Listening Post (Marillion Edition)

Marillion misplaced

I think any good music fan has one band that they love but that they’re vaguely embarrassed of. So it is with Marillion. They’re one of the most ridiculous bands ever, yet I have an enduring affection for them that’s lasted almost 25 years. I was given a cassette copy of their debut, Script for a Jester’s Tear, by an older friend when I was a freshman in high school. If I had been familiar with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, I would have immediately recognized whose style and sound the band was biting, but because the only Genesis I knew at the time was the one that sang “Invisible Touch,” Marillion seemed revolutionary. Those keyboards! Those guitar solos! That facepaint! Their music was all capes and 20-minute songs about Beowulf‘s Grendel, but to a 15-year-old kid in rural Ohio who hadn’t yet grown out of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, it was a doorway to a strange new pretentious world. And the fact that I was sponging this up in 1988, at the exact same time I was discovering Hüsker Dü and the Pixies and the Replacements and R.E.M. via new albums is a testament to how weirdly exciting it was to be a fledgling music fan in the late 80’s.

Anyway.

What is there to say about this album, their third? I feel like if I write too much about it it’s going to topple under the weight of its own preposterousness. I mean, just look at that cover, for starters. I guess I’ll say this: it’s the best starting point to the band because it’s the one where singer and lyricist Fish (what seems like a dopey pseudonym until you realize his real name is Derek Dick) started to reign in some of his more over-the-top sensibilities. Their first two albums (the aforementioned Script… and 1984’s Fugazi) consist of seriously unhinged (and stupidly great) prog-rock goofiness. You know what I mean: songs that regularly clock in at the 7- and 8-minute mark, endless widdly guitar solos, KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS, and pretentious lyrics about garden parties and the Irish Republican Army.

But there’s something to it. Misplaced Childhood, released in 1985, is an impenetrable song cycle about – I think – delayed maturity, lost love, and regret. And child soldiers? Whatever the case, the album had their first proper hit, the lovely “Kayleigh” and the even lovelier piano-led “Lavender,” and there’s three or four other songs on the album that could have been hits, especially “Childhood’s End?,” which features guitarist Steve Rothery’s soaring, quasi-U2 lead. The band always had an unerring sense for melody (even when it was buried in a seemingly unending epic), and it was on this album that they simplified things enough so that those melodies could breathe. “Simplified” is a relative term in Marillion Land, of course, because the album itself, in true song cycle fashion, is one unbroken piece of music, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Even so, the individual tracks are some of the strongest, catchiest things in the band’s career.

Fish’s lyrics, too, are exceptionally vivid. I’ve poked fun at his more outré tendencies, but the guy has an undeniable gift for language. “Kayleigh” gives us lines like “chalk hearts melting on a playground wall,” and “Lavender” opens with the resonant image of sprinklers on summer lawns and children “running through the rainbows.” Then again, the album’s first song drifts in on a Spïnal Tap-worthy keyboard line and the first words we hear are, “Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono /Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding,” so what do I know?

But despite the inescapable silliness of some of this, Misplaced Childhood still stands up for me as a quality collection of songs. There’s the tribal drumming and spy-movie tendencies of “Waterhole,” the chiming shards of guitar (guitarist Rothery is sort of a marvel) that sparkle throughout closer “White Feather” (an ode to self-determination, with Fish singing, “I will swear I have no nation/But I’m proud to own my heart”), and even the 9-minute, multi-part “Blind Curve” doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to the hummable melodies that serve as its foundation. This clearly isn’t for everyone, and you have to enter into it with the understanding that it’s going to be a little … grandiose. But after all these years I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is better than I think it is.

Next steps: I can’t in good conscience recommend their first two albums. I like them, but they’re definitely an acquired taste. If Misplaced Childhood turns out to be your thing, you’d do well to listen to its follow-up, 1987’s Clutching at Straws, which I almost selected for this edition of the Listening Post. It’s another confident set, with some of Fish’s best lyrics. He would leave after that album, though, embarking on a mildly successful (in Europe, at least) solo career. The band continued with new vocalist Steve Hogarth, and they’re still soldiering on to this day. I don’t like the Hogarth stuff nearly as well, but his first album with the band, 1989’s Season’s End, is quite good and worth your time (especially if you have a thing for beer commercial guitars).  1998’s Radiation is probably my favorite of this second iteration of the band, and it features “A Few Words for the Dead,” a song that builds to a euphoric chorus that never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.  I think the video is worth a watch because I love the song so much, but if you click it you can either sit through the first two minutes of widdly-widdly noodling or else skip straight to 2:20 when the song actually begins.

Harmony Around My Table

Rollins

One of the weird things about being a music fan – not a casual fan, but a “this is how I make sense of my life” fan – is that certain artists will always be present across the years, even though you’re not necessarily a huge fan of their work.  They flit in and out, you occasionally listen to an album, it registers when they release something new (although you probably won’t buy it), and when their latest tour comes to town, you at least check ticket prices in case it’s happening on a night when nothing good is on TV.

Henry Rollins is that guy for me.

Rollins 2I definitely don’t dislike his work (and he’d probably punch me if I said I did), but it’s just never quite clicked with me.  At the dawn of my voracious music phase (a phase that’s now lasted 27 years), where I was crazily tracking down influences of influences of influences of that week’s new favorite band, I discovered Black Flag’s Damaged album.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I was mopey, but not angry.  I appreciated humor, but couldn’t figure out how to interpret “TV Party” against the backdrop of Rollins’ supposed straightedge lifestyle.  I liked stuff with an edge, but didn’t exactly connect with the sludgy aggression of what I was told was a landmark album.

So I just sort of let it slide on past on my way to Echo & The Bunnymen or whatever.  I revisited his work a few years later when he had a minor college radio hit as frontman of The Rollins Band with “Low Self Opinion.”  I certainly connected with the song lyrically, and musically it was a little more melodic than Black Flag, but it was hard to escape the fact that it was unseemly for a grown man to be singing about such things – what I imagine David Cross would call “15-year-old white girl lyrics.”

For a while, Rollins and I didn’t see much of each other.  I read his work when it appeared in various publications, and I was intrigued by his transition away from music and into spoken-word performance, but even as my musical palate expanded, there was never a point where I thought, “It’s time to immerse myself once again in the Black Flag oeuvre.”

Rollins CoachellaBut I never wrote him off, even though his music never quite did it for me.  His spoken-word material was too smart, too funny, and too relatable for me to discount him.  This was reinforced by his 2009 performance at Coachella.  If I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it except that it was sharp, clever, and much better than I was expecting.  What I do remember is that he made a point of emphasizing that all the people at Coachella, whether they were at his set or not, were part of the same tribe.  By virtue of traveling to the desert to immerse ourselves in good music, we had more in common with each other than we realized.  I don’t think that’s true of Coachella anymore – the target audience has sadly shifted away from the music fan to the L.A. teenybopper douchebag who wants only to be seen at the party – but Rollins’ sentiment resonated.  As one of only a handful of people at my high school seriously into independent music, I understood the value of finding like-minded friends.  And I especially appreciated Rollins’ Coachella set because it was at this point that I recognized him for what he really was: a fan.  No more, no less.

This was reinforced by an article he wrote last week for LA Weekly.  I encourage anyone who’s trying to understand the music obsessive in his or her life to read this article.  It’s a little rambling and discursive, but at one point Rollins articulates simply and truthfully why I think many of us listen to – and buy – as much music as we do.

I buy records because I medicate with music. It makes the day-to-day horror show of existence endurable . . . I am less an audiophile than I am a vinyl cat lady. You can never have too many records – aren’t they all just so wonderful?

I think I’m often viewed by friends and acquaintances as simply a collector, the Crazy Music Guy™ who has a lot of records.  But I can’t stress this enough: music saved my life.  I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school.  I was struggling to come to grips with who I was.  I felt unpopular and unattractive.  I know I’m not unique in these feelings – I probably just described everyone who’s ever been a teenager – but music is the way I survived.  I knew when I was feeling down I could listen to The Smiths and take solace in the fact that Morrissey felt the same way I did.  I could listen to R.E.M. and be comforted by the arty weirdos from exotic Athens, GA, or put on The Joshua Tree and think about how I could help U2 save the world.  Was I self-destructive?  I don’t know.  I’ve got almost 30 years in the rearview mirror, which makes it a little hard to say, but, yeah – my parents probably should have been concerned.  The point, though, just like Rollins says, is that music was my medication, my therapy.  I owe it a debt I can never repay.

And, while the circumstances are different, I still use it to medicate.  My feelings of inadequacy linger, they’re just different now: I’m crap at my job, I should be a kinder person, I need to write more, I’m not being all I should be for my students, and on and on.  At home, in my car, at the office, right now – music is playing nearly all the time, and it helps me get through the day.  I enjoy the music on an aesthetic level, of course – that is, after all, my primary concern – but there’s undoubtedly a therapeutic value to it, too.  It isn’t just a tune to whistle as I idle away the time.

Music matters.

At a time when vinyl records have become just another hipster affectation, it’s important for those of us who depend on music to make sense of the world to periodically remind people that, at its best, music transcends entertainment.  Henry Rollins, vinyl cat lady proclivities notwithstanding, makes a convincing case for that.  And in doing so, he reminds me that some musicians will always be there for us, whether we ask them to be or not.

*****

Current listening:

Fugazi end

Fugazi – End Hits (1998)

Join the Dots

Flyingcircus_2I’ve written a lot over the years about just how crucial it was to my developing personality to discover independent music when I was 15 years old, and I’ve undoubtedly worn out my welcome writing about how Stephen King was a flashpoint for so much of what I’ve done with my life.  One area that’s gone oddly unexplored – even though it’s easily as important as those other two – is comedy.  Mirroring what happened for me with R.E.M. and Stephen King, I got into comedy in a fairly heavy way as a freshman in high school, and it unequivocally shaped the way I looked at the world.

There were three names that loomed over the others, all of which I discovered in less than a year.  George Carlin came first.  My parents had a vinyl copy of Occupation: Fooleand once they decided I was old enough to handle it, I wore out the grooves listening to his “Filthy Words” bit.  Next came Steve Martin.  I’m sure I was aware of him on some level before high school (probably as the King Tut guy from Saturday Night Live), but my first viewing of The Jerk hit me at just the right time. I made quick work of the rest of his filmography, and I also got my hands on his standup album Let’s Get Small, which, in its deconstruction of the genre, stood as sort of a counterpoint to the polish of Occupation: Foole.  Carlin and Martin both taught me that comedy could be smart and principled, but also simultaneously irreverent and idealistic.  I gravitated toward the anti-authoritarian vibe they both clearly possessed, but also responded to Martin’s romantic streak and Carlin’s strong undercurrent of optimism.  They were (and still are) two artists whose work I hold dear.

And then came Monty Python. My friend John (two years older than me and also responsible for turning me on to the band Marillion, more on which some other day) introduced me to Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and my world was never the same.

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The absurdity, but also the undeniable intelligence, was worlds away from anything else I’d seen at the time.  I wasn’t sheltered by any means, but my parents’ tastes always ran to the conventional.  Growing up it was a steady diet of whatever sitcoms were popular (Three’s Company, The Facts of Life), and if I ever saw R-rated comedies, it was only the edited versions on network TV.  So while I’d seen Caddyshack, Airplane!, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, I hadn’t really seen them, if you know what I mean.

To suddenly watch Graham Chapman come galloping over a hill followed by a servant banging two coconuts together was a total paradigm shift.  You mean . . . this was possible?  And there was more of it?  John quickly became my supplier.  He passed me VHS copies of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, and episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus he’d recorded from the local PBS station.  Our library had a copy of And Now for Something Completely Different, and I watched that, too, even though I’d already seen most the sketches.  I became that nerd (in addition to all the other nerds I already was), repeating catchphrases ad nauseam to the annoyance of friends, family, and teachers.  I was obsessed.

Just like it was with The Beatles, everyone has their favorite Python.  For me, it’s always been John Cleese.  He always seemed like the smartest in the troupe (although Michael Palin ran a close second), and I appreciated the fact that he could do both verbal humor (“Argument Clinic”) and physical humor (“Ministry of Silly Walks”) with equal facility.  What I tapped into most of all, though, as an angsty little guy who didn’t have a firm grasp on his emotions, was the deep reservoir of rage that seemed to be coursing just below the surface of Cleese’s aloof British exterior.  In many of his sketches there’s the impression that he’s just barely holding it together.  “The Parrot Sketch” is probably the most well-known example of this, although I think “The Architects Sketch” is where he does some of his best work.  Cleese plays the title character, pitching an abattoir to two stuffy business types who really want a block of flats.  Watch the build until the glorious explosion at the 3:00 mark.

Cleese would, of course, turn “slow burn escalating to a tirade” into an art form in Fawlty Towers which is, for me, the Sistine Chapel of British comedy.

In my late teens and early 20s, as I got more involved with improv and sketch comedy, Cleese sort of became the Platonic ideal of how to mix low and high comedy.  Or maybe it was more that he illustrated how to do low comedy with intelligence and high comedy with a visceral edge.  Most importantly, I can draw a straight line from Cleese to many of my current favorite comedians (Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Louis C.K., Kyle Kinane, Paul F. Tompkins, etc.), all of whom seem to be spiritual descendants of what Cleese was doing in the 1960s and 70s.

Tonight Amanda and I go see Cleese’s tour with fellow Python Eric Idle.  Most shows I attend for a relaxing night out.  A few others, though, are more about paying tribute to the people who, even from a great distance, taught me how to be me.

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*****

Current listening:

World harmlessness

The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (2015)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords)

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And so the intrepid explorers pressed on from Fjadrargljufur, armed only with their GPS and a semi-stale handful of nut mix left over from Pingvillir.    We made it to Kirkjubæjarklaustur around lunch time.  This was a scheduled stop, although once Amanda and I arrived we weren’t entirely sure why.  It was a cute(ish) little area, but to call it a town would be stretching the definition of the word.  It did, however, have a decent-looking restaurant, Systrakaffi, so rather than settle for more gas station food – what were we, barbarians? – we pulled in for a bite to eat.

Let’s talk about fermented shark.  It’s one of those dishes we’d always heard about and, yeah, okay, been warned against trying.  But c’mon – how bad could it be?  It’s only shark that’s been stored in a hole in the ground for three months then cut into strips and hung up to dry for six more.  The waitress’ funny look when I ordered it should have been a hint as to what we were getting ourselves into.  And then she brought it out.  There were no immediate red flags.  It was in cubes, looking sort of like a cheese plate, with a shot of Brennevin, Iceland’s native liquor, on the side.  It didn’t look disgusting, but its reputation couldn’t be denied.

“So . . . how do we eat this?” There might have been a note of panic in my voice.

The waitress laughed. “You take a bite of the shark, chew very fast, then drink the Brennevin to take away the taste of the shark.”

With that glowing endorsement, we tucked in.

It was awful: overwhelmingly fishy, hard to chew and even harder to swallow.  And the Brennevin wasn’t much better.  As I choked it down I detected notes of turpentine and death.  But Amanda and I toughed it out and ate our cubes of rotten shark like the gullible tourists we are.

DSC_0040Once we were sure our lunch would stay down, it was a quick drive over to an odd little geological curiosity: Kirkjugolf (which translates into English as “church floor”).  It looks phony, like someone put down some asymmetrical tile in the middle of a field and then took a permanent smoke break.  But it’s actually a relative of the basalt columns of Reynisfjara (see Part 3).  The difference is that the columns of Kirkjugolf are underground, and we’re just seeing the tops.  Nifty!

It was approaching mid-afternoon by this point, and we knew we had a decent drive ahead of us to get to Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon, and then at least another hour past that to our guesthouse in Höfn.  All of which I mention only to explain my one regret of the trip.  We made a quick stop at Skaftafell National Park, mainly to see Svartifoss, the park’s signature waterfall, which is flanked by more basalt columns.  But by the time we reached the park and saw that it was a mile-plus hike to the falls we knew it was a non-starter.  So on we went, Svartifoss-less.  I won’t even look at the picture, but I include a link here so you can see what we missed.

As we made the drive across the southern part of the country toward Jökulsárlón, the landscape changed again.  We were crossing right at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier, so it was on this leg of the drive that we were seeing a stark demarcation between the lava fields and the glacier.

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And then we got to Jökulsárlón itself, and suddenly it didn’t seem so tragic that we’d missed Svartifoss.  Formed by the retreat of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, this glacial lagoon is one of the most majestic and distinctly foreign things we saw on the trip.

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DSC_0107One thing these pictures can’t convey is just how cold it was at Jökulsárlón.  In the space of an hour we went from temperatures in the mid-60s at Skaftafell to what had to be the low 40s at the glacial lagoon.  But we still hung around for a bit, taking pictures and just sort of trying to process the enormity of what we were seeing before deciding that even with the cold it would be foolish to pass up the chance for a boat tour.  So we booked our tickets, climbed into the “boat,” and pushed off into the lagoon.  There’s really no way to do it justice in words, so I’ll just drop in some photos and rest assured that they’ll convey the experience better than I could.  The trip continues on the other side of the picture break.

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DSC_0114As soon as we were off the boat, we high-tailed it along the Ring Road to Höfn, a seaside town for which the word quaint was apparently coined.  We got there pushing 8:00 p.m., and the town had largely closed up for the night.  Höfn’s few restaurants, however, were doing a booming business (no matter where we went in Iceland, dinner service didn’t really start to pick up until about 8:00 in the evening), but we finally managed to find a table at Kaffi Hornid.  We probably should have had something with langoustine (a lobster-like crustacean that’s apparently the local speciality), but after our long day, neither of us were in the mood to work for our meal.  After dinner and a walk around town, we stopped briefly for drinks at Pakkhus, a beautiful little restaurant on the harbor, and then retreated to our guesthouse so we could rest up for next day’s drive to the Eastfjords.

Here’s what you need to know about the Eastfjords: they’re beautiful but repetitive.  All the fishing towns that dotted our route sort of looked like this from a distance . . .

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. . . and this close up …

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. . . so rather than give you a blow-by-blow of all the little towns we drove through on the way to Egilsstaðir, I’ll provide instead some highlights that don’t really fit anywhere else.

IMG_0344In Breiðdalsvík we experienced our first Icelandic hotdog (or pylsur).  I don’t know how appetizing it looks to the uninitiated, and I fully realize what I’m about to say is tantamount to heresy, but Icelandic hotdogs beat American hotdogs hands down, full stop, every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Some of it has to do with the dog itself, which is made mostly from lamb.  Some of it is the condiments: raw onions, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade.  The real secret weapon, surprisingly, is that the condiments go under the dog.  The result is that you get a satisfying bite with all the ingredients rather than having it slop all over the place like the pylsur’s American counterpart.  We sampled Icelandic hot dogs at every opportunity, and they never disappointed.

IMG_0357Icelandic beer, on the other hand, was underwhelming.  My favorite of the four in the photo to the right was the Einstök toasted porter: a rich beer with coffee and chocolate accents that generally ticked all the boxes I look for in a dark beer (Einstök also does a pale ale and a white ale and a couple seasonal brews).  The other three were serviceable, but largely interchangeable and nothing special.  Do you like Heineken or Stella Artois?  If so, you’ll like Viking, Gull, or Vatnajökull.  Fun fact: Beer with an ABV higher than 2.25% was banned in Iceland until 1989.  This is one of the only ways the U.S. has ever been more progressive than Iceland.

One driving oddity that we experienced a lot on the Ring Road, but especially in the Eastfjords, was the one-lane bridge.

Bridge

For whatever reason, most bridges – even the big ones – were one lane wide.  This wasn’t a big deal as long as nothing was coming in the other direction.  But if a car was headed our way, there was a little bit of jockeying for position to determine who was closer to the bridge entrance and therefore got to cross first, while the other car pulled off to the side.  As with most things Icelandic, these were the most polite games of chicken ever played.

Up next: Snowmageddon!

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*****

Current listening:

National high

The National – High Violet (2010)

Listening Post (Kitchens of Distinction Edition)

Kitchens strange

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s a dreadful name. Let’s acknowledge it and get past it so we can focus on the music, which is pretty remarkable.

When you think about great bands from the shoegaze era you understandably think about the big three: My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Maybe if you’re feeling generous you throw in Chapterhouse. Lush, too. But Kitchens of Distinction (hereafter referred to as “KOD”), despite a couple moderate-sized hits, flew under the radar and are generally unremembered and unmentioned from this time period. This makes some sense because the band were a little out of step with their contemporaries. Where MBV, Ride, and Slowdive are pretty affectless, burying their vocals under torrents of noise (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and eschewing anything resembling a personality, KOD were unabashedly optimistic and romantic, singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals front and center. And where other musically like-minded bands boasted lyrics that were often little more than impressionistic fragments, Fitzgerald, as an openly gay man, often tackled tales of love and regret and didn’t make an effort to mask his own sexuality (Strange Free World‘s “Gorgeous Love” opens with the lines “I can feel the waves of your gorgeous love/And it hurts to think that this is seen as wrong,” and on their next album they would release “Breathing Fear,” a song about gay-bashing, as its first single).

It might be this markedly different approach to songwriting and performance that saw KOD kept at arm’s length from My Bloody Valentine and the rest of the shoegaze canon. This is a shame, because Strange Free World easily holds its own with the best albums from the era, and in Julian Swales the band had a guitarist that was – whisper it – every bit the equal of his more highly-esteemed peers, MBV’s Kevin Shields included. Swales, truthfully, is the band’s trump card, and the guitars onStrange Free World are nothing short of magical. At the time this album was released in 1991 I hadn’t yet heard of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive (Strange Free World actually predates both Loveless and Just for a Day), and while I owned (and loved) Ride’s Nowhere, Swales’ layered, echoing guitar seemed otherworldly.

Opener “Railwayed” was, to this kid growing up in Cowtown, Ohio, revelatory, and it still sounds fresh. We get five brief seconds of drums and bass before Swales’ shimmering guitar soars in over the top of it, floating above Fitzgerald’s plaintive vocal. The song’s chorus is both a euphoric cloudburst and a hell of a calling card for the rest of an album that doesn’t stint on ambition or beauty. In fact, I’m finding it’s hard to write about this album without resorting to all those hoary old clichés: chiming sonic cathedrals and all that. But holy cow – that guitar. It continues into the second track, “Quick as Rainbows,” which is buoyed along on layered acoustic and electric guitars before erupting in its final minute into a buzzing storm of effects. “Hypnogogic” ups the ante further, relying on Fitzgerald’s bass and vocal to carry the melody while Swales pulls double duty: he cushions the vocal with a droning curtain of guitar that lurks in the background while simultaneously etching abstract filigrees of sound over the top. I love this stuff.

My limited vocabulary shouldn’t be read to imply that this is all just abstract beauty. The melodies are strong, Fitzgerald’s voice is expressive and occasionally conversational, and there’s hidden muscle to a few of these songs. “Polaroids” is a lament for lost time and squandered opportunity that builds over its five minutes until dissolving in an angry flurry of distortion and pounding drums. “Aspray” works similarly, Fitzgerald relying on abstract aquatic imagery while Swales’ guitar mimics the angry surf in the lyrics. And if anyone knows their music, it’s probably for “Drive That Fast,” a song that got some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It’s not my favorite on the album (that would go to “Quick as Rainbows”), but it’s close. Fitzgerald’s high-pitched bass once again drives the song while Swales’ guitar is off doing typically astonishing stuff in the background. But again, it’s a forceful tune. Fitzgerald sings, “Take me away from these simple feelings/I know there’s places on the other sides of here,” and Swales helps the listener see just what he’s singing about.

“Under the Sky, Inside the Sea” is a stunning closer, a sun-dappled beauty that begins with a quietly loping bassline and builds to a crescendo of guitar, horns, and Fitzgerald’s vocal: “The sea eats the shore it’s always hungry/We fall from laughing at the size of it all/Drinking, wishing, smoking, hoping/He says, ‘Well, here we are at the edge of the world.'” Gorgeous.

I just can’t do the album justice. My love for it might have a lot to do with it hitting me at just the right time. For a kid just figuring out all that late-teenage identity stuff, Fitzgerald’s plainspoken romanticism got to me on some elemental level. And I’d just never heard anything like Swales’ guitar before. But I think it’s more than just “right place, right time.” Like yesterday’s pick, I still listen to this album regularly and continually find new things about it to love. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Next steps: If you like Strange Free World, their first and third albums (Love Is Hell and The Death of Cool) are the most worth seeking out. Their final release (Cowboys and Aliens) has a few good songs – opener “Sand on Fire” is a barn-burner – but is easily the weakest of the four.  The band reunited briefly in 2013 to release Folly, an album that doesn’t fully recapture the magic of their early days but is enough of a reminder to make it worth your time.

Cinema Sunday (10/18/15)

Crimson peak“It is a monstrous love.  And it makes monsters of us all…”

There is nothing subtle about Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.  Every aspect of it, from the sweeping score to the elaborate costumes to the ornate set design to the gruesome climax, is elevated, ecstatic, and over the top.  Some people have seemed surprised by this, as though the director of Blade II and Hellboy has been all about nuance in the rest of his career.  Nope – what Crimson Peak is above all else is a glorious throwback to the extravagantly gothic horror movies of the 1950s and 60s., and to criticize it for being obvious is like criticizing water for being wet.  Even the movie’s big “twist” is telegraphed early, and the fun of the movie isn’t in the (nonexistent) surprise, but in knowing what’s coming and seeing how a master filmmaker plays his instrument to get us there.

Some plot: It’s Buffalo, New York, at the cusp of the twentieth century.  Edith Cushing (and there’s no way that surname is an accident, given Peter Cushing’s prominent role in the horror films of Hammer Studios, which del Toro clearly adores) is an aspiring writer whose father Carter, a prominent businessman, views her aspirations with a sort of patronizing back-handed encouragement (he gifts her a pen, but is less excited when she tells him she wants to use a typewriter to mask her gender to potential publishers).  When Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille, arrive in Buffalo from England to find investors for Thomas’ invention to mine clay, Edith is quickly taken with the dapper Englishman (and he with her).

Crimson PeakThings happen.  A lot of things.  A lot of slow things.  This isn’t a criticism as much as a warning.  Those expecting to walk into a fast-paced, whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute phantasmagoria will be disappointed.  Del Toro takes his sweet old time to establish character, back story, and setting.  I liked it.  Many won’t.  It reminded me in some ways of the beginning of The Exorcist, where not much happens for a while in the service of world-building. There’s the courtship between Edith and Thomas.  There’s the pitch Thomas makes to Edith’s father.  There’s the lovelorn (and Carter-endorsed) McMichael, a friend of the family who pines after Edith. There’s a subplot with a private detective.  There’s a mysterious murder.  But none of it is scary and all of it appears to be in direct contradiction of the movie’s ad campaign, which paints the movie as a Gargantuan Thrill Machine.™

Crimson peak 2Instead, as Edith arrives at Allerdale Hall in rural England as Sharpe’s new bride, we get more slow burn.  Only this time, instead of exposition, it’s all in aid of amping up the creep factor.  See, Allerdale – nicknamed Crimson Peak for the way red clay seeps, blood-like, through the snow-covered ground in winter – is another in the long line of wind-swept, desolate houses that populate gothic horror stories.  And man, is it ever gorgeous.  Designed by Thomas E. Sanders and sumptuously shot by Dan Laustsen, Allerdale is a dilapidated beauty, all ornate carvings, winding staircases, clanking elevators, and soaring ceilings that have given way to the elements, allowing it to snow inside.  And now Edith finds herself tucked away in this remote house (we’re told it’s a four-hour-walk to the nearest village), getting acclimated to life with her husband and his sister, a distant, suspicious woman who constantly looks at Edith out of the corner of her eye like she just opened the fridge and smelled something rotten.  Things go bump (and worse) in the night.  The walls seep red clay like blood and Edith is warned never to go into the basement.

It’s at this point that del Toro can’t seem to decide if he’s making a ghost story or a mystery and decides to split the difference, largely successfully.  Through a series of encounters with a particular specter (who shall go unidentified here), Edith begins to unravel the mysteries of Allerdale Hall, which soon puts her in conflict with one of her apparent benefactors.  It escalates into an orgy of violence – I might have actually said “Ooooooh!” out loud at one particularly shocking act, which rarely happens – that also manages to pack a surprisingly resonant emotional punch.

It’s an odd movie that I can see a lot of people being dissatisfied with.  It starts slow and doesn’t pack a lot of scares.  It is, in many ways, a conventional horror story, which seems odd coming from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth.  The broad, sweeping melodrama can be off-putting if you don’t understand what del Toro is trying to do tonally.  But I found there to be a lot to love despite its quirkiness.  The trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain is immensely fun to watch – especially Chastain, who digs into her character with her usual ferocity.  Del Toro successfully mines some of the same thematic material as in his 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone, while also exploring the dangers of loving too much.  And of course the whole thing is visually impeccable.

And yet.  It feels like there’s another, weirder movie in here that ultimately might have been more successful.  The impression I got is that by chaining himself to the characteristics of the movies he was playing with, del Toro forgot that the most successful movies ultimately transcend the tropes of their genre.  It seemed for a while that we were going to get a del Toro-ian riff on gothic horror movies, but instead we got a gothic horror movie that merely settles for looking like a Guillermo del Toro movie.  It’s entertaining, to be sure, but by now del Toro has conditioned us to expect more.

*****

Current listening:

Manic everything

Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur)

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After Pingvillir (and a quick stop at the gift shop for travel snacks), it was time to head south to the Ring Road.  As I mentioned in my previous update, the Ring Road circles the entire country – it’s the thoroughfare everyone uses to get where they need to go, and for this first serious leg of our journey we were headed east to Vik, a tiny town on Iceland’s south coast.  One thing immediately became clear: Pointing out every beautiful thing we saw would quickly leave us with laryngitis.  It wasn’t uncommon to be cruising along and just happen upon a sight like the one above, a little farm hanging out at the foot of a magnificent hill.  But that’s what the drive was like for much of the day.  Flat land to our right (the ocean just out of sight) and imposing cliffs frequently punctuated with waterfalls to our left.

DSC_0030Our first stop of the day, after winding several miles back an unpaved road, was Keldur, location of the oldest turf homes in Iceland (which, yes, also sounds like something Clark Griswold would have taken his family to see in National Lampoon’s Vacation).  Projected to date back to the 11th Century, this was one of our surprisingly rare glimpses into ancient Iceland, and it’s all been well restored (and preserved – we were required to wear crime scene booties in the house), as evidenced by the small church now on site.

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As we were getting ready to leave, another couple approached us outside one of the turf homes, and the woman asked in broken English if we wouldn’t mind giving them a ride back down to the Ring Road.  Icelandic hitchhikers?  Don’t mind if I do!

After dropping our new companions at a gas station in Hella, we breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been butchered for our car, bought some truly heinous gas station food, and then sent off for the first of the day’s two scheduled waterfalls.  We could see Seljalandsfoss from a distance, so far away that it appeared to be just a trickle of water slipping over the edge of a cliff.  Over the course of the next five(ish) miles, the scale of the falls revealed itself.  One of us might have whispered, “Holy shit.”

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The best thing about Seljalandsfoss is that you can walk all the way around it (which you can sort of tell in the above photo, if you haven’t been too distracted by the insane people swimming in the frigid water).

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A little further down the road we arrived at the powerful Skogafoss.  Like virtually every waterfall we encountered, you could walk right up to the base of it …

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… and, in most instances, there was access to the top of it, too. (And if you were lucky you found a rock formation that resembles your own profile, like I did below.)

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For reference, check the looooooong set of steps winding up to the top of the falls in the photo below.

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Amanda and I both observed that Iceland is similar to Ireland in that they don’t seem to be particularly litigious – or at least aren’t as terrified of litigation as their American counterparts.  At Skogafoss, as at every other falls we visited, there was a solitary warning sign – you know, something like, “Fall and you might die” – but that was about it as far as security went.  And, wonder of wonders, no one seemed to be falling and/or dying.

On to Vik.  With fewer than 3,000 people, it’s mainly a coastal stopover for tourists in the summer, roughly halfway between Reykjavik and towns like Höfn in the Eastfjords.  It sported an N1 gas station (our go-to chain), a couple restaurants (where I had my first taste of Icelandic fish stew), and not much else.  That didn’t stop it from being intensely beautiful, especially as a massive wall of fog rolled in off the mountains toward the ocean.

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Vik is also notable for being near two very cool geologic formations.  The first is Reynisfjara, a series of basalt columns on the edge of the North Atlantic.

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To help with the geography of all this, the two rock formations in the previous picture can be seen from a distance in the photo of the fog rolling in.  We’re talking maybe a ten-minute drive, and that’s only because it wasn’t a straight shot.

A further ten minutes brought us to Dyrholaey, a pair of arches that looked extra impressive with the added fog.  This was taken from Reynisfjara, because when you actually drive up to Dyrholaey, you’re too close for the photos to amount to much.  Weird.

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At this point it was 9:30 p.m., which you can clearly tell from the dazzling sunlight in all these photos.  After a long day and still feeling a little jet-lagged, it was back to our spacious accommodations…

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… where we jerry-rigged another Rube Goldbergian contraption to minimize the daylight and fell into an exhausted slumber.

When people think of Iceland (if they think of it at all), I’m guessing they picture it in the same way we did prior to our visit: a land of waterfalls and glaciers and mountains.  (And whimsical singers, but that’s just the music nerd in me asserting himself.)  But the below photo is what greeted us as we made our way east along the Ring Road after leaving Vik.

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It was a low, gray sky that accompanied us for most of our morning drive across what could charitably be referred to as a postapocalyptic wasteland.  But somehow that only made it even more impressive, more otherworldly.  These lava fields were related to the ones we’d seen on the first day near Reykjavik, but the combination of cloud and fog and intermittent rain brought home the extreme desolation of the landscape in which we were traveling.

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But the desolation didn’t stop people from playing with the rocks.

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tourist signOne additional thing Amanda and I picked up on (in addition to the fact that Icelanders don’t seem to be a bunch of lawsuit-happy dumb dumbs) is how well-marked the country’s natural attractions are.  If we ever passed a road sign sporting the symbol to the right, we usually made a hard turn and followed the sign wherever it was leading us.  It often meant we’d be traveling down some hair-raising, single lane, unpaved roads, but whatever was waiting for us at the other end was invariably worth the effort.

And so it was with Fjadrargljufur.  We weren’t sure at first.  It was 10km back an unpaved road, and I could only cross my fingers that the Auris was up to the trip.  And when we got to the parking area, it didn’t look like any big deal.  A narrow track leading up a gently-rising slope – probably a nice walk, but the country had no shortage of nice walks.  We resolved to give it ten minutes before turning around and heading up the road.  What could possibly be on the other side of the hill?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Like, oh, this.

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At the crest of the hill, a huge valley opened up beneath us.  We walked for another half hour, and even at that point the trail still meandered off in the distance.  Of all the unplanned and unscheduled spots we discovered, Fjadrargljufur was without question our favorite – one of those happy accidents that occurs when you’re willing to risk a flat tire in the pursuit of a memory.

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Up next: Höfn (by way of the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon)

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*****

Current listening:

Wax american

Wax Idols – American Tragic (2015)