Thursday, September 30, 2010
Well, here it is again, hiding in plain sight as usual. Do you know this song? Late in 1966, it topped out at #15 on the charts—I can vouch for that, knowing it almost exclusively from AM radio play. Most of the members of the Music Machine went on to various other '60s psychedelic work, most notably a couple of Curt Boettcher projects, including the Millennium, whose work is worth tracking down (particularly Begin). The Music Machine's main man, Sean Bonniwell, later appended his own name to the band, making it the Bonniwell Music Machine, but never saw much success. Basically all we're left with is this, a dense and compact two minutes flat of sonic pleasure, led by a rumbling Farfisa, some handy guitar licks, and Bonniwell's grumbling vocals, which typically enough give with a lot of generalized grousing. "I'm up to here in lies," etc. But it's altogether a spectacular flourish, one that stands up well to repeated listening at ever-rising volumes. The one comparison I'm tempted to make is to another band of its time, now perhaps far more well known but decidedly obscure in 1966, the Monks. Both bands offer a hard, stripped-down approach that obliquely anticipates the Velvet Underground, Stooges, and maybe even the Ramones before any of those bands quite had it together, or even existed. The Velvets obviously were not far behind, but had much more tendency already to stretch things out and go all arty-noisy, where the Music Machine and the Monks are all business, short blasts that pulse with sharp rhythmic edges and pounding attacks. It was probably luck that got this to the radio, but you know what they say about that—sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. And this is clearly both.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The story of Frankie Lymon represents one of the great tragedies and monumental travesties of rock 'n' roll and incidentally a fine cautionary tale about the music industry, its sordid origins and questionable business practices (which persist to this day, though it has also seen a good deal of comeuppance in the past decade, and few industries deserve it more richly, at least speaking in general terms). But complaining about the music industry is like complaining about professional sports, or the weather. Nobody ever does anything about it, and the point quickly becomes ever-diminishing, particularly when it's someone like me with my sour, broken-record attitude, which only has the effect of making me a notably difficult source to take seriously on the issue. So, here, go read up on the basics about Lymon if you're interested. For various reasons (Lymon himself not least among them), this distilled essence of pure doo wop joy would turn out to be just about the sum total of everything we ever got from him and his crew, certainly far and away the best of it. The bass singer groans it into motion, a snare drum powers it into action, and a simple arrangement provides all the setting needed for the primary charm, which is Frankie Lymon's pristine 13-year-old soprano vocal soaring and swooping and asking the eternal questions: "Why do birds sing so gay / And lovers await the break of day? ... Why does the rain fall from up above? ... Why does my heart skip this crazy beat? ... Why do fools fall in love?" A chattering sax comes along at one break to underline the point that what we have here is rock 'n' roll, and to make it a fun dance record. It's as simple and as profound as you want to make it, and by all rights it ought to last approximately forever.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I have long held the theory that learning to sing with this, note for note, hiccup for hiccup, and with every nuance preserved of the eccentric Texan accent that keeps poking through, is better than any séance for raising the spirit of Buddy Holly. You think I'm joking. Ask the people who have assigned this their primary focus over the last 50 years for mourning Holly and his shocking and untimely death, starting from its posthumous release and subsequent entry into the charts only weeks after (at only 22). Yeah, there you go, the painful sad irony of the title and the lyrical preoccupations here—there was a reason this song made people sad. And it goes well beyond the usual "hear my train a-comin'" folderol. Those strings, which predated even the Brill Building era recordings of the Drifters, mark an innovation in rock 'n' roll studio work that, though it would also go on to suffer great abuses at the hands of others, nonetheless accomplishes what it's meant to here, sweetening the sound, classing up the joint, and implying a tremendous amount of unfulfilled promise. Like salting watermelon, those strings provide an ideal and unexpected balancing element between Holly's nerdy affect and his Texas twang. At the same time, there's not actually anything sad here in this at all except, pro forma, the lyrics and, ipso facto, the context of its release. In fact, the sound is positively exuberant—help me thesaurus, animated, bouncy, brash, buoyant, ebullient, effervescent, life-affirming—thrusting itself into the world wholly unapologetic, with the strings zooming up and down and all over, going pizzicato and then all swirly, while the music and lyrics remain eternally and perfectly intended for one another. A genius product of poetry and melody, a glorious and happy accident to counter the unfortunate one that preceded it, and a really great note on which to go out.
Monday, September 27, 2010
I didn't even need to hear this a first time in order to start appreciating it—the absurd reference to Dante and the way that disco adherents tried so hard and so creatively, in the heady days of its peak of the late '70s, to sandwich "disco" as a concept into absolutely everything, and context be damned—nights, fevers, ladies, queens, mystics (that was Lou Reed), ducks, even Bald Mountain. It all seems to me now so quaintly charming that I almost can't stand it. Whit Stillman's ludicrous conceit in The Last Days of Disco, that it all represented an era and a moment with profound historical significance, obviously has some grounding in reality, as laughable as it seems (and at least that's good, healthy laughter it's affording us). Then I heard the song, probably the first time in the movie Saturday Night Fever, which I happened to see on its opening night, and eventually when it made its inevitable, inexorable way to the radio. And hearing it again now makes me believe all over again in this absurd notion that disco is a force bigger than any one of us to bring us all together, plus everybody gets a pony too. It's that magical—driving, thrusting, pulsing, horns blazing, "burn, baby, burn" chanting in the background, and, up front, that singer wailing and caterwauling and carrying on. "Burn the mother down" indeed. I can see the lights now and the dry ice fog and the bodies writhing in the haze. Just like that. I'm there again. How could people not want to dance, or at least leap for joy, when they heard this kind of thing going down? That's my question. How could anybody not feel better about everything, even if only fleetingly? They did, that's the answer. They did. They danced, they leapt, and they felt better, if only fleetingly.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Director/choreography: Bob Fosse
Writers: Jay Presson Allen, Christopher Isherwood, Joe Masteroff, John Van Druten
Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Music: John Kander
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem
I think many might argue for All That Jazz as Bob Fosse's best but this is the one that I plump for. Certainly it's Liza Minnelli's finest ever film role. Taking a great film tradition all but exhausted at that point, the venerable musical, it breathed ecstatic new life into it with brass and aplomb, opening the door for whole new ways to approach the form. Perhaps its most shrewd innovation of many was using a background that is grimly serious. It's Berlin in 1931, with the economy in shambles and Nazis on a rise to power that had come to seem inevitable at that point, along with its ultra-patriotism, its virulent anti-Semitism, and perhaps most of all its ugly, violent tactics (there's a reason for our sense of the word "fascism"). Sally Bowles (played by Liza Minnelli) is a transplanted American attempting to cobble together a career as an actress, spending her nights as a cabaret performer. She meets Brian Roberts (played by Michael York), a graduate student of language, when he shows up at her rooming-house looking for a place to live and work. Soon enough they are plunged into a love story, but with one exception that story is nothing remarkable. Liza Minnelli's real co-star here is Joel Grey, the master of ceremonies in the cabaret show, who welcomes us at the beginning in one of the movie's best set pieces, and appears throughout in the many song and dance numbers at the cabaret. All of the musical numbers are practically documentaries of the cabaret performances (albeit glitzed up and gorgeously glamorous); outside of the cabaret, characters never break into extended song, though there is one chilling scene of an extempore patriotic performance at a fair and scenes are often intercut with the performances. A theme of "divine decadence" recurs throughout, and if it tends toward a decidedly '70s flavor it still fits well with the Berlin moment. The one perhaps most radical departure from typical musical romance conventions occurs when Brian and Sally meet a wealthy Austrian baron, Maximilian von Heune (played by Helmut Griem), who lavishes them with expensive presents and vacations and promises of more. I suppose I'm not allowed to spoil a certain plot development, even in a movie nearly 40 years old, but I will say that the ramifications of the relationship between the three of them is one of the elements of this that still seems to me to be unfolding, offering up new wrinkles of interpretation every time I see it—no small feat for a movie more prone toward generalized clobbering than nuance. Because, of course, the real heart of Cabaret is as a musical, in the song and dance numbers. They are a source of undying wonder and pleasure, bristling with a Fosse's now familiar saucy energy, seen here for the first time in a movie. They are infectious, inventive, and timeless. They are glorious. Grey is an endless marvel and Minnelli really struts her stuff, stealing the show every time she opens her mouth to sing and displaying that raw, breathtaking talent we have seen all too little of in her career, at least in the movies.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I remember how disc jockeys at the time this came out sounded, doubtless because of the band's name, as if they had suspicions that it was some far more famous act going incognito for whatever reason. I can't imagine who they could have been thinking it was, they never actually said and it doesn't sound much like anyone else ever, but I don't blame them. There's something entirely mysterious about this whole thing. The band's name, the song's name, the tune, the lyrics, the arrangement, maybe even the appeal itself—everything, all mysterious. Then factor in its ensuing reputation as the first punk-rock song and things really start to get baffling. In fairness, I'm not sure the '70s sense of the term is anything like what Dave Marsh of "Creem" had in mind when he labeled this as such (and in less fairness the Latino origins of the band would seem to render the label vaguely offensive anyway). Better to stick with "garage-rock," I suppose, although this is also a far cry from the "Gloria" kind of raw guitars 1-2-3-4 hit it sound. No, this is actually punk-rock garage-rock of the more rarefied Farfisa organ category, which instrument features prominently (albeit in a Chopsticks kind of a way) and leads the charge here. Is it simple, even simple-minded? Hell, yes. Does it work? Hell, yes. That singer sounds like he's in real agony, bitter, hurt, and spiteful and yet for all that entirely powerless, or dare I say impotent. "I'm gonna put you way down here / And you'll start crying / 96 tears," he moans desperately. But, hmm, no, I don't think so. I think the object of his desire so completely got the last laugh that she (or he?) is laughing still, 44 years later. And the singer is well on his way to teardrop #9,599. Them's the breaks.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
When Motown went psychedelic it was not without some cringing on the sidelines. Partly it seemed such a purely calculated move, partly it was obvious that it was several steps, at least, behind the rest of the world—and partly there was something about it that wasn't right, that wasn't quite, really, psychedelic, as in rooted somehow in the experience of hallucinogenic drugs. For the Temptations, arguably Motown's house act, they pretty much got all that out of their system and behind them with "Psychedelic Shack," after which there was this and then on to things more classically soulful, e.g., "Just My Imagination" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." But don't pass this one up too quick. It's a pure blast, from the roaring yet almost subliminal count-off to the bass that sets the virtually impossible tempo to the rush of words the vocalists struggle to spit out quickly enough. All too self-consciously political ("Air pollution, revolution, gun control / Sound of soul / Shootin' rockets to the moon / Politicians say more taxes will / Solve everything"), and incidentally trying with all its might to walk both sides of the message street, it's nevertheless a pure rave-up gas, making up with sheer throttling propulsion what it lacks in subtlety or insight. As with a similar topical Motown song of that particular moment, Edwin Starr's "War," the attempt at message is a variously admirable gesture, but it's the sonics that deliver the goods. And the message of this song could be how Daffy Duck stole Olive Oyl from Popeye with a mayonnaise and bologna sandwich and it wouldn't be any less impressive. Band and singers both are amped up electric and the thing absolutely scorches.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Nearly 30 years ago I got myself into a bit of a pickle by uncharitably making light in print of Karen Carpenter's death. The lingering guilt for that may or may not account for my including a Carpenters song on a list like this at all—me and Karen, we also shared the same birthday as well, Pisces 2getha 4eva. But then I listen to this and the mysterious aether in which it moves, with all of its astonishing power and poignance and dignity, the way it entirely transcends anything else in the Carpenters catalog—nothing is even close, this is the kind of song that clarion voice of hers was surely intended for—and I know I'm not handicapping anything. Sure, it's overly orchestrated. What from this pair ever wasn't? Forgive that. My own theory about the profound effect of this song is that it stems from so directly addressing the experience of hearing a song on the radio, alone in one's room, further aided by the fact that the object of desire is the guitar player rather than the singer in the band, all of which somehow lends it a veracity that surpasseth all understanding. It's entirely possible, in fact, that the singer of this song has no relation whatsoever with the guitar player, is rather only a fan who thought she caught his eye once at a show, or maybe they shared a night or a moment, and now she has mired herself down into a fantasy so intensely real that she could well be on the verge of a psychotic break. On the other hand, she could as well be a lonely girlfriend with her guy out on the road. Either scenario works, that "I love you, I really do" could mean anything, but various other hints here make the former appear to be most likely.
Monday, September 20, 2010
You might know Aaron Neville and his various brothers as masters of a wide palette of New Orleans funk styles, and you're right about that, but listen up. The guy is possessed of one of the most beautiful, startling, and moving soul voices you're likely to hear, and it's all on display here in a song that's not even three minutes long. And what a song it is, sinuous and alluring and overflowing with barely suppressed emotion. The backing may be soft and tentative but Neville's idiosyncratic and always sultry warble never is, reaching for and bending the aching, strange notes of the melody here as the music behind him moves from softly tentative to sure-footed, backfilling the tension with all kinds of tasty flourishes: piano, guitar, horns, and rock-solid rhythm section, everything locked in good and tight. It's hard for me to put my finger on what makes this so special, which makes me think it must be something technical musically, a certain key or chord changes. The overall effect was unforgettable and affecting even the first time I heard it. As for the story, well, that works too. The guy just wants to know where he stands. It's not asking so much. "If you want something to play with / Go and find yourself a toy," he starts. "Baby, my time is too expensive / And I'm not a little boy." The chorus, basically the title, takes it home. This was going to be Aaron Neville's only hit for decades so it's as if he already knew he had to make it count, and does he ever. His best by far.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Director: Martin Scorsese
Photography: Mustapha Barat, Maryse Alberti, Oliver Bokelberg, Anghel Decca, Ken Druckerman, Ellen Kuras, James J. Miller, James Reed, Lisa Rinzler, Michael Spiller
There is practically no end of mysteries when it comes to Bob Dylan, not least the matter of his appeal. Personally, I don't think any other figure, after James Brown, looms so imposingly significant in 20th century popular music, and yet I remain hard-put to articulate the reasons. But after 1997's Time Out of Mind, it simply became an article of faith, one easily renewed by constant and regular visits to the catalog, from the earliest classics of the '60s to his recent radio show on XM. Martin Scorsese's leisurely and wide-ranging documentary, a kind of generous prodigy even just for its ability to probe and get its hands on so much of Dylan's confusing early career, particularly the breakout, finds the way to raise the curtain on many of the mysteries, in the process making some of them more mysterious than ever. Focused on Dylan's origins in Hibbing, Minnesota, as Robert Zimmerman, and tracing the vicissitudes of his catapult to fame and unparalleled reign until a motorcycle accident put him out of commission in mid-1966, the documentary incorporates extensive interviews with many of the principles, most notably the man himself, who clearly retains much of his hostility to being interviewed, but here sucks it up and does his best. One result is that that element of Dylan's personality and life anyway is revealed once and for all as genuinely sincere. It's arguable that much of Dylan's early success stemmed from little more than the vivid imagination of someone trying to escape a dead-end small town life, manifested as often as not in a tendency to tell a lot of stretchers, in combination with something psychologists might label "poorly developed individuation"—he didn't, arguably perhaps even doesn't still, know who he is himself, at least not in relation to the rest of us. He is a man of action, albeit a peculiar kind of action. Once he managed to land a record contract with Columbia shortly after hitchhiking into New York City at the age of 19, that's when the miracles really started to occur. The first album was a dud, so he decided instead to write his own stuff rather than stick with the working plan to that point of unearthing and absorbing every last oddity of American folk music. Result: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, one of the great albums of the era, which has lost little of its charm or power in the 50 years or so intervening. And make no mistake, the material sounds better than ever playing in and around the interviews here, and captured in live performances of the time. That's pretty much the way it goes. The rise to fame and adulation is vindicated right down the line, certainly for many fans, as each impossible peak is followed by another. By the time Al Kooper is relating the story of how he came to play organ on "Like a Rolling Stone," followed immediately by the snare hit that kicks the song off and then a good two-minute blast of it, just the way it sounded on the radio back in 1965, or better, it's goose bumps time right down the line. Meanwhile, the whole drama is fascinating to follow, the absurdly spiteful vilification he endured from his folk/protest fans when he started playing with a band, the endless harassment he attempted to cope with from the press, the famous with whom he consorted—Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Joan Baez—and always, always writing songs and songs and songs. One of the most telling things about Dylan that occurs to me every time I look at this is that he has written so many of his songs, and so many of his best songs, on a typewriter. It was just pouring out of him. Joan Baez tells a great story here about stealing a song from him after she sat in a room with him while he worked it out, "Love Is a Four-Letter Word." Later, when Dylan hears her version of it on the radio in her company, he says (and here Baez goes into her terrific Dylan impression), "That's a really great song." She's gob-smacked. He's forgotten that he wrote it. "You wrote it, you dope," she says that she told him. Will this movie convert anyone who doesn't already appreciate Dylan for what he is? Maybe—just maybe. For fans, however, there's no question. It's absolutely essential.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
One of those freaks of pop music history, a song that managed to chart on two separate occasions, in this case separated by more than 25 years, which might make it the record-holder ("The Twist" was by just two years and "Monster Mash" by 11). The second showing was largely the result of a movie of the same name, based on a Stephen King novel, directed by Rob Reiner, and featuring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Kiefer Sutherland—you can probably imagine how that would make a good platform for launching a hit. And it's not a bad show, worth seeing for any number of reasons, but probably the best thing you can say about it now is that it reminded everybody what a great song this is, spare and supple and swooningly beautiful, seething with understated power. It's one of the finest products to come out of the Brill Building era, in that "Up on the Roof"/"Under the Boardwalk" Drifters mode when the three-minute wizards were particularly fascinated with orchestral accompaniments. Written by the singer himself, Ben E. King, with Leiber and Stoller (oh yeah, them again), it actually was originally intended for those Drifters, but King got the honors when they turned it down. It's been widely covered (see) but surely we can all agree that King's original remains the best, as the 1986 resurgence incidentally argues convincingly as well for. In fact, it's hard to imagine any other voice leading the lovely charge here, just as it's hard to imagine any other arrangement. The simplicity of it is absolutely pristine. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is just about perfect the way it is, and I can't imagine how anyone ever could improve on it in even one single way.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Back in the day, I probably would have named the Animals as my favorite British Invasion act, not that I didn't appreciate the Kinks or the Stones or the good old Beatles, but just because I liked the Animals radio songs of 1964 and 1965 the best overall. But that was mostly over by the time of this, which more or less represented their take on (or rip-off of) the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," which in turn goes to show not only how desperate they were by that point, but also how fortunate in managing to get it onto the charts at all. Still, it's somehow endlessly fascinating for me. It finds its vaguely anti-war stance—in some ways, from certain frames of mind, it could arguably be taken as pro-war by dint of the kind of "support our troops" mentality that so thoroughly suffuses the issue nowadays—by locating its focus in Europe's war to end all wars (for those keeping track historically), World War I, with a perhaps entirely coincidental nod to the comic strip "Peanuts," then at the height of its commercial popularity (thinking of Snoopy and the Red Baron, which the Royal Guardsmen had made into a pop song franchise a year or two earlier, but I know I could be reaching here). The psychedelic breaks in the Beatles song, triggered by the straightforward message of "I'd love to turn you on," are here set in motion by "How high can you fly?" and apparent memories of a battle scene, airplanes droning and machine-gun fire, originating by implication from the fevered brain of a battle-fatigued veteran, which might anyway explain the bagpipes as something remembered from funerals. I don't know. It works pretty well in spite of itself, wielding a certain mysterious power, even if the Animals by this point were flaming out as surely as the airplanes heard in this song.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Truck-drivin', amphetamine-poppin' heavy metal from the Netherlands?! Well, OK, it's probably something of a stretch to call this metal, certainly in today's context, but it was sure a strange song to find planted all over AM radio in the summer of 1974. Golden Earring, formed in 1961, were already veterans by then—and they are still going, by the way, nearly 50 years on. Perhaps encouraged by the example of their countrymen band Focus who had a surprise hit a year earlier, "Hocus Pocus," they took their shot. Powered by a grinding, shuffling skip-along rhythm section, "Radar Love" tells the story of a long-haul trucker eager to get back home to his baby, delivering up a guttural throbbing monologue of desire and delusion. He is feeling the psychic vibration, which may or may not be symptomatic of amphetamine psychosis: "When she's lonely and the longing gets too much / She sends a cable comin' in from above / We don't need no phone at all / We've got a thing that's called / Radar love." Soon after that, in the long version anyway, played late at night on FM stations, the band airs it out, horn section and all. Arguably yet another example of a novelty on the radio (and no less than the third we've encountered about operating automotive machinery), I think this is actually more one that benefited from the endless repetitions of radio play. It's such a strange song, its textures and preoccupations so different from anything else, yet it right grows on you, until the careful guitar notes that launch it comes to deliver something almost like a Pavlovian punch, and the hand automatically reaches for the volume control, head bobbing. Radar love. Yeah. We've got a thing.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Peggy Lee's tender parable of nihilism is so artfully done that even still, all these years later, it can leave me feeling bludgeoned, exhausted, and downright weepy. Part of it likely stems from the simple but unexpected cabaret elements of the arrangement, stripped down to basics, a piano, a banjo, some strings, eventually a horn, and Peggy Lee's smoky voice, which all conspire to retain a whiff of the decadent. The song selects its targets carefully and builds on them for maximum effect: fire, circus, love, and finally the implications to be logically drawn therefrom on death itself. The trick is not just those choices, though they are enormously important (I mean, think about it, fire? Watching the house burn to the ground? That was disappointing? Really? And yet, who doesn't know the feeling?). No, even more important, I think, is the way she (and/or Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote this too) frames them to be so convincingly inconsequential as experienced. Circuses, for example, are something that adults have always appreciated vastly more than children—my own visit to one as a child was at least as disappointing as reported here (though now I appreciate Felliniesque trappings with the best of them, another matter entirely). And who doesn't know the disappointments of love? But there's something uniquely awful to contemplate in the chorus, where the dagger is really slipped in—somehow that weary "Let's break out the booze, and have a ball" never fails to chill me, perhaps because boozing itself so inevitably produces the reaction documented here. Meaning, in short, that there's no escape at all, is there? And that's why the last thing considered in this song is the last thing to be contemplated at all, ever. And why it's probably more appropriate than I could ever say to end this on an ellipsis...
Sunday, September 12, 2010
In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Friday, September 10, 2010
Creator: David E. Kelley
Cast: James Spader, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, Rene Auburjonois, Mark Valley, Julie Bowen, Christian Clemenson, Gary Anthony Williams, John Larroquette, Tara Summers, Henry Gibson, Constance Zimmer, Monica Potter, Betty White, Shelley Berman, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Rich, Joanna Cassidy, Tom Selleck, Parker Posey, Mary Gross, Missi Pyle, Heather Locklear, Al Sharpton
I decided to confront my David E. Kelley problem, and ours, with a systematic review of "Boston Legal," which seems to me a very good microscosm of all the things that make his entertainments so dreadful and so compelling. I started on this originally because of the recommendation of a friend (who was wrong) and my curiosity about William Shatner, who's pretty good here, though the shtick quickly wears thin.
As usual with Kelley productions, the plots are ludicrous, the characters shallow and unlikeable, the court scenes products of jarringly wrong-headed fantasy. No court on TV, let alone any court in the land, ever sees the kinds of things that happen here. The style is uniformly flashy and cheap, exemplified in the ubiquitous "pulsing slo-mo" (my own invented term) in which pans and sweeps and zooms and the action itself are slowed and sped up randomly and abruptly to match the impatient, swaggering moods of the moment. The theme music is goddam obnoxious.
Thursday, September 09, 2010
I'm not sure this qualifies as Dusty Springfield's greatest moment, or the Pet Shop Boys' either, for that matter, on or off the charts. But it happened to be the place I turned first when I learned of Springfield's death, and it was remarkably right in the moment. The way she enters into this song, after an intro, verse, and chorus, all of 1:35 in, makes the appearance nothing less than sharply dramatic and, of course, almost perfectly thrilling. Once I had really cottoned to that I couldn't hear it enough, and so, interestingly, the song now has vastly more associations for me with 1999 than 1987. That, of course, is neither here nor there in the scheme of things, but interesting to me in the way it points up how the best artists make work that is resolutely outside of time—has, in fact, no time, existing rather in all time, and for all time. Heralded forth by various synthesized horns it tells a familiar story of love suddenly and bewilderingly lost, overlaid by Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant's carefully ironic gigolo twist on it and various layers of tongue-in-cheek reality checks ("I bought you drinks, I brought you flowers, I read you books and talked for hours," etc.). It's left to Dusty, in this careful if lovely morass of pose and gesture, to bring home the pain of the situation. "Since you went away I've been hanging around," she sings to devastating effect. "I've been wondering why I'm feeling down." In that moment, there is not a single question in anyone's mind as to why she or anyone hearing this song is feeling down. It's all there in the carefully constructed context and, even more, in the grain of her voice.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Kraftwerk scored a pleasantly surprising hit with this odd meditation on the pleasures of wanton oil consumption. As with our previous encounter with automotive technology, Gary Numan's "Cars," it's as likely as not that most of its chart success can be accounted for simply by the novelty value it held. But actually it has a good deal more to offer than something on the order of "Gitarzan" or "Convoy." Robotic in its approach to melody, arrangement, and lyrics too—"Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn," goes the repeated chant, which of course means "We drive, drive, drive down the freeway"—it is nonetheless pleasant, charming, even alluring. It didn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time or ever before, with its washes of synthesizer chords and softly urgent beats, and one can imagine people dancing to it in private with their friends, acting comically like automatons with lurching, jerky movements and zombie eyes, arms straight out at the shoulders and gently undulating. Lots of laughs for all. Unlike Numan's hit, of course, the Kraftwerk song also appeared in a much longer version that occupied an entire album side—some nearly 23 minutes, in fact, where the concept is really worked good and hard. Passing cars and perhaps various highway markers may be heard, horns honking, perhaps a visit to a rest stop; and even, at one point, a brief discussion and a decision to switch the radio on. Can you guess what's playing? I'll give you a hint. It goes like this: "Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn." There's nothing, after all, like hearing your favorite songs on the car radio.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
The Flamingos were a doo-wop act out of Chicago who kicked around the various alleyways and lonely streets of rock 'n' roll for much of the '50s. Then, finally, came this, their big moment—and what a moment it is. Written originally for a Depression-era movie musical and also recorded in 1950 by Peggy Lee, the Flamingos turned it into one of the most gorgeous confections of the rock 'n' roll or any other era, powered by soft Chopsticks-style playing on a piano, layers of echoing shimmer on the imposing backing vocals, and a tender melody and lyrical preoccupations to die for. "Are the stars out tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright," warbles the lead singer Nate Nelson, softly and carefully landing on each note. "I don't know if we're in a garden, or on a crowded avenue." "CH-BOM CH-BOM," his accompanists respond, which clarifies nothing but its own stunning effect. It's one of those songs that sneaks up on you. You might hear it a thousand times and then one time—perhaps in the many movie scenes where it has been used, perhaps on an oldies radio station when you are making a quick trip to the grocery store for a red pepper—it finally catches you unexpected and strikes you dumb with the pure beauty of it. For how many fortunate couples does this stand as an "our song"? Many. It would have to be. Many, many, many. After all, this version alone has been around more than 50 years, and it sounds as fresh today as ever it could have to the class of '59.
Monday, September 06, 2010
YES, I say, Sonny & Cher's goopy first hit retains its charms, in spite of the sure knowledge we have now of the ultimate fate of these fur-vested standard-bearers of one version of the '60s, the one that worshiped at the feet of Phil Spector immediately before the tidal wave of the Beatles and Stones and all the other Brits washed them deep into the hinterlands of inconsequence. I suppose my favoring it has something to do with its being one of the very first singles I ever actually purchased (along with "Help!" and "Save Your Heart for Me"). "I Got You Babe" enters and departs with the tempo of a gassy ape, or maybe that's the oboe that makes me think of it, but it gets where it's going, and where it's going is a simple, plaintive, and dare I say innocent declaration of love, which arrives even as summer closes down and it's time to go back to school. Just two nutty kids alone and left to fend for themselves in a desperate world, never mind that one (Sonny) is 11 years older than the other, which makes him a bit less convincing as a nutty kid. But forget about that, and dig the message (even now there is something irresistible about Sonny Bono that invites potshots; it was the hallmark of Cher's stand-up on the TV show and, for his part, Sonny addressed it in his solo follow-up to this, "Laugh at Me"). Erm, where was I? Oh yes, dig the message: "They say we're young and we don't know, won't find out until we grow" (sung very sweetly). "Well I don't know if all that's true, 'cos you got me, and baby I got you" (sung very poorly). And all together now: "I got you babe, I got you babe," etc. "Don't let them say your hair's too long." Cut. Freeze. Fade. Indelible.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, September 04, 2010
Send email to Sub Pop. Demand the return of this album.
Friday, September 03, 2010
Director/writer: Richard Kelly
Photography: Steven Poster
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, James Duval, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, Seth Rogen
Yet another one that sadly loses a good bit of its oomph the more times you look at it. The main problem with Donnie Darko, or so it seems to me, is that it doesn't appear to have any particularly acute sense of itself or what it wants to be. And/or it's too ambitious, which could already be the chief distinguishing characteristic of its director and writer, Richard Kelly, at least if the other title I've seen by him, Southland Tales, is anything to go by. So what is Donnie Darko? Well, it's a little bit teen comedy (which may account for its otherwise mystifying setting in 1988, the furthest tail end of the teen comedy glory years), a little bit horror, a little bit science fiction, and a wee bit mental illness drama. The titular main character is a troubled teen in therapy and on psychotropic medication for vaguely referenced earlier transgressions, by all evidence ongoing, who as the movie begins narrowly escapes death when the engine from a jet aircraft (as yet unknown) mysteriously falls from the sky into his family's house, landing in the bedroom where he would have been sleeping but for the fact that he had spent the night sleepwalking, a more or less recent symptom. Then there's something about an elderly and failing neighbor, one Grandma Death, who Darko discovers published a book many years previously about time travel, which seems to be speaking to him personally. Also speaking to him personally is a man named Frank with a voice of doom who appears in an evil bunny costume. It starts to feel a bit as if the various shaggy loose ends of one would-be genre are there simply to cover for the others. This is not merely a brainless teen comedy with a loud Tears for Fears soundtrack—look, time travel! This is not some empty exercise in horror—look, a sensitive teen struggling to maintain his emotional equilibrium! This is no science fiction convolution—look, a man in a large bunny suit in a film not by David Lynch! The first time I saw this I was impressed with its bold strokes and a plot that seems to knot around back on itself. But it does not improve with close viewing, and so I think I am now giving up on it. Enjoy it for what it has, which includes those bold strokes and also a cast that goes through its paces effectively. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze, a very oddly pitched Drew Barrymore—the lot of them. They're doing the best they can. I'm blaming this mess on Kelly. In short: madness, I tell you, madness. Unfortunately, I have to mean that literally, because that oldest and easiest trick of all appears to be the one finally settled on here. That is, if it isn't actually a time travel story. That is, if it isn't actually a horror scenario. Oh, bother.
Thursday, September 02, 2010
I never heard the faux Neil Young in this that I heard others complaining about, at least not at the time, so I never had that problem with it. In fact, I adored it almost from the first moment, as I did so many America songs in spite of myself. I appear to have something of a weakness for the act, though I think only "Ventura Highway" or "Tin Man" come close to rivaling this. In honesty, this might actually count as another personal choice, one that I favor because it reminds me of events in my life. On the other hand, it's put together pretty well: the neat and easy acoustic strumming that provides the entry point, Dewey Bunnell's softly clarion, vaguely anemic vocals as he starts in on his nonsense story, and the la-la-la harmonies from the other two members of the trio that come along to support him. The bongos are a nice touch too, and what the heck, so are the dopey, mysterious words: deserts and horses and hot sun and can't remember your name, sure, OK, cool. In terms of the music, yes, it does borrow heavily, or even outright steals, various laidback West Coast stylings popular at the time—the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Byrds, whatnot. America (a terrible name, by the way, I have always thought that) nonetheless found a way to get this done and onto the charts at the time, so give them, or their management, all credit due. All right, I'm done with the caveats now. I admit it. I love this. The effect it has on me remains one that is unparalleled and sublime, lovely and evocative and fragile and moving. I enjoy it any time I happen to hear it, under any circumstances. It makes me feel sad and happy all at once together.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
All indications are that Tears for Fears had a notion to make a big statement with this, their nearly most successful single from their most successful album (the bombastic and by-the-numbers "Shout" actually sat at #1 for a week longer so technically it gets the prize). The album, Songs from the Big Chair, had something or other to do with psychotherapy—you can hear that a little better in "Shout." "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" has something or other to do with pathology. Whatever! What I get from it is a big beautiful gorgeous expanding confection of pure pop joy, undergirded with pillar-thick walking beats that propel one to a tumbling blue sky where gravity just doesn't matter. Other points obtain as well: some decent guitar flourishes, some nice harmonies, a sing-songy melody that neatly dodges inanity. The words may be a bit confusing but generally they don't get in the way of the vibe ("Everybody wants to rule the world"—you mean, like, tyrants? Huh?), which contains planets' worth of big open spaces to wander in as it chugs to its various conclusions. There is something uniquely of its time here, the mid-'80s, which you can also hear in songs from A-ha and Simple Minds, even Band Aid, but somehow this one works for me as the epitome of all that. I like those songs too, but not as much as this. This is the one made for playing loud in the car when it's hot and sunny, headed for the beach with friends on plans you have been looking forward to for days, or with no plans at all but only the company of those friends, close and fleeting both. It's the one that brings back the memories. Isn't that what radio hits are for anyway?