Illinois and ILLINOIS

As I prepare to move next weekend (a whole block away!), I've spent many hours sorting through all my crap, not to mention additional piles of crap left behind by past tenants. This is the first time in Boston that I'm leaving an apartment but not any roommates behind. It's an exhausting process, and it’s equally staggering to think of how much *stuff* we accumulate... where can it all possibly go? Is this why we have overflowing landfills and densely-stocked thrift shops?

So, place the blame for my lack of posts as of late on the upcoming move. I've been craving to write about my trip to Chicago last weekend. I've now traveled there three times in the past three years, and this was my most enjoyable and action-packed trip so far. I primarily went to see my parents (who drove up from Des Moines) and two of my oldest friends (one of whom drove down from Milwaukee).

In approximately sixty hours, I managed to reach the top of the John Hancock tower (much taller and more spectacular than Boston's), stroll through Navy Pier, find out what an "Executive" martini is, visit Lincoln Park, Millennium Park, the Nature Museum (with its wondrous butterfly exhibit), and the glorious Superdawg, dine at my first Churrascaria, and even catch a screening of THE ARISTOCRATS at the Loews Esquire downtown.

However, more so than on my past trips to the Windy City, I could conceivably see myself living there one day—if I ever desired to return to the Midwest. I've spent almost eight years in Boston, and I still love being here, but the high cost of living is starting to wear on me like a heavy, damp, fraying suede overcoat.


I've also wanted to write about Sufjan Stevens' new album, ILLINOIS. If you're at all familiar with this blog, you know that his previous release, SEVEN SWANS, was my favorite record of 2004. The new one, however, is aesthetically more of a follow-up to MICHIGAN, which came out in 2003.

Both MICHIGAN and ILLINOIS are lengthy, ambitious song cycles that daringly blend swatches of Americana with autobiography, all of it set to a kitchen-sink musical menagerie incorporating rapturous strings, horns, Community Theater, and more glockenspiel than you're destined to find outside a high school marching band. Stevens has said he'd like to complete an album for every single state in the union, although whether he actually reaches this lofty/foolish goal is, by now, beside the point. I've listened to ILLINOIS about 10 or 20 times over the past six weeks, and as with the entirely different, stripped-down SEVEN SWANS, I'm still carefully piecing it together. That the former is a whole half-hour longer than the latter doesn’t make it any easier.

But now that I’m familiar with all the melodies, if not all of the song titles, some of which stretch out to more than fifteen (and in one case, fifty) words, I can say that ILLINOIS is a significant improvement on the template set in motion by MICHIGAN. It also retains (and puts to fine use) some of SEVEN SWANS' intimacy and fragility. I briefly considered going through it track by track (as I recently did with Saint Etienne), but I’d probably end up with a monstrous, 5,000 word piece. I also thought about making a laundry list of things I love about the album (such as the surging strings that follow the first six lone xylophone notes of “Chicago”) , but that wouldn’t begin to explain the particular, unique essence of this album or exactly how it makes me feel.

Admittedly, Stevens is bit of a nut job—there’s the laughingly lengthy song titles, but also a fair share of bad puns (“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”), the funk/disco pastiche about zombies that includes a cheerleader chant of the state’s name, and an instrumental finale which heads off into Phillip Glass/Steve Reich territory for real. But Stevens is also a bit of genius, and to complain about the length of the album and its titles or an entire cavalcade of quirks is to miss the boat entirely. After all, madness and brilliance compliment each other like the compartments of a Pullman car (which Stevens gives "one last ‘woo-hoo!’" to at one instance), and when he puts on a straight face for the suitably creepy but multifaceted “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or the remarkably joyous and sad “Casimir Pulaski Day”, all those quirks quietly fade away. On a knockout track like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in all the layers of vocals, flutes, melodies, and symphonic glissandos as they coalesce into a stunning, swooning whole.

I’m still uncertain as to whether this is a “better” album than SEVEN SWANS—time may provide an answer to that. But, like all of Stevens’ other albums, ILLINOIS resembles precious little else. He’s quietly amassing a distinct, impressive body of work that, decades from now, could position him as a Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan of his time.



In Jim Jarmusch's Cannes Grand Prix winner, Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a weathered, aging lothario and terminal bachelor forever explaining to bemused people that his last name is Johnston with a "T". Shortly after his latest flame, Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, he receives an anonymous letter from an ex-lover who informs him that he is the father of her 19-year-old son, who has just left home and set off to find him.

Encouraged by his next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don embarks on a cross-country trip to see four possible women who might've sent the letter, played by an impressive quartet of actresses: Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton and a surprisingly good Sharon Stone. The film's title comes from Winston's insistence that Don arrives at each woman's door unannounced, but with a welcoming bouquet of flowers. As is typical for Jarmusch, the film is exceedingly deadpan and leisurely paced, with many lingering silences occasionally punctuated by an effectively moody, thoughtfully compiled soundtrack.

By the final third, it's apparent that whether or not Don finds his son or identifies his mother is irrelevant: the film is Don: a beatific character study about loneliness and a lifetime of unforeseen changes, missed opportunities, and disquieting heartbreaks piling up. As much as the word "haunting" has become cliche, it's the most appropriate one I can think of to overall describe this film--especially in the many scenes between Don's visits simply showing him driving down a highway or sitting in a plane. They masterfully express everything that needs to be said, not in words but in silences, facial expressions and other body language.

Although not as original or all-out engaging as, say, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, this is easily Jarmusch's best film since the great STRANGER THAN PARADISE.



About ten minutes into Miranda July’s remarkable debut feature, a man and his young daughter have just bought a goldfish. As they take off in their SUV, however, the man has absent-mindedly left the fish (in a tiny plastic baggie full of water) on top of the vehicle. On the highway, the film’s central character, Christine (July) notices this and conspires with her co-passenger to do what they can with their car to impossibly save this fish. The scene plays like something out of a silent-era slapstick short worthy of Chaplin and Keaton, only tinged with melancholy. Eventually, Christine realizes the brutal limitations of this small crisis, but her co-passenger assures her, “Well, at least we’re all in this together.”

ME AND YOU… takes this phrase to heart as it casts a gaze on about a dozen characters in a nondescript California town. All of them are lonely to some degree, attempting to make connections and find friendship, solace, and even love in each other’s company. If this were a big budget studio picture, these acts would be made to seem simple, unchallenging. Conflicts would arise, but characters would logically work their way through them and everyone would feel fulfilled by the final credits. To an extent, this does happen for a few people, but July’s more interested in exploring the messy, topsy-turvy, true-to-life ways in which they get there.

At the head of this ensemble are Christine and Richard (John Hawkes). Christine is an eccentric, impulsive performance artist whose work consists of her imagining and recording conversations belonging to people in still photographs. She also works for ElderCab, a geriatric transport service. When she takes her client Michael (Hector Elias) shopping, she meets Richard (John Hawkes), a department store shoe salesman who has recently separated from his wife. After a second trip to the store, Christine meets up with Richard as he’s walking to his car. After another block, they’ll need to head off in opposite directions to reach their vehicles. Bashfully grasping to make conversation with someone she really likes, she compares the walk to the lifespan of a relationship, and how it will end when they inevitably have to go their separate ways. The sequence is intricate and surprising, full of deftly shifting tones and pregnant but important pauses. It almost seems like something out of a novel, until in a startling, heartbreaking turn, one of them acknowledges that it is, and tells the other that life really isn't this simple.

Richard has two sons: teenaged Peter (Miles Thompson) and younger Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), who divide their time between their mother’s home and their father’s new, cramped apartment. Without them, ME AND YOU… might seem more ordinary—just another indie romantic comedy. But July either has a knack for getting natural performances out of her child actors or finding particularly (and refreshingly) genuine ones: especially Ratcliff, possibly the most unaffected indie kid actor since Raven Goodwin (LOVELY AND AMAZING).

As Peter and Robby spend time at their father’s chatting on the internet or walking to and from school, we get to know the rest of the film’s ensemble: Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), two of Peter’s classmates who develop an obsession with Richard’s adult neighbor and co-worker, Andrew (Brad William Henke), who is sweet-natured but perhaps too willing to take chances; and Sylvie, a quiet ten-year-old neighbor girl with a design for life and an active, touching imagination. There’s also Nancy (Tracy Wright), a gallery curator who is less assured than she initially seems; she also has links to more than one of the film’s other characters.

Some of these subplots flower to conclusive connections; others are left somewhat unresolved, revealing something about that person’s behavior and not much more. But July loves all of her characters: even Heather and Rebecca, arguably the least sympathetic, are drawn with much more depth and humaneness than their “roles” in the narrative would suggest. At times July (herself a performance artist) risks being overly precious or uncomfortably obscure, but when a connection or two are finally made near the end, they suddenly, excitingly feel earned and almost emotionally overwhelming.

ME AND YOU… is a primarily a comedy, laced with offbeat humor and a vision of life depicted in all of its glorious absurdity. As comedies go, however, it’s uncommonly reflective and delicate. July’s carefully and lovingly constructed world is one where an unanticipated phone call (with a voice saying the word “macaroni” and hanging up) is incredibly profound. It’s a world where hopes, desires and dreams continually butt heads with reason and actualities, but in the end, you get a sense that there’s room for both sides. In fact, any world would seem incomplete without both. Early in the film, Richard says to Andrew, “I know I’m ready for great things to happen to me.” By evidence of this delightful, powerful film, July's already there.



This year, I filled approximately three composition books cover-to-cover, mostly with first-draft, stream-of-consciousness music and film reviews. As I mentioned in 2001, I never took the time to develop these scribbled assessments into pieces anyone else would actually want to read. Paging through them now, that’s a shame. Early in the year, I wrote a review of Concrete Blonde’s first reunion album, Group Therapy, which I approached carefully, skeptically. Three years later, I probably haven’t listened to it in well over a year (or two), but reading through that initial review now, I want to hear it again, which is always a good measure of an engaging, well-written critique.

My first serious relationship ended that June. Although its demise seems painfully inevitable to me now, at the time it had all of the bludgeoning force of a Monty Python sixteen-ton anvil abruptly dropping from the sky, only without the laughs. I hate to linger on it—after all, as Black Box Recorder’s Sarah Nixey sang (without a hint of pity) two years earlier, “Nobody goes through life without getting hurt,”—but it irrevocably colors this year in my memory like an impenetrable black cloud. The week it happened, I barely mentioned it in my writing notebook; I think I was a little shellshocked and wary of leaving a record of my then-mental/emotional state that I might regret revisiting at a later date. Instead, I wrote about Belle and Sebastian’s recently released Storytelling soundtrack, picked up a used copy of The Housemartins’ London 0 Hull 4 at the Davis Square CD Spins, and life went on.

How ironic that one of the suckiest years of my life produced an overstuffed cornucopia of monumental, excellent new albums: Stew’s The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs, The Mekons’ OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads), Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack for About A Boy, Alison Moyet’s Hometime, and Tori Amos’ miraculous return to form, Scarlet’s Walk. One Beat arrived in mid-August, right when I needed it. Angry, defiant, passionate, uplifting and LOUD, it was absolutely fucking therapeutic for me: a soundtrack for many lengthy, have-to-get-out-of-this-goddamn-apartment-I’m-living-in-with-my-ex-boyfriend walks through leafy, subdued Watertown and Belmont. It never failed to make me feel invincible, or at least a little better.

It’s fitting that right after everything fell apart in my personal life, I began volunteering at the Brattle Theatre one night a week. This humble activity was really the genesis for establishing an identity away from the ex and my entrance into the Boston film geek inner circle. It surely cemented the notion that I loved film just a teensy-weensy bit more than music. The writing notebooks also support this, with film reviews outnumbering music reviews two-to-one. Obviously, I didn’t abandon scouring multiple libraries and used record stores every week for new stuff to listen to—I don’t think I ever could—but it’s safe to say that at this point, I knew I wanted film to provide the basis for my career (rather than boring admin stuff), whereas music would always remain just a hobby, albeit a mildly obsessive one.

By autumn, I felt overwhelmed by the writing notebooks. I wasn’t getting anywhere in my feeble attempts at sifting through all the crap I’d produced in order to retrieve golden phrases and ideas. I’d wanted to start my own website for awhile, but how, man, how? So, after reading an article by Kate Sullivan in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002 anthology, I found out she had something called a “blog” when I referenced her name in the book’s list of contributors. Weeks later, via Blogspot, I started my very own (The one you’re reading right now! Imagine that!). The first couple postings were predictably crude and innocuously cute, but it proved, as I’d hoped, an invaluable tool to push me beyond those illegible first drafts and share my thoughts on a particular movie or song with a potential audience—whether anyone wanted to hear them or not.