P1010422Thanks to NPR Music’s “First Listen” series, Deerhunter’s new album Monomania has had two weeks to seep in. It soon became apparent that this album was a marvelous continuation of the Atlanta-based band’s arty noise-pop sound. Any doubts about this album for this writer lasted only halfway through the band’s premiere of the title track on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show a few weeks ago. Deerhunter would give one of the most brilliantly subversive television performances I had ever seen. Lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox hid most of his face under a disheveled mop of a jet-black wig. He gripped a microphone on a stand with his right hand and snarled through the song. But the scene-stealer was a missing middle finger on his left hand. His face mostly hidden, one could not help but notice the bandaged and bloody nub where one of his fingers should have been. Though later proven a stunt (he had just curled up his finger and wrapped it tight), this “prop” raised the performance to an entrancing level, especially when one has to think what this might do to the guitarist/songwriter’s process considering the wall-of-guitar sound of Deerhunter.

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Then, a little more than halfway through the song, as the band dove into a roaring cacophony of dueling guitars, Cox walked off the stage. A cameraman followed him backstage, as his mates bent over their respective instruments to squeeze the life out of their strings, seemingly oblivious to the disappearance of their frontman. Guitars still wailing in the distance, Cox walked past a couple chatting in a backstage hall, snatched a cup from a woman yapping and either chugged the cup of water or threw it in his own face (I can’t recall, the video is no longer on-line). With the band members still pounding on their instruments, he walked over to an elevator and pressed a button, as “Monomania” came to a sputtering end. Fallon walked over to the stage holding a vinyl copy of the album. “Deerhunter, everybody!”

This is the genius that informs this music that I have consistently celebrated since I first heard of Deerhunter via their third album, 2008’s Microcastle. Three albums later and Deerhunter have not lost their touch to these ears. The new album opens with two noisy tracks with vocals so loud they rattle eardrums, distorting beyond perception of lyrics as guitars screech and shimmer, dipping into sporadic bits of feedback. Then comes relief in “The Missing,” a pretty melody crafted by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also has a noteworthy solo project called Lotus Plaza. Pundt’s shy, breathy singing is the perfect complement to the delicate songcraft: pretty guitars and synths sighing an iridescent harmonic whoosh under the bright guitars. None of these songs on their own would feel as potent taken out of the context from one another. It’s a great bit of dichotomy. To reduce Deerhunter as a grungy shoegaze/noise pop outfit interested solely in reverb is to overlook the patchwork brilliance of the entire experience of its albums.

Last week, the vinyl version of Monomania arrived, and it provided yet another layer of revelation. What becomes immediately noticeable, thanks to the clarity of vinyl, is the acoustic guitar strumming within the din of the opening  track, “Neon Junkyard.” There are also various whirs and fizzes that comprise the noise from unknown sources. The lyrics are also clearer, and the first line may as well be Deerhunter’s manifesto: “Finding the fluorescence in the junk/By night illuminates the day.”

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The great thing about noise pop albums on vinyl is how the format clears up the din like a high-definition video screen. There is finesse in the racket. The clarity of the instruments, from the strum of acoustic guitars to the pluck of bass strings, pops out with not just crispness but dynamism. “Blue Agent” contains a staccato lead guitar line the oozes liquidity. However, its terse delivery features a new dynamic in each pluck on vinyl. The sonic range via vinyl turns what could be regarded as a cute gimmick in playing to elevating the song with a deeper character that sounds far more human and real.

“T.H.M.” opens with a delicate guitar line and soft beat decorated with a shaker. P1010426The song picks up on a sprightlier beat with hand claps as another guitar jumps in to add another terse melody before returning to the more spare verse. The kicker comes when Cox supplements his growling lyrics with a chorus of asthmatic coughs.

Side two opens with a billowing whir and then bright guitars drive the song along toward a chorus featuring an echo effect capping off the end of each line Cox sings before more guitar strums pile up to swell and suddenly back off and let the initial hook trot along to the song’s finale. It’s a brilliant tease of noise versus melody. In fact, this side more than side one features the catchier tunes and reveals the early ‘90s/late ‘80s noise pop sonic influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. However, whereas those bands were usually against keeping keyboards and keeping synths out of the mix, Deerhunter has no fear of using them to supplement its sound. Then again, there is that roar of an outboard motor that takes over from the crush of screeching guitars at the end of “Monomania.”

Beyond the gritty sound juxtaposed with brightness are the dark lyrics by Cox. That’s where the true heart of darkness of this album lies. As bright as “T.H.M.” P1010427sounds musically, the lyrics reference a violent death (“Took two bullets to the brain”) coupled with “coming out” and insanity. Throughout Monomania, the lyrics seem to wallow in misunderstanding and a frustrated solitude. It comes from a very real place, as Cox rarely sentimentalizes his homosexuality. Even Pundt’s only song, “the Missing,” fits the vibe of the album lyrically.

Deerhunter has always known its way around darker subject matter, and such deep exploration births an honest sound that does not always produce pure melody. The members of Deerhunter consistently prove themselves crafty with guitars and pop songs, but they know how to dig deeper to offer something much more dynamic with not only volume but cacophony. As ever, Deerhunter proves there is a beauty in noise. Monomania may have frayed and weathered edges but it’s representative of a real humanity beyond the songcraft.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Day 2 of the Miami International Film Festival provided the experience I was looking forward to most about the 30th edition of this event: an intimate experience with the world of cinema. It began with a riveting discussion on the state of film criticism by some the industry’s busiest film critics in the US, and ended with two screenings at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. One of the films was a world premiere, the other the latest from one of Denmark’s most vital filmmakers second only to Lars von Trier.

The day began at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where an audience of some of the more hardcore film attendees sat rapt for almost two hours, as four of the U.S.’s more influential film critics discussed their industry. They included:

David Edelstein (“New York Magazine,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and “CBS Sunday Morning” [my favorite morning TV news show around])

Leah Rozen (“The Wrap,” “People Magazine”)

Claudia Puig (“USA Today”)

Kim Voynar (“Movie City News,” “Cinematical”).

Led by Miami’s Dan Hudak (“Hudak on Hollywood,” WLRN and chairman of the Florida Film Critics Circle), who could barely get a word in edgewise, it only took a few questions to get a variety of views from a group of people wired for discourse. Edelstein was the more contrarian of the bunch, which kept the conversation nice and dynamic. He pushed the basic tenet for anyone who wants to write film criticism: “Write and write and write and re-write and read everything.”

Critics panel at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

Puig noted anyone who wants to write about film should “get a life.” Though her advice may seem condescending at face value, she elaborated on the wit loaded in her comment. Criticism is a lonely business, but it must also be a well-informed business that comes from the school of life.

Rozen illuminated Puig’s point by adding film students should consider double majoring in things outside of film school, including the social sciences like political science or anthropology (I would add psychology and literature, where my experience also stems from).

Voynar, the youngest of the group, addressed the concern of many trying their hand at this game: money. This is not a passion to follow for money, and aspiring critics need to expect to write for free. Film criticism is about a passion for an art that trumps any desire for making money. If cinema is a true wholehearted interest of any writer, money will come. But going around demanding and asking for it will get you ignored fast.

That was only the start of a discussion that enforced some of my own views on film writing, including a studious desire “to watch films analytically,” according to Rozen. All agreed what a waste of time writers are who summarize films and provide little to no insight into the craft, a rookie mistake of many aspiring film writers.

I think I most learned from Edelstein who spoke about his own struggles with finding his voice. He began by indulging in all first person, reactionary pieces to distant John Updike-like observational.  I tend toward the latter, which made me feel as though I still have something to learn. I was relieved to hear some constructive advice that proves my theory that, as a writer, one never masters writing but always strives to master it.

Finally, they defended bloggers such as I. At the end of the panel, an audience member asked a question deriding the seeming self-appointed nature of bloggers. They all agreed that though the blogosphere is full of clear amateurs who are not hard to spot, it has some voices that rival their own peers. “Some are absolutely amazing and do it for love,” one of them said.

After this most stimulating panel (already this post is too long), it was off to a happy hour at the festival’s official hotel, the Standard. The hotel bar was filled with so many people I should have known but hardly recognized, as I have this inherit problem with names and faces and no interest in the celebrity game. I wound up chatting with Edelstein some more and Canadian actor/director Don McKellar (sheesh, just noticed he played Yevgeny Nourish in Cronenberg’s masterpiece eXistenZ). I also met Puig there who ended up being my movie date for both screenings that night. On the way to the Olympia theater in Downtown Miami, I saw her outside waiting for a van she might have missed, so I offered her a ride.

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The first movie we saw was the world premiere of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish, a film I was drawn to because I know someone who has the disease trimethylaminuria. The film, which also features McKellar, by first-time director Analeine Cal y Mayor approached the disease with a sense of humor that reached for Wes Anderson heights of quirk. Featuring Douglas Smith and Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny), the film came from a sincere place, but the script, co-written by Cal y Mayor and Javier Gullón, both from Spain, was uneven and at times contrived. Kravitz gave it her sincere best, and the movie worked when it embraced its silly side most unabashedly. Conjuring up the long-lost Mexican singing “legend” Guillermo Garibai (a happy-go-lucky “most intereting man” performance by Gonzalo Vega) to give advice for the sad-sack titular boy (a passionless Smith), almost rescues the film. Hiwever, it arrives too late into the movie, which mostly dwells on the boy’s morose suffering.

Much of the cast and crew from Spain and Canada (plus actress Carrie-Anne Moss who has a part) were present for the screening. The applause was kind, but no standing ovation. Director Cal Y Mayor was forgotten at the film’s introduction by the film’s producer, Niv Fichman, and she admitted her nervousness about the film’s reception. She was sweet, and I hope the film works for her in some way, but judging from the night, the battle seems quite steep for this film to gain any attention at future screenings.

Some of the cast of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern.

Lackluster films only serve to enhance anything that follows, and that happened during the second film of the night: Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt. The way cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot the children, so key to the film’s plot, even stood above the night’s previous film.

Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm  proved himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas, is a rather cruel play on dramatic irony. After a child’s fib goes viral among the inhabitants of Danish small town, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt.

As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, the film becomes a brutal rollercoaster of victimization with the audiences’ sympathy clearly placed on Lucas’ shoulders. THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

The Hunt ends on an ambiguous note that encourages discussion. We wound up standing outside the Olympia with several other local cinema enthusiasts, including a pair of my colleagues in local cinema criticism: FFCC member Reuben Pereira and the Hialeah Examiner’s Steve Mesa. Despite it being a cold night in the low 50s, we stood outdoors considering the film’s theme, approach and performances for some time.

Next post: a preview of Day 3, for which I have some more interesting published preview writing to share…

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Official Go cover art.

You can hear Jonsi’s new full-length album Go two weeks ahead of its official release by going to National Public Radio’s music website.

Based on one listen so far, this is– as I predicted in my Dec. 8 entry offering a free download from the up-coming album– a much easier to digest release than the lead singer of Sigor Ros has ever come up with.

It opens with “Go Do,” which starts with a nice surprise: Jonsi’s breathy alto is parsed out to break-beat electro-like affect. It’s complimented by a chirpy flute and the mushy, pounding throb of a drum beat. The song winds up swelling to familiar dreamy Sigur Ros heights. Oh, and he is indeed singing in his faux language of coos and chirps.

It’s fun music for the most part (and lots of it is in English, too), and I’m excited to hear the vinyl version. Jonsi has certainly invested in odd, organic instrumentation that should sound nice on the old hi-fi. I might as well do my pre-order now because this is some of the sweetest music Jonsi has conjured up and very good for short attention spans (it clocks in at only just a few seconds over 40 minutes).

I should also note you can order a digital version of the album and a limited edition on his website.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)