Artists of the Year

Peter Ritter is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

Robert Skoro
BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL

Yes, Robert Skoro was born during the Reagan administration. Yes, his band played exactly two gigs in 2002. And yes, he released his lone solo album less than a month ago. Now he's getting praised in this space. If you detect a faint rumble, that's the sound of a hundred battle-scarred vets of the local rock scene, grinding their molars.

But never mind them. This spot is Skoro's, above all, for Proof, the debut disc he dropped in December. It's a quiet, graceful collection of pop songs about falling in love (with girls, with the world) and trying to figure it all out. Lush in spots and spare in others, it's sweet enough to overcome the sourest of grapes. And, according to the liner notes, it's almost entirely "written, arranged, produced, and performed" by Skoro, from supple bass and humming synths to rolling keys and programmed percussion. And even though it was mostly tracked in Skoro's apartment, it's beautifully recorded--particularly his vocals, which come off clear and resolute.

Good as it is, though, Proof isn't the only reason to recognize Skoro now. As a bass player, backing vocalist, merch-selling sidekick, and road-dog comrade, he's long been a linchpin of Mason Jennings's success. His role in that respect is clearer than ever on this year's Century Spring, on which Skoro sings; plays bass, piano, and organ; and shares the producer's credit. "He really sculpted the actual sound of the record," Jennings told me last March. "It's such a valuable skill that gets overlooked, but Rob's a master of it."

Full disclosure demands I mention that I consider Skoro a friend. Among other things, we've bonded over a shared obsession with the sort of heartsick ork-pop practiced by Damien Jurado, Elliott Smith, and the Shins. Of course, while I was busy sending him e-mails about records to dig, he made as fine a disc as any of them.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

 

Liza Davitch
SHERYL MOUSLEY

What victory is being honored in Victory Square, in the city of Minsk, Belarus? Certainly this place was named in celebration of some important event. In the '50s, beautiful trees--cherry, walnut, oak--were planted by a famous actress, Galina Makarova, who lived there until her death. Now Makarova's apartment is the cramped home of her daughter Nadia and 22-year-old granddaughter Nastia: Their close-knit relationship is falling apart as each becomes romantically attached to a man whom the other despises.

This is the setting of Liza Davitch's documentary Victory Square, a film whose intertwining narratives are full of complications and misunderstandings as the parent/child roles keep switching. With all the intrigue of a carefully conceived drama, Davitch's film shows that a documentarian can be the storyteller of our times. Combining patient observation of the characters, images of Belarus landscapes, archival news footage, and scenes from Makarova's acting career, the movie and its tale of family feud reflect a world that's struggling to cope with the swirling changes brought on by the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Davitch was recognized in the mid-'90s by the Student Academy Awards for the short films she made while she was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. After graduation, and with the help of a Fulbright scholarship to study in Poland (along with grants from the Jerome Foundation and Minnesota Arts Board), Davitch made her way to Minsk. She spent half of each of the past five years there, dedicating herself to producing Victory Square. She finished the film in April of this year--just in time to screen it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, where it won the hearts of the audience, and an award for Best Documentary. Now, after additional screenings in Montreal and Amsterdam, the film is continuing to tour the international festival circuit. The victory in all of this is that Davitch's perseverance, her tenacity in taking on a film of such complexity has resulted in a film that's simply beautiful.

Sheryl Mousley is associate curator of film/video at Walker Art Center.

 

The Scrimshaw Brothers
MAX SPARBER

Any longtime audience member for the Scrimshaw Brothers' long-running monthly comedy show/variety act Look Ma, No Pants knows that they can be a little off-putting sometimes. Although every show is guaranteed to offer a sketch that generates uncontrolled laughter, the brothers' scruffy, unrehearsed approach also ensures its share of misses. This is particularly true when the assembled comedians return, again and again, to comic tropes that have long since been tapped dry of any humorous potential. Honestly--Star Wars? And then there is the Scrimshaws' core audience, who, while undoubtedly splendid people in their own right, have an unfortunate habit of doing things like showing up dressed as Klingons. There is such unrestrained comic invention shared between the brothers that one cannot help thinking that were they to get away from the cheap-wine jokes, the semi-improvised structure, and, for heaven's sake, their own audience, these boys could really flourish.

This past year, they did. Josh, the older of the two, demonstrated his enviable knack for physical comedy in a Fringe offering titled Shut Your Joke Hole. One suspects his long relationship with wife/dancer/choreographer Adrienne English, who co-starred, has helped Josh sharpen his silent sketches, each of which were short masterpieces of bawdy comic timing. Josh is famous for his commitment to the physical action of a scene: When he appeared in the Theatre Gallery production of The Sunrise Café, Josh threw himself into the role with such an abandonment of basic self-preservation that he emerged from the experience bloodied and doubled over from back pain.

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