Music

Crystal Skulls: Blocked Numbers

Zeth Lundy

Confident debut combines the glossy jazz-ercises of '70s AOR with contemporary slackerisms. It's got shabby chic! Buzzwords ho!"


Crystal Skulls

Blocked Numbers

Label: Suicide Squeeze
US Release Date: 2005-03-22
UK Release Date: Available as import
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It's been said that the sense of smell has an unparalleled track record for conjuring memories. That's most likely true, as last week I had an olfactory experience that was so stunning, it seemingly transported me back to a past life. In that moment alone, I was not one to argue.

Still, that common perception sells the sense of sound a bit short, especially when one considers that we all subconsciously link music to moments in our lives, both monumental and unimportant alike. It's a psychic timestamp on an event, imprinted by a song's passive or active intersection with us, bound to be resurrected upon hearing it once again.

Incidentally, there are records that trigger past memories even though we've never heard them before. Blocked Numbers, the debut album by Seattle popsters Crystal Skulls, has awakened within me a series of simple reminiscences, all revolving around a 1978 Volvo and the boredom-killing routes of a city from my past. Blocked Numbers is the music of short distance joy rides, of cross-town jaunts with no particular destination, of yield signs' blinding light under the sun's duress and flashing red lights and left-hand turn signals, of gas station pit stops and hand out the window to catch some fleeting cool air along the river, of Charleston Chew wrappers stuffed in the ashtray for lack of a better receptacle and pitying all the long-faced people with their nine-to-five jobs passing by in Chevys and Fords and Toyotas, all trying not to contemplate their own slow-moving inevitabilities. Or, the record moves.

Crystal Skulls make music that is stylishly conscious and sheepishly indebted to the AM soft rock sound of the '70s. Well-groomed with the mathematical jazz-pop ornamentations of Steely Dan, the glossy lucidity of Todd Rundgren, and the untainted charm of an unknown almost-hit wonder, Blocked Numbers gets by on its own shabby chic. The production is pragmatic yet seductive; the drums and bass, shaggy and warm, balance out the sonic spectrum by serving as the antithesis for the jagged guitars, all thumbtacky and precise.

"Your impulse turns into a reaction," sings Crystal Skulls' chief songwriter Christian Wargo on "Weak Spot", adding: "I just want to move your apprehension into action". These lines conveniently make sense of the band's approach. Each of the album's ten songs is set up with a similar flittering, itchy progression -- cerebrally constructed pop tunes, executed with sprightly guitar runs -- but each breaks free in its own way to create a wealth of memorable choruses. The aerodynamic, ready-for-takeoff zoom of "Airport Motels" serves not only as a breezy opener, but as a readymade blueprint for the Crystal Skulls' style: a knotty chord sequence gradually comes untwisted to yield a linear, distinctive chorus. While this pattern repeats itself giddily on all of Blocked Numbers songs, it never feels redundant; if anything, it's a comforting groove that the band has relaxed into, the sound of a young group that has already discovered what it wants to be. (Surely, the record's runtime helps bypass any possibility of gratuitous repetition, clocking in at a little over 30 minutes.) Additionally, each song is ultimately defined by its subtle distinguishing characteristic: the pulsing keyboard urgency of "Beat Me to It"; the slippery guitar chords complimenting the vocal delivery in "Every Little Bit"; the Pretzel Logic grouchiness of "Hard Party" and "Locked Down" (Wargo does his best Donald Fagen on the latter); the loose guitar wrangling navigating the terrain of "Hussy".

I'm fully aware that not everyone will receive the same kinds of mental transmissions as me when listening to Crystal Skulls. Regardless, their debut is as tight and nuanced as a sharp right turn, the playing as effortlessly sharp as any number of the slick '70s pop bands they may recall. It's a confident beginning for a band with all kinds of promise. Blocked Numbers is getting heavy rotation on my stereo; if it's due wholly to the private sensations it evokes, so be it.

7

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9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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