Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tell Me I'm Right, Tell Me I'm Wrong: The White Stripes "You Don't Know What Love Is"

The White Stripes "You Don't Know What Love Is"

dir. by The Malloy Brothers

Loyalty is not necessarily love. Jack White describes the frustrations of being with, or wanting to be with, someone who blindly and silently sticks in a relationship. It isn't that the other doesn't say "i love you," it's that she rarely says anything else. The lack of criticism or anger comes off as a lack of interest or passion.

In the video the Malloys show the couple walking on the beach, but though they begin holding hands they end up separately framed. Jack makes his way over to her side of the duplex, but she remains coy and blank. Yet Meg's reasons for staying away are likely more complicated than he understands, and in one scene she clearly points at him while the chorus of the song plays - implying that perhaps neither of them really know what love is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dirt Don't Hurt: Bonnie Prince Billy "The Seedling"

Click below the trailer to watch full-length video...

Bonnie Prince Billy "The Seedling" [Full Video]

dir. by Aran Reo Mann

The trailer for Bonnie Prince Billy's latest video is rated "R" for "coarse language and sexual situations." This could very well be a perfunctory detail meant to identify the clip as a preview, or perhaps placed against the red background it foreshadows the horror filminess of the piece. Yet the choice of words, specifically "sexual situations," is hard to ignore when the first verse of a song about making seedlings grow ends with "My full-sized child is fully unclothed."

The other, more limpidly vital detail of the trailer is the phrase uttered anonymously by a satirically creepy voice, "god made dirt, and dirt don't hurt." It's a phrase you've probably heard before, the type of thing your grandparents might say, and is generally interpreted as a sort of positive axiom. (It's also often translated on schoolyards as the "five-second rule.") Yet here it sounds reticently sinister, as if the unseen narrator is mocking that second half of the rhyme: "dirt don't hurt." Or it could just be silliness.

The actual video is even darker than the trailer promises. After some beautifully scenic and aquatic imagery - which immediately brings to mind life cycles, i.e. "the miracle of birth" - we are shown an ominously empty rocking chair. The exact origins of the rocking chair are up for debate, but it has often been viewed as a symbol of parenting - perhaps a result of its association with the old nursery rhyme "Rock-a-bye Baby" (which itself is rather unsettling, "down will come baby, cradle and all"). Thus this vacancy implies bad, non-existent or perhaps "ghostly" child-rearing.

Buy the album

When the seat is finally filled, it adds no measure of comfort. A faceless man sits in almost complete darkness, singing his song with his deathly bright lips. Blue lips would normally suggest a voice from beyond the grave, but the fluorescent sea of life in the opening challenges this assumption. There is also something sensually abashing about putting such emphasis on the lips - conjuring images of unfulfilled desire.

In a parallel narrative a mysterious character takes his lantern into the forest to steal a bit of nature's beauty for himself (he chooses mushrooms, which can be both nutritious and poisonous). He hordes these living things in his bedroom, and uses them to create his own world. Whether Bonnie Prince Billy is singing of actual "illegitimate" children conceived in secret or making an analogy to songwriting, there is something about this creative process that keeps the artist up at night. The little girls who awake in his test-tubes almost all look to him for guidance, but the final shot of the video features one such exiguous creature stare directly towards the camera - as if cognizant of her confinement and now ready to be released.

Director Aran Reo Mann, who may or may not be related to Michael Mann (probably is), worked with the famous director on art direction in his films Collateral and Miami Vice. The gorgeous use of color and shadow here is perhaps the biggest link to those movies, yet whereas blue tends to represent either isolation or safety in Michael's films (including Miami Vice), it is used more ambiguously in "The Seedling." There are effulgent jellyfish in that pretty ocean, but it's a beauty that will sting you upon embrace.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Detour: Liars "Plastic Casts of Everything"

Liars "Plaster Casts of Everything"

dir. by Patrick Daughters

Escaping from prison into a dark and dreary night, adrift in the desert, this troubled soul is fleeing more than a state institution. He wants to "run away" from the guilt, confusion and fear of whatever it is he's done - or is at least accused of doing. But he doesn't need to look in the rear view mirror to know that these regrets will not be leaving anytime soon.

In David Lynch's Lost Highway (an obvious influence here) Fred Madison suffers from a psychological "fugue state." This means that Fred creates in his mind a fresh identity (full of new people, places and memories) and proceeds to forget his true self. Yet like the crazed driver in this Daughters' video, Fred can't really erase his memories and begins to subconsciously repeat or relive his mistakes. In fact the protagonist of "Plaster Casts of Everything," who imagines a strange woman in his passenger seat, may very well be haunted by the same guilty demons as Fred - that of his wife's murder.

A fugue also happens to be a style of musical composition, one which features multiple parts that come together in a sort of circular form (returning to the opening key). The Liars' excellent single doesn't necessarily follow that style, but there is a connection between the repetition of the pulsating music and the building tension on screen. The final coda implies that rather than an endless cycle of shadows and desert, things may actually get worse for this guy. He's caught in his own nightmarish spiral of horror and self-hatred - and there's no going back.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Parallel Lines: Slim Thug vs. NYOIL

Ridin' dirty and pretty...

Slim Thug "Wood Grain Wheel"

dir. by ?

NYOIL "Unreal"

dir. by E-Hab

The first is a visually stunning mainstream hip-hop video, while the latter is a cheap - slightly corny - indie production. Slim Thug looks cool coasting in his shiny new car with his "wood grain wheel," accompanied by stylish cinematography and a fantastic brooding beat. NYOIL looks awkward in his wife beater, and the silliness of his introduction is distracting and unnecessary. Yet in many ways director E-Hab's low frills and poorly executed video for "Unreal" is an excellent commentary on Slim Thug's more accessible work. Together they provide fresh perspectives on tired subjects and common iconography.

Both videos are very much about staying true to yourself and the places you come from. As Slim Thug rides through his hometown of Houston, the pictures are often faded or intentionally worn - implying the laidback rapper hasn't forgotten his roots. In many ways he represents himself as a hero out of the past, like a character in Grindhouse, or an extension of the classic cars he drives.

The video works because it tells a story while creating a compelling and beautiful world around it. The tale is very familiar - my neighborhood is rough, baby mama drama and "hey, I'm rich!" - but it's told with such flare and fits so well with the music that it clearly distinguishes itself from the pack. Slim Thug's city, as seen through the reflections of shimmering car doors and rear view mirrors, becomes a surreal vision of typical hip-hop culture.

Yet essentially it's built around the biggest cliche of the genre: the ride. Not only is Slim in his vehicle most of the time, but there are countless shots of tricked-out Cadillacs swerving in parking lots in the background. NYOIL's nostalgic look at coming up in the rap game is also conceived entirely around the rapper's mode of transportation, but it serves a very different purpose. It begins rather predictably: the rapper in his leather-seated car, cell phone rings, and an agent calling. Yet the minute we realize NYOIL's car isn't a super expensive indestructible dream car - but rather one that breaks down just like normal people's - we know this is going to be a unique hip-hop video.

The car is made the focus here in order to comment on the vanity and cosmetically obsessed messages of contemporary music. NYOIL wants to say hip-hop is about more than that - that it's about people coming together for a cause, self-expression and the American spirit of hard work. The acting is forced and the finale is cheesy, but the anachronistic image of a rapper pushing his own broke down dreams with the help of complete strangers is more than refreshing. Slim Thug's world is prettier, but NYOIL's has a tangible and important message of self-confidence. Now why is it that these two categories of hip-hop videos always seem to be mutually exclusive?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Smiley Smile: Blonde Redhead "The Dress"

Blonde Redhead "The Dress"

dir. by Mike Mills

Though not entirely original, the video for "The Dress" is a compelling portrait of sadness - and the beauty which lurks in every lonely tear. We see or hear people cry quite often, but rarely do we simply observe a stranger progress into weeping. Normally, especially if you knew the person, you would say something or reach out your hand to comfort. But here you are helpless; forced to be a spectator.

What you see, other than anguish, is fear. Lead singer Kazu Makino avers, "fear starts creeping up when you have so much to lose," and director Mike Mills fills the spaces around these troubled folks with foreboding darkness. The black emptiness seems to trap them in their sadness, swallowing all hope of escape.

Yet there is something quietly uplifting about watching these individuals sob. Each of them is uniquely distressed and have their own way of expressing that grief, but they are all crying - almost as if they lament some universal tragedy. And in that undeniable connection, one can indeed find beauty amidst the frowns.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Weapon of Choice: RJD2 "Work It Out"

RJD2 "Work it Out"

dir. by Joey Garfield

A man who appears disabled faces a steep set of steps. Immediately a stranger offers to help, assuming the man will have difficulty completing the task on his own. Yet our sharply dressed hero rejects the stranger's help, and seems stubborn in doing so - after all, we also expect him to have some difficulty in descending the stairs.

But in a single continuous take, Bill Shannon (born with a hip condition that requires crutches) expresses uninhibited individuality and freedom - rejecting any notion that he is incapable of beautiful movement. He hops, skates and glides through the crowded city, garnering looks of astonishment wherever he goes. After all that he climbs right back up those stairs - past the stranger who once doubted his ability.

Simply brilliant.

Monday, July 16, 2007

No Alarms, Some Surprises

There isn't a new video to discuss today on Obtusity as we are still recovering from a whirlwind weekend in Chicago spent covering the Pitchfork Music Festival. So in the meantime we've posted some photo and video highlights from the 3-day extravaganza - unfortunately not including any Sonic Youth, GZA or Slint photos (our camera crapped out on Friday night). It was the best P4K event yet, featuring everything from a g-stringed Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal) to the legendary Prince Paul arriving unexpectedly on stage with De La Soul. In between there were multiple appearances from members of Grizzly Bear, a bunch of brand new songs from The New Pornographers and a fence-shaking, insanely crowded semi-nude dance party curated by Girl Talk. Like we said - still catching our breath.

Sam Beam returns for an encore after a ho-hum set, unveiling this gorgeous cover of Radiohead's "No Surprises."

Clipse "Grindin" through an electrifying set that featured hits from both LP's and nearly every mixtape the Virginia duo has released thus far.

Though marred by technical difficulties, and only lasting a little over a half-hour, Junior Boys managed one of the more memorable shows of the weekend. They stuck mostly with the new stuff ("In the Morning" sounds even better live), but "Under the Sun," from first album Last Exit, was the real stunner.

Chicago natives Cool Kids had the crowd going wild over their unique blend of indie-style (check Mikey sporting form-fitting acid wash jeans) and hip-hop wit. The new songs sound fantastic, and experiencing "Mikey Rocks" with the crew of rabid hip-hop fans in the front row (including close friends of the rappers) was an unforgettable moment.

We'll get back to talking about music videos tomorrow, promise!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Heart It Races: Tracey Thorn "Raise the Roof"

Tracey Thorn "Raise the Roof"

dir. by ?

The girl begins the video in yellow sneakers, a shy cat meowing at her feet. She works a menial job shining anonymous men's shoes, wearing a confining bonnet in a stark and lonely room that must surely reek of polish. Yet there is no despair in her eyes today, she pulls out her red shoes and dreams only of the coming night. Because this evening isn't just another Friday night - this evening she has a date.

Across town the boy of her dreams (or at least some guy who had a compelling MySpace profile), has just flown into town and anxiously hails a yellow cab. The fact that he comes from some distance implies their relationship - at least on the Internet - is more than a few days old. Thus the anticipation of this meeting has been building for a while on both sides, despite their mild-mannered appearances. As they each lay on their bed admiring pictures of the other, or practice dance moves in front of the mirror, they expose how truly ebullient - and optimistic - they are about this rendezvous.

Normally in these situations the cynic in you might take over, but the two characters here are played with such caution and humor that we allow ourselves to believe. Though the girl is wearing her Dorothy-shoes and the man initially jumps in a cab called "Confident Taxi," neither of them ever appear completely secure. Thus we are in the dance hall with him as he waits - wondering if she'll ever show up - and we are on the bike with her - worrying if he'll be anything like his online persona.

But once she finally does step in the room, without speaking a word, they know this is going to work. She crumples the picture in her hands and he waves sheepishly, but they are suddenly caught in the adrenaline of the moment. Their confidence grows by the second, with each furtive glance and every awkward dance move. The potential love that permeates the shrinking space between them is what lets them temporarily "raise the roof."

They don't kiss, because the music ends, but they stand inches apart waiting for it to resume. One imagines they don't speak at all in that silent gap. It's all about the dance tonight, finally being near each other and finally being free to express long dormant desire. Their heels kick up in unison - standing in their new shoes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wake Up: The Mint Chicks "Walking Off a Cliff Again"

The Mint Chicks "Walking Off a Cliff Again" [Hi-Res]

dir. by Sam Peacocke

The white rabbit is coaxed out of his hole by the Mint Chicks, in hopes that it might inspire the bored and suppressed people of the world. As our speedy hero splashes wonderland all over these previously static characters, they suddenly erupt with emotion and desire - coming to life just as he seems to lose his.

Peacocke, who also directed the Mint Chicks previous video, does an excellent job of capturing the energy and tone of the band - especially here as the protagonist runs with the rising adrenaline of the song. His images of mundane offices and bland classrooms are delightfully composed, and the performances here are brief but sweet.

And could that opening shot be another indie reference to Donnie Darko (waking up in the middle of the street, rabbits, martyrdom, maybe?).

Re-Definition: eMC "What It Stand For?"

eMC "What It Stand For?"

dir. by Rob Alphonose

In many ways eMC seem to stand for the same things as everyone else in the game, at least thematically. But as they rifle off one clever phrase after another, you begin to hear a lyrical creativity that sets them apart. The video has its moments (the transitions are nice), but it primarily defers to the song to keep things afloat. The beat by Nicolay (of Foreign Exchange fame) is supremely addictive, and the references to "eMC" in almost every line are entertaining - though we were left waiting for the obvious Einstein shout out.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Different Perspective: Ellen Allien & Apparat "Way Out"

This is an old video newly unearthed...

Ellen Allien & Apparat "Way Out"

dir. by Postodellefragole

In the reflection of the window we can barely make out the face of a young girl. She watches in awe and confusion as the shiny world whizzes by. The opening notes of the song are channeled into a quivering vision, as if everything out there is just barely being held together. Likewise she sees toy-like robots amidst an epic war, destroying the icy beauty of the city towards some unknown end. But in her daydream there can be some meaning to all this - there can be sides to choose and heroes to champion.

Yet in the real world these things are far harder to explain. When a child sees their environment destroyed without reason - whether through warfare, pollution or otherwise - it must be a terrifying feeling. While a strong imagination can go a long way towards rescuing hope, it's only a matter of time before despair sets in. The beautiful mystery of the world unknown suddenly turns ugly and fearful. The blooming mind of a child, assaulted by society's madness.

Put On Your Red Shoes: Cupid "Cupid Shuffle"

Cupid "Cupid Shuffle"

dir. by ?

As much as karaoke songs like "Macerena" or "Electric Boogie" pain the ears, when played in public they provide a unique opportunity to get lost in communal self-expression. In recent times hip-hop has been especially adept at releasing songs which are specifically intended to bring people together on the dance floor - whether it be to "Lean Back" or "Walk it Out." These are songs which instantly spark a certain type of movement in the crowd, and thus create an exhilarating sense of unity. Cupid celebrates this phenomenon, calling on folks of all ages to join in his new "shuffle."

But even though he gets people moving, this is not the next "Charleston." It's catchy and easy enough to learn, but it's also a tad bit derivative. I imagine it will do quite well nevertheless, but in terms of the 'next big thing,' my money's on the "5000."

[via Notes From a Different Kitchen]

Friday, July 06, 2007

Nightswimming: Mintzkov "Ruby Red"

Mintzkov "Ruby Red"

dir. by Gommaar Gilliams

There is something viscerally thrilling about watching this man explode with anger at a room full of sharply dressed men and women. His sloppy and violent outbursts are appalling but somehow familiar - as if this frustrated soul expresses what all these tightly-wound people wish they could. We watch with dread and rabid anticipation as he makes his way through the night, expecting some tragic end to this seemingly pathetic life. And yet he does have his outlet, the one avenue of self-expression which prevents him from going even further into his rage. Yet why must he seek this happiness in shadow? What is it in the eyes of strangers that makes a man feel less than himself?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Roll Out the Red Carpet: Plans and Apologies "Mel Gibson's Iraq!"

Plans and Apologies "Mel Gibson's...Iraq!"

dir. by James Sharpe

If you haven't had the patience to wade through the exceedingly frivolous stories on the news as of late, you might be surprised to learn that the most powerful Tony to bow out in recent times wasn't a Soprano. Plans and Apologies are right pissed about their former prime minister's warm send-off last week, specifically because of his adamant support for George Bush and the Iraq war. A quote from their press release:

"This week the UK prime minister Tony Blair stood down, and to celebrate the fact we might see a little less of his grinning, murderous face, we at Pandaz Pop are giving out this preview of the video."

While the band riff on the way modern wars are created and sold like blockbuster films, there is also an interesting critique leveled at the audience itself. The consumers who sit aimlessly in front of their television sets are complicitly linked to the elected officials who seem hellbent on making the biggest profit at any cost. The singer admits that he himself didn't necessarily sit down to write a political song, but that certain times demand certain reactions. Unfortunately, it seems like his band is playing to a waning crowd.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Born on the Fourth: Animal Collective "Fireworks"

Animal Collective "Fireworks"

dir. by Jon Leone

[via pitchfork]

The sparks slow down and reverse at one point, and it's almost as if we are space-traveling rather than enjoying an earthly fireworks display. It is a trip though, one that traverses through the mind and heart of the singer - expressing love, doubt and a childlike wonder with the ways of the world. All of which is triggered by a single moment standing under the beautiful exploding lights of a clear blue night.

The song is a thrilling ride through the always exotic world of Avey Tare, Panda Bear and company. Despite the typically strange vocal delivery, the tune is actually quite hum-able. It boasts a boisterous melody, among the best Animal Collective have written, perfectly placed piano notes and some beautifully crashing drums. Director Jon Leone captures the erratic energy of the track elegantly, and his images of bursting and retracting fireworks will be forever linked with the notes of the song in our minds.

The video will no doubt come back to you tonight as you celebrate America's birthday, and perhaps you'll have your own epiphany amongst the children who stare up in awe and fear. Yet even if you don't, one thing is clear: this is a brilliant piece of viral marketing on the part of AC and Domino Records.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sleep Tight: Pikelet "Bug in Mouth"

Pikelet "Bug in Mouth"

dir. by Matt Richards

The amazing thing about our nocturnal bug-eating is that, regardless of the pollution or rain forest destruction we seem to perpetuate daily, every night we are unwittingly involved in sustaining the natural world. The fact that we can contribute to the cycles of life in our sleep, reawakens one to the possibilities of the day. All the bugs that disappear into Pikelet's body at night are reminders of the uninterrupted flow between herself and the world around her. In that sense, once we understand our part in the natural process, we have all the more reason to avoid polluting and destroying it.

There is nothing particularly revolutionary here, but the video does deftly echo the best qualities of the song. The kaleidoscopic images that blend beautifully from one scene to the next fit perfectly with the psychedelic accordion that forms the backbone of the song. Pikelet's vocal delivery is utter charm, and her off-kilter antics on screen only increase her singular appeal. One imagines this distinct brand of indie-folk will be warmly welcomed in the second half of 2007.

[via antville]

Monday, July 02, 2007

Blood Lust: Chris Brown "Wall to Wall"

Chris Brown "Wall to Wall"

dir. by Erik White

Chris Brown's performance at the 2006 World Music Awards was no one-off - he has his sights set squarely on the King of Pop's presently vacated throne. Yet while "Wall to Wall" shows the young R&B sensation taking bigger risks with his videos, it is without the coherent plot or singular vision (as well as budget) which made "Thriller" such a classic. In fact it's somewhat troubling that in a song where Brown celebrates the plethora of romantic opportunities available to him on a given night, the women are all depicted as dangerous vampires.

Yet what Brown lacks in fresh narrative ideas, he counterbalances with amazing dance moves. The choreography here is on par with Jackson's finest, and the gravity-defying bit on the wall is a nice touch. The video could have spent more money on creativity like that, and far less on pointless cameos from the likes of Tyrese.

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie