Monday, October 24, 2011

The Ushers of "Anti-Pop-Rock Pop-Rock," the great Big Troubles

    On a rainy Wednesday in Cambridge, I met a hallucinatory sea of pop from Big Troubles, today’s ushers of “anti-pop-rock pop-rock.” (What‘s that mean?) Simply that their style both celebrates and rebels against today’s popular rock. Big Troubles’ songs are exceptionally catchy, enjoyable, cathartic, and thus, “poppy." But their wall of fuzz, reverb, and delay separates and rebels against what you’d find on Billboard's Top 40. Big T reminds us that rock (like its name) must be hard-hitting, strong, intense; the sound unmasks today’s pop-rock as flaccid, boring, and lame.

    Take a listen to “Freudian Slips,” an early 2010 Myspace hit that helped propel them into the NYC concert scene, and eventually the formidably hip, indie record label, Slumberlands.

    The melody of “Freudian Slips” is a progression timelessly beautiful— it could fit with 80’s synthesizers, or 50’s doo-wop. Big T turns the “pop” against itself with blistering overdrive, delay, reverb; they give the guitars an orchestral power, bombing our ears with so many frequencies the effect is hallucinatory, like there could be an infinite layer of harmonies. But they're just a 4-piece band, which makes their live performance so spectacular.

    While their sound may be non-mainstream & progressive, it's hardly new or unique. What's impressive is their accessible balance of noise-pop/shoegaze (anti-pop-rock), with good ol' poppy, alternative rock. Influenced by the 80's/90's scenes of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr, Ride, Pavement, (early) Smashing Pumpkins, Swervedriver, (early) Starflyer 59, Medicine, Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl, Lush, (early) Lilys, Chapterhouse, Failure, Adorable, Rollerskate Skinny, Tocotronic,  (now I'm just listing favorite bands)— Big T also holds rank with younger acts like A Place to Bury Stranges, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wavves, Yuck, Young Prisms, Weekend, Skywave, Best Coast, Whirl, Loomer, Ringo Deathstarr, The Raveonettes, Pia Fraus, No Age, No Joy, Asobi Seksu, Rrailss, Reading Rainbow, The Manhattan Love Suicides , Maribel, Los Robertas, For Ex-Lovers Only (to name more than probably necessary).

     Their new album, Romantic Comedy, while being highly enjoyable, sounds like an obvious step into "mainstream." The effect likely alienates previous fans of their abrasive debut, Worry. While the songwriting's enjoyable, Romantic Comedy's mix sounds like a betrayal of their live performance. Yes, it has elements of loud ("Misery," "Time Bomb"), and generally lots of reverb & delay, but it lacks variety in extremes of soft or loud. The songwriting's intensely catchy and cathartic— but I'd blame any mixed reception on the imbalance of past success: deafening orchestral rock with the beauty of pop. Romantic Comedy feels like its trying to sound too pretty. Most songs feel around the same intensity of distortion & delay, with none too loud or soft. Even the famous "loud acts" like JAMC or Dinosaur Jr counter their noise with softer songs, and this polarity heightens the best of both moods.

    Take a listen to their new single, a fun flirtation with gloomy pop (it’s still way better than the new Cure albums; but it sounds much better in the roar of a live show).

She Smiles For Pictures - Big Troubles from Army Of Kids on Vimeo.

    I can't recommend or predict what's best for their "next move." My tastes are so fringe, I'm in the minority that thinks Worry is one the best albums of 2010. I'm in the minority that thinks shoegaze & noise-pop are better than hip-hop or rap (yes, taste is too subjective for argument; even with convincing theories, taste cannot be changed). I’m not Big T's manager, or record label, or even an established critic; so I can’t give qualified advice. But I am a huge fan. So here's what I think: Big Troubles' name itself mirrors its sound, and it suggests its origin and inspiration. As their Angelfire website jokes, they're an admittedly goofy group, but they're also an expression of "big troubles"! And their noise communicates this angst, woe and (as their debut says) worry. With titles like "Sad Girls," "Drastic & Difficult," "Minor Keys," "Never Mine," you expect something sad or hard-hitting as (a) rock; you want something that's "big" and "in trouble."  Worry’s album cover shows a chaotic, junk-filled trailer, as if its inside was hit by a tornado. And its mixing is just as intense and bizarre. On Romantic Comedy the image is more ironic— showing two mannequins on a date, it suggests the feeling of love could be lifeless. But does their new album lose the band's strength of being big trouble?

   However, the band members entertainingly broadcast contrast to such "trouble." They appear quite charming, funny and friendly (yes, surely they're deep and in pain too). Their website's a hilarious homage to early-internet design— where the color palette is non-unified pastels, and where scrolling text is scientifically progressive. Their twitter posts are goofily great examples of absurd, ironic humor. They diminish a bland Pitchfork review with comedy, quoting vagueness like " “guitar... drums... music...” - Pitchfork." Their quote makes the review itself vague and singular. While also tweeting important concert info, they share bizarre anecdotes, which because of their irrelevancy and non-importance, they're hilarious. Like, "The Elios Pizza homepage was tremendous until they started using Spyware in 2004." It’s as insignificant and unhelpful as internet is to pizza. It's as if the minor & unnoticed annoyance is 7-year-old tragedy worth remembering.

     I met co-singer/songwriter/guitarist, Alex Craig, before their Wednesday set, at the absurdly named bar, T.T. & the Bears. As a huge fan, the effect felt like meeting Billy Corgan circa 1990. Only Alex was disarmingly humble, friendly, and appreciative— so it wasn't like Corgan at all. Mr. Craig was honest about their new album’s mixed reception, but he was also genuinely excited about the Big T‘s future. The rest of the band contained all the ingredients of a enjoyable show. A giant-sized, performative bassist, Luka Usmiani, frequently gave arena-style windmill strums; this contrasted the more somber and melancholy singers/guitarists, Ian Drennan & Alex Craig. Their well-composed drummer, Sam Franklin, would humorously inject loud coughing to cover silences between song tunings (personally, I‘d encourage James Iha-style banter, similar to Big T's bizarre tweets, to fill any pause). But the band’s joke of awkward coughs over awkward silences interested me. The venue was small, but the 40-person crowd gave generous applause & rooting (especially for a rainy Wednesday past 11pm in Cambridge.) The coughing implied a self-conscious filling of uncomfortable silence, as if the crowd were glaring with judgment. But I’d stress there was nothing negatively critical about the silence. The setting was so intimately self-conscious, any excessive cheering (which I almost made) would’ve appeared belligerent or crazed. As their set proceeded, they attracted a greater crowd from the bar, and no one left early. After their last song, people cried “play more!” This led to a strange solo by their bassist, who, without his bass, rousingly repeated “HEY!” into the mic. It led nowhere, though I thought they might cover The Pixies.

Both times I’ve seen Big T, they’ve opened with this song— another great example of “anti-pop pop-rock.”

Big Troubles - Bite Yr Tongue from Spencer Dennis on Vimeo.

In short, if you’re dissatisfied with today’s “pop rock,” and with a hard & exciting edge— keep up with Big Troubles, one of the most promising young acts of today. If you prefer your listening easy, goodbye.

Below are their upcoming tour dates (they just finished with the classically-shoegaze youngsters of Young Prisms, and now they embark with Real Estate)--

10/27 Bruar Falls, Brooklyn, NY
10/29 Lafayette, IN Jurassic Park
10/31 Chicago, IL Lincoln Hall % &
11/01 Minneapolis, MN 400 Bar %
11/02 Omaha, NE Slowdown %
11/03 Denver, CO Moe’s %
11/04 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge %
11/05 Boise, ID Neurolux %
11/06 Portland, OR Doug Fir Lounge %
11/07 Seattle, WA The Crocodile %
11/08 Vancouver, BC Biltmore %
11/11 San Francisco, CA Slim’s %
11/12 Los Angeles, CA Echoplex %
11/13 San Diego, CA Sunset Temple %
11/14 Tempe, AZ Sail Inn %
11/16 Austin, TX The Parish %
11/17 Dallas, TX Club Dada %
11/18 Memphis, TN Hi Tone Cafe %
11/19 Lexington, KY Cosmic Charlie’s %
11/20 Pittsburgh, PA Garfield Artworks %
11/21 Philadelphia, PA Johnny Brenda’s %
11/23 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom %

% = w/ Real Estate
& = w/ Julian Lynch

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


it's true i'm obsessed with the NIGHTMARE-MODEL story (events spiral "bad to worse," "real to unreal,"). I considered this after watching a) another Nightmare-Modeled movie, and b) having woken up from a Nightmare.

If you're interested in Nightmare Movies, here's my Recommended List of Favorites [some I'll review IN-DEPTH later, WINK WINK] [summaries from]

1. Mulholland Drive, d. David Lynch (2001), w/ Naomi Watts
    "After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesic, she and a perky Hollywood-hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality."
2. Let's Scare Jessica to Death, d. John D Hancock (1971), w/ Zohra Lampert
    "A recently institutionalized woman has bizarre experiences after moving into a supposedly haunted country farmhouse and fears she may be losing her sanity once again."
3. The Tenant, d. Roman Polanski (1976), w/ Roman Polanski (YES< HE STARS IN IT<amazingly)
    "a man rents an apartment in France where the previous tenant committed suicide, and begins to suspect his landlord and neighbors are trying to subtly change him into the last tenant so that he too will kill himself"
4. Antichrist, d. Lars von Trier (2009), w/ Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
   "A grieving couple retreats to their cabin in the woods, hoping to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse." [I'm particularly fond of the trailer]
5Possession, d. Andrez Zulaweski (1981), w/ Sam Neill
   "A young woman left her family for an unspecified reason. The husband determines to find out the truth and starts following his wife. At first, he suspects that a man is involved. But gradually, he finds out more and more strange behaviors and bizarre incidents that indicate something more than a possessed love affair."
6. The 4th Man, d. Paul Verhoeven (1983), w/ Jeroen Krabbe
    "A man who has been having visions of an impending danger begins an affair with a woman who may lead him to his doom."

and Nightmarish Works of Fiction...
1) The Face That Must Die by Ramsey Campbell (1979)
   [A disturbed man, furious with the injustices of modern England, becomes obsessed with an apartment complex where he believes he's identified a serial killer of male prostitutes. Campbell is the UK's most award-winning, living horror writer. And he's my personal favorite. In the 2006 afterword, Campbell says The Face That Must Die is "the first anti-homophobic horror novel." He also confesses the main character's modeled after his own paranoid-schizophrenic mother].
2) The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
  [Guests are rewarded money for residing in a reportedly "haunted" house. The premise is now almost cliche, but Jackson's suspenseful prose terrifyingly asks"is it the house or is it their own psyches?" in one of the best modern, Gothic "nightmare" novels.
3) The Last Feast of Harlequin (novella) by Thomas Ligotti (1991)
  [A scholar fascinated by the anthropology of clowns, who also suffers from seasonal-affective-depression, uncovers the bizarre rituals of a small town's clown festival. Ligotti has been called the heir to Poe & Lovecraft, and "the best-kept secret in literary horror." His most-published & accessible collection, Teatro Grottesco, is also awesomely fantastic-- featuring stories called "The Clown Puppet," "Gas Station Carnivals," and "The Bungalow House." His work is highly existential, surreal, and bizarre.]
4) The Ruins of Contracoeur (novella) by Joyce Carol Oates (1999)
  [A family in political exile moves to an isolated forest, where their child witnesses a faceless man prowling the night; stranger events follow. Published in the 999 anthology of horror. Oates has written countless "Gothic" works, such as the stories collected in Haunted, Night-Side, and The Museum of Dr. Moses. One of the most prolific writers (1989 NYT says Oates "is synonymous with productivity"), she's won dozens of awards (Bram Stoker for Zombie, National Book Award for Them).
5) Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)
  [A collection of stories infused with the occult, drug abuse, hallucinations, nightmares, deadly performance artists, and "the unknown." One of the most interesting and promising of the new generation's horror writers. Barron's currently working on his first novel, (tentatively titled) In the Attic of the Damned.]

and some Nightmarish "True Stories"...
1) Ted Bundy - (pic above) [suicide hotline specialist, 1972 Chairman of Washington State Republican Party, "charming & handsome," murdered over 30 women with similar physical appearance, represented himself in court, escaped prison once for a "Florida sorority massacre"]
2) Ed Gein - [1940's grave-robber, built anatomy-furniture, wanted to make a female skin-suit]
3) H.H. Holmes and the "Murder Castle" [co-subject of bestselling book, Devil in the White City, Holmes built a hotel in 1880's Chicago, specifically designed to trap & murder guests, vagrants, and employees during (especially during the population-swelling anonymity of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair). His "hotel" included auto-locking rooms w/ poisonous gas, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, and trapdoors falling to Holmes' basement labratory. The basement included acid vats, where Holmes dissected corpses, selling their bones to med schools. He was a doctor and pharmacist.]

You can read about my own private nightmares later...


Tuesday, September 6, 2011


[HEY< ALEX MILLS, this is a blog where I share my fascinations-- like arguing cases for legitimizing the integrity of the Gothic/Horror genre]

"What if the very thing we were here to pull out of the ground were to rise willingly - confront us. What would that look like?" - The Last Winter

Tonight I watched writer/director Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter (2006), a psychological-horror film, set on an Alaskan oil expedition. This was my second viewing; instead of (previously) enjoying it alone & terrified, tonight I debuted it to relaxed friends. But this time I was shocked. Whereas I loved the film, there was a disturbing disparity between our audience reactions (just as on "Rotten Tomatoes," TLW has a great 77% Fresh Critic's rating; yet in contrast it has a terrible 67% Rotten Audience rating, or rather, 33% Fresh Audience rating). These past few hours, I've been puzzled over my friends' review of the film, best summarized by the repeated phrase, "that was stupid."

Here's my case for why The Last Winter isn't stupid-- and has gone unappreciated as one of the best contemporary, American, psychological-thriller-horror films.


* TLW constructs itself in the mode of a "bad to worse" situation, escalating into nightmarish "dread, wonder, & suspense" for the audience. TLW does not sell out to the over-produced indulgences of hyper-violence, torture, sex, or in-yer-face grossness. So it's not surprising when the highest-grossing "horrors," (which win a wide audience's "Fresh Rating" via monetary approval) are "shock & gore" franchises like Saw, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Child's Play, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The mystery or "dread & wonder," is lost because the "horror" is declared, sequel'd, and obvious (and thus, stupid), with only "shock & gore" of the of the villain's executions to satisfy any scares

*In contrast, the classically-remembered "critical hits," like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, The Shining, or The Exorcist, all favor a suspense & mystery-fueled type of scare, where the audience must "dread & wonder" what the horror (or climax) will be. [Yes, this blurs distinction between "mystery vs. horror," but why is any distinction necessary or helpful, except one mode has a stronger mood? I'll probably discuss this in another post.]
While many of these "critical classics" (like Lambs or Shining) feature gore, it's incidental and secondary to the pervasive dread, suspense and mystery of "things going bad to worse." As in TLW, there's greater attention towards building an audience's fears, and letting the audience imagine & wonder the destructive outcome (this "wonder" acts more satisfying than being "fed" gore, a topic I'll discuss in the next point re: innovation].


* TLW has carefully composed, impressive photography. The camera movement is disturbingly fitting (with the trademark forward-tracking shots pervasive of in the thrillers of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Carpenter, Argento-- giving us a spectral stalker-POV; it also features many long-shot takes effectively plant us within the scene, without Hollywood's over-loaded, distracting shot-cuts to different character's POV's). The sound creates a nightmarish atmosphere (though occasionally the music, in perhaps an attempt for contrast, renders some moments undeservedly & indulgently sentimental). Its editing is fast-paced, with unique & memorable sequences building a mood of a post-traumatic shock, disturbed wonder. Its color palette is strong, specific, and wide-ranging (the stark Gothic expressionism of black & white, like light/life & dark/death), (the cold blues of isolation), (the jaundiced green of night-vision, coloring a tone of lunacy), (the warm oranges of interiors, fires, safety). There's a careful, specific, intelligent, mood-affecting design.

* TLW works best with its (slightly) surreal & unreliable narrative, where our perception is mixed with the dissolving sanity of the character's minds. While possessing some of the pure-dream-nightmarish modes of Lynch's Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive, or Eraserhead-- The Last Winter performs more accessibly strange, where the mystery of "what is happening" isn't obscured into too difficult an interpretation.
[However, TLW works best when the "what is happening" mystery is a tad more obscured-- or not so obvious a "is this just reality or hallucination" question. Likewise, when the horror offers an irrefutable (thematic) explanation, the scare becomes less interesting & satisfying. Or rather, the film's image of the tangibly understood "monster 'X'" is less scary than the personally imagined "monster '???'" -- though this is the nature of desire, (like longing is extinguished upon acquisition); suspense is killed upon solving].

* TLW repeats a theme of "environmental consequence" both in its literal plot/characters, with also its thematic message of identifying "the horror itself." TLW is more blatantly political than other "enviro-revenge" films, (like Jaws, Jurassic Park, Prophecy, The HostThe Happening), which remove themselves from (too obviously/politically) implicating man as guilty and deserving of nature's wrath. 
Here's a quote from where one character finds another's journal, 
" Something is being unleashed in the softening permafrost. Why do we despise the world that gave us life? Why wouldn't the world survive us, like any organism survives a virus... Is there something beyond science that is happening out here? What if the very thing we were here to pull out of the ground were to rise willingly - confront us. What would that look like?" (imdb)

So here's a dialectic, where the audience must choose whether man's consequences on nature will reap nature's consequences on man. TLW thus follows a popular horror-model of "crime & punishment," like the Macbeth's guilt-as-horror narrative (King Macbeth's regicidal conquest of betraying his higher-power suffers him insanity & death--  a parallel of Marion Crane's thievery or Norman Bates' matricide in Psycho-- the anti-authority "crime" "punishes" the characters with death & destruction).  Likewise in TLW, near-unexplainable acts of lunacy & harm are implied to be consequences of man betraying his higher-power-creator of nature/Earth. TLW's terror asks how nature might fight back to its enemy, or how an "organism survives a virus."  

One need only a peek on IMDB's user comments to see how many hate this film for being "a Green, Tree-Hugging, Democratic-Left Lesson." But the ferocity of these (conservative) outrages only implicate their own threatened, reactionary viewpoint. The film's message (that, yes, perhaps man will suffer consequences for our industrious conquest over nature), is most obviously attributed with the "global warming" "debate." While overwhelming scientific evidence shows there is climate change from human effects (like greenhouse gases or ozone depletion), this conclusion threatens a powerful business, as well as threatening the belief of our security and dominance. The dismissal of "change or progress" (even in the face of fact-based studies, evidence), for preserving a "conservative status quo," reveals a viewpoint lacking in compassion, and saturated in greed, sloth, ignorance, apathy, and fantasy. While corporations profit under the regulation-free fantasy of "no climate change," TLW threatens this power (and need to change), by nightmarishly animating the downfall of enviro-conservative ignorance (the matricidal consequences of man killing Mother Nature). [And let's not forget the historical progress of man learning to regulate his own progress, re: inventions of science & industry-- like the 1917 NJ Radium Girls, the taboo of atomic warfare, 1946-74's General Electric's PCB/mercury/food poisoning in NY's Hudson River, agricultural run-off attributing to Red Tide, etc...] 

I recommend The Last Winter to any audiences appreciating psychological-horror suspense, cinematic innovation & design, and the dialectic for social & political progress.


I'm Alex Mills