Like a Man In a Cage With a Lion And a Chair: The Cannonball Story’s “Purple Rose”

Do you like The Mountain Goats? Do you like movies? Do you like to dwell on things that exist in the hazy, mutable space between uproarious laughter and deep dark tragedy? If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you are very consistent, because as Kanye West once said, “everything in the world is exactly the same.” And, also, you might be interested in The Cannonball Story’s latest album, Purple Rose.

Purple Rose is the third full-length album from The Cannonball Story — coming after debut Hokey Smokes! and a second, self-titled release, as well as a handful of seasonally-thematic noise-pop EPs. This newest opus is a concept album – every song title is also the name of a notable film director. There’s a well-written and reasonably extensive letter-from-the-editor-style write-up about that on the band’s site, so I won’t bother expounding too much on the theme here. I would, however, like to offer the disclaimer that the title comes from a Woody Allen movie. (There is also a song called “Woody Allen,” which is three minutes of frenetic, harmonica-laced mumbling a la Allen’s nebbish and neurotic persona; this is the only place I’ll mention it in the review because I’m not gonna turn this into a debate on the benefits versus drawbacks of satirizing a confirmed pedophile.)

That aside, it’s pretty much a perfect album from start to finish. Lyrically, I’ve never heard a match; there’s definitely nowhere else you can hear someone rhyme “Tim Burton” with “flirtin'” and get away with it. Practically every song could be used as a tenth-grade English lesson on intertextuality –  shout-along spite jam “Uwe Boll,” labyrinthine extended metaphor “Wes Anderson,” and cautionary song “Kathryn Bigelow” all stand fine on their own, but grow better and sharper and more delightful if you can catch the references that flash by lightning-quick. “Joss Whedon” can be hilarious without knowing anything about the Strong Female Character trope, but if you’ve seen anything he’s ever done you’ll cackle with glee at the opening couplet (she brought a knife to a ray gun fight / but she walked away without a scratch) and even harder at the sudden ending. At the same time, all the cleverness holds up to outside examination by virtue of being breathtakingly astute – I mean, sure, “Andrew Bujalski” is one big twee mumblecore joke, a lot of like and I dunno and dithering about which late-night food place to visit, but also, do you wanna like / go our separate ways / both go home / and not really do much, like. All of this is backed with a whirligig of off-kilter instrumentation and sung with the ragged, quavery conviction that is Cannonball Story’s trademark.

The thing about lo-fi pop made by a white dude is that ninety nine percent of the time it is completely insufferable, a product that stems mostly from misinformed ideas about what constitutes “authenticity” and how best to effect it. The Cannonball Story is not about “authenticity,” by which I mean, even though it sounds like it was recorded in someone’s mom’s basement (because it was), it is not about taking poorly-disguised and haltingly-rhymed autobiographical poetry from an intro writing seminar and putting it to basic, harmonious chord progressions, in hopes that “sloppy” will get read as “raw” and “unprepared” will somehow turn into “extemporaneous.” The Cannonball Story is neither sloppy nor unprepared. The Cannonball Story fucking gets it. The Cannonball Story is about jokes – long, hyper-performative ones, told while looking directly into your eyes. The Cannonball Story knows it’s joking, and knows you know it’s joking, and you know that you both know everything in the whole world is actually just one long elaborate joke, but also, if that’s true, doesn’t that mean everything in the whole world is kinda…. real? I’m not impaired I’m just giddy and scared / like a man in a cage with a lion and a chair, goes “Judd Apatow,” and what self could be more authentic than the one that knows it is necessary to perform to live? Brandish your imperfect weaponry; let them see you tremble. Everything is scripted, even when it isn’t. There’s a fucking Destiny’s Child reference in this song; did you catch it? Are you laughing? Was it funny?

 The Cannonball Story’s entire discography is available for listening and download at Bandcamp.

Burned No. 2: Dad Music

I tell people I don’t have a dad but that’s not true. Technically speaking, I’ve had two – one whose blood I share, who gave me big ears and wide feet and depression; and one who was married to my mother for eight years, from the day after my sixth birthday until my freshman year of high school – so when I say I don’t have a dad what I really mean is the word “dad” is too complicated for me to use anymore. “Dad” makes me cringe when it is in context of the word “love” and like, that’s my problem really, that’s my thing to get over. Trauma exists. It’s whatever.

When I say I don’t have a dad what I really mean is I only ever got to borrow too-big shirts from my mom to wear for comfort while sleeping. I never got the retro thrill of introducing a boy or a girl I wanted to kiss and getting a discreet thumbs up before going out. I originate my own corny jokes. And unlike so many of my friends, who hit their teen years and started rifling through the rich record collections of their 60s- and 70s-raised parents, I never got any dad music. All my real dad ever played was Jimmy Buffett and one time he tried to tell me he cared about me in the car while a Train song was playing and to this day I want to turn and move quickly and silently in the other direction if I ever hear “Drops of Jupiter.” My stepdad really liked Sade. And that’s fine, I mean, it is what it is. I got what I got. But sometimes I do wonder what it might have felt like to have a good dad. A dad that wasn’t emotionally stunted, a dad that didn’t make things complicated. A good dad. A cool one, even.

Sometime in that year of school when I was thirteen and then fourteen, the year I was all bright colors and new Chucks and torn jeans with paint flecks, the year my mom got divorced again and we moved into a new house, the year everything felt like spring all clean and new and coming to life, that year, I got some music. It came from my mom’s high school best friend who had heard from her that I was cool and looking for something to listen to other than Hot Fuss and Franz Ferdinand and Funeral, the three albums I bought for myself heading into high school. So he sent me a handful of CDs, just titled with my name and then “cd 1” or “2” or “3.” They were mixes only as a technicality – artists listed alphabetically, four or five songs by the same band lumped together in a row, no real attention to transitions or curation. It was a mess, and I absolutely loved it.

The songs came from him but I don’t think of any of them as his when I see them now, the way I think of some old music as belonging to the people who introduced it to me. Arctic Monkeys, Beck, Cake – all mine, the sound of high school, and that’s all on the first CD. There’s Weezer. There’s Sarah McLachlan. “All The Small Things,” for some reason, but also Joni Mitchell. A lot of weird one-off hits that serve as an early 2000s indie primer of sorts, like, who remembers “Brighter Than Sunshine” by Aqualung? Let the rain fall, I don’t care / I’m yours and certainly you’re mine, all soft falsetto, and it still makes me think of how it felt to carry a too-light backpack and wait for the bus with wet hair. Looking at the tracklists now is a time machine straight back to the era of weird raw growth when the world existed to be discovered and understood and I could do that. There was no limit. I could reinvent myself as many times as I liked. It was all new and I could be new too – my ears were clean, my eyes were bright. I was ready for everything to belong to me, ready to be anyone I possibly could, ready to know it all and by “it all” I mean myself.

I didn’t know my mom’s best friend from high school all that well – I still don’t, really, despite the music. We’ve met only a handful of times. Once I stubbed my toe in his driveway. Once we went to breakfast. He’s got three kids, the eldest a couple years younger than me. He had a beard and then another time he didn’t. My mom’s told me stories about him from high school which is a good way to make a person seem three-dimensional without actually revealing anything at all about their character. So I don’t really know him. What I do know is that it’s rare to be given a CD by someone and find yourself listening to it without questioning their ulterior motives. It’s even more rare to be a teenage girl and get a CD from a grown man and not feel at least a little uncomfortable about it, a little off-kilter or guarded, silently preparing to deal with weird comments about coolness or precocity. But this time the whole exchange was so honest, so un-fraught, that I didn’t realize for years how lucky I was to have experienced it. So often it feels like mixes act as a coded message of some kind, a gift more about the giver than the recipient – this time it felt like someone had looked at me and tried to help me become more of who I was trying to be. Someone had seen me trying to create myself and done what they could to foster that creation. And it all happened so quietly that it took practically a literal decade for me to realize that maybe, just maybe, that’s kind of how it feels to have a dad. A good dad. A cool one, even.

An Examination of Intimacy: Kishi Bashi at the Palace of Fine Arts

Photo copyright flickr user Kmeron
Did you know that every Friday night in San Francisco there’s a group of people who put on helmets and neon glowsticks and tiny flashing lights and go rollerskating all over town? I didn’t either, until I saw them at the Palace of Fine Arts last Friday as I was coming out of a concert. There wasn’t much of a crowd — just a few figures circling the smooth marble floor underneath the rotunda’s colossal dome, weaving and ducking, their wheels clacking along to the tinny 70s funk coming from someone’s radio. It was a still night, and beyond the shadowy columns and archways of the rotunda lay the pond, darkly glimmering. If the rollerskaters hadn’t been there the whole tableau would have felt mystic, solemn, occult in that harsh Hellenistic way — all stone and consequence. But there they were, in Velcro wristguards and reflective tape, unbearably small and unbearably human, gliding their way through the night.

It seems too pat to say this, too easy a leap from visual to metaphorical truth, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Kishi Bashi than “neon rollerskater against a classical backdrop.” Billed as a “beatboxing violinist,” Kishi Bashi is the stage name of Kaoru Ishibashi, an engineering-school dropout turned lowkey indie star who’s worked alongside the likes of Regina Spektor and Of Montreal. You’ve probably heard his solo work, even if you don’t realize it. It’s in that Windows 8 commercial, and also that Sony commercial, and probably some other ones — honestly his music is perfect for commercials, and that’s not an insult, because like how difficult is it to produce an emotional atmosphere so dense and vivid it can make you feel something in thirty seconds or less?

Ordinarily, Kishi Bashi works alone, creating lush arrangements with only a violin, a set of pedals, and a voice that swoops easily from clear baritone to bright falsetto. On this particular night, he was joined by a full string quartet as well as Elizabeth Ziman (of opening band Elizabeth and the Catapult, sweetly weird singer-songwriter pop) and Mark Savino (of Tall Tall Trees, whose website cites a headline that reads “Bearded man sings songs, violates banjo” — frankly I don’t feel the need to expand upon that description). Since I haven’t seen Kishi Bashi’s solo shows at any point, I can’t credibly make any distinction from a typical performance, but from the moment he stepped onstage and drew a conductor’s baton from his mauve waistcoat, I knew I was in for something really tremendous.

Although I don’t know enough about the technical side of music to gauge whether or not he’s a good conductor, I do know how it feels to watch someone do something like they mean it, and that’s what happened all night. The string players were impeccable (is there another word for string players, so straightbacked and elegant?); Savino beat his banjo with a drumstick and howled through his copious beard; Ziman crooned. Kishi Bashi himself occupied a space somewhere between seasoned professional performativity and raw nerves — “I’m really nervous tonight,” he said at one point, and then, “I think it’s because this is my favorite city to play. You guys are — what do they call it? My target market.”

Kishi Bashi’s music is made for dreamers. It’s the kind that makes your mind wander, the sort that spirals out and out until the air shimmers with it, almost thick enough to touch. The sounds wrap you up and take you away until you hardly forget where you are or what you’re really listening to. At one point, as the stage lights deepened to moody pink, I found myself fixated on his showy corsage — what a nice thing it is, I thought, to wear a corsage; how strange and lovely that we pin flowers on ourselves on days when we are important, and it happens so often, so many people have pinned flowers on so many others for so many reasons, and we’ve gone walking around feeling the whole universe open up for us.  And then the song was over, and there was a new song, and it began anew, four or five minutes more, another rhapsody.

Joy permeates Kishi Bashi’s sound — some of it is even upbeat enough to dance to, as demonstrated during a three-song stretch when audiences were urged to rise from their seats and bop along to bouncy crowdpleasers like “Carry On Phenomenon” and “The Ballad of Mr Steak.” But often that joy is cut through with a weird delicate sorrow, a note here or a word there that pushes a song from chintzy quirk into something fucked up and believable. Often it’s about love, because I mean, what isn’t, but also just as much about not-love, or what could have been love. Oh in the desert you sucked my finger, goes “Atticus in the Desert,” and then ­— it wasn’t meant to be, it was like water from leather. “Once Upon A Dreaming (in Afrikaans),” from the newest album Lighght, gets to the heart of things in two lines: I need to know this love is real / I want to feel the sadness.

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The word intimate is overused to describe concert experiences — usually as shorthand for watching a solo artist perform in a cramped venue — but it is the word I keep returning to, the only word that feels like it gets at everything I saw and felt last Friday. Intimate is what it is when someone admits to you they’re nervous. Intimate is someone telling you “this song is about vampires,” “this song is about my own idea of a creation myth where the universe was created by cosmic lovers,” “this song is about a dream I had where I was dying.” Intimate is when someone insists on turning the lights on — which happened, partway through the show, when Kishi Bashi said “Can you bring up the house lights? I want to see who I’m playing to — it’s so dark out there it could be anyone. It could be a pack of lions.”

During the show, we lions bore witness to two improvised pieces. First, our fearless headliner alone with his violin, bowing and warping and looping until the air filled with a high twittering noise that sounded like garbled, eerie fey laughter above our heads. “This is really cool,” he said, and then, withdrawing an iPhone from his pocket, “Actually, you know what, I’m gonna record this. God, sorry, this is really unprofessional! I wouldn’t normally do this. This is how I write most of my songs though.” He joked that we could hear it again on the new album, and a ripple of excitement ran through the audience (intimate is hearing something no one has ever heard before). The second improvisation came during the encore, when everyone filed back onstage and stood right at the edge of it, almost too close to the audience, unprotected by chairs or mics or space. “This is gonna be an acoustic set,” Kishi Bashi said, his unamplified voice swallowed up by the room. Gently at first, he began to play, and one at a time his cohort joined in, looking to him for cues. The sounds clashed, skewed, overlapped with one another in a sloppy mishmash of eight notes and sudden high screeches. It wasn’t something anyone would want to record. It was, objectively, bad. But there is something so freeing and delightful and important about watching people who are good at the thing the do as they do something objectively bad, something purposefully messy and weird and unplanned, just for the sake of doing it. Each of them looked careful, concentrating; each person was so visibly trying, so visibly working, without any of the usual polish of performance, that it felt difficult to look at them. And at the same time, it was, ostensibly, a performance for the audience. We were there to look. We were there for them. Intimate is how it feels when you watch someone try, how it feels to look at someone who has asked you to look at them.

At last they segued into the song that is Kishi Bashi’s closest approximation to a smash hit — “Bright Lights” — and the intensity lessened, the whole room relaxed. And again, I cannot find a word other than intimate to describe the feeling of watching a group of people, small and bright under the vast proscenium, play as they might have played in rehearsals: clustered in a ragged semicircle, loose and easy and grinning. The breathlessness of the improvisation still hung over us, and we in the audience mostly stood quiet for fear of overpowering the bare music that floated out into the velvety dark. But there were moments we couldn’t contain ourselves from singing alone, when a kind of deep hum rose up ­— the sort of noise that is felt in the chest rather than heard — and everything seemed to be blending at the edges, air spilling into sound spilling into velvet curtains and violin strings and other humans. That’s intimacy, I think. It really is.

Burned No. 1: Floccinaucinihilipilification

Burned is a column about the music men have given me to listen to ––  mixtapes, albums, entire discographies. Brace yourselves.

When I was in 6th grade the only other person in my class who was almost as smart as me was a tall boy with braces and budding swimmer’s shoulders who self-identified as “punk” –– this mostly meaning he wore a lot of black t-shirts and never washed the chlorine out of his shaggy brown hair in hopes of bleaching the tips. Once a week, the two of us got excused from class to go to advanced spelling –– a subject we conducted ourselves, unsupervised in the empty elementary school hallway, by passing a dictionary back and forth and trying to outdo each other. Triskaidekaphobia. Antidisestablishmentarianism. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. We scribbled lists of words on flimsy sheets of wide-ruled paper and made fun of each other’s handwriting. Thinking about it now, the crush I developed seems inevitable. At that age –– under those conditions? How could anybody not?

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to think much of me. Or, more correctly –– he didn’t think I was punk enough. The year we sat in the hall picking spelling words was the year Avril Lavigne dropped Let Go, and the year I began to learn that music wasn’t just an impersonal atmospheric experience but also a means of constructing a personal identity. I’d always been a floaty, dreamy kind of kid, reasonably obedient and dressed in Gap t-shirts, and I don’t know if it was the exquisite angst of “Complicated” or just impending puberty but Let Go kindled new feelings in me. I wanted to be sharp and scrappy. I wanted to flout the rules and live in a real city and wear a lot of bracelets. I wanted a sk8r boi to whom I could say see ya later, boy. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be like Avril.

This baby swimmer punk –– let’s call him Jed –– had other ideas. “She’s not cool,” he said. “She’s a poseur. She doesn’t make real music.”

“Oh really,” I said, with all the haughtiness my eleven years could afford me. “So what’s real music, then?”

He answered me with a stack of burned CDs.

I don’t actually remember many specific songs from the mixtapes he made. Hilariously, in retrospect, almost none of it was what would be classified as “real punk” –– it was mostly a mishmash of metal and math rock, which to my untrained ears sounded like nothing but crunching and howling, a miserable angry mess. What I do remember, with astonishing clarity, is how alien it seemed from the music I knew, and how uncomfortable I felt trying to reconcile it with my understanding of what music was supposed to do. If it provided an atmosphere, was this the atmosphere he wanted –– jarring dissonance and sudden shocks? If it provided an identity, was this the sort of person he wanted to be –– jaded, miserable, arrogant? Violent?

There was one standout among the CDs he gave me, one album I liked enough to devote repeat listening time to: cKy’s 2002 release Infiltrate•Destroy•Rebuild. It wasn’t what I’d have chosen for myself, but at least I could discern lyrics, so I sat at my desk and hit the “repeat all” button on my metallic navy blue boombox and tried to make myself see exactly what it was he saw in it. I stared into middle distance trying to picture the worlds these songs imagined: grimy, miserable, all flickering horror-movie lights and back alley puddles and sickbeds and basements. I tried to aestheticize their content in a way I could understand. I literally wrote compare-contrast poems –– the universe of my music against the universe of his –– in hopes that I would find the places where they overlapped, an attempt to measure the differences between our understandings of what it meant to be cool.

There’s a word Jed chose one week for our spelling list: floccinaucinihilipilification. I still picture it in his crooked handwriting, purple ink from one of my favorite pens, jotted down the week we picked all words that started with F and giggled when we insisted our teacher refer to the list as “F words.” To this day I can hardly spell or pronounce floccinaucinihilipilification –– instead I have a weird gut-level understanding of it that hinges on the sound of that cKy album, a kind of psychic association with words like flaccid and formaldehyde, something that sounds like pale dead flesh and medicine and fear. It seems like it should indicate a kind of scientific term, a disease, a poison. What it really means, though, is: the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.

Because of this one boy I don’t have my copy of Avril’s Let Go anymore. I purposefully left it at school one spring day knowing I’d never see it again. Because of this one boy I spent a great number of years thinking that harsher sounds made you better, that the smarter you were the more you hated the world, that the uglier you acted the realer you were. I want to say that I was susceptible to this because I didn’t know the first thing about feminism, but that’s not true. I did know about feminism, and I grew up hearing girl power and you can do anything you want and women are smart and tough and good. I just didn’t know how casually a boy could dismiss all those teachings simply by saying, Worthless. Poseur. Not real. It was not my first encounter with male self-absorption –– I grew up reading books, after all –– but it was the first time I remember a boy saying deliberately that his tastes and experiences were more authentic, literally more real than mine. It never occurred to me until much later that he was posturing as much as I was, that he too was busy constructing an identity that he could carry to protect him.

The last song on Infiltrate•Destroy•Rebuild is “Close Yet Far,” and its chorus goes And I’ll tip my hat to those who can’t believe it’s me / Though I never never never ever wanted this to be. When I was in sixth grade, that sounded like the words of an older, jaded boy: a person expressing wry regret for having lost his faith in the world. Now, it sounds like me –– it sounds like a girl who left her favorite CD at school so she could make herself more desirable. It sounds like a girl who spent a lot of years pretending she was a lot more harsh than she was until she woke up older and realized that she actually was pretty harsh, and it was because she spent a lot of time trying to impress people she didn’t like. It sounds like a girl who had to fight floccinaucinihilipilification every day and didn’t even know it. And thank god, it reminds me that I am unafraid to like what I like, and that I know no person is any more real than anyone else.

And that Let Go was the definitive album of 2002. Just saying.