Sunday, January 29, 2012


I have literally five posts sitting in my drafts folder that I need to finish and put up. For now, though, here's a quick one on my favourite movie, The Shining (which is playing in the background as I write this. Jack and Wendy are having a talk right now...).

Via twitter, I was directed to Buzzfeed's collection of 39 movie posters made by fans of The Shining. There are several striking posters in there (particularly #s 3, 9, 12, 14, 24, and 37), but by and large I am not a fan of them. What I dislike about many of the posters (aside from the ones that just look like covers for a Dover Thrift Edition of the novel) is that they mistakenly load their weight onto (admittedly iconic) elements of the film that have nothing to do with what makes it such a masterpiece. The twins, the axe, the blood, the tricycle, even the typewriter and the manuscript, all of these are contributing aspects to the film's horror, but they're not the central cause. That resides in the relationship between Jack, Wendy, Danny, and the Overlook Hotel.

The Shining is not scary because it's a violent film (really, the amount of violence is fairly small, though its impact is sizable); The Shining is terrifying because nothing in the film really explains why it is violent. The ghosts from the hotel don't really explain it (unless accepting the drink from Lloyd really does involve Jack selling his soul to the devil), the story Ullman tells about cabin fever doesn't really explain it, and the already present strain between the family doesn't really explain it. King famously complained that it was a mistake to cast Jack Nicholson because what is to come is too obvious from the opening scene. King makes a good point in that there's a certain narrative satisfaction that a less overtly "on edge" actor might have provided by emphasising the transformation of Jack from the start of the film to the end, but again knowing that violence will break out by the end of the movie, that Jack will become something monstrous, doesn't explain why. No, the very ambiguity of the movie, the "undecidability" that it foregrounds--is the Overlook a malevolent force that corrupts an otherwise decent man? Is this simply an encounter with absolute evil and its effects? Are ghosts responsible for all of this? Any of this? Would this have happened regardless of the family visiting the Overlook?--is the key to the horror that it instills in the viewer. This is what prevents a glib dismissal of the movie as "just a story;" it is fantastical in some respects, but in that is the seed of "fantasy" in the sense of a wise or desire: is The Shining showing us something we long for? Some quotidian violence that can erupt when given the right impetus? What is that impetus? Of course, these are once again the very questions that the movie refuses to answer. For now, I'll point in the direction of one of the most cogent explanations of the film's power (and horror), and leave it at that.

When it comes to a poster for the film, then, something of that undecidability, that quotidian element that trends into horror, that erupts into violence, should be captured in a way that blood and axes can't. For me, were I to make a poster of the film, I would focus not on the memorable "Here's Johnny!" scene that the DVD uses, but on a smaller scene that I find the most chilling in the film. After arguing with Wendy just before he goes down to the ballroom and runs into Grady, Jack storms out of the apartment, leaving the door wide open. That scene, with Jack walking away, the family now open and exposed to evil, to violence, to something that no longer feels like a possibility, but an inevitability (and, even worse, an inevitability that has never really seemed like anything else in hindsight, though there's still no reason why--cruelly underscored by Grady's insistence that Jack has always been the caretaker). Of course, one of the deepest ironies of the film that Fisher mentions in the analysis I've linked to above is that all of the horrifying elements, once they've assembled themselves into an (il)logical chain by the end of the movie, cannot be overlooked in any subsequent viewing. The telos of the movie is its violence, but nothing will ever really explain how we get there.

To that end, my movie poster for The Shining (clearly, I'm not a graphic designer, and I'd like to do something nicer with most of the text). One obvious caveat to all of this: more than almost any other movie I've seen, The Shining relies on all of its constituent parts to work; without its music/sound effects, any movie poster for The Shining is doomed to woefully underrepresent the movie's power.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Mark Richardson's latest Resonant Frequency column is his usual mix of self-reflection and cultural insight. His description of "Flim,"* which I have to agree is a pretty fantastic song, is particularly nice:
[E]ach little pause, hesitation, and stutter is so perfectly placed, and . . . the drums plant ideas in my head about innocence, awkwardness, burgeoning confidence, and growth. . . . I picture myself sitting across from Richard James in his bedroom as he works over this material on his computer. It's an illusion, of course, but I like to imagine that I'm hearing what James was hearing at that moment, that the glass between us is completely transparent.
Part of what makes Richardson's columns such pleasures, though, is his talent as a writer for scenes that are so evocative of his subject matter--the relationship between memory, perception, music, and everyday life (his invisible music project is a really fascinating attempt to put those themes into practice). He has a doozy of a line to finish the second section of his most recent column: "All of these feelings are carried to me through the bass, so strong it's uncanny, like how the smell of a certain shampoo can instantly bring to mind a face you'd completely forgotten." The evanescent face that a smell conjures, the fleeting emotions that that note (right or wrong) calls forth, Richardson's one of the best at writing about those moments.

During his discussion of "Flim," Richardson linked to an earlier Resonant Frequency column in which he talked about "perfect songs." I'd thought about this idea for a long time, even before I read that column, how some songs that aren't my favourite songs are what I would consider to be perfect: nothing can be done to improve on these songs/performances of these songs. As Richardson puts it, "They cannot be improved; each has fulfilled its destiny and become everything it could hope to be." He lists a dozen such songs in his article, and I agree with several of them--"I Want You Back," "Crimson and Clover," "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"--though I'm not sure if I'd put "Flim" down as my choice of a perfect song from the Aphex Twin. Reading these columns this morning (re)inspired me to surf through some videos on YouTube and poke around my music collection to consider what some of my perfect songs might be.

Aphex Twin - "Avril 14th," from Drukqs (2001)
It's simple and direct (sort of), without any of the flashy drum programming of "Flim," but Richard D. James found one of those magic chord progressions that makes your chest ache and that's more than enough in his hands. The final section is pure joy, the high notes leaping out and shining. The little details are what really make this special, though: the way the melody line in the first section gets doubled an octave higher, the surprisingly tricky syncopations in the middle that manage to avoid disturbing the elegance and grace of piece. I played it at a wedding once during the ceremony (long story) and it went over surprisingly well.

Bark Psychosis - "Eyes & Smiles," from Hex (1994)
The peak of one of the few albums I'm tempted to call perfect. Graham Sutton and co. absolutely nail the feel of three in the morning throughout the album (that one song opens with the line "It's 3 am..." can't be a coincidence), and there are several stretches that I just can't imagine anyone equaling, ever.  In eight and a half minutes, "Eyes & Smiles" piles all of the conflicting emotions of being awake and alone when surrounded by people on top of each other and shepherds them to a point of ecstatic desolation.

Boards of Canada - "Kid for Today," from the In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country EP (2000)
I remember finding the percussion on this song absolutely mystifying when I first heard it. What was the source of that click? Now that I know it's a slide projector--what could be more in line with their ethic, really?--some of the mystery is gone, but that only allows me to appreciate the combination of joy, innocence, melancholy, and menace all the more. Complex psychological portraits of childhood are tough--how can you avoid idealizing or overdetermining any aspect?--and I think that's why Boards of Canada's music is so enthralling: they get it all in their music, the good and the bad, somehow. 

Four Tet - "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth," from Rounds (2003)
Kieran Hebden has a knack for making beautiful music. He also has a striking ability to match sound with title (cf. "Circling" and "This Unfolds" from There is Love in You and "Ribbons" from the Ringer EP for more examples), as here the music does feel like it's gently rocking you back and forth. What's more, he's wise enough to get out of his own way when he has a good thing going, as he does here, letting the prettiest melody he's ever written spool and unspool itself for five minutes with minimal accompaniment. Some dusty percussion to give the track a little forward momentum and an unobtrusive background wash for added colour are all he needs to make something that could go on for years and ends at just the right time.

Kevin Shields - "Are You Awake?," from the Lost in Translation soundtrack (2003)
As rudimentary as the beat is on this piece, it works quite well as a kind of driving background that the bouncing, echo-drenched melody can play off of. Richardson actually reviewed this soundtrack for Pitchfork and faulted "Are You Awake?" for its brevity: "it's painfully short at a minute and a half. I get the sense that Shields is on the verge of tapping into something deeper here . . . but 'Are You Awake?' doesn't give much to go on." I think it's the perfect length; "Are You Awake?" gains much of its charm from seeming like a sketch that turned out to be the finished product. Shields has produced at least one other masterpiece post-Loveless (his "MBV Arkestra" remix of Primal Scream's "If They Move, Kill 'Em"), but "Are You Awake?" is what gives me hope that he really can top Loveless someday.

Stereolab - "Three Women," from Chemical Chords (2008)
I'm not unconvinced that this song won't make the sun spontaneously appear, and I would put it on this list even if it were just the horn chart. The added bonus of one of Laetitia Sadier's typically bouncing, playful melodies and a rhythm section that drives harder on this than on almost anything else they've recorded makes it almost unbearably great. I have had to forcibly stop myself from dancing down the street if this comes on my iPod while I'm walking somewhere on more than one occasion.

Tim Hecker - "Harmony in Blue III," from Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006)
Really, I could put the whole "Harmony in Blue" suite here, but there's something about those gentle clusters of notes that just cuts right through me (Fripp and Eno's The Equatorial Stars tried to do much the same thing on songs like "Meissa," I think, though they didn't accomplish it anywhere near as well). Like much of Hecker's music, this piece is profoundly ambiguous, it's emotional content straddling so many borders that you can't help but be drawn back in. I think even the least synaesthetic person when it comes to music can hear the blue in this.

So, those are seven of my perfect songs. What are some of yours?

*The disadvantage of YouTube videos (and I guess music videos generally, though that's a conversation for another day...): with the admittedly quite pretty and bucolic scenes that are included there, something of the grace and beauty of "Flim" is cheapened. The images are too direct and obvious, grasping at the feelings that emerge so naturally from the music (just like all the videos of Boards of Canada songs cut to footage from Planet Earth).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In the aftermath of 2011, many of the music websites I read on a regular basis are covering the last of the 2011 releases that got lost in the rush of the usual year-end lists, etc. There are a few 2011 releases I've picked up in the new year that I'm listening to and enjoying (Pitchfork's review of Jacaszek's Glimmer led me to that album, and after a few listens I'm very impressed), but nothing has really altered my conception of the best releases of 2011--even chopped & screwed versions of The Weeknd couldn't make me love those albums any less.

There were a few 2010 releases that I picked up in 2011 that changed my view of music released in 2010, though. While I encountered most of them right at the start of 2011, some of them (most notably Darkstar's North) didn't get a listen until a large part of the way through the year. The Darkstar album is one I make note of because it is, outside of Four Tet's There is Love in You and Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma and Pattern+Grid World EP, the release from 2010 that I played the most in 2011. Had I heard it before the summer of 2011, North would easily have been my number three on my list of top ten albums of 2010 (behind Flying Lotus and Four Tet). I have to admit that I don't really find "Aidy's Girl is a Computer" as amazing as everyone else, but "Gold" is pretty much perfect: a truly revelatory cover that transforms the original and adds heretofore unknown dimensions to it. However, my two favourite moments on North are the introduction of James Buttery's vocals on "In the Wings" and the first forty five seconds of "Under One Roof" (the rest of the song is also great, but those forty five seconds get to me in a way I'm not really able to explain--the emotion is entirely different, but the strength of response is not dissimilar to the entry of those chords right before the vocals in "Hyph Mngo"): 

Darkstar - "In the Wings"

Darkstar - "Under One Roof"

The critical consensus on North seems mixed, with a lot of middling reviews, and Zone Styx Travelcard offers an interesting critique (set off against an interview with one of the members of Darkstar) of North in relation to Darkstar's earlier work (which I've got to be honest and say I haven't checked out, mostly because it is supposed to be so different from North). I understand Mike Powell's point that the album seems suffused with nostalgia for the feelings that synth-pop can evoke, rather thanwith  those feelings themselves, and that this makes it a conservative album--points that Zone Styx Travelcard also makes ("There's a patina on every sound: they keys and Buttery's vocals are all fractionally distorted, as if they were working on the assumption that that would [add] character, backstory, fallible humanity to the sound. But what about the poignancy of cold machined perfection? They seemed to know what that was before")--but while the album might not push the boundaries of synth-pop, I find that I respond to the emotions expressed, loneliness, longing, alienation, distance, coldness, much more directly and with greater empathy than with someone like Depeche Mode. If it's derivative of the 1980s, it has at least purged from those sounds some of the aspects that make me self-conscious and unable to respond to synth-pop with anything other than embarrassment. For me, the fact that the music on North, in addition to whatever else it might be, is "familiar . . . [and] beautiful, too," according to Powell, is enough. As cold as the album might be, as much as it might suck the light out of the room, I find in it something (and whether it's sonic or emotional I couldn't say) relatable. In its own way, North is much more three-dimensional and redemptive than people seem to give it credit for being.

This is really apropos of nothing other than a grey and rainy day reading Virginia Woolf (whose writing makes me feel grey and rainy) and North coming on in the middle of it and entrancing me just as it did the first time I heard it. I hope there will be great music that comes out in 2012--and I have faith that there will be, despite all doomsayers' predictions--but even if nothing is "important" or "great" in the grand scheme of things, I'm fine with there being some albums and songs that can be great and important for me on rainy days while I'm reading. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm over the holiday slump, so bring on the tunes, everyone!

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Slim K - House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence (Chopped and Screwed) (The Weeknd)

I've had a chance to listen to Slim K's chopped & screwed version of The Weeknd's House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence a few times now, and I have to say that for the most part, I'm not particularly moved by them. I should preface this by saying that outside of a few bands whose music I'm familiar with who've nodded towards chopped & screwed stuff as an influence (some of the witch-house bands and stuff on Tri-Angle), I've had very little exposure to this genre (this probably goes without saying, but I'm also not one to robotrip or indulge in purple drank). Perhaps if I were to use recreational chemicals on a regular basis I would "get" this, but I think--given my substantial investment in The Weeknd's music at this point--that I'm capable of evaluating these remixes as pieces of music without any such enhancements.

The slower tempos really make these albums a chore to get through and while they occasionally reveal interesting variations or details--"Glass Table Girls" initially seems even more menacing, though it quickly loses its momentum; the monologue in "Lonely Star" is voiced by Tesfaye, which adds some interesting dimensions to the song's narrative (a fantasy of a female partner as lonely and empty as himself and thus one that can allow the narrator to enjoy all the things he promises in the chorus by confirming their power as status symbols and objects that facilitate manipulation?), though again its momentum is quickly deflated; "The Zone" comes across as even more of a hymn to anhedonia in this form; and "Heaven or Las Vegas" reveals a surprisingly funky groove in its slowed down form, rather than the martial strut of the album version--they mostly just dull the energy of the song's by robbing Abel Tesfaye's voice of its power. And that, really, is the sin above all else that one needs to avoid in working with this material. Tesfaye is so clearly (and necessarily) the focus here (which, given the impressive production on these three albums, says a lot about his power as a performer) that to blunt his impact (pun fully intended here) is to do irreparable harm to these tracks.

Thursday in particular suffers from the chopped & screwed treatment, as its arrangements--already the loosest in the trilogy by far--do not benefit from being further stretched (I'm also not a fan of its rejigged tracklisting in its remix form). While thematically the slower songs fit with Echoes of Silence's narrative, that album was already full of vocal manipulations (to a far greater degree than either of the other albums in the trilogy), and its relatively more straightforward songcraft gets swamped by these treatments, feeling overstuffed with tricks. House of Balloons comes off the best in this form, in my opinion, though the remixed version of its title track is almost unlistenable. Ultimately, it outstays its welcome in this form and I found myself zoning out long before the end, as with the other two albums. Perhaps that is the point. I imagine that, to borrow a line from Tesfaye, when "time don't exist" after a pharmaceutical interlude, these remixes might do just the trick. As far as music I want to listen to, though, I'd have to say that these remixes miss the mark. At their worst, the sheer formulaic aspect of these remixes makes them reminiscent of remixes on singles by otherwise straightforward rock bands in the 1990s that stuffed a vaguely clubbish beat on top of the original music and perhaps added some effects to the singer's voice.

Actually, the comparison I made to Tri-Angle Records at the start of this post is not entirely inaccurate. In this chopped & screwed form, The Weeknd remind me most of that label's compilation dedicated to Lindsay Lohan, Let Me Shine For You. While that album had its intriguing moments--there were some genuinely thrilling deconstructions of Lohan's music that offered an alluring, alien beauty--the majority of it failed to register. There was clearly atmosphere to spare--just as with Slim K's remixes, though, to be fair, there's plenty of atmosphere to work with in his source material--but precious little of it was attached to anything tangible that would allow that atmosphere to go to work (i.e. the narratives provided by Tesfaye's lyrics). You could argue, I suppose, that the tangible hook in Let Me Shine For You's case was provided by a kind of intertextual cultural nexus between underground electronic music and a troubled actress/pop musician, where the deconstruction of her music mirrored the deconstruction of her public and professional persona via her private actions (which occurred in very public settings), but that didn't really do it for me. If the chopped & screwed versions of the Balloons trilogy emphasized or highlighted the aspects of Tesfaye's narrative that make it so gripping, as it does on its take on "The Zone," this could have been a great success. As it is, I'd have to say it's largely a missed opportunity.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Happy 2012 to all readers! I hope the new year finds you well.

The Weeknd have been remixed by Slim K, their albums offered now in chopped & screwed form. Do I really need complete remixes of three albums I already love? Yes, yes I do. I'll probably write something up about these remixes at some point over the next few days, so if you're interested in (even more of) my thoughts on the Weeknd, stay tuned.

The most exciting thing to happen so far in 2012: my Xmas present to myself--a reward for a semester of hard work--arrived today.

I can't wait to start reading this. I picked it up in a bookstore a few years ago and read the chapter on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (a totally underrated series of novels, especially the first book, Red Mars, which is an absolute classic--maybe they're not actually underrated, but I've never come across anyone talking about them). I didn't have the cash at the time (and buying a book like this in the bookstores around where I'm from is a rapid road to penury), so I'm glad to have finally tracked down a copy for a reasonable price. Jameson's writing on science fiction, which I encountered when I first started grad school and was exposed to theory as something other than a useless mass of pretentiousness to be avoided at all costs (not to say that none of it is that), was a pleasant surprise. That someone with a big name was writing about science fiction was particularly important to me because I'd been given the impression in undergrad that to do English Studies and to be at all serious (and taken seriously) one must avoid things like science fiction. Given that science fiction was a) just about the only thing I read from the age of about 7/8-18 and b) what got me interested in reading and talking about books, this was quite a blow. Since those dark times, though, I've come to (re)embrace my love of the things I wasn't supposed to talk and write about (like science fiction, music, cartoons, etc.). Huzzah!

This actually pairs quite well with a present from my parents:

I'd seen most of this season, but there were a couple of episodes I'd missed. Having a chance to sit down and watch them all in order, I think they made a slightly more favourable impression on me than they did on television. The season as a whole doesn't match the heights of the four movies between Season 4 and Season 5, but it also manages to avoid the lows of those movies. Overall, I'd say the quality is somewhere around the second half of Season 1 and the first half of Season 2. Considering that the second half of Season 2 is what I would consider the beginning of the Golden Era of the show, that's not too bad, and the animation has never looked so good. There were a few moments of absolute brilliance--"Lethal Inspection" provided an all too rare poignant moment for both Bender and Hermes, the middle act of "A Clockwork Origin" redeems an otherwise irritatingly didactic episode, and "The Prisoner of Benda" is nearly as much fun as "The Farnsworth Parabox" and its Professor-Zoidberg/Fry-Leela subplot provided one of the season's genuine belly laughs. 

I missed a lot of the sixth season and need to catch up with the DVDs at some point, but I do think that the show is moving in a positive direction, even if it will never quite recapture the dizzying heights of Season 3 and Season 4, when nothing seemed out of reach of the show--the Fry and Leela dynamic has obviously shifted, and they can't quite recapture the sweetness that it added to episodes like "Time Keeps on Slipping," "The Why of Fry," and "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings." Some of the most distinctive writing voices are missing and their absence is felt, but when the show gets out of the way of itself and lets the characters provide the humour and pathos without the zaniness and gags, it can still shine. Speaking of shining, the packaging for the DVD is absolutely gorgeous.