Fallen Cathedral Architects
235 · 29 July 99
If I had to, I could probably give up going to the movies. It would be painful, and sad, but I think I could do it. Certainly I could cut back. The more books and records I buy, the more other things I want to read or hear, but the more movies I see, the more I wonder whether my assiduous movie-going is laziness masquerading as industry. Of the seventy-three movies I've seen in theaters in 1999, about half of them seemed to me to have virtues that more than compensated for their flaws, but only ten, so far, have been inspiring and indelible in the way I walk into a theater hoping each film will be. I guess this isn't a significantly lower yield, percentage-wise, than I get with books or records, but with movies I feel like I'm overruling my instincts a lot more often, and not to much advantage. Scanning back through the year's list and splitting it into the movies for which I had high expectations and the ones for which I had low, I find that of the twenty-nine I thought might be great, none of them turned out to strike me as awful, two were bad, four were only OK, fourteen were good, and nine were potentially life-affecting. Of the forty-four I went to despite reservations of some sort, on the other hand, I thought five were absolutely awful, nine more were bad, eighteen were OK, only eleven were good, and exactly one was excellent. The list of records that have surprised me this year is absurdly long, and filled with things I wouldn't willingly part with. The list of movies that turned out to be substantially better than I expected is pretty short. I liked both Blast From the Past and The Mummy (which suggests a Brendan Fraser fetish, but the extremely well-regarded Gods and Monsters didn't do anything for me). I thought Enemy of the State was actually a little thought-provoking, as well as kinetic. 10 Things I Hate About You was fun. But not seeing them would have been no great loss, especially weighed against all the crap I've sat through that was exactly as depressing as I feared it would be.
If I heeded every impulse, though, I would have missed The Blair Witch Project, and for that one exception to my general predictable disappointment I am willing to accept every other flagrant misuse of human creativity I squirmed through. I haven't tried to devise a rigorous heuristic for assessing the aesthetic genuineness of an artwork, but it would have to involve somehow calculating the fraction of the final piece that can be traced directly back to an individual human's passion. Most bad art becomes bad, it seems to me, because nobody actually believes, cares, or even understands what it is saying. A TV commercial claiming that riding in one copycat sedan or another is "an experience like no other" is patently inane. Every person involved in producing it should realize that it is a waste of life, that its meta-message is contempt. The Phantom Menace is equally valueless, in my opinion, an incredible tour-de-force of technique in service of mirage ideology, incompetent storytelling, social atavism and a profound fear of science only barely cloaked by cargo-cult set design. The Blair Witch Project lies at the exact opposite end of the resource spectrum, and yet, despite the fact that The Phantom Menace purports to celebrate such admirable qualities as loyalty, discipline and tenacity, and The Blair Witch Project is the story of three ordinary people whose doom is preordained by the film's very premise, I came out of The Phantom Menace muttering bitterly to myself, but out of The Blair Witch Project reeling with awe. Each second of The Blair Witch Project is a second of some thinking person's indecision or resolve, not a week of soulless render-farm processing. The ending is brilliant. The arc of tension that gets us there is brilliant. Not burdening the film with a soundtrack, to tell us what we're supposed to be feeling, is brilliant (compare the ominous silences of The Blair Witch Project to the skull-drill piano in Eyes Wide Shut). Jumping back and forth between film and video is brilliant, running some scenes in total darkness is brilliant, thinking of a way to shoot the entire movie without requiring an omniscient external viewpoint is brilliant, making the actors do it themselves is even more brilliant. Letting the most important images in the movie go by so quickly and blurrily that nobody is quite sure what they just saw is brilliant. The stick figures are brilliant, the noises in the night are brilliant, the things we don't see are brilliant, the delivery of the film's most important monologue into a misaligned camera that shows only one eye and a nose is brilliant. In my opinion, the only reason The Blair Witch Project shouldn't win every Academy Award is that it defies the Academy's compartmentalized preconceptions. There's no award for Performance/Cinematography, none for devising improvisation scenarios, none for perhaps the most memorable scenario-establishing two sentences in film history. Surely the Academy won't give them the set-design or art-direction awards for a few small piles of rocks and a gloomy forest, or cinematography for askew shots of the ground as they run through it. No songs, no costumes, no make-up, no screenplay per se, no direction per se. Is the one who disappears first the Supporting actor? The sound and editing are monumental, but when (with the exception of the hideous squelching noises in Braveheart) are those awards ever given to films in which the sound or editing is actually remarkable? I don't think The Blair Witch Project will end up overturning the film industry, or putting Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock out of work, or necessarily even giving the people involved with it careers, but it is a prominent and unignorable demonstration of the low-fi principle, and if nothing else it will flush out everybody that complains, incredulously, about the production quality and the lack of exposition at the end, so they can be tagged and safely disregarded in the future.
The other thing it might do, if enough people see it who aren't normally exposed to unhomogenized culture, and glean even the faintest suspicion that they've been missing something, is give those of us who listen to weird, obscure, evasive, noisy music an analogy with which to explain it. You might not be able to convince them that hiring professional camera crews, laying dolly tracks through the forest, replacing the three novices with Baldwins and Arquettes, and splicing in computer-modeled ghosts would be wrong, but at least they ought to understand that it would produce some other film than this one. The amateur camerawork isn't just aesthetically integral to The Blair Witch Project, it's part of the plot. The two most wrenching scenes in the movie could not operate without it. And that, if you can make the leap across media, is why some records have to be made by people who can't exactly sing, or couldn't play ad jingles if they wanted to, or would turn down Quincy Jones even if he volunteered. Some of the greatest art derives part (sometimes much) of its anima from its own struggle to be formed. You can't have Cher sing Low songs, or Letterman's band cover Mecca Normal, or Mutt and Shania cheer up Lisa Germano without defiling what they're attempting to improve. Some art precludes professionalism, at least in the conventional sense. Anybody who can grasp that, as they watch Heather and Josh and Mike come unraveled, is ready for all sorts of interesting things.
A usefully gradual introduction, if you suspect you've spotted a candidate for these mysteries, might be Selenography, the new mostly-instrumental collection by the Louisville revolving-cast ensemble Rachel's, one of the few bands I might have trusted to compose a soundtrack for The Blair Witch Project if contractual obligations had mandated one. I gave away a bunch of copies of the graceful, haunting The Sea and the Bells, the last Rachel's album, thinking it might make some converts, but after sitting through it in recipients' company a few times, it sunk in that I'd seriously underestimated the alienating impact of a few scattered blasts of cacophony. As I'm abruptly reminded every time I phase out and put anything remotely aggressive in the hold-music player at work, some people can't abide distortion; asking them to overlook a momentary deafening roar, and concentrate on (or for that matter, perceive) the album's overall dreamy, atmospheric swirl is hopeless. Selenography, however, avoids most of The Sea and the Bells' overt lapses, instead sneaking the band's odd impulses in under the cover of less confrontational ones. The bass structure of "A French Galleasse" would probably work in a heavy-metal song, Edward Grimes' drumming is ominous and episodic, and the oblique progressions might be disconcerting, but Rachel Grimes' piano is clear and uncluttered, Jason Noble's acoustic guitar is calm and sad, and Christian Frederickson, Dominic Johnson and Eve Miller's viola/viola/cello string trio is soothing and inexorable. There's some strange string noise at the beginning of "On Demeter", but the piano and strings show up eventually, like a morning reassurance for noises from the night before. "The Last Light" has its share of odd rustles and twitters, but they're background noises, not foreground, so you might be able to argue that the piece was simply recorded outdoors. "Kentucky Nocturne" is melancholy and self-contained, the drums just a harmless modernization. Rachel Grimes' "Honeysuckle Suite" is a harpsichord solo, to which nobody could possibly take offense, and if you can distract your listeners from the frayed voices in "Artemisia", the legato "Old Road 60" has some dramatic cymbal swells, delicate zither, and decisive strings. Noble's rumbling bass on "An Evening of Long Goodbyes" is at least partially counterbalanced by Edward Grimes' light vibraphone chimes. "Cuts the Metal Cold" is stark, but concise. "The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis LePrince" is eerie, and at times edges towards drum-and-bass, but how scary can a song be with a sighing Parisian accordion in the middle of it? "Forgiveness" is a becalmed lament, and if the minimalist drum thump or Giovanna Cacciola's clipped, pensive narration on "Hearts and Drums" are a little too conceptual, you can always just fade it out and pretend the album ended a couple minutes early. This isn't an unchallenging album, any more than The Blair Witch Project is The Little Mermaid in Pixelvision, but if it's acceptable to call The Blair Witch Project a horror movie even though the far more standard The Haunting is playing concurrently, then perhaps Selenography's experiments are couched in enough elegant restraint to lure a few people in and then leave them wondering what else it implies.
Sea Scouts: Beacon of Hope
I don't recommend jumping straight from the violas of Selenography to the perpetual catharsis of the Tasmanian trio Sea Scouts unless you've begun having second thoughts about the whole conversion project, but you'll know you've won someone over completely when the transition no longer fazes them. There are a handful of quiet moments, around the edges of a few of the songs on Beacon of Hope, but for the most part Sea Scouts' preferred state is a relentless gale-force roar, feedback and distortion mostly drowning the howled vocals and washing out the pummeling drums, something like early Hüsker Dü, early Meat Puppets, early Jesus & Mary Chain and later Voivod mortar-and-pestled until just before the mixture loses definition altogether, or like surf rock for riding out a hurricane. I don't really bother telling these songs apart, and perhaps I couldn't if I wanted to, but the clamor is redemptive and primeval, just musical enough that immersion feels to me like I'm being pulled along by a current, not battered by waves. Aube is more effective, I find, for quickly blasting off whatever banal annoyances are clinging to me, but I can't listen to more than one Aube record in a row, and I can't concentrate on anything else for more than two or three minutes while one is playing, so if I need to howl for longer, or rage against something I don't want to forget, Sea Scouts come much closer to producing the highest level of purifying pain that I can endure indefinitely.
Godspeed You Black Emperor: Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada
Godspeed You Black Emperor would scare some people away just by saying their name, based on which I fully expected their music to be ambient death-metal. I don't have the slightest clue what the name is actually intended to mean, nor do I have any good hypotheses about "New Zero Kanada" other than a vague idea about starting over, but "Slow Riot", at least, makes sense. Godspeed You Black Emperor are another point, it seems to me, on the same continuum as Low, Rachel's, Mogwai and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, a few units closer to noise, ambitious minimalists with a fondness for text overlays and occasional violence. Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada is nominally a two-song EP, but the two songs total nearly half an hour, and the band's previous "full" album, whose title involves an infinity sign I won't bother trying to reproduce here, runs to sixty-four minutes on only three tracks, so the distinction seems a bit pedantic to me. "Moya", the shorter of the two pieces here, begins as a muted string instrumental, fading in and out at a glacial pace, like a four-minute meditation on one minute of Górecki, but eventually adds drums and crescendos into a chaotic, mesmerizing blur. "BBF3", the longer track, takes an almost identical musical structure and stretches it over a long, belligerent, paranoid rant about the abuses of government (the American government, not the Canadian one, oddly) and the decay of society by a man who sounds like Henry Rollins as a street lunatic. GYBE pull off the difficult mixing trick, it seems to me, of keeping the narration at precisely the right level where it doesn't overwhelm the music, which could easily have made this a song I'd only want to hear once, but where you can either follow the argument or not, as you wish. I've listened a few times each way, now, and I'm still trying to figure out what composite message the juxtaposition of music and speech was designed to convey, but so far my favorite imposed theory is that this is exit music, not a theme for starting over, GYBE's answer to Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic, a band playing while its entire continent tilts and slips into the icy sea.
Rothko: A Negative for Francis
Rothko are an all-bass-guitar trio who claim to be influenced by late Talk Talk, which seemed easily nonsensical enough to me to merit investigation. As it turns out, the Talk Talk influence strikes me as pretty minor, mainly a matter of miking the strings to catch finger noise, but an all-bass-guitar trio is still an amusing idea on its own. I'm not sure I'd have deduced the band's composition just from listening, though; their general strategy is to let one bass play a bass part, have the second one pretend to be either a guitar or a cello, and then process the third one out of recognition to provide animation and ambience. There's lots of reverb, and lots of echo, and much of the record sounds to me like a cross between Trans Am and Steve Reich, sleepwalkers' patient recapitulations of fondly remembered geometry axioms. The basses give everything calming, rounded contours, and a pale incandescence, like a beach under blacklight. I don't know whether the concept can support more than one album, but that can hardly be a criticism until someone asks it to.
Half String: A Fascination With Heights
The border I'm currently most fascinated with, though, is the one where glassy ambience begins to coalesce into airy pop, which is about where the Arizona quartet Half String find themselves. A Fascination With Heights came out in 1996, but I just got it, and I like the hand-made letterpress package too much to file it promptly. I fit them in, in my ongoing project to classify every band as a combination of other bands, somewhere in between Curious Ritual and Catherine Wheel, with busier rhythms than Curious Ritual, and both traces of Mission of Burma angularity and shards of Smiths-ish melancholia that Curious Ritual usually avoid, but much less fury and straight-ahead rock bombast than Catherine Wheel. There are scattered moments of pastel tranquility, but most of the time the production has as much effect on the sound as the playing does, I think. This is how Buffalo Tom might have turned out if when they were kids they'd been given chorus and reverb pedals instead of fuzz boxes. Guitars glow just as readily as they spark.
Timonium: Suspende Animation
Timonium opened for Marine Research here recently, but I stayed home to watch Brazil and Nigeria's see-saw Women's World Cup quarterfinal go into overtime that night, and thus only made it to the show in time to see Marine Research setting up, so I bought this Timonium CD (and no, I didn't screw up the title) by way of apology for my tardiness. This is probably just as well, since I went to the Marine Research show wanting to hear Heavenly, and although I knew Marine Research weren't going to play any Heavenly songs themselves, nor sound that much like them, Timonium are so little like either that I doubt I would have been very receptive. Back in the nurturing surroundings of my study they have a better chance. They retreat down the style-line from Half String back towards Low, still as fond of reverb as distortion, but they stretch their songs out to twice Half String's length and half their pace, a distension under whose stress the vocals start to dissolve into the accompaniment. Hints of Velvet Underground drone and "Comfortably Numb"-ish resignation hover just under the surface, at times, as if explicitly acknowledging an influence, like singing audibly, would reveal too many vulnerabilities. Not a lot happens over the course of these four seven-to-nine-minute songs, but this just means that when a nuance does materialize, like an oddly dry kick-drum and a tentative guitar whimper I keep mistaking for violin on "Resting Places", a quiet keyboard whir on "Self Evidence", a gauzy male/female duet on "Neu Hampshire", or a cymbal so soft on "End of an Era" that it sounds like exhalation, it seems like a grand gesture of hope, a promise that even paralysis and isolation have texture.
The Pacific Ocean: Birds Don't Think They're Flying
The New York duo Pacific Ocean went on before Timonium, and although it's pretty hard to find any information about a band whose name is a phrase this commonplace, once I chanced across this 1997 debut album and had its title to work with, things got much easier. Guitarist/drummer/singer Ed Baluyut, the male half of the Pacific Ocean, is the brother of the two Baluyuts in Versus, on some of whose records he drums. Pat Ramos, Versus' current drummer, plays on one of the songs here, and Nicolas Vernhes, who produced this album, also recorded Versus' Secret Swingers and parts of Two Cents Plus Tax. The female half of the Pacific Ocean, Connie Lovatt, was once in Alkaline, about whom I know nothing, and then joined Versus bassist Fontaine Toups in Containe, who have two albums that I can start searching for now that I know they exist. Together, Ed and Connie careen between harrowing, Low-worthy restraint, the spiky dissonance of Helium, Liz Phair's bounce, the guitar drive of Sarge and the artless lilt of the Softies. The infectious "Bashful", one of my two favorite songs here, darts from jangle to punk charge to distraction; "Last Minute", the other, is just Connie's voice and Ed's guitar, and although Connie doesn't sound much like Amelia Fletcher, I sense some of Heavenly's veiled rancor in her delivery. Short, radiant, self-contained and apparently blissfully ignorant of its own erraticism, this album is only three or four years, the Atlantic and some sort of Harvey Williams involvement away from having been a perfect Sarah record.
One step further from the Pacific Ocean towards noise-pop gets you to another fizzy male/female band, this one Julie Park and Daniel Barida's Toronto duo Chicklet. Park actually does sound a little like Amelia at times, but Chicklet's tastes in guitar processing owe more to Kevin Shields than Paul Weller, and so they end up sounding, at least to me, like a slightly older and less simplistic Lush (a particularly fortuitous bit of timing since Lush quit right before I started caring about the sort of music they made), or maybe a less anthemic Echobelly. Warm guitar buzz, bloopy synth hooks, crashing drums, wiry guitar solos and Park's breathy voice wind through these songs in stubborn coexistence, almost every song displaying some of each. In chirpy moments Chicklet sound like Heavenly or even Girlfriendo, but in the noisier passages they often remind me briefly of Magazine or Hole. Park has an odd knack for writing lyrics she doesn't sound very comfortable singing, which gives her delivery a measured awkwardness I find wildly charming. Barida, when he takes a rare lead, sings in a marginally less naïve version of Mitch Easter and Michael Quercio's classic pop falsetto, which makes me pause for a moment to consider the under-appreciated (perhaps justifiably) similarities between Split-era Lush and the Three O'Clock circa Arrive Without Travelling.
All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors: Turning Into Small
This long slingshot parabola around pop arcs away again with Turning Into Small, the new album by All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors, whose name's soda analogy, although it would get them sued the second they poked their heads out of obscurity, is actually quite apt. ANL&LF take Chicklet's MBV fascination a few steps further, feeding just about everything in their palette through pitch benders, until there's scarcely a sharp note-transition anywhere to be found, the scales anti-aliased until it seems like a pleasant coincidence that they cross note axes at all. But where My Bloody Valentine's blur is syrupy and adhesive, ANL&LF's is glittery and buoyant. It's hard to isolate melodies in these songs, even harder to follow the words, both things subsumed into some of the most shimmery and elusive non-pop I've ever heard, like a cross between Gary Numan, the Cocteau Twins, the aliens from Close Encounters and a choir of angels blitzed on cough medicine, songs melted over marble balustrades and adamantine table edges like Dali's dripping clocks, which it's now neither practical nor interesting to use to tell time. If Sea Scouts sound like a merciless squall, then ANL&LF are the irrepressible sparkle of starlight. Suddenly I'm convinced that that was Heather and Josh and Mike's problem, nights without stars. Huddled in a tent, under trees, under clouds, of course night became terrifying to them. Different weather, and they would be with us still. A clearing, and the universe stretched out above them, and no specter could possibly encroach. Daylight is for scrutiny and pursuit, starlight for perspective, not vice versa. We expend so much effort trying to retrace our steps, trying so desperately to place our feet only in the depressions that mark where we've stepped before, to experience only the things whose import and repercussions we already know, that we forget that if we're still lost, the way out has to be the one we haven't tried yet. The music that sounds wrong to you, the movies you think you'll hate, these are the fables you learn from. Heather and Mike realize this too, at the end. They finally stop fighting their fate, release their fear, and plunge into the heart of evil, cameras on. And this is why, although I haven't figured out how to make one that stands up yet, I keep trying to building an explanation for the end of The Blair Witch Project other than what the superficial clues suggest. We've come much too far, Heather and Mike and you and I, for the punch line to merely deliver on a sliver of casual foreshadowing. The legend says they were taken from us, but that's us, trying to shape their disappearance into one of our templates for understanding it. I don't believe they were taken. You discover the truth and then the next second you die? That's the dumbest villain's cliché ever devised, so it can't be the moral of a story that was never dumb. I think their mistake, and now ours, was imagining that there was a villain. There almost never is. There's just us. We face each other as a way of avoiding facing ourselves. In the end Heather and Mike faced themselves. I don't think they were taken from us, I think they ascended.