Look at Me
You’ve go to hand it to the Trachtenburg Family: no one else has ever quite done what they are doing. Casting their gaze about them in the early 2000s, and finding a musical landscape overrun by nostalgia-damaged revivalism and bereft of even a spark of originality, they assessed this dire situation, realized something vital was lacking, and somehow hit upon the perfect remedy for this malaise. Like all inventors and innovators, they saw a need that no one else could, and they filled it. I bet you didn’t realize how very much you needed a slideshow-centric family act until they came along, did you?
For those of you not familiar with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players—who really need to be seen live to be fully appreciated—the new DVD release Off and On Broadway (and really, I can’t believe it’s taken them this long to offer a total audio-visual release, since the latter part is so integral to their raison d’etre) provides a quick and fun introduction to a group that has become a mainstay on the New York arts scene over the last half decade. And theirs is such a simple idea that it’s equally unbelievable that no one had come up with it before they did.
Husband Jason Trachtenburg had been a singer-songwriter out in Seattle, trying to make ends meet with his catchy, politically charged folk songs, but mostly he made ends meet by walking lots and lots of dogs (as lovingly recounted). One day, his artist and designer wife Tina came across a box of old slides labeled “Mountain Trip to Old Japan, 1959” at an estate sale. With a quick burst of inspiration, she thought that Jason could set himself apart from the pack if he wrote songs about the people and places in the slides. He gave it a go, enlisted their young daughter, Rachel (the secret weapon and rock of the whole precious affair) to play the drums, and with Tina manning the slide projector, they entered a local talent contest, which they ended up winning.
Succeeding out of the gate with their novel idea, they dove in headfirst, hitting yard sales, more estate sales, thrift stores, wherever they could find these lost treasures of what Jason likes to call (always with a gleam in his eye) the “Golden Age of Slide Photography”. More slide collections yielded more songs, and the family took their show on the road, eventually winding up in New York City.
Thus does the Trachtenburg Family recount its genesis over the course of the disc. This story is interspersed with fawning interviews with friends, fans, and fellow artists, all waxing enthusiastic about the Family’s infectious creativity and generosity (heck, they’ve been know to even cook on stage for their audience). Nelly McKay and Regina Spektor, both of whom were championed early on by the Trachtenburgs, are effusive in their praise, and comics David Cross and Eugene Mirman trip over themselves to get in the pithiest summation of the band and their importance. But of course the real meat of the DVD, where we get to see firsthand what all the fuss is about, is found in the numerous live performances recorded in New York in 2005. Though a full concert without interruption might have been a more obvious (and welcome, to this longtime fan) presentation, contextualizing the Trachtenburgs among their peers and in their scene seems to be the overarching intent here, and to this end the film, though short, it mostly succeeds.
But what exactly is it that the Trachtenburg Family is attempting here? Are they to be regarded merely as a vaguely vaudevillian, anachronistic family act, a curio? Is the whole slideshow angle a mere stunt, rendering them a joke band? Or do they in fact succeed at getting to something beyond their gimmicky aesthetic? Indeed, it does all seem to mean more than just (as they put it in their theme song) “making mockery of family vacations”. But it’s hard to get at exactly what they are getting at, to see what they want us to see.
The songs are relatively simple and relentlessly catchy—the best of them are piano based, with an old-timey music hall undercurrent that is refreshingly quaint. Others are jangly garage rockers, or hearken back to Jason’s anti-folk roots. The slide accompaniments run the gamut from (yes) family vacations, to old driver’s ed instructional presentations, to personal photo collections spanning decades, to slides used for corporate board meetings. When paired up with the songs, the resultant package is a generally humorous and breezy lyrical and visual barrage of non-sequiturs, political commentary, and subtle character studies of lives lived long ago and recast by the imagination. And when they are at their best, the songs and the slides dance around each other in a near perfect complementary symmetry, spinning around an axis of nostalgia and a longing for a more innocent time, building into something profoundly emotive, something more than the sum of its halves.
This is most brilliantly realized on their one truly great song, “Look at Me”. Based on a collection tracing the shared lives and enduring friendship from the ‘50s through the ‘70s of two military nurses named Gene and Kathy, we hear (and see) a song of life’s simple and mundane ordeals; of holidays and barbecues and picnics; of long lost nights of celebrations; of sadness and joy. The song’s effortless slide between its peppy introductory chords transitioning into somewhat wistful minor keyed verses and bridges is at once both full of lively wit and just simply terribly sad. It’s the one song where everything falls into place, where intent and execution fuse into a truly memorable moment of transcendent emotional power, where the gimmick falls by the wayside. And I think this mostly has to do with the questionable main prop itself, the slides.
There’s something about the hazy glow of these photographs, their almost sepia toned gauzy look, something at once permanent and fleeting, which seems to cut straight to the very core of memory, like you are seeing the past through a sort of personal prism. There’s something in these images that just aches, something that digital photography, or a Flickr slideshow could just never convey. It’s partly the obsolescence of the technology, partly the people in them, and partly the awareness that we are looking at lives that we’ll never really know, and that these people are in fact most likely dead, and they will never know they’ve been immortalized in such a way. It captures an eerie awareness of mortality, and it’s just completely overwhelming.
But other (especially more recent) songs reveal themselves more and more to be Trojan horses, springing unpleasant surprises half way through and turning into condemnations of conservative American social and political values. But there’s a certain ugly liberal smugness to some of these songs which belies the surface innocence of the band’s appearance. For instance, the musically excellent “Middle America”, culled from an old driver’s ed class, takes easy shots at (er…) Middle American values (and road rage too, I guess). For the six song mini rock opera written for the “OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1977” (an internal McDonald’s corporate study about how to fatten both their wallets and the American people), Jason literally sings the odious slides word for word, letting corporate irresponsibility impale itself on its own sword (and how can you miss with slides entitled “Let’s Not Have the Same Weight in 1978 – Let’s Have More!”). Sure, it’s all mordantly funny, but it’s also a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.
In live shows, Jason makes no bones about wearing his political convictions on his sleeve. Though it’s mercifully cut out here, he is prone to longwinded, spastic, sputtering rants between songs that really kill the momentum of their shows (though Rachel usually does a good job of reining her father in). His enthusiasm borders on zealotry at times, attacking everything from cell phones (fine), to corporate malfeasance (sure), to every other band plying their trade out their right now (not so good), and to proclaiming his own band’s greatness and universal importance (sort of dubious and a bit obnoxious). Indeed, Jason seems particularly prone to visions of killing off indie rock and giving birth to a new golden age of slideshow based bands (to parallel and complement the “Golden Age of Slideshow Photography”, I guess), not seeming to comprehend that there is really only room for, and need for, one band such as this. Gimmick bands have a short shelf life, and it might be that the Trachteburg Family’s moment has come and gone.
Rounding out the DVD is a mixed bag of extras. You would think the Trachtenburg Family would be a natural for music videos, but oddly they come up short in this regard. The videos for “Mountain Trip to Old Japan, 1959” and “Eggs”, while featuring the slide presentations, clutter things up too much with cutesiness to really get the true feel of the band. Numerous clips of Jason performing solo on some talk show fall mostly flat without his daughter and wife around to back him up. The best of the lot are several more clips from the main live performance on the disc, which fills in the remainder of the OPNAD song cycle which was expurgated in the main film.
Though perhaps destined to remain legends largely only in their own minds, and those of their small but devoted following (which, despite some of my criticism and umbrage-taking above, I count myself among), the Trachtenburg Family has carved a small but hope-filled niche out for themselves in a music scene that seems immune, at present, to such originality. Though perhaps limited by the necessities of their chosen aesthetic—no matter how many slide collections they happened upon and songs they write about them, eventually they all start to look the same—they are proof that, even at this late date, not everything has been done yet.