Ah, The Past
Supergrass Finds Life in Other Eras

The ongoing job search was halted this week by two and a half feet of snow. That’s 30 inches, all of it this heavy, thick, packed-down shit that’s back-breakingly difficult to remove. The entire state of Maryland pretty much closed down, and the governor even issued a decree banning non-emergency vehicles from state roads. I still can’t figure out what snow is good for, but at least now I know that its usefulness is not improved by mass quantities.

The roads are finally clear, for the most part, but the problem becomes where to put all this snow until it melts. The current solution has every intersection lined by nine-foot snowbanks, which are impossible to see around. Turning left, for example, has now become a game of chance, best played accompanied by a rousing Hazard County-style “yeee-hah!” Sure, driving the streets is like maneuvering a maze of death, but at least when this all melts the resulting water could flood those same streets, turning Baltimore into Venice.

I hate snow, in case you hadn’t guessed.

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Entertainment Weekly debuted its comics section this week, which may well be the coolest thing ever. That a major entertainment publication has seen fit to devote two pages a month (the same space they afford live theater) is indeed a big deal, but what’s cool about it is that they seem to know what they’re talking about. They’re tackling really good comics, not just movie tie-in Marvel books, and offering non-comics readers a primer on why they should care about Frank Miller and Alan Moore and the like. For a comics fan, this is pretty neat, and while I can always wish for more in-depth coverage, I’m proud of EW for taking this step.

It’s too bad, though, that the primary example of comics storytelling currently in the public eye is the execrable Daredevil movie. The film distills years of Frank Miller’s best stories into one two-hour video game, complete with minimal character development and a script that could have been cobbled together by retarded monkeys. Or even Joe Eszterhas. The actors are all sleepwalking, except for Colin Farrell, who has somehow decided that calm, collected assassin Bullseye should be played like Tweak from South Park, all jitters and excitable outbursts.

There are a couple of ways to look at Daredevil, both of them bad. As a fan of the comic, this film flat-out offends me, simply because it provides the surface of the Daredevil story without any of the underlying emotions. All text, no subtext. Matt Murdock fights crime in this film for no other reason than because he does – one lost case doth not a vigilante make. He falls in love with Elektra Natchios for no other reason than because he does. (It certainly is not her character, here eviscerated and diluted beyond all redemption.) Ditto everything about this film – things happen because they do, because they’re in the script. It’s a colorful action movie with zero substance.

But what bothers me is the comic book Daredevil has never really been that. Frank Miller changed the comic in the early ’80s from a standard Marvel superhero book to a dark, meditative vigilante drama, and current DD scribe Brian Michael Bendis has further transformed it into a subtle, nuanced crime story, full of subterfuge and politics worthy of the best underworld mob movies ever made. The colorful costume has never been less prominent in this book, and even Alex Maleev’s menacing artwork adds to the sense that this is not your run-of-the-mill guys-in-tights comic book for preteens.

Which brings me to my second way of looking at the film – through the eyes of the non-fan. Daredevil the movie serves up an ample helping of the common public perception of comics. It’s simple, monochromatic, sort of fun and borderline brain-dead. It’s an action thriller for kids, dressed up with “darker” themes to bring in the teenagers.

The paradox is this: Daredevil is the current emissary from the land of comics to the rest of the world, and it defeats its own purpose. Put simply, if you like this film enough to check out a comic book store, you won’t find the film’s simplicity in the monthly comic. Those that would like the monthly comic, those with a taste for more sophisticated storytelling than most people believe comics can provide, will likely be so turned off by the Nintendo-ness of the movie that they’ll avoid the comic, and probably the comic shop, all together. Daredevil will do nothing to break the stereotype of comics, and may end up driving people away from comic stores instead of welcoming them in.

So here’s my exhortation: if you hated Daredevil the movie, check out Daredevil the comic. Marvel’s made it easy for you – the best DD stories of the past few years (and there have been a bunch) are collected in fairly inexpensive paperback form. Try Wake Up, Underboss or Out, all written by Bendis, or the beautiful dream that is Parts Of a Hole by David Mack.

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If, like me, you’re wary of anything with the word “super” in its title – Superdrag, Supersuckers, Better than Ezra’s Super Deluxe, etc. – you probably haven’t tried Supergrass. If any band (besides Audioslave) needs a new name, it’s these guys, if for no other reason than to separate them from the herd.

Supergrass makes groovy, ’60s-inspired Britpop with a creeping disco influence, sometimes, when they’re not incorporating ’70s punk and Pink Floyd sounds. They’re like Sloan with heavy doses of Queen and the Bee Gees, kind of, if that band occasionally got into fistfights with the 1964 Rolling Stones. Sort of. While the Clash offers color commentary from the sidelines. Almost.

Forget about it. I’m not going to be able to accurately describe the cultural mish-mash that is Supergrass, and never has it been more delightful than on their just-released fourth album, Life on Other Planets. It’s damn near perfect, right down to the cheesy photo collage on the cover that’s right out of the Revolver reject pile. This band somehow makes their puree of styles sound natural and effortless, and it’s precisely that sense of whimsy that was missing from their last record, 2000’s Supergrass.

That album sounded a bit labored, and blew its wad completely on its shimmering leadoff track, “Moving.” In contrast, this one floats an inch or two off the ground for its whole running time, spinning one great melody after another. Its weightlessness is reminiscent of this band’s great second album, In It For the Money, which, despite a title ripped straight from Zappa, was a big ol’ pile of fun. Life on Other Planets zigs when you think it’s going to zag, and never overstays its welcome.

One of the great Supergrass tricks is to remain sonically faithful to whatever influence they’re incorporating. That means that the Rolling Stones-esque “Evening of the Day” sounds practically vintage, with nifty pianos and acoustic guitars, while the closing dirge “Run” contains layers of reverbed vocals straight out of Queen and loads of analog synthesizers and electric guitars a la Pink Floyd. Minute-long pseudo-punk number “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” finds the band raging on thudding six-strings and shouting in rough cockney accents, but the more progressive elements of the song are played like Yes might have recorded them. Or maybe like Zappa would have lambasted them. Powerhouse track “Brecon Beacons” makes the most of its upbeat rhythms, a la Sandinista-era Clash, but juxtaposes them with authentic disco synths and Beatles harmonies.

Sonics aside, though, Supergrass knows how to write a great song. Just check out “Can’t Get Up,” a thundering locomotive that finds the time to be melodically inventive as all get-out. Dig “La Song,” which somehow makes Lou Reed-style sing-speak rock sit and play nicely with a Byrds-esque chorus that is, indeed, made up mostly of the word “la.” In fact, every few seconds of Life on Other Planets, Supergrass is throwing something new at you, shifting their melodies hither and thither. Only “Run” stays in one place for long, and in that case, standing still is the point.

Supergrass is sometimes dismissed as “retro-chic,” whatever that means, as if their sound is some attempt to make the past ironically cool. This is bull. Like Sloan, Supergrass takes the time to capture the sounds of bygone eras as they were, not as some detached ironist like Beck might remember them. Unlike Sloan, Supergrass then meshes all those elements together, doing for the ’60s and ’70s what genre-defying groups of today are doing with modern music. Life on Other Planets is like a delirious collage of everything good about music before 1980, played straight. It’s also one of the best records I expect to hear this year, and truly deserving of the prefix “super.”

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Here’s something funny: personality-challenged grungers Godsmack have done reviewers the world over a great favor by naming their new album Faceless. Saves us the trouble of saying so. Also in funny album titles, the new Eels record (slated for June 3) is called Shootenanny!, punctuation included. Chuckle.

Next week, Ministry, most likely.

See you in line Tuesday morning.