Given the punk ethos oozing from every inch of the soundtrack
to Songs For Cassavetes, it becomes difficult to accept
bands like Sleater-Kinney and Unwound standing
amongst bands who cannot even spell "major label".
The film, as evidenced by the soundtrack, intends to focus
on the do-it-yourself spirit of punk while ignoring the differences
in ability and artistic success between the featured bands.
The listening experience leaves you split between having to
admire bands who truly embody this spirit despite a lack of
talent and allowing bands with talent and success to call
themselves punk even as they climb further into mainstream
acceptance. The project never seems to entertain a middle
ground where success is defined in artistic terms with no
reference to popularity.
Put another way, Cassavetes should succeed with audiences
on an enjoyment level and fail on an intellectual level. Featuring
a handful of interview clips and live performances from most
of the soundtrack’s artists, this album offers rare material
from acts you might be familiar with and introductions to
those whom you probably are not. The soundtrack carries quite
a sonic appeal with styles ranging from hard-core punk to
pop-punk, post-punk to funk-punk. While all of these artists
share a similar musical philosophy, however, the intellectual
vision of music espoused by the interview clips makes it difficult
to approach these bands on an equal level.
The film and its soundtrack rely conceptually on a quote
from independent filmmaker John Cassavetes concerning
the artistic and emotional death that we experience at age
21 and the job of the artist to help postpone this death.
For Cassavetes, this age signifies the point in maturation
where we give up youthful notions in order to incorporate
ourselves into an adult world of money and success. Director
John Mitchell picks up on this idea and translates
it into a debate between underground and mainstream rock.
Songs For Cassavetes follows roughly a dozen indie
bands in order to capture the punk mentality through live
performances and interviews. Unfortunately, the energy and
power that many critics found captured in the documentary
rarely translates onto the soundtrack.
While a few of the soundtrack’s twenty tracks offer moments
of explosive rock action, the lack of the visual medium leaves
most of these songs standing as average punk. Tullycraft’s
"Sweet" provides perhaps the best live recording
on the album and subsequently has a much richer sound. Sleater-Kinney
absolutely rips through a wailing version of "Words And
Guitar". While the remaining tracks all carry a certain
degree of punk charm, nothing else seems relevant enough to
get stirred up about. Even Unwound’s accomplished post-punk
gains little from the live setting on "Arboretum".
This would not be so bad in itself if the soundtrack were
not aspiring to so much more, which becomes evident in the
five interview clips from members of the bands featured on
the album. K Records founder Calvin Johnson opens the
record with a comment about the gap between mainstream music
and the underground during the eighties. For Johnson, the
nineties changed all of this and allowed some bands to bridge
the gap. This comment seems out of place for a few reasons.
Although I cannot claim a thorough recollection of the eighties,
it seems to me that bands like R.E.M., U2, the
Police, and even the Pixies were able to bridge
this gap just as much as any underground band in the nineties
has been able to do. Moreover, Johnson’s comments about the
ability to crossover in the nineties contradict the other
interview clips: descriptions of the "worst case scenario"
of ending up on a major label, the necessity of doing what
you want even if it is not popular, and the importance of
youthful enthusiasm all seem unconcerned with and even against
any crossover from the underground to the mainstream.
These clips make it difficult to discern the politics of
the film. Are we supposed to yearn for more crossovers so
that mainstream culture will share in this punk spirit? Are
we supposed to give up our day jobs and vow to make music
as long as we avoid major labels at all costs? These notions
rely more on emotion than intellect, and I suppose this is
the essence of punk anyways – that regardless of what skills
you can bring to the table, your attitude will be the most
important asset. The real consequence of this belief, however,
is an album composed mostly of mediocre songs with only a
few standouts who have already achieved some notion of mainstream
success due to their ability to add talent to their enthusiasm.
It is a shame that these artists and this project in general
try to hide this fact with redundant pledges of allegiance
to everything underground.
While Songs For Cassavetes attempts to preserve our
artistic and emotional lives past the age of 21 through songs
that work well in terms of their romantic enthusiasm and defiance
of everything mainstream, perhaps Mitchell should have taken
note of musicians who bridge this gap between youthful energy
and adult commercial death – musicians who realize that talent
and unique artistic vision are not the tools of the corporate
devil. While the songs on this soundtrack will offer listeners
an enjoyable endeavor into one of the more infatuating corners
of the underground world, they in no sense represent the depth
and beauty of an underground that has better things to do
than to philosophize against mainstream culture.
- Matt King
- Calvin From Dub Narcotic Sound System
- "Time Machine"-The Make-Up
- "I Wanna Be A Stranger"-Further
- Brent From Further
- "Words And Guitar"-Sleater-Kinney
- "The Way She Goes"-Henry’s Dress
- Al From Some Velvet Sidewalk
- "Valley Of The Clocks"-Some Velvet Sidewalk
- "Pepper"-The Peechees
- Molly From The Peechees And Bratmobile
- "Kiss And Ride"-Bratmobile
- "Snap-Tight Wars"-Crayon
- "You Can"-The High-Fives
- "Selector Dub Narcotic"-Dub Narcotic Sound System
- "Wasted Version"-Dub Narcotic Sound System
- "Meow For The Kitty"-Semiautomatic
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