Sitting in on a juried panel, trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15 at Awaken Café. A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags. Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.
Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.
On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.
Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.
Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.
Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.
Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.
Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)
Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.
Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.
Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.
Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.