Chance Solem-Pfeifer

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Chance Solem-Pfeifer
photo by Randy Edwards
McCarthy Trenching
photo by Randy Edwards
McCarthy Trenching
photo by Randy Edwards
McCarthy Trenching
photo by Randy Edwards
McCarthy Trenching
photo by Randy Edwards
McCarthy Trenching
photo by Randy Edwards

Once The Blood Has Dried: "Picking At Scabs" with McCarthy Trenching

Decades ago, before the sloping plot of verdant land belonged to the McCarthy family, it was a Christmas tree farm.

And even though Dan McCarthy never grew up there, the farm's past life feels impossibly fitting.  A disappeared Tanenbaum farm: whimsical, with a sense of celebratory childishness. But lost to time. There is a McCarthy Trenching song in there somewhere.

It's the first day of August, temperate beyond belief, and McCarthy and I are driving north of Omaha on John J Pershing Drive to the elder McCarthys' property. It's 30 minutes out of town, west of Neil Woods in Washington County.

McCarthy says the area also goes by the name "The North Hills," undoubtedly the most poetic thing to call the modest, tree-covered bluffs. We're in McCarthy's spacious mini-van, which has seen a good portion of the country as the bulky chariot for McCarthy Trenching national tours. We're heading north because of a song.

"Picking At Scabs" is not exactly the title track to McCarthy Trenching's 2011 album Fresh Blood. But it's the tonesetter. The whole album is endowed with stoic nostalgia, a hair smarter than 2008's Calamity Drenching, with a dark humor that nudges sentiment out of the way.

The album title comes from the song's chorus: "…picking at scabs / to see fresh blood…"

In the four-album family of McCarthy Trenching songs — ballads for the perpetual barroom class, commemorations of affairs that didn't work out — "Picking At Scabs" might ring as the most stunning. It's a story, centering on a trip to McCarthy's parents' farm, that's so imaginative, and, frankly, so long, I felt lured toward a naive question of truth. Did an ill-fated fishing trip really spell the end of a relationship for Dan McCarthy? And either way, how on earth did he write a song so protracted and plainspoken about it? What well (or catfish pond) of creativity could be deep enough?

"The Missouri River isn't exactly the prettiest smelling or looking river," McCarthy says, as we pass the tall trees and soybean fields it's fed. In this slice of the state, the river is a source of life to which any artist might feel drawn. Murky as it is.

Minutes out from the farm, ahead on a blocked-off road, the flooding of 2011 has created a lowland area of leafless, barkless skeleton trees, sky-reaching white bones in a mock of frozen, grotesque death, just beyond a cradle of life.

I felt that beyond them, we might find a songwriter with a gory, but eloquent, heart on his sleeve. And that's the trick of the master craftsman.

* * *

 "Picking At Scabs" is McCarthy Trenching's "American Pie," if the entire song was about the teenagers dancing in the gym.

What kind of shoes were the jitterbuggers wearing and how did the way they kicked them off explain their relationships to their parents? In this way, McCarthy's song is a sprawling, non-epical epic. Par for the Trenching course, it references salty food, cold beer and does so with a folksy commitment to alarm-clock-punching realism. There's a pointed emotionalism to the absolutely mundane, the only topical realm in which McCarthy thinks he has credibility, shying away from claims that seem too grand.

"Maybe I overshare, maybe it's disgusting," he says. "My life isn't that interesting, it's just the same stuff."

Rather than tell you what love is, McCarthy will offer in a somehow simultaneously vague and detailed way, why it died or why it was too fickle to last.

Lyrically, "Picking At Scabs" is a pair of ex-lovers playing remember-when chicken on the phone. They converse about the narrator's parents and then about the first time they were in bed. Then, the bulk of the song is a long trip out to the farm to catch catfish. It doesn't end in disaster, more like disillusionment. Which, in this case, is worse.

McCarthy recalls tracking the seven-minute song at ARC Studios where producer Ben Brodin added the crucial pump organ over the chorus. That's the melancholy haze that wrangles in the song's balladic bounce, and makes you believe there is some kind of self-mutilation going on.

Where some of McCarthy's best known songs — "The Most Attractive Disguise" and "To An Aesthete Dying Young" — live as short ditties that punch out of their weight class, the possibility of composing a seven-minute song was a product of bassist James Maakestad joining the band.  He was a member of both Bear Country and Gus & Call, two bands known for writing long.

"I don't know why I picked that one other than that it seemed like a long story," McCarthy says. "I was trying to bring a longer song to James, like, ‘Hey, man, I can write long songs too!'"

Still, "Picking At Scabs" is full of small compositional mirages that turn about to be bits of absolute songwriting prowess when you look closer. For instance, McCarthy — instinctively, he says — often saves the darker line of a stanza for the guitar switch to the A minor chord and then a joke for the chord resolution. It's the sort of tonal decision people often make one song at a time, not 15 times within one.

McCarthy rarely plays the song onstage, for its length and the attentiveness it takes for an audience to stick it out. But he does the following night at O'Leaver's, a hometown stage that always feels like the optimal comfort venue for his kitchen and parlor poetry. That night, people are chuckling even around the 6:30-mark for McCarthy's reference to a David Foster Wallace story in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.

"Whatever he said about sexing chickens made you never wanna go back to the farm…"

* * *

 The farm is as the song advertises it. Slightly quaint and picturesque, it's anchored around the pond, which a small sign says is actually called Ragged Wood Pond. Another McCarthy Trenching song title waiting to happen.

McCarthy casually walks around it in a wide circle, giving the de facto tour. Casual and comfortable, he's wearing puffy black New Balances, a purple t-shirt and a light blue cap. He gestures around at a quartet of horses, patches of human-height wildflowers and a staggeringly crafted treehouse (McCarthy's father's proudest creation). And it's hard to believe the son never grew up here. But it's hardly surprising he's drawn to it, whether for music videos or source material. It's a distinct amalgamation of farm life and estate life, all with topography unfound elsewhere in the state.

Between tangential stories about horses and bluegills, we return to the song. The experiences described on the farm were very real, though the woman was only a friend.

"We were never sleeping together," McCarthy clarifies.

The catfish they caught were untenable, though McCarthy says Maakestad (a fisherman) has since told him he skipped the all-important step of soaking the fish in saltwater to get the "funk out."

"I don't know. They were so terrible though."

Then it was over to the grocery store — a Hy-Vee in Midtown, he thinks — where the man in overalls made a pass at his friend. McCarthy never found out what the man said, but his friend wanted to leave immediately.

"Real things and people are fair game," McCarthy says. "It seems like songwriting is what matters and who cares if it actually happened? Maybe if you're really good, you can create from whole cloth."

And what of the phone calls wrought with the anxious, knowing conversations only exes can have?

"I think that was purely to rhyme ‘plumber' with ‘number.'"
"Is that true?"
"I think it was!"

"Like a lot of my songs," he continues, "it starts with a funny situation or punchline and then constructing the rest of it to get there."

It's not unlike someone who set out to write a short joke, found it too bare, and then impossibly wrote a touching and insightful novel just to dress it up a bit. Then he steps away from the finished product, looks back and mostly sees the quips.

Then, we're leaning on fence posts, and I'm asking about how it feels to play the song, whether it's difficult emotionally, whether it picks at any personal scabs.

Dan McCarthy is charming, ingratiating and funny. Mid-question, he's jokingly littering an aluminum can on the unblemished land. It strikes me later that such a person doesn't take much pleasure in making people uncomfortable by saddling them with a confessional monologue.

Even the chorus, with its violent themes of attrition, has another life as a commentary on songwriting. It references people who sift the dregs of their pasts to work up the nerve, or a state of being unnerved, to write. He likens it the proverbial murder of the man in Reno. To head down-market quickly, I'd liken it to Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris." Self-inflicting pain just to feel something.

"I think I was having some doubts about why I write songs and that kind of crap," McCarthy says. "[That's] what that kind of song is doing. For a lot of people who write romance songs, I think."

"But that's not what you were doing?"

"Mea culpa, right?," he laughs. "But I think there are people who do it more or have made a career out of it. But it's a perfectly good way to make songs for Christsakes."

We leave the fence and turn into the woods, a sea of trees that makes you realize the home is just an incredibly well-kept clearing, not that the woods are an addition. They came first.

Like the Rubin vase optical illusion, McCarthy sees the humorous qualities of the song foremost. He doesn't consider "Picking At Scabs" in the same vein as "I Am Not Long For This World," a suicidal-feeling sermon from his self-titled debut in 2007. He scarcely plays that song anymore.

"That one is almost too dreary," he says. "I think I'm a happier person than I was then. [‘Scabs'] doesn't hurt my feelings. There's no song we have that's too personal to play."

At worst, my line of questioning ignores the promises and principles of McCarthy Trenching's realism, which would rather depict than divulge.

By this point, we are several hundred yards into the woods. Light is scarcer, and we quicken our gait to thwart the hefty, thirsty mosquitoes. We halt near a dried-up creek bed that swallows the path.

"This kinda turns into a dead end," McCarthy says.

* * *

Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies is a disturbing movie if you believe in a kind of cosmic, underdog-loving, mass market love. In short, a pair of star-crossed coworkers are destined to be together. When they almost are, they're moving a couch, and one cuts his hand. There is blood everywhere. They suddenly realize their relationship is not stress-tested for such things. In an instant, their adult love cannot stand up to adulthood.

Similarly, "Picking At Scabs," captures a tipping point. We know the man and woman on the phone are no longer together. They once shared an area code, and now they don't. The promise of a postcard-worthy day at the farm is shot down by poisoned catfish and vulgar strangers.

It's not the first time McCarthy has touched on such a what-if scenario. In "Wedding Song," his narrator professes he may have married young had he picked up the phone on just one occasion.

"I'm sure an economist would find the moment their checking account got out of balance," McCarthy says. "Do you think most people have their little recipe box of their most embarrassing or mortifying shit? And they go through it once in a while? For no good reason?"

McCarthy says the highest praise he could have received for "Picking At Scabs" arrived while touring New York in 2011. A woman approached him after his set, and professed the whole thing reminded her of a Raymond Carver short story.

Recounting that story three years later, McCarthy still fist pumps with Tiger Woods' enthusiasm.

"That's exactly what I was going for!"

The world is full of songwriters who seek to be part of folk traditions, to carry on stylistic legacies, to go back in time. Seldom do they aspire to the incidence of a Raymond Carver story, an admission that they are fiction writers, not singing autobiographers. Seldom are songwriters such chefs of their own lives and the imagined as Dan McCarthy.

There are many songs ripped from the lives of heartbroken people, but it wasn't one of those that took us out to the farm that day. It wasn't one of those that made me believe I was hearing something that could only be real.

The place where confessional songs live is full of growls and tears and scratches: someone waiting to tell the world they were always already telling the truth. The place those songs live is the grove of skeleton trees. They are starker and more eye-catching than the lush forestry and indecipherable river around them.

But they cannot convince us that they once lived.

photo by Chris Dinan
photo by Chris Dinan
photo by Chris Dinan
photo by Chris Dinan
photo by Chris Dinan

Sleater-Kinney in Omaha

In the marathon minutes before Carrie Brownstein's guitar first cut a razor line through Slowdown, the overhead speakers were silent. No Father John Misty or Mystic Valley Band or MGMT, recent staples. No curated classic rock.

A void of sound, until you listened.

Right there. A two-note ambient hum, like a child on a plastic piano doing Hans Zimmer.

Whether the non-traditional house music warm-up was Sleater-Kinney's call or not, I don't know. But it was different. Like a hearing exercise in the plaintive pocket of crowd chatter between Minneapolis singer/rapper Lizzo and the reborn Pacific Northwest punk band. As though the thinking was, "If your ears find this frequency, they'll calibrate and come to center."

"And just in time, mind you."

This is not the move of a shruggy punk band that's about to wrench the amp knobs up and blow you out. It's in the playbook of a force that recognizes its own utter precision. Not necessarily overselling the main course. But here, have this palate cleanser. Given the angry surgery that's about to spill from guitars, drum fills and alt-classic larynxes, you may want it.

That's one way to remember Friday night's show. Say, for Brownstein's striking, one-of-a-kind guitar tone. For the exercise — maybe the feat — in rock minimalism that was about to follow.

And then there were all the other lenses through which to see it. For the activism, you'd remember it for Lizzo's candid moments of mixing pan-civil harmony — "I'm a humanist" — with concrete and poignant commentary: "Black lives matter." Maybe a few goose bumps from the preacher's rhythm in which Sleater-Kinney vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker shouted out tour-collaborator Planned Parenthood, growing all the more impassioned. "Give me a choice! Give me equality! Gimme love!" And then put her voice like a battering ram through the gates of "Gimme Love."

If you're a politically platonic Sleater-Kinney fan (what a small, strange membership that must be), you might have just walked away thinking you'd just seen a band rocket out of epochal thinking, extend its prime and appear to you at its absolute peak.

* * *

The brilliant table-setting of Friday night's show presumably started months and months ago when the band elected to play a small standing room when they probably could've sold another few hundred tickets to play, say, Sokol Auditorium or something that size. The show sold out in late October.

The stage backdrop reflected Sleater-Kinney's simplicity, something that looked like a canvas of gray bed sheets hole-punched and shredded. Occasionally, its ribbons blew upward, buffeted by the gale-force vibrancy that came off the band.

And then, No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney's first album in nearly a decade, released Jan. 20 on Sub Pop, is a firework of relevance. It swings with a clean and beautiful sound. It punches with the band's most complex arrangements to date. The album is a crackling thesis for where Sleater-Kinney, an influential, riot grrrl band, born in 1994, is today. What they stand for, don't stand for, can't stand for in 2015.

The "can't" mostly has to do with naivety, not the band's, but someone's mis-assumed version of how bluntly a 20-year-old punk band might attack the issues. On No Cities To Love, there's stirring intelligence in the lyricism that hardly comes from a band in vacuum-filled extension of its heyday.

That cunning is partially in the miniscule negative space of their performance, 23 songs in about 90 minutes, and only a few pockets of talking — which included some nice words for Omaha. (Which Tucker said through the first few songs had been the best backing singers of Sleater-Kinney's tour).

"We never really checked. We never checked the price tag," Tucker's voice scaled the ceiling of the Slowdown in the first minute of their performance. "Price Tag," the opening track on No Cities To Love, is a song seemingly about cost, consumerism and placation, and it's done with tonal eloquence. Like the kid who didn't really check if the back door was locked when the dog got out. Or, "Did you read the fine print of the corporate contract? … I guess we never really checked…"

It's the stuff of Facebook privacy policies, predatory loans and under-handed clauses in congressional bills.

Then, came the also-new and ironically titled "Fangless," which sounds like it could shatter skeletons head-to-toe if it wanted. Then, the predictable, first-old-song cheer for 2002's "Oh!" And not for aesthetically insignificant reasons. To the extent that vitriolic and mock-pop whine are a hallmark of Sleater-Kinney's earlier work, "Oh!" saw Brownstein's side-winding voice winning those airtight three minutes.

This is where, if you like, you could enumerate the successes for Friday's show song-by-song  in terms of technical and stylistic appreciation. Just like on the album, Brownstein fingers slid sprucely around her frets, displaying incredible restraint in the guitar tone: full, but like it's coming from the next room. And the guitar parts always seem to invite the listener into that distant space, but you never arrive. That other room lacks her taste.

"O2" featured the same rageful round as on 2002's One Beat. Drummer Janet Weiss elevated the jumping crowd to new heights during the drum solos of "Bury Our Friends."

Mostly, Sleater-Kinney's songwriting prowess showed up in the near-constant reboots of energy across the setlist. Every song begins written keenly in a certain corner. It's crisp design set to a certain terrain: thumping drums, a solitary riff, a howling vocal line off by itself. All exciting for how the crowd seemed magnetized to the individual parts, the parts that within seconds, each time, would become Sleater-Kinney.

* * *

Watching Corin Tucker sing is like watching Whitney Houston or Eddie Vedder or Stevie Nicks sing but with no degeneration to speak of. It emanates from the profound feeling that stretching her voice, forehead to sternum, was the thing she was most meant to do in her life. It's effortless in how effortful it is. Clearly, she's trying, but trying the way Zach LaVine won the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday night. Yes, you had to jump four feet or two octaves, but is it really that easy? With watching it comes a pristine feeling: People with that kind of conventional talent — though Tucker has chosen a writing career of using it unconventionally — are so often only accessible through stadiums and VH1 and lists of the 100 greatest YouTube live performances. Proportional to those options, Friday was her playing a living room show for just you.

It's a voice of authority as it ever was, but now the kind that tells you in a counterintuitively anthemic way that the new songs are not for banner-waving.

I'm not the anthem, I once was an anthem
That sang the song of me
But now there are no anthems
All I can hear is the echo and the ring

Anthems lose their steam when the world acknowledges their issues have more corollaries, subheadings and contexts than a singalong can muster.

This was Lizzo's place in the night, a confirmation that Slowdown was a space in which more than just the Sleater-Kinney voice bore legitimacy. More specifically, it was a tacit acknowledgement that the biggest issues of our day involve race and, thus, hip-hop is a crucial discourse.

The Minneapolis vocalist's command over the venue was apparent from the first moment when the Star Wars "Imperial March" foreshadowed her arrival on stage.

In the most absolutely superficial way, she hyped the crowd for Sleater-Kinney. But in a better way, that makes that first way seem idiotic, she was another channel of musical conversation. She was more vulnerable, funnier, more open, and free to say the things about sexuality, race and conviction that 20 years of exposure to the music press stops a band from rambling about between songs. It's understandable. But Lizzo did it with aplomb.

With drummer Ryan McMahon and DJ Sophia Eris at her side, Lizzo brandished a born-performative look, conjuring the crowd — that she also cordially admitted probably didn't know her because of how early the show sold out — into singalong on "Paris." It's a track that acknowledges myth and groundedness. "Have you ever been to Paris at night? Neither have I, neither have I." By the end, most of the crowd accompanied her on the chorus.

Across that song, and other highlights, including "Bus Passes And Happy Meals," "Batches & Cookies" and "Hot Dish," she showed a terrific and unequivocal knack for speed-rapping and some truly funny asides (much in the same way she bantered with the crowd). And let's not omit the from-the-diaphragm singing parts that broke into pure vocal gravel when she lost herself in the aggression of the songs.

In some ways, it was perfect, another artist with political intention, but aware those intentions are not infallible where people come to see shows. "Black lives matter." And the crowd rightfully cheered. "Let me have my Aerosmith moment," with a bit of tongue and cheek. Cheer for that, too.

* * *

About six minutes into a live NPR interview Sleater-Kinney did with the comedy duo Broad City earlier this year, Carrie Brownstein abruptly articulated what the band has stood for since its inception. "An unapologetic obliteration of the sacred."

Iconoclasm. Punk music, basically. Lashing out at corporate culture, patriarchy, hate speech, religion, once-unimpeachable structures that allow dehumanization.

But then Broad City's Ilana Glazer counters in an instant: "It feels like that's more sacred than whatever you're supposedly obliterating."

It's a moment of profundity in an interview that ranges from the confessional to the career-plunging to the mundane to the goofy.

For all you can seemingly say about this band, they seem deliberate about representing only themselves. Because representations are lost to phylum of decades and movements that other people get to define. Representations get steered into advertising. They get used to say things they never set out to say.

"It's not a new wave. It's just you and me," skies the chorus of "A New Wave" on No Cities To Love.

Instead, the band simply and visibly tries to be the best a two-decade-old band can be. Write the most interesting music of your career. Talk politics in the most concise and nuanced way you can. Book an artist like Lizzo to open for you, to give your night the feeling that you're not the end-all-be-all of social commentary, of music or of culture.

From the punchy mantras to the hidden asides, Sleater-Kinney gives every reason to think that its new album, and its performance on any given night, is about the band. Which seems both novel and orthodox. "Surface Envy," Tucker said on Friday, is what it feels like to be in the band again.

The chorus: "We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules."

In the song that induced the crowd's most sustained leaping frenzy of the night, Sleater-Kinney played "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" in the encore. The lynchpin lyric in the 1996 song — "I'm the queen of rock ‘n' roll" — flew out with a grin and grain of salt.

Right then, I couldn't help but think of U2's bombastic "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)." That's another band — however unsuccessfully and after much longer — outlasting its contemporaries and trying to push into a new stage.

"I wanted to be the melody above all the noise," Bono cries on the 2014 Songs of Innocence single, and without a hint of irony. It's a song supposedly about a young Bono, as remembered by old Bono, experiencing a Ramones concert. It's like a Joycean epiphany without the come-down.

In 2015, Joey Ramone can mean anything, nothing. Your Joey Ramone, though, invokes the hard space between blurry humanity and bedroom poster heroes.

For the vast majority of us — for Sleater-Kinney — there is no world above all the noise. There's no Planned Parenthood in that world. In that fantasy land, there's no struggling people who could use a voice as titanic as Corin Tucker's to magnify the small, hungry one they might hear as their own.

Everyday life is cacophony, cheap and enjoyable talk, damaging and unexpected subliminals. You can wait years for the people, the bands with the best noise to cut through the fray. To tell you with a veteran scream that everything will be all right. Or to tell you, tough shit, it won't be. Love is noise, too.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
courtesy image
The Grand Budapest Hotel
courtesy image
The Grand Budapest Hotel
courtesy image

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" and Wes Anderson's Most Beautiful Laboratory

A strange thing happens upon exit of The Grand Budapest Hotel. You descend from the alpine cable car that you, the audience, took up to the hotel's wide, almost palatial doors. You walk out onto the streets of whatever city in which you saw Wes Anderson's latest movie, and realize there has been no wind for the last 100 minutes.

Excluding one eagle's nest view of a high-speed toboggan chase, true elements are a scarcity. This outside world, with its traffic cones, gravel and sagging cars with low air in just one tire, has no sense of Anderson's obsessive symmetry.

On one hand, there is life and unpredictability in the world again. On the other, it's grotesque.

To call what Anderson does in the halls of the mountainside hotel "universe building" implies a level of absent malleability. That phrase invokes the idea of crevices and pockets that could expand or contract in the dreamt European world. But there's no chance of that. It is much more like being taken on a guided escalator tour of a dollhouse: a world of miniature sets and figurines that when you zoom in close enough become Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody and gorgeous costume and set design. It feels entirely preconceived before the arrival of the audience by an anal retentive scientist with an all-consuming love of tasteful Valentine's Day cards.

The story, set in the fictional Central European republic of Zubrowka (filmed in Germany) is told in a sort of odd, inverse pyramid. Beginning in the present day with a young woman staring at the memorial bust of an author known as The Author, we dive into the work of the author, played for a brief moment by Tom Wilkinson, before immediately extending further back into his younger years, where he's played by Jude Law. At this juncture, The Author is staying at a twilight years version of the Grand Budapest Hotel, which has aged ungracefully. The hotel is on its off season, colored in loud, infrared ‘60s shag and is virtually empty. The Author sets about to interviewing the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham. Faced with an interested writer's question of how he came to own the Grand Budapest, Moustafa guides us back further toward the pyramid's widest level, in the 1930s when he was a lobby boy and M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the then-concierge, became his dearest friend and mentor.

If the sensibilities of Gustave, the concierge, are refined and complex, the rhythms of Ralph Fiennes' character are simple. He's a pontificating, romantic savant, who at the breaking point of his monologues will often knowingly interrupt its verbosity with profanity. A battlefield of manners that at least a half dozen times is dispensed in favor of "Oh fuck it!" And then we get on with whatever task Gustave and Moustafa were about to undertake in this tale of murder and false accusation.

Barring when he tried to kill Harry Potter, Fiennes may never have been freer as an actor, so natural in his extroversion. As Gustave, he sets about professionally pampering and personally romancing the hotel guests, mostly older blonde women. It's never clear whether the level of service yields the sex, or whether the sex is merely one facet of a wealthy patron's pleasant stay. But Gustave's dual senses of flirtatiousness and propriety are ubiquitous, charming and not the least bit contradictory.

As the impressionable, well-mannered and eager lobby boy, Moustafa (played as a young man by Tony Revolori) is a willing pupil, a lonely immigrant in a land that Anderson defines aesthetically with Prussian visual grandeur. But with Fiennes' unquestionably British diction and flare driving forward a movie that stews with all the vagueness of an American director comically making a movie to synthesize all of continental Europe.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, as with about any Wes Anderson movie, you're already in the atmosphere of filmmaking, aware of almost everything that's come before.

In a recent panel interview, moderated by New York Film Festival's Kent Jones, Anderson confessed to one of the film's visual thefts from Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain: "Some things are inspired and some things are plagiarism. I feel we made it our own, but that's what plagiarists do."

He's playing movie tricks, like having Adrien Brody bark out threats like a member of the American mafia, in a setting that's entirely displaced. Anderson riffs on your movie lexicon in that way, too, convincing you that's how tough, streetwise guys talk even if you're an ocean away from New York City. He's both poking fun at filmmakers and writers who'd try to get away with that kind of pop culture association, and then absolutely getting away with it himself.

And if there's something slightly authoritarian about the way Anderson's moving camera drags your eyes around the screen in rigidly directed motions, it's either exhausting or you give Anderson credit for visually drawing attention to the trick all filmmakers play with their cameras.

As in, "Every movie does this to you. I'm just letting you know while I do it."

In one way, the hyper-obvious zooms and tunnel vision pans onto Anderson's supporting cast hanker for audience cheers (well, let's say chortles and golf claps, actually) when they fall on staple actors like Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Ed Norton, constantly reminding you who the acrobats are in this circus troupe. And yet, it's such surgical work that when it comes to delivering the actual lines and popping out of the ground like acting prairie mice, it doesn't so much matter if the hotel concierges in later years are Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman or complete nobodies. They are important only to the visual language of the movie, talking paintings on the walls of the Grand Budapest, markers that simply let us know whose movie this is.

Why we're funnelled four levels deep to the "real" story isn't apparent. This bit of narrative excess is possibly the least organized opulence of the movie. Everything else in this world is doorways, windows, portrait frames, train tracks and cell blocks. If it's not a parallelogram or a perfectly dissected shape, there's not much place for it.

Ultimately, The Grand Budapest Hotel presents two in-script hypotheses for how the hotel and the story of its de facto father and son can be taken. That is, if the audience is interested in the mind that created this place and these people. If you'd rather check out of the hotel, comfortable with the fact that you've scene Ed Norton with a waxed mustache and Harvey Keitel essentially play Harvey Keitel during a Keystone Cops-esque prison break, the niceties may well have been enough to place The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhere akin to Fantastic Mr. Fox in Anderson's body of work.

Only one of these hypotheses, though, really works.

At the opening, the older version of The Author (Wilkinson) claims one of the biggest misconceptions about writers is that they're constant dreamers. In fact, trying to explain his 1960s rendezvous with Moustafa, their characters and ideas are the products of encounters. Now, there's a reading of Grand Budapest in which the timeless adopted-father-adopted-son relationship between Gustave and Moustafa is the payoff for every idiosyncrasy in Anderson's arsenal. The stakes of this movie, with the script reveling in the occasional isolated bout of violence make the seriousness of Anderson's characters feel warranted. If Moonrise Kingdom was an all-out child's farce, Gustave talking breathlessly about his daring plans is called for because he is, in fact, hunted at times. Zubrowka is at war. There is peril. The unflinching order of the hotel, when people run through hallways and balconies does feel like chaos, as though Anderson is touching on a post-WWI anxiety about the point at which a grid becomes a maze.

But there can be no question that a hand isn't moving pieces around a four-tiered chess board. If The Author aims to argue how truly literal and circumstantial Anderson's world is, his book will need far more liner notes.

For as paternal as the relationship between Fiennes and Revolori is, the emotional core of the film is the invisible third chair at the table with the older Moustafa and Jude Law. Abraham's baritone storytelling grace is where the heart of the sometimes haywire comedy resides. To oversimplify for a moment — in a narrative Chinese finger trap, to watch the movie is to be The Author. To watch Moustafa tell it, is to watch Anderson tell it.

And here is the mantra that actually works. Moustafa asserts that Gustave was wilfully in charge of upkeep for a self-fictionalized world of civility. His maintenance of that illusion was his art. This holds for Wes Anderson. As a director, he's a designer in the vein of Willy Wonka, concoctions sweet enough and artisan enough to make us forget every piece of beauty we saw here was made in a test tube. Because at least for now, a superficial attachment to the formulaic is what makes him ripe for parody. Saturday Night Live can produce this, everyone can say, "Hey, that's pretty spot on!" Because the question of how full or empty the style of his movies proves to be has, since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, always trailed somewhere behind the style.

High up in the mountains, in a pristine land of full service room service, Wes Anderson tells us nothing new about what he wants to do, just that he can do it more intricately than ever before.

Chip Davis
photo by Mike Machian

Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis: Captaining a Musical Machine

It's been seven years since Chip Davis quit playing drums in his lifelong creation, his record-selling engine, his ever-present ensemble — Mannheim Steamroller.

Sidelined by a neck surgery, the 67-year-old Omaha composer and bandleader has taken on a role of historian and hype man for the classical-rock-hybrid project's four decades of accomplishments. Given its consistency and success, Mannheim's credentials aren't difficult to pitch. More than 40 million records sold worldwide. More than 40 albums released. Seasonal touring ensembles that hit more than 50 cities annually. A Grammy Award.

When asked if he envisions Mannheim Steamroller's success in the New Age genre continuing beyond his life, Davis' answer is an unequivocal "yes."

There's a music industry parable buried deep back in Davis' biography that helps him explain this moment in 2015. Davis moved to Omaha in 1970 to work as a jingle writer. Before the first of his eight calling-card Fresh Aire albums came out in 1975, Davis worked with singer William Fries on the county act CW McCall. While the song "Convoy" earned them both acclaim and airplay, the character CW McCall lived and died with Fries' voice and willingness to use it.

"[Mannheim] will be able to carry the ball past whatever I can do," Davis says. "When it's focused on a person … who's highly recognizable, when that goes away, the whole thing goes away."

In late January, we interviewed Davis at his Omaha label headquarters American Gramaphone and his Ponca Hills acreage. Listen below:

Lars and Mal
photo by Randy Edwards

Hear Nebraska FM

Hear Nebraska FM is a live two-hour radio show out of KZUM studios in Lincoln, Nebraska. In my two years of hosting and co-hosting, we brought more than 60 guests into the studio for live performances and in-depth interviews. For the bulk of that time, I produced, engineered and hosted the show, featuring everything from rising Omaha hip-hop personalities to Nebraska’s finest folk musicians. All in-studios are archived on

For my money, the following audio clips capture the best of HNFM: intimate performances that are gently different from the artists’ studio recordings and interviews that get at the performers’ artistic process and deeper inspirations.


Live sessions:

Hop Along
courtesy photo
Hop Along
courtesy photo

Saddle Creek Signee Hop Along's Lauded Record, Empty Beings and Singular Voice

On May 29, Hop Along was playing two shows in Seattle: their regularly scheduled tour stop at Chop Suey and a 25-minute live gig for KEXP.

The immediate question, then, was how singer Frances Quinlan's voice would hold up. Since the release of the Philadelphia band's sophomore effort, Painted Shut, on Saddle Creek last month, that voice has been lauded for its dangerous and beautiful undulations. The thematic climax of most Hop Along songs is Quinlan toying with a breaking point in her vocal cords and in the stories she's weaving. How was two shows in one night going to go?

"You know, it freaks me out, but I'm going to do my best," she says on the phone from the van.

It's the sort of uncomfortable, and slightly grave, modesty that dots the entire interview. Quinlan says she finds her one-of-a-kind rock voice (critics' words) "really limiting at times" (her words), and that many people criticize the way she uses it. That's a sentiment I've yet to find in any review. But this might be an easier manuever than admitting you made an electric record that's frighteningly detailed and emotive, all while being pretty catchy rock.

When Hop Along comes to Slowdown's front room tonight for $10, its first time through since The Sandbox in 2012, it'll be quite the notoriety juncture at which to catch the band. They've almost universally won the affection of national critics, even if the indie music public hasn't quite caught up. For one example, just yesterday, the popular sports and culture website Grantland did a feature on Hop Along for no other apparent reason than the staff likes the band a lot. And, today, Quinlan is doing an interview on Lincoln's community radio station, KZUM.

Offering pleasant, but biting, rock, Hop Along's songs are disorienting even when the soundscape is not. The ten tracks on Painted Shut are bound by a penchant for lyrical feints: kicker phrases that sneak into the verse just as its rhythmic door is closing. Or maybe shapeshifting, and sliding underneath the phrase's conclusion.

Arguably, the most daring example on the album is the bare and acoustic "Happy To See Me" when Quinlan's third verse introduces a father posting a motivational video on YouTube. Her voice ducks out of frame and then swoops avianly upward when mentioning the name of the online giant. It's half-bashfulness about a coporate plug and a half-genius use of the goofy assonance in "Yoo-toob."

Seconds later, she blows up the tender moment, screaming in the father's voice, "People of the world, nobody loves you … half as much as I, half as much as I am trying to."

The sense of danger in the vocals isn't just the scratchiness and the volume, but how closely it lives next to her falsetto, the most delicate part of a vocal register. Quinlan says last year's throat check-up with the ENT went well, and the band is careful not to stay on the road too long without a break, in part because she doesn't want to wear it out.

"So far so good. I don't know what will happen in the next few years, but we'll see."

But she indulges almost nothing in talking about the aesthetics of her voice. She sees the way she sings as inextricable from the swings, crawls and detonation of the lyrics.

"The parts that I think of as choruses don't seem to correlate to other people," Quinlan says when I refer to the songs as not having choruses, but rather massive exhales at their ends. (See "Texas Funeral" or "Waitress" or "Happy To See Me.")

The stories she unravels seem fixed on isolation, not so much about being alone as purveying the vulnerable and hideous feeling that everyone is. And that's no doubt enhanced by the glaring absence of harmony vocals.

When the lyrics do draw on the unison of people, it's in harsh declarations of "common poverty" or having "a great wanting in common." Lest you mistake those phrases for implying a bit of empathy or social unity (as I did), Quinlan's explanation is bleakly existential.

"Both [uses are] attributing to a kind of greed," she says. "Wanting without cease. The common poverty is … dissatisfaction. Those are all rooted in the self, a poverty of the self. You want because you yourself are an empty being."

Lead singles "Powerful Man" and "Waitress" were the first times Quinlan says she's "spoken clearly" about herself in songs, two tracks anxious with shame, but with all the incidental inhumanity and humanity of a Camus story or a Mad Men narrative tangent. (Though that haunting feeling of incident lives strongest on "I Saw My Twin.")

Quinlan says "Powerful Man" recounts her "being a coward," though the song levies no such judgement. It's an autobiographical story of watching a father hit his child in public from her bystanding perspective.

It's tempting, too, to find the ways Hop Along fits in with Saddle Creek's stable. In Pitchfork's review of Painted Shut, it asserted the label is "built on the kind of romantic, middle-American indie that made Hop Along possible in the first place."

But there's no such romance in Hop Along songs, though it might take a lyrics sheet to prove it. The songs seem to occur suddenly from eyes and mouths that could be real or imaginary, from any place or recent century. If there's a lyrical link to Kasher or Oberst, it's not in subject matter or style, but in the consuming feeling that Hop Along's voice is talking, undeterrably, right at you.

Quinlan says her youthful discovery of Saddle Creek was influential to her experience of music as a career and industry, telling Noisey one of her Saddle Creek favorites was the relatively obscure 2001 Bright Eyes/Son Ambulance split.

"[Saddle Creek] was the first label I looked at as not just a business," she says. "I found out that there was this group of friends in Omaha who'd started a label. I'd never heard of anything like that."

She says coming to terms on the signing last fall was easy.

"[Saddle Creek] is friends with the bands on their label," she says. "I think someone let it slip to [label chief] Robb [Nansel] I was big fan, anyway, during negotiations. But it wasn't me."

Tim Kasher, The Faint and Conor Oberst
courtesy photos

The Mid-Career Sweet Spot: How Kasher, Conor and The Faint Captured Their Best Selves

The Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive all began the same year: 1995.

Call us fools for not doing this podcast one year from now for a 20-year retrospective, but 1995 laid the groundwork for two decades of their hegemony within Omaha music.

In the past eight months, Tim Kasher, Conor Oberst and The Faint have all released albums which bottle their most prime qualities. Adult Film, Upside Down Mountain and Doom Abuse confirm those characteristics listeners have most enjoyed about these musicians, and dispense with the tangents and experiments that naturally perked up along the way.

It's boring and reductive just to say these three musical juggernauts have all grown up. They've been at it for a while, yes, but what their new albums have in common is perceptible ease, accessibility and utter professionalism.

So why are they hitting this golden hour now? What chapter are we in with Oberst, Kasher and The Faint? Why do the voices of these now-mid-career artists still resonate so resoundingly? And why are we still talking about them?

Listen up:

For all the episodes of On The Record, click below:

Inside Out
courtesy image

Be Reel, Guys

Be Reel, Guys is a bi-weekly movie reviewing podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard. Each time out, they select three movies based around a genre: as conventional as "Baseball Movies" and as specific as "Movies featuring Disturbed Hosts on Surrealist TV Shows." Then, they rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment value. Noah is a literary agent and Chance is a writer. They are pals from the old days, and they often disagree.

Little Marais
photo by Andrew Dickinson

"Never Met the Author"

"Never Met The Author" is Little Marais' debut album, released on Sower Records in Aug. 2015.

Little Marais is Chance Solem-Pfeifer.

released 06 August 2015
all songs by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
produced by Jeremy Wurst
album art by Michael Todd
violin by Emma Nelson ("The Saltless Sea")
drums/bass by Jeremy Wurst

Chance Solem-Pfeifer
photo by Bridget McQuillan



University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Bachelor of Arts (with High Distinction), May 2013
Major: English, Creative Writing

Work Experience

Freelance Writing and Editing, Portland, OR
Oct. 2015 - present

  • Features and criticism published in Willamette Week, Fiction Writers Review, Lemonly, CutPrintFilm, Boxing Insider
  • Online editor at Eleven PDX music magazine
  • The weekly Be Reel, Guys movie podcast with guests including novelists and actors

Managing Editor, Hear Nebraska, Omaha, NE
Feb. 2014 - July 2015

  • Trained, managed and edited more than a dozen interns and a staff writer
  • Wrote and published feature stories and interviews each week on
  • Executed editorial strategy and managed Hear Nebraska’s social media accounts

Staff Writer, Hear Nebraska, Omaha, NE
May 2013 - Feb. 2014

  • Composed three pieces of scene-oriented music journalism each week
  • Interviewed locally and nationally recognized musicians
  • Assisted in community outreach projects and live organization-programmed events

Radio Show Host, Hear Nebraska FM, 89.3 KZUM, Lincoln, NE
Sept. 2013 - July 2015

  • Engineered, produced and hosted Hear Nebraska FM
  • Booked weekly music guests for live in-studio interviews and performances
  • Recorded and mixed performance clips and feature interviews for online posting

Intern, Emma Sweeney Literary Agency, New York City, NY
June 2012 - Aug. 2012

  • Vetted and provided substantive content feedback on manuscripts for published authors
  • Maintained agency author contracts and files

Other Experience

  • Co-founded, hosts and edits a music and film podcast — On The Record and Be Reel, Guys
  • Three-year arts editor at The Daily Nebraskan and host of 89.3 KRNU’s Lost & Found
  • Fine Lines Literary Magazine Special Editor
  • Writes, performs and records music as Little Marais — debut album out Aug. 2015
Chance Solem-Pfeifer
photo by Bridget McQuillan


Can't wait to hear from you.