Monday, January 30, 2012

The Freethinker

By the time Peter Watkins made his massive, four-and-a-half hour 1994 video project The Freethinker, he was thoroughly outside of most conventional media structures. Watkins originally planned to make The Freethinker in 1979, as a companion piece to his 1974 masterwork Edvard Munch, but after working on the project for over two years, his funding was cancelled and filming never commenced. As a result, the film was only made many years later, as a collaborative experiment conducted with the assistance of a video production class made up of Swedish high schoolers. The students, all inexperienced with film and video before the class began, handled nearly every aspect of the production: set design, costumes, acting, camerawork, lighting, even at times writing and directing. This behind-the-scenes history informs the resulting film in very deep ways, feeding into the themes about mass media, art and social reform that Watkins' script explores.

The film is nominally a biography of the Swedish playwright and author August Strindberg (Anders Mattsson), who Watkins sees as a non-conformist thinker whose radical ideas about history, religion and class caused his work to be suppressed and critiqued by the conservative institutions of his time. Watkins explicitly compares this treatment with the marginalization of his own work. It's very apparent that this examination of Strindberg's life and the conditions of late 1800s Stockholm is meant to parallel Watkins' own life and art, and what he sees as the suppression of his ideas by a mass media that has little patience for this kind of intellectual engagement.

The film is thus about its own conditions of production as much as it is about Strindberg's life and work. This is obviously a work made on a shoestring budget, in amateurish conditions. It was shot on video rather than film, and the imagery is often rough as a result, the colors muted, a long way from the grainy beauty of Edvard Munch. The sets are sparse and minimal, often looking like a bare theater stage with a few props scattered around the empty space. The dramatic scenes, both those taken from Strindberg's life and those enacted from his plays, are stagey and claustrophobic, with the camera hovering close to the actors, utilizing simple compositions that place the emphasis on the raw, heartfelt performances. This parsimonious style belies the structural and ideological complexity of the film, which is, typically for Watkins, a clear-eyed and intelligent examination of the intersections between art, life and society. As in Edvard Munch, Watkins applies a non-chronological, associative editing style that juxtaposes scenes from Strindberg's life with excerpts from his plays as well as contextual material involving contemporary political and social affairs in the world around him.

At several points, Watkins diverts from Strindberg's story to focus on the testimonies of Swedish working class people. A man working on a construction site complains that there's housing only for the rich, while the women working beside him note that they don't earn as much as the men even though they do the same work. In another scene, a family waits for a ship that will take them away from the poverty and lack of opportunities they find in Sweden, to the United States, where they hope to do better. One young woman turns towards the camera, sobbing, her face red, already regretting the necessity of leaving behind her homeland and some of her family and friends.

Such interludes help to ground Strindberg's story within the larger societal context of poverty, inequality, and unfairness, conditions that much of his work polemically rails against. Watkins adopts, as he often does, a pseudo-documentary style that speculates on what it might have been like if documentary camera crews had been on hand to question Strindberg about his ideas, to document his life and his relationships, to interview young radicals and grizzled workers in the streets about their complaints and their hopes.

At one point, Strindberg returns from exile to Sweden, facing criminal charges of blasphemy, and finds the streets full of exuberant young people celebrating his return and the boldness of his anti-orthodox ideas about religion and government. Watkins stages the scene so that it looks like a modern protest, like any number of post-1960s student movements that have taken to the streets in a celebratory mood to declare resistance. The only difference is the way the protestors are dressed. To underscore the point, Watkins inserts a title that reads, "On the same day that we filmed these scenes in 1993, the Danish police in Copenhagen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators." The film is continually drawing such connections between past and present, suggesting that the upheavals and social changes that have taken place in the intervening years have been largely cosmetic, doing little to truly disrupt an underlying dynamic of power and control that remains solidly in place.

In one of the most remarkable sequences, a group of radical Swedish writers discuss the problems of their time and try to come up with a plan to address gender and income inequalities, both in their writing, and as a broad social reform program. They debate methods and priorities, trying to decide how best to excite public interest in child labor, women's suffrage and the plight of the poor. During this scene, Watkins inserts shots that pull back from the table around which the young writers are gathered to show the cameras, microphones and film crew clustered around them in the room, revealing the cinematic context of this discussion. Soon Watkins goes even further by shattering the film's reality entirely, placing himself onscreen in a discussion with the actors playing the Swedish writers. The actors remain in costume, but now instead of debating conditions in late 1800s Stockholm, they're addressing the modern world, the problems of the mass media, the apathy and lack of belief in progress that prevents modern reformers from having a real voice with which to reach people.

This transition neatly displays the parallels and differences between the two times, suggesting that today's problems are extensions of those of the past, part of the same struggle for equality and justice that has gone on in so many forms over the decade without the need for the struggle ever going away. The issues of the present — class inequality and control over the media — are the same ones that the radicals of Strindberg's time were interested in. In Strindberg's time, the newspapers were battlegrounds for ideas about social reform, with certain papers being sponsored by the rich and the monarchy to attack the ideas of those papers on the left. Even history itself was a site of struggle, as Strindberg's The Swedish People, which for the first time focused on the lives of common people in different eras, represented a challenge to traditional histories which focused on successions of monarchies and governments, wars and treaties, big events and big men. Predictably, Strindberg's history received almost unanimous bad reviews, because the newspapers were largely controlled by precisely the entrenched conservative interests who were threatened by a book that refocused the eye of history so radically and dramatically.

Much of the second half of the film is concerned with the contradictions of Strindberg's life and personality, particularly his late-in-life repudiation of his earlier support for feminism, and his increasingly bitter and contemptuous feelings for his first wife, Siri (Lena Settervall). One of the central questions of The Freethinker is the relationship between life and art, including the paradox that Strindberg often expressed ideas of freedom and equality in his writing that he seldom put into practice in his angry, troubled personal life. Watkins' associative editing style creates linkages between childhood incidents — particularly the cruel punishments of Strindberg's stern, overbearing father — scenes from Strindberg's dramas, and incidents from his long relationship with Siri, with whom he stayed for 15 years. During the second half of the film, Watkins also explores Strindberg's private life through confrontational staged interviews with the playwright, in which a modern interviewer, a member of the crew, hounds Strindberg about his treatment of his wife and children, provoking the writer while Strindberg repeatedly protests that there's more to it, that no one understands.

Indeed, this is a project about understanding, but Watkins grasps that it is impossible to fully comprehend a subject so remote from our own time. The film's analysis of Strindberg can only be built on the writings he and others around him left behind, the incomplete records of their thoughts and feelings and the events that shaped them. Watkins stages a group discussion of Strindberg and Siri in which an audience of men and women of all ages talk about the relationship between the playwright and his wife, grappling with the questions about feminism, creativity, gender and psychology brought up by this story. As one older man says, as a postscript to his own personal take on Strindberg, "there must be many views of Strindberg," many ways of understanding him and his work, many perspectives on the ideas he explored and the kind of man he was during his life.

This is the essence of Watkins' multifaceted approach to his subject, dealing with the complexities of Strindberg's persona and art, and the many possible ways of thinking about his life. The filmed discussion sessions represent an attempt to contextualize Strindberg in a modern setting, and to suggest the kind of active engagement that Watkins desires for his films: the in-film discussion is a model for the kinds of discussions that the film as a whole might prompt in its viewers, so that the discourse and analysis started by the film might continue afterwards.

That spirit of discussion goes hand in hand with the intensely collaborative nature of the film. Watkins worked closely with the students from his class, and credits a few of them with writing and directing certain sequences of the film. The production process recalls the utopian collaborative spirit of 1960s radicalism, the student protests and communes, the attempts at creating art communally rather than individually. Those projects, like Godard's Dziga-Vertov Group, rarely lived up to the promise of true cooperation and communal creation that they espoused. But Watkins' work here is no mere leftist dream, he's actually putting into practice these ideals of collaboration, and the result is remarkable. The film employs a mix of amateur and professional actors, though most of the leads, notably Mattsson and Settervall, were not experienced actors; Mattsson was ordained as a priest after the film was finished. The performances are almost uniformly exceptional, especially since Watkins asks the actors to do more than simply play a role, but also to be present as themselves, commenting on the roles they're playing and the historical figures they represent. Mattsson and Settervall in particular often face the camera in intimate closeups, speaking about Strindberg and Siri in the third person, which makes it clear than in these sequences they are not "in character."

The Freethinker is continually working on multiple levels in this fashion, blending biography, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary and media analysis. It's an amazing film that reflects Watkins' ideas about media hegemony and its connections to class imbalance, but most importantly its polemics are integrated into a larger whole that also wrestles with the nature of art and the relationship between the individual and his or her historical and social context. Even its cooperative production seeps into the film, providing an example of an alternative media model that skirts around the corporate mass media that currently dominates the distribution of information.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Conversations #30: 3D

The latest conversation between me and Jason Bellamy is now live at The House Next Door. This conversation is a bit of a different approach for us, as this time we focus on the phenomenon of 3D film, discussing the technology and aesthetics of this popular and controversial format. We concentrate especially on two recent 3D movies by popular directors — Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin — along with the Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I know everyone has an opinion on 3D, so I hope we'll see some debate and disagreement in the comments section.

Join us at The House Next Door for the full conversation, and be sure to add your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Domain of the Moment/Duplicity III/Murder Psalm

Stan Brakhage was always acutely aware of time in his work, even if only to disrupt it through layering and superimposition, the tools by which Brakhage frequently undercut the passage of time. Time works strangely in Brakhage's work: his editing is often fast, even frantic, and an image can last barely a second or two before being replaced with another, so the films seem to move very quickly, propelled forward by the perception of great speed. And yet time is also stretched and warped in his work, elongated through repetition so that a single moment can recur as Brakhage loops back to it again and again, returning obsessively to the same images and thus to the same moments in time. His layering, too, extends the sensation of time by erasing the distinctions of linear progress; all things happen simultaneously in his films, so that a Brakhage film becomes a timeless domain where one image follows another in space (the physical space of the film strip, on which in his later work Brakhage often painted or scratched directly) but not necessarily in time since the relationships between images are so blurred and destabilized. Time for Brakhage is malleable, no mean feat in a medium where time is precisely counted in twenty-fourths of a second.

Perhaps this accounts for the title of The Domain of the Moment, which is divided into four segments, each of them focusing on a different animal or animals from among Brakhage's pets. Animals, Brakhage seems to suggest, live in the moment, unaware of the passage of time, their lives built around repetition and instinct. Could there be any more perfect subject for one of his films? Brakhage opens the film with evocative, warm and beautiful images of a baby bird hesitantly staggering through some stalks of grass, pecking at food, crawling over a man's hand, running back and forth in a tank. The images are sensual and suggest the timeless, pattern-based routine of an instinct-driven animal, eating and playing and moving around, repeating the same actions over and over again. To reinforce the impression of experiencing the world as an animal, Brakhage maintains a low-to-the-ground camera that crawls among the stalks of grass with the bird, rarely showing the animal directly but instead capturing its feet, the fluffy textures of its feathers, the spikes of grass surrounding it. The intimate camera gives the impression that this scale is all there is, that a whole world is found in the modest artificial environment where the bird lives; the foliage around it is a jungle, the thin layer of dirt the earth, everything on the scale of a tiny creature.

Brakhage adopts a similar perspective for his examination of a hamster, then films an encounter between a shaggy white dog and an apparently domesticated raccoon, capturing the hesitance and lingering sensuality of the moment by endlessly drawing out the first moment of contact, with the raccoon lurking in the dark and the dog facing it expectantly. The bristly, spindly fur of the raccoon and the shaggy pile of the dog provide a study in textural contrasts, a theme carried over into the final section in which Brakhage films a snake. Its coiled, scaly body forms neatly geometric spirals that Brakhage then abstracts by blurring and overlaying them, turning those cleanly defined forms into a field of hazy rounded surfaces, sleek but finely textured at once, glistening slightly with light. Brakhage occasionally breaks away from his images of animals for painted segments that provide a very different example of sensuality and in-the-moment experience. It is as though Brakhage is acknowledging his metaphor here, making explicit the connection between his approach to art as a visceral, out-of-time experience, and what he imagines must be the similar experiences of animals with their instinctual consciousnesses.

Stan Brakhage often included images of children in his films as icons of innocence and play. His movies about children — his own and those of friends and family — reflect the spirit of domesticity and familial closeness that often runs through his work. Many of his films, as avant-garde as they are in terms of technique, have some resemblance in terms of themes and concerns to home movies, documenting private family moments, things happening around the house and in the community. Duplicity III is the culmination of a series of films titled Duplicity and Sincerity, made from 1973-1980. Duplicity III opens with images of children putting on costumes, getting ready to go trick-or-treating, which immediately suggests one meaning of the title: games, play, masking one's identity as an expression of childlike imagination. Later, he shows children dressing up for a school play, another outlet for imagination and games of "let's pretend." Often, the children are dressed as animals, and Brakhage overlays images of real animals, blurring the boundaries between signifier and signified, blending the coarse hair of a dog with a child's hair so that the two are difficult to separate. This juxtaposition suggests that a part of childlike play involves getting in touch with animalistic nature, playing at wildness and non-humanity.

There's also an element of theatricality in these games, which is especially obvious at the end of the film, when Brakhage superimposes ghostly silhouettes of kids playing parts on top of a plush red curtain on a stage. (But first, he superimposes a deer onto the stage, as though it too had a role to play as one of the original images from which all this dress-up is derived.) In his images of school plays, Brakhage is akin to a home movie documentarian, capturing childhood moments that would only be of interest to a parent. But Brakhage is not documenting a particular child's Halloween preparations or school play, he's using these images in a more abstracted way as general signifiers of childhood, and especially of the child's tendency to play with identity through disguise and role-playing. The specificity and personal significance of the home movie is expanded, in Brakhage's work, into ruminations on universal experiences and states of being.

This is a film about youth, or more precisely, it's about youth as idealized by adults. That's why the images of kids at play are so bright and joyous: at one point Brakhage shoots a little girl's hair with light shining through it so that she seems to have a frizzy halo floating above her head, making her look angelic in the sunlight filtering through her blonde hair. The pacing of the film is slow and sensuous, with a lot of leisurely cross-fades between images, layered atop one another. This layering and multiplication of images is another way in which Brakhage makes his personal documents universal, resonating far beyond a portrait of particular childhood memories. By blending together fragmentary scenes of children at play, mashing together different times, places and people, Brakhage takes the emphasis off of the individual image and puts it on the relationships and commonalities between images, the sensual qualities of light and color, the thematic continuities that drive each work.

In Murder Psalm, Stan Brakhage focuses on a largely abstract and elliptical depiction of the mysterious impulses that lead to violence. Much of the film is composed of sequences seemingly recorded off of a TV set, from news broadcasts or movies, the colors of the images dull and muted, caked in static and fuzz, so that only the vaguest outlines and impressions of the underlying image still show through. Brakhage seems more interested in the textures of the static and the flickering lines that pulse across the TV screen, so that the image beneath becomes subliminal, a projection from the unconscious. These hazy, unclear images are interwoven with outbursts of cheerful cartoon violence, clips from science lectures regarding the brain, autopsies that reveal the bloody reality beneath the skin, and a wordless psychodrama in which children wander through the woods, stare into a mirror, play and fight, nursing darker feelings beneath their childish innocence.

This is powerful stuff, slowly building a sense of dread and violence without overtly depicting the titular act of violence. The murder of the title seems continually on the verge of happening, burbling up from an unconscious mind full of images of wartime devastation, criminals and soldiers, and a child's casual, laughing cruelty towards other children. The images of brains, both models and real ones removed from dissected corpses, suggest that the origins of violent impulses arise in the mind, but the corporeal reality of the brain, bloody and covered in deep furrows, does little to probe the enigma of those violent thoughts. Thus the autopsy might diagnose the physical cause of death, but the tumultuous churning of the mind, overloaded with visual stimuli and a rush of conflicting ideas, is more elusive; the solidity of the brain barely hints at the mad processes that can go on within its neural pathways.

It's left to Brakhage's flood of imagery to suggest this violent, emotionally complex inner life, capturing the dark and murky thought process of an individual overtaken by thoughts of violence and murder. Brakhage, as usual, uses the title of his film to shade and inform the images that follow it, but this would be an undeniably dark film no matter what. Its darkness arises from the degradation of its images, the muddy, ugly quality of most of these images. Occasionally, scenes from everyday life shine out with crystalline clarity, but more often everything is vague and abstracted, the colors dull, the figures and settings obscured by the fog of TV static. Even the painted sections are wan and pale, restricted to lifeless grays and browns and dark blues, the paint thickly caked and shivering in abstract patterns that mimic the TV static. Many of the photographed segments are similarly dulled, bathed in a flat red filter that recalls not fresh blood but the caked, rusty scrapings of very old blood, evidence of an ancient murder only discovered many years after its occurrence. For Brakhage, this deliberate denial of the beauty and freshness of images is itself a form of violence, a visual equivalent of the sapping of life; the deadened colors and erasure of images in static is a filmmaker's act of murder.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How Green Was My Valley

John Ford's How Green Was My Valley is a gorgeous, achingly sad movie, a moving evocation of "the way things were" and the process by which the inexorable progress of industry and modernity slowly, steadily erodes the old ways, breaking apart the stability of family and shattering tradition. The film is steeped in the director's love of innocence and simple virtue, his rosy perspective on the past and its values. Because of this, the film is deliberately, lovingly old-fashioned in every way, paying tribute to a way of life that dies out one step at a time over the course of the film. The film even opens with an acknowledgment that the place and the time it is depicting is already long gone, changed forever, its emotions tinged with nostalgic regret and sorrow. In the opening voiceover, Huw (Roddy McDowall) prepares to leave home, packing his things while the sad voice on the soundtrack describes his memories of his home the way it used to be. The remainder of the film is set in the past, looking back wistfully at the glorious days of childhood happiness and familial closeness, and the slow disintegration of those virtues over many years of suffering and sadness.

Huw's family lives in a Welsh village in the shadow of a valley, and all the men work all day in the coal mine perched at the top of the valley, above the town, its smokestacks belching black clouds into the air above the town. Huw's memories stretch back to a time when he was a young boy, when the coal and the smoke had not yet stained the valley's green hills black. Huw's recollections of his boyhood begin in idyllic bliss, recalling the beauty of the valley, the love of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood), the fresh-faced beauty and sweet smiles of his sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee), the camaraderie of his four older brothers. The happiness of these memories is deliberately exaggerated, marinating in over-ripe sentimentality and down-home charm. Looking back, Huw remembers his early boyhood as a paradise, rooted in the stern but loving ritual of home life: deep-seated respect for his parents, religion, love and generosity. This life is strongly ritualized and formalized, with a set of encoded traditions that drive daily life. Every day, the men go off to work in the mornings, then return home in the late afternoon, winding through the streets singing while the women and children come out to watch. They deposit their daily earnings with the matriarch of the family, settle down to dinner after prayers, and eat heartily without speaking — "I never met anyone whose talk was better than good food," Huw says. Afterwards, the young men are given their spending money, sent off to have the nightly fun that their day of hard work has earned them. It's a simple and sometimes difficult life but a fulfilling one, and Ford purposefully spends some time establishing this traditional existence's appeal and its grace, because the rest of the film is concerned with the erasure of all this tradition and stability.

Over the rest of the film, Ford slowly reveals how these traditional values and ways of life have been corrupted and made irrelevant by the advances of modernity. The men working at the coal mines are increasingly subjected to more and more injustice: their wages are reduced as cheap labor becomes readily available, and men who have been toiling in the mine for many years are unceremoniously fired and replaced by younger, poorer men who can be paid less for the same work. Mr. Morgan largely takes these changes in stride at first, convinced that the old standards of fairness and decency will remain intact, but the younger generation is not so trusting, and they struggle to form a union that could help them fight against the mistreatment they receive at the hands of the rich mine owners. Ford increasingly provides little way out. Religion offers some comfort in the form of the pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), but his kindly spirit and goodness are an anomaly in a church mostly ruled over by bitter old men. In one chilling scene, these older church dignitaries call a "meeting" at the end of mass to summon one poor young woman to stand in front of the congregation, where they castigate her for having a child out of wedlock, sneering angrily at her; Ford captures the wizened, shaking hand of one deacon in closeup, pointing an accusing finger at the woman. Scenes like this suggest that the goodness and kindness of the Morgan family is only one possible outcome of old-fashioned tradition, and that tradition can also be close-minded and judgmental, so stuck in its ways that there's no room for deviation.

This scene is a premonition of the way that Angharad — who is the only parishioner to storm out of the church, enraged by this display of cruelty disguised as religion — will later be treated by the town in which she grew up. Angharad loves Mr. Gruffydd, but their relationship is not meant to be, and instead Angharad marries the wealthy son of the mine owner and moves to South Africa. Her wedding is contrasted against the marriage of her brother Ivor (Patric Knowles) to Bronwyn earlier in the film. At Ivor and Bronwyn's wedding, the mood is joyful and ecstatic, with the bride and groom running through the town surrounded on all sides by revelers enthusiastically throwing rice, smiling and singing. At Angharad's wedding, the bride is grim and stoic, and her expression is matched by many in the crowd; though the groom at least is smiling, this is a joyless affair, and the singing only starts when Mr. Morgan shames the crowd, made up of men who have been beaten down and mistreated by the mine owners, into singing for his daughter's marriage. When Angharad later returns to town without her husband, it's no surprise, but she's not greeted with any joy then either: though no one cheered her marriage's beginning, they now flood the streets with vicious rumors about divorce, unfaithfulness and scandal centering on Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd, even though nothing has happened between them. There is another church "meeting," and again the viciousness and ugliness of traditional values are exposed.

Not that modernity offers anything better. Huw is the only member of his family to go to school, which Mr. Morgan at least sees as a path out of the family's poverty and lack of options. Mr. Morgan has already seen all of his other sons — except for Ivor, who dies in the mines — leave home for greater opportunities far away, and he recognizes that this is the inevitable fate of his family and his village, broken up by changes to which they are ill-suited to adapt. He hopes that Huw will be different, but at the regional school Huw encounters only prejudice and disdain, from his snooty teacher and his fellow students alike. He's beaten and abused, mocked for his old-fashioned ways and his relative poverty, while at home his mother has no patience for the abstract ideas and theoretical problems involved in education, seeing no practical applications for the things her son is learning. Perhaps influenced by his mother's pragmatism, as well as his boyish love for Bronwyn, when Huw finishes his education, he decides that all he wants is to work in the mines like the rest of his family rather than put his new knowledge of Latin and mathematics to use.

Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller's stark, dark black-and-white imagery contrasts against the aching nostalgia and sentiment of Ford's vision. The cinematography is darkly romantic, using a high-contrast style in which the blacks are rich and deep, occasionally broken by the bright, pure light shining through the valley. In the hills above the town, the trees cast latticework networks of shade across the rustling grass, while the town itself is brighter, with long shadows stretching across the roads winding along the rows of houses. The film's most beautiful images are inevitably the departures: images of the Morgan sons leaving home, two by two, for greater opportunities, their belongings slung across their backs, their silhouettes shrouded in darkness and the big country sky towering above them, tumultuous with clouds. This film's simple beauty perfectly captures the longing for home and tradition that inflects every minute of it. Even the mine, spewing smoke and ash across the countryside, is rendered with an awful beauty, a stark industrial simplicity that hovers above the town, slowly infecting it with a sickness that drains the village of its young people, its hope, its rock-solid reliance on a certain way of life.

This is sentimentality with real purpose behind it, sentiment and nostalgia honed into biting social commentary. Ford's vision is so pure, so direct, that it's near impossible to take his idealistic perspective on the old days at anything but face value. The film only occasionally stumbles, mostly because of the often lame accents. Also, Ford's decision to have Huw played by the young McDowall throughout the film becomes very strained later in the movie, when the boy begins working in the mine and living with his brother's widow — it's obvious that he is supposed to be a young man at this point, as he was in the Richard Llewellyn novel that Ford was adopting, rather than a little boy. This structural and casting misstep aside, How Green Was My Valley is a staggering achievement, a film of tremendous beauty and melancholy, a deeply sad but never despairing portrait of the way things were, and the way they'll never be again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Olivier Assayas' Clean is a low-key, unassuming film that nevertheless accumulates great power as it traces the up-and-down trajectory of Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung), a former early-MTV-type celebrity and girlfriend of washed-up rock star Lee Hauser (James Johnston). When Lee dies of a drug overdose, Emily staggers on without him, struggling to get her life back in order, to get off the drugs, adjust to normal life, and get back her son Jay (James Dennis), who's living with Lee's parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Obviously, this is a story with intense and unsettling emotional stakes, but Assayas, typically, resists the impulse for melodrama, instead crafting a quiet and gently paced film that puts the emphasis on day-to-day life and the ordinary dramas of getting through each day in the wake of a life-shaking tragedy.

It's a film all about grief and guilt, and Assayas places Cheung's subtle performance front and center. Her expressive face, surrounded here by a halo of frizzy, punky unwashed hair, conveys the full range of her feelings as she struggles to make a new life without Lee, and without the aura of low-level fame that she was accustomed to. Lee's old rock star friends and associates — including drum-and-bass producer Tricky, one of several real musicians playing himself — now want nothing to do with her, and the press eulogizes Lee with more praise than he ever got in life while condemning Emily as the cause of his addiction and death. The patterns are familiar: dead rock stars suddenly become geniuses, while rock stars' girlfriends are always blamed, like Yoko Ono, for all the ill that befalls the men. Assayas is taking all the old rock n' roll clichés and digging into them, trying to reveal the less sensational human truths behind the music magazine headlines and rhapsodic essays. In one scene, Lee's parents, reviewing a reissue project of their son's music, read the CD liner notes which portray their son as a romantically tragic figure, self-destructive and tormented. They lament that these notes present such a one-dimensional portrait of a man who they knew had so much more to him, and then they laugh, because they know that Lee would laugh, too, bemused to be turned into such a poetic martyr.

It's a striking scene because it's unlike almost anything else that usually appears in cinematic portrayals of rock n' roll tragedy. The rock star dying of a drug overdose, leaving behind a strung-out girlfriend and a son neither of them could ever deal with? This is familiar. The rock star's parents sighing over the excessive imaginations of music journalists is something that only Assayas would think to include. Just as Irma Vep dealt with questions of identity and race by wandering around the fringes of a film set, Clean lingers at the edges of the music industry, populated with people who were once famous or had mildly famous bands or are known in certain insular scenes. Emily is peripheral to this milieu herself, not quite famous on her own merits, sometimes remembered for a TV show she had, mostly remembered, unfairly but predictably, as the woman who destroyed a rock star's life. Surrounded by phoniness and spite — Rivette regular Jeanne Balibar appears as a former friend who's too self-absorbed to help — Emily is trying to clean up, to readjust, taking low-level jobs in restaurants and clothing stores. Worst of all is an interview with a store manager who remembers her TV show, making her attempt to get a job as a salesgirl especially humiliating. When she returns to her friend Elena (Béatrice Dalle) after this interview, she admits that she isn't sure if this new life, this attempt to get a normal job and clean up, is better or worse than being a junkie — it's a devastating admission.

Though the film's focus remains almost entirely on Emily, Assayas occasionally cuts away to Lee's parents, who are also dealing with the aftermath of Lee's death and trying to raise his son. Nick Nolte delivers a quiet but intense performance as Albrecht, a gruff man whose wife is sick and, he begins to suspect, dying. He sits in a hospital by her side, waiting through endless barrages of tests, or in a hotel room with the precocious Jay. As Albrecht confesses to Martha, he'd never paid much attention to his own son when he was a child, because he doesn't know what to do with young children. He is a somewhat emotionally aloof man, his face often unreadable behind his beard, his raspy voice seldom betraying much of what he's feeling. But he's clearly shaken by his wife's slow decline, and by the prospect of being left alone with his grandson, so he reaches out to Emily, trying to get her to clean up, to reforge the broken connection with her son.

It's a touching story, and Assayas tells it with simple grace and not even a hint of sentimentality or falseness. As is often the case in his films, the story hops around the globe, from Canada to London to Paris to San Francisco, with his cinematography giving a distinct feel to each place even as his habit of cross-cutting between countries and continents conveys the ease of international travel, of a community of people whose human connections and family bonds transcend borders. It is perpetually nighttime in Assayas' Paris, moody and lit with the golden glow of street lamps and traffic, and he contrasts this romantic urban image with the institutional austerity of a London hospital, the forlorn and decaying motels of a fading rock tour passing through a small town, the noise and chatter of a crowded club, everyone talking and drinking while the band plays. Assayas has always had a real feel for music and performance, and the film's soundtrack is memorably scattered with snippets of Brian Eno, shoegazer ballads, and Maggie Cheung singing her own songs that sound like slightly accented Sonic Youth. Assayas films several musicians performing, most memorably an appearance by the Canadian indie rock outfit Metric: the camera glides seductively up and down the body of singer Emily Haines, admiring the short hem of her skirt and the legs below it, capturing the jittery, sexy energy of a rock star performing, projecting her whole body into the pulsing post-punk rhythms of the band's song "Dead Disco."

In the film's final scenes, Emily records a song, while the camera drifts in elegant half-circles around her, her face often hidden or half-hidden behind a microphone. She gets an ambivalent reaction from her producer, chats with her collaborator, cries and then skips out onto a patio outside, smiling as the camera pans up and away from her, taking in a hazy view of San Francisco's hills, the bridge in the distance. It's a perfect encapsulation of the film's emphasis on life slowly, steadily going on, with heartache and happiness tangled together, modest joy and lingering pain coexisting in equal measures.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bush Mama

Bush Mama is director Haile Gerima's raw, potent depiction of poor black life in 1970s Los Angeles. Shot in grainy black-and-white, the film is a blend of near-documentary street scenes, raw amateur acting, and avant-garde techniques. The loose narrative focuses on Dorothy (Barbarao), a jobless woman who subsists on welfare to raise her daughter after her husband T.C. (Johnny Weathers) is sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. With nothing to do and no hope of finding a job — she waits in the unemployment office for hours only to be told there's nothing for her — she simply wanders the neighborhood, reads letters from T.C., and talks with other neighborhood women. She's pregnant with her second child, but because she's on welfare and her husband isn't around, she's under constant pressure from government officials to have an abortion. The letters she gets from T.C. reflect his increasing radicalization and his desire to overthrow a system that seems stacked against blacks in so many ways. She hears some of the same ideas around the neighborhood, particularly from a woman who brings her radical posters from rallies, depicting an African woman with a baby on one arm and a gun in her other hand (the "bush mama" of the film's title) and another poster showing the hole-filled body of a man who'd been shot 25 times by the police.

Dorothy doesn't really understand these radical ideas, though she feels some sympathy for them on a gut level. However, she's often swayed by the brash Molly (Cora Lee Day), who has nothing but mockery and contempt for radical ideas about "togetherness" or African identity. Over the course of the film, in between scenes of ordinary domestic life, Dorothy grapples with this debate over radicalization, vacillating between those who want to do something to fight an oppressive system and those, like Molly, who can't think beyond the day-to-day. By the end of the film, Dorothy, facing the camera in front of the poster of the African mother, has been fully awakened — through a harrowing and horrific series of events — to the necessity of systemic change. She's been radicalized, and to reflect this transition she's finally removed the bushy wig that she wore throughout the film, revealing the sparse, tightly coiled dreadlocks hanging off her scalp underneath. The symbolism is obvious: she's no longer hiding anything, she's embraced her true self, which is why Gerima shoots her in closeup with the "bush mama" poster behind her. He racks the focus, so that first Dorothy's face is in focus, and then the poster is, and then he freezes the shot, while on the soundtrack Dorothy reads a passionate letter she wrote to T.C., telling him that she's finally ready to hear and understand what he's been telling her.

Gerima relates this tale of one woman's gradual awareness of her place within a larger societal struggle with a loose, eclectic style. The film has an elliptical collage structure in which conversations, monologues addressed to the camera, and everyday moments are stitched together with connective scenes of Dorothy walking around the neighborhood or sitting at her window, lost in thought. The soundtrack is also a collage, combining snippets of dialogue and music into an associative portrait of ghetto life: bits of dialogue or radio broadcasts are looped and repeated, and the occasional song with lyrics reflects the events of the narrative. The opening of the film consists of several minutes of slice-of-life footage from around the neighborhood — the police arresting a man, people walking, a purse-snatching kid — accompanied by a dense soundtrack of street sounds, pulsing music and loops of detailed questions excerpted from welfare interviews.

Throughout the film, there are sporadic bursts of violence — men being beaten or shot down right in the streets by the police — that seem as ordinary as anything else that happens in the streets. It's just another part of the backdrop, not exactly accepted but certainly expected. Again, Gerima shows some progress in Dorothy's reactions to these events, so that by the end of the film, the sight of a black man being gunned down in the street outside her home causes her to bury her head and sob, whereas earlier she'd shown little emotional involvement at all in these routine bursts of violence. These scenes are also setting the groundwork for the absolutely devastating final act of the film, in which the violence of the streets and the police directly infiltrates Dorothy's home.

This is an intense and emotionally draining film that's all about the toll that systemic racial oppression and poverty take on those who live within this system. Some of the most poignant, poetic moments come from T.C.'s letters to Dorothy, which he reads aloud while facing the camera, speaking to the audience as though addressing Dorothy. In one of these letters, he laments the way that prison is sapping the vital, lively parts of his personality that he once treasured: "every time I crack a joke, to test if that part of me is still alive, I never can make it." Even humor is destroyed by the injustice that families like T.C. and Dorothy's must endure. It's especially cruel that T.C. is arrested, early in the film, right before a promising job interview that they'd hoped would finally change things for their family. One moment, T.C. and Dorothy are enthusiastically talking about finally having some money, maybe being able to move somewhere nicer, and then Gerima cuts to T.C. being led through the prison by a guard. The circumstances of his arrest, which are predictably unfair, aren't explained until the very end of the film, which only enhances the sense of how arbitrary it all is.

Gerima's greatest accomplishment with Bush Mama is making a deeply political, angry, even polemical film that rarely feels like merely a collection of slogans. The film's politics are rooted in the circumstances of everyday life, in the injustices that occur daily in poor black neighborhoods. The film has a real political/social message to send, contained in its dialogues and monologues about black togetherness and radicalization, but it delivers this message primarily by focusing on the tangible emotional and physical effects of racial prejudice, police violence, and systemic poverty.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Paris, je t'aime

Paris je t'aime is an ambitious anthology film that compiles 18 short films by a multinational group of directors, each of them focused on Paris from many different angles. As is the nature with films like this, it's an uneven affair, packed with some bright spots, some total failures and a heaping portion of mediocre fare that passes by without leaving much of an impression one way or another. Perhaps even more than most other portmanteau films, this one suffers from the schizophrenic leaps from one short to the next, because there are just so damn many of them and as a result no director gets more than a few minutes to tell a simple story. Many of the best segments here work within those limitations, realizing that the best way to make something satisfying in such a short time is simply to craft a well-acted, cleverly written dialogue scene that stands alone, suggesting a larger untold story between the lines. A few directors attempt something more ambitious and a few take more experimental approaches, but most of the best work found here presents a self-contained, intimate single scene.

A good example is Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu's Quartier Latin, which consists entirely of a conversation between a divorcing couple played by Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. The segment gets by entirely on the charm of the actors, the casual way they trade gently barbed insults, smiling all the while, an affectionate older married couple who might even stay together if they weren't already so thoroughly on the path towards separate lives. The dialogue has a fizz and crackle that's especially well-suited to Rowlands' brassy bravado and razor-tongued wit, while fellow John Cassavetes veteran Gazzara radiates gravel-voiced aging machismo. It's a great piece that pays tribute to the two actors' careers and histories, providing an affectionate ode to the cinema of Cassavetes by casting two of his finest actors in roles that draw on their full, well-lived lives, on-screen and off. A similar tone inflects Richard LaGravenese's Pigalle, another showcase for and love letter to aging stars, in which Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins play an old showbiz couple who enjoy playing roles, acting out, talking through their troubled marriage in grand gestures, theatrical slaps and sexual gamesmanship. As in the Rowlands/Gazzara scene, this segment is at least in part about the stars themselves, their personae and their screen histories, and like Quartier Latin it's a charming, subtly funny piece with wit to spare.

That seems to be a key in this film, and the pieces that showcase witty writing and well-timed dialogue exchanges definitely stand out. Wes Craven, of all people, turns in a charming, low-key piece about an engaged couple whose relationship is salvaged by the intervention of the shade of Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne). It's a slight little trifle, but it's redeemed by the pattering dialogue and the chemistry between the always delightful Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell. So many of the other segments aren't even this entertaining or memorable; where Craven offers a simple premise and a few smile-worthy lines, many other vignettes here are forgettable and bland. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Loin du 16e is a stripped-down and nearly dialogue-free observation of a Hispanic maid dropping off her baby at daycare before going off to take care of a French woman's child. The irony is obvious, as is the parallel between the maid singing a sad lullaby first for her own child and then for the one she's taking care of, but it all just seems so slight and pat. A scene like this could be effective as part of a longer feature, a series of moments eventually accumulating emotional heft and context, but here it just feels like a disconnected sequence that abruptly cuts off.

The same could be said for Gus Van Sant's short Le Marais, in which a man chatters in French to a quiet young man who, it turns out, doesn't understand French. Again, there's just not much to it. Van Sant's camera gracefully follows the nervously energetic tics and pulsations of the talkative guy coming on to the non-responsive guy he's just met, so it's visually elegant but doesn't lead anywhere. Van Sant's films, generally, accumulate weight through a succession of unshowy, casual scenes like this, but in isolation there's just not enough to it. Van Sant's meandering pacing and off-the-cuff aesthetics are poorly suited to this short of a time frame; he needs some canvas to stretch out on and here the scene just feels like a teaser for a fuller story that never comes.

Other shorts suffer, like the Salles/Thomas piece, for presenting some painfully unsubtle sociopolitical content. Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine is little more than a pat message about tolerance in which a young boy breaks away from his friends — who are shouting crude come-ons to passing women — to help a young Muslim girl who's stumbled in the street. Everyone else just laughs, and his friends later make nasty and stereotypical remarks about Muslims, but he is kind to her and earns the beautiful girl's friendship. A very touching lesson, for sure, but the seams are so obvious it might as well be an after-school special. Meanwhile, Christopher Doyle's baffling Porte de Choisy seems to have a similar policy of ethnic tolerance at its core — this time suggesting that Asians should avoid Westernizing their appearances and embrace their own cultural ideals of beauty — but it's hard to tell because the film is just so daft and wacky. The colorful, lively style that cinematographer Doyle has always brought to the films of Wong Kar Wai is apparent here, but the bargain-basement surrealism is far removed from Wong's much more assured aesthetics. Doyle engages directly with Western stereotypes about Asia by splattering the screen with kung-fu moves, eerily grinning beauty pageant contestants, Buddhist monks, busty girls in military uniforms, and Hawaiian hula dancers. It's hard to know what to make of this garish, confounding stew of clichés and avant-garde disjunctions, but it certainly stands out from the rest of the film, for good or ill.

Indeed, several of these pieces stand out by digressing from reality, usually not to the most inspiring effect. Vincenzo Natali's Quartier de la Madeleine is a wince-inducing silent vampire story filmed in a grayscale monochrome with bright red "blood" that's obviously just paint. Olga Kurylenko plays a vampiress who falls in love with wide-eyed Elijah Wood, and turns him into a vampire so they can gleefully feed on each other's necks, at which point the short ends with a heart-shaped iris-in. It's a bland piece made worse by its aesthetically tone-deaf blending of silent film homage with a slick, glossy visual style that makes the leads look like they're made of plastic. Also distractingly bad is Sylvain Chomet's short about a mime who is snubbed everywhere until he meets a female mime to share his antics with. The attempts at charm and whimsy seem forced, especially in the framing device in which the mime couple's chatty son introduces the story of how his parents met.

Other segments are diverting, with minor pleasures but nothing more substantial. The Coen brothers' decision to base their Tuileries around the face of Steve Buscemi is a brilliant comic choice, as the actor broadly mimes his reactions to a passionate French couple who include him in their tumultuous, violent way of teasing each other. Buscemi's bug-eyed mugging is always a pleasure to watch, and the Coens structure the sequence around his silent incomprehension of French, keeping the American actor silent while the French couple yells and chatters at him. The broad comedy of it works, and the aesthetics suggest that Buscemi's character is a silent movie hero in a sound world, telegraphing his confusion and frustration entirely through the expressions on his malleable face. Alfonso Cuarón offers up an even more rarefied pleasure: the gritty joy of hearing Nick Nolte speak. The actor's raspy drone is the real star of Cuarón's basic little short, which consists almost entirely of a tracking shot along a street as Nolte's character has a conversation with a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier). Cuarón keeps the camera at such a distance, tracking along on the opposite side of the street from the actors, that the aural component has to drive the short, and Nolte's distinctive voice would make it obvious that it was him even if he wasn't onscreen at all. The short's conceit is too cutesy by far, keeping the relationship between the two people ambiguous through vague dialogue, and the lame little "twist" at the end is eye-roll-inducing, but Nolte and Sagnier's largely verbal and enjoyable performances prevent it from being a total loss.

One of the better shorts, unsurprisingly, comes from Olivier Assayas, whose Quartier des Enfants Rouges plays out like an excerpt from one of his features, a deleted scene, but somehow avoids feeling as incomplete or insubstantial as the similarly truncated Van Sant sequence. Assayas focuses on an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Paris to shoot a costume drama, buying drugs and feeling a brief flicker of romantic feeling for her dealer. It's a simple piece that, typical of Assayas, is all about mood, and it gets across a wealth of feeling in its economical few minutes. So many of the usual Assayas tropes are there — the cluttered and drug-hazed parties, the hesitant connections and uneasy communication, the movie business milieu that makes this seem like a lost Irma Vep outtake — and it's a beautiful, affecting little short. Assayas' love of actresses carries over to his affectionate, sympathetic filming of Gyllenhaal, who turns in a subtle, quiet performance largely without dialogue, portraying a woman trying hard to have fun in a foreign land, but feeling lonely and craving some connection that she can't quite express.

Tom Tykwer arguably takes the most ambitious approach out of any of the featured directors. His Faubourg Saint-Denis is about a blind young man (Melchior Beslon) who receives a phone call from his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) in which she seems to be breaking up with him. As a result, he flashes back through a sped-up summary of the entire history of their relationship, starting with their first meeting and then gradually speeding up to touch on significant moments in the rush of routine. A breathless voiceover recounts the ways in which their relationship gradually settles into familiar patterns, and the writing of this narration cleverly uses repetition and the gradually increasing frequency of certain words to suggest the shifts in their relationship. By the end, words that had appeared only occasionally in the voiceover come to dominate it, suggesting just how much this relationship has changed, mostly for the worse, over its course. From intimacy and excitement the mood changes to alienation and fragmentation, simply by altering the balance of how often certain events recur and the context in which they occur. The girl's screams chart the course of the relationship. They meet because she's screaming, rehearsing a part in a play, and early in the relationship he's charmed by her screams, by her playful habit of yelling on a subway or a shouted orgasm. Later, screaming signifies arguing, slamming doors, angry words, shifts into negativity. Tykwer defies his short allotted time by cramming the whole length of a relationship into this scant length, condensing this romance into key words and key events, providing a formalist breakdown of a possibly evaporating love. It's an affecting and aesthetically bracing piece, and Tykwer is one of the few directors here to really do something interesting with the short form beyond staging a quick little scene and getting out.

Alexander Payne's 14e arrondissement is also quite interesting, and very typical of Payne's unflinching observation of lonely or emotionally troubled people. It's the story of a middle-aged American postwoman (Margo Martindale) abroad in Paris for a vacation by herself. The short is narrated in this woman's awkwardly accented, faltering French, and it's a rather heartbreaking portrait of someone who's alone in the world but doesn't give in to despair, instead finding pleasure in exploring a foreign place by herself. There are signs of that condescension and nastiness that sometimes creep into Payne's treatment of middle American characters like this, as in the cheap shot where Payne cuts to an image of a greasy fast food burger in response to the narrator's disappointment that French food isn't as good as she'd expected. Surprisingly, that's one of the only moments where Payne takes that kind of mocking oh-those-silly-Americans tone. For the most part, Payne's perspective on this character is empathetic and warm, and the short (which is wisely sequenced last in Paris je t'aime) ends with a sweet moment in which the woman looks from children playing to lovers kissing to an elderly couple talking, as though seeing the entirety of a human life spread out across the lawn of a Parisian park.

Many of the other pieces here are just trite and forgettable. Nobuhiro Suwa wastes the excellent Juliette Binoche in a lame attempt to tug at heartstrings with a story of a mother grieving for her dead son. She runs into the street and encounters a cowboy — Willem Dafoe, channeling the infamous cowboy of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. — who briefly reunites her with her son. It's pointless surrealism and pointless maudlin tripe, especially since it ends with the woman rapturously telling her husband that God has given her strength. Huh? God's a cowboy? I guess? Bruno Podalydès' Montmartre is just inoffensive and boring in comparison, a meet-cute in which a lonely man romances a woman who faints by his car. Oliver Schmitz's segment similarly suffers from its bland premise, in which a female paramedic cares for a man who's been stabbed, while flashbacks show that the events that led to this moment include the man's romantic obsession with the paramedic, who he'd pursued ever since randomly running into her in a parking garage some time before. It's an O. Henry-esque bit of irony that hardly seems earned by these inconsequential, ill-defined characters. In Bastille, Isabel Coixet uses voiceover narration to tell the compressed story of a man who is about to leave his wife until he learns that she is dying, at which point he devotes himself to her anew and falls in love all over again. The voiceover essentially provides a summary of what might have been an interesting movie if it had actually played out with some detail, some real scenes and real characters. As is, it's like a pitch for a movie rather than an actual story in itself.

As a whole, Paris je t'aime is unfortunately weighted down by more chaff than wheat. With so many shorts at just a few minutes each, more than a few of these segments feel like they required more room to stretch out and really develop something. (On the other hand, a few others are so slight they could barely sustain thirty seconds.) There are some real gems here and some other shorts that have their moments, but these sparks of vitality and interest are all too often overwhelmed by the many shorts that are barely remembered three segments later, let alone after the movie ends. All anthology films are flawed almost by necessity, and Paris je t'aime proves that the more fractured a portmanteau film is, the more different visions it attempts to cram into one container, the less satisfying it is in the end.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Pedro Almodóvar's Matador opens with a man masturbating while watching grisly, garish murders clipped out of trashy slasher movies. Almodóvar alternates between closeups on the face of former bullfighter Diego Montez (Nacho Martínez) and the grainy movie clips, in which one woman after another is killed in particularly gory and often sexualized ways. It's a bold opening scene that immediately establishes the film's central theme, the mysterious connection between sex and death, and especially the ways in which movies often display murder with a sensationalized, exploitative sexual component. In the following scene, Diego teaches a class about bullfighting — attentively watched by the naïve young student Ángel (Antonio Banderas) — and Almodóvar cuts between the class and a seduction scene in which the lawyer María Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) leads a man to his sexual death at her hands. Diego's words about killing a bull neatly parallel María's interactions with her victim, as she guides him into her arms like a matador leading the bull on, pulling him in by his belt, letting her clothes unfurl from off her body like the matador's cape, then mounting him and pulling a slender pin from her hair, stabbing the man in the back of the neck at precisely the spot where a matador stabs the bull at the end of a fight. The parallel editing unites Diego and María even before they've met, the former matador and the active matador, dancing and twirling gracefully around her victims before she brings them down.

Later, Diego and María will meet — pulled together by Ángel's Catholic guilt and urge to confess to crimes he hasn't even committed — and the parallels of the opening will become even more pronounced. Diego, it turns out, has been unable to give up the thrill of the kill even after a goring that ended his bullfighting career; "I didn't know you were still a matador," María coos, excited and aroused, when she learns that Diego has been killing young girls. The film is an amour fou romance, a love story about two death-obsessed killers who find their perfect match in one another, whose mutual worship of the art of killing makes it certain that they'll end up in one another's arms, knives held to each other's necks. At around the midpoint of the film, Diego follows María into a movie theater showing King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, and together they watch the climax in which the doomed lovers mortally wound each other, then embrace and kiss, declaring their love as they die. It's obvious then that this will also be the trajectory of Diego and María, that they are fated to follow the same path and end up in the same romantically morbid position.

Around this central romance, Almodóvar weaves a number of subplots and themes that deal with sexuality and gender. Ángel is a sexual innocent who says he has never been with a woman, which prompts Diego to wonder if his pupil is gay. Ángel, determined to prove that he's not, goes out that night and attempts to rape Diego's girlfriend, Eva (Eva Cobo), an act that only proves that he has little conception of sexuality at all. His sexuality is tied up with his admiration for his teacher, his simplistic worship of Diego's masculine bravado and ease with women. Ángel is a deeply confused character, raised by an overbearing, religious mother (Julieta Serrano) who watches his every move with suspicion and contempt. At one point, while Ángel sits naked on the edge of the tub, about to take a shower, his mother appears at the bathroom door, her face distorted by frosted glass, peering suspiciously in at him, telling him to stop looking at himself in the mirror and just take his shower already. The tiled glass breaks her face into abstracted mosaic cubes, a fragmented vision of motherly disapproval. Immediately after this scene, Almodóvar cuts to a closeup of her bare leg, propped up as she ties a garter around her thigh, while her son sits at the dinner table nearby, watching her. Everything becomes freighted with sexual import in this film, even the troubled relationship between mother and son.

Ángel's mother is a vicious caricature of insane piety, and she snipes incessantly at Ángel, perhaps influenced by her obviously negative feelings about her dead husband. Every time she mentions Ángel's father, she reflexively adds, "may he rest in peace," her voice dripping with bile and scorn, and there's even a subtle suggestion that she may have killed him — her son faints at the sight of blood, and in that, she says, he's not like her at all. Domineering mothers and absent fathers are the rule in this film. Eva's mother Pilar (Chus Lampreave) is similarly overbearing, always lurking by her daughter's side, leaning over her shoulder to dispense advice, constantly expressing her disapproval. Eva's father is nowhere to be found, either, and his absence — dead or simply gone, it hardly matters — has made Pilar bitter and distrustful, urging her daughter not to rely on love.

These are broadly stereotyped roles, drawing on familiar clichés about single mothers and asshole fathers. In fact, the film is very much concerned with gender roles and the pressure to conform to them. Ángel's desire to prove his masculinity to his teacher, to rebut the insinuation that he's gay, is what leads him to rape Eva — and when she tells the police that he didn't actually rape her, that he came before he could even penetrate her, he seems embarrassed and humiliated more than anything, his guilty feelings mingled with a shameful suspicion that he has only confirmed his lack of masculinity. In fact, Almodóvar shoots the scene where Ángel goes to the police to confess like it's gay cruising, with Ángel and the detective (Eusebio Poncela) exchanging charged glances from across the police station, separated from one another by a glass divider. Later, the detective watches one of Diego's bullfighting classes and Almodóvar inserts closeups on the crotches of the male students in the class as they twist and turn, practicing their killing moves. The detective, gathering evidence, is observing the bulges in their pants, as though they're half-excited as they twirl their capes and thrust with their swords.

Another subtext in the film is the question of proper roles for women. Rape is treated very curiously, almost cavalierly, by Eva and her mother. They seem resigned to it, and unwilling to do anything about it. They don't want to talk about it with the police, even after Ángel confesses, and when they're dragged down to the police station they refuse to press charges. Eva's mother says that the girl has been raped several times before — she can't even remember if it was three or four times — and neither of them seems especially surprised by it. It's as though they think it's just a part of life, something to be expected if you're young and attractive and walking around outside, attracting the attention of men. Later in the film, Eva, dressing up to go see Diego, tells her mother she's going out; "no wonder they're always raping you," her mother groans, as though the simple act of going out for a walk in a nice dress is an invitation for a sexual assault.

In many ways, this film is Almodóvar's darkly humorous satire of the treatment of women in a society obsessed with masculinity, violence, and death. When María takes on Ángel's case as his lawyer, a newscaster, breaking her objectivity, accuses María of "repugnant cynicism" for daring to defend a man accused of crimes against women. It's a strange conception of feminism that scolds her for not doing what's expected of her, for not keeping her distance as a show of solidarity. In a way, María defies expectations with her murders, too: the male slasher/female victim trope is so dominant, both in the cinema and in real life, that it's a shock to see a woman deploying the same template against male victims. That's why the revelation that María kills because she's obsessed with Diego is such a big disappointment, making her just another female stalker basing her life on a man's actions. She would have been a far more interesting figure if she had killed for her own mysterious reasons, driven by her own inner drives just as Diego is, rather than simply following his example. It's a disappointing twist that somewhat undercuts the much more complex and ambiguous psychosexual currents in the film.

Despite this bow to conventionality, Matador remains a provocative and fascinating film, a lurid examination of sex and death and the ways in which they're entangled with cultural expectations and engrained gender roles. It's over-the-top and melodramatic, as expected from Almodóvar, but that only makes its raw, violent emotions even more powerful. It's a conflicted film that never quite settles the question of how we should feel about these characters and their mad urges. It's a film about the loss of control, the inability to resist the desires and passions that bubble up from within, consuming these lovers in murder and sexual bliss.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

My 2011 In Culture, Part II: Music

Here is the second part of my annual cultural summary. On Monday, I posted about the best films I saw in 2011 (though not the best films released in 2011), and now here's a list of the best music of 2011. Unlike the film list, this one is limited to actual 2011 releases. Rankings are always subjective, and it just gets even more difficult and silly when the list in question combines various forms of avant-garde and electronic music with rock and rap and whatever else. So this is just a rough attempt at putting all this music I love in some kind of preferential order, even if that order would probably change if I posted the list tomorrow.

1. Taku Unami/Takahiro Kawaguchi | Teatro Assente (Erstwhile)
Taku Unami has for several years now been one of the most interesting and unique musicians in avant-garde music, a clever conceptualist who is seldom content to operate in any one mode for long, and who distances himself from so many other high-concept sound artists because his ideas almost always yield fascinating sonic results rather than being interesting only as theory. Takahiro Kawaguchi is one of several likeminded musicians in the modern Japanese electroacoustic scene, less prolific and less well-known than Unami but promising in his own right; his 2009 solo album n, constructed entirely from ticking metronomes, is remarkable. Both artists have dabbled in the extreme minimalism of post-millennial Taku Sugimoto, and both artists have also expanded their palettes far beyond the self-imposed austerity of Sugimoto. Their first duo collaboration, Teatro Assente, is anything but minimal, though it certainly suggests that the musicians are still intimately concerned with the relationships between sound and silence that have driven so much modern improvisation-based music, both in Japan and elsewhere.

Last year, my favorite album of the year was also an Erstwhile disc, a collaboration between Sugimoto and the composer Michael Pisaro, which pointed the way forward from a musical trajectory that had sometimes seemed destined to end in absolute, unyielding silence. Sugimoto and Pisaro maintained the austerity and serenity of their overlapping aesthetics while both looking back to the past (with a gorgeous harmonic guitar duo) and creating challenging, engrossing new syntheses of their sounds. Teatro Assente represents another, very different, way forward, a refinement and expansion of the completely fresh sonic vocabulary of yet another great 2010 Erstwhile disc, Unami's collaboration with Annette Krebs. Like that album, Teatro Assente challenges the listener to separate the two musicians' contributions, or even to think of it is as two musicians playing at all.

Rather, the album's distinctive array of clapping, clacking, rustling noises suggests an entirely aural narrative, an impression that the lengthy song titles — "She Walked Into a Room, and Found Her Absence." — do little to dispel. There's something very cinematic about this music, which was recorded in an old theater and sounds like it consists mostly of objects being moved around, sometimes violently, in space. In other words, its sounds are intimately linked with the circumstances of the recording process, even if it's difficult, if not impossible, to actually figure out the origins of these sounds when listening. Unami and Kawaguchi employ a large array of sounds: footsteps on wood floors, voices whispering like they're waiting for a show to start, sampled recordings, the ticking and clicking of tiny motorized gadgets, and various shuffling and banging noises from cardboard boxes and large objects being moved around. The music stimulates the imagination, encouraging the listener to invent narratives to accompany these puzzling sounds, or simply to imagine the musicians holed up in an old theater, spilling aluminum cans across the stage, spooling out rolls of tape to assemble Rube Goldberg sound-making contraptions, jamming on guitars, making their movements and their process of construction an inextricable part of the final product. This is fascinating, challenging music with a real sense of humor as well, as evidenced by whimsical gestures like titling one track "Knocking By Anybody of Nowhere (Dub Mix)" because there are lots of dubby echo explosions scattered amidst all the ticking metronomes and hissing noise. This is music bursting with surprises and mystery, a sonic film that's utterly immersive and unforgettable. [buy]

2. Josh T. Pearson | Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute)
In a way, I've been patiently waiting for this album ever since 2001, when Texas rock trio Lift To Experience released an epic, and epically weird, two-disc concept album about God, prophets, angels, the Lone Star State and the apocalypse. The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was and is a brilliant album, with Josh T. Pearson crooning and moaning hauntingly above alternately thundering and graceful rock n' roll testimonials. It was the kind of unforgettable, utterly unique musical statement that's hard to follow up, and the band never did; instead, they broke up, and Pearson all but disappeared except for a few low-key solo tours. Ten years later, he's back with a solo album that's every bit as epic and unforgettable as his old band's one and only album, but in an entirely different way. Gone are the jackhammering guitars and feedback and power trio intensity, replaced by stripped-down, spacious country motifs. For most of the album, Pearson's straining, soulful voice drifts like lonely tumbleweed through a desolate desert populated only by the sparse acoustic plucking of his guitar, with occasional strings winding through this emptiness like the sudden whine of a windstorm. It's a harrowing breakup and breakdown album, as infused with weird spirituality as The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. It's confessional and despairing: Pearson pours out his soul in a series of lengthy, meandering pleas to God and/or lovers past and present. There's a deadpan, backwoods wit to song titles like "Honeymoon's Great: Wish You Were Her," but Pearson's voice transforms these wry puns into torturous expressions of guilt and grief. As that song winds through its 12 agonizing minutes, Pearson runs through an emotional gauntlet, wrestling with the conflicting feelings of passion and duty, and finally concluding that he's so weak that, ironically, he'll always desire whoever he isn't with. [buy]

3. Clams Casino | Instrumentals (Type)
Hip-hop producer Clams Casino has recently risen to Internet prominence crafting tracks for rappers like Lil B and Soulja Boy, but this album of rap-less backing cuts suggests that his dense but ethereal music is perhaps best suited to stand on its own. These are instrumentals, but they're not entirely without voices, since vocal samples — wordless hums and trills or compulsively looped snippets of lyrics — play a big part in Clams Casino's sound. The music has an epic, soulful sound, stitching together lush, shoegazer melodies, caked in fuzz, with dreamy vocal samples and drums that seem to kick in slow motion. On "The World Needs Change," a pitched-down voice croons woozily through a hazy fog in which lullaby chimes are like sparkling stars showing through in a cloudy sky. On "Illest Alive," he samples Björk's "Bachelorette" and chops it up until the Icelandic singer's distinctive voice is stretched out into an eerie drone, with only occasional snippets of coherence. Towards the end of the album, the producer drops a few stripped down, minimal tracks that seem to demand a rapper's presence to weave around the beats, but for the most part Instrumentals feels like anything but a collection of backing tracks waiting for an MC. [buy]

4. Michael Pisaro | Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones (Gravity Wave)
This is yet another in a long string of fascinating, highly original compositions by Michael Pisaro. On this piece, Pisaro alternates in three-minute segments between two types of material: a duet between Barry Chabala (guitar) and Katie Porter (bass clarinet); and an electronic studio assemblage of field recordings, organ samples and other processed bits and pieces. The two groups of material alternate throughout the piece, but the whole never feels disjointed. Instead, Pisaro seems to be exploring, through two very different approaches, a unified territory of tranquil held tones and meditative late-night quietude. The instrumental sections focus on sustained tones from the bass clarinet and answering guitar pings, creating an aural atmosphere not all that different from the stretched, droning organ notes of the electronic sections, so that the various sources, acoustic and electronic, "live" or post-processed, begin to bleed into one another. There's also a lot of variety in the textures and sounds that Pisaro builds from these disparate sources, with the organs sometimes ringing out in rich, bell-like resonances and other times sending out bassy reverberations. The instrumental sections, meanwhile, gradually grow more complex and intricate, progressing from the stasis and simplicity of the earliest segments to the spacious melodicism of the final instrumental stanzas. [buy]

5. Eleanor Friedberger | Last Summer (Merge)
The first solo album from the Fiery Furnaces' lead singer proves that Eleanor's brother Matt is not the sole visionary behind that band's aesthetic. Last Summer is recognizably the work of one half of Fiery Furnaces, full of catchy melodies and elegantly phrased lyrics, but the song structures here are more direct, less twisty and schizophrenic. Opener "My Mistakes" leaps immediately into a chugging, muted rhythm with Eleanor intoning, "you know I do my best thinking when I'm flying down the bridge," as though she's already in the middle of a conversation, before squeaking, squelching synth melodies fill out the background behind her. These songs don't have the modular structures so favored by brother Matt for the siblings' main band, but they're hardly simple songs. In fact, they're densely packed with aural detailing, layers of piano, handclaps, guitars and synths that back up Eleanor's distinctive voice. There's quite a lot of variety here, too, ranging from the lilting, mantra-like "Inn of the Seventh Ray" to the faux-funk pulsations of "Roosevelt Island" to the hushed, confessional "One Month Marathon" to the anthemic rocker "I Won't Fall Apart On You Tonight" to the gorgeous hymn of the closer, "Early Earthquake." This is just a fabulous pop album where every song is a winner; there's not a single wasted minute here. [buy]

6. Greg Kelley/Olivia Block | Resolution (Erstwhile)
This first duo meeting between electronic composer Olivia Block and trumpeter Greg Kelley is a bold, noisy affair. After the slowly building, churning drone of the long opening track, one might be prepared for an album of more of the same, but on the rest of the disc, Block and Kelley mostly avoid such comforting drones for noisy bursts of clattering percussive sounds, rumbling bass, and spiky musique concrète-like electronic fields. Kelley sends whistling, humming breaths of air through his trumpet, often placing metal plates against the bell to add a distinctive vibrating, resonating metallic quality to his sound, and Block responds with a varied palette of electronic tones, piano, and all sorts of unidentifiable industrial clamor. There are also moments of beauty scattered throughout the album, as on the guttural hum of the closing track or the aptly titled "How Much Radiance Can You Stand?", on which Block's clean, spacious piano playing recalls the work of AMM's John Tilbury. The two musicians seem utterly in sync — at one point, Kelley weaves whistling, almost-sounded horn lines around Block's high-register sine waves, nearly matching her sounds — and the resulting music is visceral and intense. It might almost even register as aggressive if there weren't also such a sense of playfulness to it, particularly on the whimsically titled "Some Old Slapstick Routine," on which the musicians unleash a veritable barrage of percussive noise. [buy]

7. Tom Waits | Bad As Me (Anti-)
From the opening seconds of album opener "Chicago," with its frantic chase sequence staccato stuttering of horns, it's already apparent that Tom Waits' latest album is going to be great. And indeed it is. Instead of offering up another drastic stylistic shift in a career that's already seen a few, Waits is tying everything together, offering up a career summary that caps off a few decades of consistently remarkable work. Bad As Me encapsulates Waits the genre-blending New Orleans jazz avant-gardist familiar from albums like Rain Dogs ("Chicago," "Talking At the Same Time"), Waits the heart-on-his-sleeve balladeer ("Kiss Me," "Face To the Highway"), Waits the junkyard industrial growler (the title track and the martial "Hell Broke Luce"), Waits the bluesy rocker ("Satisfied," which sounds like a defiant response to the old Rolling Stones classic, made relevant by the presence of guest guitarist Keith Richards). Waits' distinctive whiskey rasp is in fine form here, and the album's diversity extends to the multiple personae and attitudes he channels through his ragged but versatile pipes. He shifts seamlessly from an eerie high-pitched whine to a wounded bar singer croon to a mouth-full-of-granite Cookie Monster growl. There's even the surprising highlight of "Get Lost," on which Waits affects an Elvis-like drawl for a swinging, rocking old-school stomp, an infectious plea to let loose and party. Waits has rarely misstepped, and for an artist of his daring and longevity, there are a surprisingly small number of duds in his career. Bad As Me is a worthy addition to that impressive history. [buy]

8. The Magic I.D. | I'm So Awake/Sleepless I Feel (Staubgold)
In recent years, several musicians from the Berlin and Vienna electroacoustic improvisation communities have begun experimenting with pop and song forms, creating fusions of abstraction and song. One of the most compelling results of this experimentation has been the work of quartet The Magic I.D., who debuted in 2008 with Till My Breath Gives Out. Their second album is arguably even better, with lilting, sweet tunes arising organically from the relaxed, low-key textural backdrops that the band weaves together. Computer musician Christof Kurzmann and guitarist Margareth Kammerer take turns on vocals, sometimes singing in gentle counterpoint, sometimes trading verses or songs. Where Kurzmann's voice is a dry, sing-speak mannered drone, Kammerer has a deadpan cabaret theatricality that contrasts nicely against the general restraint of the music. These voices drift through near-abstract backgrounds of gently strummed guitars and buzzing, humming electronics, but the most powerful musical presence here is provided by the dual clarinets of Michael Thieke and and Kai Fagaschinski, one panned hard right and one hard left. Their reed playing is sometimes rich and melodic, while at other times they provide droning sustained tones that blend well into Kurzmann's electronic soundscapes. This band's integration of song form with electroacoustic sound is counterintuitive but perfectly realized, and they're exploring territory that's virtually unique to them and a small cluster of related groups. I'm So Awake/Sleepless I Feel is the best statement to emerge from this scene yet, a daring and charming album that suggests just how fertile this territory is. [buy]

9. Thomas Ankersmit/Valerio Tricoli | Forma II (Pan)
This collaboration between saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit and electronics manipulator Valerio Tricoli follows up on the former's excellent live disc from last year, representing a long-awaited burst of activity for the young and formerly anything-but-prolific musician. On last year's Live In Utrecht, Ankersmit mixed tapes provided by Tricoli into his live, improvised saxophone/electronic manipulations, and the results were stunning. Here, Tricoli joins Ankersmit as a full collaborator, and if anything it's even better. The presence of Tricoli as an active participant deepens and thickens Ankersmit's looping and processing of his sax playing; the droning, complex electronic stew assembled here (mostly in post-production rather than live) seems even deeper and darker than that heard on Live In Utrecht. Sometimes, the duo simply build a rich but static multilayered drone, as on the overwhelming "Takht-e Tâvus," which feels like staring into the sun. More often, these pieces fizz and crackle with tension and activity, as the two players react to one another's minute shifts in the overall high-frequency broth. Ankersmit rarely betrays hints of his saxophone in a blurt or squeak of recognizable playing, and even these momentary signifiers of acoustic instrumentation are quickly looped and processed, swallowed up by a sea of sizzling electronics and static noise. [buy]

10. Lil B | Im Gay (Im Happy) (Basedworld)
To say that Lil B is prolific is to severely understate the sheer quantity of material pouring forth from the young rapper, an Internet phenomenon who makes so much music that even a 600-song compilation of his work wasn't exhaustive. He's made more music in 2011 than most artists make in their entire careers, and that's true even if you just count his "official" mixtapes. He's also a rapper who loves provocation, as evidenced by the title of this particular mixtape — he's not, in fact, gay — and the parenthetical that seems like both a reflexive defensive maneuver and a way of underlining the ha-ha-only-kidding nature of the title. And then, the actual music is something else altogether, finding Lil B (a rapper of many styles and preoccupations) in his diaristic introspection mode, delivering naïve ruminations over soulful, low-key beats. With his patient, halting, occasionally off-kilter delivery, Lil B raps about race, self-image, religion, and mortality, his relaxed vocal style giving the impression that he's forming his thoughts in real time. It's an optimistic album, but not without a sense of darkness: he mentions suicide, slavery, racial profiling, and other societal evils, only to emphasize that personal struggle and positivity can help individuals get past these obstacles. That thematic focus is most apparent on album highlight "I Hate Myself," which lays its emotional stakes bare by underpinning Lil B's raps with a swooning Goo Goo Dolls sample. The lyrics on this track have a clever structure, enumerating all the ways in which society teaches black people to hate themselves, before flipping the song's meaning around with a coda in which Lil B declares, "everything that I've seen was a lie/ I'm not ready to die/ I love myself." [buy]

11. Ellen Fullman | Through Glass Panes (Important)
Ellen Fullman is a highly original composer/performer who plays on an instrument of her own invention, the descriptively named long-stringed instrument, which consists of a set of fifty-foot-long wires that she bows and vibrates with her fingers. The instrument produces unique, droning layers of resonances, rich and full and subtle. On the four pieces that make up Through Glass Panes, Fullman explores the contours of her instrument (which she has been playing since 1981) in several different settings and with different combinations of collaborating musicians. "Never Gets Out of Me" juxtaposes the deep resonances of the long-stringed instrument with the comparatively traditional mournful cello tones of Theresa Wong, and the effect is striking and melancholy: Wong's gorgeous minor-key melodies seem like condensed versions of the stretched-out tones that Fullman pulls from her instrument, as though the two musicians are exploring the same idea on entirely separate time scales. On "Flowers," Fullman is joined by cellist Henna Chou and violinist Travis Weller, and together the three musicians craft a much fuller and richer sound, with crystalline structures assembled from their unison string tones. This piece was recorded in an abandoned power plant, and the recording emphasizes the hollow spaciousness of the surroundings, as well as setting off the string drones from the delicate birdsong heard in the background. The title track is composed for two performers with box bows — hollow, curved wooden blocks — which create syncopated percussive patterns on the elongated strings of Fullman's instrument. The effect is almost folksy and guitar-like, recalling Henry Flynt's front-porch minimalism, with the rhythmic beats of the box bows contrasting against the underlying droney harmonics. Only on the final track, "Event Locations No. 2," does Fullman's instrument stand alone for a solo piece, with the droning strings creating layers upon layers of beautiful, emotionally charged overtones. [buy]

12. G-Side | The One... Cohesive (Slow Motion Soundz)
This Alabama hip-hop duo has had a prolific few years, and they bookended 2011 with this back-to-front masterpiece in January and the more uneven, but still impressive, iSLAND, which came out towards the end of the year. The One... Cohesive lives up to its title by being a totally consistent and cohesive rap album, unified by the production of the Block Beattaz, whose blend of rave-glow electronics, strings and piano, and skittery, complex beats provides the perfect backdrop for rappers ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova. At one point, they lament that critics simplistically compare them to Outcast, and indeed the comparison mainly makes sense in terms of the broad family resemblance of Southern rap; there's no question that they have their own style. The album's packed with guest rappers and singers — every track has at least one guest — but these contributions are smoothly integrated into the duo's sound. Indeed, such collaboration seems to be a big part of their ethos: the album is a celebration of forming a de facto family from musical collaborators and friends, and they tout the virtue of remaining loyal to their "inner circle." Coupled with the epic grandeur of the music, the lyrics are often stirring and emotionally complex, expressing positivity about the future and awareness of the poverty and troubles of the past. That is, when they're not taking a break to deliver a club banger oozing with hometown machismo, or a celebration of girls taking naked cell phone pictures. That's kind of key to the album's appeal, actually: despite all the introspection in many of the lyrics, G-Side never take themselves so seriously that the music stops being fun. [buy]

13. Destroyer | Kaputt (Merge)
Kaputt is a total curveball from an artist who had previously been in danger of settling too comfortably into a familiar style. Dan Bejar's albums as Destroyer had been yielding diminishing returns in recent years, and it had begun to seem like he was going to keep mining the same basic territory until everyone who once loved his quirky, urbane, complex pop grew bored of the stagnation. Instead, he's turned to an out-of-favor style from the past, swathing his songs in reverb-heavy lite-jazz and balearic pop atmospheres, recalling the crude synth presets and shimmering, plastic production of early 80s radio pop. It's a daring reinvention, and what initially might seem like a gimmick soon reveals itself, over multiple listens, as a brilliant aesthetic maneuver. Bejar's usually spiky voice is smoothed out to fit the glistening musical backdrops, and the album glides by so effortlessly that Bejar's characteristic wit has a chance to sneak up on the listener for once. The music is sad and sweet, and there's a lonely nostalgic feeling built into Bejar's trip to the musical past. Horns echo within the mix, surrounded with reverb to impart a feeling of distance, as though the trumpeter is miles away, intoning lonely notes into a void. Bejar is taking music often thought of as kitschy and dated and reconstructing it as haunting downer pop, revealing the loneliness and emptiness lurking behind the party gloss and disco gleam. Because of the subtlety of it all, and the initial impression of surface slickness, it's a real grower of an album that only parcels out its secrets slowly, gradually accumulating emotional depth and intensity until the kitschy surface style seems like the most natural possible way of capturing these dark, secret feelings. [buy]

14. The Mountain Goats | All Eternals Deck (Merge)
Few songwriters are as prolific or as dependable as John Darnielle, who has amassed a truly staggering catalogue of songs over the past twenty-plus years, ranging from the lo-fi solo boombox recordings of his early years to the much more polished full band releases he's turned to since the start of the 2000s. All Eternals Deck is yet another gem from Darnielle, and as a consequence it'd be easy to overlook or underrate, to dismiss it as just one more solid release from an artist who's seldom less than enjoyable. In fact, this album, without being a big departure, is one of the best Mountain Goats albums in years, maybe even the apex of the years since Darnielle left his boombox behind. This is a varied album that showcases just how versatile Darnielle's seemingly simple sensibility is. He can follow up the aggressive, angry rocker "Estate Sale Sign" with the understated ballad "Age of Kings," and both sound totally in character. Later, on the album's most obvious stunner, Darnielle's scratchy croak strains and cries above a bed of barbershop backing vocals on the lovely, melancholy "High Hawk Season." Darnielle's storytelling is also as fantastic as ever, particularly on a pair of songs paying tribute to mother-and-daughter Hollywood icons. "The Autopsy Garland," about Judy Garland, seethes with subtle suggestions of exploitation and manipulation, while "Liza Forever Minnelli" somehow manages to be triumphant and melancholy all at once. The latter song repeatedly stresses that the narrator can "never get away," then climaxes with the clever line, "anyone here mentions 'Hotel California' dies before the first line clears his lips," an expression of frustration in defiance of easy clichés. Darnielle, thankfully, never deals in clichés except when he's subverting them, which is why his lyrics always feel so fresh, so lived-in and real, like sometimes enigmatic snippets of real lives. [buy]

15. Corrupted | Garten der Unbewusstheit (Nostalgia Blackrain)
Japanese doom metal band Corrupted has always balanced their intense, despairing metal with restraint and musicality; their epic 1999 album Llenandose de Gusanos opened with almost 20 minutes of delicate piano before the guitars and guttural growls finally appeared. Their newest album takes that approach even further, allowing bursts of bleak metal furor to emerge organically from the wasted sonic landscape that the band patiently builds. The first track, "Garten," opens with plucked electric guitar notes that reverberate into near-silence before each new sound appears. From this spartan foundation, the band gradually creates a somber atmosphere that seems to be marching towards a stormy musical catharsis, especially when the low, raspy whispers of vocalist Taiki add to the darker shadings of this plodding death-crawl. The explosion, when it comes, is somewhat contained, though, controlled rather than chaotic, a focused expression of emotional ruin that's all the more affecting for its precision and its intimate connection to the slow-building progression that preceded it. It takes almost 20 minutes for this half-hour song to truly kick into gear, and the patience of this build-up is excrutiating and thrilling in equal measure. Then, after a brief acoustic palette cleanser, the equally epic final track leans more heavily towards sustained scorched-earth metal rage. [buy]

16. David Thomas Broughton | Outbreeding (Brainlove)
David Thomas Broughton's 2005 debut album The Complete Guide to Insufficiency was a late discovery for me, or else its haunting choral minimalism would surely have ranked among my favorite albums of the 2000s when I compiled my best-of-the-decade list. This year, after a number of EPs and minor releases, Broughton finally returns with a proper follow-up. Outbreeding is a very different record from Broughton's debut, replacing that album's lengthy quasi-improvisations with a series of short, lushly arranged folk-rock tunes, slotting Broughton's mannered vocals and wry wordplay into much fuller arrangements than those found on the sparse Complete Guide. There's an arch, aloof quality to Broughton's carefully enunciated intonations, and he takes clear delight in drawing out certain syllables, rolling his R's and stretching vowels into eccentric shapes. He clearly loves saying "fuck" so much that it comes out like "fook;" he savors the shapes of words until they're stretched out of joint. This quirky vocal style draws attention to the subtle cleverness of the lyrics, like the sprightly punning of "Ain't Got No Sole" or the tongue-twisting eloquence of these lines from "Staying True": "my body is so crap at staying true/ to my will and the way I'd like to be/ my father's fist is a brick in my heart." Broughton has refrained from simply repeating himself. With a bonafide masterpiece of droning minimalist folk under his belt he now turns his attention to wry pub pop, the obvious irony in his tone not disguising the equally obvious emotion underpinning his elliptical musings. [buy]

17. Tim Hecker | Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
The title of Tim Hecker's latest album suggests nostalgia, or maybe regret, and the dates on several of the track titles follow suit, but the music itself is anything but backward-looking or nostalgic. The dates here suggest the passage of time and the continual presence of the past — the album cover is a photo of the first of MIT's annual "piano drop" events, from 1972 — because the album is about degeneration and decay, the loss of quality that happens over time. Hecker simply speeds up the process. Working entirely from a day's worth of church organ recordings, Hecker has subjected his source material to rigorous and violent processes that transform the organ drones into multilayered digital textures, creeping ambient soundscapes, the music trapped in a tug of war between harshness and beauty. Sometimes these electronic drones subside to a whispery bed of static, while at other times the mix is hot and distorted, artifacts of digital compression punching holes in the underlying organ notes. It's intense and hauntingly beautiful, music in which the specters of loss and destruction are constantly present. [buy]

18. Michael Pisaro | Hearing Metal 2-3 (Gravity Wave)
Michael Pisaro's Hearing Metal series continued this year with a pair of new discs that both work on their own merits as individual recordings and as parts of a larger whole (which must also include 2009's Hearing Metal 1). These pieces, all of them made in close collaboration with Pisaro's frequent interpreter, the percussionist Greg Stuart, are examinations of texture and fine grain. At moderate volumes, these are gorgeous drones, with subtle shifts between layers of bowed or scraped percussion, field recordings, and electronic sine tones. At higher volumes, the real complexity and density of this music becomes apparent, and the effect can be frankly overwhelming, even suffocating, as Pisaro and Stuart create these ringing, glistening waves of sound, like the neverending aftershock of a tremendous gong being struck. Hearing Metal 2 is divided into three tracks, but it's dominated by the central 40-minute movement which consists of cascading metallic percussion reverberations. This piece is balanced between the harshness and clamor of the sounds and the serenity and suspension that are always such a big part of Pisaro's work. The album is bookended by two shorter pieces, the first an 18-minute movement that mingles field recordings of birdsong and other natural sounds with electronic tones, and the second a miniature that briefly returns to the birds chirping as a spacious, organic respite after the dense, unearthly drones of the monolithic second track.

Hearing Metal 3 is a single 45-minute piece, but somehow it feels more segmented, less monolithic, than its predecessor. The palette is again bowed percussion and sine tones, and for the first half of the piece, the sound ebbs and flows subtly, Pisaro pitching his electronics to blend almost seamlessly with the glistening metallic drones Stuart excites from his cymbals. At around 20 minutes in, sustained organ-like electronic tones take on a more pronounced presence, leading into a sudden eruption of tinkling, chiming cymbal hits from Stuart, with brushes dancing against metal like rainfall on a roof, producing a stream of particle-like sounds that break up the singularity and stability of the drone. The effect is hard to describe, but exhilarating, especially when heard as the climax of an unbroken listen to Hearing Metal 2 and Hearing Metal 3 together: it's a sudden release, a break in the constant suspense of bowed drones with nary a hint of more percussive sounds. From then on, the music becomes more granular, the long droning tones augmented and at times replaced entirely by hissing beds of static and tiny pitter-pattering droplets of percussive sound. [buy]

19. Gang Gang Dance | Eye Contact (4AD)
Gang Gang Dance's latest album takes its time kicking into gear, opening with the slow-burning, 11-minute "Glass Jar," which builds from a low-key synth drone into a pulsing, structurally complex electro-pop dance tune. It's hard to remember at this point that Gang Gang Dance once dealt in weird, semi-improvised jams where bursts of rock or fractured pop burst organically and sporadically from the surrounding thickets of abstract noise and psychedelic formlessness. The opener of Eye Contact provides a reminder of those origins, building only gradually towards the polished, quirky avant-pop that is the band's current specialty. This is the band's slickest and cleanest record, continuing the trajectory they've been on ever since 2005's God's Money and 2008's Saint Dymphna (still probably their best record, by just a slight margin). The sound is airy and percussively throbbing, with singer Lizzie Bougatsos cooing and sighing over glistening 80s pop homages ("Chinese High"), ethnic music mash-ups ("Thru and Thru"), and dancefloor bangers ("MindKilla") alike. Despite this sonic diversity, the songs flow seamlessly together in a unified suite, joined together at times by shorter instrumental sections that again recall the band's jammier early days. [buy]

20. PJ Harvey | Let England Shake (Island/Vagrant)
The always chameleonic PJ Harvey has never made the same album twice, and her latest work is yet another bold departure. Let England Shake finds Harvey in a much poppier mode than ever before, her voice clear and direct, surrounded by elegant arrangements of horns and keyboards, with male backing vocals joining her on many songs. This is a set of accessible, densely arranged pop/rock songs, and they're fantastic songs, too. More importantly, Harvey hasn't sacrificed the grit and the anger that have always made her such a thrilling artist. Despite the album's more straightforward sound and the trilling, even pretty quality of Harvey's singing, this is music that's seething with righteous outrage: the theme is war, and Harvey's lyrics trace the waste and cruelty of warfare and bloodshed on one track after another. Her voice, though tending towards upper-register beauty, still drips with bile and barely contained sarcasm. The album's narrative is grounded in the wartime experiences of Europe, particularly England during World War I, but Harvey's clearly got one eye on the present as well, and her WWI parables resonate with contemporary conflicts. That she's crafted such a compulsively listenable and enjoyable album around such bitterness and anger only makes her accomplishment that much more impressive. [buy]

21. Thurston Moore | Demolished Thoughts (Matador)
Demolished Thoughts is that rare Sonic Youth side project/solo album that actually lives up to the legendary status of the band itself. SY frontman Thurston Moore, assisted by the crisp, clean production of Beck Hansen, has crafted an album that's both distinct from his parent band and a fantastic statement in itself. The emphasis on acoustic guitars and elegant arrangements of strings gives the album a stripped-down chamber folk sound that's a perfect accompaniment to the gruff, straining quality of Moore's voice. The album isn't a total departure from Sonic Youth's legacy: tracks like "Circulation" and "Orchard Street" sound like an acoustic take on Sonic Youth, with Samara Lubelski's violin providing an accelerating whine that, on an electric SY track, would've been the forte of Moore's own jackhammering guitar. In fact, despite the acoustic folk instrumentation and Moore's often hushed delivery, these songs are often anything but laidback or relaxed. There's as much churning intensity in Moore's acoustic strumming as there is in his more familiar electric work, and many of the songs are as propulsive and full of jittery energy as the best SY tracks. But Demolished Thoughts is probably better than anything that SY themselves have done in years; the new instrumentation and new band seems to have shaken Moore up and urged him on to new levels of brilliance. [buy]

22. Vatican Shadow | Kneel Before Religious Icons (Hospital)
In the past year, Dom Fernow (of Prurient and Hospital Records) has unleashed a torrent of cassettes recorded under the alias Vatican Shadow. On these limited-edition tapes, Fernow eschews both the feedback-and-vocal noise of the bulk of his output and the weird, minimal synth confessionals of this year's Prurient full-length, Bermuda Drain. Instead, Vatican Shadow is all about 80s tape noise culture, primitive power electronics and crude synth experiments. It's also some of the best music Fernow has made. The artwork and song titles of these releases make references to contemporary news stories from the War on Terror, a nod to the polemical politics of noise pioneers like Muslimgauze and the shock-value obsession with death and violence that run all through this scene. But the music itself betrays little hint of these obsessions, except in the way it sonically creates a mood of downbeat introspection. Fernow blends martial industrial beats with minimal, hauntingly beautiful synthesizer lines that wouldn't be out of place on a noise tape, a Tangerine Dream album, or a modern drone disc. The result is surprisingly powerful considering the simple elements. The tension between the pulsing, machine-like rhythms and the fragile beauty of the synths, which are sometimes crushed beneath the beats, and sometimes soar above them, provides an aural equivalent of the thematic emphasis on war and contemporary politics. This particular set, a box of four short tapes, is perhaps the best (and the most beat-heavy) of many Vatican Shadow releases from this year, but they're almost uniformly excellent, and thankfully they've all been released digitally to compensate for the scarcity of the physical releases. [buy]

23. Sean McCann | The Capital (Aguirre)
The Capital is a rare LP release from Sean McCann, who generally unleashes his work as a string of limited cassette releases. This is a gorgeous work well deserving of the (slightly) increased profile the vinyl format has afforded him. There's a quasi-religious, ecstatic component to McCann's bubbly, liquid synth drones, with choirs of voices seeming to sing in exultation from deep within the mix, riding the ebbs and flows of his waves of sound. This is drone music of exceptional complexity and depth, with acoustic instruments and field recordings blended together with the sweeping synth drones to create a warm, even organic sound that's as inviting as it is beautiful. [buy]

24. Pete Swanson | Man With Potential (Type)
Pete Swanson's newest album is a pulsing, aggressive noise record that blends the industrial menace of his former band Yellow Swans with dancefloor techno and glitchy 90s IDM. It's a potent blend, and the album's six epic compositions churn with noisy waves of distortion weaving between the pounding techno beats, with bits and pieces of electronic detritus flying around the edges. On the closer, "Face the Music," the techno reference point is hidden, nearly erased by the volatile onslaught of digital noise; it feels, rather than sounds, like there's an actual techno track hidden somewhere in the mix, a ghostly subliminal presence that exists only as the faintest forward pulse hidden at the core of the dense sound. The opening track, "Misery Beat," is more direct in its rhythmic drive, and in between these two extremes Swanson explores various intersections between dance music, abstraction and noisy catharsis. [buy]

25. Panda Bear | Tomboy (Paw Tracks)
Panda Bear's 2007 solo album Person Pitch took the Animal Collective singer's distinctive voice and couched it in rhythmic loops that recalled the Beach Boys being taken apart and reassembled on the fly. It was a tough act to follow, made even more daunting by the flood of imitators who have in recent years colonized the sonic territory opened up by Panda Bear and Animal Collective. If the eagerly anticipated Tomboy doesn't quite live up to its predecessor's high standard, it's still a fine album in its own right. More relaxed and dubbed-out than Person Pitch, this disc ambles along on burbling loops with Noah Lennox's sweet voice crooning and echoing from deep within the mix. The album's sound, masterminded with the collaboration of Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom, is spartan and stripped down, never more so than on the aptly named "Drone," which is little more than a simple humming synth line with choral harmonies reverberating as though bouncing off the high walls of a cathedral. The sound is spiritual and often churchy, largely toning down the bouncy pop energy of Person Pitch and the livelier Animal Collective tunes in favor of introspective minimalism. The album's seeming simplicity, though, is actually emotional immediacy, and the dense production sound, with its nods to dub's low end and the claustrophobic clamor of Phil Spector, only emphasizes the fragile beauty of the voice cutting through the darkness to deliver these soaring "surfers' hymns." [buy]

26. Voder Deth Squad | 1 (Stunned)
This first collaboration between synthesizer artists M. Geddes Gengras and Jeremy Kelly is one of the year's very best tapes, a spacey and slow-moving dual synth drone that's utterly immersive and emotionally satisfying. The two artists are in a clear dialogue throughout, playing off of one another's sounds, layering swells of electronic noise over quasi-melodic shimmers. Over the course of the cassette's two half-hour sides, the music alternates between movements of glistening iciness, lush, distorted melodicism, and bleep-and-bloop spaciness. Best of all, there are very clearly two voices at work here, though it's impossible to separate the artists' contributions from one another; their separate lines intertwine seamlessly without erasing the impression of two ideas interacting in real time.

27. Wolves In the Throne Room | Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
Brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver conclude the black metal trilogy they started with their staggering 2007 album Two Hunters, and its a worthy, appropriately apocalyptic conclusion. Wolves In the Throne Room have always blended their black metal sturm-und-drang with conventionally pretty female vocals (here, as on Two Hunters, provided by Jessika Kenney), a droning experimental sensibility, and an interest in structure that allows them to alternate the more pummeling, blistering stretches (like the harrowing "Subterranean Initiation") with restrained and even beautiful moments. Sandwiched in between the slow-burn 12-minute opener "Thuja Magus Imperium" (which moves from serene Kenney vocals to room-clearing tumult) and the aforementioned "Subterranean Initiation" is a curious sound art miniature on which Isis vocalist Aaron Turner chants, accompanied by scraping metallic noises. Later, on the appropriately named "Woodland Cathedral," Kenney's voice soars and keens over pulsing waves of feedback and Kosmische synthesizer sweeps. The band continues to experiment with sounds and approaches that usually fall outside the black metal aesthetic, incorporating the repetitive minimalism of early 2000s post-rock and the hypnotic synth washes of Krautrock into their melancholic, desolate sound. [buy]

28. Vladislav Delay Quartet | s/t (Raster-Noton)
Sasu Ripatti, who has been recording solo electronic music as Vladislav Delay for some time now, here tries something different by assembling a live band to play a largely acoustic set that sounds a bit like a jazz band doing dark ambient. Ripatti himself plays drums, Lucio Capece contributes howls and long whistling tones on soprano sax and bass clarinet, Derek Shirley drives the music along with throbbing double bass, and Mika Vainio adds the only electronic contributions. The music is dark and sinister, creeping along at a plodding pace like a movie monster inexorably pursuing its prey. Ripatti's percussion is largely sparse, providing a slow rhythmic underpinning with tinkling cymbals, while the other musicians craft grim soundscapes from electronic noise, bassy rumble and the eerie sounds of Capece's horns, sometimes processed and blurred, sometimes play acoustically with just his breath whistling through the instrument, not quite sounding a note. The entire album is great, but the clear highlight is the 12-minute "Santa Teresa," a foreboding death march that, I'd like to think, provides a tribute through its title and its haunting atmosphere to the fictional and violent Mexican city of Roberto Bolaño's epic novel 2666. [buy]

29. Toshimaru Nakamura | Maruto (Erstwhile)
Toshimaru Nakamura's music — made with the piercing, extreme frequencies generated by a mixing board with its inputs and outputs looped together — has always been challenging, but Maruto is perhaps the first time that he's truly pushed the boundaries of his sound in a solo context. Nakamura's solo albums have generally been much more rhythmic and accessible than his collaborative improvisations, and perhaps because of this, his solo albums (the 2003 oddity Side Guitar excepted) have never been as good or as enduring as his collaborations with musicians like Keith Rowe, Sachiko M, Ami Yoshida and others. He's often been thought of as a musician who needs another person to respond to in order for his talents to really shine. Maruto proves that this is not true; entirely on his own, his music stripped down to its essential elements, Nakamura has made one of his best records. The first few minutes of the record instantly announce that this is something special, as stuttering electronic tones lurch drunkenly, leaving space in between for high-frequency fluttering. It's immediate and intriguing, nodding to the rhythmic foundation that often buttresses Nakamura's solo work, but offering a very unusual slant on those rhythms. Moreover, Nakamura soon lets this quasi-rhythm die out entirely, to be replaced by a spacious abstract field in which high- and low-register tones weave together. Sometimes, a bassy vibration, felt as much as heard, is cut by piercing high tones and some dirty fuzzy sounds that chop at the stasis of the underlying hum. Sometimes, sine waves flicker just at the upper fringes of hearing, a barely audible tingle in one's ears. The music seems simple, elemental in its juxtaposition of highs and lows at the opposing thresholds of the human hearing range, but close listening reveals a whole aural world of miniscule vibrations, hums, static and cycling electric buzzes. [buy]

30. Akron/Family | S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans)
Akron/Family's latest, despite the typically twisty title, may be the band's best and most directly accessible release yet, an album of joyous psych/folk tunes where their sometimes ambling sound is honed to laser-beam precision. The exuberant opener "Silly Bears" owes more than a little to Animal Collective, but from there they stretch out in all sorts of directions. "Island" is a hushed campfire ballad with whispery vocals floating above a plodding beat until the last minute abruptly fills out into a shimmery climax. "So It Goes" is a stomping electric rocker with riffs rooted firmly in the garage, leading directly into the relentless hurtling rhythms and crooning vocal harmonies of "Another Sky." Elsewhere, the band alternates bursts of cacophonous psych-rock with infectious indie-pop on "Say What You Want To," offers up lilting acoustic lullabies like "Cast a Net," and generally has just tightened up their songwriting and playing in every way. It's a fantastic album that doesn't ditch the band's prior quirkiness and druggy experimentation so much as refine it, filtering it all into a diverse set that's far more focused than they've ever been before. [buy]

31. Julia Holter | Tragedy (Leaving)
On her debut full-length, Cal Arts composer/singer Julia Holter crafts a strange but nearly seamless blend of modern composition with quirky avant-pop. After an introductory overture that consists of industrial-electronic buzz, breathy horn whispers, a steam whistle and some operatic soloing, Holter launches into "Try To Make Yourself a Work of Art," which couches her vocals amidst clattering percussion and hammering, overtone-laden chords, before giving way to an ambient drone that leads directly into the next track. Holter adopts a number of approaches and styles throughout the album, never sitting still in any one mode for very long. The music is often abrasive and discordant, but Holter's equally capable of a serene, unearthly beauty very reminiscent of Julee Cruise's collaborations with David Lynch. She bridges these two modes with snatches of string composition, foreboding synthesizer washes, musique concrète sound collages, and anything else she can think to throw in there. Curiously, the overall effect of the album is never schizophrenic or scattered, and Holter's sudden digressions never seem out of place. This is true even of the weirdest of them, like the minimal vocoder ballad "Goddess Eyes," which sounds like a radio pop tune distilled to its skeletal essence, a basic beat over which Holter layers her voice both processed and bare, with burbling synth tones gradually accumulating around her. Later, on "So Lillies," several minutes of augmented field recordings are eventually overlaid with a throbbing motorik beat and Holter's echoing vocals, for a low-budget Krautrock approximation. Holter's all over the place on this album, but what's really remarkable is that somehow she's managed to create a cohesive statement from all these fragments of styles and approaches. [buy]

32. Shabazz Palaces | Black Up (Sub Pop)
I'm always happy to admit it if I'm wrong, and I was very wrong about this album at first. It took a long time for the serpentine structures and bracing, staggering rhyme schemes of this experimental hip-hop outfit to sink in with me. If at first I found it simply impenetrable, I've still been compelled to revisit Black Up over and over again until it opened up its delights to me. And it's packed with plenty of delights. The work of former Digable Planets MC Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Black Up is a dense and unusual hip-hop album, which is why it required some period of adjustment. Butler's raps are often just simplistic repeated chants, incantatory announcements intoned over woozy, drunken beats that seem to be stumbling over each other. At other times, the rapper delivers pattering, fast-paced verses packed with clever wordplay. The music is by turns jazzy, soulful, and discordant, often within a single track, and there's almost always a heavy, buzzing bass presence that allows the complex song structures to hang together. There's even room, on the record's back end, for guest appearances from female soul duo THEEsatisfaction, whose voices provide a contrast against Butler's nasal raps on a few tracks, especially the fractured lounge-jazz of "Endeavors For Never." This is bold, exciting music, all the more rewarding for the time it took me to get used to its intriguingly askew approach to hip-hop. [buy]

33. Radu Malfatti/Keith Rowe | Φ (Erstwhile)
This daunting triple-CD set represents the first duo encounter between two very different elder statesmen of modern electroacoustic music. Keith Rowe, the longtime tabletop guitarist for the legendary AMM, is a versatile musician who has, especially in the last decade or so, all but defined a certain strain of thoughtful, sonically varied improvisational music. Radu Malfatti is a trombonist who originally came from a background in jazz and European free improvisation but has, since the early 90s, become a minimalist composer whose work charts the extreme edges of silence and austerity. This album, which documents virtually the entirety of the music that the duo recorded during three days in a Vienna studio, is fascinating because it so tangibly captures the process of finding a common ground between different musical methodologies, different backgrounds and ideas. The musicians settled on four compositions — one piece by each of them, plus two pieces by other composers, so that Malfatti and Rowe each chose two compositions to play — as a prelude to the duo improvisation that takes up the entire third disc of the set. The compositions provide a way of exploring the players' aesthetics, finding the points of overlap (which exist mainly to the extent that Rowe can inhabit the patience and sparseness of Malfatti's musical world) and the useful tensions.

The disc opens, boldly, with a nearly silent piece by Malfatti's colleague Jürg Frey, which consists entirely of a handful of low tones, played in unison by the two musicians, scattered amidst a vast field of nothingness. Opening the album with this piece is a way of acknowledging up front the spartan, airless world of the Wandelweiser group of composers with which Malfatti is associated, and the remainder of the album is in a sense a series of movements away from this territory. On the subsequent pieces — a Rowe-chosen Cornelius Cardew composition, plus a recent Malfatti composition and a graphic score made by Rowe — the music still tends towards the minimal, but abandons that near-silent austerity. Static and radio hum from Rowe form an electronic bed for long rumbling tones and breathy exhalations from Malfatti, and occasionally the serenity is interrupted by piercing, squealing feedback or gritty, granular bursts of electric noise. The music remains low-key and gestural in spite of these outbursts. By choosing his abstract graphic score "Pollock '82" as the final composed piece of the session, Rowe sets the stage for the improvisation to follow. The improvised third disc doesn't depart very far from the sonic territory that precedes it, because part of this album's ideology is to blur the boundaries between improvisation and composition; it's all just music to these two players. And there's no question that the relaxed, seamless interplay of this improvisation is informed by the composed pieces — whether loosely notated or entirely abstract — from earlier in the session. [buy]

34. Tennis | Cape Dory (Fat Possum)
This was the first 2011 album I heard, way back in January, and I was instantly enthralled by its mid-winter evocation of a summery boat cruise. The husband-and-wife duo behind Tennis came up with these songs while on a long sailing trip, and upon returning to land they crafted this immaculate set of nautical pop. The result is nearly irresistible, all girl-group melodies and shimmery production that makes Cape Dory seem less like a true summer album, more like a nostalgic backwards glimpse of summer, which I guess is why it was released in the winter and has returned to my regular rotation now that summer has come and gone. The songs are simple, direct and short, just perfect little slices of pop beauty, and at barely a half-hour long, the album never wears out its welcome. Instead, like the summer itself, Cape Dory leaves one wanting more, wishing for just a little more sun and ocean spray, a little more of these sweet, warm, somehow a bit sad songs. [buy]

35. Richard Youngs | Long White Cloud (Grapefruit)
Richard Youngs is a prolific and unpredictable musician whose work ranges from quirky folk and psychedelia to abstract improvisation and more, but my favorite of his many modes is the one he's in on Long White Cloud. This is Youngs in his ethereal folksinger guise, singing plaintive melodies over delicate, chiming guitar picking or repetitive piano. After the understated elegance of the simple, pretty first two tracks, Youngs then stretches out for the mantra-like "Big Waves of an Actual Sea," on which he intones a droning chant over simple piano chords for a few minutes until suddenly introducing additional layers, echoing and superimposing his voice as the piano motif grows more complex as well. This is followed by the ritualistic "Rotor-Manga-Papa-Maru," on which Youngs keeps returning to the nonsense chant of the title over a grinding, circular guitar motif and a processed, growelly vocal sample that provides the song's bass pulse. The final track, "Mountains Into Outer Space," restates and reconfigures the melody and lyrics of the opening song, and it's the album's best piece and one of Youngs' very best songs. For nearly nine minutes, a blipping, skipping guitar pattern propels Youngs' soaring voice into the stratosphere, dripping with ache and reverb. It's a haunting tune, and Long White Cloud as a whole is one of Youngs' best singer/songwriter albums, along with Autumn Response and Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits. [buy]

36. Derek Rogers | Informal Meditation (No Kings)
This cassette compiles a pair of half-hour live performances from 2010, both recorded in Texas using an iPhone. The compressed, slightly lo-fi sound is well suited to Rogers' rough, ragged take on ambient music, which contrasts melodic synth lines against grainy noise. The room atmosphere is a part of the recording, tangible in occasional snippets of crowd chatter, or felt more abstractly in the slightly distant, naturally reverby quality of the live recordings. This is deeply textured music, and unusually for an ambient/drone artist, Rogers' work is seldom static. Rogers is continually building a sense of forward momentum and musical development, as when the opening ten minutes of the first side-long track progress from low-key synth ambience to a tinkly music-box melody that then spirals out into a watery drone. Underneath the surface melodicism, Rogers grinds at the serene beauty of the synths with subterranean electronic crackle and industrial rhythms. There's a clear sense of forethought and spontaneous composition in these two pieces; they never seem to be meandering aimlessly or simply riding a repetitive drone, but are always building towards something, accumulating tension and structural complexity from Rogers' subtle shifts and layering.

37. Snowman | Absence (Dot Dash)
There's something inherently interesting about an album that marks the demise of a band even as it comes out; Absence, the third album of Australian art-rockers Snowman, arrives on the heels of the band's breakup, and it's a fitting final statement for this very unique band. Previous Snowman albums have been dense and aggresive, creating wild, careening music from fragments of post-hardcore and metal debris. Absence is even weirder, achieving a ghostly, spectral beauty by stripping away many of the most obvious rock signifiers, leaving behind eerie electronic drones, trash-can rhythms, and ritualistic chanting. Words are seldom identifiable in the sea of processed, layered voices that drift through these songs; the lyrical content is not nearly as important as the sound, the rhythmic, repetitive chants which sometimes sound like choral rapture and sometimes like excerpts from some sinister pagan ritual. [buy]

38. Ferran Fages/Robin Hayward/Nikos Veliotis | Tables and Stairs (Organized Music from Thessaloniki)
The tendency in avant-garde music is to emphasize constant innovation and change, but sometimes an improv record need not shatter boundaries to be really great. This trio set, a document of an intimate apartment concert in Greece, is a perfect example. The slow-moving textural improvisation here isn't ground-breaking, nor is it especially surprising coming from these musicians, but it is excellent, a concise thirty-minute exploration of glacial layers of sound. Over the course of this single piece, after the tranquil introductory minutes, the trio begins organizing sedimentary layers comprised of Ferran Fages' electronics, Nikos Veliotis' buzzing, sustained cello drones, and the subterranean rumble of Robin Hayward's tuba. It's great because the drone is anything but monolithic, and close listening reveals the shifting tectonic plates within, as the instrumentalists weave their long tones around one another. This intense droney segment is bookended by spacious scrape-and-hum build-up at the beginning, and a serene coda in which Fages' sine waves slowly pulse atop a gentle bed of little rumbles and the occasional fluttery moan from Hayward's tuba. This is a low-key but surprisingly dynamic disc, and a really enjoyable one. [buy]

39. Kreng | Grimoire (Miasmah)
Grimoire is the second album from Belgian composer Pepijn Caudron, who specializes in bleak, creepy soundscapes that are balanced between modern composition and dark ambient electronics. Caudron arranges clusters of minor-key string crescendos with bits of piano, discordant processed horn blurts, bassy electronic drones, sampled voices and snatches of operatic singing. The music is nerve-wracking and intense, placing one continually on edge as its strained strings seem like a prelude to murder, madness and horror. On "Wrak," the tension-building rhythmic scrape of the strings soon gives way to a chaotic, tumultuous pile-up of noisy percussion, chattering voices, and horns that seem to be screaming in anguish. Caudron's music alternates between such intentionally ugly dissonance and stretches of eerie beauty that are no less unsettling. (Thanks are due to Carson Lund for making me aware of this great album in time for it to make this list. He compared it to an aural horror film, and that's very apt indeed.) [buy]

40. Mastodon | The Hunter (Roadrunner)
Ever since their debut album Remission, Mastodon's sound has been steadily evolving from the heavy old-school metal of that debut towards an increasingly complex, proggy and melodic sound. They've become more accessible without compromising their intensity in the least, ratcheting up the technical and structural complexity of their music even as their melodies have become more forceful, their guitar leads more harmonic, the vocal balance between guttural howls and layered harmonies tipping more and more toward the latter. The Hunter, their fifth album, continues that evolution, delivering one compact, punchy metal assault after another: they manage to condense prog metal bombast into three-minute radio-ready song lengths, complete with choruses that are both melodically direct and immensely satisfying. It's by far their most accessible and straightforward album, even poppy at times — they even paraphrase the Beatles on the swampy, psychedelic title track — but that doesn't mean it's a betrayal. The band's manic virtuosity doesn't seem the least bit constrained by the shorter track lengths or emphasis on melodicism. Instead, they've simply focused their talents to make one of the best mainstream rock albums in recent memory. [buy]

41. Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross | The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Null Corporation)
After last year's moody, effective (and Oscar-winning) score for David Fincher's The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return with another score for another Fincher picture, and it's nearly as good as their last collaboration. The album is framed by proper songs — an aggressive, nasty cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on vocals, and a Bryan Ferry cover by How To Destroy Angels, Reznor's band with his wife Mariqueen Maandig — but in between these tracks Reznor and Ross stick to the territory of minimal, downtempo ambience. Sprawling out over three hours, the score traffics in the same gloomy late-night atmospherics and ambient/industrial dread as The Social Network, maintaining a near-constant mood of barely contained tension in its electronic soundscapes and minimal rhythmic skeleton. The music sometimes hovers on the threshold of audibility, just a subtle bass pulse, while at other times the duo create jittery, brittle rhythms with plastic-sounding guitars and percussion. Reznor's debt to the seminal British industrial band Coil has never been more obvious, and in a way Reznor's soundtrack work is a worthy tribute to Coil's unreleased and eerie score for Clive Barker's Hellraiser. But Reznor and Ross are also expanding on their influences, making music that's both perfect mood-building accompaniment to cinematic images and a compelling listen on its own merits. [buy]

42. The Weeknd | House of Balloons (self-released)
Although the Weeknd's first mixtape, self-released for free on the Internet, undoubtedly benefitted from all the hype and mystery surrounding its release, the music here holds up well enough that it doesn't need the hype. Abel Tesfaye's high, slightly eerie croon, often tweaked or doubled, drifts hauntingly above the dank production on this suite of atmospheric R&B tunes. Tesfaye's lyrics often have a skeevy, seamy edge to them, lyrically tracing the boundaries of a world of late-night debauchery, drugs and alcohol haze, grinding and fucking in the club, then forgetting most of it the next morning. These songs deliberately erase distinctions of good or bad taste, while the moody production wraps comfortingly around Tesfaye's voice, which often seems to come, caked in reverb, from somewhere far away, his crude and crass words swathed in the darkness of a moonless night. The songs are often catchy, balancing pop-radio-ready synthesizer sheen with Tesfaye's blunt come-ons, so that the album's depiction of blank-eyed dionysian excess is made strangely appealing and even beautiful. [download]

43. Earn | Performance (Ekhein)
As the title of this 35-minute tape makes clear, each side is a live performance, recorded during 2009 and 2010. The generic title suggests that Matt Sullivan, the artist behind Earn, means for us to think in a broad way about what it means to perform music for an audience, and what it means to present a document of that performance as a recording. This meta-introspection becomes especially clear on the B-side, a 2010 recording from St. Louis, on which Sullivan's fuzzy, layered drones are infiltrated by the voices of people in the audience, chatting while the drone pours over them. The effect, though an accidental byproduct of an amateur recording in a live venue, is stunning: the voices are mostly swallowed by the music, their words obscured and clipped by the waves of electronic noise. It's so perfect that it almost seems as though Sullivan has simply introduced some sampled found sound recordings into the mix. But that's part of what the album is about, embracing the roughness and loss of control that arise from live performance, incorporating interruptions and potential obstacles into the music as gracefully as possible. These considerations aside, Performance is also just a great drone tape, subtle and textural, maintaining a careful balance between melody and abrasion. [buy]

44. Lykke Li | Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic/LL)
Swedish singer Lykke Li's second album is a vast improvement over her modest and intermittently enjoyable debut Youth Novels. Not only has Li's voice matured, grown dark and tormented rather than cutesy, but her songcraft has improved as well, so that each track here is an efficient, emotionally charged pop nugget. Producer Björn Yttling, who also produced and co-wrote her debut, has swathed Li's songs in a sparse, dark production style that's perfectly suited to her confessional lyrics. Li's inclusion on the soundtracks to the second Twilight movie and various CW teen dramas makes perfect sense, and her youthful earnestness and emotional honesty allow her to pull off lines like "sadness is my boyfriend" and make them feel like they come from a really deep, painful place. Wounded Rhymes is as moody and changeable as a confused teen, equally prone to bursts of scattered psycho-sexual aggression — "like a shotgun/ needs an outcome/ I'm your prostitute/ you gon' get some," she sneers on "Get Some," making her come-on feel like a death threat — and diaristic moping, like the achingly pretty "Unrequited Love," on which Li's voice sobs above a quietly plucking backdrop. [buy]

45. Tonstartssbandht | Hymn (Does Are)
Tonstartssbandht is the lo-fi psych-rock duo of brothers Andy and Edwin White, and Hymn is a tour cassette of previously unreleased odds and ends that manages to outdo their proper release from this year, Now I Am Become. Hymn collects bits and pieces recorded from 2009-2011, showcasing several different sides of the band's eclectic musical personality. "Susie" and "Jessie" are sludgy, muddy psych-rock jams, leaning heavy on the phaser pedal, with reverbed vocals echoing out over the underlying groove. Despite the lo-fi sound, the band's bright, energetic sense of melody shines through as the two brothers chant and croon in unison, their voices blending together. Voices are very important to this band, and the rest of the tape puts the emphasis squarely on exuberant vocals. This is where Tonstartssbandht really shines: "Hymn Eola" and "Hymn Our Garden" are solo tracks by each of the brothers, with the former affecting a blurry choral beauty and the latter delivering a much more structured dubby ambient pop tune. "New Black Fever," on which the band builds a whole new epic track around a Horace Andy cover, submerges the underlying reggae groove beneath waves of distortion-laden guitar soloing, with typically lovely vocal harmonies. This tape may just be a collection of leftovers thrown together for a tour, but it never feels like these songs are tossed-off or inconsequential. In fact, they're emotionally loaded and hauntingly pretty, contrasting the duo's layered, Animal Collective-like harmonies against the distorted guitars and swampy production sound. [buy]

46. Frieder Butzmann | Wie Zeit Vergeht (Pan)
Frieder Butzmann is not a particularly well-known figure in the US, even by the standards of the avant-garde electronic music he's been making since the 70s, but he's apparently something of a legend in his home country of Germany. Based on this new LP, on which Butzmann combines processed and chopped-up samples of Karlheinz Stockhausen's voice with his own frenetically collaged electronic studies, it's not hard to see why he's earned such respect. Wie Zeit Vergeht is an intense and frantic record that leaps spastically from one idea to the next; sometimes Butzmann's electronics form a deep, churning low-register drone, while at other times sizzling electronic tones skip and splutter like someone's rapidly whipping a radio dial back and forth. Stockhausen's voice shows up periodically, sometimes modulated until he almost seems to be singing, sometimes looped and chopped into rhythmic beats, sometimes manipulated until it seems like just one more element in the chaotic electronic stew. Maybe it's just that I don't understand the language, but Butzmann seems to be using the voice musically, as a sound source rather than for its textual content, which might be a wry way of saying that all musical touchstones, no matter how important or seemingly serious, can and will eventually be incorporated into the music of later generations. Thus Stockhausen's voice, if not exactly his ideas, finds a new place, a new musical life, within the context of Butzmann's often-goofy, always engrossing synthesizer collages. [buy]

47. Resplendent | Despite the Gate No Mansion (self-released)
This latest album from the former frontman of the great (and sadly underrated) avant-rock trio the Fire Show has not gotten much attention this year — not surprising considering that Michael Lenzi has "released" his first recording in six years by quietly sending out free CD copies to anyone who happens to be on his e-mail list and asks him for one. After the breakup of his former band, who quit right after releasing their defining masterpiece Saint the Fire Show, Lenzi released a series of uneven but exciting solo EPs that were similarly low-profile, then quietly returned to obscurity. His sudden re-emergence might suggest a renewed interest in music or simply one more blip in a musical career that's too often slid under the radar, but either way, Despite the Gate No Mansion is another fascinating offering from this idiosyncratic artist. The album opens with a few seconds of blistering white noise clamor, a palette cleanser and room-clearer before he's even begun, and from there Lenzi offers up a series of puzzling, jagged bedroom recordings with his off-kilter voice spitting out streams of wordy lyrics over crude electronic beats, trashy distortion-laden noise, and sampled voices stretched out into wordless hums. At times, he's more lyrically direct and earnest than he's ever been before, while at others he returns to the dictionary-trawling obliqueness of the Fire Show. This is a rough and obviously homemade album, with all the stitches and unsanded edges still showing. As with his previous solo work, not everything's a gem, but the looseness is part of the record's charm, and when he hits on something good, it's really good. Highlights include the skipping-CD beat and painfully earnest vocal of "East Jesus," and the broken-synth sputtering and chanted insistence of "Kill That Fucking Lion." He saves the best for last, though, with the gorgeous "Soul Go Home," which opens a capella — recalling the daring vocal virtuosity of the Fire Show's brilliant "The Making of Dead Hollow" — then adds minimal horns, synth drones, and clipped vocal samples to build an affecting, sonically inventive closing lullaby. [request]

48. Das Racist | Relax (Greedhead Music)
Following up on the two free Internet mixtapes they released last year, Das Racist has now finally assembled their first proper, commercially available album. They seem very aware of the fact that this is their big moment, and they've crafted a tight, focused album that's very different in feel from the sprawling, goofy mixtapes. Though they recycle a few tracks from those mixes, there's nothing here quite like the utter ridiculousness of their breakthrough is-this-awful-or-brilliant viral single "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." Instead, much of the album is downright accessible and poppy, and tracks like "Girl" represent their seemingly earnest stab at a catchy techno-pop hit. Even there, though, the track is spiked with weirdly pitched-up Autotune vocal samples squealing piercingly in the background, suggesting that they can never quite play it entirely straight. Indeed, though the group's most obvious Internet-humor moments have been trimmed away for this album, they're still incessantly referential, creating a postmodern collage where all of pop culture dances through their lyrics. Coupled with the multicultural edge of their music, they're pretty much the perfect hip-hop outfit to represent meme culture, except that they're genuinely funny in a way too few Internet memes are. They're compulsively fun to listen to, whether it's the fast-paced nonsense rhymes of "Brand New Dance" or the goofy club banger "Booty in the Air," on which they exuberantly chant a chorus that simply goes, "she put her booty in the air, booty in the air, booty in the air, shake it all around." [buy]

49. Iron & Wine | Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD/Warner Bros.)
By now, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam has definitively left behind the intimate, guy-and-a-guitar acoustic folk that once defined his style. The process begun on 2007's The Shepherd's Dog has been completed on Kiss Each Other Clean, as Beam further refines and experiments with his newly fleshed-out, ambitious full-band arrangements and poppier flourishes. Opener "Walking Far From Home" ushers the album in on a bed of low, gurgling feedback with Beam's processed voice crooning mostly on its own at first, before being joined by ooh-ing background singers and increasingly dense accompaniment of keyboards and guitars. On "Monkeys Uptown," Beam channels Paul Simon, with rubbery bass, distorted guitar twangs and percolating rhythms. The richness and warmth of the production emphasizes all the fine detailing of the arrangement. Beam seems to be reveling in defying expectations, building songs that twist and turn in unexpected ways without ever losing their accessibility and instant pop appeal. The highlights are numerous, but the standout tracks are the sing-songy, ambiguously sinister "Rabbit Will Run" and the exuberant 7-minute closer "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me," which blends Afrobeat horns with a stuttery rhythmic guitar for a joyful, epic sound. Beam's experimentation doesn't always pay off, as missteps like the awkward "Big Burned Hand" prove, but it's rare that he falters. A couple of lesser cuts aside, this is an album of sophisticated, compelling pop-folk. [buy]

50. Gillian Welch | The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
Gillian Welch blames her long absence from recording — it's been 8 years since her last album, Soul Journey — on a long creative drought, but one wouldn't guess it from the way her latest album immediately emerges as a continuation of the singer's soulful, self-assured approach to classic country. On opener "Scarlet Town," the signature elements are all in place: Welch's lightly twanging voice belting out a sad song over the agile guitarwork of longtime collaborator David Rawlings. With the aching "The Way It Will Be," Welch and Rawlings have written one of their very best songs, and they immediately follow it with the similarly titled "The Way It Goes," shifting from the ambiguous war-as-heartache metaphors of the first song to an equally bracing series of miniature narratives about downtrodden souls. The album is mostly downbeat and quiet, with the emphasis pared down to Welch's voice and the low-key guitar interplay, giving the album a stark intimacy that makes Welch's melancholy vocals all the more affecting. [buy]