Tag Archives: 80s

Personal Soundtrack

11 Jul

The Song

 

Five Seconds by Twin Shadow

Drum machine- and synthesizer-fueled sounds from the 80s have been experiencing a revival in contemporary music over the past few years.  At some point, the sounds that dominated neon-drenched nightclubs and aerobics classes three decades ago were deemed to have lost their cheesiness and took on some indie credibility instead.  The motivation behind this neo-80s sound usually seems to swing back and forth between two different viewpoints.  There’s a detached irony in which the artist is almost mocking themselves and the listener for grooving to their vintage synths, while on the other end, there’s a full-fledged desire to re-create the music that the artist grew up loving.  Usually, the music that comes from a purely ironical standpoint will sound hollow, and overly stylized – if you can’t love the music you’re making, that comes through.  It’s when the neo-80s sound comes more from a true music lover standpoint that the songs become less like a nostalgic exercise, and more like a great piece of music.  Brooklyn-based Twin Shadow, aka George Lewis, Jr.,  has found this sweet spot.

Twin Shadow’s general sound is soaked in the 1980s New Wave influences – polished guitar licks, chiming synthesizers, surgically-timed drum beats.  The style is immediately evident, but as you listen further, it’s easy to see the quality substance beneath the shiny surface.  “Five Seconds”, off of the new album Confess, is a great example of Twin Shadow’s skillful pairing of nostalgic sounds with solid musicianship.  The song has the 80s elements straight from the beginning – a spare drum beat keeps the time while chilly synths pound away and a guitar line sounds out straight from the “I Ran” school of music.  It all sounds great, but below it all, there’s the core elements of a great song keeping everything together for repeat listening.  Shifting layers of sounds keep everything dynamic and moving forward, and Lewis, Jr.’s vocals are full of the strongly-felt emotions brought up in the lyrics.  Underneath all the manufactured pop touches, “Five Seconds” is a simple, yearning love song.  And you can feel all the emotions behind that song even as you nod your head furiously on the dance floor.

The Activity

The sun is slowly disappearing below the ocean horizon, casting the palm tree dotted landscape in a contemplative shade of burnt orange.  It’s a good match for your current state of mind, which is swinging slowly between ‘contemplative’ and ‘restless.’  You drove your motorcycle out to this peaceful stretch of coastline because you needed a place to think.  It didn’t matter that the Base had a policy about leaving in the middle of training periods – you’re a goddamned fighter pilot for the US of A.  You don’t need to check in when you need to do your reflective thinking.

The reason you had to leave, the reason you’re out here right now, pulled off the road and gazing at the sunset behind your deep-blue Aviators, is about five-three, blonde, and put together in a way you never thought possible.    In addition to all that, she’s got an attitude to match yours, which you also never thought possible.  At first, it was just some harmless flirting in the debriefing rooms – you playfully challenging her authority, her teasing you about time trials in front of the rest of the squadron.  After a week, though, feelings got in the way.  It wasn’t just another girl anymore.  She was actually getting to you.  And when you’re a self-designed rebel like yourself, that’s a problem.

The issue of changing up your badass image isn’t the only thing that’s got you out here, pondering the ocean.  To make things more difficult, you don’t know if she has the same feelings for you.  If you take the roses that are on the back of your bike right now and speed up to her house and put it all on the line, you don’t know how she’s going to respond.  She could say no.  She’s that kind of girl – tons of other options.  The rejection would be a crushing blow.  Even thinking about the possibility of that has you all rattled, getting sweaty palms and losing your focus when you’re on training runs.

What are you going to do?  A fighter jet streaks through the sky over the ocean, heading home after an end-of-the day run.  You wish you could just get in your jet and fly away, never coming back.  Just another lost maverick in the sky.  But you can’t.  What are you going to do?  You’re in the danger zone.  The danger zone of the heart.

 

Personal Soundtrack

10 Apr

 

The Song

That’s Alright by Kindness

One recurring element in 80’s music that is often missing from contemporary releases is a love of the saxophone.  Often laid over manufactured back beats, the brassy sax tones were used by artistic titans like Wham! and Oingo Boingo to bring a sophisticated, soulful funkiness to their tales of wild parties and lost love.  That Auto-tuned sax sound slowly faded along with other remnants of the Neon Decade, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s not necessarily a good thing either. That’s why it is refreshing to hear Kindness bring back the funky potential of the sax sample with his new track “That’s Alright.”

There’s a little sax freestyling in the song’s intro that offers a taste of what’s to come, but it doesn’t fully prepare for the high energy sax-synth sample that arrives gyrating wildly over the rest of the song.  And just in case the sax wasn’t retro enough for your dancing tastes, Kindness quickly introduces us to a nasty little breakdown beat right out of Paula’s Straight Up School of Music.  “That’s Alright” sounds like someone put a hit 1980s dance single through a blender, and then used the tech tools of 2012 to splice everything back together into a catchy neo-retro hybrid.  In all, the song has a party-loving element that retains a bit of a freaky edge at the same time – the repeated, bass-heavy refrain that “The beat is Bad” rings quite true.

The Activity

You’re not sure how you’ve gotten here, but you’ve found yourself in the middle of a dance party seemingly staged for some kind of music video.  There’s a synth- and sax- happy mix of ambiguously 80s music pumping over some unseen speakers, and girls in tight spandex onesies are flying around performing synchronized dance moves.  There’s no discernible entrance or exit, and you’ve just kind of shown up in the middle of the dance floor – which in a detached way, you just kind of go with.

A group of guys in matching Flock of Seagulls haircuts is grooving near you, and you begin to chuckle at their ridiculousness before realizing that you too have the feathered coiffure you had never seen in person, until today.  As you’re starting to wrap your head around this, your attention is yanked over to the appearance of a cartoon cat doing some kind of dance routine with who appears to be Paula Abdul.  You want to stop and ask someone if that’s normal here, but you’re doing the running man uncontrollably and can’t catch your breath to speak.

You try to think what song this music video could be for.  There’s not a specific reason that you can point to for the music video explanation, except for the fact that this expansive space seems like a sound stage, with the walls and ceiling a vague grayish color that reminds you of The Cosby Show.  And speaking of the Cosbys – there’s Bill and Co. themselves, off in a corner doing some carefree grooving.  Bill catches you watching him do an air sax solo and gives a big thumbs up before going back to his jam.  What the hell?  Your head’s going to explode.  And then, just as George Michael steps on to a stage that you could have sworn wasn’t there 30 seconds ago, you jolt awake in your present-day bedroom, covered in sweat.  Just some weird kind of dream about an era you weren’t even old enough to remember…but why is that soulful sax sound from outside your room getting louder?  And why can’t you stop dancing?

A Different Kind Of Cinematic Excellence

22 Mar

The Theater.  At first, second, and third glance, it is an unlikely place for memorable cinematic experiences.  It was impossible to move in your seat without a high-pitched creak echoing out against the faded walls.  The floors were constantly sticky and you always had to be ready to lift your feet up at moment’s notice to allow spilled drinks to flow by underneath.

After about 20 minutes into the movie, the first empty bottle would fall over; that familiar clinking would sound out at least a few more times before the credits rolled.  There was a Coke-colored splatter just slightly visible on the bottom right hand corner of the screen, presumably the result of someone’s lobbed soda.  Every now and then, a disinterested teenage usher would walk down the aisles and jiggle a flashlight halfheartedly.  It was ostensibly to keep things under control, but they’d only bother you if you happened totake a pull from your wine bottle right in front of them – at that point they’d just make you throw it out before returning to your seat.

In terms of beverages, the best ‘personal’ drink options were either 40ozs (High Life is a local favorite) or the Pan Flute.  The Pan Flute is a 3-pack of 24oz beer cans that conveniently comes wrapped tightly together.  It vaguely resembles the Peruvian pan flute, but a vague resemblance is all it took for the name to catch on with the local college crowd.  The Pan Flute easily slips under a zipped-up hoodie or under the crook of your arm so that no one is the wiser as you slip past the box office.  The 24oz threesome is also much more than enough to keep you feeling alright throughout the whole movie.

You couldn’t just see any new release at The Theater.  There was an art to picking your spots.  There were some movies that would be ruined if seen there, some that would be alright but not really worth it, and then some that begged to be seen there.  At no other theater was there the same mixture of location, clientele, and environment.

The Theater was situated right in between campus and student apartments, and was also in a somewhat run-down neighborhood.  When you went to a movie, you were most likely going to find a varied crowd with a decent proportion of them inclined to partake in some kind of partying.  The Theater’s managers weren’t running too tight a ship, so there wasn’t much oversight going on.  You could count on enjoying yourself with some recreational beverages as long as you kept it in moderation.

This was a place best suited to enjoying some cold beers and a movie, with an audience that would largely be doing the same.  So you wanted to find a movie that would both supplement and be supplemented by this kind of ‘open-minded’ environment.  Some genres that turned out to fit this category well were broad comedies, ‘pot movies,’ mindless action flicks (but none that relied on huge amounts of special effects, because the grand scale of those would be lost on the drink-stained screen and shaky-at-best sound system), and most of all, horror movies.

It is this last type of movie that The Theater seemed tailor-made for.  There is something about watching a ridiculous horror movie on a dingy theater’s scratchy screen that feels akin to a classic moviegoer experience.  The super-intense, thematically profound horror movies are not the kind of horror we’re talking about here.  No, these are the slasher movies, the teen screams, the grindhouse creature features that inspire fits of frightened laughter and knowing groans with every crazy ‘kill scene.’

I came to horror, or specifically these particular brands of horror movies, later than I came to appreciate many other film genres.  For a long time, I was a bit too grossed out or disturbed by the randomly gratuitous violence in these movies.  But as I entered college – and not inconsequentially moved into the Theater’s neighborhood – I began to see the greatness potential in this horror canon.  Not great in terms of artistic merit and thoughtful filmmaking, but great in terms of the way these movies can become visceral events and communal experiences in a way that few other genres can.

Shortly after being introduced to The Theater, a few close friends and I spent one long summer introducing ourselves to the old-school horror movie catalog.  This involved spending many humid nights going through frosty six-packs and living vicariously through the doomed characters on-screen.  Talking (yelling) at these movies, in relative moderation, is an essential part of the viewing experience.  You can laugh at the ridiculousness of the 80s-era teen parties, or the absurd ways in which the killers take down their victims.  The nature of the action on screen moves the viewer to become more than just a passive spectator; few other types of movies can allow you to run the gamut from yelling, laughing, groaning in disgust, or cringing in fear in under two hours.

While it is highly enjoyable to watch these movies from the comfort of your own living room, it can be a much richer experience to venture out with some friends and beers to a venue that accommodates the lively atmosphere resulting from a horror showing.  The Theater provided that exact kind of venue, and I remember one particular viewing experience that stands out in memory as a shining example of the best things both The Theater and horror movies have to offer.  It was a drizzly night in early Spring, and the Friday the 13th remake had just hit theaters.  While this movie was critically panned and may seem wholly unremarkable on the surface, it was an exciting development for some of us in the area.

As part of our aforementioned Horror 101 summer, my friends and I had discovered the many joys of the old Friday The 13th series.  The original Friday The 13th was a bit more serious and straightforward than some of the other cheesy horror movies – there were legitimately unnerving and intense sequences, and the producers seemed intent on crafting a quality film experience.  But the original also laid the groundwork for the recurring motifs that would make the following sequels such great summer night horror material:  the good-looking but hilariously stereotypical teen protagonists, the incredibly dated style sense, the idyllic summer camp/cabin setting, the copious amounts of drugs, drinking and sex, the cartoonishly indestructible villain (Jason), and the creative yet often absurd death scenes.

We covered Friday 1-4 that summer, and watched as they got broader and dumber with each installment.  Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Viewing each one was a chance to drink, laugh, be disgusted, and sometimes, be a bit scared.  From hallmark moments like the inexplicable wheelchair death scene in Part 2 to the blatant gimmickry of the 3D effects in Part 3, the series never disappointed.  As strange as it is to say about movies concerning menacing killers, we developed a sincere fondness for these films over the course of the summer.  And it was due to this twisted fondness for the Friday movies and their brethren that we were excited to see the remake’s showtimes go up on The Theater’s haphazard Coming Attractions display.

Say what you will about the Friday The 13th remake – the crass, cash-in motives behind its creation and its lack of relative originality or quality as a piece of filmmaking cannot really be refuted.  But the real reasons we had to go see the movie at The Theater had nothing to do with the critical criteria placed on most films.  Instead, it had everything to do with us getting the opportunity to watch this trashy update of one of our favorite O.G. trashy horror movies, in an environment where the crowd experience would be almost as fun as the actual movie.  Where we could slip our Lite Pan Flutes under our sweatshirts on a rainy, dull night and head into a movie we could laugh at, groan at, and which got better as the beers got emptier.

There is something inherently comforting, almost like a borrowed nostalgia, about hearing the projector whir and the film crackle in a rundown theater with a teen slasher movie onscreen.  And while this seems like an elusive experience in today’s luxurious super-multiplex world, we managed to find and live it out at The Theater.

Sure, we would have probably preferred the original Friday or maybe some other vintage 80s classic on that screen – but we got what we came for.  There was plenty of gratuitous teen stupidity, drinking, pot smoking, sexing, and creative Jason slasher action to keep us entertained for two hours.  And there were plenty of other groups in that audience with a similar mindset and liquid accompaniment, which provided the kind of big communal watching experience that wasn’t possible in the living room.

There were no pretensions anywhere in the whole experience, from the shabby carpet in the lobby to the cracked seat covers to the cheap beer everyone smuggled in.  By the time the credits rolled and we moved back out into the night, we had a contented and pleasant buzz that was only partly due to the now-empty Pan Flutes.  It was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time.

For all the incredible, well-crafted, and visually-stunning films I’ve seen at high-quality theaters since then, I still find myself missing that shitty old Theater more times than I care to admit.  That kind of experience will be hard to duplicate again.  At least I can still hope to look forward to more long and hazy horror movie nights this summer.

Personal Soundtrack

7 Nov

The Song

New Theory (RAC Mix) by Washed Out

RAC set themselves apart from the countless other remix artists out there by following a well-honed and simple formula: find the essence of a great song, pull out all of the structural aspects of the song that contribute to that essence, beef up those aspects, and plug them back in to the song along with some of their own stylistic touches. RAC’s work with “New Theory” follows their standard approach.  Washed Out are frontrunners in the chill-wave music scene, and their songs are spacey, laid-back soundscapes that get locked into a melody or synth riff and groove off on it for as long as they damn well please.  RAC’s mix of “New Theory” sounds distinctly like Washed Out, with the laid-back and ethereal vocals floating around catchy grooves, but this remix also adds a few more layers of synths and fills out the sound, making this version feel much more expansive than the original.  Overall, the “New Theory” remix is another solid RAC mix that builds upon the unique strengths of the original song to deliver a tune that stands well on its own.

The Activity

You just saw Drive, or you at least have an affinity for 80s crime-noir films filled with sequence of snightime cityscapes drenched in synths.  You’re driving, or sitting shotgun.  It’s probably nighttime.  It may or may not be raining.  You’re brooding on some kind of emotional score you have to settle, and the overwhelming theme in this vehicle would be cool.  You’re flexing your grip around your steering wheel, wishing you had some fingerless gloves, and setting your jaw as that imaginary camera in your mind pulls back for a wide shot of the urban landscape you’re driving in.  Doesn’t matter where you’re going.  With this song on, everything is lyrically moody and sunglasses are necessary.