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by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

East again, much further east, a long walk along railroad tracks through some very iffy neighborhoods, and I finally find Friend Island, which is hosting a party for Hometapes, Absolutely Kosher, and Misra labels. Megafaun, the North Carolina band whose members used to be in DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (now Bon Iver), are just about to play. Megafun was one of my very favorites from last year’s SXSW, and they have a new album coming out on Hometapes this summer. 

I’ve been trying to avoid seeing the same bands again this year, but in this case, it’s a whole different experience. Last year, they played on a conventional stage in a larger audience, with a much larger, louder, more electrified sound. This time, they’re set up in a gallery room a bit larger than a squash court. The audience is sitting on the floor, mostly, and it is very, very hot inside the windowless room. 

Megafaun, though, seems excited about the possibility of playing a more intimate, acoustic show, highlighting the soft, folky side of its music. The title track from their upcoming album is particularly beautiful and hushed, little flickers of banjo and guitar igniting then subsiding, the percussion made of small sounds, a tiny cymbal clapped to a larger one, jingling chains, brushes on snares. The sound is so quiet, its fragile jangle dipping in and out of range, that the drummer has to hold the bottom of the snare to clamp the buzz down. If he let it go, it would be the loudest element in the music. There are no vocals until the very end, then the softest possible harmonies around lyrics about night coming.


by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Another sunny afternoon, another stroll down South Congress, a wander into the Yard Dog for a beer and to see what’s up and, unexpectedly, it’s Freedy Johnston. Johnston, you might remember, dropped one beautifully wry, understated guitar pop album, one of the best of its kind ever, in This Perfect World in 1994. He’s been making records ever since, seven of them since then and one more on the way, but operates much lower on the radar screen now. His bass player is wearing a shirt that reads “Nobody gives a damn about your band,” and that, unfortunately, about sums it up.

All of which is a shame, because Johnston plays a lovely little set, first goofing during the sound check on the Who’s “Tattoo”, then the rocking “Don’t Fall In Love with a Lonely Girl”, and the e-bowed and eerie “Neon Repairman”.  Those two seem to be new ones, but Johnston dipped back into the catalogue for “This Perfect World”, and, from his recent covers album My Favorite Waste of Time , a lounge-swinging, hard-rhythmed take on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” 

“I’ve got one more. What song do you want to hear?” asks Johnston at the end, but he already knows the answer. He and his band break out the ruefully perfect, worn, and wonderful “Bad Reputation”. A perfect world, indeed.



by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Across the highway again, heading east, I’m not really going to Mrs. Bea’s, but I stop in anyway. Mrs. Bea’s has a pretty amazing line-up on Saturday, maybe 20 bands, underground as hell, and half of them names I’ve circled on other showcases and missed. When I get there, the Mexican punk band Los Llamarada is playing its primitive, noise-skronked dissonance, songs that pound over and over on the same keys, same strings, same short (English) phrases. They make the Stooges sound like Mozart in comparison, unadulterated, un-modulated aggression. The guitarist is sitting on the concrete, holding his own ear against the blast of sound, howling into the mic, slamming on the strings. The girl playing keyboards, splays her fingers straight out, banging on one, maybe two, three at most notes, in the most untutored of patterns. Later, she comes to the mic, making snakey, body-bending dance moves and keening short, anguished phrases like “So sorry” and “We’re guilty” over and over again. 


by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

I caught Freedy Johnston while looking for a beer. Now I’m hungry and I get another chance to see the Uglysuit (who had just finished when I got to the Touch & Go showcase on Friday). They’re playing at Homeslice Pizza, on the back patio, and while there is a disconnect between some bands and brilliant sunshine, no such dissonance intrudes here. That’s because the Uglysuit’s three guitar pop is tailor made for outdoor venues, as expansive and dreamy as, well, a blue-sky Saturday afternoon in Texas. Heck, they even have a song called “And We Became Sunshine”, full of layered, luminous guitar lines and breezy pop choruses that build like high cumulous clouds. There is, admittedly a slight whiff of pot-and-patchouli jamminess in the band’s extended instrumental breaks. You can see how the band’s communal hippie vibe would maybe be too laidback in certain settings… but not here, not today.



by Bill Gibron

22 Mar 2009

One of the most valuable aspects of foreign film is getting to see the world - and the motion picture equivalent of same - through a vastly different set of cinematic lenses. From cultural disparities to sentiments of sovereignty, the international director draws from numerous sources to make his celluloid statement, and unlike his Hollywood compatriots, there’s usually not a predetermined demographic directly responsible for the narrative’s nuances. That’s why, when filmmakers from outside the US start mimicking the movie provenance that helped create and cement the artform, the translation is usually fairly evocative. And in the case of Zift, it’s made more interesting by the nation of origin. While not known for its endemic art, Bulgaria provides the stunning back drop for this neo-noir experiment.

After spending several decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, “the Moth” is finally being released. While behind bars, he’s embraced the Communist coup that’s overtaken his country, even going to far as to organize the inmates. When he gets out, he’s picked up by a stern looking military attaché who takes him directly to a public bath. There, he meets up with an old nemesis, former street hood turned important Party Member Slug. The vile villain wants to know where Moth hid a valuable diamond. All our hero wants is to break free and be with his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his now dead son) Ada. As he searches for his former lover all over the city, Slug still wants his information. Before he knows it, Moth’s desires and those of the man making his life miserable intersect - and as usual, there’s a woman involved…Moth’s woman.

If it didn’t have such an evocative monochrome set-up, if it failed to fully realize the various cinematic references and homage it houses, Zift would be a dull, derivative mess. It would resemble a hundred other cramped crime stories where atmosphere and mood are supposed to substitute for characterization and causality. We’d find ourselves lost in a country wholly unfamiliar to ours, while wondering why certain military and authoritarian subtexts are being inserted into the film. But thanks to the visual flair of director Javor Gardev, and the undeniable invention he brings to this tale, what could have been a tired, typical thriller becomes a remarkable bit of engaging eye candy. The story may be simple, and the resolution revealed early and often, but we really don’t mind the plot imperfections. It’s the journey here that’s worth the effort.

Gardev works us through many of the more ambiguous elements. The Moth is viewed as a capable local hood, but yet spends most of his time in prison befriending an one-eyed thief. There are clear signs of our hero’s Communist leanings (he gets out early because of his initiatives in jail), yet that facet flies out the window the minute the torture begins. Our main scoundrel - the corporeal criminal Slug - is not so much a threat as an unwelcome obstacle our hero must overcome. There’s also an inference that everything Moth does is designed to feed his ultimate goal - to get out of Bulgaria and set up a sweet life in the Tropics somewhere. Indeed, you could almost argue that Moth’s entire raison d’etra is centered around getting out of prison, finding his former gal pal, making up with her, and then hopping a train out of town.

Naturally, things get in the way, and part of Zift‘s pleasure is watching these unusual obstructions come and go. Gardev spends inordinately large amounts of time on people’s faces, watching them as they tell their tall tales about septic tank revenge, or mangled marital fidelity. These pieces of significant suplot folklore, meant to mirror the action onscreen with their surreal sense of moral right and wrong, are part of this picture’s many pleasures. Just hearing the actors spin the yarns creates a kind of climate where the insane visual histrionics play perfectly. This is one director who has clearly absorbed all the iconic influences around him. From Hong Kong action to American criminal mythos, Zift seems to have it all.

And then there are the native nuances, the foreign touches that stay with us long after the film has ended. One is the title treat itself, a black strap gum that Moth loves to chew. The word can also mean the mortar used to hold bricks and stone together (as in the newly fashioned public square in the middle of the empiric capital city), or slang for shit. In this case, both Gardev and his characters, taken from Vladislav Todorov’s novel, represent them all. In the best noir tradition, no one is pure here. Everyone has motives that keep them mired in misery and filth. Even Ada, now working as a singer in an upscale nightclub, allows herself to be kept by important Communist officials. In addition, the bond between Moth, his gal, and the slimy Slug is unquestionable. Once their petty theft went from a heist to a homicide, all three share a cement-like status.

What we wind up with is a whodunit and why that’s as joyful in the discovery as it is borderline bumbling in its conclusion. Gardev has to be careful in his reveals, the D.O.A. dynamic at play (Moth was poisoned before going on his search) threatening to take our attention away from the clues. Thanks to some ingenuous flashbacks, a telling look or two, and a last moment disclosure that clarifies the motives of everyone involved, Zift moves beyond the basics to work its way toward the classic. That it doesn’t quite get there is not the fault of anyone involved. From cast to crew, there is too much talent in this movie to marginalize its effectiveness. No, what takes Zift down a peg or two is its obviously newfound familiarity. For those outside the source, this will all seem very novel. For those on the inside, it’s imaginative imitation - which we all know is the sincerest, and in this case, most meaningful form of flattery. 

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