“I don’t like simple, kid.”
“I made a daisy chain from phrase, verse, and punctuation.”
A modern take on the French New Wave.
During the cruel isolation of both the pandemic and Chicago winter, I’ve been reflecting on some of most memorable live music shows I’ve attended because goddamn I miss live events and thought for a brief moment I’d be able to return to them. I can safely say there aren’t many more memorable than PUERTO MUERTO’s final show.
PUERTO MUERTO was a Chicago-based husband and wife goth/americana band that released five albums before imploding around 2010. I discovered them via their last album, DRUMMING FOR PISTOLS, then heard about them performing a final live show at the legendary dive venue Empty Bottle, and I was all too happy to attend.
While I had suspected that there was some sort of strife between the two — rarely does a band explicitly declare a final show — their performance was extraordinarily combative. They closed with the titular track of their last album and I exited the club feeling like I’d witnessed the razing of a relationship. I’ve seen a lot of intense shows over the years, but Christa Meyer was so amazingly, brazenly, cathartically angry that her performance still resonates a decade later.
A fascinating pastiche of faux-90s iconography and COVID-era neuroticism.
HEALTH is a surprisingly popular electronic band that has a sound and aesthetic more suited for dark late-90s/early naughts clubs than, well, Spotify. They double down on that idiosyncratic nature with a number of their videos, which are firmly ensconced in both the horror genre and art film worlds.
DIE SLOW (2009):
While the video for DIE SLOW fully leans into sensationalism, given that it depicts a bloodletting frenzy, visually its use of framing and reframing (and more reframing) reminds me more of Peter Greenaway’s PROSPERO’S BOOKS, and its editing is extraordinarily taut.
WE ARE WATER (2009):
Immaculately produced, but a bit squicky — if you’re familiar with SLEEPAWAY CAMP, you know what I’m talking about.
A relatively surface-level commentary on musicians and cosmetic surgery, but they take it so far over the top, especially with the glamour framing and lighting, that I can’t help but revel in it.
NEW COKE (2015):
HEALTH loves to villainize their drummer.
(Warning: this video features very disgusting slo-mo vomit — some self-induced — so you might want to bail before 1m45s.)
STRANGE DAYS 1999 (2019):
No, really, HEALTH loves to villainize their drummer. Also, this is an absolutely brilliant riff on late 90s ‘true crime’ motifs.
I’ll note that I’ve never called any of their numbers, but I’ve been very tempted to.
GIRLS5EVA, from the gut-busting mind of Meredith Scardino, is one of the few shows I had to relegate to only watching during the daytime, and while I wasn’t working, because it’s so fucking hilarious that it was distracting and my laughter was prone to waking folks up. This tale, of a girl pop group making a resurgence 20 years later, is a gag-a-minute, and every performance is pitch-perfect. It’s well-worth the peacock subscription solely for it. Don’t believe me? Here, enjoy this litany of jokes:
“So, I dug up our old agreement with Larry and I think he used an old Ringling Bros. contract. Not even for humans; for bears!”
“Well, I’ve always admired that work ethic in the bedroom — it’s bananas — but otherwise it’s too much!”
“Assembly requires four men or nine daughters.”
“Wait, did you make the MAXIM HOT list?”
“Oh, yeah. Oh my god, we got this swag bag from the women’s empowerment luncheon at the Victoria’s Secret Trampoline Park.
“Oh, a temporary tramp stamp. ‘October Sky’, now on VHS.”
“YOU HUMAN B-SIDE!”
“Why am I never the one profiting off of me?”
“You’re all in my will. I have a parrot I haven’t told you about that won’t die.”
“Guess it’s just you and me, Ash.”
“Honestly, too many people left for this to be fun. Now that it’s just the two of us, it’s feeling kind of weird.”
“Don’t quote your sex tape at me!”
“Sorry, the guy from ‘Smallville’.”
“It’s pointless, but it’s what I’m doing!”
What a perfect summation of my pandemic life.
(DVD/YouTube) GET A LIFE was a transcendently stupid TV show starring Chris Elliott as Chris Peterson, a naive 30-year-old man-child living with his parents, who happens to fall into a number of absurd comic situations that grow more and more surreal as the show progresses. It was the brainchild of Chris Elliott (who, at that time, was mostly known for small bits on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN), David Mirkin (best known for his work on some of the best seasons of THE SIMPSONS), and Adam Resnick. (Resnick was a big 90s SNL writer, but also co-wrote and directed the cult-favorite but critically-reviled CABIN BOY which also starred Chris Elliott and has a brief appearance by David “Wouldja like to buy a monkey?!” Letterman. Having attended a CABIN BOY screening with a post-film Q&A with Resnick, I can tell you that he -hates- talking about that film and I do not know why he agreed to do a Q&A.) Notable writers include Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) and Bob Odenkirk (MR. SHOW, BETTER CALL SAUL), so you know it’s going to be absurd.
It was definitely absurd. The first season was slightly more off-kilter than full-blown bonkers — it focused more on the sitcom family elements (which included Chris Elliott’s real-life father and classic comedian Bob Elliott as Peterson’s father). The second season was completely unhinged, mostly because they knew they would never get renewed for a third.
It was a severe primetime network oddity in the early nineties and, as a young teen watching my friend’s weekly VHS recordings of the show, it was a mind-blowing experience: Chris Peterson would frequently be killed off in episodes. There’s a Jack and the Giant Beanstalk ep. There’s an E.T.-ish episode that featured a disgusting alien named SPEWEY that, as you might guess, repeatedly vomits. It’s proto-alternative TV comedy.
One of the most influential episodes may be “The Prettiest Week of My Life” (S01E02, surprisingly early in the show) where Chris decides to become a male model via the ‘Handsome Boy School of Modeling’. If you’re familiar with music producer Dan the Automator, you’re familiar with this episode, as he created an entire project named HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL, then went on to heavily sample “The Prettiest Week of My Life” in songs like ‘Look at This Face (Oh My God They’re Gorgeous)’ and ‘Modeling Sucks’:
(When I used to DJ, I’d try to work in ‘Modeling Sucks’ whenever I could.)
What’s even more amazing is: they managed to get R.E.M.’s STAND for the theme song. Sadly, that’s probably why you can’t legally stream it anywhere now. (If you want to check out the series, there are a number of bootleg eps on YouTube, but please: if you enjoy it, throw some money towards SHOUT! Factory’s DVD set. It’s a great set, and they do fantastic work.)
The show isn’t for everyone, but it was a foundational show for me.
(tubi/VOD) I immerse myself in a lot of media but, despite how long I’ve been doing so, I’m surprisingly bad at it. I often watch movie series completely out-of-order. (Worst example: THE BEFORE TRILOGY.) I accidentally read lesser works by an author before cracking open their acclaimed works. (I ate up J.G. Ballard’s HELLO AMERICA, but have yet to read CRASH or EMPIRE OF THE SUN). Lastly, I all too often neglect to read the novels that inspired the works I’m currently reading. (I’ve read two novels this year where the authors have explicitly stated they were inspired by Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. I’ve only read THE GOLDFINCH and, while I was reading THE GOLDFINCH in a bar roughly two years ago, the bartender told me: ‘You should really read THE SECRET HISTORY’ and they were obviously correct, and I have yet to rectify that.)
One of the most egregious oversights I’ve made in my media consumption is that of the Marx Brothers. When I was in my early teens, I loved the indie comic CEREBUS by Dave Sim. (Dave Sim is now best known as being a rampant misogynist, not to mention being homophobic and transphobic, and — to be clear — I do not endorse CEREBUS or Sim — I’m simply relaying some youthful thoughts and anecdotes.) The comic started as a parody of CONAN THE BARBARIAN featuring an aardvark as the barbarian, then became political satire, then it became a commentary on religion, and then it spiraled.
I didn’t care for the aardvark, but I was fascinated by the loquacious character named Lord Julius and the political absurdity in HIGH SOCIETY, the second volume of the series. I met Dave Sim at a comic book convention many, many years ago and he drew a head sketch of Lord Julius in my dogeared copy of my HIGH SOCIETY ‘phone book’ (the label ascribed to the over-stuffed CEREBUS trade paperbacks) which, for a short while, was a prized possession.
What I didn’t realize until I went to college and started binging classic film was how nakedly he riffed on the Marx Brothers; how Lord Julius was an excuse for Sims to write Groucho-esque jokes, and how HIGH SOCIETY was simply Sim’s version of DUCK SOUP. All you have to do is look at this page of art and see: yup, lifting Marx Brothers for his own purposes. Once you know, you know, but when I was younger, when the interwebs didn’t fully exist? I didn’t know.
This has been a very long-winded way of saying that, even when I didn’t know it, my mind was being shaped by the sharp, vaudevillian wit of Groucho and his brothers, and DUCK SOUP is the epitome of their film career. It’s anarchic absurdity that happens to be politically evergreen, but it’s all in service of savvy jokes, circular logic, brilliant physical set-pieces, the glorious straight-faced work of Margaret Dumont, and some lyrical downtime to allow us to enjoy Harpo’s musical skills. In other words, it’s an immaculately constructed classic that holds up far better than CEREBUS has and, while it took me a while to get around to it, I’m happy I did.
A playlist of highlights:
It’s a sad day: Richard Donner has passed away. While he’s rightfully best known for SUPERMAN, he spent -a lot- of time directing television, including an ep of previously recommended ROUTE 66, eps of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, even eps of THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW, but most memorably, some of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Consequently, I’m re-posting a slightly tweaked version of my prior recommendation of one of his lesser-known THE TWILIGHT ZONE eps:
(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep -and- directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”
The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.
While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.
Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:
British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:
Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:
A short clip from the ep:
(YouTube) I am a big fan of rapper DESSA, but hearing her daily throughout Turner Classic Movies’ June programming trailers, which include a lot of Hitchcock and also feature her original recording of -Dixon’s Girl- drove me a bit nuts. (I believe the inclusion of the song is a shoutout regarding screenwriter Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and often-neglected creative partner.) I’ve had the line ‘call me up, day or night: free drinks and bad advice’ stuck in my head for roughly thirty days, as TCM plays in the background of our home practically 24/7.
My way of shunting out my obsessions is to write about them so: it’s a perfect song with a ton of great hooks and samples, and on top of that highlights not only the patriarchal nature of the the music industry, but also the women complicit in keeping the status quo.
The original video is available here:
And there was a symphonic version recorded in 2019 that I would have loved to see live:
DESSA also just released six singles within a six months, complete with videos, which comprise the IDES EP, all available via her site.And she’ll be touring soon-ish! We saw her at local indie rock tavern Schubas several years ago, and she’s absolutely blistering live.