the beginning) and never develops beyond that. Even the mother’s terminal illness is kept a secret, the better to confuse our empathy.

And then there is the tone taken toward males. Dawn’s stepbrother Brad only wants to explore the incestual aspects of their relationship. New boy Tobey becomes an ersatz rapist before meeting his demise. A doctor drops the professional decorum to more or less violate his client, and the mixed up neighbor who lusts for Dawn longingly goes the Ruffee route to get in her goodies. To hear Lichtenstein tell it, a man’s libido is the most angry and aggressive facet of foreplay and fornication. Our heroine responds by using her inner ‘protection’ to insure “No means NO!” Much of Teeth is puzzling and rather muddled. For his part, when he’s confused, our director simply calls on the F/X to give us some gory castration shots.


Other potential satiric targets are never explored. Dawn lives, Simpsons’ style, near a nuclear power plant. The potential genetic jerryrigging such a facility could create is completely ignored. So is Brad’s preference for anal sex. Of course, we make the connection (it must have something to do with that game of ‘Doctor’ he played with Dawn when they were kids), but the movie fails to address it upfront. If all that’s important is our lead’s coming of age, and her decision to use her privates as punishment, Teeth certainly spends a lot of time beating around the bush (no pun intended). In fact, if you took away all the periphery and simply focused on the girl and her gimmick, the running time would end up on the short film side.


Clearly, Lichtenstein could have done more with the premise. The ending feels like the middle act of the movie - or worse, the set up for a sequel. It’s possible to see Dawn as a post-modern feminist heroine, a gal harnessing the power of her gender to eliminate those who merely want to exploit it. And unlike men, who are constantly reminded that they think with their penis more than anything else, such a story could be the antithesis of a ‘weaker sex’ sentiment. It could be smart, funny, profane, uncompromising, and deeply thought provoking. None of this is evident in the approach Lichtenstein takes, however. He’s just happy to push a few teen proto-porn buttons and move on. Even the making of material suggests that nothing much deeper than a slightly dirty joke was intended.


Still, thanks to some sensational performances and a clever insight or two, Teeth manages to transcend its implied trashiness. We can even forgive the unnecessary nude scene that Weixler had to endure. Had Lichtenstein taken a more Funny Games style look at his subject (in a good way), deconstructing the sex comedy and our expectations of same, this might have been a minor masterpiece. Instead, it’s a rock solid b-movie, schlock masquerading as something more meaningful. This is the kind of premise that Doris Wishman would have driven into the ground - or better yet, imagine what Dave Friedman or Harry Novak would have done. Teeth is too polite and PC to follow in those glorious grindhouse footsteps. It really should have reconsidered such a stance.



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Sunday, May 4, 2008
Yet the biggest question that lingers after seeing Justice's "Stress" video is simply this: what's the point?

Justice’s last two music videos—“D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO”—were graphic, fun-filled affairs that were visually engaging, culturally satirical, and just damn fun to watch. With “Stress”, however, the group winds up taking a turn for something much darker.


As you stream it below, you see something that’s very primal and very unpleasant: act after act of mindless, pointless violence. Romain Garvis’ clip features a gang of young hoodlums (all donning jackets with the Justice “cross” logo on it) going about town and destroying bars, throwing tourists cameras away, smashing street performers guitars, hijacking a car and much, much more. It will never get play on MTV, and its violence is tough to swallow: even the one shot at this gang’s come-uppance is foiled after the kids break off from a security guard sneak attack, leaving just one guard to try and stop them ... only to find himself on the floor being kicked repeatedly.


The video ends with the kids torching the car they stole, some of the flame even landing on the videos boom mic operator. They don’t even acknowledge his pain: they soon turn to the camera man, spit on his lense, and after what appears to be a brief struggle, everything turns to black.


Yet the biggest question that lingers after is simply this: what’s the point?


It’s doubtful that a video as well-crafted as this was done simply to provide an unfunny version of Jackass. Instead, given that Justice originated from France, this video could perhaps be seen as an expression of the outrage that the French youth felt during their tumultuous riots a few years back, the ones that shocked and outraged a nation: politicians calling said rioters “scum” and the youth of France returning the sentiment in kind by destorying millions upon millions of dollars worth of property. The “Stress” video could be seen as the youth having bottled up rage, societal resentment brewing in their blood ... and yet not having a single outlet of which to pour their energy. So, the kids in this video take to vandalism, crime, asserting their authority in any/all contexts possible, lapping up their camera-captured spotlight before, ultimately, turning on those who are documenting their accomplishments. Is the implication that such unfocused, unbridled rage will ultimately collapse in on itself, leading to one’s own destruction instead of on exterior, worldly things?


It’s hard to say, and this video does not provide any easy answers. It’s a polarizing clip, but it only goes to show that art of any kind—yes, even big-beat techno—can ignite a serious, pointed discussion.


(Oh, and yeah ... it’s also a great song to boot).


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