Monday, January 28, 2008

Catfish at the Cinema

Far and away the greatest benefit to being a relatively infrequent movie watcher is almost never watching a bad movie. I tend to get upset and offended at the time wasted to watch your average Hollywood action flick or romantic comedy, so I shy away from films as they hit the theaters, wait for the hype to die down and see what offerings get some props from reviewers I dig and have a little staying power.

Such was the exact process that brought me to Into the Wild and No Country For Old Men these last couple days and I reckon I have little in the way of anything but compliments. Talk about your simple, yet powerful movies - compelling stories, dialog that seems real-to-life as well as insightfully quotable and beautiful camera work. There isn't much more that's similar about the two films, so I reckon I'll move on in the order I saw them.

Sean Penn has been such a powerful presence in the last couple films I've seen him in (Mystic River and 21 Grams) that it's no surprise he's moved over to directing. He seems to be a deliberate detail-oriented director, taking a heavy hand (he wrote the screenplay as well) in the production as a whole, and really drawing the most out of the material. I doubt Penn will be a frequent director; instead he seems drawn to the unique story that plays out here.

Despite having heard a good bit about the film before hand, I was under the impression that it was mostly about the journey in Alaska. I'm glad that wasn't the case - it's more like Into the Great Wide Open than Into the Wild and that's for the best. Whether he's Christopher McCandless or his chosen name of Alexander Supertramp, the protagonist is driven by movement and experience, not simply the need to rush as far as he can from society. In truth he makes his biggest leap away from society not by trekking into the Alaskan wilderness but in that first moment he makes up his mind that he doesn't need money, or a home, or a job, or anything that ties him to anything else. It's that over-the-next-horizon restlessness that defines his character, no matter the horizon.

Emile Hirsch was a great choice for Alex, bringing a believability to his restless idealogue. He didn't spout the nonsense you might expect from a just-barely-on-his own kid. He wasn't constantly coming up with new justifications and rationale for his wanderlust. His philosophy was simple and mostly unchanging - the trappings of society are simply traps and the measure of a life is in the experiences of the individual. But he did - tragically - misjudge how crucial simple fellowship can be. It's something that he came to eventually and it's ultimately the story's greatest sadness that he didn't get to live out his years with that addition to his world view. Alex was no misanthrope, though he may have come across as one. In truth there's really no good word for his take on society. He loved his fellow travelers, the souls more at home on the fringes of society, and ultimately found as much strength in them as he did in the wilderness, though the realization was slow in permeating his restlessness.

On a final note, the music in the film was every bit as great as some friends have said. Eddie Vedder provides another way of reading the character and the action, much in the same way that Badly Drawn Boy uses the language of music to say things in About A Boy that the filmmakers just couldn't get to otherwise. Taken one by one, the songs are all quality, with an acoustic yet full sound that fits the landscapes of the film. But taking note of the lyrics, we see more parallels in Alex's journeys and a new dimension emerges.

Music is such a central part of Into the Wild that it was fascinating to follow it up with a film that had absolutely no music at all. That quietness to me translated incredibly well as space, in a variety of ways. It let the empty Texas landscapes stand even more imposing, more immense. It let the characters' inner thoughts play a role in the film, whether you had a decent guess what those thoughts were (as in the case of Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss) or whether they were as inscrutable as the darkness (as in the case of Moss' nemesis-by-chance, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh).

I didn't even notice the lack of music until one of the film's most suspenseful moments, where the ominous strings should have been. And it was no less suspenseful for the absence. People breathing, floor boards creaking, shadows covering doorways... all of this is real, all of it is in the moment, on the screen, and none of it needs an extra bit of manipulation. Kudos to the Coens for going against the grain there.

I've been a Coen brothers fan for years and years, but for some reason have stuck to just the comedies. There's little in No Country for folks looking for the fingerprints of the geniuses who created The Big Lebowski, et al. But the dialog is the tell. That's probably the greatest strength of each Coen film I dig - a richness of dialog that never seems forced, giving each character a uniqueness, full of lines you want to jot down and remember, with not a bit of it contrived or fake or in any way detracting from the movement of the story.

The story is cut of all fat, and because of that requires quite a bit of trust of the filmmakers. It rattled me at first, left me wanting the back stories of Moss and Chigurh, left me wanting to know who the drug dealers were who got gunned down in the Texas desert. I needed that at first, wanted to dig into each character to learn how to read the angles, but none of it was there. It was simply a mess dropped right in your lap and ultimately I think it was fitting. The $2 million and gun battle fallout just dropped on Moss. Moss just dropped onto Chigurh. And the whole mess just dropped onto Tommy Lee Jones sheriff Ed Tom Bell, just as mess after mess after increasingly larger and alienating mess had been falling on his for his whole life as a Texas lawman.

That slow sense of the world spinning out of control, of events running your life instead of the opposite, of a growing and desperate helplessness, is a theme I'm often drawn to, in movies or books or music. It's Yeats' "Turning and turning in the widenying gyre," rewritten with a homicidal maniac, an in-over-his-head welder and an aged sheriff, all dancing about on a chaotic parquet of drug trafficking, greed raining from all angles and blood lust.

While it's damn good, I can't say No Country is my favorite Coen film. It's abrupt and once you accept its main assertion that the world is fucked, the narrative elements lose a good bit of their significance. But I am pushed to explore the earlier Coen films. And I'm definitely going to start reading some Cormac McCarthy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Go Get Gone

Start pouring the whiskey, the Fourkiller Flats are back on stage Friday at Club Congress.
The Flats are hard-charging twangy rockers who sound plenty legit singing about waking up in a Las Cruces jail or tossing beer bottles about in one holy hell of a fight. An EP from 2000 and a 2001 set of 10 originals and a cover of Whiskeytown's "Faithless Streets" (so I started this damn country band, 'cause punk rock is too hard to sing) are all the bastards have recorded so far.
It's been a few months since they've played a show, and last time they played nearly all unrecorded songs, so maybe it's time for a new album one of these days.
The band has this curious roller derby video up on their MySpace page and while the connection escapes me, it's a song they haven't released, so check it out:

The Flats are opening up for the Mother Truckers, an Austin-based combo that I haven't seen yet, but they've been getting a lot of props around here.


Catfish Vegas presents... has seen a surge in traffic lately, almost entirely from people googling about for celebrity deaths. And the untimely departure of Heath Ledger seems to have vastly accelerated that surge.
Mr. Chair occasionally logs what drives readers his way, and it's usually something to do with shaving testicles. Not that he's ever blogged on the subject, but if that's what the public wants, I 'spose he ought to deliver one day.
Aside from searching out a celebrity death pool, it seems like random visitors here are trying to scope out a hot congresswoman. And I did blog about a hot congresswoman, so that's the way it goes.
On Jan. 10 I had a few visitors seeking out Arlo Guthrie. And people regularly stop on by after searching out Wilco's "The Thanks I Get." There are a few other musical inquiries that steer folks here. And one other recurring query is for this see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey statuette I linked to. Strange.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A fine winter weekend

I was kinda taking a breather there at the end of the year, then I got blindsided by the flu. But now I'm mostly recovered and starting to peek around for stuff to listen to and blog about and do.
This weekend is the Dillinger Days, celebrating the (very serendipitous) capture of the notorious bank robber by Tucson police in 1934. I know it sounds like fame on the order of "Largest Free-Standing Pole West of the Mississippi," but everywhere has to be known for something. Besides, it's a good idea for a downtown party, and screw everywhere else where you can't have an outdoor festival in the middle of January.
But the point of this is to say that the tunes are absolutely first rate.

First up are the aptly named Dusty Buskers, "the band that fits on a bike."

They've actually been pretty regular at booking shows, but the first I ran across these guys they were literally busking, with a fiddle, a madolin and a hat set up between them. I love their cover of Woody's "Hard Travelin'" and the Dead Milkmen classic "Punk Rock Girl."

After the Buskers is Tucson's own British bluesman, the lightning hot harmonica player Tom Walbank and his Ambassadors. I've never been short of amazed watching Walbank and his band jam and I don't think many performers around the world have carved out such a unique musical persona.

Playing last is the legendary Al Perry, who can strum an acoustic, lead an all-star Telecaster jam or honky-tonk it up, depending on the mood. He's been called the Unofficial Mayor of Downtown Tucson and I gladly concur.
Download: Al Perry - We Got Cactus

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Happy Arlo Guthrie Day!

It's the 10th of January, and I still ain't had no sleep...

Today we celebrate one of my all-time favorite songs - "Darkest Hour" - and its author - the great Arlo Guthrie. It's a song full of mystery, driven by fleeting images. And if I knew precisely what it meant I'd get further into that, but as Arlo himself has said, the song came to him in a dream. And it truly exists best in a sort of dreamscape. The two lovers in the castle seem completely separate from the pre-battle atmosphere all around them.

Here's a live version from 2006: Arlo Guthrie - Darkest Hour (live in Dublin)

Next we have a treat, an incredibly early version of Arlo's signature opus, Alice's Restaurant. It's essentially more of a prototype than even a first draft. The 19-year-old Arlo is singing in 1966 at Gerdes Folk City and all that exists of the song at that point was the looping guitar pattern and the chorus. But there's no mention of Thanksgiving or the draft or anything that emerged when he recorded the song a later. What's there is the wit that's continued to drive his performances since. What I find most fascinating is how much more he sounds like Woody in those days. His banter is twangier, more Oklahoma than the Brooklyn-born Arlo really had much right to claim.

The main bulk of the song (at just 13 minutes, it's actually substantially shorter than it would eventually become) is Arlo talking about how the words to Alice's Restaurant are going to spread like wildfire - first out of the club and into the Villlage, then the rest of New York and then steadily across the East Coast and the rest of the country ("New Mexico, OLD Mexico") and the rest of the continent ("there's a slight chance it may get into Cuba"). And eventually the song will go over the whole world, and one day everybody in the world, at the same time and in the same key, will sing "Alice's Restaurant."

Download: Arlo Guthrie - Alice's Restaurant (live 1966)

Everybody have a great Arlo Day!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Get your picks in!

The window for participating in the Celebrity Death Pool 2008 is drawing to a close. Get your picks in by Jan. 13!

And as Mr. Chair said about the picks thus far: "If we are any good at this, Fidel, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Phyllis Diller better tie up any loose ends soon..."

Holy crap

These are dark days indeed for my Wildcats, on the road Wednesday to play the higher ranked Sun Devils?! I know the Mustard & Rust have been on a bit of a resurgence of late, and in-state dominance can't last forever, but what sportswriter in his right mind actually believes ASU is a better team? I'll admit that without our leading scorer this isn't exactly a game that's worry-free at this point in the season. But c'mon, one of the nation's most storied programs is essentially an underdog facing a team that hasn't been ranked in 13 years? Let's just say this doesn't add up and move on to celebrating another blowout come Wednesday night.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Goin' to Acapulco...

One of the things I love most about Calexico is the band's tremendous versatility. They've backed numerous other musicians on incredible albums (Richard Buckner, Neko Case), collaborated with others (Iron & Wine, Howe Gelb) and just generally become some of the best go-to musicians around.

Their versatility certainly extends to their own performances as well. The last two shows I've seen - less than two months apart - couldn't have been more different.

The first was a park show, drawing 10,000 people in an all-ages picnic atmosphere. It was one of the full mariachi shows, with Luz de Luna starting out the nearly three-hour set and joining Calexico on state for several songs later. It was rowdy and joyous, full of i-yi-yi's and a let's keep going vibe that ran well after dark.

Next was last Friday, when they played to 800 sweater-clad people inside a performing arts theatre. There were no mariachi players and the vibe was more sedate. A friend sat in on piano (not one of Calexico's most typical sounds) for the entire show - a more acoustic affair with several top-notch cover songs and a new one, "Absent Afternoon, which Joey Burns said was inspired by the funeral processions driving past his new home downtown.

The kind folks over at were kind enough to record part of the show and put it up on youtube. Below is a cover of Dylan's "Goin' to Acapulco," which features prominently in the "I'm Not There" film and earns Burns and John Convertino screen credits as "Brass Band Player #1" and "Brass Band Player #2." Before the song, Joey asked for all the reverb he could get out of the sound man, which hardly surprising since Jim James of My Morning Jacket sings the tune for the film and soundtrack.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Stu LeBlanc's Year in Haiku

(I'd like to welcome the illustrious Stu LeBlanc for an extra special guest posting here: 2007 in haiku.)

pissed her name
in the snow while she
stayed in the car

"I feel
dowdy", she said,
wearing my clothes

bad decisions
are requisite at a
toga party

all partygoers
drenhed in a soft
summer rain

stomping through
puddles, our wobbling
ways home

now a two-time
community college

rediscovery of
the advantages of not
washing my hair

just out of prison
and I hung out with
him anyway

at midnight
the organ goes into
the bonfire

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Catfish at the record shop

Happy New Year everybody!
It’s not like you haven’t seen several hundred best-of 2007 lists by now (check out Large-Hearted Boy’s master list – sheesh!) but in this little corner of the blogosphere we’re gonna just go ahead and do the same.
So, without further ado, here’s the Catfish Vegas Presents… Top Albums of 2007

1. Okkervil RiverThe Stage Names
Rambunctious and energetic this time out, Okkervil River made their most unabashedly rock ‘n’ roll record yet, centering on the themes of fame and fortune, with nods to the night life and on “The Plus Ones,” a clever bit of addition that turned several classic pop songs on their heads.

2. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
If the skinny bearded bohemian Springsteen had come up now and settled on a gypsy ensemble instead of a rock ‘n’ roll band, he’d come pretty close to sounding like Arcade Fire’s newest.

3. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
Wilco’s most soulful record, Sky Blue Sky is also dominated by Nels Cline’s one-of-a-kind guitar shredding. Methinks the “dad rock” haters didn’t actually bother to listen to the album.

4. Feist – The Reminder
This album grabbed me for the first time (and never let go) on “Intuition,” when Feist’s repeated “Did I?” is echoed by a chorus that sounds three rooms away. It’s an album of great balance, great songs and the greatest singing voice this side of Neko Case.

5. Band of Horses – Cease To Begin
Hell yeah! The bearded dudes who made what was my favorite album of last year have come back with a record nearly as perfect. Band of Horses found their sound right out of the gate and have settled in beautifully.

6. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
I love listening to all the varied rhythms that carry Sam Beam’s latest batch of tunes. As great as he is singing unadorned, it’s great to hear that he knows when to fill songs up as much as he does leave them open.

7. Radiohead – In Rainbows
The blokes from Radiohead rediscover guitars and make their best album in a decade. Not that they abandoned the experimental, they just reserved that for music industry kiss-off of jumping in with a set-your-own-price direct download. Kudos.

8. Ezra Furman & The Harpoons – Banging Down the Doors
This is the record I’ve been recommending to everyone I know lately. I stumbled onto a rave review at Razing the Bar and snagged a free download Furman’s record company was offering. This is outstanding stuff – hard charging acoustic rock, with hints of Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah, the Mountain Goats and Dylan throughout. This topped out Andy Whitman’s best of 2007 list and if I’d gotten it a few months earlier, it probably would’ve done the same for me.

9. Felice Brothers – Tonight At The Arizona
Believe me when I say that more than most people, I gravitate toward spare, country-folk music, and that the Felice Brothers have made one of the best debut spare, country-folk debuts I’ve heard in a long while. It doesn’t hurt that there’s more than a little Dylan floating around these songs.

10. The Gourds – Noble Creatures
For everyone (including myself) who wrote them off as bluegrass jokers after the amazing “Gin and Juice” cover, I’ll say this: out of everybody recording music today, the multi-talented Gourds are the closest to carrying on the tradition of The Band.

11. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
Bruce comes back from his folk detour for a new E Street Band record that stacks up better than The Rising. The production is just a bit too tight and polished for my taste, but the songs are incredible, with “Radio Nowhere,” “Gypsy Biker” and “I’ll Work For Your Love” as good as anything he’s written since the 1970s.

12. Meat Puppets – Rise To Your Knees
Certainly candidates for music story of the year, the Meat Puppets are back with another album fried by the sun. Rise To Your Knees is the proper sequal to Too High To Die, as caught up in dusty songs as much as the psychedelic hybrid they came up with on earlier albums. The album got me thinking… if only Kurt Cobain had met up with a motorcycle crash instead of a shotgun and hit out in the desert, with the Meat Puppets playing The Band to his Dylan…

13. I’m Not There Soundtrack
I really don’t know where to put this album. Tributes are such tricky business and most ultimately fail. But this collection of Dylan covers is pretty much the best music released all year. The two-disc set stays mostly away from Dylan’s biggest songs – “All Along The Watchtower” by Eddie Vedder and the Million Dollar Bashers and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Antony and the Johnsons are the only “big hits” and really the two weakest tracks on the whole collection. Digging up those hidden gems is the soundtrack’s greatest asset – “Pressing On” by John Doe and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” immediately drew me in, but what’s surprising is that even as a Dylan fanatic, I’d never even heard either before. Another highlight is the chameleonic work by Calexico, who back Willie Nelson, Iron & Wine, Roger McGuinn, Jim James and Charlotte Gainsbourg and even get parts in the film.

Honorable mentions are awarded in the following categories:

Top local albums:
Chango Malo – The Whiskey Years; The Deludes – Sedation Nation; Greyhound Soul – Tonight and Every Night; Golden Boots – Burning Brain

Indie stalwarts with barely miss albums:
Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; Shins- Wincing the Night Away; White Stripes – Icky Thump; New Pornographers – Challengers

Representatives of the “2007 was a good year for noise” school of Stu Leblanc favorites that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, but nonetheless dig:
Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam; Panda Bear – Person Pitch

The old-timers who can really do no wrong but didn’t make records that stack up with their career bests:
Lucinda Williams – West; Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade; Levon Helm – The Dirt Farmer

Previous years-in-review: