Kimberly Chun

Fear and longing


Dreams and drawings, cats and fantasies, ambition and aimlessness, and the mild-mannered yet mortifying games people play, all wind their way into Miranda July’s The Future. The future’s a scary place, as many of us fully realize, even if you hide from it well into your 30s, losing yourself in the everyday. But you can’t duck July’s collection of moments, objects, and small gestures transformed into something strangely slanted and enchanted, both weird and terrifying, when viewed through July’s looking glass.

With The Future, which evolved out of a performance titled Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About, July explains, “I think there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to talk about — that I found really embarrassing. Why talk about [making art]? Isn’t it a lot cooler just to make a movie that doesn’t have that in it? Since obviously the great fear of someone in my position would be that you wouldn’t be able to make something — and what would happen then? But it’s also really interesting to me that you devote your life to doing this and it doesn’t stop being interesting, like, how ideas come and when they don’t.”

At the moment July (2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know) seems perfectly imperfectly in step with the world she’s in: an opulently beige meeting room at the Four Seasons. I can’t stop studying her shocking pink lips and matching glittery collar, happily clashing with her camel sweater, as she averts those star-child, sky-blue peepers to stare intently at the pen in her hands. Despite seeming as dazzled by life as a child, she chooses her words scrupulously, as if her existence depended on it, and punctuates the end of almost every sentence with a gently-hurled exclamation point of a “yeah.” The careful consideration coloring her words and appearance obviously finds its way, stumbling and fumbling gracefully, into her films, performances, and short stories, as well as the assignments she assembled with Harrell Fletcher for the online art project Learning to Love You More.

Care and commitment — to oneself and others — are two vivid threads running through The Future. Cute couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) — unsettling look-alikes with their curly crops — appear at first to be sailing contently, aimlessly toward an undemanding unknown: Jason works from home as a customer-service operator, and Sophie attempts to herd kiddies as a children’s dance instructor. But enormous, frightening demands beckon — namely the oncoming adoption of a special-needs feline named Paw-Paw (voiced by July as if it’s a traumatized, innocent child). Lickety-splitsville, they must be all they can be before Paw-Paw’s arrival, so the pair quit their jobs as Sophie tries to set up a Julie and Julia-style online stunt designed to make her a YouTube dance hit and Jason drifts into environmental activist work that sends him into the orbits of anyone who answers the door. In the meantime, Sophie gets pulled into the suburban vortex of a random man (David Warshofsky) that Jason meets at Paw-Paw’s shelter. The weirdness of the familiar, and the kindness of strangers, become ways into fantasy and escape when the couple bumps up against the limits of their imagination.

This ultra-low-key horror movie of the banal is obviously remote territory for July. The Future is her best film to date and finds her tumbling into a kind of magical realism or plastic fantastic, embodied by a talking cat that becomes the conscience of the movie. “Sometimes I’d see the cat as Sophie and Jason’s unborn child and sometimes I would see it as one’s own relationship to one’s parents — the part of oneself that’s always waiting for their parent, long past where that makes any sense at all, even for people whose parents are dead,” she explains. “You still, on some level, are waiting for them to come get you, and the death of that hope in a way is both really sad and also maybe the beginning of kind of growing up.”

Certain events in Berkeley-bred July’s life pointed toward the major turning points of The Future. “I got married at that time, and I think that makes me think a lot about the future — and maybe the end of your life more?” she recalls. “You’re committing to someone till the end, so it suddenly seems, at least on paper, that you’ll know one person who will be there at the end — or you’ll be there at the end of their life. That brought time into focus. Also being a woman in my mid-30s, y’know, you have a special relationship to time suddenly, as far as the question of having children — so all those things were swirling.” Yet she claims she never fully realized she’d be grappling with something as potentially horrifying as the future on film: “If I thought I was making a movie about the future, I probably would have not made it —yeah! I don’t really attack subjects like that. It has to be more mysterious than that to me. I’m not that conscious when I’m writing.”

If we could all see into the future, with an oracle’s specs in place, what would we dare to make it out? Peering into the future, as a riot grrrl follower in the late ’90s, I would never have imagined sitting across from July, telling her about my pilgrimage up to Yo-Yo a Go-Go in Olympia, Wash., to see her first full-fledged multimedia performance, Love Diamond. The past and future are still intertwined, much as the riot grrrl years continue to resonate with July: she plans to launch the Web archive of her Joanie4Jackie project, which collected women’s short films via video chain letter and birthed a community of DIY female filmmakers.

“I still have a lot of friends from that time, so we’re all kind of old riot grrrls now!” she says with a little laugh. “It’s still great to see that there are things about it that did matter and were really formative, and we’re all much better for having had each other and this sense of — call it revolution or call it self-importance. Nonetheless, they weren’t easy things we were trying to do, creating a space to feel free and safe to make things in.”

THE FUTURE opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.


Ladies first


FILM The phenomenon of scene-stealing Japanese divas is all too familiar to this wannabe, having grown up in the clutches of unrepentantly demanding, real-life J-power matrons — the kind who will ply you with unsolicited advice, gifts, and edibles while smilingly applying the thumbscrews of sweet guile, pile-driving guilt, and sheer gambatte.

Where to begin when it comes to the overwhelming careers of the five femme forces of nature rhapsodized in “Japanese Divas” at the Pacific Film Archive? Inspired by, though not identical to, this spring’s series at the Film Forum in New York City, “Japanese Divas” flips the focus, with an elegantly loaded bow and a smile, away from the Toshiros, Chishus, and the other male stars of Japan’s cinematic classics and toward idealized Yasujiro Ozu beauty Setsuko Hara; the crossover face of midcentury Japanese film, Michiko Kyo; Kenji Mizoguchi favorite Kinuyo Tanaka; and Naruse muse Hideko Takamine. And though this incarnation of “Japanese Divas” can often seem like the Setsuko Hara show with its attention to Ozu’s works, other formidable females show themselves fully capable of grabbing viewers’ attention.

One compelling player is Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s once-go-to-gal for her open-faced humanity, unforgettable in the revered The Life of Oharu (1952) and the wrenching Sansho the Bailiff (1954) depicting noble women on their way down to the lower depths. At 24, but looking barely legal with her tremulous baby face and minuscule chin, Tanaka’s remarkable at the center of the 1933 Ozu silent Dragnet Girl as the titular shady lady straddling the straight world of good office wenches and fiery dance-hall molls.

In this slice of hard-boiled gangster tropes speckled with eloquent imagery, Tanaka’s fearsome, politically savvy Tokiko rules the school, be it boxing circles or the academy of 20th-century hard knocks, and plays all the angles. A prickly intelligence and overpowering will are clearly ping-ponging behind that dolly plate-face, as Tokiko fights for her heavily guylinered boy-toy Jyoji (Joji Oka) against challengers, both femme and fuzz, then undertakes the ultimate surrender. This dragnet girl is the whip-smart, indomitable harbinger of modern Japanese womanhood, come the hell of battle, the humility of occupation, and the struggles of survival while tugged by the tide of change.

In Mizoguchi’s biggest crowd-pleaser, and arguable masterpiece, 1953 ghost story Ugetsu, Tanaka crumbles, now the angelic, self-sacrificing wife and mother Miyagi, seemingly lacerated by stark branches in one of the filmmaker’s most strikingly composed images. The moment somehow foreshadows Tanaka’s professional break with Mizoguchi after he tried to stop Nikkatsu studio from hiring her as a director (her first film, Love Letter, was released the same year as Ugetsu).

Rivalry apparently knows few earthly bounds, and in Ugetsu, Tanaka found her worthy seductive, spectral counterpart in Machiko Kyo’s ethereal Lady Wakasa. Kyo — who stars in that other J-cinematic monument Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) as well as Kon Ichikawa’s now-tough-to-see Odd Obsession (1959) — strides a quivering line between untouchable delicacy and teasing desire, her half-moon eyes flaring through an immaculate alien-aristocratic visage. Kyo’s almost unrecognizable as ’60s-cute, jewel-polishing, distrusted wife-in-a-box in The Face of Another (1966), Hiroshi Teshigahara’s mad, mod, fantastic-looking postwar treatise on disfiguring trauma and Japan’s obsession with the mask and identity.

My current favorite diva of the bunch: the bravely smiling, long-suffering Hideko Takamine, epicenter of Mikio Naruse’s wonderful drama, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960). Also the star of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Technicolor Carmen Comes Home (1951) and his well-loved Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), Takamine’s put-upon, stubbornly independent hostess Mama is beautifully filled out with almost imperceptible shading — from the slightly arch, whiny tone she assumes when drunk and forced to consort with a heartless customer to the guarded polonaise of politeness she undergoes while sitting down with a rival hostess. Here, as Naruse matter-of-factly breaks down the economics of the biz, Takamine is less Douglas Sirk’s Jane Wyman than Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Hanna Schygulla, colored in less lurid hues: a post-World War II heartbreaker all too familiar with the disaster attendant with hitching one’s hopes and fortunes to men. 


June 17–Aug. 20, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, SF

(510) 642-5249


Kindred spirits


Heady, hoppy, smoky with the musky tang of interstellar, international exotica shot through a post-hardcore prism. Oakland psych-space-rock-drone outfit Lumerians’ sound is intoxicatingly addictive enough to inspire that imaginary brewski review, even in the thick of the raging patio at Jack London Square’s Beer Revolution. And if the band was a glass of sheer liquid refreshment, what would it be? A complex Cab, a supernatural Super Tuscan, or a solid stout?

I’m guessing a highly groovy gruit, as drummer Christopher Musgrave takes another gulp of his herbaceous, hops-free custom-crafted Two Weeks Notice. “It’s really weird, but after a few sips it gets really good,” he tells newly arrived bass player Marc Melzer. Musgrave should know: he makes beer by the keg in the former Murder Dubbs church he now calls home — and Lumerians’ recording studio. “I’m changing my mind. I might order it again.”

We swap slugs of our selections from the pub’s massive menu — Melzer’s Big Eye IPA and my Sweetgrass pale ale. It’s all in keeping with Lumerians’ shared approach to life and music-making: card that ego at door, share your inspirations — be they musical, painterly, or brew-crafted — and strive to work as one fluidly intuitive, wholly non-derivative whole.

Taking in Lumerians’ recently released, long-awaited debut, Transmalinnia (Knitting Factory), I’ve been sucked into the burly, bass-smudged biker boogie of “Burning Mirrors,” the witchy organ-shimmy and sex-magik drone of “Black Tusk,” and feathery woodwind textures and unholy shrieks of “Calalini Rises.” The LP shares its name with its artwork, a glorious finger-painting from the “Voyage Into Space” series by outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein — a vision borrowed by a band just a vowel or two away from the lost world of Lemuria, undertaken to turn kindred spirits onto the late self-taught surrealist’s mind-blowing art.

“One of the foundations of our band is we do try and make egoless music,” explains Melzer with equanimity while a birthday party brays in the background. “It’s not about one person writing the music, and it’s not about guitar solos or bass solos or drum solos. It’s about us, where all these different personalities meet and what develops after that.”

Of course, adds Musgrave, “it’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs.” Lumerians’ origins began humbly, with Melzer and Musgrave vowing to play together after a “strange hiatus” from music: they were disillusioned by the band politics in their old indie and hardcore groups. Guitarists-organists-synth-players Tyler Green and Jason Miller had begun to make music in 2006 when Musgrave joined in and enlisted Melzer, a guitarist now playing bass for the first time. “We hold it down,” Musgrave exclaims proudly. “We’re the earthbound ones. We’re like the tractor and the plow.” Soft Moon voyager Luis Vasquez eventually rounded out the fivesome on conga and synth.

The group took its time, hoping to create a “sustainable” environment — a world of its own, if you will — and built a studio in SF’s South Park where it recorded Transmalinnia, the follow-up to its self-titled, self-released, now-out-of-print, much-praised 2008 EP, forging the songs via jams that they’re reluctant to call jams. “The difference is everything we play in the band is pretty simple, but it combines to create a greater whole,” says Melzer. “We also play repetitive stuff — we’re either trying to trance out our audience or ourselves or both. I don’t think that’s one of the aims of a jam band.” They’ve succeeded to the point where Melzer confesses he’s more than once almost fallen off the stage.

The tough part was capturing the songs in their perfectly imperfect “nascent state,” as Musgrave puts it. “We’ve always tried to capture those ephemeral moments — it’s proven to be very difficult,” he explains. “Hard drives crash. Or we’ll think we’re recording and look over and it’s stopped. But the power of inspiration is so powerful you can’t pull away — it’s like you’re in a tractor beam!”

Fortunately, Lumerians doesn’t seem destined to perish in obscurity à la Von Bruenchenhein — the combo had just returned from the Austin Psych Fest, where by their accounts, they were the underdog belles, hampered by two power outages during their set. Will bands of the future find their minds blown by dog-eared Lumerians LPs? “I don’t know if that’s the way I think about it,” Musgrave says, “but any artifacts we put out are hopefully worthy of discovery.”

“So when the blogosphere forgets about us,” adds Melzer, tongue lodged in cheek, “and three months later, we get rediscovered!”  



With Young Prisms and Bronze

July 2, 9 p.m., $13

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750


Ride the lightning


Since grunge broke, who hasn’t been fascinated by those unwashed, straggly-haired, flannel-clad legions who somehow were recast as Kurt Cobain’s minions? In reality they lurked on the sidelines of school functions and adolescent gatherings long before Nevermind, butt hanging from lips, back set to slouch, and coolly assessing everything against some maddeningly precise internal bullshit meter. If you thought all the entertainment was up onstage, you’ve got another thing comin’.

But whatever you called them — skids, stoners, dirtbags, headbangers, or heshers, according to the Urban Dictionary definition (“Reebok-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents’ basement”) — these figures always seemed like the stuff of grimy, suburban legend because, unlike everyone at a certain tender age, they didn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone thought of them.

That’s why Hesher director and cowriter Spencer Susser loosely modeled his title character after late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. “He was someone who didn’t worry about what people thought of him,” says Susser by phone recently. “He wore bell-bottoms in the early ’80s, way after they were considered cool, and he got a lot of grief about it, but he was like, ‘Screw you.’ I think [the character of] Hesher is very much like that. [Burton] was never interested in being a rock star. He just wanted to make music — he was very pure in a way.”

Susser and cowriter David Michod (2010’s Animal Kingdom) have a feel for that independent-minded spirit — probably one reason Metallica allowed more than one of its songs to be used in Susser’s first feature film. Hesher itself also likely had something to do with it — if the intrigue with heavy-metal-parking-lot culture doesn’t do donuts in your cul-de-sac, then the sobering story, seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, might.

TJ (Devin Brochu) has lost his mom, and her shockingly sudden, traumatic passing has sent his entire family into a tailspin: his father (Rainn Wilson) can barely rouse himself from his heavily medicated stupor to attend their family grief counseling meetings, while his lonely grandmother (Piper Laurie) is left to care for the wrecked menfolk as best she can. All TJ can do is try to desperately hang onto the smashed car that has been sold to the used car salesman and then the junkyard, even if it means riding his bike into traffic and incurring the wrath of a neighborhood kid (Brendan Hill) who gets between him and the crushed metal.

So it almost seems like a dream when he stumbles on and catches the attention of an aloof, threatening metalhead named Hesher (a typecast-squashing, perfectly on-point Joseph Gordon-Levitt), squatting in an empty suburban model home. Hesher threatens to kill him, then gets TJ into trouble with his pint-sized archenemy, and finally moves in, becoming his so-called “friend” and brand-new, unwanted shadow.

What’s a grieving family lost in its own tragic inertia supposed to do with a home invasion staged by an angry, dangerous malevolent spirit — one giant raised middle finger etched into his back and a stick figure shooting itself in the head on his chest? The man is a walking fail tattoo — with a supernatural talent for arson, an appetite for grandma’s home cooking and down-home nurturing, and an attraction to TJ’s awkward friend Nicole (Natalie Portman, who also produced the film).

Coming to terms with Hesher’s presence becomes a lot like going through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: there’s the denial that he’s taken over the living-room TV and rejiggered the cable to get a free porn channel; the anger that he’s set fire to your enemy’s hot rod and left you at the scene of the crime; and finally the acceptance that there’s no good, right, or unmessy way to say goodbye — even if farewell means a beer-soaked, profanity-laced eulogy and walking the coffin past the strip mall. 

HESHER opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.


Some shit-talking


MUSIC Psychedelic Horseshit slinger Matt Horseshit has the gift of gab. He’s been credited with coining the genre label shitgaze, though he’s quick to dismiss it. “Genre names are pretty ridiculous at this point — a few kids in their room make up something and call it shoelace-gaze. A few people do something in their house and it’s now, ‘Which house?'”

Yet that talent, and flair for provocation, has also gotten the vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist into a world of pony dookie. Like when he spewed equine poo-poo all over Wavves, Vivian Girls, No Age, and TV on the Radio to the Washington Post in ’09, creating an indie-rock perfect shitstorm of heavily blogged proportions. Lo-fi, Horseshit opined in the article, has “exploded into this thing where Wavves is getting $30,000 to [expletive] crank out this [expletive] generic [expletive].” Call it the Horseshit side of the delightfully whacked, very wrong, and thoroughly shattered Psychedelic Horseshit equation talking.

Still, in a world of so much prepackaged pop/rock/hip-hop bowel movements and independents who’d rather play innocuous than call out crap as they hear it, you gotta love a guy who’s willing to say how he really feels, however impolitic, sensational, and naive it might be to do so. “There are too many positive vibes out there!” a friendly Horseshit (né Whitehurst), 27, protested last week by phone from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “Sometimes you gotta cut the tree down to make it bigger.”

The problem was that people, like the Vivian Girls, whom Horseshit considers pals and “sweet people,” got hurt. “I was railing against stuff in a moment of confused passion,” he explains now. “Then I was getting e-mails from people that I partied with, ‘What the fuck, I thought we were friends … ?’ No one wants to listen to the guy from Psychedelic Horseshit talk about how they’re influenced by Pavement — we’re here to entertain people and sell records — some people got that out of that …”

The flurry also caused Horseshit to step back and think about what he was doing — and whether he wanted to continue doing it at all. After putting out a mini-avalanche of CD-Rs, EPs, and albums on Siltbreeze and Wavves’ label Woodsist, among others (and running through 17 bass players), Horseshit decided to jump the “lo-fi gutter,” as he puts it, and embrace clarity, texture, even lyrics that don’t harsh on rock’s absurdities (see “New Wave Hippies” on Magic Flowers Droned [Siltbreeze, 2007]), rendered all the more naggingly accusatory when delivered in his nasal, nyah-nyah-ish tones.

“I honestly wanted to make a leap to a bigger label,” he says. “But after all my shit-talking, nobody would touch us at all … I don’t want to be linked to shitgaze for the rest of my life and be a rock history footnote.”

So after “weeding out” some band members, Horseshit and percussionist-keyboardist Ryan Jewell decided to make an album, Laced, to please themselves. “This record was the first thing where we took all our influences and thought about the way it was being taped,” says Horseshit, who confesses that he’s now thoroughly sick of mixing his own band’s music. “It’s more textured and more about sonics than it is about being bratty punks, and the lyrics are more dreamlike. There’s not a lot of pointed ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that.’ I got sick of that stuff … I was a little too honest there for a while.”

FatCat has since signed them on and Laced — a hazy, hallucinatory miasma of beats and moods that evokes both the loudly buzzing atmospherics of Black Dice and the experimental art damage of a less poppy Ariel Pink — is set to come out May 10. Leading up to the blessed date: the “Shitty Sundays” series of larky yet intriguing free MP3s (some freshly recorded only a few days previous), which have been released weekly on the FatCat site. The MP3s hint at Laced‘s trippier, less aggro mood, clad in samples and sprinkled with sequencers and drum machines (“I started going to festivals and taking ecstasy and getting into blissed-out dance music,” explains Horseshit), although the fuck-it feeling that anything can happen remains, the same freewheeling, horse-caca churn of the first Psychedelic Horseshit show I ever saw, back in 2007. “It’s a stepping stone kind of record,” Horseshit offers. “It has one foot in our path and goes in a lot of different places and frees us up from what a lot of people think we are.”

A tempered, more mature Horseshit? Could be — he’s even willing to bide his time while Jewell is away on a meditation retreat. “He wouldn’t even tell me where it was!” he marvels, adding that keyboardist Nicole Bland is playing with the band in the U.K., “covering his ass when he’s figured this shit out.”

“I said, ‘The record’s coming out,’ and he said, ‘I can’t be in the band right now. I just need to be away and find out what’s going on.’ It’s bad timing, but I respect it. It’s like, you know, ‘Thanks.'”


Return of the skronk


MUSIC There’s a point at the start of Bill Orcutt’s recently reissued, acclaimed 2009 album, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (Editions Mego), during the violent, staccato blues of “Lip Rich,” when a telephone rings. Slight pause. And then the San Francisco musician picks up where he left off, with shattered, crashing runs of proudly broken-ass guitar notes, the occasional shout and cry. Pummeling his old Kay acoustic until it reverberates like a piano, Orcutt sounds as if he’s busy ripping apart blues guitar lines at the end of a long metal-clad tunnel — and exorcising a few demons while he’s at it. There, at Orcutt’s end, semis, motorcycles, and homegirls rumble past and Mississippi blues players still wander, stumbling into pale-faced strangers deconstructing Delta drone with their bare hands, nails, and bones.

The reality is that the police sirens, roaring buses, and streetside groans on New Way — all of which lend the music the beautifully devolved faux-authenticity of an old field recording — are the same sounds you can hear any day at 24th and York streets in the Mission. Orcutt and family moved to that spot when they relocated to San Francisco after the 1997 breakup of his old band Harry Pussy, the noise-experimental band he founded in Miami along with fearsome vocalist-drummer Adris Hoyos. New Way — a document of a new solo approach in an old room perched above an even older Mission thoroughfare—was recorded during the spring of ’09 in a window-lined spot within their corner apartment.

“It was just insanely loud,” Orcutt recalls now from his current home in Sunnyside. It’s late, but it’s one of the few times Orcutt, who holds down a job as a software engineer, can talk. “There were constantly trucks and people going by outside, so there was no way to record and keep the background out. I realized I should just go with whatever happened — and the phone rang in the middle of the take.”

As chance would have it, one of Orcutt’s favorite guitarists, English experimentalist Derek Bailey, also had a recording released, posthumously, that was punctuated by a disruptive phone call (“Wrong Number” on More 74 [Incus]).

At least it wasn’t simply a noisy trendoid bellowing in the brunch queue outside St. Francis Fountain.

“When we moved there, St. Francis was closed — it was weird when it first reopened,” says a dryly amused Orcutt. “Suddenly there were people waiting for tofu scramble, and we were like, ‘Why?'”

“Why?” also comes to mind as one listens to New Way: why hasn’t Orcutt played and recorded since the dissolution of Harry Pussy? Perhaps it was the move or work demands — more important, Orcutt got reinterested in playing music when he began to assemble a retrospective of Harry Pussy’s music for Load Records, You’ll Never Play This Town Again: Live, Etc 1997 (2008), and began to listen the furious skronk his band generated and the remarkably damaged, thick, and grotty guitar sound he developed.

“I hadn’t heard that music in 10 years. It was pretty extreme, and I forgot what it sounded like,” he says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that is weird.’ I was listening to a lot of it because I had to, and it naturally made me want to pick up a guitar and start playing again.”

It was a slight case of being inspired by yourself — though the modest Orcutt immediately disavows this (“That sounds weird — don’t say that!”) — and remembering your roots, be they buried in the same hot soil as Mississippi Fred McDowell, or the same swampy morass as kindred noisy Floridian Rat Bastard. “Honestly, there were like two or three people that were doing strange stuff in Miami at that time,” Orcutt remembers. “It wasn’t much of a scene. It was just isolated weirdos going off on their own tangents — that pretty much described us.”

Orcutt’s incredible, atonal guitar playing is the uncommon element connecting Hoyos’ formidable shrieks and 24th Street grind. These days Orcutt prefers to play acoustic rather than electric, though it’s rigged as a four-string, with the A and D strings removed, much the same way his electric once was. The modification predates Harry Pussy: “It just stuck,” he notes. “At this point, there’s no rational reason for doing it. It’s just what I sound like in my own head.”

The acoustic was also an intuitive choice, and as Orcutt started listening to guitarists such as McDowell, Bailey, and Carlos Montoya, “just to see what had been done before and to get the lay of the land and an understanding of what the perimeters were,” its sound and mobility started to appeal. “It’s a nice way to be self-contained and self-reliant. As long as you can get it on the plane, you’re good. And in a really small venue, you can even get away without having a PA,” he explains. “If I have to, I could wind up at the BART Station and I’m good to go.”

And it exposed Orcutt as a musician, apart from the protective mob of a band. “Honestly, once I got into it, I really wanted to play solo,” he observes. “When I started playing in front of people, it was scary, but I have this weird compulsion to play solo.” That urge is still a puzzle — in Harry Pussy, he adds, “Adris [Hoyos] definitely led the way and it was easy to hang back. I don’t know …” Slight pause. “There’s some kind of process I’m working through by playing solo, and I’m definitely still working on whatever it is.”

Being Leonard Cohen


SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL “Is this what you wanted/ To live in a house that is haunted/ By the ghost of you and me?”

Likewise, try as its makers might, the specter of Leonard Cohen looms over the short films by Alex Da Corte, Christian Holstad, and the other artists who try their hand at making 11 new pieces inspired by the 11 tracks comprising New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the 1974 long-player that some consider the songwriter’s most sublime.

There’s no need to breathe life into these tunes, dusted off under the spotlight once more, now that Cohen has been touring his way back to financial solvency. Instead, these shorts — roving from the abstract (Theo Angell’s “video-quilted” Field Commander Cohen) to the narrative (Grouper videographer-collaborator Weston Curry’s barfly-populated Lover Lover Lover) — seemingly hope to engage with the songs themselves with at times thought-provoking, at moments banal results. Courageous, considering these still vital-sounding odes to the flesh and the spirit—songs like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Who by Fire” simultaneously revel in the tangle of carnal sheets, the bruises of the urban battlefield, and the graceful act of transcending the fires of desire.

The artist-filmmakers got their chance to take on this longing via the singer-songwriter’s daughter, videographer Lorca Cohen, and Hammer Museum programs coordinator Darin Klein, a onetime regular in the SF art-book arts-zine scene and a close friend of Lorca (who recently had a baby daughter with kindred Canadian folk scion Rufus Wainwright, cousin of Anna McGarrigle’s offspring, Sylvan and Lily Lanken, whose whimsical, paper cutout-riddled video for “There Is a War” appears in New Skin). Apparently it’s all in the family — with Lorca urging her father’s publishing company, Unified Hearts, to allow the entire LP’s songs to be used, after initially curating a few shorts.

Co-curator Klein enlisted such artists as Brent Green, Weston Curry, Kelly Sears, and experimental music duo Lucky Dragons. “The amazing thing is that we really got 11 different flavors of filmmaking,” he says from L.A. “That was superexciting and watching them come in, one by one, was like getting presents in the mail for a couple weeks.”

Shining a light directly on a fresh-faced, 30-ish Cohen is Donald Brittain’s and Don Owen’s 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen, which screens alongside New Skin. Short, sharp, sweet — and surprisingly snark-ish — Brittain’s voice tussles with Cohen’s, taking quick jabs at what the filmmaker sees as inconsistencies from the already acclaimed poet-novelist, only then emerging as a songwriter: “[Cohen] is fascinated by the violence of the Mediterranean, but has developed a strong dislike for meat,” the narrator notes, in one instance, with amusement and an audibly cocked eyebrow.

Weaving in home movies of the poet as a young pup, Ladies and Gentlemen trails Cohen closely as he pretends to sleep, write, and bathe in his $3-a-night hotel room (“A man has invited a group of strangers to observe him cleaning his body,” muses Cohen later, watching the footage on camera in a proto-meta moment. “I find it sinister, and of course, I find it flattering”), tosses the I Ching at a house party and takes to the stage, mixing poetry with wryly comic spoken word. The bop horn blasts, Cohen’s discomfortingly close resemblance to Dustin Hoffman and the noirishly glamorous B&W camerawork add up to pure beat-era pleasure, as thoughtful and jazzed on life as its subject, as ruminative and passionate as a John Cassavetes clip — and still unaware of the many songs from so many hotel rooms still to come. 


Tues/26, 9 p.m., $15

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF




MUSIC This I know, having heard the name discussed in hushed yet excited tones among ecstatic ex-hardcore kids, having taken in all of two Lightning Bolt shows by Brians Chippendale and Gibson since Ride the Skies (Load, 2001). Having felt the gale-force winds of their live fury while swapping sweat with pinballing strangers. Having tasted the salad and found it delightful. Having waited with anticipation for their next show in the Bay Area—this time the night before they play Coachella.

Lightning Bolt’s most recent album, Earthly Delights (Load, 2009), is just as majestically noisy — and chock-full of wonder — as their seeming-career-best Hypermagic Mountain (Load, 2005). The time is right to share some truths about the dynamic duo.



“Mustard ran off, Weird appeared out of nowhere. Omni died,” says Chippendale of his Fort Thunder felines, driving the van and deep into the weeds of Peter Glantz and Nick Noe’s 2002s documentary, Lightning Bolt: The Power of Salad [and writ small like an afterthought] & Milkshakes. “Calico is too stupid to leave. Warlord ran off …” The talented cartoonist then goes on to recount the sad end of a pet rabbit, which broke its neck playing around metal. Seeing it bare its teeth, arch its back, and let lose a hair-(or hare-)raising “death scream,” Chippendale was forced to put it out of its misery with a sledgehammer. “Aw, I can’t believe I did that,” he says. “I love animals! Better than people, animals.”

Unless Lightning Bolt is playing, freakishly, on a stage, you must make the effort to get up close — or find a rafter or pole to dangle from.

I first saw ’em around ’03 when they played the Verdi Club, the old-folks rec hall near that sketchy patch of Bryant Street where working gals like to service their johns curbside. I wasn’t one of the lucky dozen or so standing right next to the twosome on the floor, so I wasn’t able to see much, even when I climbed up on a rickety metal folding chair to get a glimpse of sock-monkey-ish-masked Chippendale, looking like a mad drummer from the island of lost toys.

I fared better at Lobot Gallery in 2007, when I used all my best pit skills to wiggle up to the front for the first couple songs, risking a broken nose to get my fill of Lightning Bolt’s unforgettable way with Sabbath-style volume and Phillip Glass-style repetition, primal rambunctiousness and raw poetry. Certainly they’re the fiercest bass-and-drum duo ever to step into the formidable footwear of Ruins and godheadSilo, but has there ever been another hardcore or noise combo that has fully tapped the melodic and textural possibilities buried within a full-force blast beat?



“I wish more of my projects were pure recreation,” the Rhode Island School of Design-schooled painter told “I just get caught up in this sort of addiction to doing art and music stuff, but it would nice to be just fishing or exercising or drag racing.

So much of what I do is about me being deeply obsessed with projects and being alienated from communities and wanting to do something different.”

Don’t worry about missing the companion cassette that once went with Lightning Bolt’s “yellow album” debut — the CD includes the enthralling 30-minute noise epic “Zone.”

You also get the funny intro to “Caught Deep in the Zone,” in which a Euro-accented fellow warns, “Next time you go and buy a record and you think you’re all alternative and groovy — and everyone is into the alternative charts — remember it’s just like the other side, just a bit stranger.” Cue an onslaught of feedback-wracked, crunching skree: the death scream of Godzilla as lizard flesh is wrenched from bone.



This ode to terrifyingly cute cartoon imagery, à la headless, bass-playing hot-pink tigers, opens with Gumby comforting a distraught Goo, who sobs, “There were 13 of them …” 


With T.I.T.S. and High Castle

Wed./13, 8 p.m., $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

Hanna and her sisters


FILM With great girl power comes great responsibility — words that only a few of the Powerpuff Girls of 2011 have lived by. Behold the new generation, too young to settle down, prepped to suit up in skintight Lycra or schoolgirl gear, and eager to mete out punishment to the baddies. Girls mature faster than boys, sure, but that diary-keeping wimpy kid reigning the other half of the cineplex would have plenty to jot down in his diary if he met up with one of these slay-belles.

These babes in boyland, with all its the traditionally masculinized violence and bloodshed, aren’t exactly the next Supergirls. They’re nowhere near as bloodless or wholesome as the original DC product (or the 1984 Helen Slater film), and they’re less likely to fall prey to the dangers of womanly representation for a mainstream fanboy audience that, say, 2004’s Catwoman succumbed to. But the little girls understand — what it’s like to grapple with a strength that just might spiral out of control. The tension between their innocuous, angelic looks and semi-socialized, she-tiger ferocity parallels the balance between their highly trainable programmability and their own desires. They’re damaged kid sisters of Lisbeth Salander more than they are the mutant second-banana femme students of the X-Men, and they’re itching for freedom like Ellen Page’s reality-hampered Boltie in Super, or the fantasy girl-gang hos in Sucker Punch. Or they’ve been souped up as angels of vengeance at the service of embittered father figures, much like Kick-Ass scene-stealer Chloe Moretz’s pint-sized Hit-Girl with her Saturday-morning-cartoon purple wig and stone-cold killer instincts. STAY ON TARGET

The title character of Hanna falls perfectly into the Hit-Girl mold. Add a dash of The Boys from Brazil-style genetic engineering — Hanna has the unfair advantage, you see, when it comes to squashing other kids on the soccer field or maiming thugs with her bare hands — and you have an ethereal killing/survival machine, played with impassive confidence by Atonement (2007) shit-starter Saoirse Ronan. She’s been fine-tuned by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), a spy who went out into the cold and off the grid, disappearing into the wilds of Scandinavia where he home-schooled his charge with an encyclopedia and brutal self-defense and hunting tests.

The repellent association with real-life child soldiers who are forcibly conscripted to fight wars for corrupt elders is somewhat dispelled by the back-to-the-land-of-the-Vikings backdrop, with the film opening on Hanna hunting, clad in furs and skins, hidden in the white-on-white snowy woods beside other predators and prey. Atonement director Joe Wright plays with a palette associated with innocence, purity, and death — this could be any time or place, though far from the touch of modern childhood stresses: that other Hannah (Montana), consumerism, suburban blight, and academic competition. The 16-year-old Hanna, however, isn’t immune from that desire to succeed. Her game mission: go from a feral, lonely existence into the modern world, run for her life (the Chemical Brothers’ score gives her the ideal Run Lola Run-ish background music), and avenge the death of her mother by killing Erik’s CIA handler, Marissa (Cate Blanchett). The nagging doubt: was she born free, or Bourne to be a killer?

Much like the illustrated Brothers Grimm storybook that she studies, Hanna is caught in an evil death trap of fairytale allegories. One wonders if the super-soldier apple didn’t fall far from the tree, since evil stepmonster Marissa oversaw the program that produced Hanna — the older woman and the young girl have the same cold-blooded talent for destruction and the same steely determination. Yet there’s hope for the young ‘un. After learning that even her beloved father hid some basic truths from her — and that family life can be less desperately cutthroat, especially when she encounters the celebrity-gossip-spouting tourist teen Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her family — this natural-born killer seems less likely to go along with the predetermined ending, happy or no, further along in her storybook life.



It’s a mental game for Baby Doll in Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder’s exercise in supergirl action fantasy and gothic Lolita dread. Emily Browning’s puffy-lipped, anime-eyed darling is far from infallible, except in the crazed, mixed-metaphor war games in her mind. Her talent for disassociation kicks off with her primal crime: she mistakenly kills her younger sister while trying to protect them both from a menacing stepfather. Escape and heroism can be had via one’s fertile yet traumatized imagination: Baby Doll is imprisoned in an asylum for girls where she’s next in line for a lobotomy, thanks to her stepdad’s machinations. And like a multilayered fantasy game, reminiscent of Dorothy’s dreamy recasting of friends and family in The Wizard of Oz (1939), she’s transported to a brothel-dancehall, along with other girlish inmates.

Here Baby Doll has just a few days to hatch a plan that will allow the girls to escape before her virginity is sold off. Her very special defense: she mesmerizes all who see her dance, and then goes far, far away, into a dream world where she’s dressed like a sexy J-pop schoolgirl and battles giant samurai or robot-zombie Nazis. Thoughts of Burlesque (2010) are mercifully vanquished.

Though Baby Doll’s initial battle scene at a Japanese temple evokes Quentin Tarantino’s take on girl-power revenge fantasy, Kill Bill (2003-2004) — while catering to the fanboys who ogle (and fear) deadly hotties in vixenish costume — Sucker Punch distinguishes itself not with its blatant po-mo plundering of movie, game, and music history, but with its adherence to the idea that sisterhood is powerful, as Baby Doll forms a girl gang of super-fighters with her fellow inmates-dancers. Therein lies the real super-heroism: the organizing, hearts-and-minds might of an underdog who can imagine overcoming huge odds. Even if the hero and the final girl, Baby Doll, is only a legend in her mind.

HANNA opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.


Youth in revolt


SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL What’s the matter with kids today? Young people wrestle with issues that many adults would find beyond their ken at this year’s SFIAAFF. Coming of age is a hazard in a Vietnam where street gangs grapple with injustice, under highly emotional — and entertaining — circumstances; in Iran, where oppressive fundamentalism colors even the most carefree youth; and in Hawaii, where the endless party of skate-rat slackitude hits the skids of very adult responsibilities.

The young folks of Le Tranh Son’s Clash (2009) are desperate — and alas, all too used to it. The doe-like, fiery-eyed, and formidable fighter Trinh (actress-vocalist Ngo Thanh Van), a.k.a. Phoenix, has plenty to scowl about. Kidnapped at a tender age to serve as a prostitute, she was plucked from the brothel by crime king pin Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc) — an opera-loving, white-suited baddie that John Woo would love — to be groomed as one of his highly skilled soldiers. Now on a mission to steal a briefcase of codes for Vietnam’s first satellite, Trinh assembles a crew that Son films like the suavest thugs in the slum, set to a chest-thumping arena-rock and hip-hop soundtrack. The most handy-in-a-corner hottie of the bunch is Quan (Johnny Tri Nguyen), a.k.a. White Tiger.

Contrary to initial impressions, “we’re not in some cheesy Hong Kong action movie,” as one character declares when Trinh attempts to wield an iron fist of intimidation over her charges — although Nguyen and Ngo’s stunningly rapid-fire martial arts skills (and chemistry: the two are a real-life couple) make this flick a must-see for fight fans. Clash was the highest-grossing movie in 2009 in its homeland; though the film strives to please with its visceral, full-throttle fight scenes, it seems haunted by a colonial past as well as recent terrors. Life is a constant struggle for Clash‘s young people. They’re fully capable of working their conflicts out with bare knuckles, but what really breaks through their defenses are the injustices that befall family dear to them.

The ties that bind the handful of 20-something Iranians are tested in Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat (2010) — though not in ways one would immediately expect. The lo-fi, handheld camerawork can be distractingly shaky, especially since Dog Sweat was shot without the proper permissions and permits. But the director’s eye for telling detail is sure, at times humorous, and other moments poetically penetrating. Bedroom rock is the only way to go: behind closed doors, a trio of men booze it up on so-called Dog Sweat moonshine while dancing and flipping on and off the light switch for a homemade strobe effect — they’re dreaming of Western-style intoxicants and freedoms and wondering why America doesn’t come and “save us from this nightmare.”

In another bedroom, girls gossip (“There were some hot guys at the demonstration!”) while shimmying with themselves in the mirror. Keshavarz captures the propaganda-embellished concrete and the parks for men searching for other lonely men, and the double standards that apply to the music-loving woman who yearns to sing but must hide from the recording studio owner, and the rebellious girl who acts out by donning a scarlet hijab and romancing her cousin’s husband. A rough snapshot of a generation that crosses class lines, conceived during Ahmadinejad’s crackdown on artists and dissidents, Keshavarz succeeds in conveying the palpable hopes, humor, anxieties, and fears of young people in resistance, primed to explode.

“Da kine,” that fuzzy, vagued-out arbiter of “whatever,” reigns supreme in the Hawaii of writer-director-skater Chuck Mitsui’s One Kine Day (2010). Welcome to the other side of the isle, far away from touristy Waikiki, where skater Ralsto (Ryan Greer) is dealing with his morning-sick 15-year-old girlfriend Alea. His boss at the skate shop isn’t buying his diffuse excuses for lateness; Alea doesn’t want to go through another abortion; mom is putting pressure on him to get a stable job at the post office; and loutish friend Nalu believes he can score the money for “da kine” abortion at an underground cock fight. Of course, it will all come crashing down at the big house party — but will the perpetually tragic-faced Ralsto go postal? Mitsui shines a light on the less-than-savory aspects of the islands — the pregnant teens in the malls, the ‘shroom-popping adults who turn on and phase out, the fact that you have to drive everywhere — and dares you to tear your eyes away from the sun-streaked, well-baked screen.


March 10–20, most shows $12

Various venues

Radio radio!


Do you remember rock ‘n’ roll radio, as the Ramones once quizzed us, ever so long ago? If not that “Video Killed the Radio Star”-era iteration, a leather-clad punky nostalgia for Murray the K and Alan Freed, then do you remember college rock when it became the name of a musical genre in the early 1990s?

I’m trying to make out its faint strains now: a sound nominally dubbed rock, but as wildly eclectic and widely roaming as the winds blowing me over the Bay Bridge on this blustery, rain-streaked afternoon. I’m not imagining it. New, shaken-and-stirred PJ Harvey nudging family-band throwback the Cowsills. Nawlins jazzbos Kid Ory and Jimmy Noone rubbing sonic elbows with winsome Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. Brit electropoppers Fenech-Soler bursting beside Chilean melody-makers Lhasa. The ancient Popul Vuh tangling with the bright-eyed art-rock I Was a King. It’s an average playlist for KALX 90.7 FM, the last-standing free-form sound in San Francisco proper — though it hails from across the bay in Berkeley.

But what about SF’s own, KUSF? A former college radio DJ and assistant music director at the University of Hawaii’s KTUH and the University of Iowa’s KRUI, I’m one of those souls who’s searching for it far too late, even though I benefited from my time in college radio, garnering a major-league musical education simply flipping through the dog-eared LPs and listening to other jocks’ shows. Like so many music fans, I got lost — searching for the signal and repelled by commercial radio’s predictable computerized playlists, cheesy commercials, and blowhard DJs — and found NPR.

Today, I’m testing the signals within — the health of music on SF terra firma radio — by driving around the city, cruising City Hall, bumping through SoMa, and dodging bikes in the Mission. KALX’s signal is strong on the noncommercial side of the dial, alongside the lover’s rock streaming from long-standing KPOO 89.5 and the Strokes-y bounce bounding from San Jose modern rock upstart KSJO 92.3, whose tagline promises, “This is the alternative.” But KSJO’s distinct lack of a DJ voice and seamless emphasis on monochromatic Killers-and-Kings-of-Chemical-Romance tracks quickly bores, slotting it below its rival, Live 105.

Dang. I wind my way up Market to Twin Peaks. Waves of white noise begin to invade a Tim Hardin track. KALX’s signal fades as the billowing, smoky-looking fog rolls majestically down upscale Forest Hill to the middle-class Sunset. But I can hear it — with occasional static — on 19th Avenue, and later, in the Presidio and Richmond.

Throughout, KUSF’s old frequency, 90.3, comes through loud and clear — though now with the sound of KDFC’s light-classical and its penchant for swelling, feel-good woodwinds. The music is so innocuous that to rag on it feels as petty and mean as kicking a docile pup. But I get my share of instrumental wallpaper while fuming on corporate phone trees. It’s infuriating to realize that it supplanted KUSF, the last bastion of free-form radio in SF proper. Where is the free-form rock radio? This is the city that successfully birthed the format in the 1970s, with the freewheeling, bohemia-bred KSAN, and continued the upstart tradition with pirate stations such as SF Liberation Radio. Doesn’t San Francisco deserve its own WFMU or KCRW?



Online radio — including forces like Emeryville’s Pandora and San Diego’s Slacker Radio — provides one alternative. This is true for listeners who use the TiVo-like Radio Shark tuner-recorder to rig their car (still the primo place to tune in) to listen to online stations all over the country. The just-launched cloud-based DVR also widens the online option.

Nevertheless, online access isn’t a substitute for free radio air waves. “We get the wrong impression that everyone is wired, and everyone’s online, and no one listens to terrestrial radio,” says radio activist and KFJC DJ Jennifer Waits. “Why then are these companies buying stations for millions of dollars?”

Waits and KALX general manager Sandra Wasson both point to the consolidation that’s overtaken commercial radio since deregulation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — a trend that has now crept onto the noncommercial end of the dial.

As competition for limited bandwidth accelerates (in San Francisco, this situation is compounded by a hilly topography with limited low-power station coverage) and classical radio stations like KDFC are pushed off the commercial frequencies, universities are being approached by radio brokers. One such entity, Public Radio Capital, was part of the secretive $3.75 million deal to sell KUSF’s transmitter and frequency. Similar moves are occurring throughout the U.S., according to Waits. She cites the case of KTXT, the college radio station at Texas Tech, as akin to KUSF’s situation, while noting Rice and Vanderbilt universities are also exploring station sales.

“The noncommercial band is following in the footsteps of the commercial band in the way of consolidation,” Wasson says, from her paper-crammed but spartan office at KALX, after a tour of the station’s 90,000-strong record library. Wire, Ringo Death Starr, and Mountain emanate from the on-air DJ booth, as students prep the day’s newscast and a volunteer readies a public-affairs show. “Buying and selling noncommercial radio seems to me very much like what used to happen and still does in commercial radio: one company owns a lot stations in a lot of different markets and does different kinds of programming in different markets. Deregulation changed it so that 10-watt stations weren’t protected anymore. There were impacts on commercial and noncommercial sides.”

Lack of foresight leads cash-strapped schools to leap for the quick payout. “Once a school sells a station, it’s unlikely it will be able to buy one back,” says Waits. “Licenses don’t come up for sale and there are limited frequencies. They have an amazing resource and they’re making a decision that isn’t thought-through.”



There are still people willing to put imagination — and money — behind their radio dreams. But free-form has come to sound risky after the rise of KSAN and FM radio and the subsequent streamlining and mainstreaming of the format.

Author and journalist Ben Fong-Torres, who once oversaw a KUSF show devoted to KSAN jocks, cites the LGBT-friendly, dance-music-focused KNGY 92.7 as a recent example of investors willing to try out a “restricted” format. “They were a good solid city station that sounded quite loose,” he explains. “But even there they weren’t able to sell much advertising because they were limited to the demographic in San Francisco and they couldn’t make enough to pay their debts.”

Nonetheless, Fong-Torres continues to be approached by radio lovers eager to start a great music station. “I’ve told them what I’m telling you,” he says. “It’s really difficult to acquire a stick in these parts, to grab whatever best signals there are.” This is especially true with USC/KDFC rumored to be on a quest for frequencies south of SF.

“There are some dreamers out there who think about it,” muses Fong-Torres. “A single person who’s willing to bankroll a station just out of the goodness of his or her heart and let people spread good music — someone like Paul Allen, who did KEXP in Seattle.”



The University of San Francisco has touted the sale of KUSF’s frequency and the station’s proposed shift to online radio as a teaching opportunity. But the real lesson may be a reminder of the value of the city’s assets — and how easily they can be taken away. “We’re learning how unbelievably sacred bandwidth is on the FM dial,” says Irwin Swirnoff, who was a musical director at the station.

Swirnoff and the Save KUSF campaign hope USF will give the community an opportunity to buy the university’s transmitter, much as Southern Vermont College’s WBTN 1370 AM was purchased by a local nonprofit.

For Swirnoff and many others, listener-generated playlists can’t substitute for the human touch. “DJs get to tell a story through music,” he explains. “They’re able to reach a range of emotions and [speak to] the factors that are in the city at that moment, its nature and politics. Through music, they can create a moving dialogue and story.”

Swirnoff also points to the DJ’s personally selective role during a time of corporate media saturation and tremendous musical production. “In the digital age, the amount of music out in the world can be totally overwhelming,” he says. “A good station can take in all those releases and give you the best garage rock, the best Persian dance music, everything. One DJ can be a curator of 100 years of music and can find a way to bring the listener to a unique place.”

Local music and voices aren’t getting heard on computer-programmed, voice-tracked commercial stations despite inroads of satellite radio into local news. In a world where marketing seems to reign supreme, is there a stronger SF radio brand than the almost 50-year-old KUSF when it comes to sponsoring shows and breaking new bands for the discriminating SF music fan? “People in the San Francisco music community who are in bands and are club owners know college radio is still a vital piece in promoting bands and clubs,” says Waits. “There are small shows that are only getting promotion over college radio.”

“It was a great year for San Francisco music, and we [KUSF] got to blast it the most,” Swirnoff continued. “It’s really sad that right now you can’t turn on terrestrial radio and hear Grass Widow, Sic Alps, or Thee Oh Sees, when it’s some of the best music being made in the city right now.”



Aside from KUSF, the only place where you could hear, for instance, minimal Scandinavian electronics and sweater funk regularly on the radio was Pirate Cat. The pirate station was the latest in a long, unruly queue, from Radio Libre to KPBJ, that — as rhapsodized about in Sue Carpenter’s 2004 memoir, 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio — have taken to the air with low-power FM transmitters.

After being shut down by the FCC and fined $10,000 in 2009, Pirate Cat is in limbo, further adrift thanks to a dispute about who owns the station. Daniel “Monkey” Roberts’ sale of Pirate Cat Café in the Mission left loyal volunteers wondering who should even receive their $30-a-month contributions. Roberts shut down the Pirate Cat site and stream on Feb. 20. Since then, some Pirate Cat volunteers have been attempting to launch their own online stream under the moniker PCR Collective Radio.

“We would definitely start our own station,” says Aaron Lazenby, Pirate Cat’s skweee DJ and a Radio Free Santa Cruz vet. “The question now is how to resolve the use of Pirate Cat so we don’t lose momentum and lose our community. We all love it too much to let it fizzle out like that.”

Some people are even willing to take the ride into DIY low-power terrestrial radio. I stumbled over the Bay Area’s latest on a wet, windy Oakland evening at Clarke Commons’ craftsman-y abode. The door was flung open and a colorful, quilt-covered fort/listening station greeted me in the living room. In the dining space, a “magical handcrafted closet studio station” provided ground zero for the micro-micro K-Okay Radio — essentially a computer sporting cute kitchen-style curtains and playing digitized sounds.

A brown, blue, and russet petal-shingled installation looked down on K-Okay’s guests as they took their turn at the mic. And if you were in a several-block radius of the neat-as-a-pin house-under-construction and tuned your boombox to 88.1 FM, you could have caught some indescribably strange sounds and yarns concerning home and migration. I drove away warmed by the friendly mumble of sound art.

Who would have imagined radio as an art installation? Yet it’s just another positive use for a medium that has functioned in myriad helpful ways, whether as a life link for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake or (as on a recent Radio Valencia show) a rock gossip line concerning the Bruise Cruise Fest. As Waits puts it, radio is “about allowing yourself to be taken on a musical journey rather than doing the driving yourself online.” Today it sounds like we need the drive to keep that spirit alive.

This time it’s personal


MUSIC The wee small hours of the a.m., when the rest of the world is deep in z’s, is magic time for Tim Cohen. “Most of my profound musical moments have come very early in the morning, not being able to sleep and being woken up by a weird dream or nightmare,” verifies the leader of the now-defunct Black Fiction, co-songwriter of the Fresh and Onlys, and proud papa of Magic Trick (Captured Tracks). He casts clear gray eyes — taking everything in like fully open apertures — out the front window of Cafe Abir, pint on hand and orange cap squashed over his brow while sunlight brushes away gray, stormy skies.

One such sonic turning point came in about 2002, when Cohen was visiting his parents in Richmond, Va. After buying a clutch of John Fahey LPs from a thrift store that day, he dreamt of driving through the “spiderweb-like complex” of a suburban business park. All around him women standing at the tops of the buildings were jumping to their death. Startled awake, he put on the first album he saw — Fahey’s Vol. 4: The Great San Bernardino Birthday (Takoma, 1966) — and, with his headphones on, drifted back to sleep to the sound of acoustic fingerpicking and then the backwards guitar of “Knott’s Berry Farm Molly.” This time he was driving the dream in reverse, cruising backward as the suicides jumped back onto the buildings.

“I woke up and swore off playing with a pick,” Cohen declares today. “I went on this several-year run of writing fingerpicked acoustic songs, waking up and realizing there are so many possibilities to this guitar.”

Those sorts of dawn revelations are the reason Cohen says he bolted awake in his Left Coast bed for no explicable reason on the morning of 9/11 — and why he advises susceptible listeners, in the notes for his third solo album and its accompanying double 7-inch EP, Bad Blood (also on Captured Tracks), that they should listen to the music in the comfort and terror of morning darkness. And it may be the reason why he ever-so-sweetly wails on Magic Trick‘s “Sweetheart,” “Don’t be afraid of my heart/ I’m not afraid of the dark.”

“That’s the time of day when you’re most like a sponge,” Cohen explains, as busy Divisadero Street bustles outside. “Every experience you have, whether it’s ecstatic or traumatic, it’s going to stick with you.”

There’s more than a bit of a seer in Cohen, who says he’s making a practice of being open to collaborations with, say, bassist Shayde Sartin in the Fresh and Onlys (note: Cohen refuses to cop to being either Fresh or Only) and to inspiration when it hits him, which is often. “I have a lot of songs coming out me,” he says matter-of-factly.

Fortunately, Cohen has iPhone’s voice memo at the ready to capture scraps of melody and a Tascam 388 in his amazingly tidy bedroom studio to record with, high in the gnome’s-cap fairytale tower of his Western Addition Victorian, surrounded by 360-degree bird’s-eye windows overlooking SF. Cohen’s own intriguing, intricately detailed drawings decorate the walls of the flat, much as they do the covers of his solo LPs, coexisting easily alongside Cubs memorabilia. He’s recorded much of his music here — and it’s legion, including hip-hop projects the Latter, Hattattack, Feller Quentin, and the semi-active Forest Fires Collective; psych combo 3 Leafs; and the “druggy” Window Twins, which will release a full-length this year.

With the help of bassist-keyboardist Alicia Vanden Huevel (Aislers Set), drummer James Kim (Kelley Stoltz), and Noelle Cahill, Magic Trick may be Cohen’s most refined, effortlessly endearing recording to date. His dark, pretty, strangely exhilarating lovestruck songs dip deliciously into cockeyed folk ruminations (“I Am Never Going to Die”), curious psychedelia (“New House in Heaven”), throwback 1960s pop with a three-way wink (“Don’t Give Up”‘s whimsical “When three people lie down together/ They’re trying to make a good thing better/ Good things happen all the time”), and scorched-earth country (“The Flower,” based on the songwriter’s real-life experience of eating a poisonous lily in mid-flirt), with Cohen hitting new almost-heartbreaking highs with his disarmingly rough-hewn vocals and wiseacre-y wise-fool wordplay.

Modern lovers, take heed. This time it’s personal for Cohen, who enjoys a nice, sturdy alias as much as the next MC. That’s why his name is on it. 


With Holy Shit, Puro Instinct, Sam Flax and Higher Color, DJ Jimi Hey

Thurs/24, 9 p.m., $5–$8

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(888) 233-0449


Live Review: Prince at the Oracle Arena


At this point in his 35-year career, Prince is perhaps justified in expecting us humanoids to happily accept anything handed down to us from Mount Paisley Park. But at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Mon./21 — the first of three last-minute concerts planned for the Bay (Thursday’s show was announced Monday night, after more than 30,000 tickets were sold for the first two performances in less than 72 hours), the mood was a curious mixture of intense, polished skill tinged with unexpected insecurity: Prince, in full 52-years-young prodigy mode, broke from the action in one instance with a surprising, “Are y’all having fun?” And heated anticipation and adulation gave way to a brief outbreak of boos — the audience pressed hard to get into the show, and was loathe to give up its ground after the first encore, hollering with displeasure when the house lights came up.

It was a mixed bag, albeit an entertaining and fascinating one, from an entertainer who can still pull out the stops, fingering his fretboard with one hand while slicking back his short crop with the other. A playful Prince alternately grinned at his band, placated the fans with hits, and happily jammed at length on one of his many Telecaster-style guitars, pacing himself all the while with breaks featuring guest Sheila E. and his backup vocalists. His impassioned take on “Cool,” the song he bestowed on the Time back in 1981, said it all: Prince was out to reestablish his own ageless brand of awesome, and have fun doing it. 

Opening the show was white zoot-suited Oakland native and psychedelic funk-rock pater familias Larry Graham, the bassist who broke ground and moved major booty with his slapping technique as part of Sly and the Family Stone. Fronting his band, Graham Central Station, Drake’s uncle got the audience primed with a sing-along to his 1980 slow-dance hit “One in a Million You,” before immediately ripping into a jaw-dropping bass demo that had him scraping his strings against a mic stand and probing them with his teeth — an exhibition that would have had Jimi Hendrix pondering the possibilities of the low end. The kicker: a lengthy Sly and the Family Stone medley, including a moving “Family Affair,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Dance to the Music,” with a finale that had Prince rising up from the bowels of the glyph-shaped stage, clad in fuzzy après-ski boots, to join Graham and crew for “Everyday People” and a palpably joyful “I Want to Take You Higher” that inspired everyone onstage — and a good batch of the crowd — to leap in unison.

The psych-funk-rock lineage clearly established, Prince remained the main Event-with-a-capital-E. The artist presently known as Prince is still an eerily, extraterrestrially-gifted performer, capable of shredding in hair-band-esque Eddie Van Halen mode, then tossing his leopard-pick-guarded guitar off the stage, and finally breaking into a fluid yet precisely controlled slew of popping, locking contortions in what looked to be flared satin PJs. A big-screen closeup of his posterior moving ever-so-minutely in time to the beat captured the detail with hilarious exactitude.

I had to laugh, marveling at the calculated, smooth perfection of the maestro’s moves, though Prince’s absolute, practiced fluency in so many modes of American music — rock tear-throughs, blues jams, soul breakdowns, pop sing-alongs, R&B balladry, jazz interludes and conga workouts with Sheila E. by his side — is seriously hard to question, and in keeping with the title of this tour, “Welcome 2 America.” This not-of-this-earth visitor has conquered the musical languages of the land, turning the tables on the natives.

Still, nothin’ compares 2 love, and Prince was out to please Monday — sprinkling his set with hits like “Raspberry Beret,” “Controversy,” and “Kiss” and unleashing a violet confetti downpour with “Purple Rain” — while seemingly just as eager to embrace the contributions of Carlos Santana, who was lent the Princely guitar; Bay native Sheila E., who sang “The Glamorous Life” to loud home-girl cheers; and backup vocalist Shelby Johnson, who memorably emoted through “Misty Blue,” as Prince playfully pulled Larry Graham up to enact a faux-romantic reunion.

The guest appearances may not have matched the celebrity drive-bys at his recent NYC dates — those ranged from Alicia Keys and Questlove to Cornel West and Kim Kardashian (who got kicked off stage for less-than-stellar dancing) — and new twirlers the Twinz weren’t in the house to add considerable sex appeal, but I, for one, left sated after a two-hour performance that included an hour-long encores. Prince’s displays of slink-worthy lewdness have been replaced by exhibitions of guitar hero virtuosity — “I don’t know how you feel, but I’ve missed you something horrible,” the gold-satin-draped artist cooed to us over a hot gold guitar toward the end of the show — but that made it no less a close encounter of the Princely kind.

With Larry Graham
Wed./23 and Thurs./24, 7:30 p.m., $71.50-$238
Oracle Arena
7000 Coliseum Way, Oakl.

Beige to the bone


FILM What if The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) got so Parks and Rec‘d at The Office party that he ended up with a killer Hangover (2009)? What then, huh? Just maybe the morning-after baby would be Cedar Rapids — named for the determinedly downtempo, unpretentious Iowa city where the smell of cooked oats hung in the air and students from nearby Iowa City, like yours truly, communed regularly at the local arena to bang head to big boys like Metallica. Sweet. And likewise director Miguel Arteta (2009’s Youth in Revolt) wrings sweet-natured chuckles from his banal, intensely beige wall-to-wall convention center biosphere, spurring such ponderings as, should John C. Reilly snatch comedy’s real-guy MVP tiara away from Seth Rogen (Reilly would never pull a Green Hornet on us, would he)? Is this the every-bro coming-of-ager that last year’s Due Date wanted to be before stumbling on its own smugness?

Consider Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of The Hangover), the polar opposite of George Clooney’s ultracompetent, complacent ax-wielder in Up in the Air (2009). He’s the naive manchild-cum-corporate wannabe who’s never been on a plane, much less partied with the competition. Lippe never quite graduated from Timmyville into adulthood: he’s banging his seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) and still working at the small-town insurance company in Brown Valley, Wis., that took him on as a teenaged file clerk when his mother passed.

So when his insurance company’s star employee perishes in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, it’s up to Lippe to hold onto his firm’s two-star rating — bestowed on upstanding insurance peddlers with good Christian values — and make its case at an annual convention in Cedar Rapids. Life conspires against him, however, and despite his heartfelt belief in insurance as a heroic profession, Lippe immediately gets sucked into the oh-so-distracting drama — in the form of playful playa Joan (Anne Heche); buttoned-up roommate Ronald, whose sole guilty pleasure seems to be The Wire (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire); and the dangerously subversive "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom our naif is warned against as a no-good poacher.

Temptations lie around every PowerPoint and potato skin: be it bribery in the presidential suite, cream sherry debauchery in the atrium pool, crack pipes at sketched-out farm parties, or hot convention sex. As Deanzie warns Lippe’s Candide, "I’ve got tiger scratches all over my back. If you want to survive in this business, you gotta daaance with the tiger." How do you do that? Cue lewd, boozy undulations — a potbelly lightly bouncing in the air-conditioned breeze. "You’ve got to show him a little teat."

Fortunately Arteta shows us plenty of that, equipped with a script by Wisconsin native Phil Johnston, written for Helms — and the latter does not disappoint. If The Hangover‘s "Dr. Douchebag" didn’t win over comedy fans, then his all-in, affectionate portrayal of a man with a child in his eyes might, even while Reilly threatens to steal the show with his troublemaking party/fire-starter, the sad-eyed life of the office who’s loathed by the boss.

He, too, has a place amid Cedar Rapids‘ stalwart brownness, and face it, the ’10s are shaping up to be pretty darn brown. Camel is chic, wood-grain is the freak, tea parties are geek, and the reality of hum-drum office-park Carell culture has come to look kind of sexy from across a crowded recession, after such widespread unemployment. It follows that the blandest towns become the sites of transformation; the smallest victories for the most conventional of conventioneers, the stuff of authentically feel-good comedy. Cedar Rapids may poke fun at the flyover states, but it pledges allegiance to those denizens’ essential decency.

CEDAR RAPIDS opens Fri/11 in San Francisco.

Life within sound


MUSIC Peer carefully at the expansive gatefold cover art of Barn Owl’s Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey), and what at first glance looks like two interstellar vessels cruising through the night sky coalesces into something much more grounded, tethered to the spectral shadow of the image’s photographer, Barn Owl guitarist-vocalist Jon Porras, holding his hands over the light source in the foreground.

Porras took the three-minute exposure of the moon over a campfire at SF’s Ocean Beach on a cold, clear April night. “If you look closely, you can see the waves crashing,” he says. “All the light becomes saturated on film — that’s why it’s so luminescent. I actually had to go up to the fire to warm my hands, and you can see a ghostly image of me warming my hands over the fire.

“It’s become a funny joke between my friends.”

It’s also an unlikely, mysterious footnote perfectly in sync with the majestic sounds pouring from Ancestral Star, one of 2010’s best albums, and one that continues to surface new pleasures — from “Sundown”‘s opening overture of distorted guitars to the title track’s incremental, tonal tectonic shifts to “Cavern Hymn”‘s glimmering, deeply echoed fingerpicking. The enigmatic, unexpectedly earthbound image parallels the long tone and drone listening experience as well. “It requires a certain patience,” Porras, 25, muses. “I think long tone music can open up aspects of reality you may not have otherwise have seen.”

Meditative drone, black metal, Tibetan throat-singing, gliding meditations on bowed guitar, and celestial compositions sprinkled with synth, gongs, bells, and singing bowls seamlessly ebb and flow, seemingly of one mesmerizing piece, in a work that feels like the lost, alternative soundtrack to Paris, Texas, or the score to a lost Alejandro Jodorowsky western — a sound that was part of the thinking when Porras and fellow guitarist-vocalist Evan Caminiti went into the studio with friend the Norma Conquest in 2009. It was their first opportunity to record over the course of several months, refining their sound and bringing in musicians such as violinist Marielle Jakobsons (Darwinsbitch) in a professional studio setting.

“We were going for a metaphysical cinematic western,” Porras explains. “We like to have these Americana-influenced guitar passages in combination with more experimental elements to create this overall narrative. I guess the desert at night is an image we like to invoke — fog-shrouded hillsides, the awestruck feelings you get from a landscape.” The sweeping, wonder-inducing American spaces of Cormac McCarthy and Porras’ favorite, Zane Gray, were an inspiration for the two musicians, who first met each other in an American Indian science class at San Francisco State University in 2005.

Metal, as well as the long-tone compositions of Lamont Young and the American primitive fingerpicking of John Fahey, also provided common ground. “We had similar ideas,” Caminiti recalls. “I just remember wanting to combine things that hadn’t necessarily been combined before — heavy music and blues with more folk-influenced music — so we’d work on a piece that had heavy drones and do blues-influenced fingerpicking over it. There was a lot of exploration that had to be done, and we just distilled the sound over the years.”

Those sonic journeys have manifested recently in a collaboration with Headlands Center for the Arts resident Ellen Fullman — who installed her room-sized long-string instrument in her old army building of a studio — out on the Important imprint. And Caminiti and Porras, who also hold down the musical projects Higuma and Elm respectively, are currently working on a new Barn Owl album with Trans Am’s Phil Manley at Lucky Cat Studio, on music sparked by Popul Vuh’s “interlocking chiming guitar passages,” according to Porras.

Now, with performances in the group’s past at such disparate spots as Grace Cathedral (“Great in particular because there’s six seconds of natural reverb, which is perfect for resonant sound,” Porras says), sometime label Root Strata’s On Land gathering, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the Supersonic Festival in the United Kingdom, the Barn Owl experience might be characterized as more metaphysical than visceral.

“We aim to create an enveloping atmosphere where everyone is sucked away into an alternate dimension for 30 minutes,” Caminiti observes. “Everything around you is just put on pause, and you’re just living within the sound in the moment. You become engulfed in the sound. The sound becomes a living organism, which is also why there’s a lot of room for improvisation in our set. For us, it leaves us centered and at peace — it’s a meditative device in a way.” 


With Phil Manley Life Coach and Diego Andres Gonzalez

Tues/25, 9 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

Baby daddy drama


YEAR IN FILM Who’s your daddy? That tired line was more relevant ever in 2010, as big screens saw a firming trend in sperm-donor comedies. These films have attacked so-called family values from a much more commonplace front. After all, artificial insemination is an everyday occurrence. Thousands of multiple births happen in this country every year — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were almost 6,000 triplet births in 2007 — for mothers who are increasingly older and unmarried, and a good many of the multiples result from assisted reproductive therapies such as artificial insemination.

Many a hand has been wrung, historically, over the impact of childbearing among unmarried women: the CDC report’s author cites concerns about family structure and the economic security of children, stating that single moms have more limited financial resources than married breeders. But then what to make of such 2010 comedies as The Kids Are All Right, The Switch, and The Back-up Plan? — not to mention the small-screen tabloid shenanigans of Octomom and the arti-insem antics of the Gosselin family?

Coming on the heels of Baby Mama (2008), which saw two women surmounting class barriers to bond over surrogacy, and welfare-sploitation drama Precious (2009), which included possibly the most nightmarish single mom ever, 2010’s unmarried, artificially inseminated cinematic moms tellingly embody the idea of choice — though the repercussions of their decision to have a child by either an unnamed baby daddy or a known, accomplished stud donor, are still considered the stuff of laughs, both realistic and aspirational.

While The Back-Up Plan rings as the most by-the-book, tepid rom-com of the lot and The Switch feels like a curveball, focusing more on Jason Bateman’s drunken DNA switcheroo and his resulting sad-faced and neurotic offspring (implying a kind of ambivalence about artificial insemination), the best of the bunch is The Kids Are All Right. Grounded and realistic, the dramedy is confident enough to leave a few loose ends dangling, to give the power to the fruit of those supposedly unnatural unions. Just one teensy step beyond gay marriage, gay parenting in The Kids Are All Right is normative, even bourgeois, with one mom, Nic (Annette Bening), working as a doctor and the other, Jules (Julianne Moore), a stay-at-home searching for herself.

As open-minded as the narrator of the Who song that gives the film its title, kids Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are piecing out their identities, in part by independently searching out their biological donor dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), in part by making some very adult decisions about whether they want to have a relationship with him and whether they can trust him. Eons away from the classic messed-up single-mom offspring, Joni and Laser turn out to be more psychologically on-point and morally centered than their moms or bio pop Paul, a feckless Peter Pan charmer ready to jump into the family that life has presented him but irresponsible and thoughtless when it comes to embarking on an affair with Jules.

The painfully transparent, slowly-evolving hurt look on Nic’s face when she realizes the two are sexually involved turns our sympathies around to the side of the mom saddled with the bad cop-disciplinarian role, the uptight one seemingly at odds with the kickback California sunshine. A recent bitter, real-life custody battle between a U.K. lesbian couple and their sperm donor hasn’t sorted out quite so well. Family apparently has its limits — and its moments of forgiveness. The 1970s and ’80s TV and musical clans — à la the bunches Brady, Partridge, and Osmond — may have pushed a semi-subtextual message about togetherness in the face of social and generational upheaval, but these women and their kids are still working it out as they go.

Welcome to the Asylum


MUSIC Just one glance at the title of Sic Alps’ forthcoming full-length, Napa Asylum (Drag City), triggers memories of what might have been one of the most infamous (a.k.a. perfect) moments in punk history: the sight of the Cramps’ Lux Interior lurching among the patients at Napa State Hospital in 1978, as captured in The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, by SF’s Target Video. How does a humble assemblage of SF noisemakers live up to those memories and dare to go there?

“I know, right?” says the affable Mike Donovan by phone, on the brink of this year’s turkey gorge. “We didn’t even think of it, though people-in-the-know think of that.” A sketch of the old institution, ages before the Cramps roared through it, actually gave Donovan, Matt Hartman, and newest member Noel Von Harmonson the idea of attempting a concept album about the lost spirits roaming the ultimate wine country getaway. But once the band got into recording, the notion ultimately died and only the title and a song or two about the institution’s spaces and characters survived, among a whopping 22 tracks.

Before the January release of its fifth long-player, and first since U.S. EZ (Siltbreeze, 2008), Sic Alps are revving into action, playing a Dec. 4 benefit to pay the hospital bills of artist Akassia Mann, who is battling ovarian cancer. Mann is also the mother of Big Eagle’s Robyn Miller — Hartman and Harmonson’s housemate. Count on the downbeat new songs to wash up that night, riddled with pop references yet mangled and unique in a way that, say, Ariel Pink would appreciate.

The darkness on the edges of this batch of numbers was something Donovan considered. “I guess that’s one of the first things one of my friends said, ‘There’s a bunch of bummer tunes on this,'” recalls Donovan, whose good-naturedness seems to run counter to the album’s tone. “It peeked through. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s make things that are really down. Let’s temper these snappy numbers and noise tracks with bummers.’ But with 22 songs, there’s more room for it to do its thing.”

Likewise, when it came down to editing and sequencing the recording, and deciding if it would be a single or double album, Sic Alps went with the flow — namely, Hartman’s sequence. “It was a ‘killer and no filler thing’ and then Matt put together that sequence and sent it out with an e-mail header — ‘A fuck-yes double album,'” offers Donovan. Gone were the fights of old over sequencing: “It was done.”

In went the songs roughly concerning reincarnation (“Nathan Livingston Maddox,” based on Donovan’s dream about the late Gang Gang Dance member) and magic ( which is “meant to brush by you — it’s nothing you can describe or talk about”). Simmering in the free-floating, far-flung Exile on Main Street-meets-crushed-metal-Royal Trux stew, witchy connects are made between the so-called discovery of the Golden State and the mortgage crisis (“The First White Man to Touch California”), as well as mythic rock ‘n’ roll departures and Midwestern innocents leaving home (“Zeppo Epp”).

It all sounds like nothing other than Sic Alps. The group had been taking it easy, with Ty Segall in its ranks, until Harmonson joined late last year. Now the group’s pillar-like P.A.-slash-power station — a product of the need to control its dramatically, drastically dense brand of echo and reverb — has been doubled in the form of a second tower.

Further, the band is currently honing that bristling, dense thicket of echo with simpatico sound maestro Eric Bauer, once Donovan’s bandmate in Big Techno Werewolves. Just in time for a new growth spurt, Sic Alps recently bunked down in Bauer’s basement-based Chinatown analog studio, where Segall recorded his last album, the Oh Sees tracked its next full-length, and the Mantles jotted down a 7-inch. “When the iron was hot, we were like, ‘Fuck it,’ ” says Donovan. After doing the 9-to-5, the band is ready for something more, though Donovan amiably confesses, “I want the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle without getting paid for doing rock ‘n’ roll. I only work two days a week, but I have a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle — without the money.”


With the Mumlers, Big Eagle, Bart Davenport, and the Moore Brothers

Sat/4, 8 p.m., $10–$15 sliding scale

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF


Treasure Island Music Fest preview, take two


Don’t make Gollum come over here. Is 2010 the year that Treasure Island’s indie rock programming skews “precious, precious,” playing to our staider, more subdued selves, in search of sure things and still uncertain that we’ve recovered from that doozy of a Great Recession hangover?

How else would Ms. Indieface Snap-Judgement — always a tough critic — size up a day crowned by the excellent, seldom-seen, but never-too-outta-hand Belle and Sebastian? A day studded with such dutiful students of well-behaved melodicism as She and Him (whose “Home,” off Volume 2 [Merge], is either ironic or one of the most overly-sugared numbers this year) and the National, deep-throating dryly and eloquently about masculine banalities via Matt Berninger’s well-used baritone?

Down, girl — no blubbering, land-lubber. Listen to the still-raging, feisty Superchunk, navigating its own frothing white-water distortion. Behold a different breed of rock-out madness in the crowd-control maestros of Monotonix and the passionate school-band kids of Ra Ra Riot. You know there’s no way to dismiss Treasure Island’s rock seafarers as simply too-cute weak geeks and stubborn post-punk freaks.

Nay, matey, if anything unites the washed and unwashed swept ashore Sunday at Treasure Island fest, it’s the conceit that indie is completely fractured in 2010: a broken social scene, for sure, encapsulated by no one sound. This year’s rock labels skew toward the other coast — more Matador/4AD and Merge than Sub Pop — and the bands trend older rather than younger, tending toward the proven rather than the unknown. A few common themes thread through disparate bands’ songs in ways that might amuse followers of the collective unconscious — whether it’s the ghosts that float through Belle and Sebastian and the National’s latest discs, or the way Superchunk hollers, “I stopped swimming/ Learned to surf” on, of course, “Learned to Surf,” while Surfer Blood, natch, warbles, “If you move out west, you better learn how to surf” in “Floating Vibe.”

Catholic tastes, classical gases come out to play, although nothing is ever clear-cut. In fact, Belle and Sebastian appear to be making moves toward Saturday’s electronics with Write About Love (Matador), as subtle synthesizers shimmer along the surfaces of “I Didn’t See It Coming,” and guest vocalist Norah Jones slathers buttery soul over the mannered Dusty-goes-to-Memphis-Sunday-service of “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” Picture B&S dragging itself — via Northern soul and brassy, oh-so-forward grooves — into, gulp, the 1970s and even ’80s. Not that Stuart Murdoch is going easily into middle age: tracks such as “Calculating Bimbo” hinge on barbed jabs. Are B&S feeling sinister and bitter to be woken from a twee dream, one that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the Crystal Stilts seemed to be taking for their own last year?

There’s no need to retreat to precious twee when bands like the National are brooding so prettily and anthemically. On High Violet (4AD), the blandly, grandiosely monikered combo sounds like ‘burb-bound Ian Curtises wandering betwixt the sadlands of Bruce Springsteen and the cushy enclaves of Coldplay. Ms. Snap wonders how the group can reproduce the recording’s plush, simultaneously warm and coolly detached production in concert. It’s as much a character as any of the dour, pathetic, and somewhat mean-spirited men populating High Violet.

Better still are groups like Broken Social Scene, which keep you guessing while lobbing one wobbly, janky curveball after another on Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts), dipping toes into puddles of foghorn-like electronics (“World Sick”), toying with dynamic highs and lows while embracing the rock-out (“Meet Me in the Basement”) and the close-up (“Sentimental X’s”). You forgot that indie rock could still do it, but songs like “Forced to Love” and “Sweetest Kill” jolt you out of cozy complacency.


Sat/16, noon–11 p.m.; Sun/17, noon–10:30 p.m.;


Treasure Island, SF


Scroll of sound


MUSIC One of the singular ironies among the speedy online dissemination of sounds has to be the rediscovery of so many 1960s- and ’70s-era women singer-songwriters who came, sang, and seemingly disappeared in the wake of Joni, Judy, and Joan. Singular among Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, and those other ladies of the canyon is Linda Perhacs, the maker of Parallelograms, an achingly beautiful ode to nature and an all-too-brief testament to one young woman’s life, first released on Kapp in 1970 and most recently re-released in 2008 by Sunbeam.

From the start, psychedelic and folk-rock aficionados have been swept away by Parallelograms‘ opener "Chimacum Rain," as Perhacs’ overdubbed harmonies pour down like a sweet shower in the Olympic Peninsula while she tenderly pieces out, "I’m spacing out, I’m seeing/ Silences between leaves." But the title track is the heart of the album. A child of both Joni Mitchell and Free Design, with its jazzy washes of atonal color, circling Celtic guitar figure, and exploratory electronic effects, "Parallelograms" is a genuinely haunting masterpiece of experimental psychedelia — a future-folk madrigal that has inspired artists as disparate as Daft Punk (which used her "If You Were My Man" demo in 2007’s Electroma) and Devendra Banhart (who sang with Perhacs on "Freely," from 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon).

It’s a recording informed by the natural world of Perhacs, born Linda Jean Arnold in Southern California, raised among the the redwoods of Mill Valley, and relocated once more to Topanga Canyon as a young dental hygienist. By day, she’d work on the teeth of the famous and talented in Beverly Hills, and on the weekend, she and her husband, artist Les Perhacs, would venture into the "very raw wilderness" of Big Sur, Mendocino, and Alaska, she tells me today from LA, where she continues to apply her healing powers to celebrated smiles. "I’d walk the beaches in Baja, California, or the Sea of Cortez, Canada or the Pacific Northwest. I’d spend a lot of time alone walking — that’s when I started to write songs. It just seemed to come naturally in the middle of such beauty. I was just describing what I was seeing."

That vision — and its sonic incarnation — was recognized by Oscar-winning film composer Leonard Rosenman, a patient who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg and befriended Perhacs. Once he heard her rough demo and saw her "scroll" — her sketchlike notation for the song "Parallelograms," which she saw as a "moving sound sound-sculpture" — Rosenman decided he had to record her. "He said, ‘I could live a lifetime and only come up with two ideas this good,’" recalls Perhacs. The composer gave Universal Records a demo of two of her more conventional songs, secured funding, and assembled such ace players as guitarist Steve Cohn and percussionists Shelley Mann and Milt Holland to play on the LP, telling Perhacs, "If you see the executives from Universal walking in with suits, switch to another song because they’ll never understand this piece." In Perhacs’ words, "He supported me, but let the creativity of a young person come through."

Perhacs’ rare vision continues to shine through, though she never tried to replicate Parallelograms‘ many-layered vocals and effects live until recently. In fact, her forthcoming San Francisco Art Institute concert of new material — and a few songs from the 1970 classic, she promises — is only her third public performance. Rather, after making her powerful, influential sole disc, life — and spirit — called Perhacs, who passionately holds forth on theosophist Annie Besant’s thought forms (which find a place in Perhacs’ SFIAF concert), Paramahansa Yogananda, and Sister Josefa Mendez’s unabridged The Way of Divine Love.

"I’m a trained nurse," explains the songwriter, who remembers making music at age 5. "I know this stuff isn’t good for people. I know I lost a bunch of close friends in the ’70s. "Paper Mountain Man" — we lost him at 33. He was being a space pilot with his mind, and we lost him. I knew the dangers, and I knew from working on entertainment personalities in Beverly Hills. I didn’t want that world. I knew it would have an effect on an unformed personality. My sense of caution told me, ‘Do not go on the road and try to live that kind of life.’ My sense of inner balance told me, ‘Keep your balance.’"

The lack of label promotion and the first pressing of Parallelograms, badly remixed for AM radio, discouraged Perhacs from pursuing music further, until a 2003 visit by Wild Places’ Michael Piper, who first reissued the album on CD using the original LP. Shortly before his visit, Perhacs had almost died of pneumonia, but she soon discovered that her album had found a second life, too: "I was really weak when this guy got a hold of me and said, ‘The Internet has sent the album all over the world. I just felt guilty that you didn’t know what was going on.’" Perhacs had hung on to her own masters as well as demos she made after Parallelograms, and with Piper’s help, the original mix and never-before-heard songs like "If You Were My Man" were finally released. A vinyl version of Parallelograms as it was meant to be heard is due soon on Mexican Summer.

And Perhacs is making new music, inspired and supported by such friends and fans as We Are the World’s Aaron Robinson and Robbie Williamson, and Julia Holter, who performed with her not long ago at Red Cat in LA — a new community akin to her long-ago Topanga Canyon creative milieu. "When we had a budget it went really quickly and was very organized," she says sweetly today. "We all have straight gigs, as you call them, so it’s hard to get us all together to rehearse or record." Nevertheless, she adds, "I felt very comfortable with what I stayed with, which was spiritual pursuit. Going on the road did not feel right to me, but at this stage of my life, I don’t feel vulnerable — you could put me in the middle of a million people and I would feel solid with the choices I made."

With Julia Holter and CLoudS
Sat/9, 7 p.m., $17
San Francisco Art Institute Lecture Hall
800 Chestnut, SF

Horns of plenty


MUSIC Shaun O’Dell is best known for his visual art work — work that has earned him a Goldie from the Guardian, a SECA Award from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and more recently the Tournesol Award at Headlands Center for the Arts. Less known is O’Dell’s work in music, likely because over the years the artist has distanced himself from the scene, its attendant clash of egos, and the oft-inevitable creative tussles. “I’d been in bands before,” he says by phone. “That’s part of the reason I went into visual art. I didn’t want to collaborate with people anymore — it just got weird and stressful.”

So when old friend and Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer — for whom O’Dell played sax on an early Coachwhips recording — asked the painter to try his hand at his latest project with Randy Lee Sutherland (Vholtz, Murder Murder) a couple years ago, O’Dell obviously wasn’t planning on major sand scuffles or gladiatorial touring.

The three started playing together, and lo, “it worked.” Meaning, the trio might play a little before a performance and then bring it all together live, while improvising. “It wasn’t rehearsed music — it was more build-up-a-language music,” as O’Dell puts it. “The energy was really about the live thing, but there was a lot of energy between the three of us whenever we played. It was good that way — no hassles.”

“We played shows a lot of times with noise bands, and we weren’t trying to make noise — we weren’t trying to make chaos. We were basically searching through the chaos to find these common places for us to make harmonic things happen or melodic things happen or rhythmic things coalesce,” O’Dell recollects. “I think the music was interesting to me because both those guys were committed to communicating but not afraid to explore and have the music fall apart at times, and I think on the record you can hear that.”

You can hear that sense of play, exploration, and driving pulse on Sword and Sandals’ studio debut, Good & Plenty (Empty Cellar). O’Dell and Sutherland, both on alto sax, weave in and out of each other’s lines, calling like exotic birds, while Dwyer picks up such unexpected instruments as the flute on the untitled second track. Dwyer and Sutherland took turns on drums, O’Dell played tenor and Sutherland bass clarinet, and all three played keyboards, with Dwyer, and on one track, Anthony Petrovic of Ezee Tiger, interjecting with electronics and a ramshackle Moog at engineer Lars Savage’s Mission District studio.

Tracked live during one all-day Ben Hur of a session, sans overdubs, Good & Plenty‘s improvisations pull at the ear insistently, with one foot lodged in the warehouses of SF’s post-punk/-hardcore experimental music scene and another in the wild, woolly outback of improv. “All three of us have played music enough to commit to playing off the top of our heads and listening enough to make something work,” observes O’Dell. “I think that’s what made it different.”

It’s all different now: after two years with Sword and Sandals, two 2007 live CD-Rs, and a track on a Zum TwoThousandTapes compilation earlier this year, O’Dell has left the band. Instead O’Dell and Sutherland are carrying on as a duo dubbed WR/DS, playing the S&S release-show-of-sorts at Viracocha and O’Dell’s book release party at Park Life Gallery. O’Dell hopes to incorporate a string section at Park Life, wryly describing WR/DS repetitive, sometimes-Terry-Reilly-inspired experiments as “art gallery music. It means we like to do it in spaces that make acoustic music sound good. It’s kind of a joke — but kind of not a joke.”

Not that Sword and Sandals wasn’t touched or touched by the art realm as well. “For me, it became a good outlet for trusting in the unknown, as far as it was related to my art practice,” explains O’Dell. “I was overdoing it for years and years, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m interested in the places I don’t know about so much.

“It’s a different thing playing music,” he continues, “but your brain is doing the same thing — just letting go and not judging yourself and playing and not judging other people you’re playing with and finding space to make music.”


With Up Died Sound, Pillars and Tongues, and Joseph Childress

Wed/22, 8 p.m., call for price


998 Valencia, SF

(415) 374-7048

Also Sept. 30, 6–8 p.m., free

Park Life Gallery

220 Clement, SF

(415) 386-7275

Stimulating voltage


Don’t ask synthesizer inventor and electronic instrument designer Don Buchla (appearing Thu/9 as part of the 11th Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival) for a CD of his music. He’s more interested in following his curious muse — in this case, through the oft-uncharted territory of performance — than documenting his many experiments.

“It’s hard to have a CD that hasn’t been done yet,” the soft-spoken, even-keeled Buchla quips, deep within his Berkeley Victorian. He’s tucked behind a desk in a beige-carpeted, orderly studio-basement dotted with instruments — a hulking vibraphone dominates the space — and a few rainbow-colored 1960s- and ’70s-era lights. “None of my music can be recorded,” he adds. “It’s all theatrical in nature and involves a lot of visual simulations — stimulations.”

Buchla’s last performances were with saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum in Europe. His next appearance, a rare Bay Area one, will be in collaboration with Nine Inch Nails player Alessandro Cortini, for whom he made one of his Buchla Series 200e analog synthesizers. Using the 200e, a Thunder tactile surface MIDI controller, and various pieces of percussion, the two are making electronic and acoustic music with a distinct “element of chaos.” Buchla says they are striving for “unpredictability — allowing things to happen that we didn’t anticipate.”

In the meantime, forget about procuring a document of any of the practice sessions. Still, the inventor — who came out with his first modular synthesizer just months after Robert Moog in 1963 and created the first analog sequencer, among many other instruments — has made live CDs in the past. Indeed, his audiences would sometimes get a CD of the first half of a concert once the performance was completed and receive the second half in the mail. “If you want a record of the music,” he says, “the record should be the music you heard.”

If the live-recording-as-you-wait approach reminds you of the tape heads who devoted their energies to the Grateful Dead, you’re not far off: the Dead were onetime Buchla clients. He built their sound system — as well as the system on Ken Kesey’s bus — around the time he was doing sound and light at the Avalon Ballroom and the first Fillmore auditorium, as part of the North American Ibis Alchemical Company. Owsley Stanley, the Dead’s soundman and the onetime LSD cook, enlisted Buchla to make a Series 100 system for the band. “He wanted it to be very unique, so I painted all the panels candy-apple red,” Buchla remembers with a chuckle. “It was quite dazzling. It’s in their museum now, a collector’s item.”

Buchla’s instruments have all become collector’s items, from his Series 500, the first digitally controlled analog synth, to his all-in-one-paintbox Music Easel. “I usually can’t afford to keep them myself,” he says, laughing. “If I had, I’d be wealthy now.”

The first synthesizer that Buchla built in 1963 for composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender at the San Francisco Tape Music Center was the fruit — the silver apple — of the UC Berkeley physics graduate drop-out and musique concrete composer’s roving curiosity. He’d learned that the Center had a three-track tape recorder, a marvel anywhere outside film studio contexts at the time. “I observed what they were using to compose electronic music,” Buchla remembers. “I proposed that instead of using the radar and gun sights and physics lab equipment and Hewlett-Packard oscillator, they build instruments intentionally geared toward electronic music. That was a revolutionary thought.”

In the 1984 book The Art of Electronic Music, Subotnick tells Jim Aikin that Buchla synthesizers are notable for “the way things are designed and laid out, so that a composer can impose his or her own personality on the mechanism. For example, Don always disassociated a voltage controlled amplifier from its control voltage source. That meant that the voltage source could be used for controlling anything. It wasn’t locked into a single use … That kind of sophistication has given him [a reputation] as the most interesting of all the people building this kind of equipment.”

The first Buchla Box, using touch-sensitive pads or ports rather than a standard keyboard, was funded with a $500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Today it’s permanently ensconced at Mills College. On a side note, Buchla estimates it would easily go for $30,000. Buchla still tackles new designs — he has a multichannel filter that can serve as a Vocoder coming out next month — and his instruments, it seems, “don’t depreciate at all, so they’re good investments.”

“But I prefer to build them for playing.” 


Wed/8–Sat/11, various times, $10–$40 (pass)

(Alessandro Corti and Don Buchla perform Thurs/9, 8 p.m., $10–$16)

Brava Theatre (except Fri/10 at de Young Museum)

2781 24th St, SF

(415) 861-3257

Agony uncle


FILM Alternately slavish and critical, simultaneously buying into and subtly resisting the hype, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a bit like the renowned producer himself, who said this to biographer Mick Brown in 2007’s Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: the Rise and Fall of Phil Spector: “I have a bipolar personality … I have devils inside that fight me. And I’m my own worst enemy … I would say I’m probably relatively insane.”

Director Vikram Jayanti coproduced the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings (1996), yet seems to be more interested in American celebrity Babylons of late, à la The Golden Globes: Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret (2003). You can see why he scored the interview with Spector at the center of Agony, since he gets on board the musicmaker’s bifurcated, multichannel tip. The doc is both fascinating and monotonous, respectful of Spector’s achievements as well as the sensation surrounding his blighted celebrity. The filmmaker stays away from the specifics of the night in 2003 when Lana Clarkson was found dead at Spector’s mansion, while recontextualizing the producer’s words and music with images culled from the murder trial and other footage. The end result is an innuendo-laden pastiche that resembles an echo chamber reverberating with all the doomed dramatics of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).”

Unavoidable, weirdly unblinking, and placed like a crazy diamond in front of John Lennon’s ivory “Imagine” grand piano is the wiggy wonder himself, rambling about such tidbits as his explosive courtroom ‘do (“It was a tribute to Albert Einstein and Beethoven. That day it got a little extreme”). In conversation, Jayanti dwells on the sunnier side of Spector’s checkered history: no mention is made of his alleged pistol-waving at the Ramones during the making of 1980’s End of the Century, or his reputed mistreatment of ex-wife and Ronettes star, Ronnie Spector — likely a condition of the interview. But the director manages to get in a scattershot series of thrusts and parries concerning the man and his guilt or innocence, pairing courtroom scenes — the image of a spent gun beside Clarkson’s twisted feet, a sphinx-like Spector in all his pop-Godfather pin-striped finery — with B&W TV clips of his now-classic, far-from-disposable songs.

The musical roll call is impressive, including the eerie, elegiac “To Know Him Is to Love Him” with Spector himself strumming guitar as part of the Teddy Bears and warbling to his dead father (who, eerily, committed suicide by “blowing his brains out,” as Spector puts it); the truly exquisite “Spanish Harlem”; and such rock ‘n’ roll Rosetta stones as “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby.” Subtitles by author Brown blow up the historical importance of the music, which could have easily stood on its own, and add to the po-mo swirl of information surrounding the man, the career, and the comedown. Yet we don’t hear from Spector’s crucial vocalists, who, like Darlene Love of the Crystals, struggled to find recognition beyond the producer’s Wall of Sound power, or the artists, who arguably tended to chafe against the producer’s overriding vision.

Still, to the Jayanti’s credit, Agony‘s strange parallels stay with you: Clarkson, in blackface, impersonates Little Richard (in a failed bid to resurrect her comedy career), around the time Lennon is heard on the soundtrack singing “Woman is the Nigger of the World”; Spector rattles on about how he wasn’t surprised when Lennon was shot (“People wanted to become famous by killing him, and if you were neurotic and crazy enough … “) before a prosecutor offers, “Lana Clarkson wasn’t an anonymous nobody who deserved a bullet to her head.” Over it all looms the so-called legend — a victim, yes, as he implies at the start, but one who has fallen prey to his own press, and to his own eternally flaming ego.