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by Rob Horning

21 Sep 2008

For a designated national monument, Risiera San Sabba, in Italy, is not an easy place to find. While road signs in Trieste routinely point you toward restaurants, hotels, roman ruins, the town center, Castle Miramare, and so on, we saw only one sign for San Sabba, at the bottom of a long list of arrows pointing to other cultural destinations. This is not a surprise. The citizens of the city are probably not all that eager to be reminded of the former Nazi concentration camp in their midst.

In the end, we had to ask at the bureau how to get there, and even with her explicit directions it was hard to find. It’s a nearly entirely unmarked building down a small street that’s a difficult turn to see coming off the autostrada. The humdrum brick structure stands innocuously enough in a somewhat rundown part of town, down the street from a soccer stadium and next to a Lidl discount supermarket. A circus was set up around the corner. I happened to park our rental car next to the bricked over windows of a chamber now called “the death room,” where new inmates were processed by the Nazis amid corpses waiting to be cremated. Only a small plaque by the long gray corridor into the complex marks the site’s significance now, unless you count the swastika someone painted on the highway riser back by the autostrada. The fact that the site is a national monument but all but invisible suggests strongly the tension between remembering and forgetting that seems to characterize attitudes toward World War II atrocities and the methods by which the Holocaust was carried out within view of the ordinary life of civilians. Apartment buildings still stand in the blocks that surround San Sabba; they probably stood when the horrors were being carried out. 

San Sabba’s ordinary exterior is a large part of what is awful about it now. It seems a perfect representation of the matter of fact way the Nazis assimilated killing into industrial organization. The building was originally a rice-husking factory; when the Nazis occupied the city they simply converted it into a different, horrific kind of factory, retrofitting in prison cells (some of which still remain) and installing a crematorium (which they dynamited as they fled when the city was liberated in 1945). At the site now, there are commemorative inscriptions, sculptures meant to evoke the crematorium smoke rising, an exhibition detailing the history of the Nazi occupation of the region, and a grim collection of inmate uniforms, confiscated property, a replica of a truncheon used to beat inmates to death, grainy photographs of the perpetrators. It wasn’t a lot to see, but it was enough. I started to understand why the place was so hard to find. Though we made a special effort to tour the place, I wanted nothing to do nothing but forget what I had seen after we left; I stayed up late that night watching whatever bad shows I could find on Slovenian television to keep my mind off it all. I never expected to be so grateful for old episodes of The X Files.

by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the prospect of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.

Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears (new to DVD from Genius Products, Dimension Extreme, and the Weinstein Company) is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.

Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.

The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.

As for the DVD itself, the added content is underwhelming in its quantity, wonderful in its quality. Argento is present for both an onscreen interview and various backstage sequences. The Q&A even drops a delicious bombshell - he may revisit the Three Mothers again. Having enjoyed himself immensely while making this film, a suggestion regarding a prequel has inspired the spirited 68 year old. An origins picture would be right up his alley, especially considering his love of making movies. During the Behind the Scenes featurette, we see Argento in his favorite position - implement of death in hand, camera over his shoulder ready to capture another senseless bit of slaughter. No matter his recent track record, this is an artist who clearly gets a thrill out of bringing his bravura vision to the big screen.

Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.

The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.

Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.

by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker

20 Sep 2008

We snagged the best table at the 3rd & Lindsley. This is a really good venue when you’ve got a table up close to the stage—that is, under the speakers that will, if aimed right at you, blast you to a pulp by the end of the evening. The lighting is harsh, but you’ll only notice that if you’re trying to photo shoot.

Jim White started us off this evening rather sweet and mellow. Or rather, a bit bitter and mellow (the tangy bite of his satirical lyrics are balanced with a mix of musical sugar). A master of the pedal last night, up there all by himself, he interspersed his songs with amusing storytelling. Intimate and comfortable.

A swift setup and in no time the Red Stick Ramblers dragged us kickin’ and hollering down to the Louisiana bayous. Consummate musicians, those of us stuck in our seats were doing the butt cheek dance while the women in the back grabbed one another and twirled. Just when your soul feels it might burst from all that Cajun-sustaining food, they bring it to a rousing end. Damn, that’s right—it’s a showcase, it ended about four hours too soon.

Time is a funny thing though, ain’t it? Jim White takes his 45-50 minutes with you and it’s like you were sitting on the porch all summer evening, enjoying the song of the crickets and the company of a good friend, while sharing a bottle. The Red Stick Ramblers made time go by faster than a speeding semi barreling down I-65 between Chicago and Nashville. And then Peter Bradley Adams and his band came on…

Set up takes a while, and we’re wary. Signifiers indicate this might be a… mellow set. Really mellow. A guitar case is opened and a Soviet-era looking poster is taped to the case for all to see. “HOPE”, it demands. Oh, yeah, that’s the latest Obama poster. 

Ironically, we spent more time writing over this set than any other, this evening—that is, passing notes back and forth to one another. “This is the sort of polite, mopey, singer-songwriter lite that sounds at home in a Starbucks line. Very sincere, slightly dazed-looking female back-up singer; even more seemingly sincere, deep lead singer. There are other musicians on the stage, but their sound is so muddy, one only knows from sight that they’re working… Rather depressing, really.” (That was a long note.) “I could help out that back-up singer, a few notches or 20.” “I could give the lead a decent haircut”, “Well, the bass player is cute” and so on. That’s a 45 minutes of our lives we want back.

Mike Farris and his amazing band answered our prayers and gave us more soulful sound in their all-too-short set than mere physical boundaries such as time and earthly bodies can contain. Lord, they resonate. If you see this man and his band once in your life, it will be music you’ll hear in your head when you’re clinging to the last vestiges of this mortal world—it is truly a joyful sound. It’s gospel, yes, but it’s that universal gospel that moves even the most cynical soul. Farris and the McCrary Sisters are singing their salvation—and yours—and you will be moved, no matter how firmly you keep to your convictions, wherever they’re grounded. Their Deep South sound heavily steeped in the sounds of New Orleans and Memphis will take you to Heaven and you won’t be able to sit down. Rarely do we, considered outsiders by many in this country, feel so welcome—and so damned happy to be human—than in the company of these highly talented people.

by Bill Gibron

19 Sep 2008

The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different.

Poor Dodge Connelly. All he knows is football. He’s been playing an unappreciated professional version of the sport for years, unable to capture the public imagination the way the college game has. When his team folds, he heads to Chicago to talk with old ally C.C. Frazier. The sleazy entrepreneur is representing Princeton star Carter Rutherford, and Connelly thinks he can con the young war hero into going legit. Of course, as with every story like this, there’s a dame in the mix - in this case, ace Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton. Quick with a word and decisive on a deadline, she is out to undermine Rutherford. Seems his WWI mythos might just be bunk after all. Of course, destroying his reputation may just put the fledgling fortunes of professional football in jeopardy - and Connelly won’t let that happen.

You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream. He’s definitely learned a lot from his many collaborations with ones Joel and Ethan, and his visual flair never fails him. This is a smart, good looking movie, never overplaying its period piece precision or resorting to camp or kitsch. Clooney’s attention to detail is flawless, his comic timing as polished as the brass of a speakeasy’s spittoon. And as we learn on the included commentary track of the new DVD from Universal Home Video, he’s a student of several old school cinematic masters. So why then is this movie merely good, and not the amazing masterpiece it wants to be? Where did this director and his dedicated cast go wrong, especially in light of all the things they both get so very, very right?

One answer may be the genre. As Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indicated, the screwball comedy is a dead genre for a very good reason - it’s hard as Hell to recreate. Not only was the format a product of its time, but it also reflected the obvious anxieties of a world between wars. Clooney clicks into the aspects that cause instant recognition - ditzy dialogue, razor-sharp put downs, lightning quick conversations - but never finds the narrative mechanics to amplify everything else onscreen. During the opening football sequence, we see the kind of cinematic zing required to pull this off. By the middle of the second act, all that pizzazz has petered out.

Then there’s Renee Zellweger. While far more tolerable here than in other starring roles, she’s still the hollow feminine side of a rather lax lover’s triangle. With a pinched up face that blocks her needs to be expressive eyes, and a delivery pitched somewhere between community college thespianism and The Hudsucker Proxy, she never settles in to her function here. It’s the same with John Krasinski as Rutherford. He is supposed to be a genial lox, the kind of wide eyed innocent who doesn’t mind dipping into the dark side once in a while - or at least, that’s how the script handles him. He goes along with the get rich quick scheme forwarded by Connelly and Frazier, rather mercenary in his decision. But then, when Zellweger’s Littleton betrays him, he acts like a hurt puppy - albeit one that freely stained the companionship carpet whenever and wherever he wanted.

It’s up to our creative cheerleader to hold everything together, and it’s a testament to Clooney’s talent and magnetism that he manages to make it work. Connelly’s moxie, his sense of purpose and passion for playing football comes across loud and clear. Similarly, when smitten with Littleton and jealous of her wandering attentions, we believe in the legitimacy of their love. It’s too bad that the second act gets bogged down in ancillary plot points. Had Leatherheads simply stayed focused on showing how football moved from a college to national pastime, we’d have a winning sports epic. But emotions that should soar merely lumber along, failing to get our undivided attention.

As part of the hefty DVD packaging, we get a wealth of explanatory extras. Clooney’s commentary with producer Grant Heslov is a might dry, yet the two do offer up some solid production insights. The deleted scenes argue for a film that could have been even longer (at 116 minutes, its 26 too long) and the various Making-of documentaries showcase Leatherheads’ attention to detail. Of course, none of this addresses the bigger question - what would this film have been like had Clooney found castmates equal to his movie idol mantle? What if, instead of Zellweger and Krasinski, he had managed Matt Damon and, say, Jodie Foster? This is a movie that cries out for all around classicism. As we learn from the bonus features, Clooney was required to do most of the heavy lifting.

As a result, Leatherheads stands as an almost success. It does the best it can with the cast and content collected, and still ends up delivering an occasionally delightful entertainment. It’s clear that, as he continues his career, Clooney’s choice behind the camera will be as brave and as interesting as the movie roles he options - maybe even more so. No one but this mainstream man-crush could use his considerable clout to forge a ‘20s era experiment in style and sass. While it doesn’t always work, Leatherheads definitely looks and feels right. And in the case of this clever attempt, two out of three is all that’s really needed.

by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker

19 Sep 2008

Day 1

Seated way in the back, the Ryman’s notoriously excellent acoustics failed, somehow, for Levon Helm’s Ramble. Couldn’t hear the horns, couldn’t hear Helm’s singing all that well, either. Hope the folks who were filming that event for DVD had a better time of it than we. Several songs in, and we stepped out to see what else was shaking on the opening night of the festival.

We stopped at the Basement—a cramped, somewhat down-in-the-heels place reminiscent of some of Austin’s less than pristine venues (we’re talking about you Emo’s). But hey, we come for the music. Alas, we never got to hear it, as two big mouthed, drunken louts “Whooo hoo’d” at everything and everyone—and the music hadn’t even started. Some pretty little thing was setting up on the stage, her clingy dress showing her form rather nicely for anyone with eyes in their head. But the Louts seemed to feel compelled to assist anyone there who might be blind, and “Whooo hoo’d” her for our benefit, as well. Bet she felt flattered, boys, thank you very much. Impossible to hear one’s own thoughts in this tiny space with these damned fools bellowing, we knew we’d never get to enjoy the music, either. Sorry, the Belleville Outfit, the everybodyfields, the Dedringers and Patrick Sweany, but the Basement seemed content to indulge the Whoo Hoos, and not you. We moved on before the show even started, cursing under our breaths.

Soon after we were pulling up chairs to the long tables at the Station Inn (with a car, it’s very easy to get around Nashville for these showcases). Many years prior we’d stopped here for some bluegrass and the feel was as if we stepped into a revival tent. We’d best be converted, or perhaps move on. Rather intense, in that regard, on that day.

It’s in this modest and yes, intense setting that PopMatters’ favorite Mike Farris holds a regular Sunday night gig. We saw him live on a large stage at the Mercy Lounge at last year’s Americana Music Fest—with plenty of room for his band of won’t-be-denied New Orleans-style horns and his trio of gorgeous back-up singers, The McCrary Sisters. Lord, how their sound filled every square inch of space in that large hall, wrapped around us and gave us a squeal-inducing squeeze. Yow!  We’ll be seeing him soon back at 3rd and Lindsley.

But this night, we were at the Station Inn in to hear artists new to us. Donna Beasley is lovely, if you like your decaf in the morning watered down with skim milk and just a granule or two of sugar. Looks good coming to the table, but alas, the brew is weak. An early morning kept us from staying for what appeared to be a folksy line-up tonight.

The first day at the Americana Music Festival was, alas, a bust for us. Others with more endurance and tolerance might say otherwise.

Day Two

Day two started with the incomparable Casey Driessen at the cozy Douglas Corner Café. Now that’s a great venue for hearing really good music. You talk during someone’s set there, you’ll be hushed by the hard core, knowledgeable music devotees surrounding you. And get your butt in that chair, now, ‘cause the artists start on time. Ah!  Perfect.

We’re figuring that when Driessen was a young man he sought out and found the Devil. He said, “Mr. Devil, I’ll give you my soul if you let me play this violin like no other living man.”  The Devil looked him up and down slowly—didn’t take long, as he’s a little fella—sucked on the smoking piece of straw in his mouth and said, “Son, you can keep your soul. You’re gonna need it when you step out on that stage.  But I’m gonna make that violin play you.”

And indeed it does. That sassy violin grabs Driessen by the scruff of the neck and has him shaking on his toes. We swear it thinks it’s the smartest thing in the room, and dares you to try to keep up with it. Ever hear an instrument do a call and response, making it look so damned easy conversational-wise with itself?  Uh huh. Keep up with us, here. Any chance you get to see this man perform live- er, this violin play this man—go, and give yourself one hell of a treat.

Some head shaking appreciation of Driessen over a cocktail at the quiet, elegant bar at Maggiano’s, and then we made our way to the Ryman, again, for the Americana Awards show.

Thank you, Americana Music Festival, for those second row, center seats, where we were in good company with many notables. Joan Baez, on hand to receive the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, sat behind us and Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Mike Farris were just to our left. No complaints about acoustics this night. We could hear the sweat flying.

Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA

Ryan Bingham’s voice sounds like a truck tire on a gravel road, complete with rocks flying up and hitting the fender—it’s a good country sound.

Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA

When Steve Earle walked out we thought it might be the ghost of Allen Ginsberg, such is his middle-aged resemblance. Mr. Earle, please leave New York. It’s softened your sound and taken the edge off the anger that makes us wanna listen.

(You can see the awards results listed below.)

All the while there was Buddy Miller, sweet and modest, playing with the band. You’ll see this talented man everywhere, in the band, with nary a notice ‘til he steps up the mic and makes you smile so broadly.

Courtesy of the AMA

Jason & The Scorchers - Courtesy of the AMA

So, too, Joe Ely (a personal favorite) gives his all, every time we see him, every venue—from a room full of the reverent to singing over the fools blathering in the back, too damned ignorant to know what they’re missing. The man is pure, raw talent, and he makes you zero in on his songs and listen close, the rest of the world be damned.

Earlier in the day, on our way to Jack’s Bar-B-Que, we think we saw a construction crew on the roof of the Ryman, applying reinforcements in anticipation of Mike Farris (another personal favorite) and his kickass band. One song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” had the crowd testing the integrity of the Ryman’s construction. We swear that building was jumping. Wonder if they taped the stained glass windows, lest they shatter.

Speaking of building-shattering performances, Jason & The Scorchers did not hold back even for the sacred old Ryman—damn near twirled and leapt off the stage right into our second row laps. Tommy Womack has a write up in the program about Jason & the Scorchers that is high caliber music writing. If we find an online link to it, we’ll plug it in here for your reading pleasure. Heck, if we had a scanner…

After a lengthy chatty Awards ceremony, we headed south to 3rd and Lindsley for the Joe Ely set. Yep, Ely is one of those people we’re almost willing to follow to the ends of the earth. We were exhausted by this time, but 3rd and Lindsley has lots of tables and chairs (hallelujah) to rest our weary bones.

The always delightful Rosie Flores was dazzling the crowd with her sassy vocals and mean guitar when we stepped into the cozy place. James Intveld joined her for a few duets of pure honky tonk.

That set the stage nicely for Ely, who mostly played solo. Favorites like “All Just to Get to You” and “Me and Billy the Kid” roused the crowd and a new number “Homeland Refugee” proved equally compelling. The real treat of the evening was Ryan Bingham appearing on stage about halfway into the Ely set to sing a few songs with the Texas legend. They reprised their duet, “Southside of Heaven”, from early in the evening at the awards show and sang a few more off Bingham’s debut release.

Bingham’s dry, crusty Texas twang rests ever so nicely next to Ely’s more polished tones and they clearly feed off each other’s energy. Here’s hoping these two form a more permanent musical partnership and head out onto the road together. They just need to be sure to bring along ace accordionist Joel Guzman (Ely’s frequent musical partner) as Ely’s tunes—anyone’s, really —benefit enormously from the fiery, soulful solos and flourishes of this instrumental master.

AWARD WINNERS

  • Album of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant/Raising Sand
  • Artist of the Year: Levon Helm
  • Duo/Group of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
  • Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
  • New Emerging Artist of the Year: Mike Farris
  • Song of the Year: “She Left Me for Jesus” by Hayes Carll and Brian Keane Additional Lifetime Achievement Honors were given to:
  • Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music—Joan Baez
  • Lifetime Achievement / Songwriting—John Hiatt
  • Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement / Executive—Terry Lickona
  • Lifetime Achievement / Performance—Jason & The Scorchers
  • Presidents Award—Jerry Garcia
  • Lifetime Achievement / Instrumentalist—Larry Campbell
  • Trailblazer / Nanci Griffith
  • Lifetime Achievement / Producer / Engineer—Tony Brown
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