Sunday, February 17, 2008

“Ok, we’re going to freak out now, but don’t worry.”

Last night marked the end of my blitzkrieg on the Austin nightlife. No more interesting weekend activities on the horizon, but I do know the Dirtbombs are coming to town at some point.

Anyways, the final event on my social calendar was a fitting climax. I went to see Liars at Mohawk. It’s fitting considering I love these guys more than Super Furry Animals and Crispin Hellion Glover. I’ve been wanting to see them live pretty much since picking up their debut album back in 2001, but haven’t gotten the chance. They rarely tour, and the only time I can remember having the chance was last year when they came through Austin opening for Interpol. I wasn’t about to pay $40 to see them, and then have to sit through Interpol. But this time around, it was $10, they were headlining, and No Age was opening (check out their website for pictures from Austin!). Much better situation.

Some quick notes about the venue. Mohawk is a two-story bar that has an enormous outdoor stage. The stage is on the ground floor, and there is ground level floor space for the audience. There are also two more tiers for the audience, making a three level outdoor venue. Pretty cool place. Unfortunately, on the night of the show, it was 40 degrees, it had rained all day, and the outdoors was just generally unpleasant. Since the stage is outdoors, and it had been raining, the stage and ground level was covered in tents. This basically meant that you couldn’t see anything from the upper levels, meaning everyone in the venue had to be crammed down on the ground level. So everything is wet, cold, crowded, and even on the ground floor the tents obscured your view. Less than ideal, but oh well. Better than canceling the show, that’s for sure.

First, let’s start with No Age. I’m vaguely familiar with their music. My brother, Brad, likes them, and made me a copy of their album Weirdo Zippers, but I haven’t really given it a whole lot of attention. Listened to it enough to know what they sound like, but not enough to know their songs very well. They’re a duo (drummer/vocalist and guitarist) that plays noisy, artsy, punk-ish kind of stuff. The show was good. They basically stood on stage and played their instruments, nothing too crazy. Sounded good. Pretty much it boiled down to a good show, but not knowing their music very well kind of rendered me indifferent.

Now on to the main event, Liars. For those who aren’t familiar with Liars’ music, they are a trio (foursome for the concert) who make music that is so varied they are nigh-impossible to describe. From album to album, their sound changes drastically and unpredictably. Their first album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, was filled with jittery, confrontational, quasi-experimental dance-punk. Their second album, They Were Wrong, so We Drowned, is a dense, sprawling concept album about witches that was steeped in arrhythmic, difficult layers of noise, tape-loops, drumbeats, and just general grating unpleasantness (this is my favorite album– I seem to remember thinking the first time I listened to it, “oh my god, my brain is melting out of my ears…”). The follow-up to the unfairly reviled They Were Wrong was the critically acclaimed Drum’s Not Dead. It is a delicate, atmospheric, beautiful, and tribal album. Their fourth, and newest, album is the self-titled Liars, which marked a move away from the sprawling, experimental concept albums of They Were Wrong and Drum. Liars is a muscular, varied rock album that reigns in their seemingly uncontrollable weirdness into more traditional rock structures. There are mind-melting, Stooges-esque primal rock, fuzzy shoegazer/Jesus and Mary Chain pop, and even at least one faux-80s mid-tempo dance/funk song (mixed in with the usual unpredictable craziness, of course). They are probably the most unpredictable, exciting modern band around.

The set list for the show was a mix of They Were Wrong, Drum, and Liars. They didn’t play anything off of They Threw Us All in a Trench, and as Craig (a pleasant dude I met in line for the bathroom) pointed out, they 86-ed two of the original four members (Liars was originally a four-piece outfit, but after their debut album, the drummer and bass player left, and a new drummer was brought in, making them a trio) between their first and second albums. Craig thought they didn’t play any of those songs because the new drummer couldn’t handle it, but I prefer to think they don’t play them by choice. But whatever. Most noteworthy about the set, though, was that there was no “There’s always room on the broom” which is odd. Basically, I dig everything these guys have ever recorded; so set list selections aren’t really an issue.

In terms of what songs were best live, pretty much my opinions of their albums dictated which songs I liked best. Stuff off of They Were Wrong were best, followed by songs from Drum, and finally the new Liars stuff. Which is not to say any of it was even close to bad, just all relative levels of kick-ass. Notably, though, their live rendition of “The Otherside of Mt. Heart Attack” was spine-tinglingly awe-inspiring.

The performance was captivating. Angus Andrews makes for a charismatic and amazing front man (even with his recent back troubles); spazzing out, waving his arms around in an almost shamanistic manner; howling, screaming, and crooning his way through their set. Their “encore” was great mostly because Angus just got on the mic and said, “This is the part where we would go and sit in a little room for a few minutes then come back out. If it’s ok with you, I think we’ll just stay here.” Personally, I think encores are stupid and annoying. I don’t want to have to stand there for 10 minutes just to hear another two songs, so it was nice that they forego that bit of tomfoolery.

Overall, great show. The experience in its totality was a little rough, given the aforementioned weather/crowd problems. But I guess you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too.

Once again, Pitchfork has provided pictures of their show (again, not from this show specifically, but from the same tour).

On a side note, I noticed another developing stupid hipster trend. Ugly-ass camo tights. An unfortunately large number of female concertgoers were wearing tights that had camo patterns on them that basically made it look like they had some kind of gross, splotchy skin disease all over their legs. I guess it fits in with the whole looking-disgusting-and-having-poor-personal-hygiene-is-hot aesthetic.

Oh, and one more thing. When I got home from the concert, I went to go to the bathroom, only to discover a giant-ass spider in my toilet. INSIDE MY TOILET!!! Ewww….

Sunday, February 10, 2008

“The Snowshoe Hare is a cross between a Rabbit and a Snowdrift”

On April 20th, year of our lord 1964, a miraculous thing happened. On that stormy morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, amidst the thunder and rain, a child was born into this world. This child was born to lead us, lead us all, into a new enlightened age. This child would change the course of mankind forever. I forget his name, but you know who else was born on April 20th 1964? Crispin Hellion Glover, that’s who!

I assume that if you’re reading this, you know me, which invariably means I have probably lectured you at one time or another about the greatness of Crispin Glover. Just in case you managed to stumble across this little blog without actually knowing me personally (very unlikely), or you do know me but have managed to escape my “Crispin Glover is the greatest man alive, and here is a 90 minute presentation explaining why” speech (slightly less unlikely), here’s a quick recap.

Crispin Glover is an actor, appearing in such mainstream fair as Back to the Future (playing George McFly, Michael J Fox’s nerdy father) and the Charlie’s Angels movies (playing the Thin Man, the mute evil assassin who fought the Angels to Prodigy’s “Smack my Bitch”). He is better known for appearing in films of varying degrees of “indie” (his cameo in Dead Man is one of the best parts of that movie, River’s Edge is an absolutely amazing film, and his undertaker in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is hilarious). He has cultivated a devoted following of rabid fans with his offbeat performances of offbeat characters in offbeat movies. There are movies that I have sat through just to see him in tiny roles. I watched the first Charlie’s Angels movie just to see him, same with Nurse Betty and the People vs. Larry Flynt. His very unique and intense charisma on screen has made his a living legend and veritable cult hero amongst his scarily devoted fan base.

Crispin Hellion Glover is less famous for his work behind the camera. He has written and directed two very low budget films (both feature length, shot on film, costing $150,000 and $250,000; for those who don’t know much about movie budgets, this is insanely cheap). His films, first What is it? and the follow-up It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., have gained a certain amount of notoriety for their graphic and offensive imagery as well as his casting of actors with Down Syndrome (What is it?) and cerebral palsy. These films are little seen outside of his fan base, due to the fact that they are not released theatrically nor are they on video. Instead, Mr. Glover takes them on tour as part of a three-part performance (consisting of his Big Slide Show, a screening of one of his films, and a Q&A).

I have been fortunate enough to see both What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. And now that I’ve taken up a large part of your time with a lengthy and ultimately useless introduction, let’s begin my review of the dark, twisted world of Crispin Hellion Glover.

Again, much like my SFA review, I’m completely and hopelessly in love with Crispin Glover. Everything that follows is replete with nerdy adoration for everything this man has ever done. So keep that in mind. There’s a very good chance that nothing I say from here on out can be trusted in any way, shape, or form.

The first part of Glover’s touring performance is his Big Slide Show. This consists of dramatic readings from eight of his books. That’s right, he also writes books. He reads selections from his books while projecting the pages on the screen. The books are a mix of pictures (found objects ranging from Indian paintings to turn of the century clinical illustrations of animals carcasses) and text that is either scrawled across the page in strange, often misspelled handwriting or large blocks of typed text with portions blacked out. The books are by-turns hilarious, creepy, confusing, surreal, and utterly fascinating. The Big Slide Show alone is worth the price of admission. My personal favorite is the book Round my house, telling the horrifying/hilarious story of a man conducting inhuman experiments in his home, culminating in a “witch hunt, in which I am the witch”. The nonchalant way in which the narrator talks of his “ideas” and his persecution and betrayal is absolutely amazing. In all honesty, even if you have no interest in his films, I’d suggest seeing his tour, just to see the Big Slide Show.

Following the Big Slide Show, Mr. Glover then screens one of his films. Years ago, back in Ann Arbor, I went to see What is it? This was a while ago, and I unfortunately don’t remember a whole lot about it. Basically it was a nonlinear story about a young man who ventures out of his house, gets lost in a park, and is harassed by bullies while he pours salt on snails. While this is going on, there is a separate storyline (presumably the young man’s subconscious) wherein Mr. Glover plays a tyrannical ruler of a cave-like underground world. The world is adorned with pictures of Shirley Temple in a Nazi uniform, a minstrel in black face delivering insane soliloquies, and a man with cerebral palsy being manually stimulated by nude women wearing rubber animal masks.

Mr. Glover has stated that the film is a reaction to the constraints Hollywood places on filmmakers, and the film industry’s refusal to address anything outside carefully constructed social norms. It’s a grand, surreal statement about the nature of taboos and forcing the audience to confront that which is uncomfortable and forcing them to think about issues without dictating to them what they should think of as “good” or “bad.” Plenty of people hate this movie, and fair enough. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience for any number of reasoning. The majority of the cast has Down Syndrome, the snails wail in a grating ear-splitting scream as they die, and there is graphic sexual scenes involving a severely handicapped man. Many claim the film is exploitative of its cast, only interested in shock-value, poorly made, and ultimately meaningless. I prefer to give Glover more credit than that. True, the production values are very low, the picture is grainy and the sound quality is poor. There are many things that don’t seem to serve a purpose beyond shock-value, but when the point of a film is to confront its audience with squirm-inducing taboos, well shocking imagery is kind of important. Obviously this sort of thing is not for everybody, and I’d be hard pressed to argue against someone who hated it. I’ll just say that I am grateful I got to see it, and leave it at that.

Recently I was able to see the second film in Mr. Glover’s “It” trilogy, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. This film was written by Steven C. Stewart, the man with cerebral palsy from What is it? Central to understanding the film is understanding Steven C. Stewart. Mr. Stewart has severe cerebral palsy. When his mother passed away in his twenties, he was sent to live in a nursing home, where he was neglected and abused by the staff. His disability renders him almost incapable of communicating, and it took him roughly a decade before he was able to get out of the nursing home. Through a convoluted series of acquaintances, a screenplay Mr. Stewart had written ended up in the hands of Crispin Glover, who in turn felt that no matter what it took, he had to make this movie. Within a month of completing shooting for the film, Steven Stewart died at the age of 62.

Unlike What is it?, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. is much more linear and narrative based. Steven C. Stewart stars as a man named Paul, who while living in a decrepit nursing home, meets and starts dating a woman he meets at a party. Paul falls in love with this woman, eventually asking her to marry him. She rejects him and Paul strangles her to death. After killing the woman, Paul then goes on to seduce her nubile daughter, and after having sex with her, proceeds to strangle her as well. After the death of the daughter, Paul begins venturing out in the world to seduce and murder more women all with long hair that he is obsessed with touched/washing. After murdering one of his victims, Paul falls out of his wheelchair, experiencing a dream in which he is using a Rapunzel-like woman’s hair to climb a mountainside. She cuts her hair, causing Paul to tumble down the mountain, wheelchair and all, finally landing headfirst onto the tile floor of the nursing home. We soon realize that the entire film was the violent, sexual fantasy life this man lived in his mind while trapped in his palsied body.

The film is filled with graphic sex and constant violence against women. Again, the production quality is low, so the picture is grainy and sound poor. Like What is it?, this film is strange to judge. It really doesn’t matter what my opinion of it is. Most people would absolutely hate it, and there really aren’t any counter-arguments to that. You don’t want to see a man with severe cerebral palsy get a very graphic, X-rated blowjob? Well, fair enough. I will say that I am again grateful I got to see it. It had moments that were absolutely fantastic. The final scene, in which Paul tries to talk to the other nursing home residents who cannot understand him, lends a truly fantastical element to the earlier portions of the film, where the women Paul meets understand his speech perfectly even though the audience cannot. Crispin’s father, Bruce Glover (who was at the screening, FYI), was fantastic as the first victim’s brutish ex-husband. The police “interrogation” wherein they invite all the suspects for lunch and give them all bendy-straws (because they found a bendy-straw at one of the murder scenes) was awesomely hilarious. It’s odd to think about whether I “liked” it or not. It’s not an enjoyable experience, it’s uncomfortable, strange, and actually quite unpleasant. But that’s the point. The point is to do something that no one else would ever do. Make people confront things like the sexuality of the handicapped, etc and so on. So it’s odd to say I “liked” it. I will say that I’m glad I saw it, and I will most definitely see the third “It” film (tentatively titled It Is Mine) when he tours with that.

After screening the film, Glover then holds a Q&A. He is surprisingly frank and open during this portion. For instance, at the end of the film, before the credits role, there are two title cards. The first stating that Steven C. Stewart died a month after filming ended, the second stating that he had fallen in love with one of the actresses and bequeathed all of his proceeds from the film to her. An audience member, naturally, asked which actress did he fall in love with. Glover, not answering it because he felt it was a little too gossipy while acknowledging he would also want to know had he been an audience member, goes on to tell a very long story about Steven C. Stewart. Glover acknowledges that he thought part of Stewart’s motivation for the film involved his chance to act out these sex acts with the actresses. That the graphic nature of the sex scenes were a way for Stewart to experience these things that he may have never been able to experience in real life. Glover said that the scene that most struck him when he initially read the script was the scene when Paul’s marriage proposal was rejected, and had no doubt that that scene played itself out in one way or another multiple times in Stewart’s real life. He claims that while the film is obviously not a documentary, it is a documentation of both Stewart’s real life (as seen in the nursing home scenes that bookend the film) and his frustrated, fantasy-filled inner life.

The Q&A is not all frank discussions about Stewart’s sexual frustrations. Glover is charismatic, strange, well-spoken, serious, and funny all at once. Someone asked how he came across Stewart’s script, and as Glover launched into a long story that didn’t look like it was getting at the actual question, he stopped to explain what he was getting at. He basically had some convoluted explanation about how answering simple questions with long-winded stories helps to shorten the Q&A by answering multiple questions at once. I don’t really buy his explanation, seeing as he went about 20 minutes over his allotted time (making the Alamo staff visibly nervous, since there was a line out the door for Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation which was being shown after Glover), but it was a funny explanation for his long-windedness nonetheless. I do think there was some credence to his thinking, though. I don’t know that any audience member would have the balls to ask up front if Stewart just wrote the script so he could have sex with actresses, but in his rambling, Glover did answer that lingering question.

The reasons for the post-screening Q&A seem to be three-fold. First, it gives Glover a chance to explain/defend his difficult, offense, and downright weird films. Second, it allows the audience to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the creative process and larger sociophilosophical issues. Finally, it gives an adoring audience the opportunity to ask Glover whatever the hell they’ve always wanted to know about him. Case in point, when someone asked what the deal was with the infamous Letterman interview. According to Glover, it was all a big practical joke that was actually going somewhere, but that Letterman surprised him by walking out on the interview, and he never got a chance to finish his joke. Also excellent was when one audience member asked if Glover had gotten a haircut during the movie, claiming his hair looked shorter. Glover, confused, responded that he hadn’t gotten a haircut during the movie, but had, oddly enough, cut it himself the day before.

At this point, I’ve rambled on way too long. Basically, if you love Crispin Glover you’ll go see these screenings. If you don’t, well then, you probably won’t go. These performances are engrossing, one-of-a-kind experiences. I love them, and will continue to go to them as long as Glover is touring.

As a reward for your patience, I leave you with one of the greatest moments in Glover’s illustrious career:

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Hello sunshine" or "We ride tornadoes, we eat tomatoes"

God bless the Welsh. They’ve given us Christian Bale, Peter Greenaway, and (to a lesser extent) Catherine Zeta-Jones. But more importantly, Wales’ greatest export found its way to Austin, TX. SUPER FURRY ANIMALS @ EMO’S!!!

I had never seen SFA live before, but I have quite a few of their albums. Musically, they’re weird, playful, poppy, and insanely fun. Sort of like a sonic equivalent to a Terry Gilliam film. I was expecting a weird and wild ride.

Canadian drum/bass/electro-noodling dancerock outfit Holy Fuck opened. I was pretty excited about seeing them. Their album got good reviews, and they sounded interesting. Unfortunately watching four guys play the same basic song over and over again on a board of knobs and levers got old pretty quick. They weren’t bad, just dull, which was surprising and disappointing from a band called Holy Fuck.

Before I get into the SFA show, I want to preface this with the fact that I love these guys. I was star-struck before they even took the stage. So my opinion is about as far from objective as can be. These guys could have taken the stage, shit themselves while doing nothing but Rod Stewart covers, and I would have dug it.

The Welshman took the stage, donned their gear, but lead singer Gruff Rhys was curiously absent. After a little instrumental opening, Mr. Rhys took the stage wearing an oversized Power Rangers helmet. He paced/stumbled (visibility couldn’t have been too good in that thing) around the stage, before grabbing the mic and placing it over the left-eye portion of the mask’s visor. He proceeded to sing out of what appeared to be his left eye for a couple of songs, eventually taking the helmet off to the roar of the crowd.

The Power Rangers helmet was pretty much the extent to the craziness. The band was surprisingly tame in terms of stage show, but it didn’t matter. They tested the limits of Emo’s less-than-great sound system. Playing loud, delicate, beautiful pop music. These guys have been doing this for 15 years, and you can tell that they know what they’re doing. They didn’t need crazy yeti suits on stage to put on a fantastic show. A personal high point came early on with their rousing rendition of “Do or Die”.

The show managed to hit on just about all their albums. I heard some Fuzzy Logic, some Guerrilla, some Rings Around the World, and so on. The only thing I didn’t hear (and was legitimately disappointed about) was something off of their all-Welsh album Mwng. Hell, just something in Welsh would have been nice, but whatever. I was having too much fun to really think about it until the morning after.

Other highlights included their performance of their new “songs” called “Earth” and “Earth II”. When they were about to play them, they came with a lofty introduction (“This is the first time we have ever played this song in Texas…”), as well as instructions to the audience to “assume the position”. The “position” in question was to take your hands, palms out, and place them on the top of your head, so your fingers are in the air, resembling moose antlers (according to Gruff Rhys the position “helps with the acoustics, sending the sound all the way to the back”). The songs themselves (“Earth” and “Earth II” were basically the same) consisted of the lead guitarist and Gruff harmonizing in super high-pitched voices, repeating the word “earth” over and over again for 40 seconds. A grand and silly joke. The kind of thing that puts an enormous smile on my face.

Also of note was the SFA online set list. Fans could go to the Super Furry Animals’ website before the show, select their tour date, and then from a list of songs they could vote for the one that they would most want to hear at the show. Towards the end of the Emo’s performance, Gruff announced the winner of that show’s set list vote (unfortunately, “Northern Lites” didn’t win, and I don’t actually remember what did win). The actual performance of the song wasn’t noteworthy, but the whole concept struck me as very cool.

All in all, I loved it. My friend Matt, who attended the show with me, was less impressed. He basically said, “that was pretty good, but hardly the transcendent experience I was looking for.” Fair enough. Like I said at the outset, I love these guys. Have loved them for a long time, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to see them live. It was a foregone conclusion I was going to love it, just a matter of how much I was going to love it. And I loved it. A lot.

PS. To see pictures of Gruff in his helmet and the audience assuming the position, click here. Those pictures are from a different performance, but it doesn’t matter. You get the idea.