Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eclectic TV Ads Volume 1

The world of television advertising is a weird and mysterious place. Around 90% of it is utter crap all fast sells on automobiles, cleaning products, or weirdly sexy CGI kangaroos. Fortunately for television viewers, many of the poor souls trapped in the advertising biz are constantly trying to work an angle to deliver something that not only sells, but entertains. In the decades since the music video made innovations in the short-subject world, many of the finest directors of advertising have climbed the ranks all the way up to feature film directors and sometimes big-shot directors are even lured into the commercial field.

This is the first in an ongoing symposium of highly stimulating commercials - Media Potluck style! So sit back, relax, and dig this:

7up: I don't know the origins of this commercial, I wish I did. It's a juxtapositional feast of 80s - Pac-Man fever unleashed not in any intensity but in the smoky, soft focus haze of Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" and gorgeous Tron-like computer graphics. The lyrics of the song are shamelessly re-done to assure me of the crisp and alluring refreshment of 7-up, but it only serves to make the experience more surreal, serene, and weirdly transcendental.

Parisienne Cigarettes, Parisienne People by David Lynch: This is one of those aforementioned instances of a known director doing ad work. Eccentric filmmaker David Lynch has, in fact, done his fare share of commercials from a perfectly normal pregnancy test ad to the intense "Third Place" PS2 ads. This cigarette commercial is 1000% Lynch, and totally amazing for it. Were I to actually have seen it on television I may have had some sort of magical aneurysm.

American Cancer Society - Smoking Fetus by David Fincher: Before he was directing hits like Fight Club and Alien 3, David Fincher made a name for himself in advertising. His ad work is as dark and distinctive as his films. His first work is relatively famous and stands out as perhaps one of the most eerie, maybe even downright scary, commercials of all time - a creepy fetus puppet smoking in a translucent womb. Yeegh.

Let's examine some other Fincher ads. In 1993 he directed a series of ads for AT&T called "You Will". The ads promoted a collection of futurist concepts conjured up by the telecommunications company. Fincher delivers on all AT&T's wildest dreams but does so on his terms, painting a smokey, worn, lived-in 15-minutes in the future as opposed to any sort of antiseptic utopia of modern convenience. Perhaps the strangest and most startling thing about these commercials is that most of these innovations are now part of our daily lives. Back then it was still sci-fi.

- Cap

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Radio Hepcats (1996)

The official soundtrack for Hepcats. What better way to compliment a cinematic comic book than with a soundtrack? This album was compiled by Hepcats creator Martin Wagner and was included with a special edition of issue zero. The CD and the accompanying album art were sealed in a plastic bag, BYO jewelcase. A pretty awesome concept.

The album features some awesome early 90s alt rock acts that I had zero exposure to prior. Sounds range from chill, to ethereal with some heavier stuff in the middle. All of the tracks are sure to delight, and accompany the comic perfectly. There's even a track of actual score for the album, "Erica/Kathryn's Decision" by William McGinny. Aside from the themesong to Nextwave, this is the only instance I can think of where music was composed for a comic. (If you can think of any other, please let us know.)

FILE: Radio Hepcats

01 Mistle Thrush - Wake Up (The Sleep Song)
02 An April March - The Red Dots
03 Curtain Society -Ferris Wheel
04 Soul Whirling Somewhere - Unhittable
05 No-Man - Infant Phenomenon
06 Visible Shivers - After Glory
07 William McGinny - Erica/Kathryn's Decision
08 Siddal - Secrets of the Blind
09 No-Man - Heaven Taste

A while back, spinning off of a discussion about Radio Hepcats on the YahooGroup, Wagner put together some new Radio Hepcats compilations for download on the iTunes store.

Check 'em out:
Radio Hepcats Chill
Radio Hepcats Rock

- Cap

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hepcats (1987-1998)

The late 80s and early 90s were a boon period for independent comics, particularly self published ones. The rise of the graphic novel with works such as Watchmen and Maus, cast comics in the public eye for the first time as a medium of powerful storytelling possibilities. Out of this particular phase, four major self-published bodies of work arose: Dave Sim's Cerebus, Jeff Smith's Bone, Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and Martin Wagner's Hepcats. Both Cerebus and Bone's finite stories concluded in 2004, Strangers in Paradise in 2007, all of them outlasting the self-publishing boom. Hepcats never concluded and ceased publishing with the second book of the first graphic novel, Snowblind, unpublished. Yet, even with only volume 1 of Snowblind (issues 2-10) having seen print, it's is still regarded as one of the greatest indy graphic novels of all time.

Hepcats began as a comic strip for The University of Texas' student newspaper. The characters all have cartoon animal heads, but regard one another and function as humans. The anthropomorphism is an aesthetic choice, a throwback from Wagner's earlier strip at the University of Huston, where the mascot was a cougar, and so were all the characters. Seldom (the comic strip) to never (the comic book) are the character's animal features referenced.

The series follows four friends: Arnie, Erica, Joey, and Gunther and their lives in and out of college. The strip grew in popularity and the characters grew in depth- in time the four panel comic strip format yielded less gags and more thought. By the time the comic book began, the charm and drama of the characters and stories were nothing but purely and realistically human. This was the driving force of Hepcats - real people and real problems told realistically. Unlike slice of life memoirs or most comics attuned to average life, Hepcats is told through a crisp cinematic story - too good for television, too complicated for movies.

I'm tempted to discuss the plot, but I don't want to spoil anything. Hepcats issues 0-10 are available for free online! Issues 11 and 12 are promised to be uploaded in the near future, and eventually The Collegiate Hepcats (the first collected Hepcats book, featuring all the strips) may be available. Be on the lookout for issue 11 - it's brutal, one of the most intense single issues of any comic ever. Once, I was loaning the series to a friend of mine and his mom picked that issue off the floor, though she's read a random comic, maybe connect with her son better... yeah, she was traumatized.

After a lag in Wagner's self-publishing, Antarctic Press picked up Hepcats in 1996 for a huge relaunch, including the brand new, full color issue zero. The series ran reprints of the previous issues and was intended to continue with new issues beginning at issue 13 (Snowblind part 2 begins with issues 11 & 12). Issue 12 came and nothing followed. Martin Wagner's withdrawal from the comics industry has been the subject of much drama and gossip but, suffice it to say, times were tough and the job just wasn't paying the bills any more.

Thanks to the internet, this was not the end of Hepcats. The fan community on Martin Wagner's YahooGroup provided encouragement and he's committed to finishing Snowblind for publication online. Currently, he's in the process of completing a minicomic set in 2008, post Snowblind. Though it was never intended for anyone other than the fan community, Image has asked to feature it in their Popgun Anthology.

After 20 years Hepcats hasn't aged. It's still rich with freshness and modernity. The characters are lovable, the story is heartrending, and the art is rendered with an architect's preciseness. It's a comic anyone can connect with, and everyone can fall in love with (just give mom a warning before she reads issue 11).

READ IT: Hepcats issuse 0-10
READ: The Minicomic

Also, you can score a hardcover copy of Snowblind direct from the artist (very limited quantities) here. AND you can also order original Hepcats art as well as other cool Hepcats items from him via the YahooGroup. Support the man and his craft.

BUY: Snowblind
BUY: Hepcats art etc.

- Cap

Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane (2002)

There's been a tremendous turnout of concept albums so far in the 21st century, but rock operas have been few and far between. As the current decade draws to a close, narrative albums are making a grand return, with offerings by both Green Day and The Decemberists this year alone, but the musical atmosphere wasn't always this fertile. At the turn of the 21st century modern music was, by and large, still struggling against the awkward spell of the late-nineties. Now, in this much-improved musical environment, is an opportune time to examine one of the first rock operas of the 21st century: Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane.

Hooverphonic is a Belgian group that emerged in the mid-nineties as trip hop swept Europe. Trip hop's already experimental fusion of electro and hip hop encouraged further mutation and the band dove right in. By their second album, Hooverphonic were hard at work cross-pollinating and maturing their European electropop sound with myriad other musical styles. The band's first three albums were released in the States with some success, (I first heard them on a Volkswagen commercial) but just as they were making headway Sony pulled their US distribution. Their forth album, Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane, is a masterpiece that never made it to North American shores.

In Jackie Cane, Hooverphonic draw from the theatrics of 1960s film scores to illustrate their unique rendition of a classic tragedy: the rise and fall of a would-be starlet. Jackie wants to be a famous singer and she leaves behind her twin sister and the ramshackle part of town she grew up in to peruse her dream. Her twin feels betrayed and abandoned by her other half. While she sits alone, at home, Jackie becomes a huge success - but her fame takes its toll. She spirals into substance abuse and returns to her sister, with whom she hopes to find comfort. Jackie’s sister never wants them to be separated again. To ensure this, she serves Jackie a poisoned meal and kills herself. It’s been suggested that the album's narrative is from Jackie’s perspective as she reminisces in her dying moments.

Much of the verification of these details comes from a strange piece of writing behind the disc in the jewelcase. It’s full of illegible and sometimes missing words as well as odd grammatical errors:

The album originated from a track called “Jackie Cane” which appeared on Hooverphonic’s previous album, The Magnificent Tree. It illustrates in brief, the rise and fall of Jackie’s career. ("Jackie Cane was everybody's sugar/ she gave it all wherever it took her.") The song wasn’t included on the Jackie Cane album, but serves as an over-arching introduction of sorts. With Jackie Cane, Hooverphonic play up their penchant for string arrangements, James Bond-esque guitar riffs, and psychedelia as well as add jazz and Latin influences to their sound. The result is a collection of Broadway-worthy ballads and dance numbers, such as "Sometimes" and "The World is Mine", next to dark, hallucinogenic tracks like "Jackie's Delirium and "Shampoo". Jackie Cane's extreme, but cohesive variance in sound and style, mixed with its impressive, downright cinematic narrative, make for a phenomenal experience. If there is a hall of rock operas somewhere in the cosmos, Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane deserves a prestigious place among its grand displays.

When listening to the album I like to add "Jackie Cane" as the first track, acting as sort of an opening titles to the full narrative experience. Another addition to the chronology of the album is "The Contract", which was a b-side on the “Sometimes” single. The track has a very specific place in the album’s narrative - between “Human Interest” and “Nirvana Blue” where Jackie signs her contract to stardom. "The Contract" also offers some meta commentary on the act of making a concept album: "did you really think about creating/ a masterpiece rarely presents/ itself at the door of your imagination/ accept these conditions even if there's really not much to accept."

The intricacies of Jackie Cane's narrative don't readily present themselves. Many elements of the primary story such as Jackie's rise to fame and her decline into drug addiction and/or madness are easy to pick out, but key aspects such as Jackie's twin sister and the actuality of her murder are less clear. Below is my ideal track listing for the album ("Jackie Cane" and "The Contract" included) with my notes on the story’s chronology as I've come to interpret it:

1) "Jackie Cane" An opus to the main character telling of her rise and fall as a starlet.
2) "Sometimes" Addresses the rift growing between the sisters due to Jackie’s desire to become a singer and her eventual departure.
3) "One" Discusses the bond between the twins, but also their duality. It’s in both Jackie and her twin’s perspectives and supports the theory that the album is looking back from the point of Jackie's death. "I had to leave but now I'm coming back/ we had to see/ you're white and I'm black."
4) "Human Interest" Jackie struggles with doing what it takes to become a star and bracing herself for paying "the dreadful price of success."
5) "The Contract" Jackie finds herself in a record executive’s office presented with the conflict of signing a part of herself away.
6) "Nirvana Blue" The cathartic moment before Jackie takes the plunge into making her big break. "I just jumped out in the open/ without knowing my parachute will save me."
7) "The World is Mine" Jackie’s rise to fame as a media darling.
8) "Jackie’s Delirium" A hallucinogenic nightmare as Jackie’s drug abuse and neurosis creep up on her.
9) "Sad Song" The depression and fallout of Jackie’s drug addictions leads to an unsuccessful stint in a California rehab clinic.
10) "Day After Day" Jackie is let out of rehab, but it didn't work. She now hides in the "organized chaos" of either her actual house or the "house" of her career. The track references an earlier Hooverphonic song, “Pink Fluffy Dinosaurs” as a drug metaphor.
11) "Shampoo" Jackie realizes that her sister might be a means of filling the void that’s grown inside of her. Perhaps, even though they're at odds, they’re family and they need each other. "You're the thorn in my side/ you ache and ache and ache/ still I can't live without/ you being near." In the lyrics booklet the song's title is framed, “in the SHAMPOO lies the truth”.
12) "Others Delight" Called “preparing OTHERS DELIGHT” in the booklet. Entirely from the twin’s perspective. She discusses her fractured feelings since Jackie’s departure. "I knew that you would leave/ your goal was more important than my grief." The word “preparing” in the extended title alludes to “The Last Supper.”
13) "Opium" Jackie rationalizes that devoting herself fully to her music might be how she can pull herself out of her addictions. "Music is opium for free." There is a chance for her to redeem herself.
14) "The Last Supper" This song is from the twin's perspective. Jackie’s twin poisons a meal she makes for Jackie. She hopes to end Jackie's torment: "let me save you from this unbearable hell." The song mentions Park G├╝ell, which, though it seems unlikely, might be the setting of this song. This would place Jackie’s home in Barcelona.
15) "The Kiss" Written as “THE KISS of death” in the booklet. The twin kisses her dying/dead sister goodbye. There's implications that she ends her own life somehow was well.

Jackie Cane is near impossible to find in US stores. Fortunately, the Internet is to the rescue. Not only is the album readily listenable on various sites, but it's not too hard to purchase either. Though it used to be a pricey import, Amazon now offers the album at a reasonable price and the US iTunes offers some (but not all) of the tracks. Finding the "Sometimes" single is trickier. It's available on ebay or Amazon from time to time and the French iTunes store has the single for download. Also, there’s a 14-track Japanese edition of Jackie Cane that supposedly has the track on it. A thread on Hooverphonic’s forum has details on finding the song. For additional Jackie Cane fun, many of the tracks on Jackie Cane also have lounge style revisions with an orchestra on the band’s fifth album, Sit Down and Listen to Hooverphonic, and there's a French lyric version of “One” called “Tu Es Moi”.

Check out Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane:

Discover Hooverphonic!

- Cap