Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » July
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The story goes something like this: About 10 years ago, Kids On A Crime Spree founder Mario Hernandez was in Stockholm and had his mind blown when a friend put on Phil Spector’s Back To Mono box set (ABKCO, 1991). Hernandez, a long time veteran of acclaimed indie-pop outfits, including From Bubblegum To Sky and Ciao Bella, decided that he would like to emulate the troubled genius and create his own blend of epic pop.

The stunning We Love You So Bad EP is the first result of that endeavor, culled from some 100 tracks Hernandez has recorded since his revelation. With that kind of output, one hopes more releases are planned! Consisting of Hernandez on vocals and bass, along with ex-From Bubblegum To Sky cohorts Becky Barrons (drums) and Bill Evans (guitar), the Kids have a simple yet infectious sound that brings to mind the best of Spector’s “Wall of Sound” creations, in addition to modern acts like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (Hernandez’s sweet melodies are similar to those of Pain’s frontman Kip Berman).

The much-too-short We Love You So Bad (eight songs in 20 minutes) opens with the scintillating “I Don’t Want To Call You Baby, Baby,” which blends a spooky New Order bass line (Peter Hook would be proud) with some classic Jesus and Mary Chain reverb and fuzz. This is followed by “Trumpets of Death,” a classic surf pop meets 1960s girl group number where Barrons takes over lead vocals. “Sweet Tooth” is a hard edged mod anthem crossing The Raveonettes at their best with The Who’s “Substitute,” even nicking the latter’s guitar riff and “We Look Pretty Good Together” lyric! The explosive “To Mess With Dynamite” combines a breathtaking Hernandez melody with plenty of JAMC overdrive circa “Never Understand” or “You Trip Me Up.” The sweet sounding “Dead Ripe” captures the teenage symphony vision of Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds (this would work well on a mix tape next to something like “God Only Knows”). “It’s In My Blood” is as dark as the name implies, the vocals and arrangement containing the same desperate longing of epic girl group productions like The Ronettes’ “Walking In The Rain” or The Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand).”  The final two tracks are “Impasto,” which flows like an excellent update of Tommy James and The Shondells “Crimson and Clover,” and “Jean-Paul Sartre 2,” a timeless pop song that brings to mind the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Big Star.

Quick: name the second VHS-recorded, straight-to-video movie filmed and issued during the 1980s. No idea? Well, that’s unsurprising; the runner-up of those low-rent features is likely long-forgotten by now, and for good reason. However, the first shot-on-tape, direct-to-video feature has recently been resurrected and issued on DVD with a wealth of supplemental bonuses. Sledgehammer, a 1983 slasher film with the ignoble title of being the first one of those cheapo-films, includes a few commentaries and some short interviews. Whether those add-ons are entertaining or not is totally dependent upon the viewer. But considering the folks to whom no-budget serial killer flicks are marketed, there’re surely some film-geeks jazzed at the prospect.

As with just about any other slasher flick from the early 1980s, Sledgehammer begins with the murderer’s origin tale, a quick sequence detailing a slutty mom locking her kid in a closet so she can go downstairs and get railed by some trashy looking dude. How the elementary school aged boy gets out of the closet and manages to kill to adults – with… yes, a sledgehammer – isn’t delved into. It just happens in this nether-reality.

The other troublesome inhabitants of this white-trash wonder-world are a few beefy looking dudes who may as well have been trying out for a spot in the WWF. Regardless of their day-gigs, the guys and accompanying poodle-haired hussies rent out a vacation home to get loaded on Budweisers and engage in some meaningless sex. Unknowingly, the vacation home – where the lot’s dropped off by some mechanic promising to fix their van – is the locale of the opening scene’s grisly murder.

A few interpersonal scenarios are set up, couples go off to get naked but get dead instead. Blow jobs all clearly lead to being bludgeoned. Inexplicably, though, the little kid murderer, who now dons a translucent Jason-mask, occasionally appears as an enormous lumberjack looking fellow. Since there’s not too much of a plot, viewers won’t get lost but they might be bored a bit by much of the film’s 83-minute run time being dedicated to slow motion pans as opposed to dialogue or character development. Just as well, since there’s not a real actor within ten feet of Sledgehammer’s cast.

The four preceding paragraphs here probably make the flick seem worse than it is, but the shaky VHS tremble and blown out colors make Sledgehammer an interesting piece of trash to wade through. If only for its historical value alone within the paracinema category, it is a welcome addition to the DVD market. And if viewers drink as much Budweiser as the actors do on-screen, it’s a guaranteed good time.

On Common Era, their second full-length album and first for the influential experimental label Kranky, Belong serve up heavy dollops of layered, atmospheric shoegaze and dark, psychedelic post-punk.  A New Orleans duo formed in 2002, Belong produce hazy gray and pink clouds of ethereal noise and melody reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, early Chapterhouse, Slowdive, and (in their lo-fi sensibility and forward thinking) Flying Saucer Attack.  Scintillating swells of sound pulse and expand, ebb and flow over simple programmed drumbeats that could be found on a Jesus and Mary Chain or The Cure record.  Lackadaisical, understated male vocals, sometimes cavernous with reverb, are blended in with the other ingredients of this oceanic blackberry swirl; lyrics are difficult to make out.

“Come See” kicks off the album with a roar, showcasing the duo’s aesthetic at its best. This heady music invoked out of the ether by Turk Deitrich and Mike Jones on Common Era, their first album since 2006’s October Language (Carpark), might be compared with other recent indie bands resurrecting the noisier, edgier side of shoegaze, such as Weekend (see their recent Sports album for Slumberland Records), Tamaryn, Film School, or a less rocked-up A Place to Bury Strangers, the latter two bands being fellow worshippers at the idol of Robert Smith.  Belong’s sonic textures are shaped by guitars and keyboards, both processed through various effects. Their more avant-garde textures might be compared to the work of Fennesz.  Further back in time, dark gothic post-punk music like The Cure (especially their Faith, Seventeen Seconds and Pornography albums) and Joy Division and ur-gazers My Bloody Valentine are likely signposts for this Southern duo.  “Keep Still” creates a storm, a vortex of massive, reverberating sound.  A soupcon of Krautrock can be discerned on a couple of tracks as well.

Although this album will appeal to fans of this range of musical styles, it doesn’t represent a huge advance sonically for Belong from their previous work.  At times the record can seem a bit overly foggy or swampy (miasmic I mean—thank you, Simon Reynolds) in its relentless production of sonic haze, as though one were hearing them play at the other end of a vast cave.  Also, although I understand that they are going for 1980s minimalism with their beats, a little more rhythmic variety might be a good thing.  But in the right listening context, Common Era is a bewitching brew and boasts its own singular, swooning accessibility. For example, “Different Heart,” though shrouded in pink noise, is a winsome pop song.

I have a tendency to get really obsessive about albums I enjoy, and it’s one of the ways I identify music that truly resonates with me. These albums come along for me maybe about twice a year and are marked by a pretty steady stream on my iPod, or whatever personal listening device I’ve been reduced to at the time.

In the case of David Shane Smith’s Controls SM (a digital-only album that Smith has self-released), I was at the tape Walkman level, which isn’t the most convenient listening device for an album downloaded off the Internet, believe it or not. However, after listening to it on my computer at home (not connected to the Internet, the album having been downloaded at the library), I grabbed one of my few blanks tapes (yes, I still try to keep at least a couple fresh blank tapes around) and recorded directly from the computer into my tape deck so that I could listen to the album while walking to work and whatnot. On the other side, I put Air’s Premiers Symptomes (Source, 1997), a matter of being consistently obsessed with Air and keeping at least one of their albums on shuffle when I’m iPod-equipped. It was also a duration consideration; Controls SM is about an hour and Premiers Symptomes about a half-hour, and there you have a 90-minute tape.

I had already been previously geeking over an older album of Smith’s, Angry Earth (Cerebral Spasm, 2007) for a while, so there was some previous interest going in, just to give some context. Controls SM is ridiculously infectious, though, at least for those of us who are into weird music. Since listening I went back over his last two releases as well, Cloud Pleaser (Stroboscopic, 2009) and Perfect Forms (Stroboscopic, 2010), which provided pleasant links between their two bookend albums. The progression shows a slow shift from songs that seemed primarily written on guitar with drum machines and electronics texturing the sound to primarily synth/electronic music. Regarding the vocals, Smith’s style is a consistent mix of melodic/harmonic singing and rapping with strange, apocolyptic lyrics. The course of these four albums shows increasingly intricate and sweet harmonizing and general better use of both facets of his voice.

There are some hits here on Controls SM, though, for lack of a better term (and obviously not in the mainstream sense of the term). Popping out as public-friendly are “Global Warming Makes Me Hot (feat. Ice Truck)”, “Shampoo,” and “Benzene.” And then, for the people who aren’t scared to listen to the weird side of the moon but still on the easily listenable side, I would put “I Feel Alive”, “Blackbirds”, “Overfeeling,” and my personal favorite and current jam, “Traffic,” which was described by a friend as electronic James Taylor. (This can be taken negatively or positively depending on taste, though; for example, I absolutely hate James Taylor). The rest of the album starts to slip into more specialized territory where freaks like me relish and “normal” people might start to cringe, effecting a head space to encase the rest of the songs. All in all, the description of Controls SM by two other friends fits my opinion just fine, so why put it differently: “It’s TITS!”

I would just like to lightly touch on my link to Smith, for full disclosure and to acknowledge the fact that I was introduced to his music through personal avenues as opposed to media exposure or playing with him, which I think is relevant. Aside from a few friendly emails and being at the same places a couple times, I don’t know him personally very well or anything, but he is good friends with one of my old roommates, Nate Andrews, who makes music under the name August and now lives in Asheville, N.C. He is also currently doing a project called Noose. Although in L.A. now, Smith used to live in Philly, and after he had left but while Nate was still living here (being Philly, where I am, although you might not be while reading this) they made a file-transfer collaboration called Tall in the Smoke (Cerebral Spasm, 2008), which was another one of my obsessive albums and followed that up a bit later with the harsher Blood Karaoke. Around the same time as their first collaboration I recorded and musically contributed to one of the August albums, Beauty School. It was meant to be a beautiful take on Nate’s music, which isn’t usually the sort that the previously mentioned “normal” people go for, or can stand. You can just chalk it up there as yet another thing that I totally love which garners annoyance from most people. To give you an example of what his stuff sounds like in general, however, once I put his album Made Ov Skyscrapers (Cerebral Spasm, 2008) on my iPod shuffle as well as She by Maldoror (Ipecac, 1999), which is a noise project between Mike Patton and Merzbow, and proceeded to play the game “Maldoror or August?”

Of course these David Smith and August albums have never been widely released, so I offer them here by making each title in this article a link to either a Bandcamp page where the album is available on a Pay-What-You-Want basis or a Mediafire free download, with permission from the artists of course.

Cameron Stallones, as Sun Araw, frequently finds himself being congratulated on the new age of psych that he’s currently ushering towards a wider and wider audience. Without exception, comparisons to Kraut workouts, minimal synthesizer explorations, and African rhythms insinuate their way into any discussion of the guy’s music. Each influence is irrefutable, but the accompanying future-past description of Sun Araw’s difficult to conceive of identity seems nonsensical. Or maybe lazy.

It’s arguable, but the creative mind’s task is to summon a representation of a moment in time, taking into consideration external situations and internal motives. Really, Stallones’ recordings with Sun Araw, Magic Lantern and now as collaborator with Portland’s Eternal Tapestry, boil down the torrents of Afro-funk compilations, reissued/collectible Krautrock albums, and all that keyboard/noisenik confusion the analog tape market’s flush with. No, none of those sounds are new. Neither are the combinations. But a guy from Los Angeles soldering all this together is unique. For the moment. In the moment.

Even with his non-stop record release schedule – another reflection on the times we’re all living in – Stallones is still situated pretty deep in the underground, working with the likes of Not Not Fun and Woodsist instead of larger, better known indies. So, it’s curious that Eternal Tapestry, another group not unfamiliar with issuing a steady stream of albums over a short period of time, found its way to Thrill Jockey for this year’s Beyond the 4th Door (released in March). Either way, the Northwesterners, while down at SXSW, met up with Stallones and decided to bring him on to play keys during a live performance for a local radio station. The result, Night Gallery, comes off as the proper middle ground between the two groups, even if the Sun Araw vibe pervades each of the four track’s opening mellow bits before climaxing.

Edited into four sections, each movement roughly follows the same dynamic: airy drones find themselves bolstered by kosmische percussion, there’s a wah-wah freeq-out after which the song trails off into the next one. Listeners even remotely familiar with either of these groups know what their getting into. But for the uninitiated, Night Gallery might serve as an acceptable point of entry to the West Coast’s current conception of minimal and contemporary psych. Good, if not great.

Some stuff I thought about riding my bike home today, June 15, 2011, and then some stuff that I thought while I was making lunch (a salad out of my garden of lettuce with green apple and blue cheese, a bowl of chickpea curry and rice, an orange, and a kosher dill pickle):

THE COMEDY OF CORMAC McCARTHY: There’s very little that’s funny in The Road (2006), but all of Cormac McCarthy’s other books are full of really funny shit.  My friend Evan clued me into it when he pointed out that in the very beginning of Child of God (1973), McCarthy describes Lester Ballard, the pitiful necrophiliac protagonist, shitting in the woods and wiping his ass with a stick. That’s what I call funny! And then in Suttree (1979), which is full of this kind of dark/hilarious shit, Harrogate (his other notable country bumpkin character) is introduced with a very “writerly,” Faulknerian description of him having sex with some farmer’s watermelons by the light of the moon. Someone as smart as McCarthy has to be hilarious, and a lot of the terrifying parts of Blood Meridian (1985), especially centered around the Judge, take the form of comedy. In this case, though, one would have to be completely divorced of any concept of morality to find any of it actually funny – which may be the point.

AMERICAN PSYCHO BY BRET EASTON ELLIS: I read American Psycho (1991) in the middle of the winter this year. It’s the only book that’s ever physically repulsed me. I lived near where Patrick Bateman lived on the Upper East Side last year, and I’m glad I didn’t read this book while I was there. Manhattan reminded me of a giant outdoor shopping mall, and this book (set in the late 1980s) seems to describe when it was halfway transformed into what it is today. I like to imagine that this book and The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen) somehow take place in the same universe, and the Dude is somehow the anti-Patrick Bateman, in the way that L.A. and New York relate but don’t. The Dude is to L.A. as Bateman is to NYC. “Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ‘cause what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man – and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here – sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude. In Los Angeles.” My favorite part: when Bateman is on vacation in the Hamptons, and he spends time eating sand, microwaves a jellyfish, and stands over his fiancée with a knife waiting to see if she’ll wake up.

JORGE LUIS BORGES: My favorite writer. Borges has a big reputation within literary circles and academia, but really, I think everyone can and should enjoy him. The ones that got me into his writing are: The Library of Babel (1941), Borges and I (1960), and Argumentum Ornithologicum (1960). They’re all good, and short enough to read on a subway ride, or on a break at work. A good place to start: Labyrinths (1962).

THE SMELL OF TOMATO PLANTS: I’ve recently gotten way into gardening, which is all about saving money and eating healthy to me, but aside from that, everything about it brings back all these memories of my late Grandma Opal. I spent a lot of time helping her in her garden when I was a kid. Nothing brings back those memories and makes me feel connected to my past more than that weird smell tomato leaves have. And that’s something I can experience everyday.

COWBOY INDIAN BEAR: This is a seriously amazing band from Lawrence, Kansas.  They made my favorite record of last year, Each Other All the Time (The Record Machine), and their new stuff is even better. They play a lot around the Midwest and are slowly making their way out towards the coasts, as far as touring goes. Check them out.

CHAD VANGAALEN: My roommate recently got me into him. His new record, Diaper Island (Sub Pop), is unbelievable. It’s pretty much all I’m listening to these days. “That fuckin’ mind scanner that made me piss myself….”

JAMES BLAKE: James Blake’s self-titled debut album (Universal Republic) was my soundtrack to the winter/spring months. So, so worth the hype. If you can get past his Auto-Tuned/vocodered vocals (which I can) – which, by the way, he doesn’t need because he has a fucking amazing voice… I’m curious if he’s going to use these lame effects in the future… anyway… – this record will reward you for multiple listens. So simple on the surface, so complex once you get into it!

EAST OF EDEN BY JOHN STEINBECK: Do people still read Steinbeck?  I love his books. Especially this one (1952), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) (duh), and Tortilla Flat (1935). If an alien landed and wanted to know what the deal was with Humans, I would give them this.

KANSAS: Journalists like to make a big deal out of the fact that we live in Kansas, as if it’s surprising that art could come from anywhere but the coasts. I personally am really inspired by the history and the natural world here, as well as the sense of ownership I have of where I do my thing. I traveled in three continents last year, and lived in Kansas, Texas, Ohio, and Manhattan. But Lawrence is where I have decided to stay. William Burroughs lived here, and the Phelps family (Westboro Baptist Church) is just a few miles away. What could be more American than that? On a side note, I was walking around a few days ago with some friends and heard singing and went to see what it was, and it was the Phelps family protesting a Foster the People show. I’m not sure why. A group of locals all congregated to yell them down and counter-harass them. Someone made signs on pizza boxes and stood with them. The signs said, “I’m with Fag” and “God Loves Puppies.” I live here and love it here, but I came from Missouri, as a side note.

GRAVEFACE RECORDS: Graveface put out my records, so I’m plugging them, but I was a fan long before we ever worked together. I sort of harassed Ryan Graveface until he agreed to put out Oh, Ramona (2008). If you can find a label that is more committed to its fans/customers, and to the idea that records should be special objects, I’d like to see it.

Jordan Geiger, formerly of Minus Story, Shearwater, and the Appleseed Cast, is the principal member of the Lawrence, Kansas, group Hospital Ships. Their second album, Lonely Twin, was released on Graveface Records in June.

Photo Courtesy: Hospital Ships

If you’re a listener who’s never paid much attention to Death Cab For Cutie but decide to pop in Code and Keys to see what the fuss is about, you’ll likely find nothing broken about it. The crystalline production of post-Plans (Atlantic, 2005) Death Cab is intact, Ben Gibbard’s vocals sound (emphasis on sound – more on that in a moment) appropriately wide-eyed and just a little sad, and the songs tend to fall into melodic, hooky grooves (“You Are a Tourist”) or textural, minimalist grooves (“Doors Unlocked and Open”).

But if you’re a holdover fan of the band’s earlier records – say, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000) through Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003) – prepare your frowny face: this is not a return to the salad days. It’s no mystery what made them well-liked and critically acclaimed in their early days: the combination of surface-level catchiness and Gibbard’s often labyrinthine narrative voice that pushed metaphors to breaking in an attempt to codify and preserve that most everyday of occurrences, heartbreak.

On the musical side, a tune like “You Are a Tourist” holds a lot of promise. A wash of piano and backwards guitar dissipates to admit a buoyant bass line and boom-clack drums moving in lockstep. When the guitar riff slides in, sounding more 1980s new wave than 1990s indie rock, it recalls the more anthemic turn Modest Mouse took on Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic, 2004). So far, so good, but then: “When there’s a burning in your heart / an endless yearning in your heart / build it bigger than the sun / let it grow, let it grow.”

Seriously, Ben? This from the guy who, in “Expo ‘86,” brilliantly likened relationships to a slide we keep climbing and riding even though it keeps burning our skin at the bottom? The guy who wrote “Talking how the group had begun to splinter / and I can taste your lipstick on the filter” for “Title Track”? You could always accuse Gibbard of overreaching with his metaphors, of overplaying the sentimentality card. But at least he was goddamned trying.

Elsewhere, “Unobstructed Views” is a snooze, with Gibbard waiting a full three minutes before coming in from the wings to hum some more claptrap about doubt and love. “Portable Television” boasts the strongest sense of story – previously one of Death Cab’s greatest strengths – but why is Gibbard singing it like it’s a 1920s musical number? For a time, Death Cab’s restlessness served them well, pushing their sound away from lo-fi and towards the widescreen, cinematic sweep of Transatlanticism and Plans. But the experimentation here feels like tinkering, the textures like wallpaper.

It’s not all bad: “Home Is a Fire” and the title track are good enough, their subtlety and incremental build effective, if workmanlike. “St. Peter’s Cathedral” boasts a strong sense of atmosphere and packs at least a little bit of punch in its untroubled denial of a reward in the afterlife. But that tune’s relative incisiveness only makes the rest of it more milquetoast. Surely there’s a massive audience for anodyne tunes destined to soundtrack the season finales of network dramedies*, and it may as well be Death Cab for Cutie cashing those checks. Better them than Owl City, I guess.

* You can read all about it on the Amazon page for Codes and Keys, where positive reviews damn the album with faint praise like “very solid/consistent,” “whimsical lyrics,” “adult-alternative radio-friendly,” and “a well-rounded piece of work.”

The term hyperreal used to get passed around a lot. Hyperreality is, ya know, when reality becomes indistinguishable from fantasy and the distinction between an original and a copy is unintelligible. Bay Area queer punk group Hunx and His Punx could be called a hyperreal fantasy of John Waters’ imagination, were it not for the fact that the Queens of John Water’s Baltimore really were that awesome. It’s more like this: art is desire’s time machine and Hunx and His Punx just walked out of celluloid and into San Francisco.

The band (and sister group The Younger Lovers) have been jerking out some of the hottest, horniest, boy-on-boy action this side of the Internet. Their noise is enough to convey what the group is about, but it’s their videos that really show gender evolving, evading post-AIDS responsibility, and most of all positioning gay where we always want it to be: one of the highly dangerous subcultures no one wants their child to be part of. Bruce LaBruce is making gay subversive again, Hunx (né Seth Bogard) is hitting the revolutionary notes like a vidiot in perversion’s arcade, gay has returned subervise, perverse, and most of all, irritating in all the ways it’s supposed to be.

So geee…. what about that music? Queer punk appears to be measured in sensous ballads and not in the simple dimension of agression. Hunx’s garage rock is full of cat calls, rockabilly impulses, a symphony of 1950s and 1960s style girl group voices, and above them all, Hunx’s call. The songs are self-consciously cheesy and at least two feature statements on youth, usually followed by a league of Hunx’s girlie friends turning ’em over. Other themes include make out spots, bad boys (both being taken by and staying away from), generic Johnnies that seem to haunt Hunx the way they haunted the Ramones, and of course, the staple of rock ballads, the night. If one concatenates all this imagery together, we are left in a weird alterna-reality 1960s where genders fly through the roof but sex is still a good indicator of who rides motorcycles. Tough guys are bottoms, like a queer appropiation of riot grrrl sent back to John Waters with a twist. Freedom explodes through sheer indifference to heteronormative pressure. This isn’t fortitude Hunx presents, it’s just a shrug at normality and a quick fuck you in the face.

So geee… what about those videos? Hunx first came on my radar when a fairy-like creature made folk in the forests around Berkeley and sang with a skunk on YouTube.  The band has amassed a video catalog that’s so chuck full of ideas, props, and mutations that other bands really struggle to have media this awesome. Hunx-land is an anything goes type of place: boyfriends come in (to borrow a Vaginal Davis term) both  homonormative and (to borrow from Vaginal Davis again) punky selections. Drag queens, always in the Waters-esque campy form, do your hair, while  rave remixes push around and, basically, the queer creativity level goes through the roof as sexualities unhinge and fucking takes on a whole new scope.  Just watch Justin Kelly‘s videos and see all the gender mutants for yourself.

Hunx, who I missed in his first iteration in the Kill Rock Stars electro-pop group Gravy Train!!!!, is kinda the perfect gay mascot for an indie subculture intent on proving its open mindedness. But their strict coda of meeting gay expectations and exceeding them – the way they are almost gloriously unoriginal – is what makes them precious. Hunx just likes rock’n’roll, boys and girlie pop. In his spare time, he’s even a hair dresser. This is queer in the third wave, one in which the gay role (much like a woman’s role in Luce Irigaray‘s writing) becomes liberating by the exact oppression imposed on it.

In a culture in which gays increasingly have the same rights and opportunities as heterosexuals, Hunx (and for that matter, Scott Thompson’s character Buddy Cole) suggests that the fun of it is being opressed for being who you are. That is, the reality of queer looks nothing like Justin Kelly’s videos and, in fact, is much more like those poor little boys in Texas who killed themselves or the thousands of transsexuals that make up a surprisingly high number of America’s unsolved murders is what the band over writes. We are still living in a culture that murders and humilates other human beings on the basis of gender identification and sexuality. Hunx is a great icon of gay possibility and he allows the liberal to see the nirvana of queer that acceptance provides, but it needs to be kept in mind that he is far from the reality of it.

Who are Carole King and James Taylor? Are they the musicians, composers, and singers who created the singer-songwriter generation? What do Cheech & Chong, Steve Martin, and Elton John have in common? Was there really a “mellow mafia,” and why does Robert Christgau hate soft rock? Why was Doug Weston’s West Hollywood nightclub the Troubadour an important link to all of the above?

The 90-minute documentary Troubadours: Carole King * James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, which screened theatrically at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and also aired nationally in truncated form as part of PBS’ American Masters series, answers these questions and more. The film traces the development of the singer-songwriter genre, from the beginning when King was employed as a Brill Building pop songwriter, through to the introduction of folk-rock, and beyond. The historical narrative is framed by interviews and live performances from a Taylor/King duet concert in November 2007, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the famed Troubadour venue, where Taylor and King reunited to recreate their incipient Troubadour 1970 performances.

Director Morgan Neville (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, Johnny Cash’s America) wisely uses King’s and Taylor’s anecdotes and friendship as a springboard for the larger tale of how a bunch of mostly-Los Angeles musicians helped craft what has become known as the singer-songwriter era. The movie starts in the early 1960s, when King was at the legendary Brill Building in New York City, writing pop hits such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for vocal groups. At the same time, Taylor was attending a New England prep school where he formed a folk duo with childhood friend, guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, who later became synonymous with the West coast soft-rock sound as a studio musician and hired hand. As the instability of the Vietnam War period reached a crescendo, both Taylor and King became solo artists who managed to touch on audience expectations for something more sensitive than raucous rock. As King eloquently explains in the film, “When we sprang out of the box there was just all this generational turbulence, cultural turbulence, and there was a hunger for the intimacy, the personal thing that we did.”

Neville adroitly skips around chronologically as he handles various plot points, which gives Troubadours a wide-ranging quality. Modern-day conversations with numerous people who were part of the emerging scene, including Bonnie Raitt, Roger McGuinn, and J.D. Souther, are interspersed with never-seen-before archival footage. Included amongst these newly uncovered scenes is an early James Taylor appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, King working in the studio in the early 1970s, and home movies of both artists when they were still wide-eyed teenagers. There is also an illuminating, contemporary recollection by King’s now-grown daughter, Sherry Goffin Kondor,  who describes how her mother’s back-to-nature hippie-ism was reflected in her huge hit “Natural Woman.”

Of course, the singer-songwriter movement would not have existed if there was not a time and a place for it to germinate. The early 1970s was the epochal moment and Doug Weston’s Troubadour was the location where much of the burgeoning music was introduced to listeners. The DVD takes a sidestep to illustrate how the Troubadour’s Monday night Hoot Nights – essentially open mic opportunities – gave recognition to up-and-coming musicians such as Kris Kristofferson, but also entertainers such as aspiring comedians Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong (the pair were discovered at the Troubadour’s Hoot Night and subsequently signed by producer Lou Adler). There is a notable bit during this chapter on Elton John’s American debut at the Troubadour when he was an unknown English pianist, an event told in hindsight by former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn.

There are also brief episodes on how the Laurel Canyon area played a part in further developing the singer-songwriter progression, at which point a visibly immersed David Crosby expounds on how sex and drugs were as a big a role to the community as music. Neville does not shy away from controversy, either. He gets Taylor to open up about his heroin addiction (Taylor kicked his habit in 1983) and also mentions Doug Weston’s megalomaniacal behavior, which ultimately caused his beloved Troubadour to nearly close its doors for good.

Troubadours serves its intended audience well, since it is packed with information, footage, and interviews which never dull the narrative. Unfortunately, the bare-bones DVD has no extras, not even a chapter menu, although viewers can move through the different chapters by using a remote control and can also choose between two audio choices, stereo or surround sound. The 35-minute soundtrack CD that supplements this DVD release features nothing new. Songs by Taylor, King, Raitt, and others are not unreleased or rare tracks, rather very familiar album cuts or radio singles, such as Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and King’s “It’s Too Late.”

Currently, the film can be streamed online for free here at the PBS American Masters site.

The legacy of the Washington, DC, hardcore scene is one with lasting impact well beyond its genesis at the tail end of the Reagan era. While many of the prototypical bands of the movement are no more, almost 30 years on from Revolution Summer pillars of the movement continue apace. The straight-edge movement is still chugging along, stalwart indie label Dischord continues to be a venerated institution, and many of the players in that scene have taken their DIY ethics to new ventures, garnering a notoriety that transcends their musical roots. One such notable is Soulside bassist Johnny Temple, who went on to co-found Girls Against Boys before eventually leaving professional music behind altogether to found independent Brooklyn publishing house Akashic Books.

Fellow four-stringer Nathan Larson, himself an original member of Swiz, followed a similarly divergent path after the dissolution of the much-loved Shudder To Think. While he currently maintains a band called A Camp with his wife Nina Persson (ex-The Cardigans), Larson carved himself an alternate niche in the world of film music beginning in the late 1990s, composing music for more than 20 films to date, including the Academy Award-winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the Todd Solondz films Storytelling (2002) and Palindromes (2005). Recent years have found Larson undertaking the self-appointed task of writing not one but a series of novels revolving around a character of his own creation that he has dubbed Dewey Decimal, the first volume of which, The Dewey Decimal System, has just been published by his old hardcore scene friend Temple’s Akashic Press.

Ere I wade in, it’s important to point out that I am nothing if not a total ignoramus as it revolves around contemporary fiction. I consume a voracious amount of the non-fiction printed word, but my limited forays into the contemporary fiction of the moment (DeLillo, Klosterman) held in high esteem by my peers have been far less than positive. Chuck Klosterman I find to be a particularly slippery slope, as I have met him a couple times and found him to be an engaging, unpretentious guy I’d like to shoot the shit with about music. I love music writing, metal, and reading, but being a guy who does those things and reads fiction about guys who love music, writing, and metal makes me a little uncomfortable.

To the same end, as a long time Gothamite I feel the same way about dystopian portraits of a post-apocalyptic New York City. In Larson’s novel, our eponymous protagonist is an amnesiac mixed-race man in the employ of the district attorney of a New York City in ruins, following a series of explosions and a subsequent Superflu outbreak, referred to in the narrative as “The Incident” (not entirely unlike the “airborne toxic event” in DeLillo’s White Noise). Dewey Decimal is basically an assassin, bound to said DA by a dependence on unnamed pills that evidently keep him alive. That is the bare bones of the story, or part one of it at least. Conceptually, not exactly the most original thing in the world, but The Dewey Decimal System is definitely posited as a post-modern noir work and it succeeds as such.

As it is a genre piece, there are tenets to be adhered to, but it is just that burnishment in the story that rubs me the wrong way. More well-adjusted readers may feel otherwise, but pop culture touchstones have always been hackle-raisers in my fiction consumption and The Dewey Decimal System has them in spades. Obama-esque everyman hero I can let slide, but the fact that the catastrophes that led to the abandonment of Gotham took place on 2/14 and is continually referred to as such gets a tad cloying. As does the obsessive-compulsive/amnesiac with wife and kid murdered/dependence on a drug that keeps him alive factor. One man’s Steven Seagal is another man’s Charles Bronson, I guess.

All these niggles, beyond exposing this reviewer’s douchier critical side, may very well be the product of the New York City zip code I have long called my home. Living here over almost 20 years makes all the tongue-in-cheek New York references a little eye-rollable, but The Dewey Decimal System shows obvious craft with an engaging narrative that should appeal to lovers of all things prose and post-modern. Larson reports that part two of the Decimal story arc is in the can and that the third and final chapter looms ominiously. Here’s hoping his optimism is caught by what’s left of the reading public and all three volumes come to light. While The Dewey Decimal System is an engaging read, I suspect it will be most loved by people who never have lived in New York, or quintessentially narcissistic New Yorkers.