Review: Roky Erickson And Okkervil River, “True Love Cast Out All Evil”

Few people have walked a harder road than Roky Erickson and survived. Founder of the groundbreaking 1960s psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson fell into a spiral of drug and legal problems that culminated when he was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even after his release, Erickson’s mental state was fragile, and his most productive post-Elevators period was full of songs about demons and monsters; he also generated a notarized affidavit certifying that he was a Martian. Nearly a quarter-century of hermitage followed. But in recent years, Erickson has rebounded, playing music, touring, and at last recording his first new album in 15 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil.

It’s a triumph merely that this album exists, but True Love’s musical richness goes beyond what could reasonably have been expected from even a resurgent Roky. A big part of that is due to producer Will Sheff, who backs Erickson along with his band, Okkervil River. Sheff’s role was necessarily more than just turning some knobs; he’s helping curate Erickson’s legacy. Given a huge backlog of unrecorded songs, many going back 40 years, Sheff wisely focused on Erickson’s most spiritual and personal material, like the beatific title track and the sad lament of “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.” Gently philosophical and wistful, True Love reveals Erickson as a songwriter of resonant emotional depth—something all too easily overshadowed by his bizarre biography, not to mention his penchant for writing about fanged devils and acid trips. Erickson’s dynamic, soulful voice, always his greatest musical asset, has lost little of its power. Equally at home on the wistfully romantic “Birds’d Crash” and the hard-rocking firestorm of the angry, raucous “John Lawman,” that voice is the passionate heart of True Love, and rightly so. Not unlike Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, this is an album by a grizzled veteran of rock’s rougher roads who proves in his late career that he still has great work in him. Perhaps even better, Erickson sounds remarkably confident and optimistic; for all the tumult of his life, he’s happy to be living it.

Originally published on avclub.com April 20, 2010. Read the complete article.

Thumbs-up: The A.V. Club’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival picks

I contributed four capsule reviews for this story on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Here’s a sample; read the whole thing at the link:

Reykjavik-Rotterdam
Iceland’s foreign-film Oscar submission rises above its potentially cliched noir setup—the reformed ex-thief pulled back for one last job—with twisty plotting, kinetic violence, and a rock-solid performance by Baltasar Kormákur. Reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s recent crime thrillers, not least because of Kormákur’s resemblance to Viggo Mortensen, Reykjavik interweaves dual plotlines as his crooked sailor plays a battle of wits against a stuffy captain to smuggle a load of bootleg liquor, while on land his boss plans to steal his wife. The movie’s commercial success in Europe has already spawned a forthcoming American remake with Mark Wahlberg.

Night Catches Us
The rise and fall of the militant Black Panther Party has no shortage of tragedy or far-reaching political themes, but Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us works its magic on a smaller, human-sized scale. In 1976 Philadelphia, years after the revolutionary movement’s implosion, two former Panthers (Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington) rekindle a simmering romance when Mackie returns after a long exile. But his reappearance also brings back old ghosts and old grievances, and inadvertently inspires a new generation to repeat the mistakes of the past. The universally strong cast includes The Wire veterans Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector.

The Miscreants Of Taliwood
Australian documentarian George Gittoes is either impressively brave or foolishly reckless, but you have to admire the chutzpah of any Western filmmaker who walks right into the heart of Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled Peshawar region. And Gittoes indeed risks the ire of the Muslim fundamentalists more than once as he explores the cultural conflict between the Taliban and Peshawar’s surprisingly vibrant, earthy low-budget film industry—the “miscreants” of the title. As the religious extremists begin firebombing video stores, Gittoes dives into the local movie scene, working his role in a campy Pashto-language action movie into his own documentary. The result is often outlandishly surreal, insightful, and never less than compelling.

Originally published on avclub.com April 15, 2010 as part of a group-written roundup; I wrote the reviews of Night Catches Us, The Miscreants Of Taliwood, Will Not Stop There, and Reykjavik-Rotterdam. Read the complete article.

Timeline: Rich and poor on TV

From Fred Sanford’s junk shop to the overwhelming excess of the “Real Housewives,” television is constantly changing how it depicts personal wealth. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

Originally published on msnbc.com April 13, 2010. Read the complete article.

Primer: Doctor Who

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rise and fall and rise again of Britain’s venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 101

An icon of modern British culture and the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, Doctor Who has never been more popular than it is today, thanks to producer Russell T. Davies, whose revitalization of the series returns this month under the aegis of new producer Steven Moffatt. Matt Smith, taking over the title role from David Tennant, will become the 11th actor to officially play the time-traveling wanderer.

The original series ran for 26 seasons, each consisting of several feature-length serials broken into half-hour episodes with cliffhanger endings. No matter who’s playing the lead, the basic premise has been essentially the same since the show’s debut: A mysterious, eccentric alien known only as The Doctor (not “Doctor Who,” in spite of the title) travels through time and space having adventures and fighting evil. He’s usually accompanied by one or two humans picked up along the way. They journey with him in a time machine called a TARDIS, which looks like a blue phone booth. If grievously wounded (especially by that fatal condition “actor-quits-itis”), he can regenerate his entire body, gaining a new face, a new personality, and a new name at the top of the cast list in the credits. This has also given the show an easy way to make more sweeping stylistic changes to evolve with changing times, and a way to correct elements after they go stale or otherwise become unworkable. In fact, it’s become expected that a regeneration of The Doctor will also regenerate the whole show. (Fans generally know each Doctor by the order in which they were introduced, so William Hartnell, who originated the role, is the First Doctor, and newcomer Matt Smith is the Eleventh.)

Originally published on avclub.com April 8, 2010. Read the complete article.

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