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Things I Have Learned Watching Korean Movies

Everyone drinks beer, even small children.

Everyone smokes, and they really like Zippo lighters.

Karaoke! Sushi!

The preferred mode of suicide is jumping off things, and people jump off things a lot – even things that aren’t that tall.  They seem very sure about the fatality of jumping from a second floor window or balcony.

In fact, lots of death by falling in general: suicide, homicide or accident.  Probably because guns are largely unavailable to Korean civilians… come to think of it, the only people I’ve noticed carrying guns in the movies are gangsters and military.  Even the cops have to use tasers.

Hey, DHL delivery men are everywhere!

The cities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.

Rural communities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.

Do not go into the woods for any reason, unless you are a ghost or a killer looking for places to dump dead bodies.

If there is only one woman living in a remote area, there’s a 100% chance that she is the regional prostitute.

Prostitutes everywhere!

Movies are more like novels, cycling through several different plot lines, shifting conflicts, and large casts of characters.  This is why so many films are 2 1/2 hours long, yet seldom feel boring.  There’s always something happening.  This is a big difference from American movies, which can often belabor a single thin plot-line for 80 minutes and still feel too padded out.

There’s always that one person who wails and carries on at a funeral while everyone else is stoic and silent.

Snipers always turn out to be pretty ladies.  Subversive!  Also subversive: female cops and serial killers.

Eyelid surgery is never not creepy, and bad things usually happen to the girls who have it (those vain whores!).

So many people play piano.

People in small towns really don’t like outsiders, especially if they come from the big city.

Buddhist traditions seem to mesh well with the more benevolent aspects of Christian ideology.  Sure, you will always have judgmental, fire-and-brimstone bible-beaters, but you also have prayer through meditation, and serenity and generosity as a form of spiritualism.

I’m not saying all of these things are true of life in South Korea (any more than Hollywood movies represent the life of the average American), but the movies create their own reality revealing what a different culture finds entertaining.  Hint: it’s not that different from what we do.  Sex, violence, explosions, anxieties over failure and the search for a good life.

Mother Suspiria Jumped the Gun: 31 Days of Horror

Make-Out With Violence

It’s October, which means I’ve been watching horror movies almost non-stop for the last three weeks.  In fact, I think my Netflix account is starting to judge me a little, each day coming closer to the conclusion that I’m a psychopath.  Everyone’s familiar with horror tropes by now, but those genre conventions are brought into even sharper relief when you watch movies back to back to back.  I’ve put together a few suggested double features based on the noticeable parallels.

 

The “She’s a Real Sweet Girl” Double Feature: May and Audition

The female leads in both films are shy, sweet, soft spoken, and endearingly off-kilter.  But you’d better run like hell, because they have a penchant for dismemberment.

 

The “Location, Location, Location” Double Feature: Session 9 and The Descent

The Danvers State Mental Hospital in Session 9 and the caverns in The Descent are both monsters in their own right, even before the spooky shit starts to happen.  The characters, already damaged by personal trauma, begin to unravel in claustrophobic spaces.  The Descent throws in literal monsters for good measure, but both films have a haunted, melancholy atmosphere that would have been frightening enough without things that go bump in the night.

 

The “You’re Not From Around Here” Double Feature: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man

Donald Sutherland and Edward Woodward both search frantically for a lost little girl (one dead, the other imaginary) in unfamiliar places (Venice/Summerisle).  Stymied at every turn by creepy old ladies and local authorities, they struggle to take power into their own hands.  Little do they know that a mysterious plot is tightening its noose around them. See also: Antichrist vs. Don’t Look Now.  Explicit married sex.  Death of a child. Restorative vacation turned destructive.

 

The “Let’s Go to the Mall” Double Feature: Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Comet

Teenagers! 80s Music! 80s Fashion! Talking Zombies! The government ruins everything! See also: Dawn of the Dead.

 

The “My Girlfriend is a Corpse” Double Feature: Deadgirl and Make-Out with Violence

Make-Out with Violence is a much sweeter and more subdued film, but both are twisted coming of age tales about teenage boys and their friendships.  Plus an undead girl tied to the bed.  Deadgirl seems to be about impotence (or misogyny, or something), while Make-Out with Violence is more about coping with grief, but both films are creepy parables about playing house with a girl too zonked to even participate in the relationship.  See also: Doghouse vs. Deadgirl, on the zombie chauvinism front.  Alternately, Lake Mungo vs. Make-Out with Violence, from the “ghosts and zombies are a metaphor for not letting go of loved ones” angle.

 

The “Shit’s All Freaky” Double Feature: Poltergeist and Insidious

Haunted houses.  Creepy children. Malevolent spirits.  Objects that move around by themselves.  Alternate dimensions.  Psychics and hapless ghost hunters.  Insidious even features a subtle homage to Poltergeist when one of the embattled ghost hunters soothes his bruises with a steak to the face.  Sadly, the steak does not crawl across the table. See also: House of the Devil, another straight-faced modern film with a loving callback to spooky 80s movies.

 

The “Vampires Are So 2010” Double Feature: Cronos and Thirst

Two directors known for daring and originality: Guillermo Del Toro and Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy).  Two takes on vampire mythology so radical that the classic creatures of the night are barely even recognizable.

 

Here are the other movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks, even though I couldn’t quite pair them up for an effective double feature:

Dario Argento’s Inferno (probably best with any other Argento film, especially Suspiria)

Peeping Tom (pair with another moody classic, like Eyes Without a Face, Diabolique, or something by Hitchcock)

Red State

Frozen

Them (suggested with atmospheric European thrillers, like The Vanishing or another home invasion story, The Strangers.)

 

October isn’t over yet.  More to come.

It’s time for a list!: The “Hide Your Shame” edition

I’m intent on gleefully destroying any cred I might have as an amateur music critic, and today’s post is going to go a long way toward that goal.  I’m talking about the poor, neglected albums on my iPod that I never got around to hearing.  Sometimes I get overzealous and download so much music at a time (or friends burn stuff for me) I can never absorb it all, or I get sidetracked by  the one record I really love.  In most cases, I listened to the first two songs, or flipped through them all and decided I wasn’t in the right headspace, but never came back to it later.  It’s also possible that I’ve listened to many of these albums and that they just didn’t leave an impression on me.

So here they are, in alphabetical order:

  1. Aimee Mann @#%&*! Smilers I used to love Aimee Mann, but found her  quasi-concept album The Forgotten Arm to be a little toothless, despite a plot-line that revolved around a hard-living wrestler.  It’s hard to say if she’s changed or if I have, but either way, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to give this record a spin.
  2. Antony & the Johnsons — I am a Bird Now
  3. Augie March — Watch Me Disappear This Australian band’s second album Strange Bird is one of my absolute favorites, and their first and third releases were pretty good, too.  But all it took was three songs from  their latest, Watch Me Disappear, and the awful classic rock sound sent me running, never to return.
  4. Beirut — The Flying Club Cup
  5. Beulah — When Your Heartstrings Break Love Beulah, especially their final album, Yoko.  I think I’ve listened to half of this one, but I’m not sure why it never stuck with me.
  6. Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago Shocking, I know.  Everyone else hailed this as one of the greatest albums ever, but I don’t get it.
  7. Cat Power — The Greatest I like what I’ve heard from this, and Jukebox was tolerable, but I’m still a little traumatized from Chan Marshall’s exercises in dreariness on albums like Moon Pix and What Would the Community Think that I can’t stomach any more from her.
  8. Choir of Young Believers — This is for the Whites in Your Eyes This is also no longer true, because I listened to this album as I was writing this post.  I was psyched for this after hearing the excellent single “Action/Reaction,” and although this is a very good sounding record on the production level, I wish it wasn’t so consistently downtempo.
  9. Destroyer — Destroyer’s Rubies I need to try this again when I’m not prone to being weirded out.
  10. Dirty Projectors — Rise Above
  11. The Felice Brothers — The Felice Brothers Dylan-y.
  12. The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Love The Soft Bulletin, great album.  And I really like the first song on Yoshimi… which is the only song I’ve ever heard.
  13. Hot Chip — Made in the Dark
  14. Loney, Dear — Loney, Noir I really want to like this band more than I actually do, because they’re Swedish, and because their song “Airport Surroundings” was really catchy, and I’ve known a few people to recommend Loney, Dear.  But they’re like a less interesting version of Grandaddy.  And Grandaddy aren’t that interesting to begin with.
  15. M. Ward — Transistor Radio I gave this album to my dad. Because that’s the kind of music my dad likes.
  16. A couple of albums by Mount Eerie that my friend gave me.  This was part of a CD-swapping deluge and I just didn’t make it to these.
  17. Neko Case — Fox Confessor Brings the Flood I am thrilled about Middle Cyclone. Loved it.  There’s really no excuse why I haven’t listened to this one yet, especially considering that most Case fans think it’s the gold standard.
  18. Of Montreal — Skeletal Lamping And I thought I’d be the last person to complain about too many pop hooks, but Kevin Barnes happily frolics over the line.
  19. Okkervil River — The Stage Names and The Stand Ins I have never been able to get into this band, and I feel so left out.
  20. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart Ugh.
  21. Radiohead — The Bends You were probably with me up until this point, and then you saw that I’ve never listened to the Most Favored Record by a Most Favored Band.  Seriously.  It’s not like I’ve never heard Radiohead before.  I pretty much own all of their albums, but it’s a case where I started towards the end and worked my way backwards.  Still working on it…
  22. The Raveonettes — Pretty in Black
  23. Regina Spektor — Like, all of them.
  24. Ruby Suns — Sea Lion Sorry, Joseph!  My interest has been piqued for their upcoming album, so I will (re-)visit this soon.
  25. Rufus Wainwright — Release the Stars and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall Rufus, I just don’t know where our relationship went so wrong.  I think I liked the idea of you more than the drippy, melodramatic reality, but I have to admit that no one does that sort of thing better.
  26. Six Organs of Admittance — Shelter from the Ash
  27. Sondre Lerche — Two Way Monologue There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be interested in this guy: he’s Norwegian, overly twee, and I once listened to a sample of this many years ago in the New Orleans’ Virgin MegaStore (RIP) — and remember liking it.  But it’s hard to get excited about something so palatable.
  28. A whole bunch of albums by Stina Nordenstam.  So far I’ve only explored The World is Saved, but I like her a lot.
  29. Also, everything by the Sugarcubes.
  30. The Thermals — Now We Can See
  31. The Walkmen — You & Me I think I might have actually listened to this once, but just didn’t give it the attention it deserves.  The Walkmen is one of those bands that intimidates me just a little because they have such unconventional song structures, and they seem wonderfully deranged — but in a way that demands love and attention.

Thar’s the list.  Blast away!

Essential Non-Essentials, Final Round … for now

This is the last of the wisdoms I have for you. Go off into the world and do with it what you will, and always remember that knowledge is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The sad part is that the list only contained eight entries.  I guess breadth isn’t really my strong point — I’m a depth kind of girl. So, lookie:

Augie March Strange Bird

This Australian band has barely made it stateside — only one album, 2007’s Moo, You Bloody Choir is available on iTunes, and Amazon turns up mostly imports — but their albums are worth finding if you have the means.  Moo may have captured the critics’ attention, but it’s Strange Bird, the previous album, that wins my oddball beauty competition.  Assembled of band members ranging from literature lovers to trained jazz players, one might expect them to sound like another quirky, lit-inspired group, The Decemberists; Augie March’s songs, however, often have a mythic quality — never falling into camp, but not taking themselves too seriously, either.

The melodies of Strange Bird are fuzzy and nostalgic.  The slower songs sound like lullabies half-forgotten, or lost battle hymns, and the faster tracks often play like rowdy, drunken pub songs.  But despite the traditional bent that the song-writing sometimes takes, they never seem cliche or overly familiar.  The melodies are fairly linear, deceptively simple; complexity comes in the arrangement of the instruments, building tension by adding layer after layer, until the songs come to a dizzying finish.  Songwriter/lead-singer Glenn Richards also has a pretty impressive voice that moves easily between whispers and wails — although, I can’t for the life of me discern the lyrics through his mumbly enunciation.  They’re most assuredly literary.

Download: Augie March — The Vineyard

 

And Honorable Mention:

Mia Doi ToddThe Golden State

Far from essential, but at least listen to a track for that voice.  That rich, haunted, and completely devastating voice that quieted a New Orleans bar when she opened for The Folk Implosion several years ago (she also sang on their track “Chained to the Moon,” from One Part Lullaby).  Her lyrics are too “tortured art student” for my tastes, and the mournful melodies are such a match for the voice that listening to more than one song might send someone into a spiraling depression.  But this is a pretty song.

Download: Mia Doi Todd — The Growing Pains

Essential Non-Essentials, Part 2

Under ByenSamme Stof Som Stof

I encountered this interesting band from Denmark while lurking over at the Mew forum, as I like to do sometimes.  Most Scandinavian artists choose to sing in English these days for better marketability, but Under Byen is a rare band that prefers their native Danish.  The music is moody and fractured, the songs lack hooks and, sometimes, a clear melody, but the dark experimentalism feels organic; most of the percussion instruments sound suspiciously like kitchenware — the clink of spoons, rattle of a baking sheet interplay with frenzied cellos.  The singer purrs, sounding an awful lot like Bjork in one of her Icelandic fits.  I suspect there’s a more subtle drama at work that I’m missing because of the language barrier, but the sensuality in the strange sounds and, more importantly, in the spaces between sounds, reveals itself after repeat listens.

Download: Under Byen — Af Samme Stof Som Stof  (You can find the rest of the album on iTunes)

Michael PennMP4

Penn isn’t quite as well-known as his wife Aimee Mann, but he’s been a solo artist for a few years longer and has established himself as a well-respected pop craftsman.  Musically, he treads some ground that would be familiar to anyone who knows Mann’s aesthetic (or really, any artist in Jon Brion‘s orbit), except that he’s slightly more cerebral, with lyrics that can be frustratingly opaque yet simple as nursery rhymes.  MP4 was released in 2000, the same year as Mann’s excellent Bachelor No. 2, and while it’s not necessarily Penn’s strongest effort, the record arrived at a time when the couple was at a creative peak of synchronicity (he sings backup for her, she sings backup for him).  Penn’s music should be required listening for anyone who likes Aimee Mann and wants more of that dry, intelligent chamber pop.

Actually, I just found this kickass video from Penn’s 1997 album Resigned, which was apparently directed by P.T. Anderson (and yes, Michael is brother to Sean.  Michael’s better looking).

April March

April March is an interesting case: real name Elinor Blake, former animator for the Ren and Stimpy Show, she takes on the persona of a French ingenue in her bouncy, 60s go-go inspired music.  Her uneven catalogue is filled with cutesy, girly numbers made for Francophiles who’ve listened to way too much Serge Gainsbourg, but there’s an unselfconscious glee in the music that can be very infectious.  I can’t really recommend one album; Chick Habit is one of the strongest with the recognizable title track, an English re-creation of Gainsbourg’s “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” which is also covered here in the original French.  “Chick Habit” has been featured in a couple of off-beat movies, namely But I’m a Cheerleader and Tarantino’s Death Proof. Another highlight in April March’s discography is April March and Los Cincos, a collaborative effort that takes the listener on a nostalgic romp through a wintry landscape.  She’s also super adorable.

Essential Non-Essentials, Part One

Now let’s return to compulsive list-making with some old favorites, alongside a few you may not have heard before.   My knowledge of music could hardly be called obscure, but there are a few artists I know of who deserve a little more recognition — not because they’re making undiscovered masterpieces or anything, but because they may be of passing interest to someone out there.  A couple of these artists have a solid fanbase, although for some reason I never hear anyone talking about them.  I’ve suggested which album might be a good starting point.

 

Alaska! Emotions

LA-based (and now defunct) band Alaska! is just another group caught up in Lou Barlow’s tangled, incestous web: bass-player Russ Pollard played drums for Sebadoh’s last record, and he and singer Imaad Wasif both joined Barlow in the new, revamped Folk Implosion following Davis’ departure.  Wasif was a young virtuoso guitar player, formerly of little-known band lowercase, and he currently plays solo, or as part of Imaad Wasif and the Two-Part Beast.  Wasif has a commanding vocal presence that seethes even in quiet moments.  I might be tempted to say that their sound is mostly straightforward rock, but there are moments of glam and prog that peek out sometimes in their longer, more epic crawls.  I saw Alaska! play on three different occasions (in tiny, sparsely attended venues in Louisiana and Mississippi) and they put on some of the tightest shows I’ve ever seen, owing largely to Wasif’s swaggering rock star charisma.  They never quite harnessed the energy of their live performances in the recording process and, as a result, the albums sound a little flat by comparison.  Wasif’s pseudo-poetic act can be a little silly and pretentious, but Alaska! put out two solid, underappreciated gems of snarling rock sparkle.  Their second album, Rescue Through Tomahawk (available at Insound, is also consistently entertaining and worth checking out.

Alaska! — Love

Eleni MandellThrill

This Silverlake singer/songwriter doesn’t get enough love ’round these parts.  I saw her twice at a tiny club in New Orleans, but her recent tours haven’t been as extensive as they once were.  She honed her dark, playful mix of cabaret, spy noir, and Tom Waits-inspired songwriting on Thrill, her second album.  While her entire catalogue (seven full-lengths and an EP) has produced some great songs here and there, Thrill is a solid piece of work, with Mandell’s retro bad girl persona in full bloom.  Her voice is like a coy PJ Harvey; in the span of a song she moves effortlessly between a coo, an ecstatic whisper, a howling wail, and wounded, vulnerable soprano.  In later years, she toned down the theatrics in favor of a cooler, lounge-y jazz sound, still whimsical in its way, but much tamer.  Personally, I prefer her femme fatale phase.  In particular, check out Thrill’s opening track “Pauline,” in which she has seduced the title character’s lover and taunts her about the “cold blue sofa where your man got down, and your man told me, ‘Let’s go.'”

Eleni Mandell — Pauline

MewFrengers

Mew, from Denmark, has enjoyed enormous success all over Europe, but hasn’t quite broken in the U.S.  Sure, they’ve done a couple of extended tours with gigs in every major American city, played six showcases at SXSW 2007, but I don’t actually know anyone (besides myself) who has heard of them.  Frengers, their third album, catapulted them from relative obscurity to the top of the Danish charts, displacing shitty bubblegum acts like Aqua (the only other Danish group to gain such international success) in favor of more inventive indie bands.  More than that, Frengers is a solid album.  A couple of the songs, like the singles “Am I Wry? No” and “She Came Home for Christmas” sound a little slicker and more radio-friendly than the average American-indie counterpart, but lead-singer Jonas Bjerre’s quirky acrobatic vocals keep it interesting.  Check out the ethereal “Eight Flew Over, One Was Destroyed,” and be ready to crank up “Snow Brigade” during a thunderstorm.  The album ends with the crowd-pleasing closer, “Comforting Sounds,” a song that maintains its intensity, despite a running-time of nearly nine minutes.

 

More later!  Happy listening.

Chaotic Brain, Obligatory Top “Fives”

Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.”   Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me.  Current top five?  Can’t do it.  My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic.  There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects).  But five solid choices?  And what about top five of all time?  Can’t do that either.  There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!)  perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.

Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify.  The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change.  I will impose no limits on number.  There will probably be more than five but less than ten.  Who knows?

 Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.

So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):

1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith

2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos

3. Post, Bjork

4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey

5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion

6. III, Sebadoh

7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian

 

This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life.  I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.

These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much.  On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems.  Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).

In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion.  Until then, toodles.