Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery – Alyosha

alyosha_cover

Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery first drew me in with their EP The Commonwealth. Its three songs were catchy, but what drew me in was Powell’s lyrics – digging into high-minded concepts like the underlying philosophy of the modern age and the American dream by way of history, literature, scripture. Alyosha continues in the same vein, taking its name from the naïf monk in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, with songs weaving in and out of Aesop’s fables, Hemingway, world politics, and personal introspection. But he’s melted down his old folk, singer-songwriter style and hammered out a new – though not entirely alien – soundscape to inhabit. He is still folk at his core, but he’s trying to buck the generic clichés of the genre, so his sound is a patchwork of Beach House, Bon Iver, The War on Drugs, Neil Young, and Sufjan Stevens. There’s a psychedelic tinge, along with textured vocals and a penchant for slight reverb and distortion, right along with the Americana.

Whereas Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery’s earlier albums had an earthy, settled down quality, Alyosha is nomadic, happily adrift in a fog, yet still paddling onward and upward. It’s not a quest with a specific goal in mind, but an aimless yearning, a desire to return to a prelapsarian state we may never know, and how to come to terms with that.

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Interview: Joshua Powell

Joshua Powell

Joshua Powell, of Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery, was kind enough to talk with me over email about his new album Alyosha. Our discussion covers his take on the current state of the American folk scene, the difficulty navigating between the business and artistic aspects of being a professional musician, and his personal creative songwriting process on his upcoming third album Aylosha.

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Another Year, Another Film Festival: VIFF 2015

VIFF 2014 was the highlight of last year. I’m not sure exactly what it is about the Vancouver International Film Festival that affected me so deeply. Partially, I felt validated to have a press pass, to interview filmmakers, write reviews, and feel like a legitimate writer. It was the atmosphere of other cinephiles, amateur and professional, as they explored the riches of world cinema from the past year. The people I met, and budding communities formed, and the freedom of spending two weeks immersed in a new, youthful passion.

It was a trial by fire though; ~60 films in 16 days, without a handle on how to manage my time there, left me near burned out. Yet it was this immersion in film which gave me my first real taste of what world cinema had to offer. It was one of the most intense two week periods of my life, and one which changed not only how I approach cinema, but in how I live. Feel free to write me off as pretentious, or maudlin, or whatever criticism du jour you have at your disposal to dismiss me. Whenever someone begins to discuss the possibility of a soteriology of film festivals, you probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. I’m not literally referring to a salvific nature in a religious sense. Still, in the midst of post-graduation depression and a sense of aimlessness, I needed it. I don’t know if I can articulate it beyond that, except in describing that instinctual, spiritual connection with art that can pull at both the head and the heart.

Film is not only entertainment. In fact, my favourite experiences of films are when they serve as distractions from distraction, in some sort of pseudo Brechtian fashion. Hence this blog’s namesake: distracting oneself towards the profound.

I just finished attending VIFF again this year, this time covering it for Pop Optiq instead of Converge Magazine. I don’t have anything against Converge, but I’m happy writing about film for a publication invested in cinema instead of a general interest religious magazine for millennials. It was another great year of discovering various auteurs and filmmakers, meeting a plethora of local critics and filmmakers, and pushing myself to exhaustion. I saw 56 feature films, 2 collections of shorts, and have an overwhelming desire to read a book, take a walk, or just not stare at a screen for the better part of the day for 16 days.

You can read my coverage here, if you’re so inclined, and can check out my full list of movies seen at Letterboxd.

 

Interview: Heath McNease

I had the privilege of emailing back and forth with singer-songwriter Heath McNease about his latest project Pen Pals, a collaboration with Jetty Rae.

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Mind the Gap: The Perils of Writing on the Internet

It is a waking fear of mine that one day I shall be discovered as a fake, a fraud, a hack writer who has run his course. It is this fear which often stays my hand from pressing that “Publish” button on WordPress, that keeps me from pitching more ambitious articles to magazines, and which keeps me in a state of arrested development as an artist.

Writing is a terrifying endeavour. I’ve felt that way since I was a child. To write is to engrave a part of yourself; to photograph your thoughts on the written page. In the spoken word, we are in a constant state of flux, fluid in time as nothing we say in our day-to-day lives is transcribed for eternity. Our thoughts are rarely, if ever, as coherent in our minds and our speech as they are in our writing (and in the few cases they are, such as in recorded speeches or interviews, it is often the case that those thoughts were first written at some point).

The primary terror I ascribe to writing is that of how my audience will react to that part of myself on display. And writing on the Internet has only exacerbated the problem. With so much more news and information, not only the capability but often the need to publish more frequently than ever before, internet writing has become, in keeping with my previous conceit, an imprint of our least reflective selves. The written word is no longer an incarnation of our mind and soul, but a fleeting facsimile of our shallowest ideas and rapid fire responses. Most of the writing on the internet is a charnel house littered with “Hot Takes” and “Thinkpieces” which are often all too short on any sort of thinking.

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Reflections on Lent and Film

I wrote this piece several years ago on my previous (thankfully defunct) blog, and while my understanding of Lent has shifted somewhat, as well as how I approach film, it still makes some important personal connections between faith and film. Regardless of how accurate it remains as an illustration of my current frame of mind, working through some of these thoughts was a key moment in my journey as a film enthusiast working through my faith.

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Chesterton’s Elfland and the Importance of Imagination

“Compared with [fairy tales] religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Too seldom in our busy, bustling lives do we stand still and let the grandeur of the world roll over us. Inundated with the flickers of screens and the never-ending assortment of noise around us, we are not able to glimpse the beauty of our world. For every time we start to clear the mirror it fogs up again: truly we see through a glass darkly.

We have become desensitized to wonder. We scoff at mountains when we should be gazing upward with humility and awe.

Too often do we hear cries over how our media and entertainment have become saturated with violence until we care no more. I wholeheartedly concur with the sentiment; it is indeed perverse that we can giggle with glee at montages of violence on the screen while thumbing through images of real atrocities in our morning papers and discard them as boring. One of the most dangerous justifications are the words “that doesn’t bother me, I’ve seen worse on T.V.” But what I think is the true problem behind violence as entertainment is not only how it dehumanizes, but how it debeautifies. Violence is an attack upon beauty, wonder, and awe. It is an attack upon all that is noble, pure, and true. It takes that which is revered and tears it down to shambles. (Aside: this is not to say that all violence is necessarily rendered as anathema to art, but rather the perspective of the act of violence itself as good, as a desired form of entertainment, which corrupts.)

Thus, as we have glutted ourselves on violence imagery and imaginary deeds, we have destroyed our sense of wonder, our ability to truly see through the looking-glass. And so Chesterton’s Elfland lies invisible. We blankly stare at our phones while there are castles in the sky slowly fading out of memory, now nothing more than wisps in the aether.

This is not to say that our cultural fascination with aesthetic violence is to blame for all our woes (it is not), I would rather agree that is a topic for another time. But my point is thus: we have taken something profound and deadened ourselves to it. Death is intrinsically tragic, yet we rejoice in it and bask in our ability to cheapen life. It is no wonder that we have no patience for Elfland.

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As It Is In Heaven (Overbay, 2014)

A small Christian community lives in isolation on a farm, under the leadership of Edward, whom they believe to be a Prophet. We’re introduced to them at the baptism of a new member, David, as he is embraced by the community, robed in angelic white.  A year later, not much has changed. This group of thirty odd people continues to live their quiet lives, spending their time loving God and their neighbours.  Yet even in the midst of a loving and welcoming community, it’s hard to be sure of one’s purpose; our first encounter with David if that of a personal prayer with God, begging for a sign.

David, tasked with driving into town to pick up a new convert, heads out with Edward’s son Eamon, but when the two of them return, they find Edward on his deathbed, and we catch a glimpse of the grim reality present in some sects of Christianity when David immediately thinks to get him to a hospital, only to be rebuffed: “We’re to pray. No doctors. No hospital.”  It’s the first sense of uneasiness we’re to have in this community, which before seemed perfectly peaceful.

A fluid Steadicam brings the focus on place. Not setting, but a mingling of physical place and the spiritual place of the characters. This farm is the only place we see after the first ten minutes of the film. For all intents and purposes, it is all there is to the world. It is a manifestation of the community’s isolation and togetherness. Malick-tinged compositions flushed with natural light dance through strands of grass and linger on sun drenched flowers and trees in the midst of a montage of the group’s daily routines.  This natural beauty, and the almost reverent approach to it, is itself part of the routine.  Overbay captures the hardened joy of a tight knit group of believers incredibly well. The easy, natural way which Christian communities slip into songs, the transforming smiles and laughter at a baptism; this is not a typical portrayal of grim, puritanical, pleasure hating Christians.

Yet with Edward’s death, the ties that bind the community begin to show their stain. In his dying breath, Edward names David as his successor, rather than his own son Eamon. Even as Overbay underplays the power dynamics between them, letting it slide into the background rather than the focus of the film, it has a profound impact upon the group. Even more than that, David declares that he has had a vision, a word from God: in thirty days, the world will end, and only their community will be saved. To prepare,  he calls for a fast until the end. Chris Nelson, who plays David, is a revelation; transforming from a mild man with an earnest innocence to an increasingly gaunt figure with fire in his eyes. David seems to descend to a breaking point, but refuses to allow himself to snap as he struggles with vivid, foreboding dreams which foreshadow dangerous upheaval within their community, which David feels he must save them from. Continue reading

Check Out: Mitch Mclaughlin

Mitch Mclaughlin

The greatest blessing and the worst curse of reviewing music is that you quickly begin to get tired of hearing the same old songs over again. I learned to turn down reviewing some albums after hearing half a song, because there’s not much there to talk about.

It’s a joy to find singer-songwriters whose music doesn’t immediately get your mind churning out comparisons. Singer-songwriters are some of the worst offenders, because when it’s you and an acoustic guitar, chances are you’re going to sound like somebody who does it better. At the same time though, most of my favourite artists are in the indie scene, small times compared to some of the heavy hitters out there, but they register on a deeper level for whatever reason: a certain inflection in the voice, a turn of phrase in the lyrics, a strange new melody or an off beat rhythm. I relish the serendipity of finding artists I didn’t know before, the slow realization that what I’m hearing isn’t some song I’ve heard before. Continue reading

End of 2014 Updates

Blogs are a funny thing. In the days before Profound Distractions, I often thought of what I would write if I had a blog, as if the medium would expedite my creative process. The truth is, like most things people try, it begins with a flurry of activity and excitement, only to dwindle down to a fleeting husk of a memory; it’s not that I’ve forgotten to update PD, or even that I don’t have the time (although time and energy are always factors), it’s simply that I’m scared to attempt reviving it. It feels like only yesterday that I wrote this post about my new found focus and determination to write again, but it was six months ago, with barely six posts published since.

Writing is already an unforgiving enterprise, which the presence of the internet compounds until the cons begin to intimidate the pros into submission. It would be simple to let Profound Distractions sink down into the murky depths of failed blogs, to focus my attention on various other sites and projects, but there’s something within me that refuses to call it quits.

I’m committed to making PD the site I envisioned it, however long it takes. For our regular readers, thanks for sticking with us, through the long silences and unfinished thoughts. If you’re new, I hope you’ll hang around long enough to get to know us and help iron sharpen iron.

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2014 Christmas Playlist

I find it difficult to enjoy most Christmas music. Maybe I’m just too anti-kitsch for my own good, or maybe I’m just a scrooge. I would defend against accusations of the latter, however, by pointing to some of the Christmas songs, some new, some old, which I find myself irresistibly drawn to — not only during this season, but throughout the year. I get to thinking about the purpose of Christmas music. It’s a genre without any stipulations or gatekeepers; who’s to say what is or isn’t authentic Christmas music? Yet why do we listen? A more accurate question would be why do listen, given that I recognize that my tastes are idiosyncratic enough to not draw generalizations from them. I find myself drawn to songs which invite contemplation and reflection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Drriss & Marrionn via Compfight cc

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2014: My Year in Film

2014 has been an exceptional year in film. Or perhaps I’m only noticing because I’ve seen more films made this year than I ever have in previous years. Even though I only watched 10 films in regular theatres (along with a few screeners): The Grand Budapest Hotel, Heaven Is For Real, Non Stop, NoahInterstellar, Calvary, Fury, The VirginsThe Immigrant, Edge of Tomorrow, and X Men: Days of Future Past,The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Canadian Netflix has an unusually good offering of recent films, of which I’ve seen Under the Skin, Blue Ruin, The Lunchbox, Only Lovers Left Alive, Journey to the West, Veronica Mars.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed them. Noah, for all its messiness, is still one of the most interesting and daring Biblical adaptations to date, Edge of Tomorrow proves that generic action films can still be fun and smart, Fury revitalized WWII as a genre, Calvary is one of the most interesting theological films made by a non-Christian in years, and The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Immigrant will undoubtedly make top of the decade lists.

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Rest for Rest’s Sake

Photo Credit: hugovk via Compfight cc

“If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.” 
-Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island

It is difficult to divorce an action from its outcome, or rather, its utility. Sure, there is often much talk about “Art for Art’s sake,” but nowadays it seems as though every second of our time is being measured weighed, calculated; it is as if we are machines who need to be fine tuned instead of beings whose telos is rooted in simply being. There is a constant struggle for productivity and usefulness. Our diets, our leisure, and our friends are chosen based on their usefulness. Is this primarily a “modern” problem? Assuredly not, but it is one which I’ve noticed in my life and the lives of those around me. Instead of being told to live a better, fuller life, we’re told to optimize our lives. It may not seem like there is much of a difference there, but there is. Fuller living does not mean more productive living. Consider the idea of time off, or vacations. Vacations are sold as a means to better performance at work.

But what about rest for rest’s sake? Rest, not as a means to a busier life, but because it is essential to simply sit back and be. When did being become an outdated concept?

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Reflections on Rectify: Windows

Rectify continues to be one of the best understated shows on Television. Season Two picks up where One left off: Daniel Holden was beaten and left in a coma in the hospital. He’s now been “washed in the blood, literally and figuratively.”

One of the striking things I’ve begun to notice is how the show is shot. What I noticed in the first season was the focus on natural beauty – there was a noticeable Malick influence as the camera would take in trees, leaves, and blades of grass in its lens. While that element is still present, I’m noticing more and more the actual framing of the shots. Matt Zoller Seitz, in his excellent review at Vulture.com, says that:

“The series makes its points about freedom and incarceration as states of mind by crowding characters into the corners of frames, or turning doors, door frames and window frames (some seen in God’s-eye view) into partitions that break the frame into a series of boxes, and boxes within boxes (like tiny jail cells). A lot of times you glean what, exactly, the show means to say about its characters by staring at frames that are held onscreen just long enough to stare at.”

He’s on to something here. The two primary types of shots I noticed in Rectify:  close ups that follow people’s movements and wide shots full of empty space and windows.  Both are used to great effect in the prison scenes (both the dreams and flashbacks) – the close ups give us an indication of the confined space, and following the actors’ movements at the same time gives off the same restless energy that they’re feeling in their cells. At the same time, they’re cut between wide shots of the tiny windows into their cells, where we may see a face or a back, or someone pacing back and forth.

Rectify Prison Window shot

It emphasizes their isolation and gives context to their confinement.  And then there’s the use of the God’s eye perspective, allowing us to look down on both Daniel and his cell mate simultaneously; they’re so close, yet still cannot break down the barrier between them.

But I’m more interested in the use of windows in the wide shots. These play a greater role outside of the prison, especially in the first episode of Season Two. They’re key set pieces, especially in the hospital. Look at how similar these three shots are of Daniel’s visitors in the hospital: Continue reading

The Music of Aaron Cooper

There are few things I enjoy more than an album full of fun, folk/pop songs. Aaron Cooper’s self titled album is chock full of them. They’re each short, none of them clock in over three minutes, which is the perfect length for each of them – they never overstay their welcome.

Cooper’s easy going, lo-fi style has an irresistible warmth and charm to it that you can’t help but like. No, he doesn’t delve into the deep chasms of the human condition, wrestling with heavy themes and concepts; his music rather evokes a sense of fun and a chill vibe that invites you to just relax and enjoy the songs. Of course, sometimes that music can lull you in before you realize that the lyrics are a little harder hitting than previously thought.

And when you can name your own price for it on bandcamp, why not take some downtime this summer and spend it on Aaron Cooper?