By Garrett Strpko
I finally share with you my much-postponed “review” of the new album from singer-songwriter Jess Abbott, Nightstand, released June 1 of this year. That I should be writing a review of any album is already uncalled-for, let alone one by a queer woman. I am not a music critic, nor do I have any sort of formal training in music history or music production, and as a straight white man whom grew up barely interacting with people all that different from myself, that I should have anything useful to critique about queer art is questionable. However, I have a notion that this particular album grasps something universal that I think is worth sharing. If you’re looking for a truly eloquent review of Nightstand, I will direct you towards this tweet, which is probably also the only piece of music criticism you could ever need:
Whereas many associate Abbott with her former role as a guitarist for indie band Now, Now, my experience with her music has always been as Tancred, when she opened for Julien Baker at Calvin College in April 2018. I was instantly captivated by how she conveyed such a sense of vulnerability when they started their set with what I now recognize as the album-opener, “Song One,” which instantly assures the listener “I will not lie to you/these words will be true,” before relating an intimate snapshot of discovering love; “I knew I loved her, then and there/I knew I loved her, touched her hair.” In this short reflection Abbott sets the stage for the entire album, marked by honesty, vulnerability, and thus, intimacy.
What makes Tancred unique, however, is not just this intimacy, nor the uncanny songwriting ability, which of course helps, but its juxtaposition with a post-punk, sometimes grungy, boot-stomping sound and attitude. At the Julien Baker show, we as the audience sure liked what we were hearing from Tancred, but we knew we had found something special when, after dealing with some minor feedback for most of the performance, Abbott smiled, saying “we’re going to play some older songs now, so there’ll probably be feedback,” threw off her glasses, kicked on the distortion, and launched the band into material from her previous album, Out of the Garden, a considerably louder and rockier outing than Nightstand. And feedback there was.
But the lyrics to match are not as simple as those of Abbott’s punk forbearers, whom used simplicity in lyrics to illustrious effect in navigating the primal feeling their music strove for. Within those power-pop riffs and dissonant chords are hidden something that to me feels more openly introspective, and deeply personal. The sexual is not purely sexual, but intimate. In “Queen of New York,” Abbott not only refers to the person with whom she’s shared a one night stand as “the queen of my lust” but also laments the loss of the connection they shared- “when we were here/we both felt it/Not alone, but I can feel it now.” Anger is not purely anger, but mixed with longing. In “Just You,” she passive-aggressively jaunts “she thinks you’re a shirt/she hangs you up for weeks… And she wears you in front of the mirror/And she takes you off when you don't fit her.” But this is matched with hopeless desire: “I'm a kid in love with you/I'm Romeo dumb and you're Juliet blue/I'm a kid/I can't grow up/Cause every time we touch we both die young.”
Abbott commands this tension with greater mastery from album to album which is why Nightstand stands out as Tancred’s best. In Out of the Garden, for example, that tension primarily exists between the music itself and the lyrics themselves. In Nightstand, this inexplicable contrast occurs this way, but also within the music and within the lyrics, daring to be explored over and over again. My personal favorite track off the album, “Underwear,” would on any other album be a rather straight-up rocker with electric guitars and distorted bass. Here, however, there’s complexity to be found in the backing instruments- a cello playing long, drawn out chords and bass notes hammered on the low end of a piano. "Strawberry Selfish," one of the slower and quieter tracks off the album, conveys it through it's bass line, which consistently anticipates a chord change by going to a clear transitional note, then returns to it's original note leaving the tension less-than-resolved.
But what names could be assigned to the opposing ends of this tug-of-war? I struggle to find a truly encapsulating pair of characteristics. Part of me wants to call it the tension between vulgarity and innocence, between which the line is often thin, if existent whatsoever, but even this feels like a particular instance of a larger dynamic. Dare I say that this beautiful struggle which Abbott captures with such peculiar insight is reminiscent of that between the sacred and the profane, that inexplicable dynamic that is almost always better expressed in art than in dictionary definitions. The language of her lyrics captures the feelings and symbols at the opposing ends of this tension rather than attempting to describe it outright. The lyrics of the album closer “Rowing,” a catchy, daringly subjective self-examination, express it magnificently- “I am crude and sweet in bed/I am gentle in a dress.” It's through these kinds of pictures and expressions that language works as a tool to indirectly communicate something that it could not hope to convey directly.
Language, after all, can only go so far. The divine, the Wholly Other, the spiritual, the sacred- whatever you’d like to call it- is characterized as that phantom which our man-made constructs of communication can hardly hope to even brush up against. And that is one of the many beauties to me of music, because at its best it does not attempt to describe, but to simply express and let be, and Nightstand stands as one unique reflection among many that does just this.
By Garrett Strpko
For those of you who may not know, a little over two weeks ago as I was coming back to Grand Rapids after celebrating the Fourth of July with family and friends in Lansing, my beloved 1997 Lincoln Continental was destroyed in an automobile accident. By the time I reached GR I had just finished listening to Tancred’s Nightstand (about which I am hoping to have a long-overdue blog post finished by next week) and was following it with her earlier album Out of the Garden- a common dual-album soundtrack to my rides home from Lansing this summer, which takes a little over an hour and this musical set-up tends to fill. (If I should find both albums complete before I’ve reached home, I have a few Jimi Hendrix favorites on back-up afterwards).
As the seventh track, “Swimming,” began, I was sitting at the intersection of Beltline and Cascade wondering whether I should go home, don my work uniform, and then travel to the home of one of my former bosses whose plants I was watering while he and his family were away, or just go water the plants first and then get ready for work. As the light turned green, I was resolving to do the latter, picturing myself scrambling to get to Donkey on time from Alger Heights, whereas watering the plants first would save me some time from driving back and forth from the eastern-most end of town to Eastown proper. I believe I was shamelessly singing along with Tancred (“We’ve got my mother’s car if we feel like driving faster”) as I began making my way through the intersection.
Suddenly and without warning, I was facing north on Beltline, with both my airbags deployed. I can still recall that awful smell as my beloved Lincoln puttered out its final breaths from those airbags, so musty and toxic. I knew right then and there that she was done for. No more unairconditioned trips back and forth between Lansing and GR with the windows down and the music loud. No more stapling the roof upholstery that refused to stay put. No more angling the turn signal switch just right so that the hi-beams would stay on. No more scraping that mysterious crust and goop off the steering wheel with a razor.
The sweaty seventeen-year-old child that so blatantly and aimlessly ran that red light on the Beltline probably still has no clue what it was he destroyed. That boy might have seen a car; I saw the memory of my late grandfather, who could never miss out on a perceived deal, and led us to his church friend Tony, a former criminal looking to sell an older Lincoln Continental, which we were in the market to buy for myself as a first car. I remember driving that car back up to Ithaca some months later in February to spend the day with him, when we fired his bolt-action .22 rifle at targets set up on a burn-barrel he had in his backyard facing a cornfield, as we had many times before, though this time for the last. I remember leaving, driving past the graveyard across the street where I knew he would eventually be laid to rest, and there he was a little over a year later.
That boy might have seen a car; I saw the first time I drove by myself from Jacob and Alex’s house the summer I got my license, gaining a sudden boost of confidence when I realized I was really doing it. I saw the many drives I had to and from there that summer when we watched so many movies and had so many bonfires.
That boy might have seen a car; I saw a part of my story and so many others’ stories, a part that was supposed to continue to drive that story for years to come, taking it to all kinds of new places. I saw that part of my story smashed to bits like the material byproduct of capitalistic gain that it truly was.
And in this way there’s a sense in which that boy wasn’t wrong about what he saw. We shouldn’t be placing undue value on those kinds of material objects as compared to, let’s say, the living bodies of other human beings. But no matter what economic system drives their coming into our life, there are those objects that very much define who we are in our history, our day-to-day, and our hopes and dreams, whether it be an automobile, a vinyl record, a guitar, a hairbrush- objects like the rusty .22 casings that sit in my room back in Lansing which I scraped off the ground and put in my pocket on that mercifully warm late-February afternoon. I had plans for that car. I was going to drive that thing out to Los Angeles one day, dammit. But now that story has changed, as they always do, and as they often should.
And so I have a new car now. It’s the same kind, a few years newer, and it’s all black. It’s similar enough where jumping into it and driving off was a cakewalk. I didn’t even have to look at the shifter to know I was putting her in drive. As an added bonus, most everything works- I can now drive down the highway in the summer without the wind blowing in my face. But it still feels temporary. I find myself in that awkward stage of grief where the damage doesn’t seem complete, where the loss seems like it will only last a little while, as if one of these days soon my real car will show back up in my driveway and I’ll crank the windows down and put on Out of the Garden like the badass I always felt I was when I drove that thing. Yet life will go on without it, and I’m sure I’ll own many-a-car, and perhaps someday I’ll have gone through so many that they won’t have that same quality of attachment, and something else will take up that space.
Right now this transition feels so ill-placed yet so poignant among many others, as I make new friends, work a new job, and live in a new house in a new community. So here’s to chaos, to being at the wrong place at the right time, and those objects we hopelessly cling to in building our identities. May it all speak to our humanity, our imago dei, and the absurdity of plans, especially those thought up at a red light.
By Garrett Strpko
Summer is well upon us by now. You may have noticed there's been a lot less communication coming from Smoke Break Pictures since we won the Audience Choice Award at Adrian International Film Festival, an honor from which we are still reeling. This is because this summer has already been keeping all of us busy.
Jacob just came back from the trip of a lifetime to Europe through MSU where he has been studying media and mass communication through the form of video, photography, and travel blogging. Ben is working hard as a Program Counselor at Camp Roger, a Christian summer camp outside of Grand Rapids. As for myself, me and several friends from Calvin just moved into a new house in Grand Rapids, and we have been busy putting our home together and getting to know the greater Grand Rapids community even better.
For all of us at Smoke Break, it's been a fun and exciting time where we've already learned a lot of new things, things that will likely make their way into our work in beautiful and creative ways looking forward. And what lies ahead, exactly? Well, we're working on figuring some of that out for our ourselves. Winning the Audience Choice Award was surely an unexpected jolt we needed to begin thinking bigger about our projects, and a lot of that thinking honestly still needs to be done. But, we are looking forward to both continuing what we've started and ramping up that which we've envisioned.
Among these things is the SBPodcast, which you can expect to start back up at the beginning of July when Jacob and I will be joined by local Grand Rapids musician and fellow Calvin College student Luke Enders. We will also become more committed to regular blog posts about movies, music, culture, and anything else we find interesting. Expect to see some new blog posts within the next week even from yours truly. As far as film projects, keep your eyes and ears open for some surprise announcements and new projects that we'll be posting throughout the summer.
We look forward to sharing more stories with you through our various projects and are excited to get back at it this summer.
Garrett and the SBP Team
If you'd like to read Jacob's blog from his trip, you can find it here: https://msumassmediaintheuk.com/tag/mcdowell/
I'm also trying my hand at songwriting and recording music recently. I won't try and make you think it's actually any good, but I would appreciate it if you gave me a listen. My new song 'Perfect Crush' is now available on Soundcloud here: https://soundcloud.com/user-853574273-346371206
Also be sure to follow Jacob on Soundcloud; we often post stuff we do together or that he does himself on there. It's that good LoFi cover trash:
SBP is proud to announce our new podcast. Listen here as Jacob and Garrett let us know what to look forward to in the coming weeks with the SBPodcast.
Note: This speech was originally given at Calvin College on February 21, 2017 by SBP co-founder Garrett Strpko in response to a lecture by filmmaker Paul Schrader on the Transcendental Style in Film. Other members of the panel included philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff and Calvin College Professor Emeritus Roy Anker.
Let me first start by saying what an honor and privilege it is to be here this evening. I’m reflecting on what it is that exactly allows a sophomore undergraduate who isn’t even old enough to buy a drink to be discussing film theory with some of the Calvin’s greatest academic minds ever associated with Calvin College.
I often find myself at odds with the question- “are you still studying film at Calvin?” Of course, I respond with “Yes,” which is inevitably followed up with “so what exactly are you going to do with that?”
When posed with this question, I say I want to be a director, and I usually try and draw it back to Paul Schrader, because I do go to Calvin, after all. “You know Paul Schrader? He wrote Taxi Driver,” which, as a side note, humorously seems like the more palatable option compared to films with titles such as Hardcore and American Gigolo, which are about exactly what they sound like they’re about. Then, I mention something about the transcendental style.
To be honest, however, though I’ve been interested in Schrader’s work for a couple years now, it hasn’t been until quite recently that I’ve delved into what exactly the transcendental style is, or what it looks like, how it works. A reason for this is because I’ve never been a big fan of the Christian film industry., so the general idea of being able to portray the sacred on film through style rather than content seemed intriguing enough to me that I didn’t have to get too into it to believe it. For that reason, the idea that we could portray the transcendent on film through style rather than content seemed entirely plausible to me and I didn’t need any convincing it could work, because that sounded like a much better option than mainstream religious films, whatever it was.
But truthfully, as I’ve started actually reading about the theory, figuring out what the style consists of, the techniques and the forms, I was quite surprised by what I was reading. My idea of what the transcendental style might look like was somewhat different from what the theory actually was. Rather than simple editing and mostly stationary camerawork that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, I was expecting blatant juxtapositions of symbolic shots. Instead of sometimes deadpan, non-emotive performances, I was expecting an emphasis on emotional, varied performances. Rather than sparse uses of music, I was expecting sweeping arrangements that were consistent throughout. In short, I was expecting yet another cinema of emotions, one that directly manipulates a viewer’s feelings to get them to think about God.
But this is what I’ve come to enjoy so much about the transcendental style- it is in some ways antithetical to what one might think about what it means to experience the spiritual, as well as wherein the ‘power of film’ lies. And in this way, I’ve found it gets back to the true nature of faith, and of God, how we portray those things in our art. What separates the transcendental film from the mainstream Christian blockbuster is in fact that it doesn’t care about emotion, about manipulation, and about proselytizing in the same sense.
In studying the transcendental style, I’ve discovered where it is that I think the religious film tends to fail. For a long time, I always thought it was that they were often poor imitations of mainstream Hollywood films, but the issue is deeper than that. Proponents of the religious film argue that these movies express something holier than Hollywood because of their content, but they don’t have the same regard for film form. In copying the style of a standard Hollywood film, I would argue that the religious film, rather than elevating the sacred, still elevates the ‘profane’ because it sticks to this filmimitates the form that focuses not only on emotions, but on the talent and beauty of the actors, as well as a certain way of looking at the skill of those involved in a film’s production. It elevates the human ability to make something as great as a film through its very form, whether it recognizes it or not.
I find that the transcendental film is humbler. It understands that faith is not the same as emotion. Most mainstream religious films are about how God meets us in times of severe desperation, when everything looks bleak, or when everything looks great, when our feelings and emotions are running high and all of our human affairs seem so incredibly important. Most transcendental films, however, are about how God meets us in the mundane and when we’re devoid of any feeling whatsoever, because faith is something greater than emotion. It’s not that you don’t experience emotion when watching a transcendental film, but you aren’t told what to feel. Instead of being manipulated into experiencing a certain emotion of God or spirituality, we are confronted by God, realizing our own humanity, and therefore his divinity, which is, to borrow a term from Schrader, “Wholly Other.” This is the kind of disorienting spiritual experience that puts that which is divine at the center of our wonder in a piece of art, rather than on our own propensity to try and find it, and it is why I find the transcendental style to be, at the very least, a step towards a truer sense of how to portray the spiritual on film. As Schrader himself puts it in his book, an emotional, abundant film about Christ might sway an atheist to sympathize with him, but this is because Christ has been brought down to the viewer’s level, not the viewer to Christ’s. Yet, this raises some conundrums. Namely, that this way of thinking about style and film form is not common. Most audience members value a clearly directed emotional cinematic experience, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But nowadays, the transcendental style is thus mostly relegated to art films that fall outside the interests of a standard viewership, let alone studio executives. As a result, there is perhaps an air of cultural elitism that accompanies the transcendental style and its related genres. My questions have to do with why this is the case, and what we can do to change it. Does it require a knowledge of film form and theory to truly understand the transcendental style, and if so, what can we do to help make the style more accessible to mass audiences? Does it mean perhaps inserting bits and pieces of the style into one’s films, perhaps gradually building into something that is completely transcendental? And if the style is not that accessible, then does it actually have any meaningful transformative value in comparison to mainstream religious film, which is becoming increasingly popular? These are tough questions, but they’re ones that are important as we look toward the future of the transcendental style. Thank you.