Sun Kil Moon : Benji

Sun Kil Moon Benji cover jpeg(2014 Caldo Verde)

Mark Kozelek and me go a long way. Not personally, of course, but I have been listening to his albums on and off, since, well I can’t remember exactly, but most probably since the Red House Painters’ self titled album (aka The Rollercoaster (the one with Grace Cathedral Park – still probably my favorite RHP track)). After RHP ended with Old Ramon I lost touch with his music for a bit. Not very long though, as I very much liked his albums Rock’n’Roll Singer, and What’s Next To The Moon too, despite their, for my taste rather questionable song choices (featuring mostly songs by AC/DC, who I do not care one bit about in general). But what he made out of these songs was very remarkable and excellent and I liked their more natural and stripped-down arrangements too. Take Me Home : A Tribute To John Denver was even better, although it can’t strictly be called a Mark Kozelek album, but he certainly left a big mark on that record (and was the main force to its gestation).

To this day I still have to get the first few releases by his current band/project/name (as nowadays it’s pretty much only Kozelek recording under that name). 2012’s Among The Leaves was great, I love(d) it dearly. Benji, released earlier this year, sounds a bit more like a band record than its predecessor and was very well received, Pitchfork even described it as ‘his best record to date’. A claim I am not sure I can agree with, not because of the fact it’s not an excellent album, it most definitely is, but as an artist with a back catalog as good as his, I find it very hard to say which one I would consider to be his best. But it’s fair to say that he’s on a roll these past few years – and there aren’t that many artists that maybe even get better as they get older.

These songs are certainly not easy to digest, with subjects ranging from serial killers (Richard Ramirez Died Tonight Of Natural Causes), high school shootings (Pray For Newtown) and people dying in fires (Truck Driver and Carissa).

Anyway, it starts devastatingly beautiful with the sad tale of his second cousin, 35 year-old Carissa that burns to death in a freak accident. In the song he recounts their personal history, she’s still living in Ohio (where Kozelek is originally from) at the time of her death. Whether that story is actually true (though I assume it is) or not matters not one bit. These are the tragic stories that happen all around the world day-to-day. The sad stuff of life. That he manages to write a gorgeous song carrying such an emotional impact, is a testament to his exceptional abilities as a songwriter and storyteller.

Equally touching and tragic is the story told in Jim Wise (the fact that both songs bear the name of the person they are about is also indicative of his above mentioned abilities). Jim Wise, an old friend of his dad mercy-killed his wife but failed to take his own life and now, under house arrest and awaiting his trial, has to live with what he’s done and failed to do. One can imagine how much he must have suffered with her to take a step so drastic so it’s not hard to imagine the pain he’s living through now. Instead of writing that song from Wise’s perspective it’s written from Kozelek’s, describing Wise’s house and the day he went with to see him with his dad and how it felt to watch him go about his day. I almost started to cry when first listening to both songs (and that’s saying something, believe me). Jim Wise is especially loveable musically, with about three and a half minutes it’s one of the shorter songs on here and has got a simple, almost whimsical melody and is only minimally accompanied by guitar/keyboards and a xylophone. Wonderful.

 

Listen for yourself

These are only the two most outstanding songs in my opinion. The rest of the eleven, mainly long-ish songs (the total playing time is 60+ minutes) are not bad either, I Love My Dad is excellent too – sounds quite upbeat (for Kozelek’s standards) with a stoic proto rock’n’roll sound (all done the Kozelek way, naturally, so it doesn’t exactly sound like the Stooges), it’s like you haven’t heard him before a lot – but it’s very good.

That same thing can be said about album closer Ben’s My Friend, a sort of Jazzy/Soul/R’n’B hybrid of a song, not really my sort of music at all, and certainly not one you would expect to hear on a Mark Kozelek album, but I quite like it too (especially the horns, again not my fave instruments generally speaking, but this sounds pretty good). Plus it’s named for Death Cab For Cuties’ Benjamin Gibbard who is held in very high esteem around here at Back Road Bound, not least for his stunningly wonderful collaboration with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on the Jack Kerouac-themed One Fast Move Or I’m Gone project.

Another one of the very finest songs on the album for me is the folky, acoustic and lovely Michelene which sounding quite sunny and friendly, with a gorgeous acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. If you can get past the sorry subject matter of the lyrics that is. It’s about two persons from his life that definitely didn’t get what they deserved. So that contrast between the lyrics and the music is what make it especially good for me.

I Watched The film The Song Remains The Same is probably the most confessional and intensely personal of the songs on here (and with over 10 minutes the longest). In it, he’s mainly dealing with his melancholic nature and the person his is. It’s also the most confessional, as he even apologizes to the (only) kid he ever beat up way back in school and thanks the guy that offered him a recording contract back in 1992. I can’t really think of many other songwriters that would write about stuff like this and that is probably exactly why his songs carry such an emotional impact and have meant so much to me over the years. It’s also the song reminding me of classic Red House Painters tracks the most (it’s up there with the brilliant, depressive masterpiece Michael from 1992’s debut Down Colorfull Hill), which is nice.

An utterly remarkable record by a brave and honest artist that has lost none of his singular qualities. I can’t really imagine him getting irrelevant anytime soon. Excellent stuff.

 

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Smoke Signals

Smoke signals DVD cover Jpeg

As I wrote in my review of Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, Smoke Signals is based on various stories and characters found in that short story collection. In cooperation with Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay, director Chris Eyre straightened out some of the disjointed parts and managed to make them into a cohesive whole. It has to be said however, thankfully in my opinion, that the short story character of the book is continued here via a large amount of flashbacks that are intervowen into the story quite masterfully, so in that respect alone the film very much succeeds.

But that’s by far not the only level on which it does so. First and foremost, the acting is uniformly excellent. I especially have to mention Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-Fire here. How much I admired that character should be made clear if you read my review of the book. But after watching the film (which I had seen before I read the book) again, I have to say that this admiration is closely linked to Adams’ unforgettable performance in the film (talk about deserving an Oscar in a better world). His performance is equal parts hilarious, tragic, and most of all, singular and magnificent. The acting on part of both Thomas’ and especially Victor’s 12-year old selves isn’t half bad as well. You can tell that there is a whole lot going on behind young Victor’s stoic and mostly silent face, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. Also exceptionally good is Gary Farmer’s performance as Victor’s dad Arnold Joseph, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that has ever seen him in a performance before, even if it’s just a brief one as in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog : The Way Of The Samurai. He’s got an incredible presence in front of a camera (and I assume in life), he’s hard to forget. Here he shines as Victor’s crazy, drunk and abusive dad that flees the family and reservation life to Phoenix, Arizona where he can’t forget what he’s done at all. It’s also here he dies a lonely death in a trailer somewhere out in the desert.

Pretty much his only company in this barren desert seems to have been beautiful Suzy Song (played equally wonderfully by Irene Bedard) who he forms some kind of relationship of rather undetermined nature with. Whether they were lovers or having some kind of father-daughter relationship is left open by what Suzy’s tells Victor and Thomas during the longer scene in which Victor (played by Adam Beach) and Thomas stay with her for one night to pick up Arnold’s ashes. To the credit of the filmmakers, there’s not a romantic scene developing between handsome, athletic alpha-male Victor and Suzy. There’s a shine in here eyes in the beginning, sure, but as the scene develops it becomes clear that she’s rather taken aback by his somewhat harsh behavior and the problems he doesn’t seem to be able to adequately express, let alone handle. She’s also rather intrigued by the stories Thomas’ incessantly tells – probably the first person in a very long time to respond positively to them.

Of course Victor and Thomas don’t make it back to the Coeur D’Alene reservation without any problems, as they get involved in a car wreck, but luckily for them things end relatively well and they don’t get arrested by the police for their role in the crash. They arrive back on the reservation with, one can only hope, a new kind of understanding between them and a softened attitude on Victor’s part towards Thomas.

As I am a rather visually oriented person, adding a lot for me to making me love Smoke Signals, are the wonderful landscapes seen in numerous long shots of the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho on which the film was shot for the most part (some scenes were shot in Washington). Not surprising, but very welcome nevertheless, are the flashes of humor, of course mostly on Thomas’ part, such as in conversations like this one: Victor: ‘… you gotta look like a warrior, you gotta look like you just came back killing a buffalo’. Thomas: ‘But our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fisherman’.

Taking a step back compared with The Lone-Ranger And Tonto is the focus on the more serious and difficult realities today’s Native Americans face, the signs are everywhere you look of course, but this film is primarily concerned with the themes of forgiveness and coming to terms with what happened in the past. A beautiful, humane and compassionate film.

Sherman Alexie : The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven

Lone Ranger And Tonto Cover Jpeg

I first heard of Sherman Alexie in connection with the brilliant film Smoke Signals which is based on various characters and stories fund in this collection of 22 short stories, first published in 1993. Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, also the main characters in the film. They, like Sherman Alexie himself live on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, so I suppose it’s fair to say that many of the people, their life circumstances and stories described here are based on his own experiences growing up there. The often troublesome circumstances in which Native Americans live on (and off for that matter) reservations in the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st are permeating pretty much every sentence in these stories.

One of the quotes on the book jacket is focusing exclusively on the humoristic side in some of the stories, but don’t let that fool you. While there certainly is humor present that claim is as least overdone if not downright misleading. The wrong that has been (and is) done, and all the problems arising from it, to Native American tribes and their people is never far away in all of those stories.

Take The Only Traffic Signal On The Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore, in which Victor and his friend Adrian are watching proceedings on the reservation from their front porch. The story centers (if from afar, he’s only spoken about) on Julius Windmaker, a talented 15-year-old basketball player. The guys wonder if he’ll make that hoped-for by all on the reservation career or, if he, like many equally promising players before him, will fall prey to drinking. The latter is sadly the case, as, in the last paragraph of the story, he’s crashed out sleeping on Victor’s living room floor after a basketball match which he played drunk, looking ‘puffy around the edges’. A glimmer of hope however is on hand however as an apparently equally talented 3rd grader called Lucy is seen by Victor and Adrian walking with her friends on their way to a game. One can’t help but wonder what happened to her.

One of the very best stories in here is called Because My Father Always Said He Was The Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It’s a touching story about the stormy marriage of Victor’s parents, ending in divorce, with his dad leaving the family and the reservation to live in a number of large cities in the Western US. It is told full of childish wonder, Victor’s admiration for his dad and his infamous past and hurt.

This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona is equally heartbreaking and forms the nucleus of Smoke Signals. In it, Victor and his former friend Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, so wonderfully played by Evan Adams in the film, fly out to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s dad. It’s told in bittersweet words, with two friends/cousins having lived through so much together but now being somewhat estranged, making this trip together as Victor needs Thomas’ money and Thomas blacklisting him to take him with him. Obviously it’s very sad too, not only because of Victor having to drive from Phoenix to Spokane with all that’s left of his father. But it is made even more so, because of Thomas’ sad life and the abuse he’s had to endure, not least at the hands of Victor who once beat him up drunk, when they were both 15 in front of their friends. The dignity with which Thomas is mastering his life as an orphan and storyteller nobody wants to listen to anymore is admirable and touching. He’s managing to stay compassionate and friendly even to Victor, knowing full well that Victor can’t be nicer to him even if he wants to, as ‘I know your friends would give you too much shit about it”. Moreover he’s always good-natured and seemingly devoid of any hard feelings with a big dose of humor to boot.

Jesus Christ’s Half Brother Is Alive And Well On The Spokane Indian Reservation is marvelous too, charting 8 years in the life of the narrator (Victor?) taking care of a little child he not quite rescued from a burning house in which young James’ parents both die (the story gets used in Smoke Signals too). He fails to catch the boy who falls to the ground but miraculously survives and people quickly decided that he has to raise the little boy by himself. James turns out to be a slow-developer, but when he finally does start to talk is turning out wisdom after wisdom.

Imagining The Reservation is a free-form story, I couldn’t honestly tell you what it’s about, but the imagery used throughout the story put me into an almost trance-like state of mind for the few minutes it took me to read the rather short story. Impressive.

A Good Story is rather light-hearted compared with the serious subject matter that is at the very core of most other stories in here. The story told by the narrator to his mother ends with the sentence: “Uncle Moses sat down in the story chair and told this very story’ which shows you a great deal about how inventive Alexie’s writing style is, if you think about it.

What I liked especially about these stories is their language. They are interspersed with sentences that don’t really seem to make sense. I guess that’s the influence of Native American storytelling, to me as a ‘white men’ it’s very appealing and greatly contributes to making this book a wonderful experience to read.

It’s an important book, touching on so many contemporary issues affecting Native Americans at this day and age. That it’s wrote in such an entertaining way and such a singular language makes it only more commendable and outstanding.

Dave Van Ronk : Cocaine Blues

About time I’m posting a video/song by Dave Van Ronk on here, this one from his fantastic ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ (THE album to get if you only get one of his records – and I suggest you do) record. Have been listening to (and enjoying it a lot) this album again these past few days. I really should be writing something about it for this blog, if I could only find the time. Well, someday, I promise. Anyway, enjoy!

He was the inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis btw. – a film I have yet to see I have to admit.

 

 

St. Albert Grain Elevator Park

St. Albert Grain Elevator Park, St. Albert, Alberta

Grain Elevator, St. Albert, Alberta

Grain Elevator, St. Albert, Alberta

The two grain elevators were built in 1906 and 1929 respectively (I’m assuming the green one is the one built in 1929). As I went there in March the park wasn’t open so I had to make do with having a look and photographing them from outside of the park and including the ugly fence in the first photo.

St. Albert, Alberta, Canada