Mike Dillons Go-Go Jungle: Battery Milk

Despite evidence to the contrary, Mike Dillon is ready for prime time; he just might not realize it.

Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle

Battery Milk

Label: Hyena
US Release Date: 2007-01-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

Few bad things can be said regarding vibraphonist Mike Dillon. Critters Buggin, Garage A Trois, Les Claypool's Frog Brigade: if the names of these acts mean anything to you, you already are well aware that Dillon's contributions to each comprise an integral component of their appeal. Anyone who has had the good fortune of watching him perform will attest to an irrepressible energy and ebullience that brighten any proceedings with which he is involved. He has, for most of the last decade, been a seminal character actor in the underground, determinedly independent music scene. The time, it seems, is right for his star turn as a leading man, and Battery Milk , the first release from Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle, should be cause for celebration.

It is not. So what went wrong? Well, things start off with a bang: "GoGo's Theme" sets a tone of immediate, raucous bliss with rollicking percussion (courtesy of Dillon and drummer GoGo Ray), fat bass (the double assault of JJ "Jungle" Richards and Ron Johnson) and funky sax from Mark Southerland. This is thinking person's party music; the unit is locked and loaded, bringing the Bonnaroo to your bedroom. It is, in short, a perfect song to open an album and is pretty much a perfect song, period. Expectations met, it's go (go) time. The second track, "Broc's Last Stand" continues in an infectiously upbeat style, with Dillon coming to the fore, displaying vibraphone work that has become less bombastic (not that there was anything wrong with that) and more melodious: his playing has transcended mere accompaniment and a unique and delightful virtuosity is on display. Congratulations are in order: Mike Dillon has arrived as an artist who can -- and should -- be front and center, leading his own band(s).

Track three is the turning point. It starts off with some delightful distortion and crisp sax lines from Southerland: We are in Critters Buggin territory, and that is a great place to be. Then, rather abruptly, a strange noise enters. The sound of a human voice. It sounds familiar, for a moment, and you might think: who let Mike Patton in the studio? Or, better yet, maybe Mike Dillon is being a team player and recognizing the (apparently) still unwritten rule that Patton's increasingly predictable cartoon persona has to appear on at least 70 or so albums per year. Nope, it's Dillon himself (or, if someone else can be blamed, the liner notes don't reveal the culprit). The song concludes the way it starts: strong, and without the distracting spoken-word sinister/silly antics. Okay, maybe that was just an odd lapse, an unfortunate choice. But no, the hoarse whisperer is back on the next track, "Robbing the Bank". Indeed, he shticks around for the next two tunes. If the music wasn't so wonderful, perhaps the superfluous vocals would be a slightly quirky, even devious diversion. But as the subsequent songs steadily devolve from bad Mr. Bungle to watered down Don Van Vliet one can only ask: Why? Perhaps it is just this reviewer's prejudice, but to be perfectly frank, if I want to listen to Captain Beefheart, I'll go directly to the source and put on a Tom Waits record.

In fairness, after repeated listens the vocals are somewhat less grating, and it's a certainty that these songs will be a lot of fun to listen to live, but the misplaced spirit of adventure mars what should have been a fantastic album. Astonishingly, the worst is yet to come, when disappointment turns to disdain. When the familiar opening notes of Aaron Neville's "Hercules" begin, it is a threshold type of moment. What a wise, inspired choice, covering one of the all-time Crescent City soul workouts, particularly with the stench of Katrina still suffocating the air of that great city. But then the unthinkable occurs: someone starts singing (this time the culprit is JJ "Jungle" Richards), and the frail, forced vocals are, unfortunately, an embarrassment. It's not merely a bad decision for a weak singer to try and imitate the mighty Aaron Neville, it borders on the disrespectful. A shame, since an instrumental take might have well been an understated way to capture the poignancy and profundity of the original masterpiece.

The remaining four numbers split the difference with two tasty (and vocal-free) jams and two more throwaways, both of which aim to make political statements. The first, "Stupid Americans", is too stale and cliché-ridden to work, and the other, "Bad Man", employs the no-longer original strategy of using George W. Bush's own butchering of the English language via inserted samples to delineate what a dunce he is. For recent examples of confident and engaging political statements without words or gimmicks, one might check out Stanton Moore's latest effort, or Bobby Previte's instant-classic The Coalition of the Willing .

In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that there are not exactly a wealth of instantly recognizable vibraphonists on the scene right now, and it does not appear likely that this generation will produce the next Bobby Hutcherson. And that is okay. Hutcherson did enough work that enough of us still haven't quite caught up yet, and he'll span all subsequent generations that listen to music. And so, perhaps because it's easy to do, enthusiastic promoters might claim that Dillon is carrying the torch. Actually, he is on his own path, and there is every reason to expect a further maturation of this cerebral sort of jam-band music. If we're lucky, Dillon will restrain his impulse to imitate and have more surprises -- the positive kind -- as he continues to grow, and groove.


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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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