Sunday, May 31, 2020

Not Now, Folks

Many things cross my mind these days, and occupy my reading. Questions linger, like, "The Epoch Times versus the Chinese Communist Party: whose side is the CBC on?" or "Jesus, will America ever learn?" or "How soon until we start to see the number of COVID-19 cases ramping up again?"

I've got nothing on any of the above. I have one major new piece, informed by nostalgia for going out to shows: people telling stories about the Cave. I'm working on a part two. It's not important by comparison to other things going on in the world, right now, but there are some really fun stories, and more to come. Thanks are due to Aaron Chapman and Rob Frith on this...

Otherwise, life, work, and a few trips to reopened thrift stores (and dine-in experiences at restaurants). All for now, all for awhile. Good luck out there. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Happy Nirvana discovery: the 2013 Steve Albini remix of In Utero

During the two months of our COVID-19 shudown, I have done very little record shopping. One trip to Neptoon, one trip to Audiopile. Otherwise the only vinyl I come across is when my wife and I are  at a local mall that features a London Drugs.

I have gotten to know the vinyl at that London Drugs quite well. I've been tempted by a few items, disappointed to see that certain others are not available. Occasionally I am pleasantly surprised: like, I wasn't expecting to find a double-45rpm version of Nirvana's In Utero the other day (and for a few bucks cheaper than the lowest price on Amazon, which as of this writing is $42.79). If I had seen it on the shelves before, I failed to notice that it was, in fact, a 2013 20th Anniversary remix, helmed by the man who originally recorded it (Steve Albini) at the request of the band. Albini had been somewhat famously dissatisfied with studio meddling with the original album, and though this is another thing altogether, it was very interesting to me to hear how he might reconstruct this album now...

I have a complex history with Nirvana. I had already defined myself as a punk for ten years by the time anyone cared what Kurt Cobain thought about anything, and didn't need Kurt to introduce me to the Meat Puppets or Flipper or Daniel Johnston (though I was pleased that he got all three more recognition). As a Pacific Northwest music fan, I was all down with Seattle independent music before Nevermind, had been listening to the Young Fresh Fellows and the U-Men and other bands, and once it got started, I was a member of the Sub/Pop singles club, getting exclusive 7" singles from the label by subscription. Best yet, I could see shows sometimes, since I was hanging with some people who would actually drive into the city for gigs at places like the Cruel Elephant, and there was an expansion, I think around this time, of bus service to Maple Ridge, so I was going to see tons of shows by heavier bands of the time, some of whom got tagged "grunge," and others who could have been. In the late 80's and early 90's, mostly at the Cruel Elephant, I got to see Tankhog, the Melvins, Helmet, TAD, Love Battery, Supersuckers, the Dwarves, Facepuller, the Volcano Suns, and, one night at the Commodore, Nirvana and Mudhoney. But I was left uncomfortable at that show: Kurt seemed self-destructive and negative and stoned, and I didn't really enjoy the vibe I got off him; while everyone else was wowed, I came away saying that Mudhoney was the superior band.

I wasn't wild about Nevermind, either. It had just come out a few days before the show, and I was trying to get to know it. I had liked Bleach a lot  - and I had Hole's "Retard Girl" and Pretty On the Inside, and liked them even more - but Nevermind sounded quite different and wrong: not necessarily poppier, but flat, lifeless, polished until it began to lose feature. Some of the songs were okay, and being the loyal type, I wanted to like it, but even before it became this huge hit album, before I saw the show, I had mixed feelings about it. It was like the Replacements' Don't Tell a Soul for me, or X's Ain't Love Grand, or Husker Du's Candy Apple Grey. "I would like to be able to enjoy this album, but..."

Then something happened. It's hard to explain. Somehow - maybe because of the company I was keeping, or the acid I was dropping, or the inner turmoil I felt as a young man not sure what he would become, I kind of left rock'n'roll behind, and spent most of the rest of the 1990's listening to free jazz, noise, and experimental music. There was a point where I stopped following a ton of bands I'd been devoted to, because I was too busy checking out John Zorn or Fred Frith or Don Cherry or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Numerous bands I had followed closely before suddenly dropped off my radar, and I stopped buying their records. I stopped following the Original Sins in 1992, when Move came out; I wouldn't own it until decades later.  Having bought every album and one or two singles by the band previous, I had no interest in Tad's Inhaler (1993), either. I had enjoyed Sonic Youth's 1992 album Dirty just fine - and still like it more than a lot of the people who describe it as some sort of grunge sell-out - and had everything I could get by them otherwise, but after Dirty, I skipped their next two albums, and still barely know them. I also dropped Dinosaur Jr. after 1993's Where You Been, and Soundgarden after 1991's Badmotorfinger. And I think now part of what was happening to me was that after 1991 and Nevermind, when "underground" rock music suddenly became above-ground, it stopped being fun for me. Maybe I needed something obscure - needed to be a member of a more exclusive club, to prop up my shaky identity and give me self-definition... but it didn't help that some of those commercial cash-grab records by bands emboldened to reach for the brass ring really kind of sucked, like, say, Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union. I had loved everything they did up to that point, even as they grew more commercial, then suddenly a) they have a hit single and b) they have an album that totally blows. Coincidence? I really didn't like the changes to Soundgarden's approach, either, by the time "Black Hole Sun" put them on the charts...

In any event, be it heartbreak at commercial sellouts, the desire to impress artier friends, some weird punk need to rebel against popular tastes and/or "success," or because my mind was going wild with neurotransmitters, by late 1993, I was listening to free jazz and avant-rock almost exclusively. Grunge seemed like greasy kidstuff. I had matured, was eager to leave my past self behind, like I could somehow climb out of the pit of my suburban youth by listening to more sophisticated music... I never even bothered with In Utero back then. I figured it couldn't possibly be good. I had already had problems with Nevermind, which had been recorded before anyone had figured out that the band could actually succeed; so now that they were on the corporate radar, now that people with money were hoping to make more money off their music and Kurt and Courtney had sizeable drug habits to support... how could the album not suck? I was annoyed that bands like Soul Asylum and Soundgarden had watered down their sound; why wouldn't I feel the same about Nirvana? I just didn't care. I heard the singles on MuchMusic and didn't really dig them - "All Apologies" had interesting lyrics but sounded like pop fluff. Then a few years later, I read an interview with Steve Albini in Tape Op bitching about the way Geffen had fiddled with his original vision for the album, and it confirmed my bias and kept me away. When I finally did hear In Utero on CD a few years ago - at the urging of the Georgia Straight's Mike Usinger - I was surprised that, even in the toned-down studio presentation, it was still obviously a pretty raw and difficult and surprisingly ambitious album. Still:

a) I didn't the way it sounded very much, maybe in part because I expected not to, having read Albini griping about it at some length

b) I was more interested in hearing the original Albini mixes and masters. (There's a very complex history which you can read people argue about here, as to what the exact differences between the original 1993 tapes, the officially released version, and the 2013 revisitation.)

Now, the 2013 In Utero mix is not the same as Albini's original version - which I still have not heard - but it IS Albini's vision for the album 20 years on, when he's being given the respect and creative control he deserves. And having grabbed it on a whim at London Drugs, I am kind of stunned at how rich it is. You can get a song-by-song comparison with the 1993 release here, or you could try yourself, say if you want to compare (to pick a non-hit fave) the new Albini version of "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" with the original (also an Albini mix, apparently, but remastered from his original vision, if I understand this correctly, by people at Geffen). I vastly prefer the 2013 version, and notice more things, from being able to clearly understand what Kurt mutters at the beginning ("What's your name?") to how there seems to be a different spatial construction and a lot more detail when you get to the noisy solo (say around 3:30-3:45; compare, in particular, the high-pitched chirps on the guitar, which are tinny, anemic, and barely noticeable on the 1993 mix, while you can hear them as part of a struck chord on the 2013, much fuller and more satisfying. That might boil down to "more body," as the author of that previously linked comparison notes, but there's also sonic detail added or re-added not present in the 1993 mix. In some cases, I gather - on other songs on the album - there are even whole different solos!).

What I'm realizing is that I had, back in 1993, ignored Kurt Cobain's masterpiece; that, contrary to my intuitions, Nirvana had faced down studio expectations and massive fan attention and all the pressures that come with hype to come up with an album that is at times as raw as Bleach, but which pushes the songwriting vastly further than one sees on Nevermind. It's a great album, and the 2013 Steve Albini mix, I think, is going to become my definitive version of it. Looking forward to listening to nothing else, and very happy to know that Kurt managed something this fantastic even as the end was approaching.

So thanks, London Drugs!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Core: shameless, delightful, Vancouver-shot idiocy

I have written about the shot-in-Vancouver 2003 film The Core before, but it is on Netflix Canada now, and Erika and I just re-watched it... so I must write about it again, especially for followers of locally shot cinema (Robert Dayton, this one is for you - and also for Stephen Hamm, since there's some interesting electronic soundtrack stuff, courtesy Christopher Young, who kind of goes for a punchy Tangerine Dream thing at times). It is very, very entertaining. It is not a great movie, and it is not quite a so-bad-its-good movie, because it realizes key aspects of its premise are beyond ludicrous, and this knowingness interferes with it being truly bad, since (I think) for a film to be truly bad, it must have delusions about itself. The Neptune Factor, which it resembles in some elements, is truly bad (also not so-bad-its-good, exactly, though its sheer badness makes for the best parts of it). It fails to recognize its own absurdity, and plays it straight. The Core - similar to the recent Rock movie Rampage does not have this problem. Any film that includes lines like, "As long as we can surf these magma flows, we'll be okay" has too much of a sense of humour about what it is doing to really belong with the likes of Tommy Wiseau and Battlefield Earth - tho' at the same time, the film is not trying to be bad, either. It's just trying to have fun with its ludicrous premise, and tell an entertaining, suspenseful, Hollywood-action-movie story to boot - fun that is enhanced for people from around here by the very much undisguised Vancouver locations that allow the film to leap from Boston to Chicago - for its first and second scenes - in the course what you can't help noticing is about a fifteen minute walk, the locations used being mere blocks from each other.

Made before Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich had cornered the market on big-budget, giant-spectacle global disaster films, back when the Rock was still a wrestler, in the days when pretty much every science fiction film about the end of the world involved giant meteors, and global warming was barely in the news, The Core presents the loopiest possible premise for its popcorn-slinging apocalyptic spectacle: the molten outer core of the earth has stopped spinning, and a group of intrepid terranauts consisting of Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Tchéky Karyo and homeboy Bruce Greenwood drill into the planet in a giant vibrator on a literal journey to the centre of the earth. They bicker and argue and sacrifice themselves one by one. Heroes emerge. Emotions are roused. They crew find themselves briefly trapped in a ginormous geode. There are "diamonds the size of Long Island." Whales become an important part of the tale (though alas, Netflix subtitles the sounds of their singing as "whales whining."). Mission control on the surface of the earth - led by Richard Jenkins and Alfre Woodard, with DJ Qualls as a hacker named Rat - loses faith and tries to pull the plug. Will our heroes survive? Will they complete their mission? Which of them will be required to sacrifice themselves? And most importantly, WILL THERE BE DINOSAURS?

Spoiler: there are no dinosaurs, not even fossil ones. No giant fish, either, you Neptune Factor fans. But the science is ridiculous enough that you wouldn't have been entirely be surprised should such things have popped up, and having to settle for mega-geodes, magma, and Long Island-sized diamonds is a smidgen disappointing. 

But things blow up! A lightning storm destroys Rome! There is a scene involving birds gone wild that is likely the most intense bird-horror scene since Hitchcock! And fans of filmmaker, actor and professor Tom Scholte should note: he has one of his bigger roles in a major Hollywood production. It's not like he's in a Bruce Sweeney movie, here, but it's still fun to see him on screen. (Local Rekha Sharma is in it, too, though I confess  to not knowing her other work). I kind of loved watching The Core again, and Erika liked it too; if you have Netflix, check it out.

Do bear in mind that I didn't say it was actually good. But it sure is fun! 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Tales of Skittish Tybalt

So it is about midnight, and Tybalt and I are inside, having a night to ourselves. The Hunt is on the TV, and he's diving his time sitting beside me, receiving a petting, and exploring the apartment, visiting the stations of his "indoor cat" cross: the water bowl, the litter box, the food dish, the bamboo. (He likes to go panda on our bamboo). I am also a bit distracted, pausing the film to write a bit. At one point, as I sit in my office chair, he meows at the door to the hall outside. "Do you want to go out, buddy?" He rarely does, but sometimes - I think when he smells another cat out there - he makes a request.

I walk over to the door and open it. He runs away almost as soon as the door is open. Curiosity will not kill this cat, he seems to say, staring at me. "You sure? Okay." I close the door.

A few minutes later, I have gone back to my computer to write, and he meows again at the door. I go over and open it once again. He approaches it, and then turns and runs away, deeper into the living room, looking back at me. "Do you want to go outside, buddy? Go check out the hall?"

I step outside and wave him towards me, door wide open. He just stares. I have stared at him through the door before. 

I step back in, shut the door and go on about my business, when a few minutes later, I hear the cat meow again. He is looking at the door, standing beside it. I open it for him. This time he runs outside, quickly scratches the carpet to mark his territory, then runs back inside. Which is usually all he does, especially since that time when he darted out as Erika was coming home, and we didn't notice it, and the door closed on him. He was locked outside for about ten minutes until a neighbour knocked. His trips into the hall have been few and far between that. 

He is done with his scratching, but I still stand there, door open. I step outside and look back at him. "Don't just mark your territory, cat - come on out and explore a little! It's okay..." 

He stands watching me from the kitchen, mistrustful. 

Erika disapproves of my encouraging his curiosity about the hall outside, a little, but I for one would like him to come outside into the hall tonight, for a change. He almost never does. He's the sort of fragile fella who still hides, after over ten years of being with Erika, and five of being with the two of us, when we vacuum; it's so tragic that we generally just let the carpet dust up, so we don't have to watch him sprint for the safety of the underside of furniture. 

But I remember how, after we got back from our last big trip, when Erika and i put him in his carrier and took him to her parents, he was much more alert when he got back - and calmer, too. I think the new experience freshened him up a bit, and made him braver, to boot; he's less inclined to flee from a crinkled plastic bag, for example, or run away if we put some blanket on him. He will even play with cat toys that previously scared him, like the mouse-on-a-string. The vacuum is still traumatizing, and if I start loading laundry into the big blue Ikea bags he does a runner, but he's a stronger cat for the odd adventure, I think, and I feel like providing him a new one tonight. 

It's gotta be good for him. Surely one of the reasons old people decay cognitively is the lack of new inputs. You need to get out of the house once in awhile - the same routine, day in and day out, dulls the brain. Maybe cats, even indoor cats, are like that, too. He's getting older, and Erika occasionally describes him as having "senior moments." Perhaps a trip into the hallway now and then is the answer?

Eventually, as I stand there in the doorway going "here, kitty!" he comes out into the hallway. I let the door close behind us. 

Immediately, he spins around and starts scratching at the door to be let back in. I try to lure him further out, but he continues to scratch. After a couple of minutes, I open the door. He rushes back in, far into the living room, then turns to watch.

I'm not done. I get a cat treat to help lure him back outside. He comes out for the treat - but he doesn't go much past the door, once again. I walk down the hall, and drop another treat on the floor several yards away, to see if he will come to it. He stays where he is, and looks for the treat near the door.
I pick it up and drop it again and point at it. He continues to look around the floor where he is.
"No, it's not over there, buddy." I pick it up, drop it and point at it again. Eventually he comes down the hall, takes the treat, and runs back to the door. 

Variants on this happen one or two more times. At one point, a neighbour comes down the stairs chasing her own cat. Many of the cat owners here let their cats out now and then - but this one - a small female calico - has escaped without permission. Our neighbour treks down the hall in her pink bathrobe and slippers, observing Tybalt and I, narrating her kitty's jailbreak, and then scoops up her own cat. "There you are. Come here!" She goes back up the stairs, saying goodnight to us as she passes. Her cat briefly meows, and Tybalt hears it, but that one item on the wishlist, that Tybalt will get to hang out with other cats, has yet to materialize. 

One time I opened the door for him, at his request, to find another cat - perhaps this same small calico - peering in curiously. The two of them were nose-to-nose for a minute, then Tybalt swatted her face, abruptly ending the visit. It's his only interaction with another cat since we've had him. 

Eventually, as the night goes on, I figure out that maybe Tybalt will be less inclined to run back to the door if I prop it open, so he knows he can get back in. I put one of Erika's shoes in the door and leave it there. He makes one trip out, and comes back. He meows at me, standing at the door, which I have shut behind him. I open it again and decide that to really foster his independence, I should just let him do his thing for awhile - to go explore the hallway or not, his call. It's not like he can get into trouble. I leave the door propped and sit down at my computer.

A few minutes pass where I have no idea where the cat is, when I hear Eric, one of our neighbours, in the hall. I recognize his voice as I sit in my office chair, and he's saying something like, "Are you locked out, buddy?"

The door is propped open, so I'm not sure what Eric means. I see Eric is coming down the stairs to talk to me, so I step out, and Eric beckons me up and shows me what's going on: Tybalt has, bravely, gone all the way up one flight of stairs, which he has NEVER DONE BEFORE - 

- but he's gotten confused: the apartment door directly above us looks pretty much exactly the same as the one below, and he's scratching at it to be let back in, hunkered down close to the floor.

I mean, what does a cat know about doors and floors?
Just because he went upstairs doesn't mean this is not the same door he left behind, right? Maybe the same door is on BOTH FLOORS. In this universe of mysteries, this human world not made for or by cats, why shouldn't it work that way?

Eric, who is ahead of me in the hall (and who knows our cat, from occasional catminding requests), scoops Tybs up and brings him to the stairway, saying "poor guy, did you get confused?" He remarks to me that his cat does this too, sometimes - doesn't know which door he's at. As we turn the top of the stairs, Tybalt spots Erika's shoe, wiggles in Eric's arms to be released, and quickly sprints down the stairs and into the apartment.

Eric and I chat about our cats. I come back in, sit back down at my computer, and the cat comes over for a scratch on the cheek. Then he settles down in his spot on the couch. 

I guess that's enough adventure for tonight. Tybalt has stopped meowing me over to the door, so I guess he agrees. Maybe he'll watch the rest of this movie with me?

He seems a bit more alert for his adventures - but maybe that's in my imagination. Poor guy.

Friday, May 08, 2020

See The Hunt

Have you gotten bored of movies? 

I've gotten bored of movies. I feel less and less of the excitement that I used to most associate with cinema - the excitement of discovery, the feeling of freshness, of sitting down to something I've never seen before and being taken on a ride into uncharted territories. There are shows Erika and I watch that I enjoy, especially the first half - which is usually the freshest half of any film, before it settles into playing out the inevitable patterns it has set in motion. Even with films we both enjoy, there's almost always a feeling (for me, anyhow) of having seen bits of it before. 

Take The Decline, say - a well-made, crisp Quebec film about survivalists at war with each other. It was entertaining enough - moreso watching it with Erika, who has seen fewer movies than I and is less jaded, less desensitized; but it did do a couple of things that surprised me, too. Still, it was nothing so fresh or interesting that I need to revisit it. It has "passed through me and is gone," as Nick Cave sings of a girl somewhere (perhaps one he has eaten?). Maybe it's an effect of the new paradigm, but of the films I've seen theatrically in the last five years, I think I've gone out and deliberately bought ten of them (not counting ones I buy because they're cheap, or buy because I want to see them once, like The Meg, and it's cheaper to wait to find it on a used DVD than pay for a theatrical release). Of those, I have probably since sold or given away or sold five of them (like, say, It Follows; do I ever need to see it, or Spotlight, or Don't Breathe, or Under the Skin, or that movie with JK Simmons as a music teacher,whatever it was called, again?) The keepers in recent years have been Midsommar, Nightcrawler, The Babadook, Green Room, No Escape, The Evil Within, Bone Tomahawk, Under the Silver Lake...  there's actually a pretty short list of movies made in the last ten years that I've seen and wanted to own and revisit. I pray for something fresh, exciting, new, something that doesn't remind me of five other films, that doesn't just riff on genre conventions but exploits them to tell a totally new kind of story, but that is also important and rich enough that I'll want to see it again, maybe more than once. There seem to be more movies made these days than ever before, but precious few of them really succeed at making me care about them. I am - I think I said this already - bored of movies.

The Hunt does remind me of a few other films, but in ways that are audacious enough that I'm willing to call it a fresh experience until something fresher happens by; I am  not sure how it will play once you see where it's going, because it does rely a lot on elements of surprise that won't be as surprising the second time around. But I'm definitely thinking I'll want the blu-ray come June. I am currently paused around the halfway mark - the fulcrum of the film, where the excitement of discovery is usually replaced by the satisfactions of seeing the inevitable play out. I am more of an "excitement of discovery" kind of guy than a "satisfactions of the inevitable" one, so I'm savouring the moment, and a bit reluctant to proceed. There may well be a few delightful surprises yet to come, since there are things that happen within the film that you simply will not see coming; just when you think it has settled in to its story - when it's stopped fucking with your expectations and chosen a path, after a very bloody first half hour, it will do something like give Macon Blair a two minute cameo, where he walks into the movie with a friendly wave - almost seeming like a meta-level reference, like he's saying hello to fans of Jeremy Saulnier films and/ or I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Then within two minutes, his role in the narrative is decisively brought to a close, in a way so ridiculous and perfect you will cheer. At such moments, it's almost like the filmmakers know me, know how jaded I've become, and know that jaded cineastes out there are all Macon Blair fans, tired of watching films that don't even bother to try to surprise you anymore. At such moments, you - meaning I - feel spoken to. Waved at, so to speak. Literally. 

Here I am, waving back. 

I don't want to say anything else about the film. It's politically relevant; it owes - I think this much is obvious - a bit to The Most Dangerous Game (and its varied spawn); it's very funny, and very violent. It has been cheated of a fair release, first by a mass shooting in the US that prompted distributors to delay it, and then by the COVID-19 shutdown, which happened the week of its release. It did briefly get a run at the Twilight Drive-In, but that was weeks ago. It gets a legit release on blu in a couple of weeks. To preserve the freshness of which I speak, I strongly suggest that you read no more about it; trust me; and enjoy it. Easily my favourite new film since Midsommar, unless I've forgotten something... but chances are, if I've forgotten something, it's for a reason.

Okay, now for that second half...