Tagged: David Lynch

Julee Cruise, Miss Twin Peaks

Last night, I finished Twin Peaks, a show that is the textbook definition of a cult classic. The Sopranos shouldn’t get sole credit for its challenge toward TV audience expectations and use of talismans as a storytelling device or shorthand for character development, nor should Lost get singled out for its complex narratives, limitless paratexts (open Laura Palmer’s diary to page 3), spirited online discourse, and fervent aca-fandom. It’s clear that televisual generic experimentation the and conceptualization of creator/showrunner as auteur gained ground with this show. Twin Peaks sharply divided audiences while also providing intrigue for late adopters–something I’ll keep in mind when I get around to watching The Killing (I’ll also reread Kristen Warner and Lisa Schmidt’s great rebuttal toward the backlash against the season finale and Veena Sud). I’m not a TV historian, so I hope I’m not overlooking other shows that accomplished what Twin Peaks did. But it seems obvious that Twin Peaks changed what could air on American television and how audiences related to it.

Julee Cruise, conjuring

But how do I feel about Twin Peaks as two seasons of television? To borrow from the schlemiels on Stella, Twin Peaks “is, like, whatever dude.” There are indelible moments that I can’t and wouldn’t want to unsee–a surprising amount of them from the lesser-regarded second season, even if James Hurley is given entirely too much screen time. I certainly understand why it’s become such a cultural touchstone. Yet I was often bored and unmoved, though never when Frank Silva was on screen. YIKES.

I should admit that I’m not a big David Lynch fan. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Drive all have great, unsettling moments. I may take for granted the sociohistorical context in which his best-regarded work was originally received, but Lynch’s curdled nostalgia and deliberate weirdness seem too obvious to me. Lynch is a deft surrealist. He certainly can set and shoot a scene, and is smart enough to get Angelo Badalamenti to score it. But his gender politics undercut his work’s transgressive potential. I don’t want to dismiss the predominantly white women of Twin Peaks as sweetie pie damsels and she-devils. Actually, my favorite characters on the show are women: Audrey Horne, the Log Lady, Super-Nadine, Donna Hayward when she isn’t written and played as a sultry bad girl.

I might include Lucy Moran, if only because I’m surprised that future Fox News enthusiast Victoria Jackson didn’t play her in an inevitable SNL parody because Kimmy Robertson could be her sister. I’d include Catherine Martell because who doesn’t love Piper Laurie, but any business with the mill bored me. Also she hoodwinks Ben Horne by posing as a Japanese businessman, so ugh. I can’t include Shelly Johnson because, while at first her abusive marriage to Leo elicits terror and sympathy, she and her lover Bobby Briggs made so many stupid decisions that I stopped caring about their arc. Then there are plenty of women I don’t have a read on–Josie Packard, Norma Jennings, Annie Blackburn, sudden junkie Blackie O’Reilly . . . Laura Palmer isn’t Twin Peaks‘ only mirror onto which men reflect themselves.  

But there’s one lady I wish I saw and heard more: Julee Cruise. I wish the theme song wasn’t the instrumental version of “Falling” because I treasure what Cruise brings to it. Actually, I pretend all of the show’s musical flourishes include Cruise breathily cooing about love’s rainbow or something. All of the opaque, murky, strange humanity I’m supposed to get from the show I hear in Cruise’s voice. I’m sure plenty of people want to cast Cruise as Lynch and Badalamenti’s ingenue, the M.I.A. to their Tarantino. They’d probably point to their songwriter and producer credits as evidence. They might also dismiss Cruise as a cheaper substitute for Elizabeth Fraser, since they worked with Cruise on Blue Velvet after they couldn’t get This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song to the Siren.”

But Lynch and Badalamenti clearly needed Cruise’s voice to guarantee the emotional responses they sought to engender in their audience, and they weave magic together. We never actually meet Laura Palmer, the show’s dead catalyst. She’s intercepted and interpreted by friends, townsfolk, law enforcement, and her damaged parents. Thus I think Cruise comes the closest to embodying Palmer as a fragile dreamer wrecked by evil circumstances who willed herself to survive for as long as she could.

Cruise performs in my favorite episode, the Lynch-directed “Lonely Souls.” She demonstrates Palmer’s charm in “Rocking Back Inside My Heart” and stops time with “The World Spins.” Paired with the horrifying scene that reveals Palmer’s murderer, Cruise’s performance of “The World Spins” is part of the best sequence in the series’ run. I cry right along with Donna, both for who was lost and what could have been.

Bradford Cox’s mission to queer the guitar

Deerhunter's Bradford Cox; image courtesy of seattletimes.nwsource.com

It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.

I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.

The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.

However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.

My sentiments exactly; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.

Cox on the cover of Logos (Kranky/4AD, 2009); image courtesy of stereogum.com

First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.

I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.

I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.

Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.

At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.

2010: The year Alyx fell in love with the Cocteau Twins

The Cocteau Twins (left to right): Robin Guthie, Elizabeth Fraser, and Simon Raymonde (drum machine not pictured); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”

At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.

Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.

In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.

I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.

In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.  

During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.

I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.

Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”

This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.

But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.

Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.

We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol,  the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.

I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.

Covered: The Long Blondes’ “Someone To Drive You Home”

Someone To Drive You Home cover, Rough Trade 2006/2007; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Someone To Drive You Home cover, Rough Trade 2006/2007; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Two areas I don’t recall covering in the blog so far are 1) bands whose songs focus on cinephilia and 2) female musicians who use their visual arts training in the service of their bands. Today, we can focus on both by considering The Long Blondes’ debut full-length Someone To Drive You Home and lead singer Kate Jackson’s artwork for said album.

So I’m new to this band, who I guess are no longer a band. That’s a bummer, but at least I’ve had fun pumping this album at full volume in my car this past week as the skies became increasingly overcast. And singing at full volume. As my friend Brea mentioned in her entry about records that made her a feminist, it’s important for women and girls to find singers whose vocal ranges match their own. It’s really true. Perhaps we could think of it as double-identification — being able to relate to a female singer’s persona as conveyed through her lyrics, performance style, fashion sense or whatever on one level and being able to replicate, mirror, or blend her tone, pitch, and timbre with your own. However we want to theorize it, I’m glad that my notes can work with Jackson’s strong, supple alto.

Matching a singer’s range also makes shouting easier. I love Animal Collective, but screaming along to Avey Tare doesn’t make any sense for me. We can try and make it queer or whatever, but it really just feels silly and strained to my throat and ears. Screaming “Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!” along with Jackson, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

Edie Sedgwick; image courtesy of fashionista.com

Edie Sedgwick; image courtesy of fashionista.com

The opening track, appropriately titled “Lust In the Movies,” is a good transition into the defunct band’s cinephilic leanings. Indeed, the movies are everywhere. Specifically movies from the post-war era, a considerable amount of them of the film noir tradition or have some kind of sinister edge, while others are campy b-movies that have since cashed in on retro chic.

Imagined film snob boys corrupt willing schoolgirls with Russ Meyer films in “Fulwood Babylon.” Girls want to be cool enough for the movies that play in film snob boys’ heads in “Lust in the Movies.” A boy and a girl compare themselves to C.C. Baxter, The Apartment‘s love-lorn protagonist in “You Could Have Both.” Obscure references to British celebrities of the 1940s and 1950s like Hattie Jacques and Peter Rogers thread through break-up narratives like “Five Ways to End It.” Greta Garbo is looked upon with envy (and irony?) as the woman who snagged all the handsome men in “Never to Be Repeated.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” is inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, a romantic sentiment perhaps echoed in Jackson’s sleeve art, which references Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern’s frenzied lovers in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

As many of these movies are classic Hollywood, iconographic art house, and/or have the Criterion stamp of approval, we might call them films instead of movies, if the writer of this blog held fast to making such a distinction.

Now, we could get into a discussion of what this means in terms of preference and why more clearly feminist classics don’t get shout-outs like, say, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Maybe they haven’t seen these movies. Maybe they thought the last movie I mentioned was boring (the 200-minute running time has kept me from seeing it, though it is in my Netflix queue). However, I’d hazard to guess that the Russ Meyer reference in “Fulwood Babylon” might be done with a bit of feminist cheek, and while I have trouble reading the nuances of intentional camp in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I’m sure my friend Curran would smile and nod in recognition of the reference.

And yet. I find how film references are used in these songs to be particularly interesting. For one, I think especially in “Lust in the Movies” and “Fulwood Babylon,” a critique is being made by Kate (and her chorus of singing fans) against the sorts of boys who live in movies (perhaps including Dorian Cox, a former Long Blonde who co-wrote the majority of the album with Jackson). These boys are too busy looking for Edie Sedgwick, Anna Karina, and Arlene Dahl to notice the real woman in front of them. Fools.

For another, I find the blurring between fantasy and reality, the projected and the lived, the fantastical and the mundane heartening and relateable. Many of these songs are not actually about being in the movies, but wishing you could be or pretending you are to get over a failed relationship, get through your boring day job, get ready for a night out, get in the car to leave town, or simply get through your 20s.

There’s some humanity in these songs, particularly between women and girls. Two lonely girls flee their humdrum lives together in “Separated By Motorways.” A spurned lover hopes her ex’s new love fares better than she did after the break-up in “Heaven Help the New Girl.” A twentysomething tells a 19-year-old girl that she doesn’t need to resort to mutilation to get through that stupid, cursed age in “Once and Never Again,” a solidarity anthem so catchy that I just requested it be added to the Karaoke Underground song list.

And while the movies being referenced aren’t explicitly feminist (or argued and/or championed as such by theoretically florid film scholars), I’d argue that there’s much going on with the female movie icons that Jackson’s and her songs’ protagonists (which may be iterations of herself) identify. Having brought up Sedgwick, Karina, Dahl, Garbo, this is where I’ll fold in Jackson’s spare, mysterious cover. The woman in the cover is recognizable to many as Bonnie Parker, as played by Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a divisive and galvanizing movie that marked a sea change in American cinema, upped the ante for screen violence, reflected the shift in generational values, presupposed the turbulent year that would be 1968, and made thousands of women cut and straighten their hair into sleek bobs by Dunaway’s influence. It might have made them want to tote guns, fire bullets, and rob banks too. In short, this was seen as a dangerous film that still holds some influence as a countercultural text that appeals to men and women.

Some of those women may still be shuffling through their 20s, figuring it out. They might not be compelled to rob a bank, but they might be tempted to quit their job, or at least bitch about work at the local bar. Hopefully they won’t bitch about each other as much, as this cattiness is evident on the album and something I’d like us to rise above. But there’s something nice about being reassured that someone, whether a movie character or a friend, will be there to drive you home. Even if your car is riddled with bullet holes.