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V/A: Songs For Cassavetes
Better Looking Records

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

Track Listing:

  1. Calvin From Dub Narcotic Sound System
  2. "Time Machine"-The Make-Up
  3. "I Wanna Be A Stranger"-Further
  4. Brent From Further
  5. "Words And Guitar"-Sleater-Kinney
  6. "The Way She Goes"-Henry’s Dress
  7. Al From Some Velvet Sidewalk
  8. "Valley Of The Clocks"-Some Velvet Sidewalk
  9. "Arboretum"-Unwound
  10. "Pepper"-The Peechees
  11. Molly From The Peechees And Bratmobile
  12. "Kiss And Ride"-Bratmobile
  13. "Snap-Tight Wars"-Crayon
  14. "Sweet"-Tullycraft
  15. "You Can"-The High-Fives
  16. "Selector Dub Narcotic"-Dub Narcotic Sound System
  17. Everyone
  18. "Spectacles"-Chisel
  19. "Wasted Version"-Dub Narcotic Sound System
  20. "Meow For The Kitty"-Semiautomatic

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