“In Cities We’ll Only Leave”: Daughter, Live at the Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN

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There are certain musical artists in your life who, when you see them perform—especially for the first time—leave you feeling transformed.  You’re simply not the mere mortal you were before the show began.  Perhaps you thought you knew the artists’ music intimately, fully expecting the live performance to be tantamount to when you first discovered them, which may have been moving but not necessarily transformative.  Over the past ten years, what are best described as “religious experiences” have been few and far between.  In fact, only two shows immediately come to mind, namely when I saw CocoRosie at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, AZ, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during their Austin City Limits performance, and, perhaps, as a third, The Dead Weather at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR.

Now, there’s a fourth, Daughter at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, TN, which I witnessed on Friday, November 11, 2016.  What all of these performances have in common was creating an experience that made me feel that I’d entered the realm of myth, in which the music was more than art or entertainment, it was medicine for the soul that I didn’t know I needed until I was awash in its affects.  In the case of Daughter, a trio based in London, they’re part of a musical tradition that extends from Dead Can Dance to Portishead to Slowdive and, more recently, The XX.  Currently, Daughter is promoting its second album Not to Disappear (2016), which augments an oeuvre that also includes four EPs and several singles.

While many bands rearrange their songs for a live performance—in the case of CocoRosie, for example, the live performances rarely sound anything like the studio versions—Daughter remains mostly faithful to the originals.  However, because of the band’s stage presence, its light show, and the exquisite musicianship, what you experience is anything but prerecorded.  As a personal aside, I must confess that I enjoy watching how lead singer Elena Tonra moves with a guitar.  In a word, she’s sensuous.  And her voice is the Center of the Universe, albeit one that’s somehow as shy and intimate and it is compelling and beautiful.

Making their way through more than a dozen songs, largely drawn from the new album, Daughter turned a grungy venue on Nashville’s Cannery Row into a house of worship.  As evidence, I want to share one of the three videos I recorded, “To Belong,” which is a song about realizing when a relationship is no longer a relationship but a burden to one another.

Photo and video credit: David Martínez

When the Heart Knows that It’s Home: The Joy Formidable and “Y Garreg Ateb”

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Formed in North Wales, based in London, The Joy Formidable have been making music since the release of their first single, “Austere,” in 2008.  Since then, three albums, three EPs, and an assortment of singles and remixes have been produced.  In one respect, The Joy Formidable evoke a mythic landscape of medieval Arthurian romance, but without the vanity of the hero’s journey.  Unlike the Elizabethan minstrel folk rock of Jethro Tull, The Joy Formidable forge the sonic scope of Rush with the lyrical grandeur of King Crimson into a rare element that could only flourish on Welsh soil.  More to the point, the songs that Rhydian Davies (bass and keyboards) and Ritzy Bryan (guitar and lead vocals) write—accompanied by Matthew Thomas (drums and percussions)—belie a more ordinary but no less evocative world of human relationships.  In the latter respect, The Joy Formidable are very much a rock n roll band, singing about the affairs of the heart, complete with epic riffs that make your spirit feel like a hitherto unknown place—a valley, a glade, a lake, a meadow—has been revealed through the chords that Bryan is playing.

When I saw The Joy Formidable perform for the first time, it was on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  They were opening for another band, which was inconsequential to me.  I had been waiting years to see this trio perform live, so I was there for only one thing.  I was not disappointed.  The set opened with “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” from their first album The Big Roar (2011), which was also the source of the show’s finale, “Whirring.”  In-between was a selection from their second album Wolf’s Law (2013) and their recent release Hitch (2016).  However, at about the midway point, the band played “Y Garreg Ateb,” which was part of a monthly singles series that The Joy Formidable released during 2014, featuring songs sung in the Welsh language.  When Bryan introduced the song, she said it was about a place one goes to, a sacred space, in order to contemplate.

While it is tempting to characterize the Welsh songs as examples of musical nationalism or musical sovereignty—it’s easy to forget, particularly when one lives in America, that Wales is a colonized nation—the touching quality of the song feels more like an ode to the land as a source of dreams and solace than a rebellion against the English.  I say “feels” for the simple reason that, not being a Welsh speaker, I have no idea what the lyrics say.  Yet, as someone who comes from an Indigenous culture, the song brings to mind the harmony that one can only experience when they are reconnecting, through song, with a place, a land, where one truly belongs.  With this in mind, if “Y Garreg Ateb” is an example of anything, it is of how singing in a different language—Welsh, instead of English—completely alters one’s sense of being.  While the song is still recognizably The Joy Formidable, at the same time it conjures an utterly different side to the band.  It is the difference between going out into the world, where strangers and the unknown reside, and returning home, where family and friends live, the ones who know your true face.  Below is a video I recorded at the show.  Please enjoy:

Video and photo credit: David Martínez

‘Strange Circus’ (2005): Sion Sono and the Horror of a Normal Family

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What’s worse than murder or betrayal?  In Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus the ultimate taboo is violated, disclosing more than the demons dwelling within the heart of a middle-aged man as he preys for his daughter.  As we follow the emotional turmoil of “Mitsuko Ozawa” (Masumi Miyazaki/Rie Kuwana/Mai Takahashi) and her mother “Sayuri” (Masumi Miyazaki), who are both forced to endure the sexual torment of father and husband “Gozo Ozawa” (Hiroshi Oguchi), a poignant critique of polite society emerges, in particular for the way in which it forces victims of abuse to hide in the shadows with their suffering.

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Gozo is the principal at Mitsuko’s school, where he’s regarded as a respectable figure.  At home, though, he’s a monster who subjects his wife and daughter to his heinous sexual desires.  What results as the abuse continues is that Sayuri begins taking out her shame, anger, and jealousy on Mitsuko.  Out of this cruel chaos “Taeko” (Masumi Miyazaki) emerges, an emotionally unstable and wheelchair-bound novelist who writes erotica about “Mitsuko” and lives in a baroquely decorated house, complete with a secret room, where the truth of Mitsuko dwells.

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Because of the popularity of her work, Taeko has a number of assistants, among whom a new face has joined in her employ, “Yûji Tamiya” (Issei Ishida), who identifies himself as a “great fan” of Taeko’s work, and who eventually takes on the assignment of discovering the story behind Taeko’s handicap and the inspiration for Mitsuko.  In addition to being another chapter in Sono’s exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche, as occurred in Suicide Club (2001), or the hidden needs of the marginalized, as seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus unleashes a damning criticism of the patriarchy that still pervades Japanese society, which disempowers women, and normalizes male abuses of gender inequity.  And in the case of Mitsuko there’s nothing more disturbing and traumatic than to see the face of the man who’s supposed to protect her turn into an expression of lust.

Indigenous Peoples Day 2016

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While holidays may seem trite and ineffective at promoting the values they represent—Does Christmas generate Christian values?—they nonetheless retain the capacity of drawing peoples’ attention away from the status quo of everyday life.  In fact, in the case of efforts at establishing new holidays, the public struggle for recognition may create a maelstrom of controversy and debate.  One need only think back to when Martin Luther King Jr Day was considered a subversive, un-American idea.

While Indigenous Peoples Day may not be instigating the kind of passionate reactions that MLK Day once inspired, its message is no less profound—the abolishment of Columbus Day and the heinous crime of colonization that it symbolizes.  In its place is a recognition that America is Indian Land and that America’s First Peoples are still here, complete with a celebration of our survival, our communities, and cultures.

Although it will take an Act of Congress to make Indigenous Peoples Day a federal holiday, like MLK Day or Thanksgiving, the idea behind this Day is an idea whose time has come.  As of October 10, 2016, the following cities have adopted IPD in place of Columbus Day: Berkeley (CA), Denver (CO), Minneapolis (MN), Seattle (WA), Red Wing (MN), Grand Rapids (MN), Traverse (MI), Newstead (NY), Akron (NY), St Paul (MN), Olympia (WA), Lewiston (NY), Anadarko (OK), Anchorage (AK), Portland (OR), Carborro (NC), Albuquerque (NM), San Francisco (CA), Belfast (ME), Durango (CO), Asheville (NC), Eugene (OR), Cambridge (MA), Bainbridge Island (WA), Santa Fe (NM), Yakima (WA), and Phoenix (AZ).

Below are two short videos that I recorded this past Friday, October 7 at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus, which was celebrating its inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016)

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Ever since I saw Nick Cave twist and brood in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which he and the Bad Seeds turned “From Her to Eternity” into a hymn for the forlorn, I have always listened to their songs as religious music for the fallen.  Just as Wenders’ angels, Damiel and Cassiel, looked over and worried about humanity in an unbelieving world ravaged by world war and divided by the Berlin Wall, so too does Cave and his collaborators evoke a world, across sixteen studio albums, in which love and skepticism are the two angels guiding the consciences of people who are on an endless search for acceptance, affirmation, relief, forgetting, and oblivion.  The Bad Seeds’ world is a world of Cain and Abel, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, an image that was reinforced for me by Cave’s 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.

In the case of Skeleton Tree, released a mere twelve days ago on September 6, the spirit of Job is conjured throughout each of the album’s eight songs.  More to the point, Skeleton Tree is an album of loss, mourning, and anguish, which is infused with an otherworldly beauty.  The music is sparse and moody, while the lyrics are emotionally complex.  From “Jesus Alone,” in which various tragic figures are seen in their darkest hour, to the title track, which stirs up a desolate landscape and “a jittery tv,” each song explores a different form of anguish, be it a lost love, “I Need You,” or a lost child, “Girl In Amber.”

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How much of what appears in this album was inspired—if that’s the right word—by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, last year at the Ovingdean Gap near Brighton, England, one cannot say based on the lyrics alone.  What is obvious is the tone of despair and elegiac splendor, which take the listener from the hopelessness of “Anthrocene,” in which Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” to the hint of redemption in “Distant Sky,” which sings with anticipation, “Soon the children will be rising, will be rising,” even if “This is not for our eyes.”  My favorite song, though, is “Rings of Saturn,” which is about the epiphany of a woman, “Her body, moon blue, was a jellyfish” and who is “completely unexplained.”

In the end, Skeleton Tree is a more than worthy successor to Push the Sky Away (2014).  For even if one is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Cave, the songs comprising this album are as evocative and fulfilling as anything he has ever done, be it Tender Prey (1988) or Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004).  All I can tell you is that I haven’t been able to stop listening to these songs all weekend.

Does Hell Exist? It Does If You Believe It, It Doesn’t If You Don’t: Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s ‘Séance’ (2000)

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Inspired by Mark McShane’s 1961 novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, director of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2002), among other classic dark cinema features, ventures into the realm of made-for-television movies. As such, it may be easy for J-Horror aficionados to overlook this little gem in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Kurosawa’s previous works for television, a series of Yakuza stories, have not distinguished themselves. To put it simply, the kind of death and horror that Kurosawa would soon display in Pulse is de-emphasized for the sake of a more general television audience. Nevertheless, Kurosawa does not curtail his talent for telling a story that is driven by well-rounded characters, complete with the inner-turmoil and failings that are often a part of life, and which compel his characters to given in to their fears.

“Sato Koji” (Yakusho Koji) and “Sato Junco” (Fubuki Jun) are an ostensibly ordinary couple living in a country house. Seemingly happy, Koji works as a sound technician for an unnamed company while his wife Junco stays at home. However, Junco is not exactly a typical housewife. She has a gift for contacting the dead—she is a medium. It is also a power that has attracted the attention of a psychology graduate student “Hayasaka” (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi) who is interested in studying her psychic abilities. From the perspective of science, Junco’s capacity for communicating with the deceased is something that ought to be validated through research. On the other hand, from Junco’s point-of-view, her connection with the spirit world is both a gift and a curse, which becomes evident when she takes a job as a waitress at a local restaurant and her proclivity for seeing ghosts becomes an issue.  In between Junco and Hayasaka is Koji, who obviously knows the burden that his wife carries and does his best to be supportive.

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Fate soon appears in the form of an anonymous little girl (Isobe Shiori) who is kidnapped by a deranged former policeman, only to escape unknowingly into the hands of Koji, who happens to be out on an assignment at Mt Fuji, where he is recording wind blowing through the trees. At first shocked at finding the kidnapped girl on their property, Koji and Junco initially decide to call the authorities. However, Junco has sudden doubts about how things will look, given that this child is the victim of a much-publicized kidnapping. Consequently, instead of calling for help, Junco comes up with a plan for what she thinks will spare them any accusations from the police. Junco will feign using her psychic ability to “help” the police locate this girl. In fact, because of Junco’s relation to Hayasaka, she has already been introduced to a detective (Kitarô) as a possible resource for finding this little girl. In light of which, Junco will use the trust she has earned from Hayasaka and convince him that, whereas before she could not be of help, now she can, a ploy that will also inspire a desire for fame in Junco’s heart.

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Eventually, tragedy occurs and the once ordinary couple of Koji and Junco find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, the forces of which are becoming much more than either of them can control. One of the more memorable scenes is a conversion between Koji and the Shinto priest (Aikawa Shô) that he has asked to purify his home. Upon completing the purification ritual, Koji asks the priest what he should do, now that his house has been purified. The priest, after hesitating at the question, counsels Koji and his wife, who is not present, to be honest and live ordinary, which are two things that the couple has ceased to do. Two other noteworthy scenes are a symbolic encounter between Koji and his doppelganger, along with a nod to Nakata Hideo’s Ringu involving the little girl. Speaking of nods to other films, in the clip provided below, Kurosawa references a character that he will later develop in Retribution (2006).  Lastly, for anyone familiar with Bryan Forbes 1964 adaptation of McShane’s novel, one will quickly notice that the two films have very little in common. Forbes’ version is noted as being more faithful to the book, while Kurosawa’s film is more faithful to the world he created in Cure and further developed in Pulse, which themselves are respectful of the Japanese ghost story tradition.

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“Ghosts and People Are the Same”: The Cyber-Limbo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ (2001)

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) is an important part of a wave of dark films that began appearing during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, which collectively set Japanese Horror (or J-Horror) apart in world cinema. The trend began with Kurosawa’s earlier film Cure (1997), then continued with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002). J-Horror is distinct from the kind of shock films created during the same period by the likes of Kinji Fukusaka (Battle Royale, 2000) and Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Unlike the latter two films, which rely on extreme violence, J-Horror depends mostly on the paranormal for inspiration.

In one respect, Kurosawa’s Pulse (titled Kairo, “Chaos,” in Japan) is a modern example of the Japanese tradition of ghost stories or Kaidan-shū, which go all the way back to the earliest stages of the Edo Period (17th century). In terms of cinema, Pulse is preceded by such superlative films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964). In another respect, Pulse is reflective of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century, which is affected less by westernized notions of the millennium and more by its own “Lost Decade” or Ushinawareta Jūnen. In the case of the parallel stories of “Michi Kudo” (Kumiko Asô) and “Ryosuke Kawashima” (Haruhiko Katô) they are confronted with a shadowy world of lonely spirits, who have found a portal into this world through the internet. Indeed, what appears at first to be isolated events turns into a global crisis.

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What is most startling about the world of the dead that is occupying various computer screens is that each case is the result of a suicide, whose ghostly aftermath leaves them in a “forbidden room” from which they plead for help. Most terrifying of all is the fact that the world of the dead is beginning to infect and transform the world of the living. Once exposed to the forces contained in the forbidden room, victims soon lose their will to live, either killing themselves or just as often turning into blackened silhouettes painted into the walls and floors where they were last seen alive. In spite of efforts to warn people away from the forbidden rooms by sealing the doors with red tape, the attractive force of that world continues to lure people into it, even causing one unnamed woman to plummet to her death in one of the more disturbing, not to mention memorable, scenes in cinematic history.

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The effectiveness of Kurosawa’s film is that it refrains from either becoming preachy about the ills of society  or explaining too much about what is happening. In fact, very little is explained at all beyond the speculation of some of the characters, all of whom are ultimately at a loss about what to do.  For Michi and Ryosuke, all they can do is worry about their friends, be they “Toshio Yabe” (Masatoshi Matsuo) and “Junko Sasano” (Kurume Arisaka) for Michi or “Harue Karasawa” (Koyuki) for Ryosuke, trying however they can to save them from a force that is overtaking all of existence—like a web of darkness.

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