Everything

SXSW Review; Matt Maeson, Agnes Obel, March 17, St. David’s Sanctuary

Posted on by Gary in Concerts, Everything, Music, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

 
I saw two acts as part of the “traditional” (for me) Communion Night at St. David’s Sanctuary this year.

Matt Maeson

Matt Maeson
As with each new generation of pop music, Matt Maeson’s songs are full of emphasis. They are overt and attention seeking. It’s something worth putting on Instagram but may not stay with you by happy hour Saturday evening.

Even though they were delivered in a church with just a guitar, the dramatic pauses, the obvious epic-tempo, the produced and formulaic melody and structure asks one to listen, but can’t produce the substance and soul.

I’m probably doing it wrong – I don’t have the acronym and meme vocabulary of an 18 year old to correctly comment on this. Nonetheless, I don’t have any sentiments against Maeson – he certainly has the vocal range and talent, and no one doubts his authenticity. Yet a music video where a pastor synchronized his punches to music really made me (and everyone) cringe, just a little.
 
Agnes Obel

Agnes Obel
I have heard cello concertos in an orchestral setting, and always felt that they were simply alternative, deeper voiced violins. But that’s mainly because they can be buried by both the composition and the sheer number of instruments. I haven’t appreciated their power (albeit amplified) and versatility until now. Perhaps Agnes Obel is right in her more pared-down and focused approach to composition. Whether it’s completing sentences of opposites or driving a marching bass line, the cello proved incredibly apt at supplanting the air conditioners in supplying the atmosphere. That was a surprise that the recordings never did convey.

When the red lights came on before she took the stage, I thought that it would pass. But Obel constructs everything intentionally, and of course lighting is the other half of the ambience. And the lighting is best bloody dark. She was visibly annoyed when this illusion was broken and shafts of light peaked in with the swelling audience mid-song. She sang the main registers here and left the flourishes to the percussionist. It was no surprise that she would play “The Curse”, the 2013 hit that first drew our attention to Obel’s song writing. And of course “Familiar”, the single from her new album Citizen of Glass continues in that austere tradition. Beautifully flowing, intense yet personal, it’s a successful way to integrate classical elements for modern sensibilities. You are led to follow each melodic development instead of a fully-assembled harmonized sound.

SXSW Review: Totally Mild, All Our Exes Live In Texas, March 16, Brush Square Park

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Totally Mild

I will admit that I had never heard of them until this year’s SXSW, but Melbourne-based Totally Mild ended up on my list on the strength of “Move On” from their last album, Down Time. It’s a bubbly vocalized piece with a music video that showed the band members drinking and regurgitating milk. Hearty, mind-bending, sardonic stuff. Since then, they have delivered another short album titled Alive in Denmark.

The lead vocalist Elizabeth Mitchell has a naturally high-pitched and clear voice that resonates well. She needs to – their music is moody, expressive and forlorn with twisting passages spanning quite a range. “The Next Day” is a good example. It’s like a slower version of a coloratura’s training scales. Listening to them in the BBQ tent really made me feel like an exemplary irony. Should I feign philistine and continue to shove food down my throat, or stop chewing midway to better hear the lyrics? Test this out for yourself with “More” – I’d stop half way.
 
All Our Exes Live In Texas
Fluttering women have no patience to stay in Texas – they belong in Sydney, Australia. That’s why they left all their exes in Texas. At least that’s the story I made up. In truth, members of All Our Exes Live In Texas are from Sydney, and so are their exes. The Texas came in for a rhyme and dime.

All Our Exes appear to have coalesced as a revenge band – and playing at SXSW while their male counterparts (also a band) fester in Sydney gave them some degree of satisfaction. One would be hard-pressed to say that they are performing out of spite. They were playful and energetic (that would be anything other than head-bobbing in folk music). In a short set consisting of just 5 songs, each is enjoyable with bright melodies and close harmony. The rendition of their showcase “Boundary Road” is fairly true to the recording. It’s fun to guess who would be singing which part, as each seem equally capable of a similar range. All in all, not bad for their first time singing live in Texas.

SXSW Film Review: California Dreams, Mike Ott, 2017

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california-dreams-2-cory-zacharia-photo-credit-mike-gioulakis_orig

Life is perhaps at its cruelest and clearest when aspiration and reality collides (and reality wins). If that’s true, then California Dreams is both. Having watched the film, however, I cannot differentiate it from reality TV, pure screenplay, or a bastard child of the two. Interestingly, director Mike Ott was being intentionally ambiguous. From a naive perspective, California Dreams plays on the quintessential Hollywood rag-to-riches trope. Many people in the Inland Empire look to LA and dream of becoming successful actors or actresses, even if their lives circle in the gutters from meal to deal to meal. Ott begins with Cory Zacharia, a 28 year old layabout with no skills. And I do mean ZERO. Comically illiterate, innumerate, and struggles even to form a sentence for a Taco Bell resume, he nonetheless believes that he can make it big. If only a decent audition tape (oh and also $900) could just “occur to him”, he could join a German friend in Berlin. This friend had worked tirelessly to arrange for Cory a role in a big budget film. Everything is falling into place, ready for his arrival. We are also informed that Cory share this dream with a 6-flags attendant from the Philippines, a wannabe alpha-male bounty hunter, a screenwriter in the Church of the latter day Taco Bell, and a down-and-out old lady.

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality seems to be Ott’s modus operandi. Dreams’ structure is eerily similar to Pearblossom Hwy, his 2012 film starring the same hapless Cory. Zacharia was supposedly discovered by Ott in a Home Depot parking lot. The set piece elements here have been lifted from an universe so blatantly child-like and outlandish, that I nearly mistook it for a tribute to Wes Anderson. For example, the whole motley crew in Dreams all live in the same tidy roadside motel. They all seems to get on with their lives despite hardships. And everything works out in the end: Cory eventually found the cash he badly needs when it literally fell from the sky, blown into a straight-line like offerings from the dried branches along the path of his favorite highway trot. All this skepticism aside, it is worth noting that the cinematography is quite breathtaking. If you have ever been to the Californian desert, you might agree that it’s nowhere near as mystical and forgiving as Dreams depicts. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis made it LOOK like like a well-spring of dreams. Ott made an effort to convince us that these are not actors. By speaking on camera to Cory, he is in reality trying to break the 4th wall. We are supposed to believe that these are real people whose dreams are exactly as told through their audition for this film: they are simply acting out their own lives. Actors, playing themselves.

I am still not sure how to feel about the power structure behind this film. Is this exploitation? Or perhaps any talk of exploitation is irrelevant because Ott is fulfilling these dreams? I am indifferent to whether this is staged, transcribed from real-life then reenacted, or reality TV with impeccable-fortuitous camera placements. Even though many of the nesting references and breadcrumbs are too trite and tiresome to follow, it still contains honest and interesting messages. What I’m actually annoyed with, is the same way you would notice that I stopped mentioning any of the other characters. That’s because none received any development or mention at all after they were introduced. Completely superfluous and expendable, they were living and dreaming furniture, no more important to Cory’s dream than the chair he sat in while enjoying a lap dance. It certainly took a step back from the plural title – I was fully expecting an expose on 2+ dreams. With ambiguity comes ambivalence, I guess. I am about as likely to recommend this as I would a box of cereal at afternoon tea: you won’t feel deprived without (just biscuits and scones thank you very much), and you won’t read too much into it if you do. It’s just, there, being it’s own meta-self.

SXSW Film Review: Disgraced, Pat Kondelis, 2017

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

 

First, a bit of venue overview. Alamo Ritz wins the prize for the “most alternative” fillers of any theater I’ve attended. No black screens of boredom here before your show. There were 70s French art house music videos with people bowing as if playing violins on body parts; a band called Telegenics singing about dominatrix; cat videos; bollywood music videos full of transforming smart phones, belly-dancing men in tiger costumes, and of course large group dancing. Just before the show starts, Bobby the Giant Child from Food of the Gods II reminds would-be texting viewers that if they violate that sacred trust, they need to “get the fuck outta my room!”

disgraced-F69710

I feel obligated to start with a buoyant tone, because nothing about this film is light. Disgraced opens when Patrick Dennehy, a star player of the Baylor university basketball team, went missing in 2003. A few days after the police was informed, a full canvas and investigation began. But the deeper they delved, the less clear the case became. The local police forces and the FBI slowly pieced together a trail that revealed how his friend and roommate had gunned him down in a grassy field, without any motive whatsoever. But this story only gets more bizarre. In his zeal to win a basketball championship, it appears that the head coach Dave Bliss had made deals with players that breached NCAA code of conduct. Somehow, Bliss’ involvement was intricately linked to the murder. The details were not just suspicious. It was serious enough that Bliss applied pressure to turn his players into accomplices. They wanted to besmirch the dead in order to save Bliss from an NCAA investigation. If that’s not a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know what is.

In real life, detectives don’t have an all-powerful Mycroft at their beck and call. Even though this tragedy garnered national attention back then, it was never resolved on a level that would be satisfactory to anyone. Yet since the issues were local to Texas, once the national optics turned elsewhere and the news cycle faded, these influences came into the fore. Prominent among these local interests is Baylor University itself, which saw the murder case and the associated issues with the basketball program as a scandal, and sought to sweep things under the rug. If not for just one wrinkle, we would not have this documentary – Patrick’s roommate was found to be mentally-ill, confessed and was sentenced; Bliss resigned; everything seemed settled.

However, Bliss’ assistant coach recorded him scheming. On tape.

Those tapes, the fallout, and what truth they obscured, are in fact the whole point of Disgraced. The cinematography and reenactments are clearly well-produced. But these elements serve to set the desired context, in order that the audience can appreciate the recordings. It permitted Bliss, who was interviewed comprehensively, an ostensible chance to defend himself. In the Q&A after the screening, the Austin-based filmmaker Pat Kondelis suggested that in the early days while arranging the interview, Bliss led him to believe that a type of confession would be forthcoming. These exchanges and discussions, even now, are still tinged with a very local and emotional element. There were support for either side: I spied a few Baylor supporters who left in disgust right after the screening, and there’s certainly no doubt where Kondelis stands. One might be turned off by this type of potential bias. But it still doesn’t detract from the compelling and damning evidence. What this documentary mimics is a traveling courtroom. And each audience as jury, I expect, experiences that cast-the-first-stone moment: the sheer gall of the officials and Bliss in constructing the lie; their insistence that the victim “deserved his fate”; the destruction these memories and lingering questions wrought on Dennehy’s family. The audience booed each bold face lie, jeered at Bliss’ amateurish denial, and shed tears with the parents. It’s a remote yet strangely participatory film. 14 years since that time, Baylor University is again in the spotlight with a new scandal, this time regarding sexual assault. Though it may take a first-class mind to wade through the minutiae of evidence, it takes only a first-grade one to see that denial is no longer working. Although as the film seeks to remind us, Bliss IS still working as a basketball coach. Now, that is something to think about.

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