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Various Artists - Encyclopedia Ashtmatica Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageOnce an integral element in the marketing of any artist, now a vestige of an outdated modality, the music video lives on mostly because musicians can’t bear to give them up. Sure, an eye-catching concept or photogenic artist can garner some extra attention, and there is no shortage of online venues that make even the most obscure band’s videos available, but the era of the video was long ago eclipsed with an endless barrage of reality TV dramas and reruns of Flavor of Love. While indie rock has made unprecedented inroads to mainstream success, current television programming tastes ensure that you’re unlikely to come across any artist from an independent label on basic cable. But the allure of the music video persists, and even artists who have virtually no chance of making a video that will be seen by more than their fan club continue to use their record label budget to create visual counterparts for songs that few people will hear. The great majority of these will be lost to the unexplored internet ether, waiting to become the bonus features of a deluxe album reissue or best-of collection. Heading history off at a the pass, Asthmatic Kitty makes sure their band’s best visual moments won’t be so easily forgotten with Encyclopedia Asthmatica. Having little in common with Sub Pop, Matador and Merge – the classic old guard of indie rock labels that actually had enough money for their bands to be able to make videos that might turn up as curiosities on 120 Minutes or Beavis & Butthead – Asthmatic Kitty has experienced nearly all of its growth over the past five years. Nearly all of that is due to the success of founder and leading light Sufjan Stevens, the ambitious singer-songwriter whose album-long tributes to Michigan and Illinois have made him one of independent music’s most imaginative artists, a poet with a gift for elaborate orchestral pop. And as his profile has risen, so has that of his label, expanding yearly with a unique roster of artists who have crossed paths with Stevens over the years. In an era when independent labels are operating more and more like major labels, Asthmatic Kitty holds to a deceptively simple aesthetic. It’s still run hand-to-hand with the main intent of supporting creative projects by people who are Stevens’ friends and sometime collaborators, and despite shipping thousands of albums a year, it’s still run by Stevens’ stepfather, Lowell Brams, in Lander, Wyoming. More than any other contemporary indie label, it has retained the feel of a close-knit creative community. Encyclopedia Asthmatica is a perfect example of that communal mindset.

Given the abundance of relatively affordable digital recorders and computer editing programs, the process of making reasonably professional-looking visuals has never been easier, and it’s apparent that the majority of these 32 videos were made with conservative budgets. As such, most everything in the set retains a distinctly homemade feel, with concepts built around evocative images and clever concepts. But unlike most videos that actually turn up on television, these recall the golden days of late night MTV, favoring bizarre images and broken narratives over the choreographed and clichéd band-playing-on-a-soundstage images that dominate modern videos. As with everything Asthmatic Kitty does, art comes first, commercial concerns second.

Often, the visuals are downright striking. Liz Janes’ ominous drone lullaby “All the Pretty Horses” is made even more terrifying with stark Super 8 footage of little girls in dresses interspersed with images of a burning field and billowing smoke. Similarly fascinating is Castanets’ “A Song is Not a Song of the World,” a surreal backwoods fantasy where a man holes up in a cabin with his friends and flowers begin to spontaneously sprout from the wall. Set to a one-chord dirge, the video progresses through increasingly bizarre images, with the protagonist eventually feeding his friends from a sack of leaves as glowing white orbs flit around the room. Most striking is My Brightest Diamond’s “Magic Rabbit,” a startling vignette that captures lead vocalist and songwriter Shara Worden in a variety of costumes (elegant ballroom garb, little girl in long stockings, etc.) as a story about the loss of childhood and magical thinking is told through her eerie orchestral flourishes and operatic vocals. Though fairly rare in the two-hour set, such moments nonetheless renew faith in the idea that the music video can be a piece of art completely separate from the song it’s helping to promote.

But despite the high-concept art installation feel of many of the videos, there are some that feel as if they were developed as inside jokes that are bound to be lost on the rest of us. With little more than face paint, green tentacles and an upside-down colander used as special effects, Bunky’s “Space Alien” spoof is a painfully silly sci-fi send-up that seems to serve no other purpose but to amuse the band members themselves. Similarly, My Brightest Diamond’s “Freak Out!” is a superhero spoof that introduces a cast of characters with names such as Joey Sparx, Hella Fabulous, Blair Bling and Dr. Zac Crackattack battling a Dr. Zircon for the world’s largest diamond. With ‘60s Batman camp and willful overacting, the goofy plot climaxes in an ensemble dance after the villain is vanquished. Fun on first viewing, it’s not quite clever enough to have much replay value, and it’s hard to imagine why such talented musicians would spend time on something so predictably absurd.

Though he’s easily the most high-profile artist in the set, Stevens made the odd choice of making videos for his least commercial songs, presenting grainy footage of he and his Illinoisemakers prancing in a field in their tour uniforms for the ambient “The Undivided Self (for Eppie & Popo)” and using dazzling Rorschach test squiggles for “Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake.” A bit more conventional, the Christmas cartoon “Put the Lights on the Tree” is a charming little jingle with Stevens and his band presented in animated form, but it’s little more than novelty. For those looking for a more conventional example of Stevens’ genius, a wonderfully intimate 2007 recording of he and his band performing “Jacksonville” live at Calvin College presents Stevens at the top of his game, with multiple cameras and close-ups capturing the costumed troupe of horn players and guitarists laying out the lush layers of one of his greatest songs.

Unfortunately, the rest of the live footage in the set is of a much lower quality, apparently shot by someone in the audience with a digital camera. As such, the visuals are blurry and the audio is sub par on Castanets’ 2007 South by Southwest performance and an emotionally raw but muffled 2006 performance by My Brightest Diamond. Far better is Shapes and Sizes’ “Cant Stop That (Sinking) Feeling,” a live in the studio video that captures the band going through their multiple passages and unusual time signatures. Exploring a different form of a live performance, the Think/Dance Collective interprets the bounding piano pop of Half-handed Cloud’s “Press Piled Free Child/Bread Shoes” with a group of women in different colored tracksuits lurching and prancing, at one point wearing bread slippers and ending the act gorging on toast and juice boxes. From start to finish, whether good or bad, there’s nothing predictable about these videos.

Taken as a whole, Encyclopedia Asthmatica doesn’t present anything that will make you reconsider the future of the union between image and sound, but it’s an immensely enjoyable reminder of just how effectively the two can be combined when the purpose isn’t to prove how sexy or stylish the performing artist is. Though the results are admittedly hit or miss, the set puts faces to names of artists most of us will never get to see in the flesh, creating a live action scrapbook that seems designed for their own enjoyment as much as it does ours. Ultimately, that homespun appeal is the greatest legacy of both this collection and the Asthmatic Kitty family.

Since these tracks are pulled from numerous artists and producers, the sound quality varies across the 32 tracks. Even so, the majority of the tracks are album quality, and good television speakers will have no trouble doing the songs justice. As previously mentioned, most of the live performances are extremely lo-fi in quality, with everything presented in one muffled blur that matches the home video quality of the visuals.

Special Features
It would have been nice to have some interview segments or director’s comments included, but there are no bonus features of any sort.

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