Friday, October 31, 2003

R is for writer

As promised, here's my stuff from today's Isthmus--this time, two short movie reviews and a music preview:

Once Upon a Time in the Midlands
A twitchy Nottingham gas-station manager (Rhys Ifans) and his girlfriend (Shirley Henderson), a soft-spoken drugstore clerk, try to build a stable life together with her 12-year-old daughter (Finn Atkins) � until the girl's father, a violent thug (Robert Carlyle, the violent thug in Trainspotting), shows up. This family comedy is sweet and funny, if sad, but the large ensemble cast features perhaps two more cloyingly eccentric peripheral characters than it needs (24).

Scary Movie 3
The third edition of the Wayans brothers' horror-spoof franchise is helmed by Airplane! auteur David Zucker, whose patented gag recipe � keep them coming � again proves sturdy. Alas, Zucker's satire goes easier on targets like Eminem and M. Night Shyamalan than it might, but the actors are funny and game, especially Charlie Sheen, still deadpanning with the best of them, and an underutilized Queen Latifah, whose performance is a pleasantly mellow surprise (Ibid.).

Mom-and-pop operation
Meet the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

When you are inventing a new art form, it does not pay to be modest. Case in point: Jason Trachtenburg, who says of his band, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players (appearing November 1 at Luther's Blues), "There has been nothing like it in the history of pop entertainment." And about the group's methodology, which has to do with writing and performing music to accompany slides recovered from thrift stores, he adds this: "We genuinely feel like it could change the world if applied correctly."

Trachtenburg, 34, says people often compare the Trachtenburg Family to the Partridge Family. He does not mind. "They had some good songs," he says. "They changed the world in their way." There are indeed similarities, the most obvious of which is the presence of a child in the Trachtenburgs' lineup, Rachel Trachtenburg, 9. And their new CD, Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle, Vol. I, has a bouncy, keyboardy sheen that is not altogether un-Partridge-like.

But Jason Trachtenburg is quick to distance his band from the Partridges. For starters, he says with just a hint of contempt, "We're a real family": at shows, he sings and plays guitar and piano while his wife, Tina Trachtenburg, operates the slide projector and Rachel, their daughter, drums.

Then there are Jason Trachtenburg's songs. On their surface they are about things like vacations ("Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959") and industrial training ("What Will the Corporation Do?"). But the lyrics keep veering into dark, unsettling places, so where a Partridge might sing, "I think I love you, so what am I so afraid of?" Trachtenburg croons (on "Fondue Friends in Switzerland"), "Geese are held in isolation, execution awaits."

It would seem to be the Trachtenburgs' moment, what with recent mentions in Entertainment Weekly and the New Yorker and, earlier this year, an appearance on Conan O'Brien's TV show. For Jason Trachtenburg, it's about time. As a singer-songwriter he plied Seattle's music scene for most of the 1990s, and he put out a solo album produced by the Presidents of the United States of America's Chris Ballew. But, Trachtenburg says, "In early 2000, my wife said correctly that my entertainment career was going nowhere."

It was time to try something new. "She said maybe we should take some slides to correspond with songs I'd already written, songs about every day kind of stuff, like car insurance," Trachtenburg says. They bought a projector and an old box of slides to try out the idea. "I just became fascinated by these people's slides. It was voyeuristic. So for the sake of a concept I said, 'Let's write a song about them.' I never thought it would set the entertainment world on fire."

Last year the family moved to New York City and began fighting the music-business hegemony of what Trachtenburg p�re calls "dudes playing dude-rock." Now, with the recent purchase of two stadium-scale slide projectors, the Trachtenburgs have committed themselves to trying their act out on America.

Even so, Jason Trachtenburg seems almost at a loss to explain his family's success: "This is a goofy concept" (20).

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