Friday, May 18, 2007

Holy Cow (an addendum)

In my post about 10 albums at least 10 years old, I made a couple of unforgivable omissions, which I will nevertheless try to make amends for here. And, in the spirit of camaraderie, I will dedicate the first omission to Girdo and the second to Mikkele and Josh. Sorry, friends. (On the other hand, no one called me out on these omissions, so you could be considered culpable, too…)

Silverchair, Frogstomp
Does anyone else remember hearing this album in 1995 and thinking, “These guys are only a couple years older than me?” I know I do. This amazement was tempered by reading an interview a couple years later where frontman Daniel Johns explained each track on the album, mostly with variations of, “This song is about something I saw on TV.” Regardless, Frogstomp was never an amazing album in and of itself; it was, however, amazing that a bunch of bored 15-year-olds created the thing, let alone in the oft-ignored musical landscape of Australia.

Winning the chance to make a record through a radio contest, Silverchair knew there were no guarantees after this album so they strove to make it count. Opening slowly with the bass line of “Israel’s Son,” the track culminated in punk rock thrashing before segueing into the radio hit “Tomorrow.” Songs like “Pure Massacre” and “Undecided” wear their Nirvana influences on their sleeve, but others such as “Shade” and “Suicidal Dream” show a remarkable level of restraint before still-inevitable explosive conclusions.

The genius of the album is in its focus and consistency. For better or worse, every album since has seen the band trying to prove that they are more (or different) than a straight-ahead rock band, but to no avail. Freak Show tried too hard to upstage Frogstomp, and subsequent releases tried to rock tangentially, but the highlights of every Silverchair album are when they simply let loose and ROCK.

Songwriting is nothing without proper presentation, and here again Frogstomp shines brighter than its competitors and successors. Recorded in nine days, it contains a frenetic energy that is palpable even in slow and subdued moments. The drums are big and loud, sometimes threatening to break apart and wash away in the swell of their own sound. The guitars are raw and generic, but this helps their cause by furthering the “we just came from our garage” aesthetic.
Sure, the lyrics are wholly banal and forgettable, but they were still groundbreaking to a generation of kids who were playing guitar in their bedroom and trying to think of a rhyme for “girl” other than “world.” Young bands were still relatively few and far between in 1995, and Silverchair were HUGE. More than anything else, Frogstomp was the sound of possibility and dreams coming true, which is why the band’s career is a disappointment from that point on; honestly, where do you go from there?

Five Iron Frenzy, Upbeats and Beatdowns (Nov. 1996); Our Newest Album Ever! (Nov 1997)
Good lord, how could I leave these out? I must have hit my head or something…
The O.C. Supertones were the first huge Christian ska band, but 6 months after the release of their debut album, Five Iron Frenzy snuck up and clobbered them. Whereas the Supertones looked back to 1st and 2nd wave ska and tried to punk it up, FIF took everything current and added upstrokes and horns. Upbeats and Beatdowns was a goofy celebration, but one which never got boring or redundant. Punk songs like “Old West,” “Arnold and Willis and Mr. Drummond” and a cover of Amy Grant’s “Everywhere I Go” were offset by slower numbers like “Faking Life” and “Amalgamate,” as well as complicated rockers like “Beautiful America” and “Third World Think Tank.” The album’s strongest points are separated, one on each end, on the equal-parts wild and worshipful “Where the Zero Meets the Fifteen” and “A Flowery Song.” The Supertones may have been the latest band to make Christianity a little bit hipper, but Five Iron got kids singing the Doxology.

While serious issues were an FIF staple from the beginning (literally, as “Old West,” the album opener, was about mistreatment of American Indians during the settlement of the west), so was goofiness; but while the Supertones and other ska bands seemed to create a calculated goofiness, Five Iron’s was spontaneous and real, showing through in songs like “Combat Chuck” and the aforementioned “Arnold…” as well as the 4-second, self-explanatory “Shut Up.”

While Upbeats and Beatdowns was a phenomenal debut, the “sophomore slump” has been known to affect even the greatest of bands (I’m looking at you, Craig’s Brother), so the release of FIF’s second effort, Our Newest Album Ever!, was anticipated by many with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Lucky for us, it was arguably the band’s BEST album ever.

Released a year after their debut, Our Newest Album Ever! was light-years beyond it in multiple respects. Already forgoing punk rhythms for the more straight-ahead rock that would dominate their later albums, there was also a reduction in the amount of traditional ska upstrokes, acknowledgment that the fad that was originally their friend was quickly fading. What was more present was mature (yet still catchy) songwriting, and the strongest batch of lyrics the band ever produced. Though still goofy (witness “Kitty Doggy,” “Oh, Canada” or “Where Is Micah?”), the overall tone was much more serious, with songs touching on subjects as diverse as divorce, racial injustice, the futility of life, the futility of greed, and general roadweariness – yet remaining hopeful throughout.

Whereas Upbeats and Beatdowns had more than its fair share of high points, Our Newest Album Ever! was a steady succession of them, culminating in the definitive FIF song (and perennial concert-closer) “Every New Day,” a song which starts somber and sad yet finishes triumphant.

While 3rd wave ska seemed to come and go quicker than most fads, Five Iron Frenzy were able to adapt and succeed; their musical talent and knack for writing memorable songs assured them a place even long after the rude boys had disappeared or morphed into punks, goths and emos. Their early albums paved the way for these transitions, which is why they remain listenable even now.

*Music Irritant of the Week: A commercial is currently on TV with Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” as the background music; but when a voice starts singing, it is simply a female voice singing “la la la” over and over, to the same melody and cadence as the original song. How dare they.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Oh, Irony

I recently watched a slightly schizophrenic love story in the form of The Holiday. I say “schizophrenic” not in a manic sense but in a true, split-personality sense. Following two story lines that do not appear together until the final holiday montage, it does not have enough time to follow either as close as could be desired (even though it is almost 2-1/2 hours long). But I’m not really concerned about the film at the whole (at least, not presently); I’m concerned with music. And irony.

Music is present in the film through two avenues – the traditional film score and soundtrack, and Jack Black’s character, a film composer by trade (amplified by Black’s own musical aptitude). Black spends various scenes talking about the importance of music in a film, how certain songs become definitive, making good scenes iconic, etc. etc. The irony is that The Holiday contains the worst (mis)uses of music I can recall in recent history. I was clued into this fact when Frou Frou’s “Let Go” – which was a captivating song even before it became the ultimate moment in Garden State, itself a defining (albeit divisive) moment in independent cinema – was used within the first 10 minutes of the film. That’s like rewriting The Usual Suspects to reveal Keyser Soze in the first act. While I never expect big-studio films to show particular care in their song selection and utilization, The Holiday kept grabbing my attention with its questionable uses of pop and orchestral music. Plenty of films have committed this crime, but Black’s character's occupation created a keen sense of irony, which began to overshadow everything else for me. There was even a scene where Black and Kate Winslet (who has surprisingly rebounded from her Titanic days to actually be attractive) walk through Blockbuster while he gushes about classic films and their scores, and how they helped highlight certain iconic moments, etc. (Chariots of Fire and The Graduate were two examples.) This created an additional level of irony as I realized that this film is not only not a classic, it doesn’t even contain a defining or pivotal moment of any sort; it is only notable in its mediocrity.

The Holiday also features Jude Law, in a role where he is somehow both shallow (sleeping with Cameron Diaz upon their first meeting – and while drunk) and sympathetic (widower with two young daughters). His role is a mess. Four years before this film, however, he appeared in Road to Perdition, which is, in all ways, the complete opposite of this movie. (I know it might be unfair and inadvisable to try to compare two vastly different films, but… I really don’t care.)

Where The Holiday is long and dull, trying to conjure up sparkling moments and impart some sort of enlightenment, Road is long and brooding, using its chilly ambiance to tell a story of loyalty, nostalgia, and the bond between father and son. By not attempting to impart a message but instead tell a good tale, we are taught something anyway. But again, that’s not really what I’m concerned with. I’m here for the music, man. And Road to Perdition features one of the most stunning soundtracks in cinema history.

The film itself has a number of elements which help the score become so effective: a green filter gives the scenes a gritty and hazy quality (the director and cinematographer reportedly aimed for an Edward Hopper-like feel); the cinematography is largely slow and sweeping; and the script is sparse, leaving long periods without any dialogue whatsoever. These elements leave plenty of room for the score to carry the film, and it does. In addition to this film, let’s see what else composer Thomas Newman has done:
- Revenge of the Nerds
- The Lost Boys
- Little Women
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Meet Joe Black
- American Beauty
- The Green Mile
- White Oleander
- Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Any questions? Among these, White Oleander also stands out in my mind as having a good score, and Lemony Snicket is also noteworthy. But Road stands above all the rest. Its crowning achievement is its main theme, which straddles the line between major and minor keys, allowing itself to slide to either side depending on the instrumentation involved and the intensity with which it is played. This mirrors life itself, which is rarely just one emotion, but usually somewhere in the midst of a lot of them. It is frustrating to see a movie and realize that the music was considered as almost an afterthought, as filler or, even worse, as a manipulator to explicitly dictate what you are supposed to be feeling. A good score, on the other hand, accentuates but does not overshadow the action on the screen, working together with the direction, acting, cinematography and sound as an important part of a larger puzzle.

There is a saying used frequently in the customer-service industry to the effect that customers rarely remember quality dining experiences vividly, but they always remember bad ones in specific detail. Applied to the cinematic realm, the saying still has merit, but Road is one of the good experiences you can't help but remember. Anytime I hear “XYZ film has great music,” I instantly think “Is it as good as Road to Perdition?” And then I think, “You are such a nerd.”