“I’m interested in human beings,” Herbie Hancock tells Elvis Costello on tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel). Hancock, one of the crucial figures in 20th century jazz and winner of last year’s Grammy Award for Album of the Year (River: The Joni Letters), is speaking about his music in relation to its audience, about the bond between the origin of a sound and its destination. The manner in which he breaks down the particulars of performance—whether it be a Gershwin standard, some Headhunters funk, or early-‘80s robo-jazz—makes this episode of Spectacle one of the very best.
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Texas singer-songwriter Gretchen Phillips is about to release her first new album in five years. The proudly out lesbian and Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee continues her smart, thought-provoking brand of songwriting on I Was Just Comforting Her. Lead-off track “Red State/Blue State” is an electro-pop ditty with an optimistic message that suits the Age of Obama. It’s in keeping with her desire to explore higher studio production values as well. Phillips says of the new record, “I got hungry for really big production. Not big production for big production’s sake, but to make an album that utilized every instrument and sound that I felt would serve the songs. I decided not to scrimp on my recording budget and not to give myself any time constraints. I wanted to work on it until I was totally satisfied.”
“Red State/Blue State” [MP3]
02/18 Los Angeles, CA @ Genghis Cohen
02/19 Felton, CA @ Don Quixote’s
02/23 San Francisco, CA @ Cafe du Nord
02/25 Eugene, OR @ Sam Bond’s
02/26 Seattle, WA @ SPACE: A Design Build Collective
02/27 Olympia, WA @ ABC House
02/28 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Pizza
Dan Raper handed out an 8 to Black Dice’s 2007 Load Blown, a collection of the band’s 12-inchs released during that year on Paw Tracks. About the Animal Collective labelmates he said: “The coalescing of chaos into something approaching the ordered groove of beat-fuelled electronica serves as an appropriate moment for distinction between Black Dice and those other gnarly Brooklynites, Excepter. Whereas the latter have been playing around with basic songform, setting up and undercutting expectation with an academic, over listenability bent, Black Dice’s noisy grooves have a more identifiable emotion beneath the mess and junk.” Black Dice’s new album Repo drops on April 7th and here is the first single.
Glazin’ [MP3] from Repo [7 April]
There are certain performers and bands from your youth that leave an indelible mark. They have a profound influence in shaping your musical aesthetic and become the barometer, against which, all others will be judged. For some it is generally accepted “Godheads” like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. For others, it may be a band from your hometown only a handful saw perform. Often, these lesser-known acts disappear into the ether of your mind-only to come back in a rush of memories, triggered by a song or a friend recounting a time you hadn’t thought about in years.
One of those bands for me was Thelonious Monster, especially their dynamic, conflicted and, I assumed, dead singer/songwriter Bob Forrest. I say this because Forrest and some of his fellow band mates’ drug addictions were hardly a secret. Those lucky enough to have seen Thelonious Monster perform, often witnessed erratic performances, that oscillated between inspired and disastrous-sometimes within the stretch of a few songs. At the center of this storm was the transcendent, boho punk; Forrest.
Forrest was like a raw, exposed nerve. His reedy voice aching with the passion of a life spent living off the rails. I remember him walking out on stage, after the band had just abandoned it in a hail of finger pointing over who was responsible for that night’s meltdown. Forrest, hunched over, eyes obscured by dark sunglasses, began stomping his feet in 4/4 time. He delivered “Mercedes Benz” a capella as if he was channeling Janis Joplin. The words spilled over his lips. They sounded desperate, lonely and cathartic. When he finished, he asked for anyone with heroin to meet him at the end of the bar.
Thelonious Monster formed in Los Angeles in 1986, their name, a play on jazz great Thelonious Monk. They featured a revolving door of LA musicians over the course of seven years, releasing four albums on Epitaph, Relativity, and Capitol. The sound of these records was often as schizophrenic as the band itself. Psychedelic jams giving way to well-crafted pop or acoustic confessionals alongside “bar rock” were not uncommon. All were done with earnestness, highlighted by Forrest’s brutally honest lyrical self-examinations.
The band’s recordings featured music industry notables on both the production and performance side. X’s John Doe produced their third record Stormy Weather and Beautiful Mess contained a duet between Forrest and Tom Waits. Flea, Al Kooper, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy, Benmont Tench, and others contributed over the years.
The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.
Somewhat lost among the mythic mix is creative genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl, he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is Coraline, a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed.
When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor.
One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!
In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, the real mastermind behind A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.
Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and creating his own character outside the book. As a result, Coraline feels like a real motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.
Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.
Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification. Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.
In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.