The Mystery of Twin Peaks

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One of the most wonderful universes that you can get lost in is Twin Peaks.  It takes you into the mystery of the world.  It’s strange, but not any stranger than real life.  It’s just that the strangeness of real life is heightened so that it is brought to the forefront.  One of the things that David Lynch does so well is to create strong emotions.  He knows that emotions are abstract, you can’t explain sadness or pain or happiness so much as you can feel it.  Through abstract visuals and sound design he creates cinema of intense feeling.  

The trick to what he does is that he often allows you to feel two different emotions at the same time. The end of Fire Walk With Me, the movie that takes place in the Twin Peaks universe, is one of the most horrifying sequences I have ever seen in film.  It is also beautiful.  The fact that it is beautiful doesn’t make it any less horrific to watch.  In fact in might make it more so, because it opens you up emotionally to it in a way that no straight horror movie or documentary ever could.  David Lynch isn’t afraid to make you feel uncomfortable, but you never ever get the sense he is trying to shock you just for the sake of it.  

The TV show Twin Peaks is a combination of different genres.  There are characters that could have come out of a film noir and there are characters that could have come out of a soap opera.  These more traditional genre elements are laced with episodes of the surreal and uncanny.  At the core of Twin Peaks is a murder mystery.  However, the TV show especially also features many moments of light comedy.  It is again the fact that it is combining different elements that make it so unique.  

But I think one thing that truly makes Twin Peaks special is that in watching it, we not only recognize feelings and emotions from reality, but the show somehow heightens the viewers reality as well.  When we enter the woods after seeing the show we may notice how dark and mysterious they are in ways we might not have payed attention to.  Entering a diner we may notice details and the behavior of people in ways in which we didn’t before.  Twin Peaks is great entertainment, but it is also something more.  It is a fictional world that makes us aware of the mysteries in our own.  

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Review

I felt that the following review did not do the album justice so I posted a follow up here:

http://www.windupwire.com/2014/06/20/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-revisited/

I really like the new Lana Del Rey album, Ultraviolence, in spite of Dan Auerbach’s lazy production.  I know there is a lot of internet noise claiming Lana Del Ray is a fraud, but I actually think she is one of the few originals in pop music right now.  She has a dreamily haunted voice, is great at crafting darkly beautiful melodies, and is great at taking different kinds of American iconography in her lyrics and forging something new with them.  I must admit that I am a sucker for David Lynch and Del Ray’s blending of American pop culture and dark dreams sound like they would be the perfect soundtrack to a Lynch movie. I am predisposed to like the kind of music she makes.

Del Rey had a pretty consistent vision across her albums and singles.  You are not going to mistake her for a different artist.  If you liked what she did before you are going to like what she is doing now, while the opposite is also true.  One of the reasons I believe her first album was a success was that she took several retro elements, infused them with some modern production and lyrical references, and ended up with her own small patch of uncharted territory.

I first want to state that I like her new album.  Any criticism thrown at it is minor and not actually aimed at her.  She still sings fantastically, although I do miss her lower register a bit, which is my favorite part of her range.  If you don’t think she can sing listen to the final track on her new album The Other Woman.  The melodies are still great.  She also still uses the language of pop culture, mixes it with a dark sexuality, and creates something her own.  Some people will claim that she is inauthentic, because she records under a false name, but the pop world is littered with people who built self created myths.  Bob Dylan is not his real name and he never road to New York City in a box car.  Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are, surprise, not their real names either.  That is not to say that she is as talented as Bob Dylan or as ground breaking as the Sex Pistols, not by a long shot, but in the world of pop music she has created something uniquely hers.  That alone should be applauded.

However, I do have some minor quibbles with her new album.  These I mostly attribute to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys fame.  For someone that has a strong retro vibe in her work, I can’t imagine that there was very much thought put into the idea of recording her mostly live to old analog tape, dousing her in a shitload of reverb, and having her track with a live band.  I love the sound of analog tape and I also love when people track live to it.  Hell, my band did that on our new album.  But with someone that takes so many influences from the past this seems to make her work even more backward looking than it really is.  It just seems like such an obvious choice that to me it shows the mind of a producer with little imagination.

First he puts so much reverb on her voice that it pushes her voice to the background at times when it is her biggest asset.  Sometimes this ridiculous amount of reverb actually makes it hard to understand what she is singing about.  Also, I think with someone that draws so much influence form the past you have to be careful with how “retro” you make her record sound.  It becomes more of a genre exercise that it ought to be.  I also find the backing band to be lacking in any real personality.  They do serve the songs, but to the point that if she wasn’t singing on them there wouldn’t be much going on musically that was interesting.  Look, I love effects, I like hearing real musicians play, I like these songs and this singer, but I can’t help but feel the arrangements could be more memorable in and of themselves.

Listening to her two albums, and the song that she did with Bobby Womack, I believe Lana Del Rey is a great talent that will probably have a long career of making interesting records.  Hopefully next time she won’t choose a hack like Dan Auerbach to produce it.

Kanye West’s Yeezus

I have become transfixed with the music of Kanye West lately.  Whatever you think of him, and like me you probably have an opinion of him even before you have heard a note of his music, he is definitely an artist.  He allows all of the contradictions in his personality, both the good and bad, to come through in his music even when it makes him look less than flattering.  More importantly he has become a first rate sonic architect.  His latest album Yeezus, and my favorite, is batshit insane in the best way possible.  I like his work from best to least in reverse order, though I will admit I am least familiar with his first two records.  The stranger his music gets the better as far as I’m concerned. 

His lyrics, while it would be wrong to say they are not intelligent, are not intellectual in a true sense.  Although they have many moments of playfulness and bizarre humor, in some way they seem less constructed than delivered.  It’s almost as if we have a ticker tape of the subconscious.  This is both their strength and weakness.  That’s why I believe his lyrics work the best when they are either a direct representation of how he feels, or are completely crazy on something like I Am a God.  The very best are when you have a tough time telling the two apart.  When he is singing something like I Am a God I believe he is just having fun, trying to be provocative.  He has found a small bit of virgin territory, which is harder and harder to do these days, and is staking it out, probably laughing at all of the people that are going to freak out. 

Other than being a huge Public Enemy fan I am not a big rap fan.  I am trying to branch out and learn more as it is one of the areas where I feel my musical education is lacking.  I’ve always felt that the singing voice is the quickest way to some kind of emotional truth in music.  When someone sings it is almost a window into their soul.  In rap that nonverbal emotional element is missing and the words really do matter.  That’s not to say that a rappers delivery can’t communicate emotions, it is just not the same as singing though.  Also, and this goes for any genre, one of my pet peeves lyrically is of the moment pop culture references.  They seem to date something instantly.  That’s not to say that you can’t reach some universal truth while doing so, but you have an uphill battle.  Too often rap not only exists in the world of the ego, which rock n roll has been doing since it began, but in the world of the temporary.  I feel like the best lyrics either make you think on some deeper level, or stay out of the way of the melody completely and let the emotional quality of a piece of music do the talking.  If you are thinking, but at a very rudimentary level, you are being taken out of the emotion of the piece as far as I’m concerned.  No one would say that Bernard Sumner was a great poet, but his lyrics have an almost blank slate quality that allows you to project your own imagination into the song.  They don’t get in the way of enjoying his effervescent melodies.  I’m trying to rethink my personal prejudices when it comes to lyrics, at least when I listen to rap, as I realize it is a different form with different rules. 

I became interested in Kanye when both Lou Reed and David Lynch talked about their love of his new album.  They are two artists that I respect greatly and I had to see what they were going on about.  I was instantly impressed with Yeezus and wanted to learn more. 

I see the lyrics on Yeezus as both a mixture of raw pain and again as someone just trying to have fun.  It’s a strange blend, but compelling because of it.  Part of the detective work of the listener is trying to determine where he is being serious and where he is not.  Sometimes he is playing with his media perception and other times he is letting those inner thoughts, the ones that most of us keep secret, come to the forefront.

Sonically the juxtaposition of opposing ideas again makes this album incredibly captivating.  Primal drums, screeching synths, and screams will suddenly give way to beautiful moments of soul singing.  Often you’ll get one or the other on a record, but rarely both.  He is playing with both melody and noise often in the same song.  This record is one of the few times when I have heard something and I feel like something is being done new sonically.  Sure, everything has been done in some ways, but he is painting new colors in the margins.  He is combining things in a way that they have never quite been combined before.  It’s exciting.    

Thoughts on Autotune

In music many people talk about autotune and if it should be used or not.  Autotune is a program that will allow an engineer to fix bad notes by a singer by shifting the pitch of a note a singer is singing.  Autotune is also used to an extreme to make voices sound robotic and unnatural.  Some people believe that autotune is cheating.  They think that it allows people that have no talent to make records.  This is true.  Because of this some people are vehemently against it.  Other people will use it on every song to smooth out a singers voice and see no problem using it if it makes for a great record. 

I’ve been listening to The Afghan Whigs lately.  Greg Dulli has a voice that can go from a low sensual baritone to a high scream.  His singing can be a little pitchy, though not very much, but in a way that completely serves the song.  Vic Chesnutt’s voice is often pitchy, but again his unique voice serves his songs perfectly.  Most of The Afghan Whigs records were made before autotune.  If you use autotune too much, you rob people of their personality.  Things that are too perfect often lack soul.  If some of those records were made now would some L.A. studio asshole try to fix them? 

Singing is all about letting someone’s soul and personality come through.  Lou Reed only had about a two note range, but his voice was the perfect vehicle for his lyrics.  Meanwhile Sam Cooke could sing like an angel, but again his voice perfectly fit his material.  There is no such thing as good or bad singing, only singing that either works with the given material or not.  A singer either has a personality that makes you connect with a piece of music or they do not.  Any of us could have a debate about which singers have personality and which do not, but that comes down to taste.  There are many singers that have technically great voices, but that make you feel nothing.  Most modern country stars are in this bracket as far as I’m concerned. 

We’ve been singing since the dawn of time.  The right singer with the right song has a kind of primal energy to it that allows us to feel emotion, even if we can’t understand the lyrics.  As we become more technically advanced we should not let technology rob us of individual expression. 

However, all of that being said, I think there are two uses where autotune is valid.  Record budgets weren’t what they used to be.  I read that John Mellencamp spent $300,000 dollars making a record and this was before he was a big star!  That shit doesn’t happen too often anymore.  Only the most popular artists these days have that kind of budget.  Many artists might not have the time to spend hours getting the perfect take.  If you get a really exceptional take and use autotune to fix one or two bad notes then I don’t see any real problem with it.  This is actually what the program was designed for.  It will keep the costs of recording down and allow you to possibly use the overall best performance.  With that kind of use autotune might actually allow for a more emotional take.  If you are only using it very sparingly you are not getting in the way of a singers humanity, and are only allowing for a really great take to get its due. 

I also don’t have a problem with people that use it to extremes given the right circumstances.  If you are actually trying to create something that is unnatural or inhuman then it is just a tool at your disposal.  Daft Punk, who dress like robots, use it in this light all the time and it fits what they do.  I have also heard David Lynch use it in a way that is uncanny.  It is so unnatural that it actually creates a feeling of unease.  He is using it as a tool to create the desired emotion, and not as someone that is using it for a crutch. 

Like most things autotune is best either used very little or a lot.  It’s that middle road that leads to mediocrity.  In art, the middle of the road is always the worst place to be. 

Review of Under the Skin

I saw Jonathan Glazer’s movie Under the Skin tonight starring Scarlett Johansson.  It is a highly contemplative movie that features a great deal of stunning original imagery.  It’s not as surreal as something like a David Lynch film, but it is way more art house than most American cinema.  An easy way to decide if you would like this film is to be honest with yourself about how much you like meeting images halfway to arrive at your own interpretation.  I loved it, but can say with certainty that it is not for everyone.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that has come to earth whose purpose seems to be to lure men into a trap.  She does this by seducing them.  Exactly what happens when the men are lured into the home she is using as a trap is slowly revealed piece by piece.  The movie moves along at a slow meditative pace, where each image is parsed for meaning.  She eventually develops empathy for her prey and things take a different turn in the second half of the film.  Part of the enjoyment of this movie is putting the puzzle pieces together yourself, so I don’t want to say anything else about the plot.  It’s not a mystery per se, so much as it is a film that doesn’t hold you by the hand, and uses the imagery on screen, more than any dialogue, to tell the story.

The movie is cinematically beautiful and haunting.  There are several scenes that I know will stick with me for awhile.  There were several shots in this movie that reminded me of Japanese art for the way that nature seems larger, more mysterious, and more powerful than the characters taking place in the foreground.  There is a sense of dread that permeates the film, but even in the middle of this dread the images still have a sense of wonder to them.  The movie takes place in Scotland and the rainy foggy Scottish countryside in the second half of the film seems every bit as foreign as the early shots that take place where Johansson brings her victims.  One scene in particular, of trees waving in the wind, had me thinking that the woods were as alive and enchanted as a dark fairy tale.

The film is full of ideas, but I think different viewers will take different things from it.  Sex and gender plays a role in the film, both in relationships between Johansson and her victims and during some scenes near the end that I would rather not spoil.  The film also contemplates mortality and what it means to be human.  I feel like I have only just started thinking about this film and over the next few days it will be running through my head.

Most good movies are like short stories with some even approaching the depth of a novel.  This movie is much more like a poem.  It is a stream of images, where the story is secondary to the ideas and visions of its director.

Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania Review

It is easy for me to say that Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is a great album, but it is a lot harder for me to describe why.  It is a strange, unique, and ultimately rewarding listen.  It is more of an enigmatic experience than a typical record made of a collection of songs.  Although there are some incredible songs on this record, it is a true album in that the sense that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.

Here at Windup Wire I usually don’t write typical album reviews.  Although I have written a couple, I am much more interested in how a piece of work ties into bigger ideas in our culture.  Why something is important or not important is much more interesting to me than whether something is good or bad.  If you want to know how this record came to be, a rock band that found a bunch of old folk song lyrics and then used their fellow small town citizens to be their back up band, I highly suggest going to www.marah-usa.com and reading about it.  It’s a really interesting story and Dave Bielanko, Marah’s lead singer, is a really great writer that will tell this story much more in depth and much more poetically than I could here.  The creation of this album is a story unto itself and is worth reading about.

If I was going to compare this album to anything, I would be more likely to compare it to a Werner Herzog movie than any album that comes to mind.  It is full of ecstatic truth that is part beauty and part danger.  It is full of strong emotions, but because emotions are abstract, it is easier to feel them than to put them into words.  This record is infused from top to bottom with mystery.

The first revelation I had while listening to this record is that great art demands to be met on its own terms.  That does not necessarily mean that the best of art, or this record, is challenging, although it can be, but that they aren’t asking you to like them, they simply just are.  Although there are moments of discord on this record, and this definitely isn’t the middle of the road Americana music that is so in fashion right now, this also isn’t Public Image Limited’s Metal Box.  It’s not actively challenging you so much as it is simply going down its own path, unafraid of losing some people along the way if they don’t get it.  In fact a moment ago when I hinted that it was an Americana record, this really isn’t true other than in the broadest sense.  It does rely heavily on traditional instruments, and because the lyrics come from old folk songs it does have one foot in traditional American roots music, but only one foot.  Although there are plenty of things you could say this record is sort of like, it really is truly unique and needs to be met on its own terms.

The first song, The Falling of the Pine, is a perfect example.  The first half of the song is traditional folk instruments with a very traditional folk melody.  (Although the Jew harp in this part of the song hints at things to come.)  About halfway through the song it breaks down.  The next thing you know a rock n roll rhythm section comes in and all rules are thrown out the window.  And by this I don’t mean that the song continues as is just with bass and drums.  I mean that it takes a completely left turn.  The past and the present collide in one song.

A thing that is really interesting to me about this record is the way that the past and the present do collide.  This is both in the arrangements and the technology that is used to make the record.  The record was recorded live in an old church using analog tape and minimum microphones.  This gives a great deal of the record a far away dream like quality.  Instruments blur together in ways that you are not always one hundred percent sure what you are listening to.  However if the recording sound of the record is old, the music is fresh.  It makes you feel as if you are viewing our present as the past.  It’s almost as if someone from some future age had unearthed a bunch of records that were being made right now, but time had dilapidated them and the person that discovered them was wondering what life must have been like at this time and place.

Marah has three basic characteristics that have defined them to me throughout the years.  The first is that they have one of the best rock n roll singers of recent years in Dave Bielanko.  Whether they are playing blistering rock music or beautiful folk songs you can always recognize his voice.  It has the grittiness and heart of someone like Paul Westerberg, but there is a good deal of inner city grime to it as well.  Once you hear it you’ll understand.  They have often displayed, again with whatever style they are tackling, a throw everything in including the kitchen sink sense of arrangement.  Occasionally they will pair down to a simpler sound, but often there are all kinds of instruments thrown together that one wouldn’t think would belong together.  But it always does.   Their arrangements are often over stacked, but in a way that is charming.  Unlike most modern records where grand arrangements hint at slickness, Marah’s retain a great deal of looseness and feel to them.  Banjos, electric guitars, fiddles, a Jew harp, barbershop singers, handclaps, whistles, and much, much more collide on this album.  Marah have always created a big atmosphere and this album is no different.  The third thing that always defines Marah for me, and the most important outside of Dave’s voice, is the fact that they always, and I mean always, get the rhythm right.  Their songs always have the perfect groove for whatever style they are attempting.  Even when there are no drums, their songs are deep in the pocket.  All of these attributes are present on this record and on many of Marah’s recordings in the past.

There is one thing that is new here for a Marah record.  It is the sense of community that this is not just a band record.  Dave and Christine Smith, the two members that makeup Marah at this point, are joined by the townspeople of and surrounding Millheim, Pa.  The town is their band.  8 year old Gus Tritsch actually sings two of the songs and wrote one of them.  This country used to have more regional music.  Although that is still true to a degree, technology and mass communications has homogenized music to a much higher degree than in the past.  With this album you feel as if you are transported to a specific time and place.  A moment in time never to be captured again.

This record is again an album in the truest sense.  Although there are some glorious songs on this record, its true strength is in the sum of its parts.  (The song Luliana is a stunningly beautiful ballad.  I also must say that I was very happy to hear a reference to the Susquehanna River which I grew up near.)  Marah have always been great songwriters whether it is Dave and Christine or whether it was Serge Bielanko when he was still in the band.  However, there are moments on this album that drift purposefully towards sound and atmosphere.  The last song is an instrumental.  Some of these moments if taken alone, while still retaining a certain ramshackle charm, gain a weight when listened to in the correct sequence.

If I have any criticism of this record it is merely one of taste.  Occasionally I would like to see Dave’s vocals higher in the mix.  I understand why the choice was probably made to have the vocals somewhat submerged in the mix.  It adds to the sense of mystery that permeates the album.  However, Dave really is such a great rock n roll singer that I occasionally want to hear more of him.

This album is strange mutant folk music infused with rock n roll spirit.  When 8 year old Gus sings the dread infused Rattlesnake it is more punk rock than any punk rock I’ve heard it years.  The hazy mysterious quality of this record may lose a couple of people along the way, but it’s their loss.  This record has a truly cinematic quality to it.  Again I can’t help but think of Werner Herzog and at times the American surrealism of David Lynch.  Yet even that doesn’t scratch the surface.  For every moment of weird surrealism there is probably one of straight folk music and another of rock n roll passion.  It’s a hell of a thing.  If you want to hear something new and go someplace you haven’t been before, give it a go.

Listen to a clip of Ten Cents at the Gate from the album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWWht8LywOU

Why do the Japanese Make Such Weird Movies?!!!

I have long loved certain kinds of Japanese anime, especially the Studio Ghibli films.  Watch the movie Spirited Away sometime.  Visually these movies are unlike anything in Western culture.  Often after viewing one of these movies several questions come to mind.  Are the Japanese taking a lot of acid?  How do the Japanese know exactly what my dreams are like after I eat a Cadbury egg right before bed?  I often wonder if things like Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse are as strange to the Japanese as their films are to us.  Is there something in their culture that makes these movies so popular in Japan?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have read part of two books about Japanese culture.  One is A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia.  The other one is called The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno.  I admit that I am only about 30% through the first one and I haven’t actually even gotten to the part about anime yet.  However, what follows is some guesswork on my part that I believe will turn out to be somewhat accurate.

The Japanese highly value social harmony.  Because of this their culture is infused with a great deal of ambiguity.  People will often say things that are vague so that the other party is not offended.  A good deal of the time you can infer what people mean by the way they say something and not by what is actually being said.  The closest example in our culture that I can come up with is from an episode of Married with Children.  On the show there is a situation that goes something like the following:  Al Bundy gets asked by his wife Peggy how she looks.  He can either tell her she looks good and then be forced to sleep with her, or he can tell her that she looks bad and get slapped.  Neither outcome is desirable.  Because of this he tells her that she looks nice.  Nice is a lukewarm meaningless compliment that can only be understood by how someone says it.  The Japanese use a great deal of this kind of language so that they can maintain social harmony.

There are also other reasons that the Japanese are comfortable with ambiguity.  Another reason is related to the roll of Zen Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture.  There are a series of brief stories that resemble riddles called koans.  The most famous one is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”  Another one is as follows:

Two monks were arguing about a flag.  One said, “The flag is moving.”  The other said, “The wind is moving.”  The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by.  He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag.  Mind is moving.”

These koans are supposed to be slightly confusing and ambiguous.  However, when you are confused you begin to think.  By thinking you can start moving towards enlightenment.

Another factor that might play into all of this is the way that the Japanese write.  Two of the Japanese alphabets, their culture uses three, are based on symbols.  Anyone that has seen the beautiful Japanese characters knows what I am talking about.  The Japanese do use our alphabet, but often when things are written in this alphabet this can be slightly confusing to the Japanese.  That is because their minds are trained to again read through symbols.  Reading is often a much more visual act for the Japanese.  Because of this the Japanese are a highly visual people.

So you combine a highly visual culture with people that are primed for ambiguity and that is my guess on how you arrive at strange cartoons that resemble acid trips.  Except for certain filmmakers like David Lynch, our cinema does not dive so regularly into that kind of abstract dream logic.  Unless of course we do drugs, which we sure have a lot of!