This past week, I spent my Easter Sunday at the Black Cat with the Wooden Birds, the latest project from American Analog Set frontman Andrew Kenny. AnAmSet fans will feel right at home with the Wooden Birds, as the band finds Kenny marrying his hushed delivery with dulcet tones and understated arrangements yet again. That’s not to say, however, that the Wooden Birds are just the American Analog Set with different players. Longtime fans will notice that Kenny’s latest vehicle favors acoustic over electric instrumentation and has a more rhythm-heavy bent (nearly every one of the band’s songs features maracas and tambourine).
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Late Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was both a friend to Steve Earle also a massive influence on his artistic development. Fourteen years ago Earle said, “Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” So, it’s only natural that he would want to record a Van Zandt tribute album and we’re lucky for it. Earle sounds re-invigorated on this tour through his mentor’s songs released as Townes on May 12th via New West Records. Earle’s wife Alison Moorer joins in the harmony vocals on this track, “To Live Is to Fly”.
“To Live Is to Fly” [MP3]
The people at Nintendo never cease to amaze. Do you remember Excitebike? Perhaps you remember playing it, you mastered the timing of flattening out that little bike for perfect landings, you remembered just how long you could keep the turbo jets on before you overheated, maybe you even created a few custom tracks for the game (which, looking back, was a surprisingly forward-looking feature for such an old title). It was absolutely a good game.
What it wasn’t, really, was exciting. Even at its fastest, the scrolling of the racetrack was really pretty slow, and you could almost always see obstacles coming way ahead of time, even if you didn’t necessarily have the reflexes to do anything about it. It was a skill game, not a speed game. And yet, by way of simply giving it the name “Excitebike”, Nintendo told us it was exciting. As long as it’s a good enough game, the mere presence of the name offers it a sense of exhilaration that the game on its own simply doesn’t offer.
As such, I’m surprised it took them until the Wii to resurrect the Excite* name.
They’re gross, over the top, sexually pigheaded, and so filled with amplified ultraviolence that Alex DeLarge and his mates would definitely consider them “excessive”. The first film was a marginal success at the box office, but literally exploded on DVD. On home video, fans flocked to its mixture of video game hyper-action and subversive, in your face, cinematic counter-culturalism. So naturally Lionsgate would demand a sequel, especially since the last scene suggested the angry anti-hero Chev Chelios actually survived his thousand foot free-fall from an airborne helicopter. Yet with a mere $7 million in receipts over the 17 April weekend, it looks like Crank: High Voltage failed to find a warm Cineplex welcome.
It’s not surprising. The studio, clearly believing that they had something nominal and niche on their hands, decided against screening the film for critics. Even today, with few in the mainstream media present and accounted for, the title stands at 69% over at Rotten Tomatoes. Now, that’s currently better than Zac Efron’s 17 Again, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Observe and Report, or Knowing, but an argument can also be made that most of these opinions come from fringe geek onliners who fail to see cinema in the proper, non-blogger, perspective. Indeed, the overall view of the Crank films is that they are the byproduct of ADD-addled filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (who use the oh-so-gauche moniker of ‘Neveldine/Taylor’ when they work), two a-hole hipsters who assault the artform with their too-cool-for-film-school sentiments.
When the first film arrived in 2006, it played like the ultimate endgame in a post-millennial reexamination of the action epic. For decades, the same old buddy/stunt dynamic was utilized to bring audiences to the edge of their seat. Neveldine and Taylor took the interactive element from the console experience, placed the viewer in the position of the players, and then turned everything up to 11. By adding this nu-world odor aspect, by supplanting carefully choreographed mechanical mayhem for seat of your pants pandemonium, the duo laid the groundwork for such au current favorites like Shoot ‘Em Up and Wanted. Sure, it’s all been sifted out of the Hong Kong craziness of the mid ‘90s, but John Woo couldn’t hold a candle to the fanboy frenzy created here.
Indeed, Neveldine and Taylor are the exact filmmakers a demographic raised on the VCR and pay cable need. They are all allusion and homage, original thoughts filtered through a film education based in Cinemax and the faceless features of a direct to video market. They aren’t new or novel, but instead represent the necessary evil that arrives when you give audiences unlimited access to a specific artform and then provide the technology to help them copy their obsessions. They are Tarantino taken to ridiculous referential heights, one step ahead of the homemade auteur while barking up the talent trees that keep directorial dipsticks like Brett Ratner and Jon Turteltaub fully employed. And yet there is an artistry to what they do, a David Lynchian like dream logic which turns F-bombs and bare breasts into esoteric expressions of filmic fascination.
Certainly, snobs who believe that names like Godard and Chabrol are the only ones capable of taking cinema apart and putting it back together in ways that countermand tradition and formula will be pissed, and for all this glorified grandstanding, Crank and Crank: High Voltage are really nothing more than cinematic confections, motion picture Pixie sticks laced with enough PCP, Meth, and Crack to keep audiences from seeing their Wizard of Oz like man behind the curtain crassness. Yet within a framework where everything reeks of high concept creativity, where stars and situations are dreamt up before a writer ever sees a single paycheck, Neveldine and Taylor work in wild, wicked, and wholly mysterious ways.
While their only other collaboration - the stunted script for the incredibly dopey horror film Pathology - failed to fulfill the promise offered by Crank, and their newest effort (the surreal sci-fi showdown Citizen Game starring 300‘s Gerard Butler) still several months away, we are left contemplating the legacy leached out of two intertwined spectacles. Of course, High Voltage leaves the door open for a tre-quel, and knowing these inspired insaniacs, there’s probably an idea already brewing to turn Chev, Eve, and the rest of the Crank army into the Lord of the Rings of racially insensitive thrill rides. While the motion picture is indeed an artform, not all films are Van Goghs. Many can barely beat Warhol to the soup can punch. Crank and Crank: High Voltage are clearly the work of some crazed underground anarchists - and we can all thank God for such a needed shot in the arm.
Indie singer-songwriter M. Ward takes a crack at the Buddy Holly classic “Rave On” on his 2009 record Hold Time. Ward’s version is less rock and roll and more ethereal pop and is a totally original and unique take on a well-worn clasic tune. Mike Please directs the video using animation and puppets and She & Him collaborator Deschanel shows up on the background vocals.
April 17 Indio, CA @ Coachella
April 18 Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
April 19 Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theatre
April 20 Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater
April 22 Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom
April 23 Omaha, NE @ Slowdown
April 24 Milwaukee, WIK @ Pabst Theater
April 25 Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
April 26 Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre
April 27 Toronto, ON @ The Phoenix Theatre
April 28 Montreal, QC @ Le National
May 18 Visalia, CA @ Fox Theatre
May 19 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theatre
May 22 Eugene, OR @ McDonald Theater
May 23 George, WA @ Sasquatch Music Festival
July 23 Salt Lake City, UT @ Twilight Concert Series*
July 27 Athens, GA @40 Watt
July 28 Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom
July 30 Washington, DC @ 930 Club
August 1 New York, NY @ Summerstage*
* = free