Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Loving Ricky Gervais or Vanishing Point or Matthew Sweet is commendable, and I share these tastes, but this simply makes you a member of various sizable cult audiences. What do you love that nobody else does? I seem to be alone, for instance, in my admiration for John Madden’s brilliant Killshot. What one-man cults do the A.V. Club staff members comprise? —Paul Read
You realize, Paul, that you’re basically asking everyone here, staff and commenters alike, to brag about our eclectic, narrow hipster tastes. And I expect the comments to be a shitstorm of “Hey, you aren’t alone at all, you poseur, I love that too, doesn’t everybody?” and “Yeah, you’re alone on that one because it sucks!” in equal measure. But hey, the opportunity to find people who share what we love (and think no one else loves) is one of the big bonuses of this job, so I’ll forge ahead. I know I’m not entirely alone in the world in loving Tarsem’s transcendent 2006 movie The Fall, a movie that just keeps growing on me over time. But it’s surprisingly hard to find people who’ve seen it for any reason other than me showing it to them, and I consider it one of the 2000s’ most underrated movies… though it’s hard to tell people that without overselling them on what’s essentially a gloriously beautiful but distinctly unconventional fairy tale. More recently, I’m starting to feel like I’m alone in the world in my love of Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. A dispiriting percentage of people rejected it unseen, and a far more dispiriting percentage of people whose cinematic opinions I normally respect seem to have utterly misread it as an unconvincing romance. I’ve argued that the love story between Scott and Ramona isn’t the point, dammit, so many times now that I’m starting to feel like a skipping CD in an empty room, and I’ve gotten entirely sick of hearing my own voice bitching about it. But my love for the film is undiminished.
Even when I was a Britpop DJ in the mid-to-late ’90s, I couldn’t get anyone to listen to These Animal Men. In hindsight, that’s not surprising. The English band’s first album, (Come On Join) The High Society, was extremely hard to find in the U.S., especially back in the pre-download era. Far worse, though, was the fact that These Animal Men looked, sounded, and smelled like douchebag bandwagon-jumpers, even lower on the ladder than second-tier Britpop acts like Menswear or Echobelly. (Okay, so I loved them, too.) To me, though, High Society really stands out from the pack; sure, the album copies Blur like crazy, but it’s also the punkest record (this side of Elastica’s debut) that Britpop ever produced. But instead of ripping off, say, Wire, These Animal Men clearly worshiped Billy Idol’s ’70s pop-punk band, Generation X; I love that kinda shit, so High Society is right up my alley. The band’s second and final album, Accident & Emergency, isn’t half bad, but it’s rowdy High Society anthems like “Sharp Kid” and “This Is The Sound Of Youth” that make me break out my old, scratched vinyl a couple times a year and relive my own little forgotten corner of Britpop. Alone, of course.
This would have to be a two-man cult, since Scott Tobias was the one who insured I listened to The Vulgar Boatmen, in my mind the greatest band that never broke out beyond a fairly tiny cult following. The group’s homespun jangle draws from the same Velvet Underground and Byrds sources as R.E.M. and The Feelies, but adds its own, distinctive back-porch intimacy. The band’s history is complicated, involving two branches—one in Florida and one in Indiana—and two collaborative singer-songwriters: Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence. The Lawrence-fronted Indiana branch still soldiers on, playing the occasional show. (Scott and I caught one in Chicago recently.) The recordings stopped years ago, but The Vulgar Boatmen’s three albums—You And Your Sister (1989), Please Panic (1992), and the never domestically released Opposite Sex (1995)—are excellent. The first two are available for download. Good luck finding the third, the victim of the group’s ill-fated time on a major label. Here’s the group in 1992 playing a should-have-been hit that inspired the title of a Jonathan Lethem novel. If you like it, spread the word and grow the cult a bit, okay?
A few others may be out there, but I suspect there aren’t many of us carrying the torch for Lance Hahn of J Church. I’ve been a huge fan of that band for nearly 20 years, and when Hahn died at 40 in 2007 after years of health problems, I felt gutted. Lance and a revolving cast of bandmates released a staggering amount of music over the years, favoring an unfashionable strain of poppy punk that was never in danger of becoming lucrative. As I said in my tribute on the site, he was a lifer in the best sense of the word. And unlike just about every band that enjoys some longevity, J Church was making some of its best music toward the end. Not a week goes by that I don’t listen to one of the band’s roughly 3,000,000 songs, and I’ve perhaps grown even more outspoken in my advocacy for Hahn’s music since he died. (In 2009, I assembled a one-off tribute band called K Church for a benefit for the National Foundation For Transplants.) Even though I was lucky enough to become a friendly acquaintance of his over the years (and even luckier to do a split 7-inch with J Church), I miss his music the most, and I’m continually saddened that I won’t be hearing new songs.
I think I’ve rattled on about this show here before, but Fred Goss’ short-lived, utterly terrific Sons & Daughters was legitimately one of the best sitcoms of the 2000s, even though basically nobody watched it. (ABC, having no shows to pair it with, aired one hour’s worth of episodes for five weeks, then never aired the final episode.) The series, with its improvised dialogue, complicated family tree, and acutely observed characters, was a harbinger of lots of other shows to come, most noticeably Modern Family, which is very similar, but lacks Sons’ low-key fuzziness and hard-earned sentimentality. Sadly, the series used so much Grateful Dead music as underscore that it’s highly unlikely that it’ll ever come to DVD (unless Shout! takes an unexpected interest), and that’s a shame. Comedy fans wrote the show off at the time because ABC promoted the hell out of it, mostly using the series’ one fart joke, and it came on the heels of the cancellation of Arrested Development. Wrongly, AD fans thought the show was pouring salt in their wounds, when it was trying to do something vastly different, something less farcical and truer to life. And now, if I bring the show up to anyone but a handful of other TV critics (some of whom still cling to their screeners of the show), no one knows what I’m talking about. It’s one thing to be in a one-man cult; it’s another to be in one that exists almost solely in memory.
About a month ago, I decided to pad out the Glen Campbell playlist on my iPod by looking for good songs that hadn’t made it onto any of his greatest-hits collections. By and large, I discovered that Campbell’s discography is much like any other mainstream pop/country star of the ’60s and ’70s; Campbell recorded two or three albums a year at the height of his popularity, and most of those albums included a hit single, a few decent covers of recent Top 40 fare, and a lot of undistinguished filler. It’s music that appeals to me primarily because I like Campbell’s sound—all deep twang and hanging strings—but when I want a dose of that, I’d be just as well-served listening to “Wichita Lineman” again. For the most part, I only found a good song or two on each album. I’d planned to stop after mining the 1977 LP Southern Nights, but then I noticed that Amazon had Glen Campbell’s 1978 album Basic available digitally too, and even though it didn’t contain a single song I’d ever heard of, I gave it a spin to see if any of its tracks were worth a buck. I ended up buying the whole record, and I’ve listened to it a few times a week since then. I’ve since learned that Basic was written almost entirely by Michael Smotherman, a songwriter and session pianist who Campbell began to rely on in the ’70s almost as much as he leaned on Jimmy Webb in the ’60s. The only song on it that made any kind of dent on the pop charts was “Can You Fool” (reportedly co-produced by Dennis Lambert, the subject of the moving documentary Of All The Things, soon to be remade as a narrative feature), though the album as a whole is dudless, which is rare for this particular genre of rootsy easy-listening. I don’t know that anybody who’s not already inclined to like this kind of music would find any value to Basic, but for those who do, the album contains a winning mix of uptempo soft-rock and plaintive ballads, supported by a polished-but-not-overbaked mix of drums, guitars, pianos, background singers, and Campbell’s golden pipes (which are as lively and expressive as in his best ’60s work). Recommended if you like: Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Eddie Rabbit, Christopher Cross, the late ’70s.
This one was a toughie, but an epiphany came to me via some light-rock radio: I still really like the band Semisonic, of “Closing Time” fame. It gets a harsh rap for being one of those mid-’90s alt-rock bands that seemingly burst onto the scene before quickly burning out, but, man, their tunes have legs. Fans of 10 Things I Hate About You probably remember their song “F.N.T.,” which is, of course, a total jam. Most of Feeling Strangely Fine, the 1998 record “Closing Time” came from, is perfect pop material. Songs like “D.N.D.” and “Secret Smile” still make me swoon, and, yeah, I still listen to that record all the damn time. Semisonic kind of petered out in 2003, though all the band’s members are still around the scene in one way or another. I’d recommend drummer Jacob Slichter’s book about being a middling touring band, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star, to anyone with any interest in the whole ’90s alt-radio scene. Frontman Dan Wilson produced a couple of Mike Doughty records, co-wrote with Rivers Cuomo for Weezer’s latest record, and was even nominated for a Grammy for some songs he co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks.
There are reviews you write that you forget about the second after you hit “send,” and then there are reviews that will follow you around until the day you die. My review of The Black Dahlia belongs in the second category. It’s certainly a flawed film, and it didn’t live up to the fevered expectations incited by the pairing of Brian De Palma and James Ellroy, but I found it compelling, darkly comic, and incredibly audacious stylistically in a very Brian De Palma sort of way. I didn’t expect everyone to like it, but I also didn’t expect everyone to hate it, which is just what happened. My A- is apparently the only positive review it got. I don’t know if I want to go back to Black Dahlia and see if I was, in fact, smoking crack the first time around, but for now it appears I am the president, chairman, and only member of the official Black Dahlia fan club. I started My Year Of Flops in part as a tribute to films with tiny cults, so I should also probably note that I really liked Envy, and I just saw and loved Ishtar for the third time. Thankfully, this viewing was with an audience in Chicago that seemed to feel the same way.
If the Internet has taught us nothing else (a distinct possibility), it’s that there’s no such thing as a one-person anything: I believe axiomatically that there’s a fan site for every pop-cultural obscurity and every complex sexual perversion. I’m tempted to make a case for DC pop-punk outfit Tuscadero and its sublimely bratty anthems, but then I remember that my friend Maura sang their praises just last month. I was all but certain I’d be the only person to put Neil Jordan’s Ondine on his Top 10 list last year, but then Charles Taylor had to go and do it as well, throwing in my beloved Splice for good measure. Thanks to this very site, I know I’m not the only one who loves Grosse Pointe Blank, although I don’t know that anyone else fully appreciates its greatness. So along those lines, let me put in a few rapturous words for Eddie Campbell’s Alec. Sure, it’s an acclaimed comic, duly acknowledged as one of the forebears of the autobiographical explosion of the 1990s, but do y’all really appreciate just how great it is? At once earthy and elliptical, teeming with bittersweet detail, Campbell’s tales of boozy philosophy—lovingly collected in Top Shelf’s The Years Have Pants—have the fleeting clarity of those moments when, somewhere around the third drink, the stars align and everything starts to make sense. (That’s also, not coincidentally, the only time I can bowl worth a damn.) It may be heretical to say so, but I’d put Alec a notch or two above the Campbell-illustrated From Hell, as well as just about every comic I’ve ever read.
For years (and years and years), I’ve been singing the praises of Longmont Potion Castle, which is the mysterious name of absurd, abstract phone calls made by a guy, probably named Mike, probably from Golden, Colorado. This is not the Jerky Boys, or even in the same universe. No, Mike’s goal mostly seems to be confusion: He’ll call Radio Shack and start dropping nonsense terminology with a straight face. People at businesses seem utterly defenseless to his weirdness, never knowing exactly when to hang up. There’s an early collection that also includes an incredible 10-minute track on which Mike turns the tables on a shifty vitamin salesman: Every time he appears to be ready to give up his credit-card number, he pulls back with something like “Wait, I have to get it. It’s in my saxophone case.” In many ways, LPC is the Tim & Eric of prank phone calls (though T&E did a bunch themselves). If that sounds intriguing, there are now eight Longmont CDs available for purchase at longmontpotioncastle.com. Here’s a sample:
While other singers like Neko Case get all the press, Canadian chanteuse Kathleen Edwards has quietly built a solid discography of her own. Owing something of a vocal and lyrical debt to Lucinda Williams, the smoky-voiced Edwards has released three whiskey-soaked records full of desperation, forlorn love, and sorrow. But while she’s received some critical accolades, she remains relatively unknown to the general public. A large part of that is because she’s treading on well-worn territory, particularly in the wake of the aforementioned Case and Williams. It’s a shame, too, because Edwards has certainly made a case for herself as a talented singer-songwriter, whether it’s chronicling the tale of doomed lovers on “The Lone Wolf,” from her 2003 debut Failer, the unfolding heartbreak and disaster on “Pink Emerson Radio” from 2005’s Back To Me, or the chasm of emotional distance on the swelling “Buffalo,” the opening track from 2008’s Asking For Flowers (which garnered a nomination for the 2008 Polaris Music Prize). A new album is in the works, so maybe Edwards will finally get a bit more of the attention she richly deserves, because few can make heartbreak sound so beautiful.
For fans of sequels tangentially related to their predecessors, psycho-spiritual horror films that clumsily glorify incest and inter-familial violence, tasteless cash-ins with incongruously elite special effects, and, of course, Burt Young, 1982’s Amityville Horror II: The Possession is your new Evil Dead. I’m not sure there’s ever been a “You have to see this movie” DVD in my collection that has so unilaterally provoked response from friends/test subjects, ranging from bemusement and gratitude to discomfort and further suspicions about my perversions. Damiano Damiani, overlord of cheapo Italian fright fests throughout the ’60s and ’70s, directed a script from Tommy Lee Wallace, who, tellingly, also wrote and directed that same year’s notorious Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. The story commences as expected, with another real-estate-cursed clan moving into the ol’ post-World War II Casper pad on the South Shore of Long Island. (I grew up not far from the actual house, and driving by is much more unsettling than most of this franchise.) Young is the arbitrarily abusive, cigar-chomping, sacrilegious father and husband to frozen-eyed Rutanya Alda, whose decision to take this part doomed her to future work in Rappin’ and The Stuff, in spite of an impressive start in ’70s Golden Age classics like The Deer Hunter. Their wild-child teen son and perfect-flower of an adolescent daughter are portrayed by TV-series regular James Olson and Better Off Dead/Last American Virgin’s Diane Franklin, respectively. Before you can say “Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway,” the boy has been possessed by a demon that proselytizes through his Walkman, and he sets about seducing his sister. Burt Young flies into enough random fits of unjustifiable rage to merit their own drinking game, and (spoiler!) Olson takes out pretty much the entire hysterical lot of ’em with a 20-gauge about halfway through the movie, including the two youngest kids, who are ostensibly and cruelly placed in the movie as homicide bait. The remainder of Possession is an almost completely divorced experience, and a fairly straightforward exorcism tale, except all the effects come via Academy Award-winning Angels In America/Dick Tracy makeup man John Caglione Jr., and the eerie score was conducted by Lalo Schifrin, composer of the frickin’ Mission: Impossible theme song. Amityville II is impeccably awful, hilariously contemptuous of American-suburban culture, genuinely creepy at points, and elevated to a truly surreal level of almost-real artistry thanks to Caglione and Schifrin. In other words, it’s fucking crazy.