By guest contributor Kai Perrignon
I sit here, starting this at 11:58 PM, December 30, two minutes before the last day of the year, listening to Milo’s fantastic double EP Things That Happen at Day / Things That Happen At Night, an album which I can’t believe I only just bought today, and I suddenly see 2013 as the year of things I almost didn’t hear. The year of things I almost didn’t see.
Now, I don’t work for any film or music blogs. As much as I’d love to work for The AV Club, I don’t think writing consistently good reviews is in my wheelhouse. I watch an enormous amount of films and listen to a fair amount of music, but I spend too much time distracted by my own creative endeavors. I would spend time promoting my novel-in-progress (title pending, but it’s going to be good, everybody) or going off on tangents about how, just now, I spent an hour talking to a beautiful girl about existential crises and the afterlife (a conversation that ended with both of us getting headaches from the cyclical arguments that ended up solving nothing, as many philosophical arguments tend to do).
That doesn’t mean I don’t inhale entertainment constantly. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t think, extensively, about the culture I experience. I do. I talk to my friends and family about it until they tell me to shut up. But I can’t shut up. 2013 was a year of discovery. So many artists emerged, whether through comebacks or out of the blue. Some of their work was glorious. Some was mediocre. But in all the reviews I’ve read, I saw very few that discussed more than the, and excuse the expression, “big picture.” I would like to acknowledge some of 2013’s almost forgotten moments. The moments on which I felt entire blockbusters rested, or on which albums moved me. The smaller ones.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
To start, I’m going with a film on which I feel stimulates a grand amount of hope in myself. Peter Jackson, after faltering in the first Hobbit (my criticisms of that film have been said in almost every magazine and blog a hundred times, so I won’t repeat them here. Bottom line: it was boring.), Jackson returned here exponentially improved. The action scenes are much more exciting, and Smaug himself is as great as they say.
Still, Jackson has yet to make a great Hobbit film, and I think that the most important aspect of the film that holds it back from greatness is its superficiality. It all feels slight, especially compared to the grand themes held within his other famous trilogy. A lot of that comes down to its infamous stretching of a relatively short book. But I think the other half comes from its action, and how truly cartoony it feels. All the CGI contributes to this, and it is most apparent in the barrel-river escape. I will say this: I love that scene. It’s fun and crazy and ridiculous. It fits in with the more childish tone of the series while at the same time recalling the sense of awe present in The Lord of the Rings. However, Jackson makes a strange choice in the middle of the sequence that brings the film down from feeling like a fantasy epic to feeling like a fairytale.
Jackson throws two or three shots from the POV of the barrels, and he uses relatively shitty GoPro cameras to do it. For those of you who haven’t seen The Hobbit but saw Pain and Gain (which incidentally, I loved), the shots look very much like the shots Bay used inside cars in the latter film. Super pixelated and jarring. In Pain and Gain, the shots just made me get more into the ‘90’s mood of the film. In The Hobbit, the shots just served to remind me what the real world feels like-how it moves. Their juxtaposition against the floating camera and crystal quality of the rest of the film took me out of the experience and reminded me what I was watching.
12 Years a Slave
A film that I will either remember in later years for its daringly unsentimental nature or my mother’s first comment after seeing it (“It was depressing. 7 out of 10.”), 12 Years a Slave hit me deep in the gut. It’s a largely masterful exercise, though it suffers from a pacing issue almost diametrically opposed to The Hobbit, in that the passage of time is not felt enough, and it’s full of powerful moments.
My favorite, and one of the ones that stuck with me the most, is actually held within the much-talked-about sequence wherein Solomon hangs from a noose for an excruciatingly long time. Much has been made about how the slaves in the background go about their own business, largely ignoring Solomon as he clings to life, but I saw the most telling moment of purposeful ignorance present in one shot of the overseer, the very man who had driven away Paul Dano and his companions, undoubtedly saving Solomon’s life. Yet, he refuses to help Solomon past that moment. McQueen takes a moment to let the camera rest on the overseer, his face terrifying. He shows not sadness or fear or even happiness. Instead, it is a sort of pride he feels concerning his power over this man. He can stop Solomon from dying, sure, but he can also stop him from surviving, and that is almost more horrid. The intermediate emotions in the overseer play perfectly into the film’s theme of surface level kindness hiding cruelty. It’s subtle, but it works.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
This a film that not many people saw, but many people hated. The Dissolve named it one of the worst films of the year. I disagree. Handling the story of an aloof asshole who never seems to age, Somebody Up There Likes Me remains a slight film despite dealing with heavy themes about maturity and fate. Yet, in its own extremely dry way, the film is very funny and, past the absurdities of its plot, a rather sad film about one man living without potential. Plus, Nick Offerman is hilarious in it.
Anyway, near the end of the film the protagonist begins to die. Sitting with the co-founder Sal (Offerman) of his Pizza and Ice Cream (that’s the name of their shop) empire, Keith Paulson’s protagonist falls off his chair due to his unidentified illness. Offerman repeatedly calls his friend “Hamboney” for no reason other than it’s a ridiculous scene. Then Paulson’s Max dies. Almost all of this is presented for laughs, and the “Hamboney” joke is a rather stupid (but also super funny) throwaway gag.
Yet, in addition to being a minor joke, I see the scene as a small reflection of the film’s thesis. To the moment Max dies, he barely interacts with life in any meaningful way. He forms relationships and has a child, but he treats all of them as afterthoughts to fill the empty space of his head. Here, Max spends the last moments of his life arguing over a stupid nickname. He refuses to be called “Hamboney.” None of it matters. Ultimately, Max only matters to his son and his friends because of how little he cared about them or anything of substance.
It’s a moment that sticks with me. Also, I think the movie should have been called Please Don’t Call Me Hamboney, because that’s a funnier title.
Recordings of Ferns by Big Kitty
Recordings of Ferns is an album that our dear friend Nathan Smith recommended to me, and I love him for it. It’s a strange record, but it is amazing. Ferns was released in March, and I can find two reviews of it online. It deserves more attention. It’s an experimental folk-country record from Chattanooga, Tennessee, that at first seems almost too simplistic too enjoy, then slowly worms its way into your brain. I’ve been playing it on repeat for the last few days. With the exception of a couple samples of radio noise, ambient sounds, and some howls, artist Clark Williams primarily sings by himself, overlaying his own vocals, with a guitar.
On “Apple in a Tree,” the catchiest song on the album, Williams sings of longing and desire in simple, almost cute, poetry. The song begins and ends with sounds of a stream and crickets, and it floats along, sad but comforting, as he remembers his love and asks her to stay with him a while.
I put the song on repeat on iTunes and realized that it loops perfectly. I can’t hear the break when the song starts over, because the ambient noise matches perfectly. It must have been a decision-it works that well. And the looping makes the song play better and more dreamlike than it does by itself for one play. The seamless looping makes it feel like a lazy river, Williams’ gentle ideas flowing into themselves and articulating the endless feeling of desire better than his words possibly could.
On Oni Pond by Man Man
Man Man have been heading towards accessibility for years, and with On Oni Pond, they finally made something that could be played on a radio station safely. That’s not to say that the album lacks the essential Man Man spirit-the music is still carnivalesque and the lyrics are strange and sometimes disconcerting- but it feels happier than previous releases. Still, the change alienated many of the band’s fans, who missed the screaming and banging of Six Demon Bag. They wanted the more “experimental” Man Man.
I love this record. There are times when it feels close to being repetitive, but it made me want to dance while simultaneously devouring something. It’s a weird feeling. The best song on the album is “Born Tight,” which is strangely uplifting and hits the tone of the album perfectly, but a close runner up is “King Shiv,” one of its slower tempo songs.
The song hits subversive notes about superficiality and possibly even fate, but the most important part comes at the very end. After a 20 seconds of silence, the sound of backwards voices is clearly heard. When I first heard it, I got excited. I expected some kind of dark, hidden message. I played it backwards online in eager anticipation. It was simply the chorus of another song, “Loot My Body,” backwards.
At first, I was filled with disappointment. Why wouldn’t I be? It was nothing new. A few weeks later, I came back to the backwards lyrics. It took me a while, but now I see that disappointment as the essence of the record. I don’t mean this as an indictment. Man Man had always been known as some form of “that crazy band with the screaming.” They started off as loud and alienating. They were sometimes scary. Rabbit Habits, their third LP, had fireworks in a song. They started off so left-field that the only place to go was center. With the backwards lyrics at the end of King Shiv, the unexpected came from how normal their meaning was.
And so it hit me. The only way Man Man could still be experimental at this point in their career was to be less experimental. The only way they could be unexpected was to be expected. The fact that they made this change is not only fantastic, it’s daring.
Things That Happen At Day / Things That Happen At Night by Milo
Finally, much like the cyclical arguments I mentioned in the introduction, I have landed back where I started. I had all of Milo’s other material, but for some reason it took me until today (yesterday? It’s 1:54 AM right now) to get ahold of his double EPs.
I was stupid to wait. It’s phenomenal. I like it more than his mixtape Cavalcade, which is impressive. I’ve listened to it all the way through twice. The production is sometimes minimalist but always hauntingly atmospheric. Milo’s verses are filled with references and insecurities in equal measure.
Of course, like I tend to do, I’ve latched onto a particular song and have been playing it on loop while I’ve been writing this piece, hoping to articulate the special little part so that I could squeeze it in here. Luckily, I found it in the middle of Somebody Up There Likes Me.
My favorite song on the album is “Folk-Metaphysics.” It’s damn good. The lyrics wash about ambition and internal faults in a way that makes me worry about those things without disheartening me. Milo pulls off the delicate balance of writing a feel-good song about a feel-bad subject. Past the lyrics, however, the part that grabs me is in the production.
Some would say that, because it loops throughout, the sound of ripping paper is not a small moment on the song. It is a sound necessary to its identity. But the first 12 times I listened to the song, I couldn’t place what it sounded like. It kept bugging me-begging me to recognize it. At first, I thought it was a weird snare drum effect. Or a cool setting on a drum machine.
When it finally hit me, I stopped writing and listened to the song intently. The ripping of paper. Normally, I associate that sound with failure. With a poor self-assessment. And that’s what it brings to mind in the song. Milo raps of trying to be more than his current situation, and the paper seems to reflect a man wanting to start again. Normally, that is what it would reflect. A recognition of failure and a notice to start over. But Milo isn’t rapping about starting over, he is rapping about continuing. About evolving.
Milo starts with,
I should not sit on this couch and watch Netflix
I should take pouty mouth pics for my press kit
I should defy the rules of logic
He starts with a small declaration of moving forward. So the ripping of the paper reflects a new idea- one less like a phoenix rising out of the ashes and more like Andy leaving, but not forgetting his toys at the end of Toy Story 3. Less of a remake and more of a sequel.
Seeing how Things That Happen At Day / Things That Happen At Night was released on New Year’s Day, I think this interpretation makes sense. Time to make a new and improved New Year’s Resolution.
Follow the production on “Folk-Metaphysics.” Time to rip up seeing the forest for the trees. Time to see the tree for the forest.
Have a great 2014.