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Years

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I have been in love with this album since I first filmed the band recording it last year for our upcoming Sarah Shook & the Disarmers documentary What It Takes: film en douze tableaux. As they meticulously laid down the tracks, as Shook turned in sneering, sizzling vocals, as Eric Peterson bent his guitar neck to points from which I thought it night not return, as John Howie Jr redefined the art of drums in alt-country, as Aaron Oliva brought almost a jazz feel to the proceedings with his upright bass, and as Phil Sullivan traded steel licks with Peterson answering every one of Shook’s sneers with one of his own, my crew and I knew we were witnessing a miracle.

There isn’t a song on Years that won’t grab you by the throat and slap you with a line of two that’ll make you realize what a great songwriter Shook is. Instead of going through song by song, buy the record and experience it from start to finish (as all great albums should be experienced — really sit with headphones, press play and for 37 minutes immerse yourself in a work of art). And every time you think it can’t get any better, there’s another track that comes on…and by the time you’re at the half-way point with What It Takes, and the thrilling duel between the strings of Peterson and Sullivan you’ll be crying from the sheer emotional excitement. And then Shook ends it all with the title track, slapping you in the face one more time. “Baby it’s been years since I knew how to move you,” she sings on the coda, But sorry, no, you’re wrong there, Shook. Every note on this emotional roller coaster of a record moves us, kills us just a little with its brilliance, then brings us back to life again with the promise of another song. It’s life support in a time of posers and gutless rock and roll. And yes, to me it’s rock and roll as much as it is country, alt-country, whatever you want to call it. It’s just freakin’ great. And it rocks me to the core of my very soul.

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Filed under best music, Best Music of Year, best of the year, documentaries, new music, rockumentary, sarah shook, sarah shook and the disarmers, Uncategorized, what it takes: film en douze tableaux

Unadorned

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.  A year ago, in February, I brought together a group of six extremely talented young women to make a music video for a song on the about-to-be-released Matt Ryan record. Everything about “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator” rocked.  It’s one of my favorite shoots, one of my favorite videos. You can watch it here.

Then, last Wednesday, I read that Matt would soon be releasing an unadorned acoustic version of the same album.  He sent me a copy, and I immediately turned on the acoustic “Aviator” and before the song was over I knew what I had to do.

The texting began. I started with my Matt Ryan-impersonator Chloe Barczak as she would have to carry so much of the idea I had in my head.  She was in.  Then co-producer Charlotte Beatty to handle the organization.  And the first video’s guitarist Carina Begley, as the guitar was (except for a few piano notes at the very end) the lone instrument.  An acoustic version of the same team, so to speak.

Then I told Matt we were again making a music video of “Aviator.”  He never even asked what we were planning, and instead got American Songwriter Magazine to agree to premiere the video sight unseen.  He sent me the chords and even a video for Carina on how to play a few of the guitar parts.

By Friday of last week we had a schedule and a location.  The same location as the original video.  We all met at 8:45 AM on Sunday, loaded up my Jeep with almost all of my gear, and drove the two tenths of a mile to the home of Dean and Shellye.

As Carina got used to the feel of my Martin acoustic, Charlotte and Chloe helped me set up lights and camera.  By 10:30 we were filming, buzzing from a lot of Willoughby’s coffee, Coke-a-Cola, and salted-caramel Orangeside Donuts.

But this time around Chloe and Carina had their work cut out for them.  My concept was to present the video in one long take.  No cuts.  Just a perfect performance and some precise rack focusing. No sweat.

We worked on blocking the first half dozen times through, as Chloe worked on her emotional delivery.  She felt this version of the song was really sad.  Desperate.  Depressing even.  Both Charlotte and Carina agreed.  I was not about to argue.

We got the blocking just right, the lighting perfect.  And by the twelfth take I started noticing tears in Chloe’s eyes.  That was when I knew we had something special.  We knocked off one take after another, with barely a pause between, and she nailed it.  Take sixteen was fucking brilliant.  Take eighteen was perfect.  We did a few more.  I had a B-camera rolling just in case my impossible one-shot idea would not work.  And after the twenty-fourth take we wrapped.

I got home around 1:30 PM.  I copied the footage onto a drive as I put away the gear.  Then I started editing, going back and forth between takes 16, 18, 12 and 24…but ultimately the fucking brilliant won out.  It would be take 16.  I added titles, the slightest color correction, some film grain, and I exported the timeline.  By 4:30 PM I texted Matt, Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina a private viewing link for the video.

This is what Matt Ryan wrote to me after seeing it for the first time: “My god she’s killing me. I seriously have tears in my eyes.  I love it.  Breaks my heart.  It’s beautiful  Please tell them I love it.  Thank you for thinking to do this.”

His appreciation was appreciated.

Matt stripped down a beautiful song, and allowed us to do the same to the original video.  But this video is unadorned in other ways as well: void of ego, attitudes, rude people (unlike most of the rest of my past few weeks, hell, unlike most of the world we live in). It was just four people working together, all doing what they need to do, having fun doing it, turning a beautiful song in a visual work of art.

Thank you to Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina, my brilliant cohorts on this project. Thank you to Dean and Shellye for again letting us invade their home.  Thank you to Matt Ryan and American Songwriter for the blind trust.

And here it is:  American Songwriter Magazine

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.

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The Best of 2017

A very good year in music.

First off nice to see both Sarah Shook’s Sidelong (my co-album of the year last year) and Lydia Loveless’s Boy Crazy collection on many year end lists. They’re not on mine only because they’re reissues. You already know how I feel about both of these artists.

Speaking of reissues, they truly rocked this year. From the Savage Young Dü collection from Hüsker Dü to the amazing deluxe reissues of Wilco first two albums AM and Being There. As did live records. Both The Replacements’ For Sale and Lydia’s Live from the Documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? (which, yes, I am responsible for bringing to life) are as good, if not better, than any studio album released this year. But that’s not the essence of my top ten list.

It’s about new music.

So, here now, are my ten favorite records of 2017.

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The Order of Time – Valerie June – There was no album I returned to on a more frequent basis that June’s brilliant sophomore effort. This record is all about a vibe that just sinks its slightly gritty under the nails claws into you and never lets go. Part old school Americana (think the old 78s that were recorded live in the 20s), part soul, with a voice that sounds wise beyond its years. Add to that the most perfectly subdued production and a collection of songs that seem to get better with every listen, and you’ve got an instant classic. This is a record that will sound even better a decade from now.

Deep Dream – Daddy Issues – Finally a new take on the riot grrl sound. Noisy and sweet at the same time, any band that could make Don Henley’s Boys of Summer worth listening to has to be doing something right.   This is the late night, drive fast, slam your fist against the steering wheel, scream along album of the year. Fuck, yes!

Anything Could Happen – Bash N Pop – The best solo record from a member of The Replacements since Westerberg’s Stereo/Mono seventeen years ago. Tommy Stinson just knocks it out of the park with a great collection of songs. His voice has never sounded better, and that familiar guitar sound is like an old friend coming to visit carrying a bottle of good bourbon and a six pack of beer. I’m not putting this on the list because he’s a former member of the Mats, it’s here because it’s a damn good record.

Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee – I loved Waxahatachee’s first album American Weekend (it topped this list a few years back), but the next two left me bored. So I am very happy to report Katie Crutchfield is back with almost the perfect companion piece to that first record. Except this time instead of haunted lullabyes we’re treated to a full-on sonic assault of guitars, bass and drum. This is her rock album. A wall of pop melodies coated in noise syrup brilliant from start to finish. Love this record.

After the Party – The Menzingers – The closest we’re going to come to The Clash thirty-five years after they split up. I would call this my feel-good record of the year. From the opening guitars of Tellin’ Lies the album made me feel young again, and never let up.   And maybe this is new for old dudes. I don’t give a fuck. I’m an old dude. And this one rocked.

Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker – She sings one note and my heart is broken. A whole album, and I’m reduced to tears. She is the heir apparent to Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, someone to take us into the dark spaces, and hold our hands with the confidence in her voice. Everything will be okay with Julien leading the way.

Gilded – Jade Jackson – While we all wait for new records from Loveless and Shook, dig into Jade Jackson spectacular debut. It’s a collection of heartbreak and longing with guitars a little too crunchy for country-western. The raspy catch in her voice will grab you from the first note and not let go.

Notes of Blue – Son Volt – The best alt-country record of the year. And in a year in which guitars seemed to blessedly rule again, this is a freaking guitar masterpiece.

Losing – Bully – Old school riot grrl done right: fuzz, melody, fuzz, drums, fuzz and Alicia Bognanno has a voice made for the genre. Just one of those records you put on endless repeat on a drive from Minneapolis to Fargo.

Spades and Roses – Caroline Spence – Best straight out country record of the year. Spence is an amazing songwriter, but it’s her delivery that just breaks your heart. With production just sparse enough, and yet more killer guitar riffs, she takes us through a collection of songs that sound like great southern literature. Short stories turned to song.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR: Lydia Loveless take this for both sides of a single: Desire/Sorry. The A-side, a gut-wrenching tale of an affair with a married man gone bad, was truly my favorite track from her last LP Real, but it ended up on the recording studio floor, so to speak, though it was a centerpiece of my film Who is Lydia Loveless? The B-side is a cover of the Justin Beiber song which was easily my most played tune of the year. Lydia makes the song her own, as if every word meant something special to her and the person and/or persons she singing it to. Gave me goosebumps more times than I care to admit. I’ve said it before that she has the greatest voice on the planet. And I’ll say it again. She fucking kills me every time.

Listen to Sorry on bandcamp here.

OTHER GREAT SONGS:

Sixteen from Diet Cig – the opening verse is all you need to know: “When I was sixteen/I dated a boy/With my own name/It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my name/While trying to fuck.”

(I Just Died) Like an Aviator – Matthew Ryan – the greatest song in the world can become downright annoying when you direct and edit a music video for it. There’s only so much you can hear one song. Right? Well, wrong, in this case. Despite hundreds and hundreds of listens over a two week period, the first track from Ryan’s stellar Hustle up Starlings lp stands the test of time as one of the best rock tracks of the year. (Even if I no longer picture the words coming out of Ryan’s mouth.)

BEST LIVE SHOW: Lydia Loveless, Todd May, and Casey Magic at the backroom at Cat’s Cradle on December 15th and 16th. She was on fire these two nights, playing solo and with Todd, rearranging, ranting, reinventing European, breaking our fucking hearts every time she opened her mouth. Goddammit, Lydia!

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM: I, Tonya – a mocumentary, that was funny at times, heartbreaking the rest. A brilliant cast, superb script, and a sharpness of vision we rarely see with any sort of budget.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM: Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig might be the Lydia Loveless of independent film: funny, awkward, damaged, opinionated, and always completely charming. And that showed through in every frame of this magnificent directing debut.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography – Errol Morris’s short, subtle masterpiece. A film that leaves you wanting more, which is rare indeed today. His portrait of a quirky photographer who was one of five people on the planet who owned a 20×24 Polaroid camera. Love, love, love!

BEST TV: TV is the new indie film. And it just keeps getting better and better. Thus just a list of a few of this year’s standouts: Stranger Things II, The Five, Master of None, Ray Donovan, The Keepers, Big Little Lies, The Deuce, and GLOW. (And I’m not even mentioning my guilty pleasure love for reality TV like Big Brother, Survivor, and Top Chef.)

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Mary Miller’s brilliant Always Happy Hour: Stories and Jeff Goodell’s terrifying The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. The former is a collection of writing to rival the dark despair of Carver, the latter a look at how the coastlines of the world will not be recognizable in a few decades. Both so worth reading, perhaps for the same reason.

As for the rest of my 2017:

Four releases this fall, of which I am quite proud: Who is Lydia Loveless? on DVD with a shitload of great extras, the Record Store Day vinyl-only release of 6 tunes from the film, Live from the Documentary Who is Lydia Loveless?, my first film Disconnected on bluray (with extras that include my long-lost first documentary Twenty Questions), and Psychos In Love on bluray. (The last two both brought to you from the amazingly twisted folks at Vinegar Syndrome.

As for what’s next: five documentaries in various stages of production:

What it Takes: film en douze tableaux – a quirky portrait of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers as they record their new album Years for Bloodshot Record. You can expect to see this at film festivals in late Spring.

Seniors – A documentary that celebrates the brains, energy & sass of some of the coolest senior dogs on this planet and the people who love them. It’s mostly filmed. Editing now.

Pizza, A Love Story – in the works for ten years and being edited now, we hope to finally have our epic love poem to the Holy Trinity of pizza (Sally’s, Pepe’s, and Modern) completed by mid-year.

Normal Valid Lives – our look at a horrible case of bullying in a school district north of Minneapolis. We still have a little filming to do, and hope to have this completed for film festivals in early 2019.

Where are you, Jay Bennett? – A feature-length documentary on Jay Bennett, a legendary musician, who as a member of Wilco, was a large part of the genius behind three seminal albums, who went on to a critically acclaimed solo career, before dying tragically at the age of 45. Filming and editing now.

And of course, NHdocs 2018 is coming your way on May 31st for 11 days of great films. (might have a surprise or two from me in there!)

That’s it.  Another year in the books. Be well, hug your dog, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, and be kind to everyone you meet.

 

 

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The Best of a VERY Fucked-Up Year (aka The Best of 2016)

What a fucked-up year.

No, really. I’ve lived 57 of them, and this one takes the cake. And I’m not even talking politics, which was the shit show of all shit shows with the shit winning, I’m talking David Bowie and Prince dying. And I’m not sure if their deaths had anything to do with it, but the music that was released in 2016 was for the most part crap. I can think of very few albums that deserve a place on any top ten list. I can think of a handful of runner-ups. And I can remember a whole boatload of shit. Especially from people I respect.  (PW, are you kidding me?)  Apropos for this shit show year.

Of course what makes it even more fucked-up is that the best record of 2016 is really the record I listened to most in 2015. The record I loved most in 2015. But I couldn’t share it with any one. I was so careful with it that I would not leave a copy in my Jeep overnight for fear that someone would break in, steal the cd, and pirate it on the internet.

And taking that one step further, the album I played most in 2016, really came out in 2015. So I can’t legitimately even name it the best record of this year.

Like I said, fucked up.

But so am I, and I don’t really care.

The two records of which I speak are REAL from Lydia Loveless, which came out this year, but devastated me last. And SIDELONG from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, which was released by Sarah on her own label in October 2015, but didn’t fall into my hands until March 19th of this year.

I’ll start with REAL. Anyone who’s read these pages, or spent 30 seconds talking music with me over the past couple of years, knows how I feel about Lydia Loveless and her band. They are the greatest rock and roll band on the planet at this point in time. I believe in them more strongly that the Pope believes in God. (No joke, I’ve talked it out with Benny.) Hell, you know I only make films about things I’m passionate about.

Camera in hand, I got to document a lot of the REAL recording sessions. I got to hear first vocal takes on what would become songs that ripped me apart from inside out. Where the fuck does her voice come from? Lydia can hit a note and make me cry.  A lot of the album did, or at least reduce me to goosebumps and shivers. The title was perfect because it gave you fair warning as to what to expect. Everything here real, the emotions, the playing, the voice. And much like the musicial chameleons who passed this year, Lydia was not afraid to change. I find it amusing that the album has ended up on so many best country album lists. Not sure that there’s one song here I’d even remotely consider country. And perhaps that’s another aspect of her brilliance, you can’t categorize her. Lydia has a song for every occasion, from funeral to wedding, from heartbreak to joy. And REAL runs that gamut.

SIDELONG on the other hand is old-time country by way of BEGGARS BANQUET or LET IT BLEED. I’ve played this album to the point where my friends and my wife will no longer allow me to play it in their presence. Not joking. It’s caused screaming fights. This year, week after week new records would be released. I’d play them once (a hand full perhaps made it to a half-dozen plays), and immediately return to SIDELONG. Still today, nine months after I first heard it, I have it on endless replay in my Jeep. Hell, I had the opening line to her song DWIGHT YOAKAM tattooed on my arm. I am obsessed with this fucking record. It is crack-cocaine to me. It is perfection from start to finish. It is my new ICKY METTLE. (Though that still is my desert island album.) What the fuck is in the water in that Chapel Hill area?

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Why does SIDELONG work so well? Why does it hold me in its clutches. Because every word, every note, every warble in Shook’s voice, rings true.   “I’m drinking water tonight ’cause I drank all the whiskey this morning/Drank the whiskey this morning ’cause my baby, she ain’t coming home.” Seriously fuck. Just stop writing songs now. It’s done. It’s over. Sarah Shook won.

So all of that said, I’m just going to break some rules here and name REAL and SIDELONG as the two best records of this fucked-up year. Buy them (if you download them illegally you’re a scum-sucking piece of shit who deserves to have your legs crushed in a car accident…and oh, I am so fucking serious when I say that I hope I’m driving the other car), savor them, realize that rock and roll ain’t as dead as it otherwise seems.

There were a handful of other albums that I listened to more than once in 2016. (No really, more than once was a lot when SIDELONG was waiting, whispering into my ear, calling out my name.)  These got played.  These are respected.

Here they are in no specific order. These are all beautiful records, and in any other year they might have ended near or at the top of this list. Instead of explaining why I liked them (let’s face it, we have all talked way too much this year – perhaps we can all just shut the fuck up in 2017), just listen to the attached song. You’ll either get it, or not. And if you do, buy the album. You won’t be sorry.

David Bowie – BLACKSTAR

Big Thief – MASTERPIECE

Mitski – PUBERTY 2

Car Seat Headrest – TEENS OF DENIAL

Wilco – SCHMILCO

Adia Victoria – BEYOND THE BLOODHOUNDS

Drive-By Truckers – AMERICAN BAND

A Giant Dog – PILE

Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome

Eric Bachmann – (SELF TITLED)

Eric Bachmann & Jon Rauhouse – (SELF TITLED)

MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Pretty much anything and everything else. I had no patience for the regurgitated same-old/same-old. I had no patience for anything commercial. Perhaps I just had no patience. Bowie and Prince fucking died.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR: It’s a tie between Shook’s DWIGHT YOAKAM and OUT ON LOVE from Loveless. You already know what I think of the former, and with the latter Loveless and company traveled an aural landscape they had yet to visit. Moody, heartbreaking, depressing and utterly fucked up. Perhaps a good theme song for 2016.

OTHER GREAT SONGS: see the samples I posted from the runner-up albums of the year. These are among my favorite songs of the year.

BEST LIVE SHOW: Eric Bachmann’s living room show in New Haven. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Eric play since falling in love with Archers of Loaf in 1993. Forty, fifty, maybe more. But on this one night, he seemed to channel all that was great, and there’s a lot that’s great about this most under-appreciated songwriter. One song from each of the fifteen records he’d sung on. Played on guitar or banjo, with two for good measure on the upright piano sitting against one wall in the living room. CHUMMING THE OCEANS being one of those. I make no bones about it that my favorite song of all time is WEB IN FRONT, it was beautiful and perfect on acoustic guitar. THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME on freakin’ banjo. NOSTALGIA also on acoustic guitar. It was one of those magic nights that I will remember forever. It was perfect from beginning to end, and I walked away thinking yeah, I could die happily tonight.

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM: I’m temped to say no such thing any more, but I did dig THE GIRL ON A TRAIN. Not much else, but then I tend to stay away from anything with special effect, which severely limits the Hollywood films I can see.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM: SING STREET. John Carney, the director of the breathtaking ONCE, returns to indie roots with a tale of a bullied teen who starts a band in 80s Dublin to impress a girl. Everything about this film will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear. It’s a perfect film. Not one that will change your world, just one that will make it a little brighter.

Other great films: LA LA LAND, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM: I hate to say it but I’ve yet to see a number of films with might be in the running like CAMERAPERSON or TOWER. I did truly like WEINER, but I can’t call it the best doc of the year. I’ve found that a number of docs I see are told by people who don’t really know how to tell a story in a solid three-act structure. The story they’re trying to tell might seem fascinating, and a great editor might be able to get their film there, but fo me, so many just do not work. Just because it’s a doc doesn’t mean storytelling should take a back seat.

BEST TV: I think there were three television show that for me fired on all cylinders this year: THE NIGHT OF for drama, SILICON VALLEY for comedy, and LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER for everything else. The first was simply riveting from beginning to end, the next smart and sassy and even heartfelt, and the later was a safety net of sanity in this most fucked up year.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: This year was mainly about short stories, and my favorite book/collection is actually a few years old. BIG WORLD from Mary Miller is the best short story collection I’ve read this side of Raymond Carver. Yes, that’s ridiculously high praise. Until you start read and wonder if I’m selling her short. Her characters are damaged and all too real, I knew every last one of them. A perfect mirror on relationships in this fucked-up time.

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As for the rest of my 2016: I’m ridiculously proud of my newest feature WHO IS LYDIA LOVELESS? The screening were all a blast, with Lydia always turning in an original acoustic performance, sometimes a surprise, as the Prince cover was in Boston. (What does her voice do to me?  Earlier that day I was just sitting around on my laptop, she was playing my small Martin acoustic.  She went into the Prince tune.  I had to keep my back to her because I was crying through the entire song.  I managed to say, “You have to play that tonight,” when she was done.)

Completed four music videos (one for Shook, three for Loveless), that all had great premieres. There were all a blast to make. (Thank you again to all the great people who helped out on these videos.)

A DOG NAMED GUCCI was beautifully released on DVD.  If you have not seen this film, watch it.  You will to have to turn away.  Instead it will open your eyes and inspire you.

Dean Falcone’s beautiful production of ONE VOICE from Gucci was released on vinyl on Record Store Day.

Had a short story published in the WAITING TO BE FORGOTTEN collection, and even completed my first novel in a decade.  (Stayed tuned for that.)

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Found a number of great new crew people: welcome aboard Isabella (who single-handledly edited the EUROPEAN video), Lindsay, Charlotte, and Hannah.

Enjoyed a lovely vacation with Kristine to our favorite place in the world, Key West. We welcomed a new pup into our lives, the Lab/Rottie mix Dylan, who ended up being a Lab/Beagle mix.

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And NHdocs, the documentary film fest I run with Charlie Musser, grew from three days to eleven. (Just wait until this year!)

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I hope to finish our anti-bullying film NORMAL VALID LIVES in 2017. It feels even more important now.

Plus we’ll be announcing two new projects (we’ve got five in the works, one you really can’t know about yet.). As for the other two: the first is our second animal film, which will be announced early in 2017. The other, my fifth rock doc of course. And if you haven’t figured out the subject after reading this post, go back and read again, read it over and over again. Eventually you’ll figure it out.  Here’s a hint.

So, stay tuned; follow along on twitter and facebook.

Stay safe, healthy, sane, and happy. And a little obsessed.  We need obsession of the good kind right now.  (Drink a lot of water.)

R.I.P. Bowie & Prince

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REAL by Lydia Loveless

I’ve been listening to the ten songs on REAL since June of 2015 when I had the amazing opportunity to film Lydia and her band of musical geniuses for my documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? To say I’ve heard these songs incessantly over the past 14 months, especially during the six month editing process, is an understatement. So, when the film was done, once the accompanying music videos finished, one would expect me to never want to hear this record again. I mean, there are very few albums in existence that could bear that sort of repeated listens. And yet, now that the editing is complete, what album have I been reaching for over and over again? REAL, from Lydia Loveless.

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Few things are timeless, fewer albums certainly. But every once in a while, a collection comes along that touches you in ways you can’t quite comprehend. That brings emotions to the surface that you felt were long ago repressed. That makes you remember love, heartache, lust, longing. What it’s like to cry into your beer for the one who got away. What it’s like to question your own sanity when they’re lying in bed beside you. Mistakes of the heart, we’ve all been there. Those are the songs of REAL.

“If self-control is what you want, I’ll have to break all of my fingers off,” she sings in MORE THAN EVER, a song which finds a mistress pounding harder on the door. “Well you don’t have to tell me everything I want to hear/It only makes it harder for me everytime my dear/To say bye,” she sings in the stark and heartbreaking CLUMPS. “You take a walk/I’d rather be lonely than ashamed,” from the decidedly dark BILBAO where a chorus of “marry me” turns into “bury me.” Or “I don’t know what the truth is but you give me every reason to fall out of every lasting arms” in OUT ON LOVE, arguable the most breath-taking song on the album. Lyrically, there’s not a better songwriter on the planet today. The emotions aren’t bubblegum nonsense, you can pick the scabs off the still-healing wounds of a heart stabbed too many times.

But what might be most amazing about REAL is the sonic variety given the tracks. Props to producer Joe Viers and the band. There are no two songs that sound alike. This is not your average pop record where you think you keep hearing the same slow and fast songs over and over again. Put HEAVEN side-by-side with BILBAO, or put that side-by-side with SAME TO YOU. You’ll know it’s the same heart stopping voice, but think the songs are from different era, different decades. Most musicians today are afraid to offer variety. But Lydia once again proves she’s afraid of nothing, at least not in the studio. She takes risks, and they all soar.

Lydia Loveless, Todd May, Ben Lamb, Jay Gasper, and George Hondroulis are the rarest of beasts, a rock band true to the core. One without compromise. I love this band. And I love this record.

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The Best of 2015

Unlike previous years where there have been standout albums that ran away with my head, my heart, my soul (SOMEWHERE ELSE from Lydia Loveless or FORTRESS ROUND YOUR HEART by Ida Maria for instance), this years top three records could have all easily taken the top spot. Ask me on any given day and I’ll pick one over the other. They were all stellar for their own particular reasons, but I put them in this order for only one.

Rock and roll is supposed to be risky. And to me my top choice is a record in which the musician put it all on the line. Had he failed, his fans would have started to doubt his choices, wondering a massive the “fuck the fuck,” and those who weren’t fans would never again give him a chance because he would have become a musical clown. This album divided many fans, enraging some. I know people whose musical taste I trust who were clearly pained to even give it a shot. I was one of those people at first. But upon hearing the record, I became a believer.

So, my list of the best of everything for 2014 begins with my top ten albums in order:

BEST ALBUMS:

  1. 1989 – Ryan Adams – I’ll admit right off the bat that I like the early Taylor Swift records, but I felt this newest effort was over-produced to the point of being unlistenable. I just couldn’t make it through the walls of processed instruments to get to the songs. But Ryan Adams could. He heard something in those tunes, and for whatever reason decided to deconstruct them, turn them inside out, on their ear, and makes them his own. The resulting album is stark and heartbreaking, his best and most consistent record since COLD ROSES a decade ago. How he manages to turn a song like SHAKE IT UP into something that would have fit perfectly on Springsteen’s NEBRASKA is nothing short of genius. When he sings “I’m just gonna shake” over and over again, the image is not of a model-esque blonde dancing awkwardly, but instead of a middle-aged man afraid to move on with his life. And the rest of the tracks just fall into place. Had there been no writing credits, and no fame for Taylor’s record, had people thought he penned these songs the acclaim would have been unanimous. I truly believe that because ultimately it’s a beautiful, brilliant record. And certainly the gutsiest move by any rock star this year.

  1. PAINTED SHUT – Hop Along – So I’m seeing this band live for the first time. Frances Quinlan and company take the stage and start up. But the moment she opens her mouth to sing we are suddenly transported into a horror film and she is the spawn of Satan. Or at least that’s how she sounds, though she certainly doesn’t look the part. And the music isn’t death metal but instead these well-crafted pop rock songs that just stick with you. Despite loving the record, seeing her sing live is an altogether different experience, and it takes me a couple of songs to get used to what I’m hearing versus what I’m seeing. And I mean this all as the highest of compliments. I fucking love Quinlan’s voice, and what she does with it. It’s unlike no other in rock. It’s as if every note she sang tore off a part of her vocal chords and she drowned her pain in cheap whiskey and cigarettes. She sings in sweeps and rages, melodies laced with enough dirty guitar and punk energy to keep you coming back for more. And there was no song THIS YEAR grabbed me by the throat like HAPPY TO SEE ME. The refrain of “We all will remember things the same” on endless repeat will either infuriate you, or thrill you as it did me. As the entire record did.

  1. KICKING EVERY DAY – All Dogs – Just as in Minneapolis in the 80s, and Chapel Hill in the 90s, there’s something bubbling in the water right now in Columbus, Ohio. All Dogs is the third Columbus band I’ve fallen head-over-heels for in the past two years. Maryn Jones and company play grungy/jangly pop rock,

  1. SPRAINED ANKLE – Julien Baker – This is the heartbreaker of the year.   “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” she sings in the title track, and that might be one of the lighter moments. A haunting small voice singing of rage and fear in a whisper with fingerpicked guitar out of the early Crooked Fingers songbook. A small masterpiece that will leave you teary-eyed, wanting to give Julien a hug.

  1. ALL YOURS – Widowspeak – Another haunting voice, more slightly off-kilter guitars, sounding like that indie band from the late 80s who never made it big, but only you knew about, and still to this day you put on their self-released cassette.

  1. HIGH – Royal Headache – This is the album that SO many other bands tried to make this year, but fell short.

  1. SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT – Courtney Barnett – Not as great as her last, but damn those lyrics and crunchy guitars. Rock star I’d most want to get drunk with (this year).

  1. FEELS LIKE – Bully – I kept fight this album because it’s on a major label, but it finally won, and beat me down, and stuck in my head. If you were disappointed with other riot girl sounding records this year, check out Bully.

  1. NEW YORK AFTER THE WAR – Jesse Malin – One of those straight-ahead rock and roll records that just kept sounding better with every listen. Just raw enough for the punks, just bluesy enough for the old-timers. Malin’s best record since THE HEAT. It fucking rocks!

10 – SUPERSONIC HOME – Adventures – More blessed noisy power-punk. How can you not fall in love with these songs?

And a special #11: MILEY CYRUS & HER DEAD PETZ

The other big career risk, Miley recording a 90-minute album with the Flaming Lips on her own dime, and giving it away for free. Has it been 45 minutes it would have tied with my top three. Some truly brilliant moments. Push aside your prejudices, and just fucking listen. It’s free!

Also worth a listen:

DRY FOOD – Palehound

COCKSURE – Laura Stevenson

DANGER IN THE CLUB – Palma Violets

IVY TRIPP – Waxahatchee

PREDATORY HEADLIGHTS – Tenement

and of course

STAR WARS – Wilco

 

MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR: (tie)

TOO – Fidlar – as many bands have proven, songs about drinking and fucking too much can work beautifully ON YOUR FIRST RECORD. Then it gets old, quickly. More of the same old shit. Loved it the first time around. The second time around it was just that: shit.

NO CITIES TO LOVE – Sleater-Kinney – I freakin’ LOVED this band in their hey day, but the new collection left me flat and only wanting to put on DIG ME OUT. Not one song connected, and I tried with multiple listens. I really wanted to love this record. I didn’t even like it.

 

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR:

HAPPY TO SEE ME – Hop Along – No other song resonated with me more. The acoustic song on one of the year’s best rock albums. A song that despite being stark reminds me of Hüsker Dü’s NEW DAY RISING in its closing moments. The same line over and over again, yet different every time, making you gasp each time at the brutal sarcasm behind the words: “we all will remember things the same.”

Other Great Songs:

THE GARDEN – All Dogs

SPRAINED ANKLE – Julien Baker

EX’S AND OH’S – Elle King

BEST COVER SONG (not counting everything on Ryan Adams’ 1989):

SHAKE IT OFF – The Screaming Females – yes, Taylor was the songwriter to cover this year, and here the Screaming Females not only give us a twist on the somewhat annoying hit song, they wring it out like a towel soaked in cheap beer and snap it back at your face. Almost everyone I’ve played this for has asked me to take it off, which means they must be doing something right. I love every irritating second!

BEST BOX SET/REISSUE/RECORD THAT DOESN’T FALL INTO ONE OF THE CATEGORIES ABOVE:

TRACE – Son Volt – A gorgeous reissue of a brilliant record. One that only sounds better over time. The included demos are eye opening, and the 1996 show from the Bottom Line in New York is awe-inspiring.

CURSE OF THE LOAF – Archers of Loaf – OK, I’m biased, but this two LP live show from 2011 captures the band at their best.  Sound is amazing, as is the song selection.  THIS is rock and roll!

BEST LIVE SHOW:

Any Lydia Loveless show. Look at it this way, if you love balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, if you love songwriting that rips your heart and mind in half then mends them back together with a surgical stapler, if you love a vocalist who can hold that one perfect note bringing a tear to your eye one moment then blow your ear drums out the next, if you love a band that every night plays as if they’re on the Titanic, it’s going down, and we’re all going to fucking die anyway, there’s Lydia Loveless, and no one else. The greatest bands I’ve ever seen live: Rod Stewart & the Faces in 1973, the Clash in 1978, the Mats 1985, Nirvana in 1993, Archers of Loaf in 1994, Wilco in 1996, to that group belongs Loveless and company. They aren’t just good. They’re life changing. (And yes, I’ll be completely biased and say the best of their shows this year was at Skully’s in Columbus and captured by my eight Who Is Lydia Loveless? cameras. They played every song desperate and beautiful, walking that rocky edge, until the end when they dove head first over the cliff and delivered ten minutes of the most chaotic rock and roll ever created on this sad planet. I love this band. I love this band. I fucking love this band. They own a piece of my heart.)

Here is Lydia with bandmate Todd May performing one of Todd’s songs:

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM:

THE BIG SHORT – directed by Adam McKay – I would rank this film as the best Hollywood film of the decade. A work of genius, with a truly amazing cast, brilliant directing, punk rock editing, and a script that made me jealous. The constant breaking of the 4th wall was the best I’ve seen since ANNIE HALL. They had me with Margot Robbie in the bubble bath explaining things to us. This movie just worked on every level. It’s so smart, with such an indie feel, that I truly can’t believe Hollywood had anything to do with it. See it and let your jaw drop.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM:

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL – directed by Marielle Heller – Hardly a perfect film, its certainly flawed, but the performance by Bel Powley in the lead role is as good as any acting we’ve seen in this or any other year. It might be so good it blinds you to anything else that’s great in the film. It’s a career-making performance, bold, quirky, funny, sexy. Watch the film because it’s a very good film, walk away feeling as if you’ve witnessed a star being born.

My other favorite films of the 2015 were horror films. But three bloody visions stood out to me: the 80s horror comedy THE FINAL GIRLS from director Todd Strauss-Schulson, the creepy sexual thriller IT FOLLOWS from director David Robert Mitchell, and the absolutely hysterical and completely fucked up slasher comedy THE EDITOR from director Adam Brooks. All are more than worthy of your time.

Also STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON gets a serious honorable mention.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM:

I honestly can’t say any one documentary stood out above all the rest for me this year like FINDING VIVIEN MAIER did in 2014, but there were many very good films worth watching: THE AGE OF LOVE, a completely charming look at elderly speed dating from director Steven Loring; SIBLINGS ARE FOREVER, a stunning chronicle of the lives of elderly brother and sister farmers in Norway from Frode Fimland; BEST OF ENEMIES, an invigorating look at back to 1968 and ten debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley from directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon; and THE HUNTING GROUND, a devastating look at the overwhelming amount of rape on college campuses around American and how little is being done about it from director Kirby Dick.

As for best rock doc, while there were many I felt that were vastly overrated (the snooze-inducing COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK leads that list.) there was only one that blew me away, Scott Crawford’s mile-a-minute look at DC punk, SALAD DAYS.

BEST TV:

HOMELAND – Claire Danes and company somehow managed to almost equal their brilliant fourth season with episodes that left me needing a stiff drink. This is the best writing on television. And it’s timelier than the evening news. And I don’t know about you but waiting nine months to find out what Carrie does to Quinn is excruciating.

SURVIVOR – SECOND CHANCE – This show is my guilty pleasure. If you told me I could only watch one show on TV, I wouldn’t even hesitate to name SURVIVOR. Even came close to getting on back when the seasons were still in single digits with my brilliant audition tape titled: “I survived make a movie with Billy Zane, I can survive anything.” But all that aside, this season where they brought back the losers was nothing short of captivating right up until the final episode, when it honestly all sort of fell apart, and one of the characters worth rooting turned in a bully at the snap of a finger. But before that it was TV at its twisty, backstabbing, funny, moving best. (And Wentworth should have won. Just saying.)

JESSICA JONES – I’m so not into the super hero/super powers thing, but this show was so much more than that. Dark, so gritty most episodes left you needing a shower, and a killer performance from Krysten Ritter as the hard drinking, hard fucking, cynical, obscene, and wonderfully damaged title character. (Can we say, “New TV crush.”) The Netflix series was more noir than anything episodic we’ve seen in a long while. And I love film noir.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR:

This was very much a year of short stories for me. The three best new collections I read were: the massive COMPLETE STORIES by Clarice Lispector, A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN by Lucia Berlin and BARBARA THE SLUT AND OTHER PEOPLE by Lauren Holmes.

But I must also add, if like me you’d never read Raymond Carver, please do yourself a favor and pick up the collections WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE and WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET, PLEASE? These contain some of the finest writing I’ve ever read, anywhere. If nothing else please read the story titled FAT in the latter. Masterful. If Carver were a punk band, he’d be The Replacements.

 

As for the rest of my 2015: I worked a lot. Traveled more than at any time in my life. Shot two features, and parts of two more. Found a couple of great new crew people. (Welcome aboard Colleen and Cassia.) Went on one of the most amazing drives of my life on Route 90 between Mobile and New Orleans. I discovered peach melba (thank you Dee and William). Lydia Loveless introduced me to the best pizza I’ve ever had outside of New Haven’s holy trinity at Harvest Bar & Kitchen in Columbus.   NHdocs, the documentary film fest I run with Charlie Musser, tripled in size. And Kris realized I wasn’t crazy when I told her she would fall in love with Missoula, Montana.

And next year holds a lot of promise. My 4th rock doc, WHO IS LYDIA LOVELESS, will premiere early in the year.

A DOG NAMED GUCCI will be released on all platforms (including a loaded DVD) in April.  (As will a very special song recorded for the closing credits.)

My pizza doc, PIZZA, A LOVE STORY, will premiere in June.

We’ll be announcing our next animal rights film sooner than later. I’m working on my first new book in a long while and a short story of mine will appear in a collection that should have Mats fans grinning ear-to-ear. Our dog Springsteen will no longer be an “only dog” early in the year as we add another furry member to our family. Kris and I will get at least some quality traveling in. And I’m pretty sure in terms of music something very REAL is going to top next year’s list.

Stay tuned; follow along on twitter and facebook.

Stay safe, healthy, sane, and happy. (Do yoga.)

 

 

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The ten best rock docs of all time (in my humble opinion)

Hopefully it’s pretty obvious from watching my three music documentaries (Color Me Obsessed, What Did You Expect, and Every Everything) that I’m not a fan of VH1-style where-are-they-now rock docs. In fact it’s pretty rare that I find a rock doc that catches my attention. Too many are made by fans that think their favorite band can do no wrong, too many feel like 90-minute music videos with wall-to-wall music, too many refuse to address elephants in the room like drug addiction or issues with record labels. I don’t watch a rock doc because I love the artist, I watch a rock doc wanting to see a great story, told by a filmmaker who actually knows what a three-act structure is, and who isn’t afraid to piss people off.

That said, here is my ten best rock doc list, in somewhat of an order:

The Devil and Daniel Johnston – Not only the greatest rock doc ever made, one of the greatest films of all time. A breathtaking look into the mind of a genius madman (or a madman genius?), the film presents Johnston with his mental illness very much intact. Heartbreaking one moment, hysterical the next, you feel as if your watching a living breathing train wreck as painted by Van Gogh. You just cannot look away.

i-am-trying-to-break-your-heart-poster

I Am Trying To Break You Heart – The filmmaking Gods were smiling down on filmmaker Sam Jones when he entered the studio with Wilco as they recorded their fourth album. Packed with pissing-match drama, the film captures the firing of the one bandmember who kept leader Jeff Tweedy in check, the dropping of the band from their label, the signing of the band by a new label owned by the same parent company, all while recording a record that topped virtually every top ten list for the year, in glorious black and white. Whew!

Stop Making Sense – Jonathan Demme’s film of Talking Heads’ 1983 tour is the greatest concert film ever made. No other concert film even comes close. Every other concert film is a snoozefest compared to this. (Am I making myself clear?) This is a masterpiece even for people who hate Talking Heads. This is genius filmmaking.

Anvil, the Story of Anvil – A real life Spinal Tap, a film that is so often cringe-worthy in the best way, a portrait of two life-long friends, two true believers. It feels real on too many levels because we all have musician friends who refuse to give up on the dream. Here are the poster boys. May they never give up.

Last Days Here – Quite possibly the greatest anti-drug film of all time, the story of Pentagram lead singer Bobby Liebling, a crack-addict living in his parents basement, and the one superfan who believes desperately that he can revive Bobby’s career. You will find yourself screaming at your tv, especially when you get to the film’s final act. A great film.

Shut Up And Sing

Shut Up & Sing – The backlash against The Dixie Chicks when they publicly insulted then President George W. Bush. Very much a look at the inherent sexism in the music industry and how it would have been fine for someone like Springsteen or Neil Young to speak the same words. Instead Natalie Maines and company received death threats and boycotts. Ultimately a story of triumph as their next record, “Taking the Long Way,” became the band’s best selling record.

DIG! – Seven years in the life of two bands who start out as friends. One becomes a bland sellout, the other remains difficult and brilliant and always on the brick of self-imploding. A wonderful look at art vs. commerce, selling out vs. sticking to your beliefs, and how there really are a lot of dickheads in rock and roll.

Don’t Look Back/No Direction Home – Two great films on Bob Dylan, which are so very much the complimentary opposite sides of the same coin. The first is probably the granddaddy of all rock docs with its iconic music video of Dylan flipping the clue cards during “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And in the other Martin Scorsese gives us a three-hour plus look at one of the most important burst of musical genius the world has ever known. It could have been a boring mess, instead it is riveting from start to finish.

The Punk Singer – I truly love this warts and all portrait of Bikini Kill front woman Kathleen Hanna. The footage is amazing, Hanna is smart and captivating. You walk away finally understanding the Riot Grrrl movement, and digging Bikini Kill like you never thought possible.

Theremin

Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey – It’s as if Ken Burns decided to make a film about the strangest musical instrument of all time, starring a Russian inventor named Leonard Theremin, who in many ways was one of the first true rock stars. A completely entertaining bit of music history that you might not need to know, but you will be glad you do.

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