In an effort to tend to a Criterion backlog in my Netflix Instant queue, I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last night. I remember being intrigued when I caught the preview during a screening of An Education (which would pair well thematically). I was also more than a little nervous that the movie would take working-class girlhood less as a subject of exploration and instead as grounds for moral panic.
What transpires in Arnold’s 2009 feature is something altogether more disconcerting. It’s an unsettling film about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on an Essex council estate with her young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne, who was probably close to her eldest daughter’s age when she had her, is perpetually drunk and between boyfriends. Mia’s contentious relationship with Tyler is probably the closest thing she has resembling a homosocial friendship. Beyond her connection to local boy Billy (Harry Treadway), Mia doesn’t seem to have friends. Her mom’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender) reeks of dishonorable intention.
Mia’s creative outlet is dancing. But this is a solitary activity. She has aspirations to be a b-girl, yet there’s no one with whom to battle or practice. The film is bookended by scenes where Mia attempts to engage with girl dancers in her peer group. All of them are more interested in gyrating like a video vixen instead of popping, locking, and spinning. At the beginning of the film, she admonishes some neighborhood girls for their jiggly routines. Mia spends much of the movie preparing to audition for a local club. When the tryouts finally happen, she’s horrified to discover that the staff is looking for exotic dancers. Two judges preside over the audition. In an interesting twist, it’s the female judge who requests that Mia wear her hair down and asks why she isn’t wearing hot pants. Perhaps recalling an unfortunate set of events with her mother’s boyfriend, Mia walks out of the audition and ultimately leaves home.
Mia’s inability to find a female dance partner or a community who takes any interest in her dancing recalls b-girl Asia One’s frustrations in Rachel Raimist’s hip hop documentary Nobody Knows My Name. Asia One is constantly searching for another girl to dance with and a hip hop video production that isn’t holding casting at a strip club, but neither are easy to come by.
Mia’s one-sided love for a genre and dance form is what really resonated with me. It’s hard to love hip hop sometimes when it doesn’t reciprocate. The film’s soundtrack features Wiley, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, and Gang Starr (RIP, Guru), as well as tracks from James Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and prominent use of Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”. The beats are banging and the grooves are deep, but Mia’s often dancing to them alone.
This is why my favorite scene in the film is at the end. Mia is preparing to leave when she finds her mother in the living room, dancing to her daughter’s Nas CD. Joanne tells her daughter to fuck off, which prompts Mia and Tyler to join in on a dance to “Life’s a Bitch.” It’s a touching scene in a film that’s relentlessly bleak. While the movie knows this tender moment is fleeting, it’s also the only time we see Mia dance with people instead of for them or in isolation. It’s also the rare instance where we see a smile on her face. And while Mia moves away from her mother and sister, she leaves her CDs with them. Perhaps this will lead to future dance parties.
We’re a week into my favorite month of the year. In Austin, we’re finally getting some semblance of autumn weather. We’re also in the midst of a season where lots of new music gets released. Thus, it seems time to celebrate some music that represents that idyllic time when the air turns crisp and cool and brittle burnt orange leaves gather with shades of ocher and rust and juxtapose with a sky that’s the complimentary shade of a robin’s egg. The Sea and Cake and Van Dyke Parks are two seasonal favorites. Everything on Tavi Gevinson’s witchy music mix would apply. The new one from Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Yuka Honda, and Dougie Brown is sure to make it into rotation. Here are some blog-appropriate selections. Yours are welcome too.
Few acts provide better aural companionship for scarf weather better than Stereolab, an opinion I’m proud to share with media scholar and Twitter acquaintance Derek Kompare. If fall represents, among other things, returning to academic pursuits, than this band make intellectual rigor look easy, obscuring the cross-outs, highlighter stains, and eraser skids that suggest the educational process as surely as they bury their socialist politics under analog kitsch.
Twee gets a bad rap with detractors often missing the politicized amateurishness, irony, and resistance surrounding all the saccharine. Heavenly suggest its irresistible qualities while Thee Headcoatees gleefully bring the subtextual smut to the surface.
Don’t let the college radio staples fool you. Jean Grae is the smartest person in the room.
Singer-songwriter Judee Sill recently got a critical renaissance after decades of obscurity. Her elegant introspection is perfect for solitary walks at dusk and makes the case for why we should listen and remember her.
I’ve been listening to Georgia Anne Muldrow on a consistent basis since spring. I may as well extend it into another season.
Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig capture the season’s hazy qualities.
Austin’s own Soft Healer make music that’s perfect for getting lost in the woods. I was at this show, to the right of the camera.
Magik Markers ramp up the dread when those woods turn ominous and the nocturnal temperature drops.
Sharon Von Etten’s assured vocals will guide you out of the woods. Sandy Denny’s crystalline voice is the clear sky above it all.
Slumberland’s once-forgotten Black Tambourine reminds you that winter’s long dark nights are just around the corner. By that point, I’ll be cozying up to Wooden Shjips and Christmas albums from James Brown and Ze Records. I’ll also be sipping cocoa while revisiting icy offerings from Tim Hecker and Fever Ray, as well as El Guincho’s Pop Negro and Q-Tip’s The Renaissance.
A lot of people have been talking about Janelle Monáe, myself included. I wrote about her look and sound here and here, as well as her music video for “Tightrope” during my recent stint at Bitch. Her album, TheArchAndroid Suites II and III, was released last month and many wonder if she represents the future of pop music. Showcasing an eclectic blend of genres and references to tell the story of a futuristic messianic figure named Cindy Mayweather, Monáe channels her love of science fiction to create music that’s entrenched in the past, yet remains fresh and singular. Not since perhaps David Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy Stardust has high-concept pop music sounded so fun.
Some critics note Monáe’s indebtedness to a myriad of popular influences. In a recent Culture Gabfest podcast, Jody Rosen rattled off seemingly disparate folks who inform her sound like Fela Kuti (evident on songs like “Dance Or Die”), jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan (“Faster,” “Come Alive,” “Tightrope”), 60s British psych folk (the verses to “Oh, Maker”), and 80s punk and new wave (“Come Alive”). Obviously James Brown factors prominently here as well.
I point him toward the artists I mapped out in my Bitch entry and raise him Astrud Gilberto (“Sir Greendown”), Simon and Garfunkel (“57821”), Wendy and Lisa (“Wondaland”), and Prince’s psychedelic inclinations (“Mushrooms & Roses”). There are notable pairings with Saul Williams in “Dance or Die” and Of Montreal on “Make the Bus.” There are even direct references to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song In My Heart” , and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
The emphasis on musical reference and hybridity also links The ArchAndroid to artists like Beck, Cornershop, and mentors’ OutKast who anticipated the iPod on shuffle approach ubiquitous to pop music during the 90s. I detect kinship between Monáe and Gnarls Barkley in “Cold War.” In its embrace of concept and musical extravagance, I note a tenuous connection with Gorillaz and Bat for Lashes as well. And strangely enough, I also sense an unexpected affinity between The ArchAndroid and Helium’s The Magic City, the sophomore release of an indie rock band whose leader Mary Timony wanted to channel her love of prog rock into an album full of varied sonic atmospheres and rich storytelling. In short, there’s a city’s worth of ideas in Monáe’s head, as the album cover suggests.
If this list suggests that the music contained within The ArchAndroid is derivative, belabored, unformed, or tedious, it’s to the album’s credit that it certainly doesn’t sound that way. In fact, save for the extraneous (“BabopbyeYa”), I marvel at how the 18-track album simultaneously works as a collection of singles and as a cohesive album with considerable buoyancy. I’d wager that one could go in without knowing about the story or any of the reference points and gladly navigate its varied pop terrain at home with headphones and on the dance floor.
Some believe Monáe’s artistic ambitions exceed her grasp. But I’ll gladly champion a young artist bored with the limitations of a genre that she’s assumed to align with because of her race. Like Gnarls Barkley, she demands to be insinuated in pop music’s cultural history in order to reclaim black people’s obscured role in the creation of the form and I applaud that.
It’ll be interesting to see how Monáe and her audience will evolve, as she captures much of the same white hipster fanbase as OutKast, Kanye West, tour mate Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But I have no doubt she’ll negotiate it with aplomb. With her focus as forward as her trademark pompadour, she’s hardly “just another weirdo.”
So, this outfit’s fourth album has been out for a little over a month. Better to get to it now than never, especially since I’ve been playing it constantly since I bought it on Record Store Day.
In many ways, what’s kept me from writing about I Learned the Hard Way is the question, “what is there to say?” Sure, some folks may criticize how many “done me wrong” odes there are in the band’s catalog. They as also bristle at the inclusion of problematic songs like “She Ain’t a Child No More,” which details alcoholism, parental negligence, and mother-daughter child abuse.
But my endorsement of the album may be informed by being a white girl who feels tough blasting these songs in her car, belting the title track, “The Game Gets Old,” “Better Things,” “Money,” and “Mama Don’t Like My Man” as I cruise the Hancock Center parking lot on trips to H.E.B.
But I’ve always appreciated the resilience and resistance evident in the majority of the group’s catalog. I Learned the Hard Way simply proves the rule once again.
Furthermore, while some may still not be in the know, folks may deride the Dap-Kings for being one of the most consistent recording acts going right now, as this album proves once again. They’re also super-accessible. I’ve been listening to this band since around 2004. In that time, I’ve recommended them to just about everyone, including many parents. And what’s there for them not to love? Tight arrangements and warm analog production from a group who plays their late 60s retro soul influences so close to the vest there’s no room for kitsch.
Oh, and let’s not forget the woman standing front and center — a pint-size, middle-aged former prison guard named Sharon Jones who channels the voice and moves of James Brown. It’s also to their credit that they’re a phenomenal live act. I’ve seen them twice, each time with my partners’ parents, whose mother can do the mashed potato and the funky four corners right along with Jones. Both times they proved funkier and more energetic than 99% of any act I’ve seen cross a stage. If you haven’t seen them before, as Terry Gross hadn’t when she interviewed Jones and founder Gabe “Bosco Mann” Roth in 2007, get to work on it.
I will point out that I like Jones’s placement on the cover, which was photographed by Jacob Blickenstaff. In the previous three covers, she was posed alone. While Naturally is my favorite of these, as I like the singer’s casual pose and the cover’s aesthetic, I read 100 Days, 100 Nights, perhaps in relation to its release, as a singular act of defiance. The album came out amidst backing band the Dap Kings’ playing with Amy Winehouse. While I don’t want to decry Winehouse, I was concerned that Jones’ backing band would be associated with a rail-thin, troubled British singer and their work with an empowered black woman would be overshadowed by short-sighted, tone-deaf tabloid fodder.
Thus, I really like how Jones represents herself in the current album cover: strong, focused, dead center, and flanked by her band. They look just as I’ve seen them in concert: sharply dressed, sharper minded, and ready to raise up from society’s rubble and asphalt into pop’s lexicon.
I finally saw The Blues Brothers a few weekends back. Even for someone who hasn’t seen the majority of SNL-related movies from the 1980s, it’s pretty weird that I haven’t seen this one. My parents were moving from Chicago to Houston around the time it was shot. They actually lived near the mall that got demolished by one of the movie’s many car chase sequences.
Barring my parents’ living situation and my interest in music, it’s also strange that I’ve been in a relationship with someone who notes John Landis’s 1980 Dan Akroyd/John Belushi vehicle as a childhood favorite and hadn’t seen it in our six years together. It led one of us to a lifetime following the blues and launching KVRX’s “Blues At Sunrise.” In addition, Briefcase Full Of Blues has always been go-to cooking music at our house. So when Wax Fax decided to devote a category to the movie for last month’s game, it seemed like the perfect time to bring me up to speed.
As for the movie itself, I liked it fine. It had been talked up so as to fall short of expectations, but I like car chases, black suits, Steve Cropper, and shit getting blowed up as much as the next girl. I still don’t get the appeal of Akroyd or Belushi, but I’m not a Chevy Chase fan either. Bill Murray is another story, and a welcome second season replacement for Chase on SNL.
For me, the movie’s appeal was the music, particularly its musical cameos. Cab Calloway as Jake and Elwood’s mentor? Sure. Ray Charles as a gun-toting music store owner? Sign me up. James Brown as a gospel minister? Of course.
(Note: Do seek out James Brown’s short-lived Future Shock. My friend Evan brought it into my household before he moved to Baltimore with his partner Kit, and we’re all the better for it. Basically, it’s an Atlanta-based public access version of Soul Train hosted by Brown around the time he released Body Heat. In other words, it’s amazing. Tim and Eric can’t make this up.)
But ya’ll know why I really wanted to see The Blues Brothers. Her name starts with an “A.” Before she wore the most amazing hat ever to sing at Obama’s inauguration, she’s was doin’ it for herself with Annie Lennox. She built Atlantic Records. She was young, gifted, and black. She demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Aretha Franklin has a cameo in The Blues Brothers. The general premise of the movie is that Blues BrothersJake (Belushi) and Elwood (Akroyd) are reuniting their band upon Jake’s release from jail for shoplifting. One member being brought back in the fold is guitarist Matt Murphy. Trouble is, Murphy is manacled to his wife (played by Franklin), who runs a diner. She doesn’t want him back out on the road, and explains why with “Think,” a Franklin classic.
Rousing, right? Fuck yeah, I’ll stay home and fry chickens and toast white bread for your customers. Why would I ever leave when I’m married to a goddess? Better yet, why don’t we put our own project together because you have those pipes? At the very least we can make room for a Blues Sister.
But the scene ends with Murphy handing in his apron, a symbol of his emasculation, to split with the Blues Brothers. In doing so, not only does Murphy abide by the conceptualization of musicians as feckless nomads, but he also plays into the stereotype of the noncommittal heterosexual black man.
I feel like Franklin is totally cheated here. In addition to playing a supposedly unsympathetic character, employing one of Franklin’s own songs in this way seems a way to cuckold both the character and the actor, who is also the singer. It bums me out.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen the sequel. I know that Franklin reappears with a cadre of ladies in some snazzy duds. I also know that Erykah Badu also makes a cameo and am curious about her involvement. Until then, I’ll cross my arms and hope Mrs. Murphy gets the last laugh, or at least her own Dr. Feelgood. For now, Franklin can play herself off.
Last Saturday, Kristen and I were talking about the music history workshops we taught with some bad-ass GRCA alums for the Girls Now! conference. As you can imagine, it’s hard to pare down nearly a century’s worth of female contributions to popular music into a 75-minute PowerPoint presentation and have it be fun and interactive as well. Thus, we made sure to include many music videos and performance clips that hopefully engaged our girl attendees. One such clip was Christina Aguilera’s Grammy performance of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” apparently beloved by Patti Smith. Afterwards, Kristen mentioned that it was possible to do an entire section on cover songs and wished we had more time to highlight and discuss more interesting examples.
Too right, Kristen. In fact, I think I started this section of the blog to cull together noteworthy cover songs, as I think covers are fascinating. What does song selection and interpretation say about the artist? How do their personae, generic alignments, and identity markers give the source material new meaning? What does it mean for Solange Knowles — aka Ms. “Fuck the Industry (Signed Sincerely)” — to cover an indie rock song like Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move,” which was originally inspired by Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and includes a sample of “Bumpy’s Lament” in her version? What does it mean for Cat Power to adopt the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as a signature song and create several arrangements of it ranging from stripped-down folk to soulful rave-up? How does Tori Amos blow apart Eminem’s misogynistic murder fantasy in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” by orienting herself as the dead wife in the trunk?
(Note: For further insight into the last song mentioned, I recommend reading Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods’s “Authenticity, Appropriation, Signification: Tori Amos on Gender, Race, and Violence in Covers of Billie Holiday and Eminem.” Also, I might need to get around to unpacking the cover art for Amos’s Strange Little Girls at some point.)
Continuing why I hope to be an on-going discussion, tonight I selected two songs originally recorded by James Brown and Sam Cooke. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” has always seemed to me to be an ode to chauvinism. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” however, is an anthem for social change that came to define the Civil Rights Movement. But think about what additional meanings these songs may have when performed by Christina Aguilera and Sharon Jones.