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by Bill Gibron

22 Mar 2009

One of the most valuable aspects of foreign film is getting to see the world - and the motion picture equivalent of same - through a vastly different set of cinematic lenses. From cultural disparities to sentiments of sovereignty, the international director draws from numerous sources to make his celluloid statement, and unlike his Hollywood compatriots, there’s usually not a predetermined demographic directly responsible for the narrative’s nuances. That’s why, when filmmakers from outside the US start mimicking the movie provenance that helped create and cement the artform, the translation is usually fairly evocative. And in the case of Zift, it’s made more interesting by the nation of origin. While not known for its endemic art, Bulgaria provides the stunning back drop for this neo-noir experiment.

After spending several decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, “the Moth” is finally being released. While behind bars, he’s embraced the Communist coup that’s overtaken his country, even going to far as to organize the inmates. When he gets out, he’s picked up by a stern looking military attaché who takes him directly to a public bath. There, he meets up with an old nemesis, former street hood turned important Party Member Slug. The vile villain wants to know where Moth hid a valuable diamond. All our hero wants is to break free and be with his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his now dead son) Ada. As he searches for his former lover all over the city, Slug still wants his information. Before he knows it, Moth’s desires and those of the man making his life miserable intersect - and as usual, there’s a woman involved…Moth’s woman.

If it didn’t have such an evocative monochrome set-up, if it failed to fully realize the various cinematic references and homage it houses, Zift would be a dull, derivative mess. It would resemble a hundred other cramped crime stories where atmosphere and mood are supposed to substitute for characterization and causality. We’d find ourselves lost in a country wholly unfamiliar to ours, while wondering why certain military and authoritarian subtexts are being inserted into the film. But thanks to the visual flair of director Javor Gardev, and the undeniable invention he brings to this tale, what could have been a tired, typical thriller becomes a remarkable bit of engaging eye candy. The story may be simple, and the resolution revealed early and often, but we really don’t mind the plot imperfections. It’s the journey here that’s worth the effort.

Gardev works us through many of the more ambiguous elements. The Moth is viewed as a capable local hood, but yet spends most of his time in prison befriending an one-eyed thief. There are clear signs of our hero’s Communist leanings (he gets out early because of his initiatives in jail), yet that facet flies out the window the minute the torture begins. Our main scoundrel - the corporeal criminal Slug - is not so much a threat as an unwelcome obstacle our hero must overcome. There’s also an inference that everything Moth does is designed to feed his ultimate goal - to get out of Bulgaria and set up a sweet life in the Tropics somewhere. Indeed, you could almost argue that Moth’s entire raison d’etra is centered around getting out of prison, finding his former gal pal, making up with her, and then hopping a train out of town.

Naturally, things get in the way, and part of Zift‘s pleasure is watching these unusual obstructions come and go. Gardev spends inordinately large amounts of time on people’s faces, watching them as they tell their tall tales about septic tank revenge, or mangled marital fidelity. These pieces of significant suplot folklore, meant to mirror the action onscreen with their surreal sense of moral right and wrong, are part of this picture’s many pleasures. Just hearing the actors spin the yarns creates a kind of climate where the insane visual histrionics play perfectly. This is one director who has clearly absorbed all the iconic influences around him. From Hong Kong action to American criminal mythos, Zift seems to have it all.

And then there are the native nuances, the foreign touches that stay with us long after the film has ended. One is the title treat itself, a black strap gum that Moth loves to chew. The word can also mean the mortar used to hold bricks and stone together (as in the newly fashioned public square in the middle of the empiric capital city), or slang for shit. In this case, both Gardev and his characters, taken from Vladislav Todorov’s novel, represent them all. In the best noir tradition, no one is pure here. Everyone has motives that keep them mired in misery and filth. Even Ada, now working as a singer in an upscale nightclub, allows herself to be kept by important Communist officials. In addition, the bond between Moth, his gal, and the slimy Slug is unquestionable. Once their petty theft went from a heist to a homicide, all three share a cement-like status.

What we wind up with is a whodunit and why that’s as joyful in the discovery as it is borderline bumbling in its conclusion. Gardev has to be careful in his reveals, the D.O.A. dynamic at play (Moth was poisoned before going on his search) threatening to take our attention away from the clues. Thanks to some ingenuous flashbacks, a telling look or two, and a last moment disclosure that clarifies the motives of everyone involved, Zift moves beyond the basics to work its way toward the classic. That it doesn’t quite get there is not the fault of anyone involved. From cast to crew, there is too much talent in this movie to marginalize its effectiveness. No, what takes Zift down a peg or two is its obviously newfound familiarity. For those outside the source, this will all seem very novel. For those on the inside, it’s imaginative imitation - which we all know is the sincerest, and in this case, most meaningful form of flattery. 

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Back at Spiro’s again, where I get a second shot at Obits. 

Two years in the hatching, unnervingly different from Rick Froberg’s previous garage punk outfits like Hot Snakes or Drive Like Jehu or Rocket from the Crypt, Obits rides freight-train blues rhythms over night-time expanses, its songs driving but still, evolving slowly out of repetitive grooves, more like rough-edged Johnny Cash than punk.  Songs like “Widow of My Dreams” has a riff that backsteps down the scale, sliding off towards the horizon like a blues-dreamed hallucination of “Peter Gunn”. “Two Headed Coin” shuffles on the same lonesome train tracks, split down the middle by a roadhouse bass solo. There’s even a blues cover—the old song “Milk Cow Blues”—sped up and strobed through with punk rock surfbilly power chords. It’s not Hot Snakes, and that leaves some long-term fans cold, but it’s pretty great in its own way, anyway. 

Wovenhand

Wovenhand

The front room is hearteningly full for Wovenhand

Wovenhand, if you’re not familiar with it, is the solo-project-that-grew for David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower. His latest, Ten Stones, is an intensely powerful, old-testament-prophecy-crossed-with-Joy-Division-drumming, far more rock than previous outings and, indeed, as rock, in its way, as anything else that came out last year. It is a great record, my third-favorite for 2008 and almost universally overlooked. (PopMatters’ Justin Cober-Lake and I were the only people to vote for Ten Stones in this year’s Pazz & Jop, and we were both kind of bummed that no one else got on board.) 

But look, here we are at Spiro’s and there is a big crowd and a palpable sense of excitement, as this slight, blond man in an Indian headband soundchecks the eerie soundwashes, the booming drums, the reverbed vocals that characterize his sound. The crowd, too, has a real person/real fan feel to it, rather than the have-to-see-this-buzzy-band distraction of the industry-heavy showcases. “Ten dollars,” says a woman in front of me, “that’s the deal of the century.” Get that? She paid for this, and she’s glad to be here. Refreshing.

She’s right, too, because Wovenhand is stunning. Edwards is seated nearly the whole time, leaning out over his chair to growl into the mic, turning it around to lock in with his long-time drummer Ordy Garrison or commune with bass player Pascal Humbert (also ex-of 16 Horsepower). You realize, almost immediately, that Wovenhand is no longer a solo project, not anymore, because the power in the sound comes as much from Garrison’s pummeling drums, from Humberts’ thunderous bass, as from Edwards. Edwards is the visionary, spinning out gothic landscapes of galloping horses and men standing judgment, switching from guitar to mandolin, leaning into the mic for exhilarating barks and shouts. But the material is great because of the way it melds outsized rhythms with Pentecostal dread. It is overwhelming, fantastic, too much in all ways to process. I feel as if I cannot take in a single more piece of music… that mentally, physically, emotionally, I’m full to the top. 

So naturally, I pass through Major Stars on the way out. 

Major Stars

Major Stars

I’ve seen Major Stars before. Based in Boston out of the independent record store and label Twisted Village, the Major Stars have been cranking ear-melting, mind-spinning psych and rock for a couple of decades. A few years ago, they added a third guitar player and a singer, opening up their instrumental fuckery into something like hard 1960s rock. Something like it, but more open-ended, more prone to free form jams and sudden left turns. Guitarist Wayne Rogers prowls the stage restlessly, back and forth between guitar heroine Kate Biggar and singer Sandra Barrett. Biggar urges listeners to support freeform radio and local radio stores, in between songs, and you wonder what’s going to happen next year or the year when all the record stores are gone, and all the radio stations are owned by one company and Live Nation decides what bands you get to see in every city. Bleak times ahead, but for now, freakiness rules at Spiro’s.

 

by Andrew Gilstrap

22 Mar 2009

Frank Turner

Frank Turner

Jail Guitar Doors is an organization that seeks to provide instruments to anyone using music as part of prisoner rehabilitation. As far as their showcase went, it was both an enjoyable and frustrating night. The frustration came from a super-chatty Friday night crowd, who completely drowned out Howard Elliott Payne and an admittedly tired Ed Harcourt. Others fared better. Otis Gibbs‘s strong voice always projects, so he had no trouble. Neither did Hey Negrita!, who were fantastic fun with their blend of traditional- and skiffle-touched songs. Beans on Toast will stay in people’s memories as well. Short, standing on a chair, and playing a child-size guitar, the gravel-voiced Beans on Toast led the crowd through several riotous songs of questionable taste about things like cocaine addiction. Frank Turner closed out the show, but ran up against the show’s time limit. His solution? Take it outside. With the crowd following, he and Beans on Toast finished up the show as a crowd of curious passersby joined the throng.

Otis Gibbs

Otis Gibbs

Hey Negrita!

Hey Negrita!

Beans on Toast

Beans on Toast

Frank Turner

Frank Turner

Frank Turner and Beans on Toast

Frank Turner and Beans on Toast

 

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Chris Woodhouse’s (from the FM Knives) new band is harder, faster, and louder than the old one, a screeching, hurling, spastic menace of a band that gets what has been a fairly sedate crowd, up to now, slamming in the pit. One guy even hazards a crowd surf, though it doesn’t last long. Neither do the songs, but while they’re on, they’re insanely aggressive, body-blowing onslaughts. More Mayyors, please.

 

by Andrew Gilstrap

22 Mar 2009

Alela Diane is starting to generate some buzz for her crystal-clear voice and country-tinged songs. Technical problems got the show off to a slow start, but she and her group recovered quickly to deliver a set clearly influenced by West Coast country and soft rock. Their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” sealed those influences if there were ever any doubt in listener’s minds. Visually, the band gives off a little bit of West Coast hippy vibe, anyway, with several band members looking like they might have stepped out of an early ‘70s incarnation of Neil Young’s band. The harmonies were excellent, well-suited to the dreamy country lope that the band seemed to favor. I’d heard Diane compared to Caitlyn Cary, which doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless, she’s worth keeping an eye on.

 

 

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