Archive for July, 2010

A Clockwork Sleigh Bells

July 28, 2010

I could never be a reviewer of films or music. I have a great deal of trouble sitting down to write something negatively about a piece of work. That doesn’t mean that I would write a good review of a bad piece, instead I would prefer to write nothing. I would ultimately only write about the work that I like. Time and energy to write is a precious commodity to me and I don’t want to waste it on negativity. I do, however, appreciate a good conversational debate and will gladly discuss my disappointments face to face (or through the occasional 140 character “tweet”).

With that being said my disappointment with Sleigh Bells’ “live” show that I attended at Boston’s Royale last week (where they played with Die Antwoord) has weighed on me heavily enough that I have to write about it. It wasn’t that the performance was “bad” outright, if that was the case I would have forgotten about it and felt no need to rant. Instead it was my disappointment that Sleigh Bells have so much potential to put on an amazing show and it felt squandered. Sleigh Bells’ debut CD “Treats” has been on heavy rotation in my life since it was released a few months ago. I like their tunes, my favorite tracks are “Tell ‘em”, “Treats”, “Infinity Guitars”, I can do without “A/B Machines” but overall it’s really, really good, full of energy, motivation and inspiration inducing. In fact listening to it in my car during my daily commute I’ve envisioned a conceptual, non-linear, short-film, full album music video that I would love to make. Bottom line is I really like what they do.

In a prefatory note to A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music, Anthony Burgess wrote that the title “A Clockwork Orange” is a metaphor for “…an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton.” Unfortunately, that’s ultimately what Sleigh Bells’ “live” show is. For those not aware, Sleigh Bells is “noise pop” duo Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss. Miller composed and recorded all of Sleigh Bells’ music and Krauss does all of the vocals. Sleigh Bells’ music is loud, densely layered guitars, drums, tambourines, sirens, backing vocals and samples. For their live shows Miller plays the lead guitar parts of the songs and Krauss handles lead vocals. All other instrumentation is handled by a pre-recorded background track. Essentially, in basest terms Miller and Krauss play along with the CD.

Which is the root of my disappointment in their “live” show. When I see a live band play I expect and hope to be able to see and hear something that is different, more organic and unpredictable than what I hear when I play songs on my iPod, that is, to me, the point of seeing live music. The Sleigh Bells’ live performance is held captive by the uncompromising timing of the backing track. When the pre-recorded song ends, THE SONG ENDS. There is no room for fluctuation or improvisation or extending or variations. For example, during their last song of the night Alexis Krauss dove in and was crowd surfing. The crowd was going wild! The music was pumping, Miller was jamming on guitar and then… it ended. Period. Silence. That was it. Krauss was left stranded in the middle of the crowd, with no music to accompany her ride back to the stage. It’s really an unfortunate situation because Krauss clearly has the stage presence and energy to command a killer live show, instead she’s a slave to the pre-recorded backing track (in actuality the backing track is about 90% of the song, Miller’s guitar is about 5% and Krauss’s live lead vocals the other 5%). She also falls prey to having to compete with her own previously, perfectly recorded backing vocals, which makes her live vocals sound poor by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Krauss has a great voice for the genre but competing against herself just isn’t a fair fight, and makes her sound worse than she should, by comparison. At least we know she isn’t lip-syncing, but if most of the music is pre-recorded anyway, would it really matter? Could someone really, legitimately complain that she was lip-syncing, but be okay with a previously recorded background music track?

During the show I had occasion to think about ways Sleigh Bells’ could improve upon what I was experiencing.

Touring Musicians: The conventional approach would be to hire musicians for support during the tour. I understand that Sleigh Bells are a new band and might not have the funds to hire a pack of touring musicians to support them. Make no mistake, they will need to at some point or risk simply being a loud karaoke show. Nine Inch Nails did it, Ministry did it, Sleigh Bells will have to also. At this point, there may be a few ways around outright hiring.

On-Stage DJ: Put a DJ on stage with all of the elements at his/her finger tips. This would allow the songs to organically move with the show. When Krauss is out crowd surfing the song could continue until she gets back to the stage. If Miller plays a solo the elements could be adjusted, and so on. Of course Miller might be wary about letting someone twiddle with his compositions.

Fan Support: Sleigh Bells’ songs are very heavy on the percussion side of the spectrum, what if they selected 10 fans attending the show to come on stage and handle percussion duties. Fans that know the songs would certainly be able to drum, tambourine and jingle bells. That kind of interactivity could be pretty awesome. Or Fans (or local musicians) could sign up on-line ahead of time and “audition” to join the band on stage when Sleigh Bells play their town. I’m sure there are plenty of fans that would jump at that opportunity.

Sleigh Bells’ well-deserved hype went into overdrive last year when they blew audiences (and reporters and critics and everyone else) away with their live show during the CMJ Music Festival in Brooklyn. It is easy to understand how seeing them in a cramped venue in Brooklyn before hearing any of their music could be a transcendental experience. For them to bring that experience to larger venues and bigger audiences they are going to need to expand their live show to become something more than a reordering of pre-recorded tracks from the CD played loud. I truly hope the hype and popularity of this band continues to rise so that they have the opportunity to grow. I know I’m looking forward to seeing their evolution and will be sure to catch them every time they’re in town.

I should make sure to point out that my wife, Kim, was very reluctant to go to the show but I dragged her anyway. About 15 seconds into the first song she was enthralled and energized by Sleigh Bells. Kim is generally not a fan of female vocalists but Krauss’ energy and stage presence won her over immediately and her new-found fandom was reinforced when she had the opportunity to meet the very charming singer at the merch table while Die Antwoord finished up their set.

Antietam

July 23, 2010

A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the middle of a picturesque field where 23,000 people were killed, wounded or missing in one day. Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, MD is the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, September 17th 1862. During the American Civil War  Confederate General Robert E. Lee, emboldened by recent victories, decided to move his Army of Northern Virginia into enemy “Northern” territory. He was met near Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg by Union Army Maj. General George McClellan and approximately 75,000 Union soldiers. McClellan had a perfect plan on paper. Attack Lee’s flanks to spread the Confederate Army out then drive through the weakened center with the bulk of Union Forces. Unfortunately for McClellan the plan wasn’t executed as well as it was written. The Union General was a bit trigger shy and failed to commit all of his forces to the battle, giving Lee opportunity to withstand the onslaught. When all was said and done at the end of the day the 12 square miles of battlefield, with such landmarks as The Dunker Church, Burnside’s Bridge, Bloody Lane and Miller’s Cornfield, were littered with bodies and flowing with blood from both sides.

Standing in that field where so many people died almost 150 years earlier I paused and attempted to put it all into context. Even now, as I sit in my air conditioned house typing on my computer with electric lights illuminating the room, I find it impossible to explain or comprehend the difference between what it is like now with what it was like then. I can write all the words I want but can anyone reading this truly feel, experience or understand what those men and women went through?  All I can do is simply reflect on a few of the remarkable people from that day:

A bugler, Private Johnny Cook, was awarded The Medal of Honor for his actions at Antietam. He was only 15 years old.

Clara Barton arrived on the battlefield around noon and while bullets whizzed overhead gave comfort and aid to wounded, suffering soldiers. One of them was even shot dead while being cradled in her arms. Nearly 20 years later Miss Barton would be the founder and first president of The American Red Cross. No small feat considering this was 40 years before women could even vote.

At only 19 years old Sergeant William McKinley was in charge of the Commissary Department delivering food and coffee to soldiers on the battlefield. He would later become the 25th President of the United States.

As I struggle to put “life in 1862” into context in my own mind I think about other aspects of the era that I have recently had occasion to come across.

Approximately 22 years before Antietam, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He died only nine years later, just 13 years before the battle. Poe was a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland which is only 65 miles from the Antietam Battlefield. I wonder, despite the young age of many of the men and women on the battlefield that day, if they were familiar with Poe’s work? Poe creates a morbid, creepy, scary and strange world in his stories. His tales are fiction but the world that he sets them in is not, though it is one that seems very far removed from The American Civil War battles that took place only 65 miles and 20 years from Poe’s home and age.

I have also recently had the opportunity to tour the Thomaston Opera House in Thomaston, CT. The Thomaston Opera House was built in 1884, just 21 years after the battle at Antietam. Walking through this beautiful, decorative and venerable building seems, again, to be a distant world from the one that existed while 23,000 people died or were wounded in the soil of Sharpsburg, MD. As the ghosts of soldiers wandered the, still fresh, scarred, fields of battle, a different variety of ghosts began striding the planks of the Thomaston Opera House.

My capacity to comprehend the hell of Antietam increased only when I learned that it was the first battlefield in U.S. history to have been photographed before the dead were buried. Alexander Gardner took a number of photos of the battlefield just 2 days after the fighting had ceased. His images shocked and appalled viewers around the country, this was the first time the reality of war would seen by folks who had not participated. Until this point visual renderings of war were usually painted, often glorifying battle or at least, by the very nature of the artistic medium, giving a few degrees of separation from the terrible reality of war. Gardner’s photos really hit home. Today, despite the graphic on screen violence we see every day, these photos still pack a punch. It’s interesting to note that Gardner made use of a new photographic technology called stereography. Two lenses take simultaneous photographs and when the pictures are observed through a special viewer the image appears to be in 3-D.

A LONE GRAVE ON BATTLEFIELD OF ANTIETAM

CONFEDERATE DEAD ALONG THE HAGERSTOWN PIKE

CARNAGE AT BLOODY LANE

DUNKER CHURCH

A Painting by (Union) Captain James Hope depicting the "Artillery Hell" of Antietam. Notice The Dunker Church on the left. Despite depicting actual battle, this painting is clearly less powerful a representation of war than the Dunker Church photo preceding it.

House of Usher Update.

July 15, 2010

Some of you may have noticed that William Beckett has removed his blog post mentioning “The Fall of the House of Usher”. And that the Kickstarter Campaign associated with the project has been cancelled. Not to worry, the project is still on but I’ll let William explain:

“Due to the overwhelmingly positive response received after announcing Nathan Wrann’s new short film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher”, those involved in production have decided to take the method of funding in a different direction.  I’d like to thank everyone on here that made contributions and showed support, and I will be keeping you in the loop regarding updates and events connected with the project.  My involvement in the film has not changed, and I am as excited as ever to be a part of this.  A lot of exciting things are on the horizon for the film, so stay tuned!” -William Beckett

Please stay in touch with us by either joining the Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Fall-of-the-House-of-Usher/140579825955524 or join the mailing list at http://www.thefallofthehouseofusher.com

Kickstarting the House of Usher

July 12, 2010

One thing I will never understand is why there is always traffic, for no apparent reason, as soon as I cross state lines into Connecticut when returning home from vacation.

Let me backtrack. This morning I was wrapping up an AWESOME, relaxing weekend I spent with Kim and our friends Heidi and Vince at a remote cottage in the woods in Pennsylvania. If you want to know how the weekend went, you’ll have to read Heidi Fuqua’s poetic accounting of it in the guest book left behind at the Francena Cottage.

Before Kim and I left on our 7 and a half hour drive back to Connecticut I “PRESSED THE BUTTON” and launched the www.Kickstarter.com campaign for my next motion picture project: The Fall of the House of Usher.

The Fall of the House of Usher is a short film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece by the same name and will star William Beckett lead singer of the music group The Academy Is... I will be directing the short film this December from a script that I wrote.

Kickstarter is a tool that we will be using to help fund this project. The Fall of the House of Usher is, without a doubt, my most ambitious and challenging project yet and raising independent funds for this project is crucial to being able to make it the way that it deserves to be made. Kickstarter allows us to raise funds in the form of donations from our fans, friends and family. Anybody* can donate funds to our project to help us reach our goal. If we reach our goal we get all of the funds pledged to us, and you get a great reward. If we don’t reach our goal we don’t get any of the funds that were pledged. As you can see, it’s very important that we make that goal, in order to do that we will need help spreading the word to people interested in generously supporting this project, so make sure to tell your friends, parents, siblings, tweeps, fb friends etc etc. basically, tell everyone.

This morning William Beckett announced this project on his blog and had a hugely positive reaction from his fans. Within the comments that immediately started pelting his blog was a bunch of questions that I’ll answer now. If you have more questions, check out the FAQ at Kickstarter or drop a comment here and I’ll answer it.

Q) William [Beckett], will you appear on the film, or will it be only your voice narrating the story, as in Poe’s tale? (by Vanessa Freitas)

A) Although Mr. Beckett’s character is called “The Narrator” in the script, this ‘name’ is simply an identifier of the character in the script based on how the character in Poe’s original tale is often referred to in analysis. The fact is that in Poe’s original short story The Narrator’s name is never given, however the entire horror of the House of Usher is witnessed through his eyes. Rather than create a fake name to identify the character I simply adopted “The Narrator”. To answer your question, in short, William Beckett will be on screen for virtually every scene of the movie. I highly recommend reading the original short story.    

Q) If we don’t have any money to donate and/or a debit/credit card to use to donate money, is there any other way we can be of service? Because this sounds really cool and I would really like to help. (by DJ_Jazzy_J)

A) YES! There is a way that you can help that doesn’t cost anything: TELL EVERYONE THAT YOU KNOW! And encourage them to generously support this project. Copy and paste this link to tweet, blog, e-mail, comment etc: http://kck.st/9OTOhu . Just make sure that you aren’t spamming people.

Q) How will your [William Beckett’s] work on this interfere with the band? Touring, Writing, the album coming out, that kind of thing? (Heidi_S)

A) William Beckett responded: “The project will in no way delay work on Album 4. This is a short film, and while filming will be grueling, it won’t take a long period of time.” I’ll add: I’ve wanted to work with Bill for a long time and this project was a perfect opportunity because we’ll be able to get an incredible, dedicated performance out of Bill without taking away from his work on Album 4.

Q) Are people allowed to come watch filming?

A) Nope. Filmmaking and performing for film is a very intimate, stressful, anxiety inducing process that requires a ton of focus and concentration. Any deviation from whatever comfort zone has been established on-set can be very distracting to the performers and crew that are trying desperately to make something worthwhile. However, donating at the $1,000 and up levels does allow 1 or more short, non-invasive visits to the set.

Q) I’ve maxed out my credit card this month, but I promise you I’ll be donating the first day of August…

A) It’s important to note that your pledge will only be charged against your card when the Campaign is OVER on OCTOBER 1st! So it’s important that you have the funds available when your card is charged in OCTOBER.

Q) I don’t want to be negative – but what happens if we pledge money but it doesn’t make it to the $15,000?

A) If you pledge money and we don’t make the goal then your credit card is not charged and we do not receive any of the money that was pledged.

Q) Will that affect production?

A) I can’t really answer this until October 1st when the Kickstarter campaign ends. If we make the goal then we never need to think about this question. I am confident that we will exceed our goal, however, I know that we will only make it with your support and your help spreading the word. If you’re concerned that we won’t make our goal and you really want to see William Beckett portray this iconic character in a production of The Fall of the House of Usher that truly captures the essence of the original Poe short story, then you have all the motivation in the world to spread the word and get people involved. I’m sure we’ll make it… with your help.

Please go to our Kickstarter Project page where you can find out all about the project