Joan of Arc’s 12th odd album may be a little on the hit-&-miss side, as Joe Tacopino’s PopMatters review attests, but this track is definitely a hit. That said, I’m not exactly sure what this video is trying to get at.
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Os Mutantes have carved out an odd niche for themselves in the current music world. The initial “wow” factor of the band’s reunion is gone, and the trend-crazed fans have seemed to fall off a bit, leaving only the true disciples along for the ride. With very few exceptions the band’s actual fans came out of the woodwork for their show at New York City’s Webster Hall, and, let me tell you, this blew the pants clear off their mediocre-at-best showing during the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Rather than being surrounded by a bunch of clueless bandwagon jumpers, this was the real deal. Sergio Dias led his (relatively) new troop through 90 minutes of psychedelic infused samba, touching on both relics and new gems from their first album in 35 years, Haih or Amortecedor. The most impressive element of the night came from the addition of female vocalist Bia Mendes, replacing former vocalist Zélia Duncan. Filling the shoes of original member Rita Lee is no small task—she went on to be the most successful of the group—but Mendes has the required fervor and spunk that fits right into Mutantes quirky image. Not only that but she is also an absolute phenom behind the mic. Her vocal directions on the classic “Baby” were sultry, and downright convincing that she deserved this gig. Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks so. There is also a Facebook group entitled “I want to party with Bia Mendes.” It’s contagious, I know.
My main complaint with their show at the Pitchfork Festival was the lack of songs in their native tongue. English songs have never been Mutantes strong suit, but, thankfully, last night there was an extreme shortage and, instead, an overabundance of Portuguese tracks, largely due to the new album’s material and also Tom Ze’s influence, I imagine. Speaking of Tom Ze’s influence, Os Mutantes has all of a sudden started treading the waters of dark psychedelia… and it’s extraordinary. Ze has been cranking out some often atonal, strange beat-driven recordings over the past several years, and his influence is both appreciated and admired on the new Mutantes recordings. This being said, it was a fantastic showing and revived faith om their recent incarnation. A future without Mutantes is one I don’t want to live in, so bring on the strange brew.
What has Halloween become? For the longest time, this celebration of all things horrific and supernatural seemed the least likely candidate for outright gross commercialization. Oh sure, there have always been the cheap dime store costumes, the mega-caloric piles of candy, and the various hokey harvest festivities. But when thinking back on the holiday some 30 years ago, no one could have imagined theme parks retrofitted with all manner of macabre frights, channels devoted exclusively to terror, and a unreal cultural commitment to making the most out of a former pagan celebration. It’s as if the constant bombardment of violence and shocking imagery has desensitized us to the true nature of the fright festivities. Add in the ever present sugar rush, and Halloween has become a shaky shadow of its former self.
That’s why the new film entitled Trick ‘r Treat is such a welcome addition to the post-modern meditation on the genre. An anthology at its core, but more a triumphant return to old school shivers, this unique narrative experience will instantly remind the viewer of cold Fall nights, years ago, when 31 October was a date to be reckoned with. A quasi-classic, this exceptional look at what Halloween really means is the byproduct of writer/director Michael Dougherty’s desire to craft, what he lovingly refers to, as tales of “mayhem, mystery, and mischief. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this love letter to ghosts, ghouls, and goblins is how accomplished it is. With only a few scripts under his belt (he co-wrote X2 and Superman Returns), Dougherty turns out to be as visually compelling as Tim Burton, or even Terry Gilliam.
The main narrative thread finds a round headed entity named Sam roaming the streets of a small town in Ohio. Warren Valley takes this last day in October very seriously, holding a massive block party and various other festivities. As the ethereal entity wanders the area, watching over the celebrants, we meet a school principal who moonlights as a serial killer. A group of young people visit the site of a horrific local legend, and learn not to mess with the dead. An attractive girl and her friends infiltrate the town, looking to find ‘dates’ for a sinister celebration in the woods, and an old codger, clearly upset over what Halloween means, discovers that Sam can be a very persistent treat or treater - deadly, even. Wrapped within the piles of fallen leaves, hand carved jack-o-lanterns, and unwitting wee ones are nods to previous omnibus films like Creepshow and Dead of Night and sources as varied as fairy tales and ‘80s monster movies.
Almost too clever for its own good, Trick ‘r Treat is a really good film. In fact, it’s so unusual in its practical F/X approach and retro direct to video charms that a second viewing is definitely needed before confirming its almost masterpiece status. Dougherty delivers in ways unthinkable for today’s blatant battle between PG-13 paltriness and torture porn tendencies. With a color palate so rich it ridicules all those green-gray Saw rip-offs and a tongue and cheek shout-out to dedicated dread devotees everywhere, this is like a fright geek’s greatest hits. Instead of presenting his tales in sequential order, Dougherty makes the wise decision to scatter his story around. One moment, we are watching Anna Paquin and her sexed up gal pals cruising the Warren Valley citizenry for potential “boyfriends”, the next, Brian Cox is getting his butt kicked by a odd little guy in a burlap sack headpiece and dirty long john PJs.
The best stories here are the ones that follow the old EC Comics conceit of O Henry like horror twists. The entire tale subtitled “The Halloween School Bus Massacre Revisited” works so brilliantly, built slowly and steadily like any good ghost story should, that when it also pays off later, we love the fact that Dougherty didn’t keep things compact and concise. In fact, each story here ties in neatly with the others, working themselves into a near perfect ball of paranormal fun. We relish the reappearance of Dylan Baker’s murderous school official, even if he appears relatively doomed. We like the fact that random characters return for later looks just as the new action is starting. Dougherty wants us to pay attention, and by doing so, we are rewarded with lots of little asides to make even the most cynical scary movie buff smile in recognition.
Trick ‘r Treat also offers some compelling performances, Cox and Baker especially good as two different reasons to avoid collecting candy by yourself. The former has the more impactful story arc, a last minute revelation really amplifying his apparent problems with the holiday. Also excellent are the various underage actors who avoid the jaded gestures of contemporary youth to play their suspense and shock scenes with abject authenticity. One of the best things about this film is its wistful nostalgia for Halloween’s past, a time when kids were the center of the situation, not adults dressed up like idiots trying to relive their usually lame childhood. Such a pre-teen-ccentric pose gives Trick ‘r Treat a lot of its staying power. We easily identify with our onscreen familiars, remembering what it was like when we were lost, alone, and suspicious of everything around us.
It’s a shame than that this DVD doesn’t offer more in the way of context. There is a clever animated short introducing Sam - and that’s it. Dougherty is present to comment on said cartoon, but he really deserves more time to discuss his intentions with the film proper. And since the movie itself looks so good (while a full screen version is offered, it definitely destroys the interesting compositions here - stick with the anamorphic widescreen instead), it’s a shame to not hear how this first time feature filmmaker realized his goals. Sadly, this lack of respect is par for the course regarding this fine film (it didn’t even warrant a theatrical release).
For some, Trick ‘r Treat may be all too cute and self-referential. Dougherty has clearly made a movie for everyone who loves Halloween for what it means outside of the drunken parties and Goth gal/guy gloom merchandise. Films like this are the reason for the season however, a smart and funny experience that will hopefully be embraced by viewers wanting something other than the latest overhyped Hollywood crap. One can easily imagine a day when the cult surrounding Trick ‘r Treat pushes it into the big leagues, where it definitely deserves to be. Until then, it can be our little spook show secret - a devilish delight that definitely earns its wicked wizened wings.
The stellar 2003 Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, features a fine batch of rock and country flavored arrangements of Dolly Parton songs performed by Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Melissa Etheridge, amongst others. It’s a great, highly listenable set, but as flavorful as it is, nothing in it quite prepares the listener for Meshell Ndegeocello’s penultimate track—an elastic-funk re-imagination of Parton’s party-ready hit “Two Doors Down”. Beat-centric, atmospheric, and half-rapped, Ndegeocello’s re-working of the Parton classic is not only sly and musically imaginative, it’s also an apt embodiment of Ndegeocello’s overall approach: bold, adventurous, defiantly singular, and funky as hell.
I’m convinced that if Meshell Ndegeocello’s work and persona weren’t so thoroughly infused with a hip-hop spirit, it would be much easier for music-heads to locate her as part of the same continuum as Bob Dylan, Prince, Neil Young, and other quirky pop maverick-geniuses known for bravely and consistently paving their own path in the industry. As an (often) bald, (always) black bi-sexual female bassist who raps as much as she sings, writes deeply and confrontationally about race and sex (amongst other things), and mashes-up genres with every project, Ndegeocello’s mere presence on the scene (let alone the gestalt of her work) presents a taxonomical problem to solve for a large segment of music lovers, and an even trickier problem for those specifically on the lookout for singer-songwriters who may be the rightful heirs to the rock royalty named above. Part of the difficulty for some of these folks, of course, is the fact that killer grooves and textured rhythm parts (which are treasured elements in funk and hip-hop, while sometimes mere arrangement considerations in other genres), no matter how intricately conceived and executed, are still often not considered components of “great songwriting”, although they are, perhaps hypocritically, definitely understood as potential building blocks of “great records”. Hence, someone like Jeff Tweedy, who I like and respect quite a bit, is generally considered to be one of the handful of Gen X songwriters who deserves a place in the pantheon of great, adventurous artists, while Ndegeocello, who has traversed much more diverse ground, including a fairly straightforward guitar-based singer-songwriter album (1999’s gorgeous Bitter), is often in danger of being considered a high-profile cult artist.
I recommend the aforementioned Bitter as a starting point for folks who want to get familiar with Ndegeocello’s music. Soulful, affecting, and beautifully produced by the abundantly gifted Craig Street, it’s a warm introduction to Ndegocello’s music, and a wonderful way to first encounter her enticing and intimate vocal style. It also includes one of her patented unique covers, Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. From there, you can have lots of fun jumping around to prior or subsequent releases, each one an adventure.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
“Soft and Wet” by Prince. It just sounded angelic, the way his vocals were layered, and it made me want to dance. It’s still the song and the album that made me say, “That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Doyle Bramhall II. When he sings a song, his heart is just on the stage. He transports me. He’s an incredible songwriter and a ridiculous guitarist. He’s also just a nice person.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Probably most. Film for sure. I love Fassbinder. I have a lyric on the new record that goes “fear eats the soul”, which is from a title of one of his films.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
Other. It’s a transmission.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
“Love Dog” by TV on the Radio. They give me hope.
On Meshell Ndegocello’s newest release, Devil’s Halo, she continues her tradition of curve-ball covers, this time with an undulating, super-sexy version of “Love You Down”, the ‘80s R&B hit originally performed by Ready for the World. Because the songs she covers can sometimes be nearly unrecognizable in her renderings, it’s tempting to call her arrangements “complete deconstructions”, but I think a more accurate term would be “creative distillations”: she gets to the heart of each piece and retains what’s needed (whether it’s a musical component or not), and proceeds from there to build a new version. In her hands, “Love You Down” is completely transformed.
Ndegeocello was definitely my adopted spiritual patron saint when I was working on my version of Pixies’ “I Bleed” (which featured Oakland’s mighty funk-soul queen, FEMI) for American Laundromat Records’ Pixies tribute album, Dig for Fire. That record featured tracks by the Rosebuds, They Might Be Giants, and other indie-rock stalwarts. Knowing that I would be the only non-indie-rocker on the project, and hearing stories about the ferocity of Pixies fans regarding covers of the group’s material, was a little daunting at first, but I took inspiration in the implicit attitude of Ndegeocello’s Parton cover—- the message I took from it was to wear my stylistic difference loud and proud.
The artist, songwriter, musician, and overall celebrated tortured genius Daniel Johnston performed a capricious set Wednesday night at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. While his severe bi-polar condition and episodes have mythologized his persona and recordings they have also erected a dubious boundary within is work, one between mind and reality, good and evil. One thing, however, remains painfully clear: Mr. Johnston’s songs are haunting vignettes of concentrated emotion, providing mainstream fans, as well as artists, a continuous well of authentic sentimentality, often replete with humor. Though Mr. Johnston frequently cites the humor overshadowing his music (and favorites like “Speeding Motorcycle” easily conveyed this at the Highline) many songs are hesitantly, and uncomfortably, comic, especially after seeing Mr. Johnston’s demons delineated in the acclaimed 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Wednesday he shared a recent dream: “I had a dream last night this guy was sentenced to death for attempted suicide. And that guy was me! And I’m sitting in the back of the courtroom saying ‘No, no, no, you got the wrong guy!’” The resounding laughter presented the obvious question if people were laughing at or with Mr. Johnston. Either way people screamed his name and cheered wildly during his solo set, even while singing sympathetic lines like “I love you all but I hate myself.” Opening band the Capitol Years (Weezer-harmonizing indie pop) then joined Johnston for his second set, accompanying him on both his own numbers, like “Fake Records of Rock and Roll” and “True Love Will Find You in the End” from his latest Is and Always Was, as well as some poignant Beatles covers, “I’m So Tired” and “Day in the Life.” Often times his brother Dick played along on acoustic guitar as Mr. Johnston’s uncontrollably fidgety hands gave up on guitar and also inadvertently unplugged his mic several times, which also prompted wild cheers of encouragement (“You don’t need that thing Daniel!”) Daniel’s own ambitions were always to be a famous artist, but what cost that imposes on his own condition is, at best, difficult to measure and unsettling to endure. Throughout the set his hands tremored and social anxiety loomed. Hopefully his parents and brother can successfully enshrine his body of work so that ultimately they aren’t undermined, or glorified, as a result of his accompanying condition.