2011 - %3, October

Doing Wrong Right: The Devil Makes Three

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

The Devil Makes Three, a diabolical threesome of guitar, banjo, and upright bass, are masters at befuddling the critics with their genre-bending antics. They are more comfortable with the "hardly" and the "strictly" than the "bluegrass" part of San Francisco's free annual Hardly Stricly Bluegrass festival, where I saw them recently. Singer/guitarist Peter Bernhard told me that the media obsession with pinning their sound to a specific genre takes the fun out of letting their music answer the question. "Frankly, we never get that [bluegrass] association from fellow musicians who actually play bluegrass—it just comes from the fans and writers," he says.

To set the record straight, Bernhard and banjo player Cooper McBean recently quipped to Pop Culture Madness, "We sound like Freddy Mercury with a pogo stick on a back of a pony with Lyle Lovett playing the ukulele and the tamborine. If you don't understand that, you don't understand us."

In short, bandmates Bernhard, McBean, and bassist Lucia Turino could care less if their bluegrass/blues/old-time/punk/Americana sound confuses obsessive-compulsive music fans. The band's fiendish power lies in its ability to transform a crowd into a rollicking clusterfuck of heavy stomping, do-si-do-ing debauchery—a vibe that (at least at Hardly Strictly) brought carousing fans and mothers with cooing babies together as one big, jolly, rhythmic family.

Bernhard and McBean, both born and bred in Vermont, moved out West after high school and ended up in Santa Cruz, where they met Turino. As the story goes, sparks flew at their first jam—and after Turnio mastered the stand-up bass (which she hadn't played before), the trio began making a name for itself. DM3 is well known for its high-octane shows, like its sold-out sets at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord and a recent two nighter at Petaluma's Mystic Theater, the venue where they recorded Stomp and Smash: Live at the Mystic Theater, released last week on iTunes.

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Week in Pictures: Must-See Occupy Oakland Photos

| Sat Oct. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

From the West Coast's answer to #hipstercop to an intense photog-police showdown, here are the must-see images from this week's #occupyoakland crackdown.

10 Creepy Tracks for Your 2011 Halloween Playlist

| Sat Oct. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Screamin' Jay Hawkins'…living up to the first third of this name.

As All Hallows Eve creeps closer and closer, and you plod through your seemingly insurmountable workload, the anticipation of tonight's festivities will begin to gnaw at the back of your mind like a—well, yes, like a zombie.

You've planned ahead: You'll have the suds on ice, your living room will be predecorated to look like an oddly sexy graveyard, your topical Halloween costume is at the ready, and your party guests are set to arrive fashionably late.

But one thing slips your mind until it's too late: the holiday-appropriate playlist. Oh, horrors!

Seriously, don't panic. We've got you covered. From "pop encyclopedia" Elvis Costello to frat boy megastrategist Lee Atwater, here are 10 tracks that you can blast at any creatively themed October 31 party—from scary to scary-goofy to a handful that are just too damn Halloween to pass up.

1. Screamin' Jay Hawkins shows us the true depths of "scary": Hawkins' macabre "I Put A Spell On You" is consistently ranked as one of the top Halloween tunes of all time, but it's got nothing on his awesomely discomfiting gross-out masterpiece "Constipation Blues." Short of watching the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton sex scene in Something's Gotta Give, listening to this song is perhaps the scariest treat you can give your guests. The prototypical shock-rocker opens by saying that he and the band have "just returned from the general hospital" to record a song about "real pain." Hawkins' caricature of a man who can't "let it go"—high-pitched squeals of agony and all—has to be heard to be believed.

2. Zombie attacks and disco: a match made in heaven: For their season two Halloween episode, the producers of NBC's Community pitted their oddball cast against an onrush of infected, flesh-munching community college students. Their fight to stay un-undead is entirely scored to ABBA hits, which somehow manages to transform "Dancing Queen" into an anti-zombie ditty. The following scene (pricelessly set to "Mamma Mia") has Troy playing the reluctant hero, punching and sprinting his way through a zombified costume party.

3. Mick Jagger's rocker-gangster horror show: In the 1968 British cult film Performance, Mick Jagger made his big screen debut as a hoodlum-like, has-been rock star. "Memo From Turner," the soundtrack's best song, sinks into a gritty, psychedelic-blues pulse, framed by the slide guitar work of the always-masterful Ry Cooder. Jagger seductively sing-speaks his way through a sordid tale that includes a "great, gray man whose daughter licks policemen's buttons clean" and a guy who "drowned that Jew in Rampton as he washed his sleeveless shirt." The song is prominently featured in this surreal, freaky, violent sequence:

Anonymous: Unequivocally the Worst Movie of the Year

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 11:25 AM PDT
No. No, he was not.

Anonymous

COLUMBIA PICTURES

130 minutes

Did you know that lionized playwright William Shakespeare was a humongous pansy of a fraud? How about that he was illiterate? Or that he didn't write even a single letter of any of the comedies, tragedies, or sonnets commonly attributed to his name? No need to sweat your ignorance. These are facts of which I was not aware, either. I also wasn't aware of the fact that such tiresome theories could be distilled into a movie as drab, half-baked, and scandalously bad as Anonymous.

You might've heard about the film by now: It takes place during the sanguinary twilight of England's Elizabethan era, in an underworld where staged drama is just another tool for protest and social upheaval. The script posits that Shakespeare was a crass, opportunistic phony; in Anonymous, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays, and Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson was de Vere's inept middleman. The earl uses his plays to make political statements to the low-born masses ("Words will prevail…not swords," de Vere proclaims mightily) but, fearing reprisal, opts out of taking credit.

Needless to say, Anonymous—which managed to generate Oscar buzz that lasted for about eight seconds—has difficulty accepting widely corroborated historical facts. But let's pretend for a moment that none of that matters and observe the film purely on its artistic merits.

Verdict: In a year that saw the theatrical release of Something Borrowed and Dream House, Anonymous still claims the mantle of sorriest cinematic act of 2011.

The Ethnic Revenge Flick

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 8:35 AM PDT

Ta-Nehisi Coates ponders Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino slavery revenge flick in the vein of Inglorious Basterds:

When I think of Django Unchained all I see are rape scenes and scowling dudes. One of the problems, at least for me, is that I don't actually hunger for a revenge flick about slavery. I understand why Jews might hunger for a some cathartic revenge in terms of the Holocaust. There's a certainly clarity to industrialized genocide. But slavery is something different, something at once more variable, intimate and elusive.

J.L. Wall responds:

Revenge in the context of atrocity tends to mean "desire to kill." This is the form it almost wholly takes after the event. But from within the event—from, in fact, accounts secretly written in and buried nearby Auschwitz—one finds the desire to do this precisely to them. And this is part of the problem that TNC is pointing toward in his final sentence: that, since slavery can’t be reduced to the shorthand of "murder," it's harder to ignore the question of the particular cruelties revenge would call for.

In Jeffrey Goldberg's review of Inglorious Basterds, he writes about dreaming about killin' NAZees as a kid, delighting in Quentin Tarantino's "story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators." His initial anecdote helps explain that Inglorious Basterds is not primarily a film about killing Adolf Hitler, although that's the form that catharsis takes. The true "revenge" of Inglorious Basterds is in the banishment of a particular stereotype, the idea of the weak, fearful Jew who goes helplessly into the ovens. The film Defiance, about a group of Jewish partisans in a forest in Belarus during World War II, has a similar aim—in the woods, the manly, unintellectual Jews played be Liev Schriber and Daniel Craig suddenly become leadership material, while the nebbish former academics are portrayed as contemptuous weaklings. And I suppose what has always bugged me about both of those films is that somewhere deep inside they see Jews the way anti-Semites see Jews, and are actively working to convince not just the world but themselves otherwise.

Of course I enjoyed both, and there's something about the whole "tough Jew" genre of film that I can't help but like because, hey, I'm not immune to internalizing stereotypes either. But the reason Django Unchained probably can't and won't work the same way is that black Americans are dealing with a fundamentally different set of stereotypes. The perception is not, for example, that we're incapable of being tough, or of engaging in terrible acts of violence. Instead, the stereotype is that's all we're capable of. So a film in which a slave kills his masters may vicariously avenge a historical injustice, but it lacks the catharsis of defying the accepted narrative that narrowly limits what being black is supposed to mean. A true ethnic revenge story says, what you believe me to be is not all I am; I am better than you think me to be. 

An actual black revenge flick would have to banish the myths of black cultural pathology and intellectual inferiority, much as Inglorious Basterds seeks to counter narratives of Jewish helplessness. Django Unchained isn't a black revenge story. The Cosby Show is a black revenge story. 

Top Tweets From Tuesday's #OccupyOakland Clash

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 3:05 PM PDT

According to Topsy, a Twitter analyzer, these tweets got top billing around the Twitterverse during and immediately after Tuesday night's violent clash at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

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Book Review: El Narco

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

El Narco

By Ioan Grillo

BLOOMSBURY PRESS

In 2004, as Mexico's drug violence took a particularly bloody turn, Ioan Grillo was writing for the Houston Chronicle. His editor had one request: "Cover it like a war!" This graphic and fast-paced history covers south-of-the-border trafficking from '60s-era shipments of Acapulco Gold to the decapitation-filled headlines wrought by the likes of kingpin (and alleged billionaire) Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and his rivals, the Zetas—special ops soldiers turned criminals. As Grillo tells it, the cartels' fratricide has barely dented an industry that nets an estimated $30 billion per year: "In the drug business, it seems, a war economy functions perfectly well."

Abigail Washburn Brings Bluegrass to the Silk Road

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 3:02 AM PDT

"The first day I stepped forth in this fair country," Abigail Washburn's breathy voice wafted down over the grass, "border man took my paper, told me I would be free." A slight figure dressed in black gossamer, Washburn looked rather elegant when I caught her live at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. The crowd below lay drowsy and peaceful in the mid-morning sunshine, ready to be transported to wherever the singer wanted to take them.

And transport them she did. While the clawhammer banjo queen can fit right in at a hoedown like Hardly Strictly, she's become just as comfortable entertaining crowds on the other side of the globe. A Mandarin speaker and self-declared Sinophile, she's made a career out of bringing bluegrass to the far corners of China—and by the same token making Chinese folk music accessible to American bluegrass fans. Themes of migration and boundary-crossing pop up in her songs, as with the abovementioned tune, "Dreams of Nectar."

Review: "Soul Feeling," by Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

DISC 1 , TRACK 3

"Soul Feeling"

Frankie Pighee & The Soulettes, from the compilation Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio (The Numero Group)

Liner notes: Supported by a funk groove of organ and tambourine, Frankie Pighee, a 400-pound woman with a voice deeper than many men's, salutes R&B greats Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave on this 1967 single from the obscure Soul Kitchen label.

Behind the music: From the late '50s to the late '80s, the low-fi studio of the tiny Boddie Recording Company was responsible for nearly 300 albums and singles, most of which sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Heavy on soul with a side order of gospel, this fascinating archaeological study collects 58 tracks on three CDs.

Check it out if you like: Alvin Cash, The Velvelettes, Bessie Banks, and other underappreciated '60s R&B figures.

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

| Sat Oct. 22, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Our brains have two systems for decision making: One is fast and automatic, driven by emotion; the other is a slow and deliberate, if sometimes impractical, check on the first. This engaging book, a culmination of years of work in behavioral psychology that earned Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, examines the interplay between these systems to explain why, for instance, we vote for attractive politicians and tend to be overconfident in our ability to predict the stock market. "The issue of which of the two selves matters more is not a question only for philosophers," Kahneman writes. It has real-life implications for politics and public policy.