Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Remember the Daze

Not Derivative At All.

Movie: Remember the Daze (2007)

Director: Jess Manafort

Starring: Amber Heard, Chris Marquette, Lyndsy Fonseca

Written by: Jess Manafort

It appears that the 90s are officially fair game for the nostalgia industry.  Remember the Daze is entirely summed up in its name.  Though I’m willing to blame the film studio for the naming, this is little more than an unofficial sequel to Dazed and Confused, a film which told the story of a town of teenagers (mostly incoming seniors) on the last day of school in 1976.  This retelling does little more than wind the clock forward to the last day of school in 1999 and removes the freshman abuse, sweet hairstyles, and Ben Affleck’s greatest role ever.

Furthermore, Dazed and Confused isn’t the only film absorbed by this upstart.  It’s very appropriate that Remember the Daze was originally titled The Beautiful Ordinary, because this film also seems to aspire to be American Beauty. If there’s a reason why this film isn’t drowning in the throwback tunes that plague such nostalgia flicks (though lameass 90s radio rock does get some face time), it’s because the filmmakers elected to make the score wistful, attempting to drive home the idea that these are the best of times and every moment toward adulthood is a moment lost.  So when the kids aren’t running around getting wasted, they’re softly pondering the future.  All the while, a silent (and obviously blessed) teen photographs the day’s events, capturing this one perfect moment in time.

Most of the kids who populate this film are likeable enough, though only a few really stand out.  On the one hand, the spastic blue-haired punk, the quixotic older drug dealer, and the rap star with a piss-wasted alter ego provide the easy comedy.  Less blatant are the two girls who spend the evening babysitting while on mushrooms, which leads to some amusing quirk.  On the serious side lurks a lesbian couple divided on whether to come out of the closet, which is as close as this movie comes to obtaining gravity.

One strange side effect of this film’s clash of styles is that there are many moments in the film in which it seems as though something disastrous is about to happen.  Yet the film swerves away from calamity every time.  A car accident is averted, domestic abuse is hinted at but never shown, and a possible heart attack is laughed off.  The film plays at darkness, but when asked to choose between goofball antics and melodrama it almost always takes the safe route.

Maybe every decade deserves its own Dazed and Confused, its own captured moment of ended youth and disillusionment.  All the same, Remember the Daze is a lesser adaptation.

Y Marks the Spot: Worst. Song. Ever.

One! One, nothing's wrong with me! Ah! Ah! Ah!

The cold clutches of a hundred VH1 propagandists came for me one Friday night, as my friends and I gathered around a bar rail and drank off the approaching bar time. The button-up middle aged prick to our right was having trouble keeping his head from exploding, due to my usual disdain for the Beatles circle-jerk. In typical hipster fashion, he reacted as though I had just punched his mom in the face, though I only called Lennon an overrated schmuck and McCartney a dopey slinger of trite. After the freakout he sniffed that I needed to expand my musical horizons. Ever notice that this statement usually means fawning over whatever safe/edgy acts populate the current Rolling Stone best-ever list? That’s not expansive; it’s not even musical.

Still, after the namedropper declared that he couldn’t handle our level of ignorance and ran off, I decided to think a bit more about my musical tastes. A question shot out of me, and it shocked me that I had never asked it before. What’s the worst song ever? I blinked. Naming all the various Top 5s of preference was easy and had been done before, but perhaps because music is a form of media (alongside television) with a constant barrage of involuntarily absorbed crap, it’s hard to single out one shining turd to carry the shame. For a second, there was no answer. I looked down at my drink, sideways at my friends, rolling the magic 8-ball around in my head before the answer leaped out and punched me in the face.

“Bodies,” by Drowning Pool, is the worst song of all time.

Now I’ll admit that a big part of my Beatles loathing is cultural and not musical. I was born well after the band’s place in history was set in stone and made it an unassailable cliché. Music, in our state of propaganda, is much more than music; it’s marketing, packaging, radio play, monthly messianic music media. You can be bombarded from a dozen different directions by a musician whose music you’ve never even heard (see: the Osbournes, Chris Brown, the Heartagram). Therefore, I think it’s acceptable to dislike a musician based on the culture he or she creates.

I say this to point out that culture was secondary in declaring “Bodies” my worst song ever. Musically, it’s a mediocre song with a predictable low end and vaguely interesting guitar wails, but Dave Williams’ inane, repetitive growling of third-grade lyrics pushes “Bodies” into shit superstardom. We get sinister whispers in the opening, building tension. We get winded, contrived couplets that would make William Hung piss razors (“Beaten, why for?” Really?). We get a pre-chorus counting game that transforms Dave Williams into the mongoloid cousin of Sesame Street’s Count von Count (“One! One, nothing’s wrong with me! Ah! Ah! Ah!”). And of course, there’s the Cookie Monster call to arms: “Let the bodies hit the floor!” Stir these ingredients, add a pinch of the requisite walls-are-caving-in metal lyrics at the interlude, throw in a few randomly placed adolescent wails, and you’ve got a real piece of shit anthem on your hands!

Now here’s the cultural. It was bad enough hearing this song before Dave Williams died in 2002 and martyred the goddamn thing. Now, “Bodies” has become a permanent Bat-Signal for fistheads across the globe; wherever there are pro wrestling shows, monster truck rallies, or scattered gunfire, there by the grace of God goes Drowning Pool.

It gets better. A few years back, a story broke which stated that American soldiers at Guantanamo Bay were torturing detainees with loud, abrasive music, blaring it at all hours. Guess what one of the songs was. And while most reactions from the appropriated musicians ranged from moderately disturbed to fury and outrage (Metallica’s James Hetfield was a rare case of the cautiously supportive), Drowning Pool’s bassist, Stevie Benton, had the arrogance to say the following:

“People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down. I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.”

Reader, just stop right here. Go back to that quote, and read it again. Then read it another time. Let’s get this straight. Drowning Pool’s music is going to STOP another 9/11? If I was forced to listen to “Bodies,” on repeat, cranked to unbearable volume, I would want to perform an act of destruction so monstrous that it would make terrorism seem like a little girl’s tea party.

So yeah. For reasons both musical and cultural, I deem “Bodies” the worst song of all time.

But fear not, sinners, for although Drowning Pool has authored the greatest abomination in music history, they are not, in fact my worst band ever. For making Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles retirement home rock look viciously Satanic by comparison, that title belongs to the Carpenters.

Music Morphine

Y Spy: Vienna Teng Is Vanishing

Alex Wong and Vienna Teng

This weekend’s Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle will serve as the last performance by pianist Vienna Teng before she leaps into her new life as a graduate student.  The music world would do well to be envious.  Over the past decade Teng has amassed a catalogue of heartwrenching songs spanning the gaps between pop, folk, and classical music.  With producer Alex Wong being made an equal partner, the duo recently released The Moment Always Vanishing, a magnificent live album which expands Teng’s established songs into full-live orchestrations.  It’s a fine (and hopefully very temporary) stopping point.

With Wong popping in to expand upon a few points, Vienna Teng discussed the formation of their team, making the live album, and walking away.

Y Spy: As opposed to your previous releases, The Moment Always Vanishing is credited as Vienna Teng and Alex Wong.  Is that a permanent change?

Vienna Teng: I’m actually going away from being a full-time musician right after Bumbershoot, so I guess that is an open question.  I’m gonna be starting grad school about two days after we play.  I would say yes in the sense that Alex and I definitely intend to keep working together and to make music together, but we’re also independent entities.  He definitely has his own projects.  It was more a recognition of a collaboration of peers.

Alex Wong: It’s definitely something that we talked about.  The show became more of a collaboration, and it felt appropriate. We’ve talked about other collaborations that we would like to do, something outside of the pop world, maybe more of a theater-type show.  The live shows are going to come to an end, but we’ll definitely be making stuff for a long time.

Y Spy: How did you come to work together?

Vienna Teng: We actually met at an open mic long before we started working together.  We became friends, and I was a huge fan of his band that played that night, the Animators.  We stayed in touch, so whenever our paths intersected we would do a show together.  Eventually it became an annual thing that for the holidays, since we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, we would both end up at home with our parents and we’d play a show in San Francisco together.

About three years ago, his schedule opened up and he offered to play with me, which was really exciting for me.  He’s a really imaginative live player as well as a good producer, so I wanted to see what the songs would be like if he got to reimagine them from his perspective.  That’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years, and people have really been responding to it, so we wanted to make a live record to commemorate.

Y Spy: How has Alex’s presence changed the live show?

Vienna Teng: I played solo for pretty much the entire first year that I was a full-time musician.  That’s where I was most comfortable for a long time.  Alex is the first person I’ve collaborated with; it has become a very solid partnership.  I’ve gotten to be comfortable with this other person on stage and feel completely in sync.

We’ll be playing Bumbershoot as a duo plus extra firepower, which is inaccurately named the Vienna Teng Trio.  Alex will be playing a custom percussion setup that he’s developed for the show that we do.  He plays a lot of acoustic instruments that he hooks mics on and then runs through different effects.  It creates a really cool half electronic/half acoustic sound.  He also plays keyboards and guitar, and a lot of exotic percussion instruments, and he sings as well.  What’s really cool about what he does is that he multitasks, so he’ll be playing drums and keyboards and a percussion instrument at the same time.

We’re also joined by a guy named Ward Williams who plays cello and electric guitar and sings.  It’s really fun creating that much sound with three people.

Alex Wong: Since we’ve started working together on the live shows, we’ve definitely spent more time deconstructing songs and trying to reconstruct them as duo.  There’s a lot more attention to layers and sounds, and how to tell the story with more interesting arrangements.

Y Spy: How did you go about making a live album?

Vienna Teng: We decided to record in what we call our two hometowns: San Francisco and New York.  We did two shows in one night in New York, in a place called Joe’s Pub, and we did two shows in San Francisco at the club where we’d have our holiday shows, The Independent.  We just wanted to capture the energy of those two cities.  We caught the best performances of those four shows and made it into a single show.

Alex Wong: The show had been developing for the last year, year and a half, before we recorded it.  We both had been evolving our parts and setups for this live show, and it became this thing that felt pretty unique, and it started to become farther removed from what was happening on the studio records.  We wanted to have something that represented what we did together live.  A lot of the songs are different in arrangement and sounds, and there were a lot of people who were asking for that version of those songs.

Y Spy: There’s a lot of back and forth between you and the audience, and you explain a lot of what’s behind your songs.  Was that always the plan?

Vienna Teng: That was a fan request.  We put a live DVD of a special show in Philadelphia where we had a bigger band that we never toured with.  People enjoyed that, but they did say that there wasn’t any talking on that DVD.  We had cut it out because we thought that I’m just talking, just blabbering, so who wants to have that?  But for some reason that was something people said that they enjoy about the show, so we decided to include it.

Y Spy: As opposed to a lot of live albums, yours put the stage talk into separate tracks, giving the listener the opportunity to keep it or skip into the action.

Vienna Teng: We kind of went back and forth with it.  We didn’t want to put all the talking at the beginning of tracks, because that’s a lot to fast forward through.  We’ve also heard albums where they’ve put the next song’s intro at the end of the previous track.  We just made them separate so that people could create a list of just songs.

Y Spy: One thing that stood out on the live album was the extensive use of loops in “The Last Snowfall,” which contrasted with a lot of songs which sounded more straightforward.  Was the idea to bring more electronic and production techniques to the live show?

Vienna Teng: There is a fair amount of electronics going on in certain songs.  Other songs are “No Gringo” and “Gravity.”  There’s a little bit of looping or sometimes effects that Alex, Ward, and I are using.  Hopefully it sounds seamless most of the time, and people wonder afterwards where all that sound was coming from.

Maybe “The Last Snowfall” was the least subtle.  Because on the studio album it was five or six people singing, I knew I couldn’t perform the song unless I had some other way of doing it.  I bought that looper and was experimenting with it, so that arrangement came out of buying a new toy and figuring out how to do that song which would be impossible to do otherwise.

Alex and I have one rule: that we don’t want to include anything prerecorded in the show.  We think it’s really important to create something where the audience is aware that all of it is happening in the moment.  There is that tightrope walk, that whenever I do “The Last Snowfall” all of the lines are being sung in front of everybody.  It’s not like I had a bunch of backing vocals that are prerecorded and are never wrong.  There’s something about the organic nature of creating things live, even if you’re creating and recording them live and then playing them back.

Y Spy: How did you release The Moment Always Vanishing?

Vienna Teng: We have a very generous record label, Rounder.  They said that live albums don’t sell nearly as well at retail.  We truly understood that they didn’t want to throw all their firepower behind it, so we said that we wanted to make it for our fans, and asked permission to print a set number of copies and sell those at our shows and online.  It’s not an official Rounder release, but it definitely came out with Rounder’s blessing and a bit of their support.  We’re very grateful for that.

Y Spy: How did going on to grad school and putting your music career on hold come about?

Vienna Teng: The program I’m going into is basically Sustainable Enterprise Studies, so it’s a dual degree in Environmental Science and Business, an MBA and a Master’s.  It’s something that has been a dream of mine as long as pursuing music has been.  It just felt like the right time to go.

I was recently thinking about how much joy I get from running away to music, rather than having it be my full-time pursuit.  I think that a lot of good music will come out of procrastinating on homework assignments.

Y Spy: Have you had other moments in your career when music wasn’t your top priority?

Vienna Teng: Only in the very beginning.  I’ve been super lucky; pretty much from the time I quit my software engineering job in 2002, I’ve never had a day job.  [Music was] the thing that paid my bills – sometimes barely paid my bills.

Y Spy: Are you still gathering new songs?

Vienna Teng: Yeah.  Recently I was at home for a while and started writing again.  I have this idea for an album that’s in its very starting stages.  I’m a very slow writer, so I think it’s gonna take a couple of years for all the songs to take shape.  There will be a studio album in the future, but not yet.  Maybe in the meantime I’ll release something a little lower pressure, like a holiday album or an album of covers, or a bunch of assorted songs that were co-written with friends over the years.

Y Spy: Alex, because of the level of work you’ve done together, will it be hard to adjust to music beyond Vienna Teng?

Alex Wong: Definitely.  I really enjoyed working with Vienna.  She’s an amazing talent.  I will miss playing with her.  This project has consumed more of my time than anything else over the last couple years.  There will definitely be some withdrawal.

Y Spy: What else have you been working on lately?

Alex Wong: Most recently I did a track on Elizabeth and the Catapult’s upcoming record.  I just finished producing Ari Hest’s upcoming record.  I produced The Paper Raincoat’s existing record, which is also my band.  I’m singing and playing guitar in that project; it’s a duo with Amber Rubarth, who is another singer-songwriter.  I will be touring with the Paper Raincoat and working on some more production and writing projects in New York.

Y Spy: Vienna, as you’re about to take this big step in your life, how do you feel about your musical career to this point?

Vienna Teng: I feel really good about it.  It’s one of those paradoxes in that I feel that I couldn’t leave music unless I felt like I had gotten where I should be, but at the same time when you get there, you think “Why am I leaving?”  The only answer I can give is that, somehow, music gave me permission to move on.  That’s how it felt.

Y Spy: Was there a certain point when you felt that you had achieved everything you set out to do?

Vienna Teng: No.  I don’t think so at all.  I don’t think I’ve checked everything off my list.  There are people I haven’t gotten to collaborate with yet, instruments I haven’t learned to play.  I’ve never completely self-produced my own album, which I hope to do someday.  Bumbershoot is definitely a big thing that I would have had on that list to check off, so it’s nice that that’s happening right before school starts.  There’s still a lot of exciting stuff in music that I would like to do, but I think it crossed over into “That would be nice” rather than “I can’t give up until that happens.”

The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th at 8:30 pm. “The Moment Always Vanishing” is available now.  More information is available at www.viennateng.com.

Y Spy: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Yes it does.

What: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Where: Plan B, Bellingham

When: Friday, August 13th

The real star of Plan B’s Friday the 13th show was Billy Dee Williams.  Lurking in the shadows of the bar’s stage, the cardboard cutout of the Colt 45 spokesman managed to make its presence felt throughout the night.  While the show’s two bands tore through pop-punk (with a twist) and acoustic rock (again, with a twist), Ol’ Lando presided over the festivities, benevolently giving the night his blessing.

Here's Johnnie

After years of plying their grownup breed of pop-punk around the bars and basements of the Midwest, Here’s Johnnie has brought their game to Washington.  Their first show in their new home took place at the Plan B Bar, playing to a full crowd.  Whether singing about the living dead or breaking out drinking songs, Here’s Johnnie kept their intensity bright, yet throughout their set, the band mixed party chords with clever parts, with at least one member of the group left-fielding their role at any given time.  They weren’t afraid to leap into solos, play with time signatures or key shifts, or let songs go beyond standard single length, all of which snared those lured in by their catchy hooks.   “Get Right” was the night’s best example of how much the band could both honor and subvert genre conventions, its complex bassline leading the wails, speed, and smashing.

The set was much more than your average teen-baiting pop-punk.  Instead, Here’s Johnnie offered music set to appeal to those who at the very least can buy a beer.  Avoiding the expected route served the band well, and Here’s Johnnie made an excellent first impression.

Haf-Sac, Lando

The beatboxer who serves as Haf-Sac’s drum section was amazing, and without a doubt he is the group’s main attraction.  Still, as the show went on, the remaining members of the trio – the band’s bassist and its singer/acoustic guitarist – balanced out the act.  Though the beatboxer certainly lent the band a sense of the unusual, Haf-Sac boils down to an acoustic rock bar band that carried its performance with covers and irreverence.

If inserting the chorus of Cutting Crew’s “Died in Your Arms Tonight” wasn’t enough evidence of this, Haf-Sac offered up the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to excite the crowd.  It was pulled off well, though the beatboxing became unhinged in the fills.  Their original material included “The Beer Trilogy” (its conclusion being the wonderfully-named “Beer Shits”), and their final song was a moody audience participation number titled “Pussy Whipped,” where angry young men beat their belts against the ground.  And, bowing to Lando’s presence, Haf-Sac played “The Imperial March.”

The band put on a fun show, and its premise is both interesting and well executed, but some points in the set – especially toward the end – seemed to float by and didn’t stand out.  As a whole, the band didn’t really kick in until “The Beer Trilogy.”  After that, they kicked back and enjoyed the show, and that worked well enough.

Lando approved.

Damn Right.

Y Spy: Jennifer McKee

Jennifer McKee

What: Jennifer McKee

Where: The Northwest Washington Fair

When: Friday, August 20th

Jennifer McKee brought an arsenal to the fair, and the result was a confident performance of country pop.  The seven members of her backing band carried her self-assured vocals with a flood of sound, which more often than not worked in the show’s favor.  The bass might have been a bit overpowering at times, and the guitars were a bit too soft, but the ultimate result was a slick, well orchestrated show that was built for a larger venue than the red bleachers on which the audience sat.

Love songs with such conventional titles as “Happily Ever After” and “Kiss Me Goodnight” seemed tailor-made for radio, yet McKee slipped in a few curveballs amidst the singles, most notably a self-effacing tune poking fun at her own celebrity crushes.  A few covers showed up in the setlist, and if there was a weak point in the show, it might have been McKee’s cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun,” which didn’t feel as confident as the rest of the songs.

Throughout the concert, McKee led the proceedings with poise, working the crowd with a veneer both energized and cool.  While the band’s performance was excellent, McKee more than held up her end of the bargain, and the two elements played off one another and caught the audience.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Incest Death Squad 2

The Incest Death Squad! (Art by Joe Price)

Film: Incest Death Squad 2 (2010)

Director: Cory J. Udler

Starring: Tom Lodewyck, Greg Johnson, Carmela Wiese

Written by: Cory J. Udler

The first Incest Death Squad was a gloriously foul piece of boobs, blood, and extreme sibling love, a film sure to offend just about everyone.  Incest Death Squad 2 blows its predecessor out of the water.

The events of IDS 1 feature reporter Aaron Burg (Lodewyck) being forced to murder some rubes and knock up the Squad’s sister to earn his freedom.  Limping back to civilization with his other girlfriend in tow, Burg spends IDS 2 in the grasp of psychotic shell shock.  Meanwhile, the brother-sister duo of death decide to take a vacation from their Lord-inspired rampages and set off for vile Wisconsin civilization to track down the one who got away.  Hilarity ensues, and by hilarity I mean murder, rape, male nudity, and fetal abuse.

The characters of the IDS series are so much better this time around.  Tom Lodewyck’s hapless goofball from the first film has grown into a brooding, unhinged weirdo.  More than that, Burg’s purpose is no longer to simply be the straight man that reacts with wide eyes to the horrors he faces.  Instead, his actions and motives have become his own.  The Squad itself has also greatly improved.  The hulking Greg Johnson remains my favorite actor in the series, yet his character of Jeb Wayne is pulled back a bit, giving him a personality beyond the howling, murderous preacher-behemoth.  Similarly, Jeb’s sister Amber, played by Carmela Wiese, no longer simply serves as a siren leading horned-up city folk to their doom with bad pickup lines.  She’s also responsible for what is probably the film’s greatest gross-out moment.

A few new characters find their way into the mess as well, and they tend to get pretty awesome.  The most notable additions are a foul-mouthed hooker and a con recruited by his cousin, Burg’s girlfriend, to fight the Squad.  The con is delightfully nasty, threatening a crack whore, praising the superiority of box wine, and otherwise making an ass of himself.

A few minor criticisms: a few of the daytime shots turn out a bit dark, and the sound quality gets awkward when dialogue interrupts the background music, sounding like an abrupt turn of a dimmer switch when somebody speaks.

Yet everything else about this movie is utterly amazing.  It’s a masterpiece of filth filmmaking, a sick and wrong sequel that greatly ups the quality of both production and story.  The Incest Death Squad series could have coasted on name-brand revulsion, but once more it delivers nastiness with context, resulting in a freak show with flair.  If incest is best, then Incest Death Squad 2 is bester.

“Incest Death Squad” premieres on September 17th at 9 pm Central time, at www.horrorsociety.com. To read my interview with director Cory J. Udler, click here.

The Designer’s Drugs: Pittacus Lore – I Am Number Four

I Am Number Four

Medium: Literature
Stimulus: Pittacus Lore – I Am Number Four

Anno: 2010

Having recently (and regrettably) read one of James Patterson’s teen novels about kids obtaining fantastic superpowers, I’d have to say that I Am Number Four put me in mind of that other work.  It probably doesn’t help that Pittacus Lore, like Patterson himself most of the time, is actually two authors: Jobie Hughes and James Frey (yes, that James Frey).  Yet while the premise of this book isn’t unique – the titular Number Four is essentially an alien X-Man – the quality of the writing is greater than Patterson’s.  Most importantly, the chapters aren’t two pages long, the characters don’t try to act hip and cool, and the plot, while very linear, is fleshed out enough to hold interest.

Number Four got his name by being the fourth in a series of nine alien refugees who escaped the destruction of their planet at the hands of a less enlightened civilization.  These kids each take a guardian, split up, and go Clark Kent to evade the monsters.  Owing to a mystical charm, the kids are invulnerable unless they are killed in numeric order.  Numbers One through Three are dead.  Four is next.

The tale is a mixture of teen drama and environmental parable.  While Four tries to fit in to his new high school and suffers all the expected angst and desire thereof, the greater conflict unfolds in the course of his real education.  The two alien races presented, Four’s enlightened Lorics and the Mogadorians that destroyed them, are positioned as ends of a spectrum in which humanity is right in the middle.  When in danger of destroying their planet, the Lorics changed their ways and became Supermen.  The Mogadorians did not, and in essence they turned into walking viruses.  At times the story feels a bit heavy-handed, all but asking the reader which race they would rather become.  But it works well enough.

The book’s greatest flaw is that it’s incredibly predictable.  The greatest example of this comes during Number Four’s first day in his new school, in which a dog named Bernie Kosar (because they’re in Ohio – Go Browns!) appears out of nowhere, sprints right up to him, and subsequently follows him everywhere.  Since dogs tend not to just show up in school like this, it’s obvious that Bernie Kosar is going to play a big part in what’s to come.  Had the authors used a less blatant introduction – say, Number Four meets the stray dog while wandering in the woods – the dog’s importance may have come as a surprise instead of inevitable.

All told, it’s not the best sci-fi story ever, but it may satisfy teen readers or those waiting for the next big epic.