NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at some essential releases, some recent, some not.
The Devastator #8
In the past, humorous mini-journal The Devastator has aimed its sharp sarcasm at everything from spies to cats to whatever “indie” is supposed to mean. The theme of its latest issue is both more specific and broader: crossovers. Seeing as how The Devastator is a cartoonist-heavy publication, the comic-book definition of crossover is savagely taken to task; a character called The Beholder (a riff on The Beyonder from Marvel’s groundbreaking crossover series in the ’80s, Secret Wars) is used as a framing device as Archie Comics characters are pitted (or not-quite pitted) against the fictional denizens of other fanboy realms. It’s gonzo, it’s absurd, and it reminds me so much of the original spirit of Mad magazine. I grin like a gang of idiots every time I flip through the issue. The individual stories are just as hilarious, including a treatment of the idea “Imperial Walker, Texas Ranger” that expands the goofy mash-up theme while keeping things nihilistically demented. And in “The Mashmaker,” the cynical goals of crossovers and mash-ups are self-referentially punctured. Even that most hoary of parodies—the threadbare deconstruction of the old Charles Atlas geek-on-the-beach ads—is given a fresh coat of satirical sand in the face. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the contributors to The Devastator include alumni of Funny Or Die, Popzilla, Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros., McSweeney’s, Cracked, Mad, and (full disclosure) The Onion. It’s every inch as irreverently awesome as that pedigree suggests. [Jason Heller]
Willis Earl Beal, Nobody Knows.
Willis Earl Beal’s incredible backstory often threatens to overshadow his music. (Leaving flyers of his art and CD-Rs of his music around Albuquerque, New Mexico led to the cover of Found magazine, which eventually led to a record deal with Hot Charity, a subsidiary of XL.) But with the Chicago singer-songwriter’s new album, Nobody Knows. (out September 10), maybe that will change. Abandoning many of the folk-leaning tendencies from last year’s debut, Acousmatic Sorcery, this album is that of a bluesman, albeit one that can duet with Cat Power (“Coming Through”). Other highlights include the stomp-and-clap story-song “Too Dry To Cry,” the growling “Ain’t Got No Love,” and the record’s title track. Though there’s been an odd temptation in some circles to label Beal a gospel artist—he’s not afraid to write songs about talking to God—that’s a misleading distinction. This album is old-school blues and soul with all of the accompanying contradictions that implies. And there are plenty of F-bombs to keep it out of Christian bookstores. [Andrea Battleground]
Only God Forgives Original Soundtrack
I’ve yet to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives—and judging by the reviews from some of my colleagues, I probably won’t be rushing to do so. But I have heard it a few dozen times via its Cliff Martinez soundtrack, and that may be enough. After all, I haven’t seen Narc or The Lincoln Lawyer yet either, and I’m fairly certain those films would only disappoint after the years I’ve spent engrossed in Martinez’s scores for them, which create compelling drama I’m not sure anything starring Jason Patric can ever match. The same goes for his work on Only God Forgives. Martinez mixes washes of haunting, Tangerine Dream-esque synth with pinging pizzicato strings, gongs, and metallic gamelan (evoking the Bangkok setting I haven’t actually experienced), employs seasick tympani rolls and nervously fluttering woodblocks, and delves into ominously sawing cello and strangled woodwinds straight out of Bernard Herrmann, making for one of the most ambitious film scores in recent memory. It’s a dizzying mix of dread and dreaminess, romance and violence that I doubt the movie could have matched even if it had been half-decent. But at least you can listen to this, close your eyes, and imagine a better one. [Sean O’Neal]
Ben Urwand, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler
Just when it seemed every aspect of the Third Reich had been duly chronicled and thoughtfully catalogued, along comes Ben Urwand’s provocatively titled book. The Collaboration presents a damning assessment of how Hollywood studios—which, at the time, were run mostly by Jews—censored their films and killed projects that criticized Hitler’s regime, all in the name of maintaining the lucrative German market. Even something innocuous like King Kong caused a stir among the German government’s propaganda board, which only approved it after Hitler gave his personal endorsement and it was re-titled The Fable Of King Kong, An American Trick-And-Sensation Film. Urwand’s book isn’t all dry, depressing history; he also examines Der Führer’s nightly habit of watching movies while his staff meticulously chronicled his reactions, which usually fell into one of three categories: “good” (Laurel And Hardy’s Way Out West), “bad” (Tarzan), or “switched off” (Shanghai), meaning he didn’t finish it. The Collaboration expertly dismantles Hollywood’s rose-tinted view of history, proving it wasn’t standing up to fascism as it has claimed, but eagerly appeasing the Nazis so long as the money was coming in. [Kyle Ryan]