Thursday, November 12, 2015

Throwback Track of the Week: Neil Young - I'm the Ocean

By 1995, Neil Young had spent the past three decades evolving from innocent young folkie, to nihilistic grunge-pioneering Les Paul slinger, to experimental weirdo, to weathered elder-statesman, and then back and forth over and over again.  He earned respect through his genuine, rustic songwriting (whether acoustic or electric), and through relentless refusal of genre crafted an enduring persona of a fierce individualist; eager to experiment and embrace new, of-the-times sounds, and generally unwilling to give a shit.  As loud, noisy, “alternative rock” exploded in popularity, his work with Crazy Horse earned him the title of Godfather of Grunge, and got him quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.  All of these factors seemed to lead to an inevitable collaboration with then-upstarts Pearl Jam for 1995’s under appreciated album Mirror Ball

Despite a generation gap (Neil is at least 20 years older than any member of Pearl Jam), the combination proved to be a match made in grunge heaven.  While Crazy Horse had long been the perfect complement to Neil, a full-throttle mid-90s Pearl Jam’s intensity brought an updated type of energy and noise to Neil’s trademarked brand of muscley, fuzzed-out folk.  There is a distinct lack of barn-burning rockers (for that look no further than the “supergroup”s incendiary 1993 MTV Music Awards performance of Rockin’ in the Free World), but the understatement only enhances the brooding introspection smoldering beneath Pearl Jam’s onslaught.  

Mirror Ball is a scorcher from front to back, but the undeniable centerpiece is slow-burning epic I’m the Ocean.  Inspired by a drive Neil took through the streets of Los Angeles during OJ Simpson’s murder trial, I’m the Ocean depicts a stream-of-conscious type succession of images and thoughts.  Through vivid flashes of imagery we drift from scene to scene, to be acknowledged but never truly made sense of.  Described by Neil as a “slice of confusion”, he spends the song’s verses ruminating on a number of things; from love had and loves lost, to his own misfit status, to the struggle of homeless veterans, to the all-consuming media.  No answers are offered, and no questions are really asked, the world just continues to transpire with nothing to be done about it.  

Even as a seven-plus minute song that is essentially the same beginning to end- one rhythm, one chord progression, and in a sense one long verse- I’m the Ocean never once feels boring.  As it smolders its way through ideas and observations it seems to gain momentum solely through its poetry, building up towards... something.  That something doesn’t come in the expected form of a grand catharsis or boiled-over rage, but rather through emotional transcendence.  By the end of the song our narrator chooses to embrace his minuscule role in the inevitable flow of life, choosing not to fight against the chaos and confusion of the world, but exist among it all and let the experience wash over him.  The simple declaration “I’m the ocean…” at the songs climax is not aggressive or dismissive, just accepting.  

In the words of Neil Young himself, “There’s nothing you can do but hang in there and keep on going”.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Comedy of Horrors, Part One: The Funniest of the Scary

Although they seem like polar opposites, there are a lot of intrinsic similarities between the genres of horror and comedy.  Both mine their appeal from very basic elements of the human psyche, fear and humor respectively, located at opposite ends of the same spectrum of emotion.  The reason why people enjoy being scared so much (when not actually in any real danger, of course) is because psychologically it provides the same type of excitement as a good laugh.  Naturally, many of the most enjoyable films classified as horror are the ones that manage to achieve that scare factor while simultaneously having a sense of humor about themselves.  The purpose of this year’s Noisepaper Halloween Series is to celebrate those flicks that find their audience laughing just as much as cowering behind squinted eyes.

For this first installment I’d like to focus on what I consider the “funniest scary movies”.  The following are horror films through and through, but have the great benefit of humor thrown in.  They are all rooted in stand-alone scariness, but never at the sacrifice of good fun!

1.  Evil Dead II

Sam Raimi broke new ground in 1981 with the original Evil Dead, but it was 1987’s sequel/remake that established the gold-standard of horror-comedy.  While the original found indirect humor in its over-the-top violence, it was always played straight as a horror film.  The followup retained all of the no-holds-barred terror, but reveled in its ridiculousness to the point of obliterating any barrier between scary and funny.  

A huge contributing factor of course is lead character Ash’s transformation into reluctant action hero.  In the original he is presented as a somewhat dweeby unlikely survivor; but by the halfway point of Evil Dead II he is a chainsaw-armed (literally), one-liner spewing demon killing machine of questionable sanity (but unquestionable awesomeness).  Bruce Campbell carries much of the film all by himself, and provides nearly all of the laughs via slapstick physical acting and hilarious reactions to the incomprehensible horror unfolding around him.  

Although the first film is unnecessary to understand the sequel, it does provide a recommended lead-in.  The first act of Evil Dead II basically re-caps previous events, but wastes no time getting into the real action as the screams, gross-outs and laughs pile up at breakneck pace and never let up.

Greatest Moment:  A mentally-broken Ash laughs manically along with the cabin’s possessed taxidermy.

2.  An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London is the only film on this list that I watched for the first time without realizing that it was a horror/comedy.  At the time I had no idea who director John Landis (of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame) was, and I went in fully expecting a straight-forward monster movie.  As it turns out, An American Werewolf in London plays as if Landis himself didn’t know whether he was making a comedy or a horror film, giving it a quirkiness that somehow benefits both sides of its personality.

As a stand-alone horror movie, American Werewolf.. is an incredibly worthwhile watch.  The vaguely ominous “werewolf country” atmosphere of the moors (which college-aged backpackers David and Jack are warned to avoid by some of horror’s best examples of the ‘gatekeeper’ archetype) is superb, and the legitimately scary initial attack scene pays off with some impressive gore effects- especially by 1981 standards.  From there we are treated to some of the most satisfyingly well-placed jump scares, more gore, and most infamously the incredibly gruesome can’t-look-away transformation sequences.  These qualities alone make American Werewolf an instant classic of the monster movie subgenre, but Landis is just getting started…

What brings An American Werewolf in London to unforeseen heights are the (many) splashes of comedy uneasily juxtaposed against the blood and carnage.  The two leads are entertaining characters from the beginning, but post-death Jack is really one funny dude.  After being killed on the moors, his cadaver makes periodic visits to Dave, dryly warning him that he needs to kill himself to avoid becoming a werewolf.  He still talks like a cocky college guy though, and his matter-of-fact attitude only increases along with the rotting condition of his body.  As a viewer, just like Dave, you don’t know when or where he’s going to show up (or how decayed and mangled he will look this time); but you know he’s going to have the same hopeless message and a snarky wiseass way of delivering it.  His existence at the story’s periphery gives the whole film a vibe that persists throughout, lightening up even the most violent scenes.  

Greatest Moment:  You can pick any of Jack’s visits, but I’m partial to the way that what should have been a super depressing anticlimax is directly thrust irreverently into the upbeat doo-wop of Blue Moon.  Jarring to say the least, in the best possible way.

3.  Re-Animator

In a movie that plays like a macabre roller coaster ride with mad scientist Herbert West at the controls, Re-Animator takes the dark humor of Evil Dead II to absolutely psychotic levels.  In 1985 this film was ahead of its time as a winking tribute to the genre.  The plot is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, which he had written as a parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The theme music is a ramped up take on Psycho’s trembling and screeching strings, and the character of West could have come right out of a comic book.  

That being said, what pulls everything together is that overall this is just a well-executed funny AND scary horror flick.  The characters’ motives become bafflingly dark as the bodies pile up and things spiral out of control into sci-fi weirdness, but the film never goes meta.  The director and audience are laughing, but these characters never realize how hilarious the parade of carnage is- and that is exactly what makes movies like this so much damn fun. 

Greatest Moment:  The "head" sequence...which is indeed everything that it sounds like.

4.  Stitches

Stitches is a relatively little known British-Irish gem that thankfully was brought to a wide audience via God’s gift to movie buffs; AKA the almighty Netflix.  After being harassed by a group of kids during a birthday party performance that ends in his death, Stitches the Clown returns from the grave to unleash karmic vengeance on the now-teenagers that once wronged him. The unabashedly convoluted story of an undead clown out for revenge, Stitches hits all the right notes as a horror-comedy cult classic in the making.  

The horror is of course derived largely from the grotesque imagery of the clown, portrayed by English stand-up comedian Ross Noble.  Clowns are creepy, serial killers are scary; combined they make for a horror goldmine that rarely seems to be done right.  Stitches does it right.  This clown (even before his zombification) is dirty, more than a little bit rough around the edges, of deplorable personality, and oozing with psychotic tendencies.  Upon rising from the grave he drops any facade of harmlessness, becoming a wisecracking slasher unlike anything seen on film since the heyday of Freddy Kreuger.  

Of course clowns are also an age-old icon of comedy, and Noble absolutely carries this film in the laugh department with his killer one-liners and the laughably disturbing glee with which he dispatches his victims.  Despite his rampage of increasingly inventive kills (more on this in a bit), Stitches retains his persona as a bumbling idiot, never making things easy for himself and leading to many opportunities to break out his “fockin’ ‘ell” catchphrase.  And about those kills- good ol’ Stitches takes full advantage of his arsenal of makeshift clownish weaponry, treating the audience to some of the most creative and darkly hilarious death scenes this side of the Final Destination series.  

Greatest Moment:  Without spoiling too much, characters meet their fates via the likes of balloon animals, helium pumps, and ice cream scoops; all callbacks to the ways that they picked on Stitches during the opening birthday party.  My personal favorite is an utterly masterful bang-bang sequence involving a particularly sharp umbrella.   

5.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

The first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got a lot of semi-deserved flack for the complete 180 it took into horror-comedy territory, but really, where was there to go in following such a nihilistic exploitation masterpiece?  To its credit TCM2 pulled zero punches; when the very poster for the film features leatherface and family in a full-on Breakfast Club parody, you know exactly what you’re in for.  

While there is a sense that this sequel intended to capitalize on the huge amount of implied violence of the original, rather than falling into the trap of trying to one-up the disturbing factor (a temptation that this generations regrettable batch of sequels/prequels/reboots succumbed to) TCM2 instead makes caricatures of the cannibalistic Sawyer family; turning them into a band of larger-than-life lunatics.  Nowhere is this better exemplified than the character of Chop-Top, the motormouthed madman cousin of the previous film’s “hitchhiker”, portrayed perfectly by Bill Mosely (using a persona he would go on to revisit in Rob Zombie’s modern throwbacks House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.)  

What ensues makes, in hindsight, for a bizarre parody of 80’s movie excess.  This is a flick that verges on cornball with its bright colors, elaborate set-pieces, mouthy characters, and of-the-times soundtrack.  The progression of lead character Stretch says it all, as she goes from charming southern belle to helpless victim to badass ‘final girl’.  She even manages to make Leatherface fall in love with her (yes, you read that right) on her way to full-blown anti-heroine status.  Her triumphant chainsaw dance during the final shot isn’t only a callback to the original, it also brings to mind John Bender in an almost too satisfying case of coming full-circle.  

Greatest Moment:  Leatherface’s movie-opening kill to the rockabilly soundtrack of The Cramps is brilliant, but I can’t help but go with Chop-Top’s introduction at the radio station.  Dog will hunt!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LOCAL Album Review: The Hussy - Galore

Longtime fixtures of the recently booming garage-punk circuit here in Madison, self-described “trash-rockers” The Hussy deliver what we’ve come to love while simultaneously expanding their sound on the fourth LP Galore (released June 30, 2015).  The most noticeable change is the addition of bass, which the former-duo incorporates through the entire album.  Their stripped-down aesthetic is further bolstered by layers of guitars and effects, percussive elements, and on some tracks creative instrumentation such as violin and lap-steel guitar.  Make no mistake however, this is still a band and a record built on no-bullshit charming scrappiness.  Even while delivering some of their most immediate, hooky material to date, the DEVO-esque cheeky pop is balanced perfectly with an aggressiveness and abrasion reminiscent of early grunge bands like Mudhoney.  Bobby Hussy continues to be one of the more exciting guitar slingers going, with fuzzed-out progressions and a ramshackle (though very proficient) soloing style that cuts through the mix like a lawnmower.  The boy/girl vocal dynamic is also on full display, with impressive harmonies and defiant, carefree lyrics delivered with a grin and a middle finger.  

Galore digs its claws into you right of the bat with standout opener Asking for Too Much.  Acoustic and electric guitars mesh together and Bobby cooly laments from a deep sea of reverb in a track that has all the makings of a garage rock classic.  Things only get better with follower Take You Up.  Bob plays the crooner for two verses, channelling the deep post-punk type of drone of Ian Anderson or Peter Murphy.  Punctuated by a vocal-less chorus centered on guitar interplay, the track finishes with a soaring wall-of-sound bridge. 

Following a very solid pair of snotty punk bangers in EZ/PZ and Made in the Shade, guest musician Justin Aten’s violin takes center stage in the exquisitely somber downtempo dirge Darkness.  What begins as a sparse psychedelic arrangement of delicate guitar arpeggios and Heather’s mellow brooding gets the garage treatment during it’s second half.  Like a breaking wave the track explodes into a noisey whiteout as guitar distortion kicks in and Aten wails away on the violin in such a way reminiscent of John Cale’s viola work with The Velvet Underground.  All the while the detached monotone vocals continue, washed all but out of the mix as Galore’s side one comes to a shoegazing close.

With such a high standard set by Galore’s first side, side two tends to sag a bit as repetition sets in.  Several tracks have the feel of a band that is still struggling to capture the intensity and passion of their live performance in a way that makes for a consistently satisfying at-home listening experience.  These tracks ride purely on the guitar work, and for the most part Bobby makes it happen with an absolutely in-the-pocket performance.  Through memorable riffs and volatile soloing, he commands his distorted, livewire sound like a rock n’ roll cowboy wrangling a mad stallion.  J Mascis is the very apparent influence on his style, and there is no doubt that this display would earn a nod of approval from the legendary Dinosaur Jr frontman. 

Closing track My Bad plays like a Vivian Girls-esque neo-shoegaze as Heather’s ethereal vocals float delicately over a raging sea of feedback and distortion.  The album ends with noisey psychedelic freakout that features Bobby’s most extensive soloing before gradually giving way to pure static.  It makes for a grinding finish, but fits the album’s tone awesomely.   

Overall Galore sees The Hussy craft an incredibly listenable record that not only maintains but builds upon their established identity as a band.  Some of the more straight-forward numbers leave a bit to be desired, but at its best the album delivers brilliantly ragged psychedelia without any sense of indulgence or pretension.  It isn’t until the final track that any song hits the three minute mark, but every song is packed with dense instrumentation and production that absolutely hits its mark as almost a grungy version of Pet Sounds.  Galore is not only satisfying for those familiar with the band, but has the authenticity and execution of an album that any rock fan can appreciate.  This is the kind of record that you immediately put on a second time, while you anxiously wait to see what the band does next.

To purchase your copy of Galore, swing by Mad City Music Exchange or visit Southpaw Records

*Catch The Hussy on night two of TurkeyFest; Saturday October 24 at Crystal Corner, as they play their first show back in the states following an extensive European tour!!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Throwback Track of the Week: Melvins - Revolve

Grunge pioneers the Melvins built their legacy on defying all preconceptions of what a metal band is.  They are fronted by a big dude with a ridiculous afro, their album covers feature the likes of swans and fruit baskets, and their love for all things absurd absolutely shows itself in the music.  The riffing is as good as you’ll hear anywhere and the heaviness is unrelenting, but everything has to trudge its way through knee-deep sludge. 

On 1994’s album Stoner Witch, they deliver their take on straight up classic rock with Revolve, which sees them at their most melodic and accessible.  The weirdness is still there; with lyrics that hardly make sense when they are even intelligible and an unforeseeable downtempo, whispered bridge section; but overall this thing just flat out ROCKS.  A dynamic start-stop rhythm opens things up for some gnarly riffing, the chorus is nothing short of gargantuan, and the guitar solo is well placed and one of their best executed.  As things lead into the aforementioned bridge it’s hard to not crack a smile at how satisfyingly overblown it all is.

Of course at the center of it all (particularly in the video- see below) is notoriously irreverent frontman Buzz Osbourne.  Despite never seeming to really try, and proudly relying on seeing what he can “get away with”, by this point he had truly become (and continues to be) a master of his domain.  On Revolve he employs phrasing and a vocal delivery that meshes perfectly with his voice, which serves the bands sound as well as absolutely possible.  Hell, even his persona and physical appearance seems to perfectly accentuate the band’s aesthetic as a whole. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Throwback Track of the Week: Alice in Chains - Them Bones

Alice in Chains 1992 sophomore album Dirt is an absolute classic, although not exactly an easy listen.  A de-facto concept album, much of the lyrics reflect vocalist Layne Staley’s desperate struggle with heroin addiction; as the music carries the themes of anguish, self-disgust, and volatile helplessness.  

Opening the album is quintessential track Them Bones, which delivers an immediate gut-punch via a primal, sickening howl straight from the depths of Staley’s tortured psyche.  Over pummeling power chords, Staley drones and drawls his way through his acceptance of his own mortality and the futility of life, culminating in the massive two-line chorus: “I feel so alone/gonna end up a big ol’ pile of them bones”.  Barely fitting into the 2:30 runtime is one of guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s best solos; effect-laden and soaring over the murk. 

Layne Staley’s story is one of the most tragic in rock and roll history, but like a cornered animal he was able to translate his darkest moments into pure artistic aggression; and as a result gave us some of the most emotionally genuine metal music ever recorded.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Matt's Ultimate Thunderstorm Playlist [PART ONE]

[Note: This is the first of a series of posts.  Once completed, the playlist will be made available for download in its entirety]

They tend to be associated with “dark and dreary nights” trapped indoors; but to me there isn’t a more visceral experience during the summer than watching a thunderstorm roll through in all of its glory.  Few things are more enjoyable and awe-inspiring than taking in nature’s brilliant display of raw power as it reminds us how small we really are.  While it is sometimes best to allow the storm itself provide the soundtrack, I feel there is absolutely a place for a certain type of music in the experience.  This of course raises the question- what music generated by us feeble humans could possibly stand up to the powerful and all-encompassing atmosphere of a thunderstorm?  There’s plenty of mopey sad bastard music out there; some of which works alright, but for the most part is better suited for a prolonged, dreary rainfall than an outright storm.  On the other hand there has been many a rock band that has tried to replicate the energy and power of a mighty tempest, but when it comes down to it the safe, predictable song structures do no justice to the real thing.  As I began putting this playlist together it quickly became apparent to me that to find music that truly enhances rather than hinders the experience I would need to dig deeper.  Music for this purpose is all about mood and atmosphere- the most intangible aspects of an already intangible art form.  You know it when you hear it, which as it turns out is satisfyingly fitting.

Television - Marquee Moon

I remember, how the darkness doubled
I recall, lightning struck itself

Not every song on this list will directly reference thunderstorms in the lyrics, but I can’t think of a better way to kick things off than with the opening lines of Marquee Moon.  Nowhere else in music is the atmosphere of an impending storm better depicted.  As the song pushes along via the trembling pulse of its anxious bassline and jittery electric guitar meandering, there ensues a very particular moment when the vibe shifts from being ominous to powerful, to cathartic, and finally spirals back to unpredictability; and it’s probably my favorite 30 seconds or so of any song ever.  

Spiritualized - Electricity

While Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized is more widely known for droning, druggy psychedelia, he is more than capable of channeling his unique compositions into uptempo bursts of manic energy.  Such is the case with the aptly named noise freakout Electricity, which is the aural equivalent of jabbing a fork into a bundle of frayed wiring.  I’d prefer to never be struck by lightning, but should it happen it would be awesome to have this song playing at the time.

The Doors - Riders on the Storm

Alright, so I don’t exactly have many nice things to say about The Doors…but for this particular playlist this particular song is absolutely essential.  The drawn out organ noodling and Jimbo’s low, ominous pseudo-croon manage to really work within the context of rolling thunder and steady rain.  Surely they were aware of this based on the lyrical content and tacky sound effects, but I digress…this is as good of a thunderstorm song as there is. 

Silversun Pickups - Panic Switch

The aggressive buzzsaw guitars and rushed, stuttering rhythm combine to give this song an incredible sense of anxious, high-voltage energy.  Meanwhile the ethereal, oddly calm vocals seem to exist perfectly at the eye of the storm, surrounded by urgency and panic.

Cream - White Room

It gets a pass because it fucking rocks, but this is a weird song.  What’s with the intro?  The lyrics frankly don’t make any damn sense.  The choruses are nothing more than awkward psychedelic breaks.  The guitar is overdriven and wah-wah’d to the brink of destruction.  The missing piece however is Ginger Baker, who’s drumming emulated rolling thunder like none other; and brings everything else together to earn a place high on this list.

David Essex - Rock On

This mostly forgotten glam-rock classic has become a movie soundtrack staple for a reason- From its dirty, slinking bassline to the cryptic lyrics that arrive dripping in reverb from a million miles away; this sparse, airy groove is just begging for a backdrop of thunder and lightning.  

Red Rider - Lunatic Fringe

The intro to this song sounds like a werewolf mid-change, and the rest of the song doesn’t disappoint.  As the rhythm pulsates ominously and distant lyrics are howled into the void, it’s hard not to visualize dark clouds being sliced open without warning by lightning.

All-American Rejects - It Ends Tonight

I’m thoroughly guilty of dismissing them at the time, but in hindsight it’s a real shame that All-American Rejects got thrown in with all of the pretty-boy try-hards that infiltrated pop-punk during the early 2000s.  It Ends Tonight is Exhibit A:  Dripping with genuine, well-delivered angst without being whiny, this song internalizes all of the chaos and tension of a doomed relationship; using the unspoken metaphor of a thunderstorm to set up the explosive catharsis of finally letting go.  


Friday, April 17, 2015

Green Day hits US Stage for first time since 2013 - performs with Tim Armstrong, John Kiffmeyer

You wouldn’t have known it if you weren’t among the one-thousand or so people present, but last night in downtown Cleveland the stars aligned and for about five minutes everything was right with the universe. 

In preparation/celebration of their impending Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Green Day settled into Cleveland’s House of Blues for a rare small-club gig.  Reuniting with original drummer John Kiffmeyer and performing under their original name Sweet Children, the band barreled through an incendiary “warm-up” set of their long-lost gems such as Dry Ice, At the Library, and Private Ale- tunes that haven’t been performed live in about two decades.  

At some point during the ensuing three-hour show, Billie Joe and company were joined by another surprising guest- none other than Tim Armstrong.  Tim or course was the frontman of Operation Ivy (and later Rancid), legends of the very same Bay-Area Gilman Street punk scene that provided Green Day’s original upbringing.  Despite having since been disowned by the Gilman Street community due to their commercial success, Green Day has consistently incorporated a cover the Op Ivy classic Knowledge into their setlists as a tribute to their early idols.  In a cathartic instance of things coming full circle, Tim burst onto the House of Blues stage- Gretsch semi-hollow slung down to his ankles as always- and together with Billie Joe launched into a scathing rendition of Knowledge, followed by the early Rancid song Radio (which the two had wrote together twenty-one years ago).  

This unexpected collaboration represents far more than just two living legends joining forces.  Although Green Day is still unwelcome in their old warehouse home at 924 Gilman St for being on a major record label, This display of awesomeness with a local king is another important stop on their long road to reconciliation with their own roots.

UPDATE:  Interestingly enough, some of the oldest readily available live footage of Green Day/Sweet Children is a concert performed at their Pinole Valley High School in 1990.  The show features very entertaining teenage versions of Billie and Mike playing many of the old songs that they resurrected last night.  For comparison sake, here is At the Library from that show:

UPDATE:  As of March 17th 2015, the inevitable finally came to fruition as 924 Gilman lifted it's fan on Green Day after 21 years.  The band performed a surprise concert at the venue (again joined by Tim Armstrong) to benefit DIY publisher AK Press, who recently lost their warehouse in a fire.  
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