The paths of live concert reviewing and audio-disk assessment are well trodden. The world of the video clip is one that’s constantly visited in our Youtube-centric times; and yet, it feels less often discussed. Is it? Is that just me? In any case, this week we turn our eyes and ears towards that medium that very consciously aims to tickle both.
KUCKA – “REWIND”
Director: Julia Ngeow
Producer: Steven Hughes
I’ll be impressed if you’ve managed not to see this video to in the month or so it’s been circulating; such is its fiendish shareability. And when I say “impressed,” It’s more like confused disappointment. But not really. No judging here. But you should watch it. Definitely.
You enter Kucka’s wild world through a haze of smoke. Then you get your bearings: you’re in a graveyard, hemmed in by forest, lit by a fluorescent moon. The set’s charmingly hokey – echoes of Ed Wood films – but with great production values. Throw in some 2D cutouts and keenly choreographed weirdness and there’s a hint of that Mighty Boosh aesthetic at play – though the mood’s decidedly less farcical and more downright creepy. Key Kucka-ite Laura Lowther oscillates between glittery goth-doll and the ghost of sugar binges past (a harajuku cupcake figure adorned with icing, sprinkles, ice cream cones; especial credit must go to Zoe Trotman, costume designer). Jake Steele, meanwhile, is by turns a knitwear-clad clown and a dapper serenader with a steak for a face (yep). Percussionists Katie Campbell and Rosie Taylor become metallic cat-suited animé characters, oversized cartoon eyed frozen still. To what extent this imagery reflects the song’s lyrical content, I couldn’t say – any symbolism or narrative is, at best, obscure – it’s more of a visual flurry, a brain-unhinging array of oddities.
Does it work? This is an impressive clip by anyone’s standards. Its unsettling vibe compliments the eerie track nicely, and – what’s more – it sets Kucka apart from her contemporaries; there are virtually no ‘hip’ signifiers here, no fashions per se, more an expulsion of unique creative energies and nightmarish fabulations. It does well not to seem too forced in its generously applied quirk, but the impact of weirditude alone can’t sustain itself for a full five-and-a-half minutes, suggesting some narrative – or a slower unfurling of ideas – might have packed more punch.
FRANK OCEAN – “Pyramids”
Producer: Tara Navazi
Most of us met Frank Ocean as an enigmatic component of the OFWGKTA collective, a group of rappers and beatmakers whose respective talents were – for a long while – muffled by deafening roars of “SWAG!” and “GOLF WANG!” by teenagers in Supreme caps and satanic cat t-shirts. Not that the band have anyone but themselves to blame; the hype was solicited and a clear part of the Odd Future game plan. Still, all members have done well to stay on task, pushing themselves to explore new avenues in their respective careers. Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” is a case in point, and the video for ambitious ten-minute single “Pyramids” is a case-in-point-in-point.
As far as I can tell there’s been a small resurgence in the auteur-style, grandiose video clip lately, the sort that features an extended pre-song intro sequence and in its zealousness threatens to usurp the tune it accompanies (g’day Kanye, Grimes). “Pyramids” errs that way, with a moody introduction depicting Ocean guzzling absinthe and getting trigger happy a bar, between fragments of bleak NTSC colour screens. The ‘clip proper’ is a slow-burn, heady delirium of desert panoramas, slo-mo strip club sleaze, neon dizziness and general excess of Hunter S. Thompson proportions. The excess is musical, too – behold, an impromptu guitar solo by John Mayer who appears, phantasm-like, before a flickering sign. Or the outro, which audaciously interpolates another track (“End”) from Ocean’s album.
Yet the clip manages to completely sidestep the expected feelings of pretence and bombast. Maybe it’s the imagery’s ability to remain uncanny and oblique without dissolving into nonsense. Maybe it’s the sparse, desperate sound of the song itself, lending a deep melancholy to every shot. Maybe it’s the earnestness – never does Ocean seem smug about the grand production he’s partaking in, and even the unorthodox Mayer interlude is tasteful, restrained, honest. On top of all this, Ocean’s personal life – notably, his recent coming out – lends gravity to the sentiment, and lets the video’s ambivalent gender politics feel not-so-cheap.
But ultimately, what’s striking is that the “Pyramids” video never feels like MTV striving to be something more sophisticated. It simply feels like cinema or, dare I say it, ART. It doesn’t have to convince you that it’s worth your time and attention, and therein lies the key to its success. Meanwhile, it’s an odd video, almost a gruelling one, that reveals Ocean’s profound ambitions but offers no hints as to what he’ll do next. Intrigue is the word.
STILLWATER GIANTS – “Not Like the Others”
Director/Producer: Tay Kaka & Stillwater Giants
With “Not Like the Others,” Perth beach-pop/indie-rock ensemble Stillwater Giants present a video that further establishes their penchant for cute, gently ‘alt’ girls in summery settings. Far be it from me to disparage such a preoccupation. This time, the gang are cruising through the desert in a rather magnificent aquamarine Ford E58 when they come across the hitch-hiker, portrayed by Una Alagic. Now – the anonymous, denim-cutoffs-wearing blonde eagerly jumping in the cool-ass car with the sunnies-wearing band could – in the wrong hands – be the a recipe for a hopelessly arrogant video concept, but thankfully, Stillwater Giants proceed with bountiful self-awareness and self-deprecation. Soon, we bear witness to each band member’s outrageous fantasy – in which our hitch-hiker reluctantly assumes the position of golf caddy, drunken prank victim, (more enthusiastically) fawned-over love interest, and finally, dominatrix. The BDSM scene, late in the piece, tips the scales towards “totally ridiculous,” and it’s a great moment. Fittingly, no guy gets the girl – but the girl gets the car, and MAN it really is a nice car.
The clip’s aesthetic has that instagrammy faux-vintage patina and inoffensive coastal vibe that will allow it to sneak into the “Recently Watched” playlist of youthful, Vitamin-D adoring hipsters. However, the cheekster aspect, the decidedly Australian lean towards dorky self-satire, counterposes that aesthetic nicely. In a climate where every second indie band thinks it’s the culmination of high-brow artistry, it’s nice to see this quartet not take itself too seriously.
DIRTY PROJECTORS – “Hi Custodian”
Director: David Longstreth
Producers: Mariko Munro & Devra Sari Zabot
As my friends and musical coworkers have inevitably discovered, I am a Dirty Projectors fanboy. I stubbornly wear the t-shirt I bought despite its undeniably nasty green colour. I rabidly defend against conversational claims that “Bitte Orca” might have been “too busy” or what-have-you. The point of telling you this is not to assert any kind of aficionado/expert status on the subject, but rather to lay bare my bias: I’m naturally inclined to give Dave Longstreth the benefit of the doubt, despite his indulgences, because the tunes have long since won me over as a loyalist.
So, of course, I was pretty excited in the lead-up to “Hi Custodian,” the Longstreth directed/conceived “short film” that forms a kind of audiovisual adjunct to recently released album “Swing Lo Magellan.” A short film, showcasing the unbridled artsy caprices of Dave Longstreth, whose many imaginings I’ve so keenly enjoyed, and showcasing new songs (often in slightly altered forms), which are among the best the group’s so far.
Maybe the high expectations underscored my eventual disappointment. But I can’t help feeling that “Hi Custodian” essentially misses the mark.
It misses “the mark” because, like Nic Naitanui in a field full of thousands of rapidly descending Sherrins, it doesn’t know which mark it’s actually going for. It’s not a “film” per se; the visuals are, without a doubt, accessory to the song-snippets. Unlike (for example) Animal Collective’s AV effort ODDSAC (2010), the visual and sound components weren’t created concurrently, so it plays out in music-video style. Meanwhile, it fails to fulfil the function of a good video clip (or string of video clips). The songs trip over each other and cut each other short, preventing you, the viewer, from ever really getting into a rhythm, or enjoying the songs (and these are very song-y songs) AS songs. In fact, if we must approximate its genre: the twenty-minute feature feels more like an extended trailer for an audio-visual album than anything else.
Before I get too bummed out, the positive aspects deserve a mention: Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography is stunning, the scenery is often sublime, the costumes, sets and makeup are commendable. The ideas – despite feeling disjointed – do kind of flow together in an awkward, “dream-like” sort of way (which is apparently what Longstreth was after) – and many of the scenarios (baroque bedrooms, futuristic waste dumps) have their own, often tongue-in-cheek charm. It’s also interesting to hear some of the tunes’ individual recorded tracks – like synth lines, or backing vocal harmony swells – in isolation. Sadly, all these excellent aspects just fuel the overall sense of wasted opportunity. A more rigorous approach, with a strong thematic thread, or a simple embracing of the video-clip format, could have made “Hi Custodian” something very special. Do I hate it? No, it’s an enjoyable curio. The real shame is that it could have been so much more.