Music, Playlist

smash cuts: sad (cow)boys

cowboys

By Nathan Smith

We try to cover a lot of music on Smash Cut, but I imagine you guys probably have a certain impression of my taste in music. Sure, I try to listen to almost everything and write about it too, but you may have noticed that there’s one genre in particular that we don’t tend to cover: country music. We cover our Phosphorescents and Marissa Nadlers, but when it comes to down-home, deep-in-the-heart-of-wherever, populist country, there’s not a whole lot to be found. So it might come as a surprise that there was a time in my life when country was just about all I listened to, a period when every morning I woke up and watched the Great American Country channel to get my latest fix in country videos. From Toby Keith to Shania Twain, Mary Chapin Carpenter to Jo Dee Messina, I listened to almost everything.

But as happens with most folks, tastes change, so I stopped listening to country. I still listen to a lot of alternative country from the likes of Bill Callahan, Lambchop, and Sun Kil Moon (whose Benji is one of my favorites of the year), but every so often, I get sucked into a wormhole of nostalgia and go back to the music that I loved as a little kid. Some of it might not sound so great now, but I can’t help but fondly remember the days of Brooks and Dunn and their red dirt road, Dwight Yoakam and his tipped-too-low hat, the fierce and fearless attitude of the Dixie Chicks. One of my best friends is visiting my home state of Texas right now, so I thought I’d try and (as I often attempt to do) bring together the music I used to love and the music I love now, all in honor of the greatest state in the Union. Not all country comes from Texas, but it as a location holds a special place in the genre and in my heart. Even if Toby Keith and Alan Jackson don’t sound so great today, they can’t help but take me home.

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Film, Music, Television

Our Favorite Things of 2014: The Halfway Mark

Like Jon Bon Jovi once sang, we’re halfway there, which means only six more months till all the year-end lists you could ever imagine. We thought it’d be a good idea to look back on all the great stuff from the year we’ve been digging on so far, but instead of stressing you out with even more lists of movies to watch and albums to hear, we took a different approach. Instead of dumping our favorites in a list, Jack and I decided to devote a few paragraphs to some of our favorite trends of the past six-ish months. What are your favorite trends of 2014? Let us know in the comments below. – Nathan

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Rappers can live and die like rock stars too: “Being a rock star” is something that almost everyone dreams of, even if the idea now seems a little cliched. While anyone in this democratic nation can be a rock star if they want to, that special status reserved for legendary musicians within the genre of “rock and roll” has long been kept out of the hands of black artists. “Rock and roll” doesn’t have the same luster and shine as it once did, and rap, as loved by teenagers and hated by parents as it is, has taken that place. The phrase “rock star” seems trite, but in our day and age, everyone wants to be and probably could be a rapper, for better or for worse. But rappers, for cultural and racial reasons, are often denied the same recognition and respect that renowned rock musicians are, so many have taken matters into their own hands. This trend began its most current incarnation in 2013, but in 2014, it’s become fully realized. At Bonnaroo this year, Kanye West loudly proclaimed that he was the “biggest rock star in the world,” and it’s true: what rock musician today could play for 100,000 people and inspire the controversy, discussion, and heated debate that Kanye does? But for some reason, audiences just won’t have it, and many won’t give Kanye that title, even if he’s earned it. Instead of courting the respect of white culture and kissing ass, Kanye’s taken the belt for himself, and he shows it off in his masterful appropriation of both rock and white culture. If you saw the Yeezus Tour shirts and didn’t know the name “Kanye West,” you might think that, with their grim reapers, roses, and Confederate flags, they were for a racist heavy metal band. That type of subversion thrills me to no end. Kanye’s video for “Bound 2,” which features hallmarks of traditionally white culture like motorcycles, tie dye, and cheesy backgrounds, was interpreted by many as Kanye going over the edge, but every part of that video was intentional; in an interview with Bret Easton Ellis, Ye said he wanted to make the video equivalent of a “white trash gas station t-shirt.” But don’t just look to Kanye for examples of rappers taking from rock (and white) culture, look to Danny Brown and his leather jackets and Guns n’ Roses tees, Future and his preoccupation with Jimi Hendrix, or A$AP Ferg and his Roman Catholic iconography. These rappers use religious imagery, clothing, and the history of rock and roll to make their points and bomb the suburbs. Society wants rappers to just release their albums for free on DatPiff; these guys put them out on vinyl. Society wants rappers to just use Fruity Loops and drum machines; these rappers draw from industrial rock and freestyle over Nine Inch Nails. Society wants rappers to just put gothic fonts and guns on their t-shirts; these artists use Adult Swim animation and racially-charged symbols of white intolerance to craft their aesthetic. If an artists chooses to use DatPiff or drum machines or gothic fonts he is in no way inferior, but it should be his choice- he (or she) should not be limited simply because of white culture’s expectations of the genre they work in. By stealing what the culture views consciously as “rock culture” and unconsciously as “white culture,” artists like Kanye West blend genres and subvert the system in the best way possible. To paraphrase Danny Brown, they don’t wait for society to tell them they can live and die like rock stars, they take that right for themselves. – Nathan Smith
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Music, Tape Swap

Tape Swap: July 2014, Part 1

Common – Nobody’s Smiling

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If you’re a fan of Common, you knew coming in that Nobody’s Smiling probably wouldn’t be his best work. If you haven’t listened to Common before, Nobody Smiling isn’t the place to start. The Chicago MC has 2 or 3 “classic” albums under his belt, depending on who you ask. His music usually revolves around his conscious lyrics, and he’s been rapping for a minute now. But when you’ve been in the game for awhile, what’s there left to say? Make no mistake, Common still has juice in the tank, but the album’s serious tone comes off a little stale at times. While this album isn’t bad, its main fault is not showcasing any artistic development from Common. The best tracks on Nobody’s Smiling are ones with young rappers like Lil Herb, Dreezy, and Vince Staples, who tend to provide current and fresh perspectives on the album’s themes. Common tries to do it all on this album, and he hits about as often as he misses. Most of the album’s urgent-sounding tracks feature the worst production, while some of the more upbeat cuts have the best. In sacrificing beats for lyrics, the tracks here can become boring or uneasy on the ears. Nobody’s Smiling does have highs, but it seems that every high comes with a low. – Malcolm Baum

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Film, What We Watched

What We Watched: 07/25/14

Ernest & Celestine

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The most acclaimed animated film of Winter 2013/Spring 2014 that wasn’t Frozen or The Wind Rises, Ernest and Celestine is a cute enough adaptation of a children’s book series. With a strong voice cast (Forrest Whittaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, Nick Offerman, and many more) and beautiful visuals, Ernest & Celestine has a lot going for it, but there was something missing in the movie for me, and I’m still not really sure what it was. I have no problem with sentimentality, and the film is very well-crafted, but it feels like that balance needs fixing. It’s a delightful pastry of a film, but unfortunately there’s a bit more sweetness than substance here.  – Nathan Smith

Higher Learning

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There are moments in Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 masterpiece, that border on preachiness. His third film, 1995’s Higher Learning, feels like those moments stretched out to feature-length. While not a bad movie by any means, Higher Learning just feels so, I don’t know. So 90s. It has Michael Rapaport as a skinhead, Jennifer Connelly as a lesbian, Ice Cube as Ice Cube, and a lot of “let’s-all-get-along” spirit. There are great moments, good performances, but it tries to tackle more hot-button issues than it knows what to do with. It lacks subtlety in moments where subtlety is needed most. – Nathan Smith

The Host

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Forget Godzilla, forget Pacific Rim, forget what everyone’s told you- Bong Joon-Ho’s 2006 Korean film The Host might be the greatest monster movie ever made. The Host stars Song Kang-Ho, Joon-Ho’s leading man from his excellent crime thriller Memories of Murder, as a sleep-deprived and sorta-dumb dad who gets caught up in a quest for revenge against the toxic beast that kidnaps his daughter. As a disaster movie, The Host works excellently, with enough tension to satisfy, but it uses the beast as a subtle metaphor for a bevy of issues regarding the Korean government and their relations with the U.S. Bong Joon-Ho has quickly become one of my favorite working directors, and I can’t wait for Snowpiercer. – Nathan Smith

House

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Quite possibly the most bizarrely entertaining 90 minutes of my whole week were those that comprise House, an absolutely ridiculous Japanese horror spoof that predates more famous genre entries like the Scream franchise and The Cabin in the Woods by decades. In its embrace and subsequent subversion of horror tropes it recalls those movies, but what it most reminded me of, with its intentionally on-the-nose goofiness and nonsensical segues and montages, was a totally non-horrific spoof, Wet Hot American Summer (plus a dash of Scooby-Doo cartoon ghoulishness). House is also a fascinating movie from a technical standpoint, though, as the camerawork even begins to take on some of the film’s psychedelic inclinations in the later-goings; and among the insanity are a few moments of sheer beauty, most notably one that finds a fiery, surreal interlude burning under the House’s delicate piano theme (which – fun fact – My Chemical Romance later lifted for “Welcome to the Black Parade”). – Jack Evans

Johnny Mnemonic

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There was a weird period in the mid-90s when a slew of well-respected visual artists decided to turn their focus to one-off (and frankly terrible) cyberpunk flicks. One of the more notable of these films is Johnny Mnemonic, a sci-fi thriller based on a William Gibson short story. I watched Johnny Mnemonic twice this week, actually. The first time I was looking for some late-night shlock, and the bizarre cast, which includes Keanu Reeves, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Takeshi Kitano, Dolph Lundgren, and Lars von Trier regular Udo Kier, intrigued me. At the end of the week, I re-watched it with a few friends. Plot-wise, Johnny Mnemonic is completely ridiculous and makes no sense, but the second time I watched it, we turned off the sound and put James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual over it. When you turn the sound off, the movie’s visuals stand tall, and director Robert Longo’s art background shines. Turns out Far Side Virtual syncs up with the film pretty perfectly. With its computer hacking dolphins, pharmaceutical corporations, and pre-occupation with the Yakuza, Johnny Mnemonic might be the most vaporwave movie ever made. – Nathan Smith

Life of Pi

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Yann Martel’s acclaimed and highly entertaining study of survival, faith, and the power of storytelling should have been nigh unfilmable. Life of Pi works almost backwards as a novel: its first third is loaded with characters, dialogue, and setting shifts, but its bulk involves a handful of characters – only one with the ability to speak – a single location, and plenty of internal monologue. While Life of Pi the movie doesn’t pack the same punch as its source material (the film’s over-explained ending, especially, is a letdown), there’s a reason why it earned Ang Lee a Best Director Oscar: it works. And it doesn’t just function basically, either – even when its only characters are the titular protagonist and his large feline companion, Life of Pi is exciting and constantly visually stunning and innovative, its CGI still some of the best to date. – Jack Evans

Purple Rain

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I used to love musicals a lot, but it’s strange- there weren’t actually that many musicals I liked. West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, sure. But it seems like for every brilliant musical on the screen or stage, there are dozen more I can’t stand. I might have finally gotten over musicals, but damn if Purple Rain isn’t one of the greatest. One might think that a film starring Prince and many of his musical cohorts might come across as a pure pet project, but it doesn’t. Somehow every musician works as an actor on-screen, Prince most of all. In real life, we all know that Prince plays a character, but he never seems to break that illusion. What’s amazing about his performance in Purple Rain is that  he’s so willing to break that character for the movie’s sake, surprising for a major musical star with a great deal of mystique. He can go from seductive and confident one minute to a heart-broken little boy in the next. Not to mention that Purple Rain boasts one of the greatest albums of all time as its soundtrack, and some of the best on-screen musical performances I’ve ever seen. I might not like a lot of musicals anymore, but if there were more Purple Rains, I might have a different opinion. – Nathan Smith

Slacker

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If Richard Linklater isn’t my favorite director, he’s certainly high on the list. Dazed and Confused is my second favorite movie ever; his Before films are all stunning; and School of Rock and his remake of The Bad News Bears both hold special places in my heart. In (very, very high) anticipation of Boyhood, which still hasn’t made its way to Knoxville, I’m trying to work through some of the Linklater I haven’t seen, starting with his second feature, Slacker. While Slacker is far from being Linklater’s best film, it’s impressive in that it finds the director arriving with a fully-formed and assured style, its seamlessly connected but self-contained short stories hinting at the innovative formats he’d tackle later, from Dazed’s intertwining threads to the Before series’ once-every-decade portraits to Boyhood’s years-in-the-making realism. – Jack Evans

Symbol

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I first heard about Symbol on a pretty generic listicle of cult movies that the author claims “you’ve never heard of.” I knew director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s previous film, Big Man Japan, but had never seen it. However, from the moment I read this listicle’s description, his follow-up had me hooked. Symbol tells two stories, the first about a Mexican luchador, the second about a Japanese man in colorful pajamas trapped in an all-white room. Except the room’s walls are covered with, well, baby angel penises. As he touches them, objects come out of the walls. Eventually, he uses the button-cum-penises (ha) to find his way out of the room, and the two stories become intertwined. I first showed the film to an audience at a college surrealist film festival I helped program, and although few were in the crowd, the response was amazing. Symbol was never distributed in the U.S. and very poorly received in Japan, so it’s extremely hard to find, but if you ever have a chance, see it. It might just sound like another weird Japanese movie with a wacky premise, but believe me, it’s more than that. I’ve described it as Nacho Libre meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little bit of Portal on the side. Visually, it’s extremely well-composed, and thematically, it’s deep as hell. I’m convinced that if enough people saw Symbol, it could become a cult classic. Until then, I’ll be this movie’s lone missionary, showing it to my friends on a small laptop screen one by one. – Nathan Smith

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Music, Singles

Track of the Week: Iceage’s “The Lord’s Favorite”

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By Nathan Smith

In 2013, I got burned out on rock and roll. If you’d seen the ballot for my Best Albums list, it would’ve been clear- the kid who got into music by using too much whammy bar on Guitar Hero had decided to leave the button-mashing to someone else. While I’m not one to claim that an entire genre could ever die, straight-up rock just didn’t interest me. I was tired of the beer hats, tired of the same three chords, but mostly I was tired of the elitism that sometimes insinuates and sometimes loudly proclaims that the genres I love most (rap and electronic) aren’t “real music.”

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Features, Film, Kids' Stuff

Kids’ Stuff: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

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By Nathan Smith

As a critic, I don’t believe that it’s necessarily my job to tell you exactly what a movie means. Interpretations differ base on one’s background, biases, and life experiences, so red to you might be blue to me. I can offer theories and evidence to support them, but I can’t necessarily make you accept those theories as fact. I can, however, succeed at another job. If I can’t get you to agree with me, I can at least make you try to think for yourself. Recently, when most of my movie-going friends found themselves surprised by the movie Edge of Tomorrow, they usually said that Tom Cruise was to blame for their initially low expectations for the film.

“But I don’t like Tom Cruise.”

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Editorials, Film, Music

Not ANOTHER Manifesto: Why Criticism Isn’t Dead, Just Misunderstood

By Nathan Smith

I spend too much time thinking about criticism. That’s interesting, because I generally don’t like pieces on the “state of criticism.” What is the state of criticism? It exists, and that’s enough for me. But I also feel that criticism, a service and art form deeply misunderstood by the public-at-large and even many of its own practitioners, has gotten the shaft as recently. We seem to have mistaken “criticism” for snark, for cynicism, and for “criticizing.” My frustration with these misconceptions has led me once again to that most dangerous of hobbies: manifesto-writing.

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Music, Playlist

smash cuts: mustard or pants

mustard

By Nathan Smith

Considering that I ride or die for rap more than any other genre, it’s strange that I haven’t delivered a strictly rap playlist to you guys yet. To repent for the error of my ways, I’ve decided to cleanse myself in the mustard and offer up 20 of the past several years’ best booty-shaking bangers. From Young Thug to YG, “Dipshits” to “Move That Dope,” no beat is too fat, no chain too low . You say “Jump in da paint,” I say “How hard?” Get ready to go to death row, because it’s about to be a Suge Night, and you’re not going back to your old life neither. Don’t worry. We’ve got sadboy bangers too.

And yes, I did put Cam’ron & A-Trak’s “Dipshits” on here twice, because it’s just that good.

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Album Reviews, Music

Mixtape Review: Signed to the Streets 2 and Lil Durk’s Absurdist Moment of Clarity

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By Nate James

Originally published on A Feeling I Get

Lil Durk’s 2013 tape, Signed To The Streets, is a Chicago drill classic, both sonically and emotionally. Durk is and always has been a fighter, but he fights in a loving, romantic way that emphasizes sacrifice. Signed To The Streets placed him in the drill movement as the scene’s heart – Durk is more absurdist than nihilist, responding to Englewood’s violence with a romanticization of existential sacrifice as a means of brotherly strength and solidarity. Instead of becoming emotionally hardened by the deaths of friends, he presented himself as a wound – vulnerable, suffering, and wholly unafraid, with nothing but his family. His self-image rested on a conception of himself as the bleeding heart that carried that family, willing to lay his life down for his kids and his crew. The sound carried with this theme – tracks like “Don’t Understand Me” and “Times” brought out Durk’s unfuckwithable strength but also pointed past the bullshit and insisted that there was something better, some strength to be derived from the horror of all the death around them, pain that could be escaped in one another.

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Film, What We Watched

What We Watched: 07/21/14

By Jack Evans

Apocalypse Now

This week in Films Jack Still Hadn’t Seen: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is every bit the stone-cold classic it’s made out to be, with every shot perfectly composed, every actor at the top of his game, every moment significant. I read Heart of Darkness a couple of years ago, and Apocalypse Now follows it more closely than I expected, drawing every ounce of bleakness from its source material. And while the film’s journey into the heart of Cambodia does primarily serve as an exploration into the depths of men’s hearts, that doesn’t mean it’s not damn entertaining or engrossing.

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