Changing of the Tide : A Review of Towers and Trees, “The West Coast”

A few years ago, I spent some time in Europe. The trip home to Victoria BC was arduous- it took about seventeen hours of straight travel. I was bleary eyed and exhausted, but I will always remember what it felt like to return to the coast for the first time. Getting on the ferry and feeling the sea wind hit my face. Seeing the mountains in the distance- friendly and protective. Tasting the salt and realizing how green the ocean was.  I cried with the beauty of this place I had once taken for granted. This place that I loved with a new rapture. I had not known that I was drowning until I came home and could breathe again.

That is what listening to the new Towers and Trees album is like. Aptly named The West Coast, this album is the next best thing you can get to actually being in British Columbia. From the moment I listened to the first track West Coast Man my first thought was “I need to get my headphones” . Because I selfishly did not want any of the music to reach anyone else. I wanted to scoop it up into my belly so that it could feed my soul. Band leader and front man Adrian Chalifour’s husky alto is inviting as always, but this time it’s accompanied by the beautiful accent of vocalist Andrea Lubberts. Where once there was a monologue, now there is an exchange and their chemistry is clear.

For those fans of the bands EP Broken Record you will not be disappointed. Much like the song they redid for this album We’re Not Islands this has all of the best elements of the first album (Chalifour’s songwriting as one example, the stellar harmonizing of the band as another) but  improves upon them. The diversity of sound in this album is impressive without being overwhelming or distracting. West Coast has more dynamics, more nuance and more to offer. In short- it’s just bigger. If Broken Record was an aperatif for fans, then West Coast is the meal we’ve been salivating for. And you had better be hungry. The whole album reads like a love letter to the setting where it was created and that love is palpable to the listener. West Coast Man is a rejoicing opening anthem, about reveling in the place where you belong while also functioning as an invitation for that which will follow. In short- it’s as welcoming as the place itself.

Free is a song that I saw the band perform a few years ago when it was still being conceived and it’s remarkable how much it has evolved. It’s the anthem of renegades everywhere, the song you listen to when you want to escape your life. “We ain’t free but we could act just like we are.” The lyrics have always been great but now they’re accompanied by soaring crescendos and rhythms that make your heart race. Free is a song that demands movement- you can’t sit still and listen to it.

However the album is not exclusively devoted to the place it describes. Certain songs like Last Breath and Wayward Love are downright heartbreaking. They are tortured lamentations built for walking Ogden Point in stormy weather after you’ve had your heart broken. “What if it’s my job to love you?” Chalifour wonders.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Love Song for No Girl In Particular laps at you like a warm bath. It plays with you with deceptively simple melodies and harmonies. This is a song for Tofino sunsets and Stanley Park afternoons- this is the song where you feel as if you’re in love just by listening to it. It’s fun and sexy and flirtatious without being saccharine.

All I can say about their new single “Bad Heart” is that it will get you pregnant. You were warned.

If you haven’t heard their music before, or if you’ve been to every single concert, you’re in for a treat. Don’t trust me, trust them. Towers and Trees are going to make you love them, for all the right reasons. These guys are all about music that makes you care, and heal and feel. This is the music that makes you realize why you love music. Because it’s deliberate and thoughtful. These are the musicians and artists we have a responsibility to cultivate.

As I write this, I’m thousands of miles from the West Coast. I am sitting at a desk in a landlocked city. I haven’t seen the ocean in months. West Coast, the title track of the album is a song that stings my heart, it’s so bittersweet. “Come away” Chalifour begs. “I WISH I COULD!” I always yell back in my head. So to the band, I have to step out of my critical voice now and just say thank you. Thank you for making an album with so much heart it overflows. Thank you for making music that matters. And as one of many West Coast lovers who isn’t lucky enough to live there, thank you for giving me a little piece of home. Your album helps me breathe.

***Towers and Trees’ newest album The West Coast will be released on October 2nd 2015

Order it  on itunes https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/the-west-coast/id1038944005

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The (Danish) Girl Everyone’s Talking About

Oh me, oh my! Oh good heavens! Is it possible- could there- might there be- TWO big budget trans films at TIFF this year?

My heart leaped at the prospect. I was like a fresh faced singer in the twenties- I’d believe whatever you told me. In retrospect it was naive for me to think that a progressive depiction of a trans character could come out of a major Hollywood studio. All of my activist friends warned me I was in for disappointment. But I threw myself back into the arms of those sweet Beverly Hills executives, my heart all aflutter. They won’t hurt me this time! I told everyone. They wouldn’t let me down. This is a world where Laverne and Caitlin reign supreme. They wouldn’t dare upset Laverne- she’s a goddess. 

I’m a Tom Hooper fan, so even though I knew upfront there were some obvious problems (like casting a cisgendered actor as a transgender character) I had faith. I was ready to believe. Take me Tom. Take me now.

The Danish girl is based on the real life story of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to survive sex reassignment surgery and her wife Gerda. Redmayne clearly has his huge doe eyes set on two Oscars in as many years, and he just might get them. Mostly because the academy is clearly no match for his  trembly lips.

Here’s the thing about the Danish girl- it’s not as clear cut and easy to hate as About Ray or even the new Swedish film Girls Lost. There are some things that TDG does right that the other ones don’t like treating the trans character as a person. So let’s look at some things that I liked

  • The chemistry between Vikander and Redmayne is electric. And they portray the relationship with a certain nuance that excited me. I loved the way that Hooper made it clear that this decision to transition was something that Lili struggled with- you see her try and comport herself as a man for Gerda and it just doesn’t work. This is who she is and she can’t fight against it. Showing transition as a series of small choices rather than just one big one is a significant step for trans cinema, and I’m glad that big budget studios are beginning to take note. I think it shows complexity that the film shows this part of Lili’s experience rather than streamlining the process.
  • If you liked The King’s Speech, you will like this film. It is truly beautiful. Every single frame looks like a Vermeer painting.

But let’s look at some of the major problems with the film OTHER than the casting choices:

  • First of all, it’s told from the perspective of Gerda, Lili’s wife. People have argued that this is an appeal to a cisgendered audience to increase sympathy for the trans character. Which is bullshit because people are people no matter how gendered, and a cisgender person loving a transgender person should be neither news nor rewarded.
  • There are some major deviations from what actually happened (Gerda abandoned Lili in life but not in the film)
  • They were polyamorous in life. And because mainstream, monogamous, love-the-one-you’re-with-until-you’re-dead-or-bored society can’t fathom it, that gets eliminated.
  • Lili is a victim.

My last point is the most controversial so let me deal with it directly. While she isn’t victimized in the same way as say, Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, Lili lacks agency. From the film’s perspective, it is Gerda that makes her a woman, and Gerda that has to carry her through the whole transition. It is Gerda who teaches Lili how to be a woman, coaching her through the appropriate behavior and teaching her how to dress. She takes her to the doctors and holds her hand through both surgeries. It is Gerda who is the most hurt by this transition and yet still she stands stoically by her woman. It is Gerda who is all but forced into the arms of another, and it is Gerda who constantly puts her beloved Lili above all others even at the expense of herself.

…NOPE.

In reality Gerda ditched the bitch and Lili had to go through THREE of the surgeries by herself. Gerda divorced her and married somebody else. According to Lili’s diaries, neither of them harbored any ill will, but Gerda was by no means the devoted, Dolly-Parton-slinging wife that she’s made out to be in the film. Critics might read this as nit-picking on my part but think about it- Lili gave up her ENTIRE life in order to transition and she went through all that surgery by herself. The way Redmayne plays her, she is this fragile, delicate, waifish flower who would get toppled by a light breeze and that is NOT who her diaries show her to be. It’s additionally disappointing because is that really the only option? That someone who wants to be a woman can only be this frivolous, shopping crazy fool? Gerda is made out to be an emotionally strong powerhouse, while Lili is a damsel in distress which is a discredit not only to trans women, but self-identifying women everywhere.

My last and final point is WHY THE HELL IS AMBER HEARD IN THIS MOVIE?! Genuinely this both baffles and upsets me. She gets third billing and says maybe four words in the entire film. And for the record- the words she says aren’t that great. I’m betting she really wanted to be invited to the Oscars or something. Or maybe Johnny really wanted to go and was hedging his bets before Black Mass came out so he talked her into it.