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by Chris Catania

12 Nov 2008

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
—Aldous Huxley

There’s a reason why they have that quote posted on their website. New York rock trio Secret Machines are apt guides for those wishing to seek and find the truth expressed by Huxley who was challenging readers and music fans to ponder the inherent power of music.

Before their Chicago show, I had a backstage talk with Brandon Curtis (vocals/bass/keys) and Josh Garza (drummer). Even though first formed in 2000 and are seasoned indie-rock warriors, I was still wondering how they’ve managed to soldiered on when so much has happened since 2006’s Ten Silver Drops. In roughly two years, they’ve left Warner Bros., weathered the departure of original guitarist Ben Curtis (Brandon’s brother), added guitarist Phil Karnats to the mix, and self-released The Secret Machines in October.

During our chat, both Brandon and Josh explained how they’ve continued to make the music they’ve always wanted to, while adjusting to the creative challenges of being independent and making music on their terms.

They sat on the couch across from me. Curtis calmly sipped a beer while Garza warmed up his drumsticks, tapping them on this shoes and the floor, wrapping them with grip tape as if preparing for war.

The Secret Machines have appeared to come full circle. And our conversation confirmed that they’re ready for the next wave of challenges.

Can you explain the new rhombus stage set up and tell me how the visual effect is working with the tour so far?

Brandon: During this tour we’re figuring out how our playing works with this new stage set up. We’re exploring the nuances and subtleties of different lighting schemes, figuring out how the songs fit together. We’re really enjoying the process.

What type of impact do the new songs have on figuring out that process?

The visual presentation of our music has always been something Josh and I have enjoyed doing. We love putting the energy into figuring out how our music can be represented visually. It’s something we’ve always be enthusiastic about; just as much as the playing and writing music. We also like the challenge of finding out how to experiment visually with the means we have right now. Our design on this tour is very stripped down; but it still has a lot of character for what it is.

To create the rhombus structure you called on the award-winning set designer Es Devlin who’s also done work for Kanye West. Was there any inspiration from other live shows you’ve been to that made you want to create a particular atmosphere during a Secret Machines show?

Brandon: I don’t ever want to duplicate an experience. We both have had some significant [concert] experiences as fans that made an impact on us and made us want to do our own version.

Josh: It’s one thing if you’re Def Leppard and can afford to do production, or if you’re Radiohead and have the towers of blinking LED lights. But when you’re at our level it’s more like something we want to do. It’s also our way of fighting laziness. It helps us to expect something from each show. We could just set up and play and that would be great. We saw spiritualized play in Dallas. The show wasn’t even sold out but they did a very simple light show that was mind-blowing.  It was so simple but so effective. It inspired us to try and say something because for us it’s more than just being a band; it’s about saying something.

How has it been going since you left Warner Bros. and put the new album out on TSM label?

Brandon: It’s been a learning experience. We chose to put this record out ourselves. We’re still discovering what that means, figuring out the benefits and limitations. It’s a challenge this day and age to figure out how to make things work. It’s a different matter when you’re counting every penny. Nobody at Warner Bros was a completely different situation when it came to budget affecting everyone.  TSM recording is a closed, close-knit system. We’re working with what we have and it’s exciting. It’s also very grounding.

Josh: It’s also a Catch-22. When you have an endless budget you can be as creative as you want. But when you have a limited budget you can’t be willy-nilly about spending money. Having a limited budget also forces us to be creative. And that’s a challenge we’ve sort of been used to. On this tour that creative challenge is showing, which I think it’s a good place for us to be.  I want to inspire the other [bands] out there trying to do what we’re doing. I don’t want a medal for trying but at least we’re trying.

Has this budget challenge revealed anything new to you about making music or changed your creative process?

Brandon: Not directly, no. This new challenge hasn’t impacted how we make music because our music has always been about and stemmed from dealing with what’s right in front of us. I’ve never felt any limitation that changed my perspective on music. My music is the filter through which I view the world, and that filter changes as the world around me changes. The only limitation that I have to deal with are more practical; like how do you deal with the fact that you want street advertisement in New York City but at the same time you want listening stations in city? It’s all a part of the record business.  It’s not that we didn’t care about [these decisions] before; it’s just that no one asked us about them before. We’re very enthusiastic students about whatever world we’re thrown into.  We’re up for challenges that force us to prioritize choosing between a sold out show or a high-guaranteed show. I’m glad, though, that all this ‘business of music’ hasn’t seeped its way into the pleasure of making music. We love adapting to whatever situation is presented to us on stage and we take that same approach as we navigate this tour and being independent. Playing, writing, thinking about music, our goal is to have more time to do all of those things as we go along.

On past albums, you’ve used a mix of strong, swift and somber psychedelic blues-rock to tell stories and communicate feelings. Any changes this time around?

We aren’t doing anything that we haven’t done before. We’re just trying to do it better. I approach songwriting on a very personal level. I try to tell a story through my own eyes and use the lyrics and music to explain how I feel about whatever is going on in each song.

Sounds like you guys are still having fun and taking each day as it comes.

Brandon: [laughs] Somewhat…

Josh: [Laughs] We’re working on it!

Brandon: [chuckles]  It’s a work in progress.

Josh: When it comes to the arts, nothing’s a given. I’m not going to take anything personally. It’s about the arts. And the reality is that nobody gives a shit most of the time. Everybody just wants to be entertained. Whether it’s a movie, a book, photography, or whatever.  Most people just want to be seduced by entertainment. Most people don’t understand that it’s hard to be writer, a photographer or in a band. It’s not like going to college and you’re guaranteed a job or a certain amount of money a year doing whatever you do. It’s an uphill battle and you can’t bitch too much about because everything I just mentioned is part of the gig.

Yeah, we’re having fun but that’s because you have to look for the fun and remember the fun. The funniest thing about being in a band is that that fun time is the music, but that’s not the only thing that goes with [being in a band]; there’s business side, touring, and the business side of touring. When push comes to shove, we just want to be playing music and writing songs… but they don’t make it easy.

No they don’t.

Josh: They never have and never will. But this is our dance and it’s what we do.  It’s not the best dance but if you look close there’s a lot of subtlety to my dance. We’re ready to go a kick ass and take names tonight!

 

As the band hustled away to set up, I headed towards the main stage area thinking about Josh’s last two “subtlety and kick ass” comments, wondering what exactly they had planned for tonight.

I hadn’t seen a stage set-up quite like this before. Just watching them set up this strange rhombus structure was nothing short of mesmerizing. The crowd watched in anticipation, getting a visual feast of curious stimulation before the music even started. The band positioned their instruments inside the rhombus structure, working with and around the stage crew who wrapped thin plastic straps around the rectangular pipe structure and connecting multi-colored light fixtures to the side of the structure.

The house lights went down.

A thunderous tidal wave of crashing cymbals, snarling guitars and psychedelic fuzz erupted surging back and forth between the stacks of stage-side speakers.

Curtis and Garza weren’t kidding. They did what they’ve always done. With great force and intricate intensity, weaving in old and new tracks, they descended to the fiery depths of Dante’s inferno and ascended upwards to dreamy psychedelic heights.

Emotion was there on every note, wrapping around your heart and ears at every melodic turn. “Sad and Lonely” dripped metallic blue tears over Garza’s liquid rhythmic thunder. Fear and pain poured from “The Walls Are Starting to Crack”, a new mini-opus filled with growling guitars and machine-gun tom blasts. As if in the center of a glowing red-hot furnace, the trio reflected the scorching sonics of “The Fire Is Waiting”.

The show was building to its final moments, reaching cathartic crescendo on the last number, “First Wave Intact”, a vintage Secret Machines nine-minute anthem from the debut Now Here Is Nowhere. Like an army seconds away from battle, the crowd pumped their fists in unison and roared the three-word chorus “First. Wave. Down!”

It was a sensational resonation that flowed through the Metro, out on to the streets of Chicago’s north side and hopefully rages on to the next city as the tour continues.

by Rob Horning

12 Nov 2008

In my former life in academia, the topic debated in these two posts at the Valve would exercise me greatly: Is artistic merit a matter for literary study? As someone who aspired to make unreadable books—late 18th century commercial fiction—relevant again, I certainly didn’t think aesthetic quality was a prerequisite for what I study as a degree-seeker in literature, and I came to think that setting literature on a pedestal for special attention did a disservice to the more important task of understanding social history. The preachers of artistic merit, besides being paternalistic (urging unsuspecting students to “improve” themselves by teaching them literary appreciation and fostering their exposure to Great Art, the right art), tended to mistake their tastes for universal truths, which had the subtle and troubling effect of making contemporary academic tastes trans-normative while obliterating our ability to perceive the norms of earlier eras. Preserving those norms and getting inside them seemed the most important thing about studying literature to me; it gives us a palpable sense of how what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—can change over time. That gives hope that the current consumerist era we are mired in is not permanent. So I agree with Rohan Maitzen’s pedagogical approach:

One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms—trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence (“good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from—and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge—the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.

In moving from book to book, and in noticing the shifting norms, one ideally draws in work in other disciplines that can help articulate that shift and allow one to theorize its causes. A certain amount of the shift has to do with the writers themselves, but to me, that’s the ineffable, ultimately inexplicable and irrelevant aspect we should strive to strain out. Those concerned with artistic merit (and who are not teaching creative writing as opposed to literature) seem to want to focus only on that individual “genius,” with the effect of ultimately invalidating truly critical insight—namely insight into what shifts social norms with regard to how readers take their entertainment, and what those modes of entertainment say about the society those readers lived in and that we have in part inherited. My suspicion is that reified entertainment—books being one of the first instances of this—is a crucial component of capitalist society and the nature of our enjoyment of such things has changed as capitalism has entrenched itself more deeply, in the material structure of our society and in the inner workings of our psyche as well, shaping how we discover pleasure and from what, shaping the methods by which we internalize mores and develop ambitions and aspirations. These are the inner, individual mental structures that ultimately sustain socioeconomic formations.

Dan Green’s retort to Maitzen seems unduly preoccupied with a literary work’s value in and of itself - - an irreducible matter of personal taste :

While it is true that a literary criticism not bound to academe might still give attention to “philosophizing,” et.al., it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do. It’s possible that literary criticism might one day free itself from the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it. When that happens, “artistic merit” might not be as dispensable as many academic critics want to find it.

This statement immediately makes me wonder who gets to decide what is “aesthetically inferior” and on what grounds. Also, I wonder whether literary criticism even exists outside of academia. Literature, as a concept, is an academic construction. Criticism that hones that definition is an academic exercise. Outside of the academy, people who write about books are reviewers, not critics.

In short, whether or not a novel is “good” shouldn’t matter to people who study them; that only matters to people who want to read them for pleasure. What would make a typical reader of a particular time choose a certain novel for pleasure, however, may be the most important question of all. To answer that, we have to disregard what we think that reader should prefer.

by Barry Lenser

12 Nov 2008

Hearing “P.S. I Love You” brings to mind the faulty stereotypes that I once associated with the Beatles’ early songs. Namely that they were mostly negligible from a technical standpoint and didn’t merit much consideration outside the fact that they belonged to a sacred oeuvre and were sometimes impossible to dislike. You know the glib suggestion that the Beatles were basically the Backstreet Boys of the early 1960s, i.e. a group defined by its hysterical popularity, especially among the female youth? In the past, I subscribed to this narrow nonsense and compounded my error by also not crediting the Beatles, circa 1962-1964, with much more than a lowly boy-band level of musical expertise. I failed to appreciate that, from the start, they were gifted individuals equipped with both a studious knowledge of rock ‘n roll and large-scale ambition.

In listening to “P.S. I Love You”, I once again come across the tempting and convincing appearance of fluff that used to distort my understanding of many Beatles songs. That is, the appearance (but not full existence) of an overly simple tune which matches a lightweight lyric with less-than-inspired sonics. Truth be told, “P.S. I Love You” is far from classic and isn’t even terribly memorable. But it’s a song that exudes a likeable, let’s-try-this spirit and shows how the wheels inside the Beatles’ collective head were constantly in motion.

The B-side to “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” is a lightly melancholic and evenly paced jangler that finds Paul, the song’s writer, pining for a girl from whom he is separated. Contrary to rumors, Paul has insisted that he did not have his then girlfriend, Dorothy “Dot” Rhone, or another love interest in mind when he composed the lyric. What’s more significant, though, is its specific styling – as a letter – which John claims that Paul modeled after the Shirelles’ 1962 hit “Soldier Boy”. Paul opens with “As I write this letter / Send my love to you / Remember that I’ll always / Be in love with you.” From these lines, one can gather a sense that his expressions of love won’t likely come without a tinge of heartache. The distance implied by the letter, then, is taking its toll. While not boldly innovative by any means, the use of this format at least demonstrates that the Beatles were thinking about different ways in which they could depart from the standard lyric. Writing a letter song may have demanded from Paul a certain kind of calculation that he wouldn’t have applied to, say, “Love Me Do”. It’s a minor but not inconsequential point.

“P.S. I Love You” also witnesses more of John and Paul’s developing methods of vocal interaction. Paul is the song’s lead vocalist and, at various times, John joins him in sustained unison, performs spot harmonies, and also fades in and out of several lines, singing every couple words but not harmonizing (or, at least, I don’t think so. On these parts, their voices don’t link up in a way that would highlight any harmony). This last technique creates a melodic texture that softly layers Paul’s vocal. Again, it’s a means to play around with pop convention and produce a sound that emphasizes its makers’ devotion to craft.

Other details to note… As with the album version of “Love Me Do”, Ringo doesn’t perform the drumwork on “P.S. I Love You”. He plays maracas while session musician Andy White is on percussion, anchoring a thin, mechanical rhythm that doesn’t seem to ever shift course. Also, near the end of the song, Paul lets out an amusingly hammed-up “Ooowwww” and “You know I want you to” which don’t yet sound natural coming from him. It’s easy to imagine the young Macca hoping that he might successfully channel one of his soulful heroes of the era, like Little Richard.

The Beatles, after all, did know their rock ‘n roll. They were creators as well as staunch admirers and students of the art. And even songs like “P.S. I Love You”, which are themselves only middling, can still reveal that fact.

by Farisa Khalid

11 Nov 2008

It often seems like India makes more movies than any other country.  Though many are made at the low-cost, formulaic, “flash-and-bang” manner of the Bollywood style, once in a while a film comes out of India that deserves recognition from critics, aficionados, and audiences who appreciate graceful, deliberate storytelling.  The visual beauty and scenarios of Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal, and 8 1/2, the masterpieces of 20th century European cinema, have counterparts in India in the films of Satyajit Ray, Rithik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal. Rituparno Ghosh, a young director from Kolkata, is the creative successor to these great directors, and Chokher Bali, is a lyrical example of his craft and his obsession with one of India’s disgraceful injustices - its religious and cultural subordination of women. 

Drawing inspiration from a novel by renowned late 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh sets the stage for a period film that examines the slow, insidious way in which a woman’s subjugation at the hands of wealthy acquaintances is transformed into a calculated plan of revenge, vindictiveness, and sexual gratification.

In 1890s British Calcutta, 18 year-old Binodini’s parents send her photograph (a painstaking and expensive procedure in those days, for a financially-strapped middle-class Indian family) to two potential bridegrooms, both wealthy and from prominent families, the sensual and indolent Mahendra (Prosenjit) and the bookish Behari (Tota Raychoudhouri). Both men, fancy themselves as modern, and dislike the idea of an arranged marriage.  They reject the proposal without even looking at the photograph. Humiliated, Binodini’s parents marry her off to the first willing man, a landowner in the village who promptly dies of tuberculosis, leaving the unlucky young woman a widow.

For those familiar with Hindu rituals and customs, or with Deepa Mehta’s haunting film, Water (2006), Hindu widows lead a life of ascetic self-denial.  They must wear white saris at all times, they cannot wear jewelry, they are not allowed meat or fish, and live out other such rituals to purify themselves through a lifetime of bereavement. To anyone not Indian, though, it seems as if they are being punished for outliving their husbands. This is the life Binodini is doomed to lead in her husband’s village home, until some family friends take pity and invite her to live with them in Kolkata as a glorified servant.  However, as it happens, she stays with Mahendra’s family, the very same man who callously rejected her and led her to her disastrous marriage.  Revenge is exacted, slowly and patiently.

Aishwariya Rai, India’s most well-known actress, plays Binodini, her first cerebral role.  Through Ghosh’s direction, she gives a blessedly restrained performance that balances girlish submissiveness with coy sensuality. Underneath the doe-eyed charm, Binodini is simmering with rage and her gestures and casual conversations reveal bit-by-bit her plot to destroy the domestic tranquility of the complacently wealthy family families who rejected her. 

There’s a marvelous scene where Mahendra’s pretty young wife Ashalata (Raima Sen), naively takes the poor widow on as her confidante and lets her try on her wedding jewelry, heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and all.  Binodini didn’t even have such fine ornaments at her own wedding, and her ecstasy at wearing these jewels can’t be contained: she dances and sings in front of the mirror, like a knowing courtesan, while Mahendra and Behari watch, rapt with lust, from behind the bedroom door.  Whether Binodini realizes the men are there, or is unaware, is left a bit ambiguous. But the ensuing manipulation, seduction, and quiet devastation affords grim satisfaction for Binodini, who is forbidden to remarry, bear children, and lead a life of normalcy.

The evocative title of the story alludes to the discomfort caused by something sudden and seemingly simple, like getting a grain of sand stuck in your eye, which once caught, can be excruciatingly painful, and even blinding. So is the grain of sand, Binodini, who wreaks havoc on the domestic bliss of Mahendra’s family, or is Binodini a blameless young woman whose opportunities for happiness were denied to her by the vagaries of fate and society? Like well-made films that center on complicated, compelling characters, Chokher Bali simply presents the story and allows the audience to decide what to make of it all. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what’s best in Indian art house cinema, must see this movie, taking it in as you would finely crafted short story.

 

by Jason Gross

11 Nov 2008

I was wondering about this when I wanted to watch a Japanese film called Death by Hanging- part comedy, part drama, part fantasy, part social commentary on prejudice, the rule of law, imperialism and of course capital punishment.  This 1968 movie by Nagisa Oshima is not out on DVD and though it just made the rounds at the New York Film Festival, I missed it there.  So what was I left to do?

I could keep it on the wish-list of movies that I’d like to see or rent some day if gets screened again or put out on DVD.  Or… you could use the power of the Net and see if it’s available ‘otherwise.’  What that usually means that like songs or albums that are long out of print, you can go to P2P or bit torrent sites to download the material yourself. Or you could just do a Google search and see if it’s available otherwise.

That’s exactly what I did.  Much to my relief and surprise, someone had actually posted the movie in a dozen parts on YouTube.  Rather than wait around for the film to appear in a theater or DVD, I just watched it online.  I’d been dying to see it for years so why would I pass up the chance?

Now of course when you take the quick route like this, there’s a lot happening that you don’t realize.  Obviously, the studio, director, producers and anyone involved in the movie don’t get any money from you.  You could argue that they wouldn’t anyway since you otherwise wouldn’t get to see the movie so what’s the difference?  Another counter-argument would be that your selfishness means that there’s less incentive for the studio to get the movie into theaters or on DVD since there will be less demand for it.  Seems logical but then how do you explain Radiohead’s success with their latest album which they offered for free (if you like) and then it’s subsequent chart-topping status?  There’s aren’t easy issues to suss out, are they?

But I also wondered about the ease that the Net provides us with finding almost anything that we want.  If I had enough money, I could snap up all the out-of-print books, movies and CD’s that I’ve wanted from somewhere like Amazon’s used market.  If I didn’t and still wanted these things badly enough, I could go to P2P and torrent sites to grab the movies and CD’s though the size of the former makes it less likely that many people would bother (as for books, even if you grabbed an e-book, you’d still need a reader to see it though there’s places to legally get old classics which fell out of copyright).  Some music services (Napster) offer you monthly charges where you can stream as much music as you want to hear from their service and now even some cell phone companies are working up offers of monthly ‘buffet’ packages that let you actually download as much as you’d like for a set fee.

In a way, that’s great that we all have access to all of these wonderful bits of culture.  But is it always a good thing?

That’s when I started to wonder about the premise of the title of this blog entry: “What do we lose when everything’s available?”  If all of our cultural consumer needs are at our fingertips, how does that change us?  Do we just pile up all these things and later figure out when or if we have time to go through all of it?  Do we just become bloated on all of items and take them for granted since they’re all in our possession?  As crazy as it sounds, on some level, don’t we also love the thrill of finally tracking something down after years of patience, research and diligence?  In the end, if we have easy access to everything, does that mean that we really have access to nothing?

Another problem with having everything stored up on our computer or hand-held device is what I call ‘digital amnesia.’  When rows of CD’s or DVD’s or books are sitting on your shelf, you’re probably not going to obsess over them every time you walk by or glance at them but their mere presence is going to be a reminder that they’re waiting for you to discover or rediscover them at some point.  When they’re inside your computer or device, they’re not staring out at you, reminding you of their existence.  On many MP3 players, you have a random feature that lets you mix up and rediscover everything that you’ve loaded on the device but even then, you have to remember to load everything that you’ve downloaded to your computer there (unless you’re buying things wirelessly and directly to your player).

In the end, all of us can have great movie collections, great music collections and great music collections but then we have to figure out what we’re going to do with this huge mountain of material we’ve gathered up.  Careful what you wish for?

As crazy as it sounds, what I think I’m also arguing here is that we have a need to need.  When we’ve amassed all these cultural toys, what’s left?  What do have to long for, to want, to hunt and search for?  Even more importantly, then we start to ask deeper questions about why we want these things, what they amount to and what it says about us.  The things that we collect speak volumes about who we are or who we’d like to be but having them all at our disposal doesn’t mean we’re completely satiated.  We always hunger for something else, something more.  Once many of us are able to reach that point, it’ll be interesting to see where that takes us and what else we want.  Rest assured, once we figure it out, there’s gonna be someone ready to sell it to us.

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