Le Butcherettes – Cry is for the Flies

by Matt J. Popham

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

It’s hard not to be reminded of William Golding’s savage masterpiece while listening to Le Butcherettes’ brilliant and harrowing “Cry is for the Flies.” The fact that Teresa Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender), Le Butcherettes’ founder and frontwoman, once achieved a certain notoriety by performing on stage with a severed pig’s head only serves to make one wonder if the evocation is deliberate. The band’s 2011 debut, “Sin Sin Sin,” (a winking bilingual double-entendre) was riddled with literary references after all, name-checking such authors as Tolstoy, Rousseau, Fitzgerald, and Salinger. But while “Lord of the Flies” is never explicitly mentioned on “Cry is for the Flies,” and Suarez has since abandoned most of her gruesome stage theatrics, an urgent, primal menace, reminiscent of Golding’s novel, seethes through her latest collection of songs. Even if the association isn’t intentional, it’s apt.

Mercilessly intense, but undeniably compelling, “Cry is for the Flies” strips Le Butcherettes’ already minimalist punk aesthetic to its bare bones. What’s left is raw, hard, and often unsettling. Gone is the cheerfully serrated mischief of “Sin Sin Sin” with its catchy garage rock hooks and sharp, show-offy lyrics. “Cry is for the Flies” is a darker, subtler, less comfortable listen, but also a stronger, more assured, and more impressive one. From the ominous opener, “Moment of Guilt,” a tautly whispered spoken word prologue by Butcherettes admirer Henry Rollins, through to the throbbing, threatening closer, “Blackhead,” each track is an austere expression of barely contained, but masterfully controlled, madness. Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s bass stalks and growls like a wounded animal over Lia Braswell’s eruptive drumming, creating an unrelenting tension, perfectly punctuated by Suarez’s thundering power chords. Even the album’s more upbeat, keyboard-driven tracks, like “Boulder Love Over Layers of Rock,” or the stunning “Poet From Nowhere,” sound dangerously unhinged: the former like a commercial jingle having a psychotic episode, the latter like a carnival ride careening off the rails.

But ultimately, it’s Suarez’s voice that carries the album and gives it its distinctive, disturbing character. Trading the punk rock screams of her past efforts for more tuneful, but no less impassioned, emotional exorcisms, she commands each song with impressive dramatic range and power. Down and dirty one minute, launching into an off-kilter falsetto the next. A defiant and discordant snarl on the assaultive “Burn the Scab.” A haunting howl on “Your Weakness Gives Me Life.” Wearily dragging the deep end of her lower registers on the wrenching “My Child,” before thinning into reedy, brittle grief. Her vocal theatrics, at every turn, are both jarring and powerfully genuine, delivered with almost terrifying commitment. If Suarez is no longer performing in bloodied butcher’s aprons, or dancing with pig’s heads, it’s not because she’s gone soft or toned it down. It’s because she’s successfully absorbed and integrated such provocative artistic strategies into her singing and songwriting, her fierce intellect now equally matched by a near-demonic musical and emotional ferocity.

“I can’t get at you,” Rollins whispers, as the personification of Guilt.

“Why do you think that is?” the track’s protagonist queries.

“Because you’re a monster,” Guilt replies.

“It took you this long,” says our protagonist, “to figure it out?”

Suarez has figured out her inner monster and delivered it into the world with blood, sweat, and screams. A riveting, ravaging work of striking severity, stark simplicity, and searing sincerity, “Cry is for the Flies” should secure Suarez’s place in the rock pantheon alongside the likes of Patti Smith, Kathleen Hannah, and Sleater-Kinney – gifted music icons and feminist flag-bearers whose influence she wears proudly on her blood-spattered sleeve. Like so many great albums, it’s an original, uncompromising, even brutal work. In short, it’s a Beast. Give it a chance and it will get inside you and swallow you whole. It will become inescapable. And you’ll love every thrilling minute.

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12 Years a Slave

by Matt J. Popham

Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir might be the best cinematic study of the sin of slavery ever made. Sadly, a quick glance at film history reveals what pitifully faint praise that is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good film. Very good, in fact. But for all its superlative qualities – and there are many – it falls disappointingly short of greatness.

The problem is not the cast, who are almost uniformly stellar: Michael Fassbender, continuing his personal mission to rip the mantle of Best Actor Alive away from Gary Oldman, burns through the screen with a layered, mercurial intensity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. Lupita Nyong’o has been deservedly praised for her wrenchingly vulnerable, but never cloying or precious, turn as the brutalized Patsey. And Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is given the opportunity to admirably indulge his warmer, softer side as the sympathetic, but cowardly, Ford. Even the bit parts boast a range of respected pros, from Paul Giamatti to Alfre Woodard, each giving their all, often in the smallest of roles (which, unfortunately, only serves to make Brad Pitt’s bafflingly wooden – and mercifully brief – performance as a Canadian abolitionist that much more jarring). Anchoring the near Platonic ensemble is Chiwetel Ejiofor who, as Solomon, commands the screen with quiet, stubborn dignity. Leaving the flash and fire to his supporting players, Ejiofor renders the slow erosion of Solomon’s selfhood with subtlety and nuance, his determined reserve making the character’s agony that much more affecting.

McQueen’s signature unflinching gaze creates a cinematic space wherein we are made to study closely not only slavery’s circumstantial horrors, but the emotional torment and psychological toll suffered by those who endured – and those who perpetrated – it. In fact, for all the shock and awe surrounding the film’s supposedly unbearable portrayals of physical cruelty, some of 12 YEARS A SLAVE’s most powerful moments are those when McQueen simply holds silent and still on Solomon’s face, exposing the weight of his internal ordeal. A video artist turned director, McQueen made his debut with a confident authorial aesthetic already in place. His first two films (2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame) throbbed with a haunting, almost oppressive intimacy, inaugurating a unique cinema of confinement that should have dovetailed perfectly with the nightmare of Northup’s story. It’s surprising and a bit disappointing then that, for all that the film is punctuated by striking stylistic flourishes and affecting moments, much of its visual storytelling feels conventional and uninspired – almost mechanical – making it seem less assured than his previous efforts.

But what ultimately keeps 12 YEARS A SLAVE from achieving the eminence to which it aspires is the fact that it feels so curiously truncated. It’s difficult to cram twelve years into a little over two hours, but John Ridley’s adaption is both too focused and too accelerated, rushing from plot point to plot point while concentrating almost entirely on one narrative aspect of Solomon’s servitude. What’s missing everywhere but on Ejiofor’s face is the endless grind of slavery: the daily back-breaking routine, the existential hopelessness, and the ongoing cruelties that, after years of repetition, become commonplace. Ridley’s script nods to these aspects, but never engages with them, and while what’s on screen is certainly dramatic and compelling enough, we never feel the crushing burden of the passage of time. The end result feels more like TWO YEARS A SLAVE than 12. We know, going in, the weight and the impact that a story of this magnitude should have but, despite the anguish and unpleasantness we witness throughout the film’s running time, Solomon’s relief and reprieve come too quickly and too easily, leaving us, in some strange way, wanting more. Which, given the film’s subject matter and intent, we really shouldn’t.

American Hustle

by Matt J. Popham

A masterfully directed, expertly performed, dazzling, dizzying, and nauseating portrait of the corruption, desperation, and self-deception that fester at America’s self-hating heart, American Hustle is one of the best, funniest, and most unpleasant films of the year. Based as much on actual events as your average grift, the film is loosely inspired by the FBI’s notorious 1978 ABSCAM sting, wherein the Bureau hired an experienced con-man to help them entrap crooked politicians. David O. Russell’s grotesquely deglamorized take on Scorsese’s flashy, amphetamine aesthetic propels the story at a sleazy tumble, evoking the not-altogether-pleasing stylistic sensation of late 70’s porn being manhandled by Goodfellas. (If it’s true that bad artists imitate while great artists steal, this is where Paul Thomas Anderson failed with Boogie Nights…) The sweaty, panting pace and lurching visuals could easily become overwhelming, but Hustle’s electrifying, tragicomic cast give the film a thumping, horrifically human heart. From a troubled and unusually vulnerable Christian Bale, to a fierce and surprisingly sultry Amy Adams, from Bradley Cooper’s aggressive and erratic animal mania, to Jennifer Lawrence’s all-at-once incandescent and pathetic heartbreaking hilarity, every single actor performs a breathtaking highwire act, balancing damaged character with warped caricature, like a cast of R. Crumb cartoons made flesh. But for all its triumphs of text, texture, and technique, it’s often difficult not to feel disengaged from American Hustle’s tumultuous dramatic landscape. Given Russell’s funhouse-mirror-up-to-nature intentions, it would be a mistake for him to let us get too close, but his Brechtian strategies can make for rough, removed viewing. (This could also just be a subjective preference. Where other critics have described the film as, “fun.” “giddy,” and, “exhilarating,” for all its humor, I found it sad, ugly, and unsettling…) There is no question that American Hustle is a marvel, deserving of every accolade it receives, but it’s also a film that’s much easier to admire than to love.

Museum Hours

by Matt J. Popham

Jem Cohen’s MUSEUM HOURS is exactly the sort of haunting, beautiful, sophisticated work of cinema that too many people will too readily dismiss as pretentious, art-house tedium. Their loss, I suppose… A deceptively simple story about an unlikely cross-cultural friendship that develops between two quietly lonely people in the halls of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the film is also a witty aesthetic treatise, a microcosmic tour of art history and theory, and a touching humanist parable that juxtaposes the way we look at art with the way we look at life. Though studiously paced and dramatically muted, its hushed tones belie its sharp mind and fiery heart, for Museum Hours is, in its soft and subtle way, a film with a mission. By framing and contextualizing its narrative against a backdrop of Breughels and Rembrandts, it seeks to do for us exactly what its two leads do for each other, namely, inspire a new way of seeing the world around us. An “art film” in the best (and broadest) sense, it reminds us that even the most common, ordinary, and oft-overlooked details in our field of vision can tell powerful, enlightening stories, and inform our understanding of the bigger picture.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

by Matt J. Popham

Book Review Gone Girl

If Patricia Highsmith were to hate-fuck a young Martin Amis and spawn a razorsharp, poison -quilled succubus, her name might be Gillian Flynn. Or, at least, that’s the feeling one gets being sucked into the sinister, venomous, and, yes, thoroughly enjoyable downward spiral that is GONE GIRL. Flynn’s third novel was a breakout bestseller and one of the “It” books of 2012, but don’t hold that against her. Because to spend too much time championing the novel’s masterfully calculated narrative mechanics and full-throttle page-turnability is to undervalue its artfulness and wit.

A dark delight, GONE GIRL launches itself from a deceptively simple suspense-thriller springboard – on the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears under suspicious circumstances – then hits the ground running, propelled by a double-barreled, and deeply dubious, he-said/she-said narration, through which Nick and Amy, by turns, examine not only the components, complexities, and possible culprits in Amy’s abduction, but also the harmony and heartbreak of their tumultuous romantic history. Saying anything more would detract from the thrill-ride of serpentine, psychological twists and riveting, Jim Thompson-esque turns, but for all of GONE GIRL’s visceral genre trappings, the hollow at the center of its Mystery-of-the-Missing-Wife storyline echoes with a deeper, broader resonance: This is a book about vacancy. About the empty spaces in our lives, and the bitter, brittle facades we build to mask them. Whether it’s the uninhabited houses that line the streets of the Dunne’s Midwestern, middle-class subdivision, or the affected outward image each character projects to try and obscure their deepest, darkest flaws, whether it’s the simplified, sensationalistic media coverage of Amy’s byzantine abduction, or the void at the heart of the Dunnes’ collapsing marriage, Flynn populates her novel with empty shells, hollow husks, and desolate souls, painting a merciless portrait of a sick society crumbling under its obsession with the superficial. Though she cleverly wraps her caustic criticisms in an irresistible confection of addictive intrigue, whiplash reversals, breakneck pacing, playful prose, and compelling characters, beneath the intoxicating entertainment, lurks a piercing, probing, disturbing dissection of identity, marriage, and contemporary culture that permeates your system like a poison. A “cookie full of arsenic,” GONE GIRL, once devoured, will leave you feeling both slightly sick and supremely satisfied.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

by Matt J. Popham

Concrete

Thomas Bernhard’s CONCRETE is not so much a conventional novel as an erratic, disturbing, and darkly comic rollercoaster rant. It is also one of the most authentic, insightful, and entertaining books about writing (or, more accurately, NOT writing) that I have ever read. Our protagonist and first-person narrator, Rudolf, spends the novel’s fierce and feverish 100 pages failing to start work on his study of Mendelssohn – a project ten years in the making – instead, verbally lashing out at anyone and anything he views as an obstacle to its commencement (himself, included). Not so much inert as impotent, Rudolf is riddled with illness, neuroses, and bitterness, consistent only in his inability to commit to anything, including his own thoughts and feelings. His convulsive spasms of frustration and rage carry us through his frenzied (and often hilarious) oratories, digressions, oscillations, and reversals like exploding tides, yet somehow, from this tortured tempest, the man and his tragedy are able emerge in full. A direct descendant of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Rudolf presents us with a postmodern portrait of the diseased intellect in retreat, firing erratically at various targets, while vainly seeking shelter in isolation. Whether his attacks are unwarranted or his anger misdirected is immaterial, as he is ultimately his own worst, and most inescapable enemy. If Fitzgerald was correct in his assertion that plot is character and character is plot, then Bernhard, for all his book’s seeming narrative aimlessness, has constructed one hell of a dense and powerful story. A visceral, merciless – and mercilessly funny – verbal assault, Concrete vividly documents the wounded, existential howl of a pained, and painfully recognizable, human psyche.

Wild Flag – Self Titled

by Matt J. Popham

“Hey, hey! Can you feel it?” Carrie Brownstein asks in the opening line of “Romance,” a paean to the power of music that kicks off Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album. One of the album’s strongest tracks, as its thumping, guitar-and-keyboard riff gives way to the infectious, sing-a-long chant of the chorus, you may just find yourself saying, “Damn right, I can!” But when the band declares, in three-part harmony, “We love the sound! The sound is what found us,” it’s hard not to find yourself wondering just whose sound they’re referring to…

In September of last year, Brownstein (33.3% of the tragically defunct Sleater-Kinney) announced on her NPR blog that, after a five year hiatus from music, she and some friends were putting a band together. That prospect alone might have been enough to start music fans salivating, but when the news broke that these friends included Brownstein’s former S-K bandmate, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole of The Minders, and indie guitar goddess Mary Timony, excitement levels went through the roof, making this newly formed, all-girl, alt-rock powerhouse the most talked about supergroup of the alternative scene. Before a single note was recorded, Wild Flag’s built-in following had declared their upcoming record a surefire masterpiece and a candidate for Album of the Year.

Of course, that’s the inherent problem with “supergroups”: the mere idea of them sends expectations rocketing skyward, only to have them crash-and-burn when confronted with the all-too-frequently disappointing reality. Rock history is littered with a multitude of all-star efforts amounting to little more than underwhelming curiosities at best and abject failures at worst. Most never evolve beyond short-lived side projects, crumbling under the weight of conflicting egos or dissipating from benign neglect. The few true successes tend to be those that transcend the “supergroup” label entirely (does anyone think of Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash as “supergroups,” anymore…?), by discovering a new sound and establishing a unique musical identity that eclipses their individual members’ former achievements and acclaim.

So, after a year of hype and hyperbole, now that their debut has finally been unfurled, is Wild Flag worth saluting…? The truth: It’s probably too early to say. But, for now, at least, the legacies of Helium and Sleater-Kinney remain unthreatened.

Which is not to say that Wild Flag is a bad album. Far from it. From start to finish, it’s a fascinating, invigorating listen, full of tonal zigzags and energetic flights of fancy. The hip-shaking pop seduction of “Romance” gives way to the eerier, more cryptic “Something Came Over Me,” which, in turn, explodes into the post-punk desperation of “Boom,” only to be followed by the sprawling, hippies-on-Helium psychedelic jam, “Glass Tambourine,” etc. Throughout, one can’t help but get the feeling that Brownstein and Timony split the songwriting chores almost down the middle, as each alternating tune exhibits trademark elements of one or the other’s wildly different signature styles. You could even be forgiven, at times, for thinking you were listening to a shuffle of b-sides from “One Beat” and “No Guitars.” Which are both fantastic records. But that’s the thing…

While the individual songs are good – even great – and fans of Sleater-Kinney, Helium or The Minders will find much here to savor, at the end of Wild Flag’s 10 songs, it’s still unclear what Wild Flag, the band, is going to sound like. Because what the album captures best is not the sound of a new musical force on the scene, but the sound of four top-notch musicians and unique stylists trying to figure out how exactly they fit together. The results can still be intriguing and rewarding, as in songs like “Short Version” or “Future Crime,” where Timony’s guitar is pushed out of its usual medieval-tinged comfort zone into the wilds of rock ‘n’ roll riffage. But there are also a few awkward collisions. While Janet Weiss’ powerful Keith Moon-style pounding provided the perfect muscle for Sleater-Kinney’s sinewy two-guitar interplay, it is, at times, too heavy and too direct for Timony’s more delicate, idiosyncratic compositions and angular strumming, occasionally weighing them down rather than supporting them. The good news is that the fortunes far outnumber the flaws, but even Wild Flag’s highest points have the texture of stylistic aggregate. Rather than a unified band with a unique voice, Wild Flag is still, at this point, a heterogeneous mixture of individual approaches that have yet to coalesce into a sonic whole.

What keeps Wild Flag, the album, from sounding either too schizophrenic or too familiar is the joyful abandon of all four women as they explore, experiment, share and discover. Unlike Timony’s and Brownstein’s previous collaboration, The Spells, which sometimes came off sounding like two talented gals just messing around, the proceedings here are being taken more seriously, but not so serious as to become ponderous or pretentious. The album is held together by a thematic, rather than musical unity, as each member revels in the freedom and the thrill of being a part of something so new and full of possibility. Almost every song, both lyrically and structurally, can be read as a celebration of music as an inspiration, a solace, a way of life. “Come and join our electric band…” Timony entices on the track of the same name. Boundaries are pushed, past successes are relived, and personal histories and influences are audibly shared. “Endless Talk” with its mix of poppy keyboards and bluesy vocals is surprisingly reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s Doors numbers. “Racehorse” is a galloping jam that sounds like the MC5 fronted by Patti Smith. All in all, it’s a restless, searching record, but also a fun and fearless one.

Certainly, when it comes to our expectations of supergroups, the case could be made that the fault lies not in our rock stars, but in ourselves that we are underwhelmed. Great musicians, after all, come together to jam out of mutual admiration and a sense of fun, not to make history. But it’s hard, when you have this much talent concentrated in one place, not to hope for something mind-blowing, something life changing, something wholly new and different than anything you’ve heard before. It’s even harder when an album this vital and this passionate displays all the promise and potential inherent in an artistic alliance while falling just short of fulfilling it.

“Chemistry cannot be manufactured or forced,” noted Brownstein on her blog, perhaps acknowledging the inevitable pressures that would be faced by Wild Flag’s stellar ensemble, “But after a handful of practice sessions, spread out over a period of months, I think we all realized that we could be greater than the sum of our parts.” After listening to Wild Flag, the album, it’s clear that she’s correct, even if they’re not quite there yet. After all, if Cream had disbanded after their uneven first album, they’d likely be little more than a musical footnote today, and Wild Flag is already a more consistently enjoyable debut than Fresh Cream. On “Black Tiles,” the album’s soulful, melancholic closer – a beautiful, powerful track that could also be the best indicator of what Wild Flag might sound like when they finally gel – Brownstein acknowledges that, “For all we know, we’re just here for the length of the song.” I, for one, hope that the band’s obvious commitment, both to music and to each other, means they’ll be here a good bit longer than that. Because as enjoyable as it is to hear them celebrate who they are and where they’re from, the most exciting thing about Wild Flag will be discovering who they become and where they’re going. In the meantime, with this first step, they’ve planted a flag worth flying.