Saturday, April 30, 2011

His 'n' Hers (1994)

This is not the place to start with Pulp—that remains, always, Different Class. But if you like that album enough you're bound to find some pleasures here too. It certainly wears well day over day. As the album that came immediately before Different Class, you can hear them feeling their way to a signature sound that combines a certain amount of keyboard-inflected rock 'n' roll elegance and poise with Jarvis Cocker's willfully loutish by way of geeky vocal performances, often living most effectively in the lower registers, and his lyrical preoccupations, which run to flavors of resentment. A winning formula, in other words, particularly when it hits its stride here on the various singles, "Lipgloss" and "Babies" and "Razzmatazz." "Babies" positions Cocker's ruminating vocals over simple, evocative guitar lines until suddenly it somehow becomes very moving. "Razzmatazz" just powers forward, in a lovely dancefloor kind of way, and is the one song here that I think would have fit well on Different Class. As you can probably tell from the general tenor of my comments, the album as a whole suffers for me in comparison to what followed. Casting around for something more to say about it, I found an Amazon reviewer offering this advice in 1999: "Fans who were exposed to Pulp through Different Class might need a little time to let this album fully sink in (it takes about 4 or 5 listenings). But there is no excuse for owning Different Class and not this." So there's that point of view. (I also like this point that he raises: "All the Pulp albums come with the liner note 'NB. Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recording,' a plea you'll inevitably break when you go rushing for the lyric book half way through the first song.") Me, I'm not sure that even the four or five listenings called for get His 'n' Hers entirely over the hump, except to put its best songs in sharper relief (and, as ever, I'm vaguely suspicious of such advice in the first place), but I pass along nonetheless just because I suspect he is more dedicated to the band than I may ever be. I see that there's something about Pulp that I want very badly to like, and to like a lot. So that's me trying.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Raging Bull (1980)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Pete Savage, Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin
Photography: Michael Chapman
Music: Pietro Mascagni
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Johnny Barnes

With careful study I have come to some appreciation for Raging Bull, which critical consensus hails as Scorsese's best ever and also as the greatest film of the 1980s. But it hasn't been easy. I'm not typically opposed to film fare that revels in the grotesqueries of its characters and/or stories—I like both Glengarry Glen Ross and There Will Be Blood, for example, to name two off the top of my head that don't offer a lot of carefree qualities. Nor do I have anything against the fashionableness of Scorsese's critical adulation. In fact, I am aligned with the consensus on his next-highest ranked, my favorite by him, Taxi Driver (which we will be getting to in good time).

But I have to say that something about Raging Bull just puts me off. The brutality of the boxing, the ever pointless aggressiveness that animates everything in the life of Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro with an intensity that virtually atomizes the entire school of method acting and its 30 years of history to that point), the seeming one-note preoccupation of the entire thing with the concerns of a wild, stalking animal in possession of barely an iota of impulse control. It's a kind of case for despair, implicitly asserting the foolishness itself of even attempting humanity or compassion, and all too convincing at that.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

98. William Shatner, "That's Me Trying" (2004)


I know that this and the album it comes from are mostly intended as a grand joke. And it's a pretty good joke, I'll hold my hand up there, riffing off Shatner's stock in trade here at the end of his career, the fatally insincere buffoon in his dotage lost in the consequences of a lifetime of refusing responsibility. But there's also something here that tugs very hard at the heartstrings, embedded deeply in the details of the lyrics written by Nick Hornby. The singer tracks down his disaffected daughter by looking up her address in "the phone book at the library," and comments, "Weird, that you've been living maybe two miles away for the best part of 20 years." A lifetime of loss is compressed into that. He can't remember how old she is, or who was president when she was born. And he's not about to change—"But I don't wanna talk about any of that bad stuff, why I missed out on your wedding and your high school graduation"—except in teeny, impossibly tentative, and too-little-too-late ways: "I'd like to explain, but I ... can't." The chorus is a dagger to the heart, free-floating and aching: "Years of silence / Not enough / Who could blame us / Giving up?" I think it's arguable that Hornby and Ben Folds, the musical brains behind the project, have more to do with what makes this work than Shatner. Yet even as Shatner's hammy improvs clutter it up (is there any doubt he's responsible for the "daughter dad action" throwaway that very nearly torpedoes the whole thing?), I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled it off. Shatner occupies the role perfectly, as the bumbling foolish Dad you can't help hating and loving both. Like the awkward animated figures in the homemade YouTube video I'm pointing to, sometimes the only thing you can do is hang your head at the sheer pitifulness of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

99. Buzz Barker & the Atomic Bums, "Land of the Free" (1979)


Buzz Barker = Curtiss A. The Atomic Bums = the Suicide Commandos + keyboardist Mark Goldstein, who wrote the song, and a few others. This Minneapolis one-off was recorded for the Twin Tone double-LP anthology, Big Hits of Mid-America Vol. III, and it's a scorcher. Both Curtiss A and the Commandos were known for their live acts, which only rarely made it to vinyl. But this is one of those times, with a meditation on American values right in front of the Reagan revolution ("1980's just around the corner," Curtiss A broods as an aside at one point, which I recall as a frequent preoccupation of his at the time). In a lot of ways it seems more relevant than ever: "I like money but I hate the rich / They run this place and the rest of us bitch," it carps, going on to rhyme "home of the brave" with "learn to shave," "Jesus saves," "Sam & Dave," "the New Wave," and "we're in our graves," and it stretches out all kind of ways: Chris Osgood gets a tidy guitar solo. Goldstein sends it into ultra dimensions with haunting lovely long notes near the end. And the band absolutely cooks all through. Sometimes I just have to sit back and gape, still. This was a lift-and-drop needle operation on my stereo for most of the summer that it was released, a constant prelude to leaving my studio apartment and going on all my adventures, day job as delivery van driver, summer school classes, and out at night to the Longhorn to see touring and local punk-rock acts. But it's not just the nostalgia talking when I laud this song so ardently, because I don't think you had to be there to grasp its fundamentals. You just need to listen to it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

100. NNB, "Slack" (1978)


The usual referents for this somewhat obscure slice of late-'70s Minneapolis punk-rock underground go to Television and Pere Ubu. I guess they will do, plus I'll throw Ultravox! into that brew as well. "Slack" combines the dark current of Pere Ubu with the spick-and-span play and production values of Verlaine & co. Lyrics riff sharp on sleeplessness and insanity: "Can't sleep any more 'cos I always wake up screaming / Don't leave any more 'cos I always come back dreaming," singer/songwriter Mark Freeman goes, sounding a little bit like Lou Reed. I'm throwing around a lot of names here but I don't mean to imply this is any kind of exercise in aping its sources—to the contrary, they are almost completely absorbed, and the result is startlingly original. This (and the band, and Freeman more generally) has long been one of the best-kept secrets of the many estimable Minneapolis punk-rock contributions of its time. A throbbing bass and tidy guitar play that blows up into giant ominous chords set the tone as it moves through its deliberate and dream-like paces. It's chilling and thrilling, with nary a single wasted gesture across its 4:08. Eventually something like a solo comes along to close it down, heavily inflected with feedback (this is the point where I'm hearing shades of Ultravox!). It's altogether a nicely packaged single (that's the cover image above), with who knows what number of total copies manufactured—I doubt it ran to even five figures. For whatever reasons it has remained all too criminally unanthologized and thus mostly unavailable, except now within monied collector circles, where it commands handsome prices on the order of $50 and upwards. Without question the greatest song ever by someone with whom I attended grade school.

Monday, April 25, 2011

100 Other Songs: 101-205

Here is where you start to get a sense of how much more focused (or is that limited? or is that blinkered?) that my big list is this time, all clumped up even at these levels with multiples from the usual suspects, the Replacements and Iggy Pop and the Beatles, so on and so forth. Truth to tell, the whole thing never even pushed 400 very hard (whereas the hit songs list closed hard on 1,000, a really big number to manage). A few songs in this also-ran second hundred, such as the Terry Lee Hale, I purposely left outside the main 100 because I suspect that finding a copy of the right version, even to hear myself, going strictly on memory in these cases, would be nigh impossible. The David Bowie songs I left out because his representatives trolled me so hard on the last list—petty, I know. And you can see how hard a handful of his songs were straining to get in. But you just can't be too cautious in these matters, remember that too. They still have the power.

Otherwise it's all list-making business as usual, the old game of musical chairs, as recalled infatuations and songs heard recently were systematically shuttled in or up, in turn forcing others out one or two or three at a time. Things even got hot and heavy towards the end of the fiddling right at the #200 mark, where I really wanted to keep some of those late-breaking fallers-out. No one could possibly care, but here, out of some misguided sense of responsibility, are the first five of them, #s 201-205, when the music finally stopped: Elvis Presley, "Make the World Go Away" (1970); Aphex Twin, "Pulsewidth" (1993); Doors, "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" (1971); Roxy Music, "Mother of Pearl" (1973); Young Marble Giants, "Choci Loni" (1980). I would also like to say that I'm sorry now I didn't include "Love Jones" by Brighter Side of Darkness on that last list. On to the important matters.

101. Hüsker Dü, "Pink Turns to Blue" (1984)
102. Replacements, "Rock 'n' Roll Ghost" (1989)
103. Bob Dunlap, "Loud Loud Loud Loud Guitars" (1986)
104. Echo & the Bunnymen, "Pictures on My Wall" (1980)
105. Beulah, "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" (1999)
106. David Bowie, "Sound and Vision" (1977)
107. David Bowie, "Queen Bitch" (1971)
108. David Bowie, "V-2 Schneider" (1977)
109. Pulp, "Common People" (1996)
110. Terry Lee Hale, "The Boys Are Waiting" (1988)
111. Mott the Hoople, "I Wish I Was Your Mother" (1973)
112. R.E.M., "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" (1984)
113. Suburbs, "Chemistry Set" (1978)
114. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Third Stone From the Sun" (1967)
115. White Stripes, "Ball and Biscuit" (2003)
116. Womack & Womack, "Baby I'm Scared of You" (1983)
117. Odds, "Wendy Under the Stars" (1991)
118. Art Pepper, "Brown Gold" (1952)
119. Bill Coday, "On the Chitlin' Circuit" (1968)
120. Ennio Morricone, "La Storia De Un Soldato (The Story Of A Soldier)" (1966)
121. Pet Shop Boys, "Rent" (1987)
122. Yo La Tengo, "Nowhere Near" (1993)
123. Bruce Springsteen, "Independence Day" (1980)
124. Beck, "Jack-Ass" (1996)
125. Steely Dan, "Pretzel Logic" (1974)
126. Talking Heads, "Animals" (1979)
127. Wire, "I Should Have Known Better" (1979)
128. Beatles, "I Should Have Known Better" (1964)
129. Beatles, "Act Naturally" (1965)
130. Replacements, "Kiss Me on the Bus" (1985)
131. Iggy Pop, "Success" (1977)
132. Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" (1978)
133. Rod Stewart, "Gasoline Alley" (1970)
134. Harptones, "What Did I Do Wrong" (1957)
135. Bongo Herman & Bunny, "Know Far I" (1971)
136. Mojo Nixon, "Elvis Is Everywhere" (1987)
137. Lou Reed, "Bottoming Out" (1983)
138. Iggy Pop, "I'm Bored" (1979)
139. Them, "Gloria" (1965)
140. Sonic Youth, "Shadow of a Doubt" (1986)
141. Culture, "Black Starliner Must Come" (1977)
142. Meat Puppets, "Two Rivers" (1985)
143. Johnny Rivers, "The Snake" (1966)
144. Suburbs, "Love Is the Law" (1984)
145. Angry Samoans, "They Saved Hitler's Cock" (1982)
146. Soft Boys, "I Wanna Destroy You" (1980)
147. Bob Dylan, "Clothes Line Saga" (1967)
148. Kraftwerk, "Computer Love" (1981)
149. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Down by the River" (1969)
150. Chris Bell, "Though I Know She Lies" (1974)
151. Angelo Badalamenti, "Twin Peaks Theme" (1990)
152. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, "Falling Slowly" (2006)
153. Kirsty MacColl, "Here Comes That Man Again" (2001)
154. English Beat, "Twist & Crawl" (1980)
155. David Bowie, "Moonage Daydream" (1972)
156. Brian Eno, "King's Lead Hat" (1977)
157. Elliott Smith, "Baby Britain" (1998)
158. Weakerthans, "One Great City!" (2003)
159. Jacobites, "The Big Store" (1985)
160. Talking Heads, "Listening Wind" (1980)
161. Jefferson Airplane, "Lather" (1968)
162. Dwight Yoakam, "Mercury Blues" (2004)
163. David Bowie, "The Prettiest Star" (1973)
164. Doors, "Waiting for the Sun" (1970)
165. Lou Reed, "Heavenly Arms" (1982)
166. Eels, "Your Lucky Day in Hell" (1996)
167. Replacements, "Alex Chilton" (1987)
168. Rolling Stones, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" (1971)
169. Morrissey, "Now My Heart Is Full" (1994)
170. Saint Etienne, "Lose That Girl" (1998)
171. Beautiful South, "We Are Each Other" (1992)
172. Pretenders, "Precious" (1980)
173. Monks, "I Hate You" (1966)
174. Spring, "Shyin' Away" (1972)
175. Steely Dan, "Glamour Profession" (1980)
176. Old 97's, "Holly Jolly Christmas" (1997)
177. Electronic, "Getting Away With It" (1991)
178. Leon Russell, "Tight Rope" (1972)
179. Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter" (1969)
180. Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock" (1970)
181. Phoebe Snow, "Take Your Children Home" (1975)
182. Iggy & the Stooges, "Death Trip" (1973)
183. Buzzcocks, "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" (1979)
184. Camera Obscura, "Teenager" (2003)
185. Afghan Whigs, "What Jail Is Like" (1993)
186. Marilyn Manson, "Antichrist Superstar" (1996)
187. Julie London, "Gone With the Wind" (1955)
188. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Man Out of Time" (1982)
189. Ten Years After, "Adventures of a Young Organ" (1967)
190. Sonic Youth, "Titanium Expose" (1990)
191. Bruce Springsteen, "Downbound Train" (1984)
192. Lou Reed, "Coney Island Baby" (1976)
193. Modern English, "I Melt With You" (1982)
194. Echo & the Bunnymen, "The Cutter" (1983)
195. Cardigans, "Lovefool" (1996)
196. Cream, "I'm So Glad" (1966)
197. Sonics, "Boss Hoss" (1965)
198. Brian Eno & David Byrne, "America Is Waiting" (1981)
199. John McLaughlin, "Devotion" (1970)
200. Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, "Dragon Song" (1971)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980)

Elmore Leonard is a writer everyone needs to look into sooner or later. Anyone who cares about good writing owes it to oneself—he's easy to read and amazing at his craft, his words literally hard-boiled down to pebbles and rocks of meaning washed bone clean by narrative momentum. His dialogue, in particular, can make a fascinating study, as he simply takes out the words that people don't say and leaves only the rest, which is remarkably different from how most people reconstruct conversations, even in memory, let alone writing it down. Yet the lines ring like fragments of melody. "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip," is how he puts it in advice to writers. Leonard started out writing westerns (day job writing advertising copy, maybe that's how he got so pithy), then moved on to crime novels set in Detroit, in Florida, and finally in Los Angeles. He might even have one or two set in New Orleans now. Most people's favorites by him seem to be the first one or two they've read. I'm no exception there, and for that reason probably as much as any I tend to favor his Detroit novels, of which the subtitle here makes obvious this is one. That subtitle also underlines the lasting influence westerns have had on Leonard, both the ones he wrote and the ones he read and saw at the movies—the profound influence, indeed, that westerns have had on crime fiction generally (and American detective fiction particularly). Raymond Chandler's man going down a mean street, after all, has always been basically just a 20th-century urban update of certain species of frontier stories. Here Leonard simply elaborates on that, as much as he ever "elaborates" on anything, with a nerve-jangling confrontation between a depraved, soulless criminal, a young kid named Clement Mansell, aka the "Oklahoma Wildman," and Raymond Cruz, the Detroit homicide investigator who is determined to take him down. Mansell is enough like Billy the Kid, and Cruz enough like Gregory Peck, to make the overriding conceit work just fine. And Leonard never has to spell anything out in even that much detail. He just sets the players in motion and lets things roll; the subtitle is there for the clue. The landscape is quickly littered with victims and potential victims, including perhaps most memorably Mansell's own attorney, the hard-as-nails Carolyn Wilder. It can get to be a pretty rough ride, but at least it doesn't take much more than an airplane flight, or single late night, to polish off.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dizrythmia (1977)

I don't remember now how I ended up with early Split Enz albums, before their early '80s breakthrough as an all too prototypical New Wave act. Some clerk at a record store must have told me to buy them. The first, Mental Notes, I recall as something of a wan Roxy Music knockoff. This, their third, was more to my taste, more of a pop album, dotted by horns and keyboard strings and lusty guitar licks, aided and abetted no doubt by producer Geoff Emerick, late of the Beatles, Badfinger, America, etc., etc. Neil Finn had joined the band and makes his first LP appearance with this one; brother Tim was a founding member and indeed involved in writing nearly all the songs here, wholly or at least in part, along with Eddie Rayner, who claims co-credit on four of the nine tracks. Only one song even approaches anything like a stellar status, but they are nonetheless all perfectly workmanlike about the way they hammer together hooks and melodies in the service of earworm fare that often continues to echo through cerebral cortexes hours and days later. That's the Finns' wheelhouse, basically. Two here were even hits Down Under: "My Mistake" and "Bold as Brass," and it's not hard to imagine them playing on the radio. A couple of others, at six-minutes-plus each, recall the band's collective Roxy Music infatuation, but are not without their charms. The knockout song for me, "Charlie," is also a bit long at 5:31. But it's just lovely all through, with a loping bass figure, a vocal left to twist in space on various breaks, and memorably lush cascading piano flourishes. It's a real show-stopper, forever calling attention to itself by the ache it suddenly produces any time I let the album play. Tim Finn and Rayner were disappointed with the vocal, but Emerick reportedly argued for keeping it and ultimately prevailed. I would like to personally thank him for that. Interestingly (or not), as a vinyl album this is one that played better for me "upside down"—that is, while I usually tended to play both sides when I listened to it, as I did with many albums, in this case (and a very few others) I preferred to listen to the second side first. Somehow that sequencing worked better for me. I'm not sure how I came to these decisions, or even what compelled me in the first place to give it a try.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rashomon (1950)

Japan, 88 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshirō Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijirō Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Katō

Akira Kurosawa's breakthrough art-house hit introduced him to Western audiences as something of an ambitious and self-serious (not to say pretentious) filmmaker. Rashomon has its analogues in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (both of which came a few years later) as compact black-and-white non-English-speaking pictures that lend themselves afterward to lively, overly intellectualized discussion and explication over coffee and cigarettes, and which incidentally tended to over-define their creators. They are a bit obvious about their intentions and also tended to obfuscate some of the better efforts that followed.

Nevertheless, I remain fond of Rashomon, even as I most often get the sense in latter-day reviews how unexcited many are about it now, as they argue that at this point the picture is more famous for being famous. David Thomson, in the 2002 edition of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, says that its "debate on truth is trite." But I like it for the artful way it is shot, for its music, for its players—and yes, even for its debate on truth.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

100 Other Songs: Introduction

This companion countdown to my last exercise of 100 hit songs features songs that never made the U.S. Billboard Top 40—in many if not all cases didn't even get within shouting distance of it, though some may have been hits in their own right on UK, rhythm and blues, dance, country, and other charts. That left things much more wide open, in terms of making choices, but oddly seemed to have the effect of making it harder to put together a big list. Maybe it was for reasons as simple as that I didn't have a reference book to hand and instead had to work with only random scraps of notes in piles of old notebooks, previous attempts at such lists, a failing memory, and an overstuffed hard drive.

But these exercises need their ground rules—it's in the nature of things, otherwise we face chaos—so here's one: I set a time limit of 12 minutes, which meant no chance for "The Creator Has a Master Plan," "The Little House I Used to Live In," "Highlands," "The Diamond Sea," "Change Your Mind," "King Kong," "Dark Star," "Who Do You Love," and just about anything by the Allman Brothers or Miles Davis (not easy—there have been periods when I've used "Right Off" and "Pharoah's Dance" like favorite 45 singles of the moment). Maybe I can get it together to do a list of album sides sometime.

Another ground rule: no TV themes, hence sayonara "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Little Rascals," which are short but powerful, putting me instantly back to breakfast cereal in pajamas at the crack of dawn.

I'd also like to say that I'm not unaware of some tendency to favor or even over-favor the music of, approximately in this order, the Beatles, Lou Reed, the Pet Shop Boys, and Jonathan Richman. I did what I could to deal with that, short of an arbitrary rule limiting appearances, which it seems to me would have produced an unfortunate or even egregious distortion. As with James Brown in the last list, I tend to use the number of appearances as well as the rankings as some approximation of how much pressure the catalogs of certain artists are able to bring to bear on me.

A good friend of this blog—the eponymous proprietor over at KindsaLuv—was kind enough to cobble together a PDF of my last countdown, complete with an attractive graphic that he put together from pictures I used. For those interested, it could well make a handy printable/portable edition. Get it here.

Thanks to other list-makers who inspire me to this madness—Phil Dellio, Scott Woods, Steven Rubio, Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy, Stephen at Checking on My Sausages, and the cantankerous crew at Wonders in the Dark. Thanks to Comrade DougJ at Balloon Juice for following along and generously handing out links (and for all his great work at that blog, along with Tim F., Anne Laurie, Kay, cranky blog commander, and everyone else there). Thanks always to everyone who cares. Here we go.

Scheduling notes: For the duration of this countdown, and depending as always on stamina, Fridays will continue on movies and Sundays on books. Saturdays once again devoted to albums, and/or now and then a LAMB Movie of the Month. Everything else is countdown.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

I followed along vaguely through the '90s with the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma's greatest rock 'n' roll band. Clouds Taste Metallic, in 1995 nearly 10 years from their origins, was where I climbed on board. I attended a listening party a couple years later for the Zaireeka box (four CDs with identical track sequencing but varying mixes intended to be played simultaneously on four strategically distributed stereos). Derived the requisite appreciation of The Soft Bulletin. Then this, so confounding in the suffocating slow-melt of its surface textures, a candy-colored confection so sweet in its best moments it gives you a cavity, a rubbery resilient thing filled with soaring spaces that lumbers about like an elephant. A kind of hallucination, or Disney cartoon feature, from beginning to end. Of course it is perfectly ridiculous in the central conceit of its concept—something about a Japanese girl and malevolent robots, "those evil-natured robots / They're programmed to destroy us"—which is as intended, mostly beside the point anyway. Tracks such as the title song "Pt. 1" or "Do You Realize??" or "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon" are almost perfectly irresistible on early exposure, amazing, swooning music, with melodies and arrangements that spread slowly like pink haze in sunset across the stratosphere, carried easily by Wayne Coyne's shades-of-Neil-Young quavering vocals and the huge bottoms of production. In the end, I'm not sure how well it all holds up, however. My complaint at the time of Zaireeka (along with its implicit homework assignment of assembling four CD players in one room and figuring out a way to start them all at once, and oh yeah, it was sold as an expensive box set too) was that the Flaming Lips tended for me to be an acquired taste, music that yielded up more the more one became familiar with it, and how was one supposed to pay adequate study to such a difficult project of even hearing it at all? With Yoshimi it's as if they went to the other extreme, creating bubblegum music for instant infatuation, sacrificing the depths that had accompanied the earlier work. Such a conundrum. In fact, I'm not positive even now that Yoshimi isn't still capable of eventually offering up something more memorable than its only temporarily diverting pleasures: plangent synthesizer figures, catchy melodies, and an occasional aching sense of some ineffable beyond. I just haven't found it yet.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pale Fire (1962)

Vladimir Nabokov here takes high concept to new flights of ecstatic vision, with literary text, criticism, and pulpy narrative so inextricably enmeshed as to be virtually inseparable. It's as entertaining to read straight through as a novel as it is dense and rewarding to parse closely, breaking various sections and their interrelations down to constituent parts—a work that clearly could have been no small feat to produce, but for the most part evidently all in a day's work for Nabokov. Ostensibly it's a critical treatment written by an academic, Charles Kinbote, about a long, previously unpublished poem by poet John Shade. It opens with a foreword by Kinbote, and then reproduces the 999-line poem, "Pale Fire" (of course), which is divided into four cantos. That is followed by Kinbote's line-by-line exegeses, which increasingly ramble off-point as he details his friendship with Shade, Shade's murder, Kinbote's acquisition of Shade's poem in manuscript, and then begins to wander further afield into stories of Kinbote's homeland, Zembia, whose king was recently overthrown in a Soviet-sponsored coup. From there, as it becomes evident that Kinbote is (or believes himself to be) that king, and may or may not be insane, or suicidal, or even a murderer, it grows ever more consumed with paranoia as Kinbote believes there is an assassin on his trail, even as Kinbote is attempting to finish this critical treatise and assemble a publishable manuscript. Though Nabokov plays it as straight as anyone could, the events described are so weird and so funny it's hard not to miss the joke. And that joke is a very good one. The poem itself sprawls across most of the first quarter of the book; it's not particularly easy going for someone like me not accustomed to reading poetry closely, particularly long-form poetry. And no way, I suspect, does that poem ever stand on its own. It's just good enough to be believable and that's all the opening Nabokov needs for this story. Once into Kinbote's commentary, things move briskly, and the plot developments and their implications come from all directions at once. Sometimes you just need to stop for a few moments to contemplate the crazy integrity of it all. I found myself using two bookmarks, one for my place in the commentary and the other for the section of the poem under discussion. You probably don't even need to go through the poem all at once in the first place, as I did, struggling, but can proceed directly from Foreword to Commentary (page numbers obligingly marked out in a table of contents) and absorb the poem well enough that way. Pale Fire is really not one to miss just because the concept might seem so rarefied or intellectualized, though it does, once through, represent a fascinating, seemingly bottomless puzzle capable of sustaining multiple interpretations. At the same time, it's one of the funniest books I've ever read.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Black Dynamite (2009)

(This is my review of the LAMB April Movie of the Month.)

USA, 84 minutes
Director: Scott Sanders
Writers: Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, Scott Sanders
Photography: Shawn Maurer
Music: Adrian Younge
Editor: Adrian Younge
Cast: Michael Jai White, Obba Babatunde, Kevin Chapman, Tommy Davidson, Richard Edson, Arsenio Hall, Byron Minns, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Nicole Sullivan, James McManus

Black Dynamite is an amiable send-up of '70s-era blaxploitation fare that generally hits most of the right notes, and provides a few laughs along the way. I never have been a huge fan of B-movies of this era or very many others, so caveats, but it looks and moves like ones I know, for example with the grainy umber palette suffused all through, reproducing digitally the slightly washed-out, slightly muddy feel to a certain kind of film stock. It features a corny horn-based funk band on the score accompanying the action—at times it seems like that music, which I recall hearing at least as often on TV of the time, punctuates every last plot development no matter how small. Characters are prone to erupt with "baaad" exclamations such as, "Sister Betty made some hog maws and, man, she put her ankle in it." Some of the best laughs, for me, came at the expense of the clumsy writing from those movies of yore, as when an early flashback scene embeds exposition in the dialogue: "Jimmy, I am 18-year-old Black Dynamite and you're my 16-year-old kid brother." Or, in another scene, when characters start reading stage directions along with their lines, e.g., "The militants turn, startled." (Did that really happen in some of those movies?) A lot of clever and amusing animation accompanies the action, such as a panorama of zodiac symbols that serves as montage during a sex scene. The plot revolves around a nefarious government plot (personally overseen by Dick Nixon) involving malt liquor, the mysterious death of Black Dynamite's kid brother, orphans on smack, and various other matters. Michael Jai White plays Black Dynamite; I've only seen him previously in 1997's Spawn, a movie I don't recall well. He's fine as the big swaggering dick and Vietnam veteran out to avenge his brother's death and otherwise get to the bottom of things. He's also a terrific fighter, particularly when he lets fly with kicks, and he has a tidy way of setting his face into a mask of self-seriousness that serves many purposes—evincing his imposing macho presence, resetting after laugh lines, and generally making clear to all around him that he is someone to be taken seriously when they are all clowns. Wait a minute, isn't he the biggest clown here? And speaking of, one of my favorite sight gags comes in a formal meeting of pimps, when one Captain Kangaroo Pimp is asked for his input—and there he is, an almost perfect Robert Keeshan lookalike in a red jacket, a kindly looking white fellow with gray mustache, bad haircut, and all. It doesn't make a lick of sense. Oh, but did you think it would? This must be one to get your ankle into.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Casablanca (1942)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Murray Burnett, Joan Alison, Casey Robinson
Photography: Arthur Edeson
Music: Max Steiner ("As Time Goes By": Herman Hupfeld)
Editor: Owen Marks
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine Lebeau

In one way or another Casablanca has been with me all my adult life, earning something of the status of a favorite uncle—with its kindliness and predictable pleasures, and not a few flaws (though my perception and indeed judgment of them seem to change all the time), and most of all a soothing familiarity, it's a known quantity that weathers many storms of cinema fashion and just goes on enduring. Something I have been able to return to again and again.

When people talk about glories of Hollywood, this is not necessarily the very first place I go, but it's always among them. It's so big and ripe and luscious, such a piece of work to fall in with, so sweeping and engaging, from its very first shot, a slow zoom on a revolving globe and the map animation that follows as a voiceover spells out the context, all the way through to its fogbound ending.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nearly Human (1989)

Todd Rundgren was a deep if brief infatuation of mine in the mid-'70s, though I never quite grokked the widely hailed classic double-LP Something/Anything; I liked pieces of it but on the whole it left me cold. My favorites, such as the first Utopia project (with one side a single 30-minute "song"), veered dangerously close either to fusion indulgences or, as with Initiation's "Real Man," to a kind of self-pitying self-help project for post-adolescent males. A Wizard/A True Star was my album of choice, and by the time of the absurd Faithful I was pretty much over the whole thing. Then, nearly 15 years later, came this. I picked it out of the slush pile at a newsweekly for which I was freelancing concert and album reviews—in those situations I often clutched at anything that seemed the least bit promising. And this one repaid, perhaps because of a painful divorce I was working through at the time and the opportunity this incidentally afforded to return to a past when things seemed safer, at least from the temporary vantage. For a short time I revisited with relish the various contradictory pleasures of Rundgren, who manages to take the kind of overweening technical prowess that can make Steely Dan productions at once so clinically admirable and so hollow and put it together with the heart of a soul man who knows his way around some of the most affecting strategies of songwriting and the mind of the post-adolescent male (strong as ever more than a decade on, talking about him not me, but it applied to me as well) who longs 24/7 for the fantasy of the girlfriend who surpasseth all understanding. Here Rundgren turns formally to gospel textures, backing up some of the tracks with entire choral choirs and letting it unspool for upwards of five or seven minutes apiece. Sometimes that works. The Elvis Costello cover, "Two Little Hitlers," I think mostly does not, though it was nice to see Rundgren finally engaging with the aftermath of 1977. What I like best, what I return to even still, are a few songs—"The Want of a Nail," "Fidelity," and especially "Parallel Lines"—that somehow put me back in the old Wizard way of hearing him, heartfelt, simple, open, lovely declarations of how it feels to be alive and all the poignant experience that it entails. Sometimes I sing along but most often I just sit quietly and listen, happy to reconnect once again with this strange gnomic figure of my youth.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Breathing Lessons (1988)

It's tempting to riff off the title of the first novel that Anne Tyler wrote after her most successful, The Accidental Tourist, and talk about how it reads as if Tyler has had her breath taken away, as though she needs to take a few deep breaths to get herself in hand once again—as though she were monumentally distracted. This is all speculation, but movie production for the adaptation of Tourist must have been underway as she wrote this, and in general Tyler was starting to come into her own as a Famous Author, her good fortune there entirely deserved. But Breathing Lessons lacks the usual expansiveness of her work, the easy way that it enters into the lives of its struggling lower-middle-class characters and simply occupies their emotional centers, moving through and across their preoccupations and priorities with tenderness and pathos, but as well with a flinty unwillingness to deny any part of their existence, particularly the fantasies they use to survive, however unpalatable or pathetic it might make them seem. Part of this effect of tightening up is the more constricted focus Tyler has chosen for the action here, confined to a single day's road trip taken by the middle-aged couple who live at the center of this novel, Maggie and Ira Moran. The occasion is a funeral for one of Maggie's oldest friend, which then becomes the excuse to visit the town where their only son's ex-wife has repaired to raise their only grandchild, which is on the way. Maggie and Ira are not on particularly good terms with her—not particularly bad, either, but definitely estranged, and strained. As with many of Tyler's characters, so often the women, Maggie has a tendency to prattle on, to idealize and make up glowing and sentimental versions of the past, which the taciturn men in their lives, here chiefly Ira, know are delusions. Nonetheless, these men in Tyler's tales derive a good deal of emotional sustenance from these women, as the women do in turn from their perception that they are living with a kindly listening ear, and therein lies the heartbreaking pathos of an Anne Tyler story in a nutshell. From there it's just a matter of seeing how she works out the details, and as always the pleasure is in the interactions between people, the patience and impatience they show for one another, the things they choose to talk about and not talk about, the way they show love and accept love, or don't. Breathing Lessons is not the place to start with Tyler. But if you already know her well, it's an interesting enough minor effort.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 08, 2011

L'Atalante (1934)

France, 89 minutes
Director: Jean Vigo
Writers: Jean Guinee, Albert Riera, Jean Vigo
Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Editor: Louis Chavance
Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-informed follower of cinema—a lightweight among the real cineastes, to be sure, but in possession of a basic knowledge of the road map and landmarks. Thus it was surprising to me to find a title so high on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—in the top 20 no less—with which I was not even passingly familiar, with the movie itself or even with its director, Jean Vigo.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. L'Atalante did get a DVD release, in 2003, but it's out of print now and also unavailable through Netflix. Prices for it are not particularly kind, presently starting at $22 for a used copy and $93 for a new, and so, cheapskate that I am, I turned to a VHS version that's still easily obtainable. The print is mediocre, the running time seven minutes less than what's indicated on IMDb, and—oh, indignity—the title is misspelled "L'Atlante" on box and tape. Shabby treatment indeed for such a perfectly charming picture.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Horses (1975)

As exalted as it is earthbound, and on so many levels, Patti Smith's great debut along with a performance I witnessed of her and her remarkable band early in 1976 ushered me into a whole new world of rock 'n' roll at a moment in my life when I needed it badly. This was a very important album for me. I want to point out just three examples of its profound dichotomies, which run through practically every little thing about it. First, the cover shot by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe is a simple enough black and white shot of the New Jersey native posed against a wall with a jacket slung over her shoulder, looking for all the world like some yobby thug stepping from the shadows of one London subculture of bleak horizons or another. Look more closely, however, and you will see that Mapplethorpe carefully set up the shot to create a play of light and shadow just behind her that gives her angel wings. On to the title, a simple common noun evocative of western movies and literature, young girls, agriculture, jousting, rodeos, and other homely matters mostly mundane in their times and places. Yet the horse, of course, is also a potent and deeply embedded symbol that cuts across European, Native American, Arabian, and Eastern cultures. Zimbio tells me that the horse symbolizes "success, freedom, travel, strength, power, nobility, wisdom and loyalty. It is also a symbol of life and death, grace and beauty." Smith harks to most of that one way or another in her remarkable 9:26 "Land" suite here, additionally working in an inscrutable scenario of teen rape, a cover of Cannibal & the Headhunters' 1965 hit "Land of 1,000 Dances" (covered also by Wilson Pickett, in 1966), and a cameo from the sea (which, remember, composes not just 71% of the earth's surface but 71% of our body's composition as well), resorting as needed to simply chanting, "Horses ... horses ... horses," to bring the thing up to full speed. Last, in this quickie survey of mine, the album opens with a cover of the old mid-'60s garage-rock chestnut, "Gloria." But this is not just any old cover of the song that launched one million teen dance parties, as Smith's opening figure—which does not appear in the Van Morrison original—makes abundantly clear: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." This G-L-O-R-I-A has much less to do with somebody in a beehive hairdo snapping gum and a lot more to do with "in excelsis Deo" and the affairs of a church. I'm still not sure which church that is, given the opening remarks, but there was a time when I was convinced it was the one true church, and I desperately wanted to join.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Political Fictions (2001)

Joan Didion's turn to the public sphere, after years of specializing in a kind of insular brooding clockwork essay built out of private obsessions (perfected in The White Album), hardly means we lose the best of her—she's still as precise as ever, as impatient, as outraged, as brittle, as unwilling to suffer nonsense. The only difference in this collection is that she's looking harder than ever at the fools who run the country, the prevaricating slippery politicians from all across the spectrum and the feckless media (the television figures make the biggest buffoons, but nobody gets off scot-free) that enable them. Even with one essay here about the 1988 political season, "Insider Baseball," already published in her last collection of nonfiction, After Henry, there's still plenty here to send you away thrilled and depressed by the realities she uncovers. We're so used to things being the way they are that we often lose sight of just how distorted they actually are. Not Didion, thank God. The gong she keeps banging here is the simple one of our disaffected electorate, never roused even at its most enthusiastic to turn out in numbers much higher than 50%-55% of eligible voters. What could it mean if they did? She asks virtually every reporter, every wise man of politics, every inside player that she meets about this simple fact and none of them have any good answers for it. It's not in their interest to have them, for one thing, an unpleasant fact about which Didion continually tries to raise a commotion, in her quiet iron-willed way. She examines Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of the '90s. Then she sets her sights on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent," she starts her piece, written in 1998, going on to point to Jesse Jackson's quote that Clinton is "nothing but an appetite." And she's basically on his side, as horrified as so many of us were by the Republican overreach of that scandal (certainly a clarifying moment for me). But that's much of the appeal here. Ten years after this book was published things are only worse. Between the covers of it Joan Didion is as clear-sighted as she can be, looking at something as nearly filthy as it can be. The results are unremittingly fascinating, and disheartening, and thrilling.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

USA, 200 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Nino Rota
Editors: Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, Peter Zinner
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gastone Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Francesca De Sapio, Morgana King, Marianna Hill, Leopoldo Trieste, Dominic Chianese, Amerigo Tot, Troy Donahue, John Aprea, Joe Spinell, James Caan, Abe Vigoda, Tere Livrano, Gianni Russo, Maria Carta, Oreste Baldini, Giuseppe Sillato, Mario Cotone, James Gounaris, Fay Spain, Harry Dean Stanton, David Baker, Carmine Caridi, Danny Aiello, Joseph Medeglia, William Bowers, Roger Corman

As someone who has struggled most of my adult life to maintain a healthy weight, I'm well aware of one of the knottiest problems of all involving some of the best things available in life: the desire for seconds. And thirds. The irresistible idea that more automatically equates to better. If one is good, two is better, and three even better than that.

The Godfather: Part II, Francis Ford Coppola's large-scale sequel to The Godfather, followed the original by a couple of years and comes with more of everything: more minutes, more cast members, more locations, more budget for more production values. It's bigger in just about every way imaginable. "More, more, more," as Andrea True sang. "How do you like it? How do you like it?"