Monday, January 31, 2005

"You’re pillaging and out-tapped..."

First impressions of LCD Soundsystem's self-titled debut album:

Precision is the key here. The same mixture of thrilling musical economy and perfect detail that makes 'Losing My Edge' so effective as a take down of analy retentive hipsterism* is deeply ingrained in every facet of this album. The first disc (the album proper) consists of nine tracks that collectively clock in somewhere just over the forty-five minute mark. This is important to what I'm talking about here: out of these nine songs, only one ('Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up', which kinda sounds like a Beatles ballad or something) hasn't grabbed me on my first couple of listens. Now I like a good sprawling pop album as much as anyone (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below I'm looking at you here!) , but there's something to be said for keeping it short and punchy, y'know? Much as the current internet-happy musical climate may make it easy for folk like me to cherrypick the good songs from an album and ignore the rest, I'll admit there's a part of me that's still quite attached to the idea of an album working as a thing unto itself.

Yeah, I know this is quaintly old-fashioned and auturist or whatever, and I'm in no way dissing messy pop albums or those that filter through them for the good bits, but what the hell, sometimes it's nice to have a change of pace.

The album's second disc (the bonus CD, I guess) is curious when listened to with this in mind. It collects together various singles and b-side that came out way back when, and in its high-quality grab-bag way it actually reinforces the point about the importance of consistency to the LCD Soundsystem project. This second disc is full of good songs, and contains at least three great ones, namely 'Yeah (crass version)', 'Beat Connection' and the aforementioned 'Losing My Edge', but they obviously aren't designed to be a part of the album itself. They were made to stand as singles -- little pockets of music that stand or fall on their own merits, and their inclusion as extras here rather than as a part of the main album adds emphasis to this idea as much as it disrupts it.

Anyways, the music on the main disc is pretty damned excellent too, and again, precision is the word here. For the most part James Murphy just lets his insistent bass-driven grooves dominate the songs, while never being afraid to throw in whatever textural/rhythmic counterpoints would best serve the track as it plays out. There's a lot of restraint implicit in this approach, but Murphy gets a lot of mileage out of it in terms of tone and effect. Songs like 'Disco Infiltrator' and 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House' are a lot of straight-up goofy fun, but forays into musical criticism ('Movement') and drama ('Tribulations') are also very successful to my ears.

I'll hopefully be posting more on some of the individual songs from this album at some point in the near future, but first I have a very serious question for everyone. Brothers, sisters, I ask you -- is it wrong that I really like the fact that James Murphy occasionally sings/shouts/rambles like Mark E Smith with a blocked nose on this album?

*Because to get all the references in the song (or, indeed, to write the damned thing in the first place!) you've got to be at least a little bit guilty of the sort of attitude that it's critiquing.
"A life of leisure is no life you know"

So I'm going through one of those phases where I rediscover Elastica and, as always, I've ended up getting hooked on 'Waking Up' again.

Now I've just taken January off, to all intents and purposes, having saved up enough money over November/December to glide by while working no more than a couple of days a week, and it's been good. I've got some writing done, though not as much as I'd like, and I've had some good times with my friends, though again, not quite as many as I would have hoped to.

But while it's been good to recharge for a while, there's an oddly indulgent sort of melancholy that's began to creep in around the edges, and this is what 'Waking Up' captures brilliantly. It's sonic decadence with a hint of sadness at its heart. In fact, I'd go so far to say that the sadness is the most decadent part of the song! The whole thing crashes, drones and swaggers in a way that mimics the seemingly effortless cool of Justine's vocals, and it's just like... how can you make lazing around and feeling a bit sad about it sound this appealing, y'know? It must be some sort of crime or something!

But then I get to the following couplet...

"I'd work very hard but I'm lazy
I've got a lot of songs but they're all in my head

...and I start to think "Hang on, those songs aren't all in her head! I'm listening to one right now, and it's a fucking good one! Maybe I should get around to finishing that story after all..."

But still, part of me wonders: was the real reason it took Elastica so long to follow up their debut album that they spent so long listening to/playing this song and thinking "Cor, this is good -- I could go a bit of this!" or am I just being silly now? Okay, okay, it's clearly the latter, but hey -- I'm aloud a couple of cute little delusions, right?


Saturday, January 29, 2005

These Are The Headlines... God Knows, I Wish They Weren't

David Fiore asked me the following questions as part of a meme that was doing the rounds sometime deep in the middle of 2004. I asked him to throw some odd queries my way in the hope that it would get me back to blogging, but as it worked out I half-wrote the following answers and then disappeared back off into the odd sulk I was in at the time.

Well, since it now looks like I've decided to give this blogging thing another go, I figured I might as well finish off answering these questions, because, y'know, they were good ones. I apologise if any of the following answers are a tad disjointed, but picking up your train of thought after such a long delay isn't too good an idea, and besides I'm a little out of practice when it comes to writing this sort of thing.

Anyway, with that in mind, here we go...

1. You loved Punch-Drunk Love. That is correct. But why?

I'm so glad that David asked me this as I've been meaning to write about this film for a very long time, as any long-term readers I still have will know all too well!

In an attempt to get around my slight block on articulating exactly why this movie rocks me so much, I'm going to write about this movie by way of another one of my favourite romantic comedies -- Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

In Annie Hall, a wide variety of techniques are used to give the viewer some idea of what's going inside the head's of the two romantic leads. These techniques are kinda goofy and playful, but they're also an important part of what the film achieves. The interior monologues, subtitles expressing thoughts that lurk just below character's conversations, and clever split-screen tricks are all key to this movie's depiction of the amusing and often troubled interaction between Annie and Alvy. Just think about how much un-interrupted conversation you get to observe in this movie--it's insane, isn't it?--and then bounce that off of the fact that most of the elements that disrupt these conversations provide us with a more direct presentation of the characters' thoughts.

To phrase it fairly crudely, a lot of the joy of the movie is in the way it lets us in so closely on this meeting and parting of minds, and much of this is down to the variety of neat techniques that Allan and co use to allow us to observe what Alvy and Annie say to each other and what they don't.

Punch-Drunk Love, on the other hand, gives the viewer very little to go on in terms of what either of the two romantic leads are thinking. Or rather, we don't really get much verbal insight from either Barry Egan or Lena Lenard while we're watching the movie. What we do get, however, is a great audio/visual expression of the confusing multitude of thoughts and feelings that come with their attempts to get together, held together by a couple of hugely charming central performances by Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, and mainly focused through Barry's POV.

The movie hops back and forth tonally between moments of great, waltzing sweetness, out and out strangeness, and sudden violence at will, sometimes blending these elements around the edges as it does so. Jon Brion's score is essential to this effect, mixing swooning orchestral moments with jerky, atonal barrages of rhythm to great effect. I've heard more than one person complain that the uncomfortable sections of this film (where Barry's loneliness and lack of communication skills lead him into awkward situations ) were too restless partly because of these musical flourishes, but it seems to me that this effect is entirely deliberate, and highly successful too.

As I indicated above with my comment about the POV that we get in Punch-Drunk Love, it seems to me that the mechanics of the film conspire to give us something that is probably quite close to Barry's view of the world. Just think about how quiet and lonely the quiet bits of the movie really are, or how Lena just seems to drop out of the sky. Sometimes it feels like you're watching a science fiction movie rather than a skewed romantic comedy (the slow, drifting camera work adds to this affect, and when I read somewhere that P.T. Anderson apparently told Emily Watson to act as though she'd just walked off of a space ship, I can't say I was surprised). On other occasions everything tilts in the opposite direction, and you begin to suspect that it's going to turn into a musical any minute now. Just think about the way the world seems to come to life in exquisite silhouette when they kiss in Hawaii, or the way Barry backs out of his office, shuffling back first at the camera, one step at a time.

All of this is utterly essential to what makes this movie work for me because to be honest with you the plot itself could easily seem quite disagreeable to me were the execution not so thrilling.

As Rose Curtin said as part of this conversation about Sideways:

"I'm sort of sick of movies about emotionally stunted men and the smart, sensitive, hurt women who care for them..."

This is something I was talking about with my girlfriend Karen the other day -- the way that romantic plots in movies that focus on male protagonists rather than female ones often seem to view romance as a a sort of salvation for the inward looking male character, with the other love interests motivation in the whole process being left sketchy at best. I'm making some huge generalizations here, but bare with me. In some ways it's almost as though the disagreeable "kidnap victim as provider of undeserved love" elements of Buffalo 66 are a more direct variation on this theme, with Christina Ricci's character literally being taken along for the ride only to find herself all too glad to provide redemption for guy who dragged her out of her tap dancing class and into his movie.

I enjoy some movies that employ this formula more than others, but let's not shy away from the fact that Punch-Drunk Love engages with this tradition in a couple of key ways. Barry Egan is more than just socially awkward and inward looking; to him, most attempts at communication with the outside world devolves into so much menacing acid-chatter, and one of the primary results of his attempts to, y'know, talk to someone in the first act of the movie is that he gets tangled up in a sex-line scam. (You should probably pay attention to the importance of phone calls in this movie in this movie, by the way--conversation is often distanced here, but that's the subject of another post entirely). But for all my talk of Lena being some sort of alien who drops into Barry's world, it's way more complicated and less cheesy than that in the movie itself. Lena has a unique role in this movie -- she's both completely othered and also the sole note of harmony with Barry's worldview, and this is important, as while the vocabulary of science fiction is definitely being called on here, it is being done so in a very musical way. Which is to say that while we don't get that much of a sense of what Lena is 'about' here we do, at the very least, get the sense that she is 'about' something.

A lot of this comes down to two elements in this particular composition that I've so far neglected to rave about in any depth; the performances that Sandler and Watson give as this movie's romantic leads. While much has been said by other critics about how well the whole movie provides an uneasy but still sympathetic context for Sandler's traditionally emotionally unstable man-child character, less time has been given to describing exactly what Watson brings to the table here, probably because (A) she isn't the centre of this world, and (B) her role here is way harder to define, as I'm rapidly discovering as I try to articulate my thoughts on the subject. But... there's definitely something weird about her, and I mean that in a positive sense! Watson's performance suggests something just outside the edge of the movie's focus, and that's important. Her stalking of Barry in the background of one early scene indicates that he's not the only unstable one here, for one thing! This may not sound like it's too much a validating factor, but here's the thing -- this isn't a movie about Barry's redemption. The last line of the film is something like "Well... here we go" and I think that's essential to understanding what's going on here. Instead of being about Barry finding someone to save him, Punch-Drunk Love is, instead, about two people who share some sort of unexplainable wavelength coming together. Taken as such it's mix of giddiness and discomfort makes much more sense -- this is falling in love writ large, a sensory frying experience expressed largely through strange visuals and music. The ending isn't the end -- it's the beginning of something, and as hard to read as Watson's performance is, she does share a convincing, nervous chemistry with Sandler that wins the day here.

Anyways, all of this ties back into the basic point of my use of Annie Hall as a launchpad for this discussion. The two movies stick together in my mind because they're both formally very rich and expressive, but in totally different ways. Annie Hall, while very cinematic, is an overtly wordy movie, and as such its subject is, at least in part, the many ways in which its romantic leads frame their relationship in language, either internal or external. For me, Punch-Drunk Love does the same thing, except using non-verbal languages instead. I mean, for all that there's some great dialogue in there, the ways in which P.T. Anderson's movie matches Annie Hall for articulation is in the sci-fi musical landscape that its romantically entwined characters find themselves in.

2. Post-graduate education--how do you feel about it? (as an option for yourself, I mean)

This is a question that I've been asking myself a lot recently, as while I was very glad to be done with University when I graduated, I now find myself struggling to work out exactly what I'm going to do next. Additionally, it has recently occurred to me that I'm currently way more in the correct mindset to study Literature than I was throughout my honour years at University. I'm not sure quite what I mean by this, except that my last two years as an English student were spent mostly paying more attention to my life outside of University than anything else. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but while there's no guarantee that the same thing wouldn't happen if I gave academia another shot, I'm beginning to think that I might like to give it a try, at the very least.

There's also the big fact that I'm currently struggling to work out exactly what else I can do, y'know? I mean... I'm always going to write, and if I can eventually support myself financially with my writing, then all the better. But that's not an overnight thing, and while I am going to try to make this idea seem plausible, realistically I have to work in one context or another while I give that a go. The big appeal of doing more academic stuff is that I can at least see myself managing to care about it, y'know? Especially since my Studies would probably be on a more limited field this time round. The bookstore I work in is great, and the people are lovely there, but it's not something I can see myself wanting to do for too much longer, even though I don't really think there are many other jobs out there which would suit me better.

So... I'm still thinking this question over right now. We'll all have to wait and see what comes of this deliberation, but it's an appealing option at the very least.

3. Do you see any aesthetic/philosophical commonalities between Grant Morrison and Daniel Clowes? ( I only ask because it has often served me well--or at least entertained me--to think of two artists I particularly like in juxtaposition)

Hmmm. Tricky one. On a basic aesthetic level their work is so different that it's sometimes hard to trace the links that are probably there between elements of their work, but that's not to say that it's not worth trying!

So, erm, here we go:

Most of Morrison's writing rattles along in a state of permanently heightened excitement, while even the more fantastic parts of Clowes' work maintain a muted, quiet tone throughout, even when the events he depicts are very strange indeed. This is indicative not only of the different environments in which their work is created (the monthly serial format vs the released when it's done world of alt comics), but also, I think of the way that both artists approach one of the themes that they share -- that of the outsider in society (or should that be the outsider in a society of outsiders?).

Morrison's characters tend to be dreamers and fantasists who get drawn into their fantasy (or, quite often, someone else's!), and his storytelling style reflects this in its pop-tastic and sometimes disorienting machinations. Clowes' characters on the other hand tend to start off in a world gone weird, and stay there until the end of the story, something that his static art style plays off of quite nicely. There's quite a lot you could do with this dichotomy, mostly involving the many, many points where it doesn't hold up, and the even more plentiful areas of overlap between these two ideas, but I'd really need to think about it a bit more before I comment further.

Aside from that I could probably find a couple of other areas of discussion, but the only one that comes to mind immediately is the treatment of authorship in their respective works, particularly the way that Morrison presents himself in Animal Man as a character who seems all-powerful but is actually open to outside forces vs the rigidly powerless showing Clowes gives himself in Ghost World. Actually, this can probably be tied into my previous points in a couple of fun ways, so there you go!

4. How do you feel about the Jacobites?

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that my grasp of this chunk of history is wonky at best, and that even though my Scottish Lit classes did get into the whole Jacobite rebellion thing at least a little bit, I'm not confident enough to even pretend that I have an interesting answer to this question.

I dunno... I'm pretty embarrassed by how little I know about this sort of stuff so I'm going to move on to the next question now in the hope of sparing my blushes.

5. What are your favourite breakfast foods?

I used to be a devote of any breakfast cereal that was coated in sugar, but somewhat alarmingly my tastes seem to be mellowing these days. I've lately developed a deep love of Raisin Wheats and, god help me, Fruit and Fiber, though I still like to eat Ricicles and the like now and then.

I wont get into that Pop Tart obsession I developed a couple of years ago though. My teeth ache just thinking about it!


Friday, January 28, 2005

To Hell With Good Intentions

A little glimpse of what I was doing with myself during my absence from blogging: the first page of The New Testament, a six page comic strip that was drawn by the mighty Tim Twelves for the second Commercial Suicide anthology.

I don't normally write in the bratty and bombastic register I used for that strip, but it was great fun to do so. I was trying to riff on Frank Miller and Chris Morris while also having a little joke at the expense of some of Grant Morrison's favourite story ideas. I think the script came out okay, but it's Twelves who deserves most of the credit for this one. Some of the later pages are practically exploding with verbal and visual information, and his linework perfectly conveys the sense of grotesque media overload that I'd was aiming for when I wrote the damned comic in the first place.

The other thing about this comic is that it was written over a couple of dark, rainy days to the sound of all three Mclusky albums on repeat. Since then the band have split up, which is a shame, as the delirious mixture of noise-rock and crabby playground vitriol that was their speciality was pretty much the perfect soundtrack for those days where you find yourself regressing to teenage angst-ville. Sometimes there's nothing like a bit of spikey humour and thrashing punk rock to bring you back to reality, y'know?

Well, that's me done for the day. I'll write more tomorrow if I have time, but right now I need to get ready to go out tonight!

Deal With It

I think it's about time to get back into this blogging game. After all, it's been a while, and... I really need to write something other than the one paragraph book reviews that I do for my work. I mean... I might as well be answering crossword puzzles for all the fun I get out of that (and man do I ever hate crossword puzzles).

There were any number of minor technical and personal reasons for my prolonged absence, and I can't imagine that many people still check this place, but none of that really matters, so fuck it.

Anyways, from now on I'll be writing about comics here rather than on Insult To Injury. One of the problems I was having last time I tired this was that I found it really difficult to separate my thoughts on the comics I was reading from my thoughts on, y'know, the rest of the pop culture garbage I consume.

But, erm, this post is sounding a little glummer than I wanted it to so I'm going to finish it off now.

Watch this space.


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