Sing, Memory

It’s comforting to think that no matter how addled my mind gets, I’ll always be able to temporarily return to a clearer past with the help of a song or two, playing in my brain.

It’s said that smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. I don’t dispute the connection; a whiff of the right perfume can instantly bring me back to a summer fling, just as that first aromatic mile of Gary, Indiana reminds me of any number of college road trips. For my money, though, sound, and particularly music, offers an equally strong path to the past.

I was recently reminded of this fact while driving through the streets of Evanston, Illinois, on the way to my first day of a job at Northwestern University, my alma mater. On the car stereo was Atmosphere’s first album, Overcast, a CD I’d admittedly chosen for nostalgic reasons, as it was one I’d often listen to during the tail-end of my college years.

As I cruised through campus in a daze of déjà vu, I realized I’d underestimated how easily the songs could transport me back to senior year. By the time I was looking for parking, “Scapegoat” had reached its climax and I was half-expecting to find my car transformed into the boxy Infiniti G20 I drove in 2004. Sure, I was bound to feel some memories bubbling up just being within spitting distance of the old frat house, but there’s no doubt the music made it infinitely more vivid.

A little research reveals that this highly orchestrated moment wasn’t all in my head – a 2009 brain-scan study at the University of California, Davis showed that familiar music can serve as a “soundtrack for a mental movie” in one’s head, triggering specific memory-related activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex. The research has given hope to those working with Alzheimer’s patients, as this brain region is one of the last to atrophy.

Of course, the idea of music-memory connections is not a totally new one; melodies are often used as mnemonic devices (it’s why you can remember so many song lyrics) and much music therapy relies, at least in part, on the idea that sound patterns can impact cognitive function.

It’s comforting to think that no matter how addled my mind gets – and it’s going to get really addled – I’ll always be able to temporarily return to a clearer past with the gentle prodding of a song or two. It’ll be important to determine what those tracks will be in my mind's 'ear' before it’s too late. Otherwise, I could end up with a well-meaning mix of U2, Mariah Carey, Black Eyed Peas and Justin Bieber tracks from a grandchild who searched for the popular music of “the olden days”.

My playlist will require a little more digging to get at those hidden recollections. The “Fraggle Rock” theme is a no-brainer for the early years, and “Shoop” could help inspire memories from both 6th and 10th grade. Then it gets a little more embarrassing: Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” (7th grade), Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (high school) and even Jessica Simpson’s “With You” (one unfortunate month during college) would surely give me a good kick to the prefrontal cortex. I didn’t say this would be an easy process.

The results of the UC-Davis study (which I’m sure need more scientific verification) can also help me in a more immediate way. One of my fiancee’s best friends from high school is getting married at the end of the summer, and as part of the festivities has asked certain longtime pals to put together playlists for the reception. So Angela and I now have an hour or so to fill with tunes that’ll make the people dance – and likely, will dredge up a few old memories. That’s why the wedding will be one of the few this year to feature Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass”, a song that Angela heard in the grocery store and immediately tacked on to the soundtrack for mysterious reasons.

She’s asked that I help to rein in her nostalgic streak, making sure there’s some actual quality amidst all the inside jokes.I’m thinking it might not be the worst idea to harness the memory-jogging power of music, provided we can be sure that the “mental movies” they inspire are of good times, not bad. We don’t want a dance floor full of people who remember turning to Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” after their first big break-up.

It’s important to realize that memories aren’t static; we’re constantly creating new ones, reshaping old ones. I can’t really guess which songs, ten years down the road, will conjure up visions of this wedding, or of my own wedding, which has its own playlist in the works, but I’d guess it’ll be something I wouldn’t expect, because that seems to be how memories work. For every “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis, which became the theme song for the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent Stanley Cup run due to sheer repetition, there’s a horrible, tinny country song that unexpectedly dominates an entire afternoon spent on a porch in Cape Cod (thanks, neighbors).

You can only control the production of memories so much, and it’s even more difficult to make sure they have the right soundtrack. The brain wants what it wants – and sometimes it wants Annie Lennox.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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