idnight Movies would have you believe that Los Angeles isn’t just Andy Warhol’s garishly two-dimensional Marilyns—shallow, neon, and soulless. Nor would they equate the city to the hip-hop murals of Keith Haring, or some graffitied gangsta’s paradise, all bling bling and big pimpin’. The LA that surfaces in the music of Midnight Movies is a hazy, mysterious thing—warm, eerie nights, and ghosts of great actors haunting a would-be desert town. The music itself is the landscape’s appropriately ghastly space-rock soundtrack, reminiscent of outfits like Yo La Tengo and Stereolab, and fronted by Nico sound-alike Angeleno Gena Oliver, the band’s drummer and principal songwriter.
Which is probably why Midnight Movies’ self-titled full-length is, if nothing else, fascinating upon first listen. (It’s also probably why the band’s taken LA Weekly’s recent nomination of “Best Pop/Rock Band” of 2004, a Monday-night residency at LA’s uber-pretentious Spaceland, and a slot on Clinic’s fall tour.) It’s an album that sounds black, white, and red all over, with Oliver’s voice appropriately stoic, Larry Schemel’s haunting guitar noir, and Jason Hammons’ keyboard tricks. Tracks like “Persimmon Tree” and “Words For A Love Song” are Midnight Movies at their best—moody, dark, brooding. Musically, the band does right, and even if it isn’t entirely original, they do have a knack for crafting evocative musical atmospheres.
Still, if their music is meant to suggest LA’s proposed complexity (as it appears to try to), it has a ways to go. In terms of this whole capturing-dark-undercurrents-of-cities thing, they’re no Interpol. The songs themselves, while superficially compelling, fail to say much else. Case in point: Oliver’s attempts to conjure colorful images don’t manage to mean much. In “Persimmon Tree,” she sings, “Grey clouds fly in autumn skies / Stark black stems bleed amber / Bright orange, dark red”; she sings of pastels in “Blue Babies”, and croons, “Black mountains / A powder blue sky / The horizon / A neon green line” in “Time and Space”. It reads like high school poetry—trying too hard and taking itself too seriously—and you can be sure that once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Lines like “Naïve to believe, a foolish clown to dive into a cloud” and “Feeding, loving, yielding life / Sucked up shriveled skin left to die” bring to mind adolescent angst in awkward enjambments—poems we wrote that said I love and hate you as if the world were ending. This works occasionally (“Quick and clever, you intrigue me and I adore you”), but exasperates more often than not.
What it ultimately comes down to is style versus substance. Once Midnight Movies matches the latter with the former, the results should be nothing short of stunning.
Reviewed by: Rachel Khong
Reviewed on: 2004-09-27