Sunday, September 10, 2006

Burning From the Inside

Burn to Shine: Portland, OR 06.15.05
(Christoph Green, USA, 2005/06, BetaSP, 45 mins.)


"It doesn't make sense to anybody now why we would do this, besides just to do it, but in 20 years it will only get cooler and more interesting with time."
-- Burn to Shine co-creator Brendan Canty

The concept is a simple one. Find a house slated for destruction in the midst of a vibrant music community. Spend all day filming bands performing one song each in said house. Document the destruction. Roll credits. The end.

So it goes with Burn to Shine: Portland, third in a series after Washington DC and Chicago. Created by Brendan Canty (Fugazi) and filmmaker Christoph Green, the concept is so simple, it's brilliant. Then again, the audio-visual quality's gotta be top-rate if the focus is gonna be on the music. It is. More importantly, the independent recordings artists themselves have gotta be top-rate. They are.

At least that's the case with Portland's stellar line-up, which was "curated"--man, I hate that term--by Chris Funk from new major label signees the Decemberists (who perform the epic "Mariner's Revenge Song"). It includes the Thermals, Quasi, Mirah, the Lifesavas, Wet Confetti, Tom Heinl, and the Ready. (Modest Mouse, Stephen Malkmus, and Dead Moon were all unavailable on that day.)

The fabulous Shins
Each band gets the job done. In all honesty, there wasn't one I didn't like, although if I had to pick a least favorite it would be the Planet The, who just broke up (according to their MySpace Page). No guitar, no bass; just one drummer, one keyboard player, and one "intense" front man. Too theatrical for my tastes, but the song itself ("Look of a Woman") wasn't bad. If I had to pick a favorite, it would surely be the Shins. To my mind, they're like a stripped-down, modern-day version of the Zombies, although they took a countrified turn in the direction of the Byrds/the Flying Burrito Brothers on their last album, Chutes Too Narrow.
In Burn to Shine, the quartet performs a sublime version of "Saint Simon," to which I couldn't resist humming along. It reminded me that it's time for some new music from these Albuquerque-transplants. According to Sub Pop, a new record, tentatively titled Wincing the Night Away, is expected in January. Other highlights include the Gossip with the soulful ESG-styled funk of "Listen Up!" and the late, great Sleater-Kinney with "Modern Girl" (S-K drummer Janet Weiss is also a member of Quasi with ex-husband Sam Coomes). Carrie Brownstein, who sings lead on this track (instead of the warbly-voiced Corin Tucker), really reminded me of a young Patti Smith--always a good thing. Granted, S-K is currently on indefinite hiatus, so who's to say if they're really broken up or not. Being the sentimental fool I am, however, my eyes welled a little to think this might be the last we ever see of the dynamic trio.
Ace groove-meisters the Gossip
The line-up for DC is Bob Mould, Medications, French Toast, Q and Not U, Weird War (with Ian "Nation of Ulysses" Svenonius), Ted Leo, Garland of Hours, and the Evens. For Chicago, it's Wilco, Shellac, Tortoise, Freakwater, the Ponys, Red Eyed Legends, Tight Phantomz, Lonesome Organist, and Pit er Pat. Interestingly, Leo resides in Brooklyn, but he did emerge from our nation's capitol, so I guess I shouldn't carp too much about his inclusion. The Northwest Film Forum was kind enough to make his performance (sans Pharmacists) and Wilco's available in advance. Both are excellent. Whether that bodes well for the rest of these installments, I couldn't say, but if I had to prioritize, I'd opt for Portland first, followed by Chicago, and then DC (sorry, but I haven't heard of most of those acts).
Canty recently told The Denver Post that Louisville, KY is the location of the next Burn to Shine. Artists include the Magik Markers and jack-of-all-trades Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers, and SIFF '06 entry Old Joy). It's said that Seattle may follow suit. After the press screening, Rachel Shimp (The Seattle Weekly) suggested the always-happening Austin. I would also suggest Chapel Hill and Vancouver, assuming Canty and Green are willing and/or able to step outside the US.
If you have any interest in independent music, Burn to Shine has your name written all over it. Granted, watching the house get destroyed at the end is rather depressing (in Portland, it's burned to the ground). Unlike most music documentaries and concert films, however, there's no commentary, no narration, no cheesy graphics, and no extraneous "story" (about some fan who follows the bands around).
In other words: None of the bells and whistles that have destroyed some of the more promising music films of the past. After all, not every one can be The Kids Are Alright. I'm thinking instead of titles like the Clash's Rude Boy or Alice Cooper's Good to See You Again, where you're left wondering, Why didn't they just document the music and dump the rest? (Actually, I kinda dig the rambling Rude Boy, but I guess I'm in the minority.) Burn to Shine gets right to the heart of the matter--the music.
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney
Burn to Shine plays the Northwest Film Forum Sept. 10-13, Sun.-Wed. at 7pm (Washington DC), 8pm (Chicago), and 9pm (Portland). There's one admission price for the trio with an intermission between each. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please visit or call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times. All photos courtesy Jim Saah.

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