Wednesday, June 29, 2011

66. Mothers of Invention, "Who Are the Brain Police?" (1966)


Here's one that's nod (if not outright shout-out) to my young high school self, although I hasten to say that it came along a few years before I was actually in high school. But the spooky paranoia and ham-handed production effects, with the obvious themes of big-brotherist issues, suited my point of view well at the time, one of those things I hoped I would always remember as a grown-up. I forget most of the rest now. It's from Zappa's auspicious debut with the Mothers of Invention, the double-LP Freak Out, which basically signaled all the elements that were to come of his entire career: the mordant wit, the humanist intellect, the compositional experimentation, the musical chops, and, of course, the belching and farting noises. And actually, if I'm going to be honest about it, I miss all the clichés and received wisdom on display here—"plastic" as perhaps the most devastating insult imaginable, deeply grounded resentment at corporate as well as government attempts to control intellectual honesty, and a willingness to let the vectors go erratic and the mix sloppy in emulation of vertical levels of chaos. I'm pretty sure the clichés and received wisdom of our current age are far more pernicious and feeble: the vapid tightness of cool, economic bootstrapping as viable strategy for improvement to character, material wealth as the unmistakable sign of God's grace, "government is the problem not the solution." You know what I'm talking about. Sometimes Frank Zappa's death in 1993 starts to look like Hunter Thompson's in 2005, a bad sign that times just got worse in ways we never could have imagined previously. But now I'm getting sentimental.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

67. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, "Affection" (1979)


After the classic proto-punk dimensions of the first Modern Lovers album, the one with "Roadrunner," the one that John Cale produced, I used to wonder how serious Jonathan Richman was about the shtick that came on the '70s Beserkley albums that followed: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rock 'n' Roll with the Modern Lovers, and Back in Your Life. I acquired all four of those albums out of a cutout bin on one memorable day. Those cutesy songs about ice cream and bugs and Martians and abominable snowmen—was it some kind of joke? Was he mocking us? These questions were answered once and for all, as far as I'm concerned, when I arrived at this song. He is not only serious, he is deadly serious, and what he's concerned about (then and even now, still, more than 30 years on) is the drought of human connection that is killing us alive. "Well, people all over the world are starvin' just for affection," he says. Sings. "Well, but to me this ain't funny. To me this is real." It's not easy to give up the distancing routines that help protect the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, and Richman himself is not immune from the temptation. As much as anything that's what he's doing in his self-consciously playful goofs, perhaps less so when he loosens up to rock 'n' roll, the facility for which remains strong in him. But the message of this song is the bedrock message he has to tell, and rarely is it distilled with such precision to its essence. "Well, there's telephones, televisions, cars, yes / And there's records and books and magazines for you / But poor affection sits there standing in the corner," Richman sings. Coleridge put it another way—"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink"—but it amounts to the same thing.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (2004)

I picked up on this when it was still new off of an NPR story, with aptly named author Steve Almond carrying on infectiously about a candy factory he had toured as part of putting this book together. He was talking about coconut coming down from up above like snowflakes, settling into the softening chocolate of a candy bar whose name I didn't get, or can't remember—maybe the Idaho Spud? It's a great book, actually, as much fun to read as it was to hear him that day, part candy bar history, part new journalism as he tours obscure Mom 'n' Pop candy bar factories (candy still a regionalized industry but rapidly fading), and part memoir, getting his personal life mixed up in it like the candy that melts on your hand, before your mouth. I don't know much about Almond—I know he's written fiction, and some other cultural criticism, and I have the sense that people love him and hate him, although I don't know the specific issues involved with all that. He seems to curry controversy somehow, that's my impression. Anyone trying to watch their weight will have a hard time while they read this, I know that much from personal experience. I actually found myself looking at candy displays in a way that I hadn't since I don't know when, and tried some of the more localized choices available to me—the Idaho Spud actually one of them. I remembered how people in my family were kookoo for Nut Goodies when I was a kid, a favorite of another region. Somehow I drifted over into the corporate choices like so many of us. I still like Snickers and Milky Way and M&Ms, Hershey's and Nestle's chocolate (the latter more than the former, but neither is what you could call really good chocolate, as I understand better now). From his picture, Almond is skinny enough to count the rib bones, so I guess he's got the metabolism for an infatuation that is bringing so many of the rest of us down. I tend to think of candy as a kind of evil nowadays. But Almond's book got me out of that for the time it took to read it. I probably gained five pounds while I was at it too, drat it anyway.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What's Going On (1971)

Somehow I seem to forget how good this is—little surprise, I suppose, given its age. It turns 40 this year. I knew it in its time first for all those hits it spawned, three top 10s, one after the other, living and breathing all through the entire year. It seemed so strange coming from the radio, sweet and almost cloying, almost too much so, and so different from anything that any other soul act was up to. It used to put me back in the fast-food kitchen I worked in in the early '70s, with a radio tuned to top 40 stations. Later on, more like in the '80s, this album started shooting up pretty high on all-time greatest lists, and then I picked up a copy for myself and got a taste of the whole thing. It works as all-day music all in itself. Play a side, flip it, the other side, and again. Again. Again. Good way to go. I guess that wasn't long before his death, around the time of the Columbia album, Midnight Love, last official studio release. I was impressed, am impressed still, by the flowingness of it, working as a suite, cohering by the unified sound, and this is also where he started doing his thing of working themes, putting them out there and returning to them again, in short snips and longer workouts, sometimes dropping out the vocal. An album artist. It was really a far cry from the song-centric Motown catalog to that point (not that I'm about to knock any of that), working more like a weird kind of jazz album, certainly intended to be played and used and experienced as a totality. One side, flip it, the other side. Keep going. It's so suffused with that sad tenderness and the sawing, soaring strings. Gaye is half the time singing with something that's almost a speaking voice, at least on one part of the dense mixes, while in other parts he swoops and winds around that main, low-key, speaking vocal, taking off with the song almost on whims, as if the mood had just struck him and everything just follows. He's like a gifted basketball player in that way too, explosive, darting and weaving and head-faking and all that, moving around the key, handling the ball, and then leaping high. Those are the bursts of new melody, in combination with key changes that are doing something mysterious too, working a stairway higher. It leaves me sad for other times and lost pasts, but it's a way back there too, and I'm pretty sure always will be.

Friday, June 24, 2011

51 Birch Street (2005)

Germany/USA, 90 minutes, documentary
Director/photography: Doug Block
Writers: Doug Block, Amy Seplin
Editor: Amy Seplin

51 Birch Street is a type of documentary that seems to particularly appeal to me: tiny (even "small" is too big a word), concerned with the deceptively uneventful interior lives of an unremarkable family (usually suburban American), made by a member of the family with an inside view and access to wonderfully evocative material such as photos and home movies/video and featuring candid interviews with other family members and family friends. Tarnation is another example, though not as good as this. Capturing the Friedmans is better known, but made by an outsider and with a sensational story at its heart. Perhaps the best practitioner is Ross McElwee, notably his Time Indefinite.

I never seem to get tired of watching the veil pierced of an "ordinary American" family and how it reveals such sturm and drang, such powerfully resonant themes of desperation and endurance and passion, the great harm that people do one another and the great kindnesses too, and how much people are simply used up by the circumstances of their lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

68. Pet Shop Boys, "The Night I Fell in Love" (2002)


As sonics, this is the Pet Shop Boys in their geared-down meditative groove, which was well underway with "To Speak Is a Sin" and has slowly but surely taken an ever-growing piece of the recent catalog. That's fine, everyone has to slow it down sooner or later. But I'm not sure any lyric across their entire career has yet been so sharply fabricated, or may ever be matched again. The explicit target is Eminem, and its aim is true, a sly, gleeful jab, an unerring bull's-eye, and a friendly twit that's all the more potent for the deceptive ways in which it assembles the elements. Where once, in the beginning, the Pet Shop Boys played coy with the gender assignments in their love songs, making the scenarios artfully ambiguous enough to work fine for multiple audiences, yet also ensuring that the majority wouldn't necessarily notice various undercurrents. That's out the window here. The POV is first-person, there's not even the ghost of a woman in sight, and the "I" is a high school kid out on the first big lark of his life, with the luck and grace to wind up backstage at "the show," where he meets the star. Things proceed from there. As the details come into focus—moving from initial encounter to goofing on one another to hotel room overnight, with an enviable, easygoing camaraderie except for one dangerous moment that gives away the game whole ("Your name isn't Stan, is it?")—the picture is painted of a doth-protest-too-much quasi-closet case and the preternaturally percipient kid who exposes him simply by not getting it: "When I asked why have I heard so much about him being charged with homophobia and stuff he just shrugged." Eminem's only response to date has been a throwaway scene on one of his tracks that involves him running over the Pet Shop Boys in a car. No word from Elton John either.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

69. Flamin' Groovies, "Shake Some Action" (1976)


The whole Shake Some Action album is so good that in many ways I'm just once again using a leadoff song as stand-in for the greater whole. The Flamin' Groovies came to life in the '60s as a much harder-edged unit more oriented to bluesy variations on American garage-rock (think the Standells, the Chocolate Watchband, or the Sonics). After some lineup changes and time in the wilderness the Flamin' Groovies reemerged with a softer sound more inflected by mid-'60s Merseybeat British Invasion acts and launched it with this. Call it power-pop—this version of the Flamin' Groovies may by the most consummate purveyors of that slippery term ever. Almost perfect mimics yet with a sound uniquely their own, in a manner that Yo La Tengo would also achieve 10 or 15 years on, the eight Flamin' Groovies originals here mingle easily with the six covers (including songs by Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Lovin' Spoonful, and W.C. Handy), celebrating lives dedicated and committed unironically to rock 'n' roll. "Shake Some Action" is not only the album's leadoff and title song, but also in many ways its most ringing statement of purpose as well, all reverb-laden jangly guitar and muffled production. Its gentle yelps of sincerity guide the way down the path to the chorus, which soars even as it maintains almost perfectly the unassuming air, a kind of humility that comes to feel nearly spiritual across the breadth of the album, and it starts approximately right here. Yes, it's only rock 'n' roll but they like it, but there's something more profound churning under the surface too, something that only grows larger the more I hear it. I am still entirely enthralled with this and the whole thing when I remember to pull it out again every few years.

Scheduling notes: Obligations have piled up on me somewhat precariously, so I am cutting back the frequency of countdown postings to two per week for the time being. I know that means it will take approximately forever to reach the end, but I'm hoping to pick up the pace again come autumn. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Shipping News (1993)

I don't mean to take out all my problems with MFA fiction (as I think of it) on E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. In many ways Proulx does not even fit the profile: born too early, in 1935, and without the requisite time spent in a post-graduate fiction-writing program. (Also, she has written science fiction and she wrote the story Brokeback Mountain was based on, which sets her apart even further.) But so many aspects of The Shipping News do fit the profile: Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, check. Chiseled prose, check. High quirk factor, check. Elaborate metaphor schema obtained via societal throwaway, check. Touchy-feely with an overlay of hard-bitten cynicism, yes that too. Its story is about a halfway defeated man who arrives in Newfoundland, improbably finds work as a newspaper columnist (newspaper staff full of characters, check), and, with the help of a plucky aunt who knows the ins and outs of hard-won survival (check), cobbles together a tiny life of enviable fulfillment. It's easy enough to engage with, easy enough to cheer on, easy enough to find warmth and hope. The theme of knots, which ties to the nautical culture of Newfoundland, works pretty well insofar as it is so concrete, drawing its factoids from a little book Proulx says she paid a quarter for at a garage sale. On the other hand, see what R.D. Laing has to say about that. How hard is it to make metaphors for life out of the things people have figured out to do with string and ropes? The success of this novel is nothing to blame Proulx for. She deserves credit. It more than earns that suspicious sobriquet that so often accompanies damnation with faint praise—"well-written"—and the characters may be quirky but they are just as lovable as anybody who ever trod the soundstages of "Northern Exposure." And I really mean that—I adore Wavey Prowse, and if she ever managed to step from out of the pages of this and I got the chance to meet her, my fondest desire is that she would accept my proposal of marriage. Yet reading this novel turned out to be a bit of a slog; I was often exasperated by its inertia and the lack of surprises among its self-conscious collection of human oddity foibles, and only too intermittently succumbed to its charms, from which it maintained a maddening, studied distance. I think that distance is the source of my problem. The characters are lovable, but there's a sense that loving them is just not cool, and so it is hard to love them. Yet they remain lovable, signaling exactly that like homing beacons through the carefully constructed veils of disaffection. I think that's the main problem I mean when I talk about my problems with MFA fiction.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Roches (1979)

Though both connections intrigued me, I came across this more by way of Robert Fripp, who produces, than by way of Paul Simon, who earlier had served unofficially as mentor in the careers of these sisters out of Park Ridge, New Jersey. Fripp actually applies an exceedingly light touch—except for a few lovely licks of guitar here and there, most notably on the best song, "Hammond Song," you would never guess the debt to Gurdjieff, let alone King Crimson. Instead, Maggie and Terre and Suzzy (rhymes with "fuzzy") formally introduce themselves on the first track here, "We," outlining a few points of their histories and their agenda more generally ("We don't give out our ages / And we don't give out our phone numbers ... Guess which two of us made a record / Guess what the other one did instead ... We spell our last name R-O-C-H-E"). As with nearly everything here it's mostly a cappella with minimal accompaniment, veers dangerously close to precious, but remains stalwart and charming, mostly because they're so smart and funny about what they're doing. Also because they are imperfect—the harmonies are gorgeous, but they don't always hit the notes. Topics under consideration: abandoning friendship for marriage, crawling back to a day job, ill-advised affairs with married men, losing one's way, finding it again, and getting off work. Born 10 or 15 years too late for the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early '60s (hard to be precise when they won't give out their ages), they nevertheless soldier on with admirable pluck. This first album by all three (guess which two of them made a record, guess what the other one did instead) is easily my favorite and only sounds better all the time. I lived with it recently for most of two weeks and found myself continually experiencing fragments of their melodies and turns of phrase wafting through my head. It's true that it sent me pleasantly back to 1979, when I first got to know this album, but it wasn't just the nostalgia putting a spring in my step. In fact, if I had managed to get to this a little quicker, "Hammond Song," which is more toward the poignant end of their spectrum, would probably have found a home somewhere on my current countdown. The least I can do is offer a chance to hear what it sounds like.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Le scaphandre et le papillon, France/USA, 112 minutes
Director: Julian Schnabel
Writers: Ronald Harwood, Jean-Dominique Bauby
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Cast: Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Olatz López Garmendia, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands, Max von Sydow, Isaach De Bankolé, Emma de Caunes

It's probably fair enough to characterize The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a gimmick movie, certainly on its most basic conceptual levels, in thrall to its own approach to the problem of the story it has set itself to tell. That's typical of its director, Julian Schnabel. Yet it remains so unfailingly beautiful in its discipline to tell it, perhaps the only way it could—and it's such an amazing story to tell—that it succeeds in a way no other movie yet by arch stylist Schnabel has even approached.

It is almost gleeful in the way that it so deliberately turns preconceptions on their head, reveling, for example, in the steely will evinced by a Paris fashion plate, a kind of will that few of us could even come close to emulating, unspooling much of its story explicitly from the point of view of a man who can do little more than blink one eye, and engaging directly in the monotony of such a constricted life in order to uncover, piece by piece, the poignant fleeting richness of it. It's just remarkable.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

70. Clash, "The Magnificent Seven" (1980)


This is just another excuse to rave up Sandinista!, my favorite album running away by the Clash, all of whose work I may actually be attached to even more than ever, better than 30 years after the fact. But their best was the big black and red triple that traveled under the banner of an explicit shout-out to Nicaraguan rebels, built an entire song out of a scene from Apocalypse Now, recklessly sailed into the marshes of dub and back out again, and packed itself so full with gems it's hard to keep them straight. My magnificent seven at this moment: "Hitsville UK," "Rebel Waltz," "Somebody Got Murdered," "Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice)," "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)," "Police on My Back," "Washington Bullets," "The Call Up," and—oh, wait, I'm over. There are 36 songs here and on another day it's conceivable I could name another seven or eight entirely as favorites. "The Magnificent Seven" is the first song on the first side and an apt curtain-opener, loose and freewheeling and auspiciously implying everything still ahead, self-consciously springboarding off the image of a big fat Hollywood western of the early '60s with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. American movie references are nearly as ubiquitous across the breadth of Sandinista! as the dub gestures. It's warm, it's funny, it's human, it's alive. Strummer's vocal, which I've seen characterized, somewhat oddly, as "white rap," is rambling and indeed almost conversational, big and wide open as only Strummer can be. He always did make you want to share a drink with him. But since no one can do that anymore, you can play this and raise a glass. To a class act, timeless. To other times. And to a better world, God help us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

71. Spacemen 3, "When Tomorrow Hits" (1991)


Oh my, the phase shifting of the stereo separation is definitely a bit unruly on this unexpected cover of the Mudhoney track. But that's all in a day's work for Brit proto-shoegazers Spacemen 3, whose famous working credo, "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to," would seem to make this another obvious candidate for my personal drug song hall of fame. And so that may be. But it's all by implication here, as the Mudhoney song has never struck me as particularly drug-oriented. If anything, it's more about dread (a kind of druggie experience in its own right, I suppose). Still, when you listen to the way Spacemen 3 proceeds here, with the slow-moving overheated tangle of raw sound that opens it (and the obnoxious phase-shifting, not recommended for headphones, unless, you know), moving inexorably to the big smash-up at the center, "when tomorrow hits," you know there's more at stake here than just another day. Nobody's laughing. There's nothing funny at all. It comes at the tail end of the band's career, from an album (Recurring) already divided by auteurs and poised to fly off in manifold directions. The personality conflicts and resentments rubbed raw by this point, which may be an inadvertent source of the all-important frisson that quietly powers this. Something makes it work for me like nothing else of theirs. I'm down with the rest of the catalog, and with all the various projects that came shooting and spinning out of it too—Spiritualized, Spectrum, the Darkside, others—but this was the point I climbed on board, late, and it tends to be the first place to which I return when I'm in the mood. There's not anything else quite like it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

72. Queens of the Stone Age, "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" (2000)


Including this song is more or less the direct result of witnessing a top-tier show from this pack of desert animals, which closed with it, as I recall, shortly before the lengthy encores began. Or maybe it was one of the encore selections—it's somewhat fuzzy now. The song is rated R, like the album from which it comes, for references to drug use, which are bracingly explicit: "Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol / Cocaine" is the sum total of the lyric sheet. The two lines are repeated several times. Like the best of their stuff it attacks with a fuzzy bass and lock-solid rhythm section, with noisy guitars providing the propulsion as required (furiously pumping chords on a piano would not be unwelcome in this mess either, if that helps you picture it any better). I always liked the formula, but what I didn't realize until I saw them was how transcendent such racket could be, which I credit to the cement-tight grooves. They are stern masters indeed, and there is little for it but to loosen and flail. Good times, good times. For the intellectuals, it poses an interesting selection of mix-and-match highs, particularly when the various cultural baggage is taken into account. On the other hand, down in the trenches, the mixing and matching is not about the cultural baggage but about the highs, amirite? Looking over my list I suddenly notice that there are a fair number of drug songs appearing; this won't be the last by a wide margin. I'm not sure what this says or doesn't say about me. I will say I have sampled the named substances, sometimes in combination, but some not since the '70s, and a couple only since the '90s, so it seems a bit of an odd list in that way. But who is thinking about lists at a time like this?

Monday, June 13, 2011

73. Pere Ubu, "Nonalignment Pact" (1978)


I can't say I have been a faithful fan every step of the way, but I have always maintained interest in these hard-edged heartland rock avant-gardists, fronted by David Thomas, the original pear-shaped object, with a host of brilliant imps. My interest was sufficiently reawakened in the early '90s, around the time of Story of My Life, that I ventured out to see them. I must say it was a very exciting show—somehow, in the moment, it felt like witnessing history, which I guess is another way of saying that the band packs a good deal of charisma along with everything else they do. They fully occupied a very small stage I managed to stand 15 feet away from, and I was fascinated most of the night by whoever that was working the theremin stage-right. But first impressions tell, and this first track from the first side of their first album, The Modern Dance, has been on the short list of my perennial Pere Ubu favorites from the start, narrowly beating out "Final Solution" and, perhaps, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo." You will note the contextual grounding of all three in grand geopolitical matters of the 20th century—and leave it to David Thomas to find his greatest inspiration for a love theme in the language of confrontational diplomacy: "I wanna make a deal with you girl / And get it signed by the heads of state," he declares once "Nonalignment Pact" has fully coalesced from wispy evocative noise into rock 'n' roll full-blown, complete with a train whistle. Which brings me to my next point: while I appreciate their various gestures and feints toward musique concrete and other sound experimentations, some of which occupy the majority of some of their albums, I'm more happy when they choose to rock. Because when they choose to rock, few can approach them. There's evidence here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Therese Raquin (1867)

I decided to give this a try after I read somewhere that Kate Winslet said it was her favorite novel. Emile Zola is a key figure in literary naturalism, which, in the formulation of Wikipedia, "used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character." In many ways it's a literary analogue to Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859. I have read a few of Zola's novels—the essential Germinal, which may be the place to start with his sizeable canon (even if it is #13 in his 20-novel Les Rougon-Macquart cycle), Nana (#9), and La Bete humaine (#17)—and liked them pretty well (overall, I prefer Theodore Dreiser when it comes to this strain, but that could be a kind of nativism on my part). Therese Raquin is essentially a first novel, however, and it seems to me so awkwardly done as to be very nearly unreadable. Certainly Zola was still learning the craft of fiction (one that he arguably never entirely got the hang of); he's plainly on the learning curve here. Most of it reads as summaries and explanations of events, which may be due at least in part to its initial serialization in a periodical. When I consider some of Winslet's more edgy roles, such as Ruth in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke!, I think I might have some idea how she came to name-check this story of mid-19th-century Parisian characters from a brutalized underclass, the pathetically tawdry affair between a laborer and the title character, a married woman, and eventually their conspiracy to murder her husband and the aftermath. The family ties and interrelations are suffocating, and Zola does a good job of marking out the extreme limitations of their lives. He's also good with scenes featuring the Paris morgue, which are vivid and strange. But most of it is slow and rambling, even for its relative brevity. The reception of the story in its time (Zola also later rewrote it as a stage play) turned it into the kind of scandalous controversy that can (and did) make a career. One contemporary critic denounced it as "putrid," and the immorality of the central story was widely condemned, which in turn enabled Zola to mount a defense that produced the kind of literary manifestoes for which the French are famous, with Zola making his case for what would eventually come to be known as literary naturalism. I think Zola is definitely worth looking into; in many ways he very nearly matches Balzac for his ability to imagine a huge and detailed social canvas filled with rich detail. But my sense is that you're better off starting with Germinal or some of the other titles in the massive Les Rougon-Macquart series (here's a recommended reading order for the series). There's time for this after you're finished with that.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Good Humor (1998)

By the time this came along (a Sub Pop release, of all things, in the U.S.), the throwaway goofs as well the lengthy soundscape exercises had all but disappeared, and we were essentially down to the songwriting, ever the sweet spot (I insist) with Saint Etienne. For that reason, perhaps, this may well be my favorite of theirs, at least among the ones I know well. I must say that I still don't understand the appeal of So Tough, which it seems to me has only the oily surface sheen working, but very few of the internals, and thus remains almost entirely incapable of landing a punch. And I suppose it's arguable enough that we're down to Eurotrash with this—the one time I saw Saint Etienne was during this period, the late '90s, and they were clearly too fashionable for the tiny club setting, which isn't to say they couldn't send electric charges of musical gesture surging into the crowd. But, sure yeah, this verges on the kind of territory once staked out and claimed by ABBA, marked by the glow of production values, sultry keyboard figures, and Sarah Cracknell's little-miniskirt-girl-lost vocal affect. Consummate professionals at this point, the sheer weight of their experience carries the burden, and sometimes it feels like they must have been writing these songs in their sleep, from straight out of their dreams, and that there might yet be storage-space units somewhere stuffed with more of them—they sound at once manufactured and lovingly tended. I have gravitated most to the deceptively hard-hitting "Lose That Girl," with the singer a disinterested friend trying to steer her pal away from an ongoing disaster that has just ripened to bursting, and to "Erica America," which effectively, even poignantly, evinces the paradoxical sadness and loneliness of fun times in a land that stretches to the horizon. This is why kids run away from home. But they are equally songs that shuffle has made a point of drawing to my attention. When I listen to the whole album in sequence I hear moments to recommend everything here, and I have also found the CD a highly useful feature in the car. Good stuff.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Avatar (2009)

USA/UK, 162 minutes
Director/writer: James Cameron
Photography: Mauro Fiore
Visual effects: hundreds (scroll down)
Editors: James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso

From the earliest days of its release, before it was clear yet what a monster runaway hit it would turn out to be, before I had even seen it for myself, I have been mystified by the levels of critical revulsion aimed at James Cameron's decade-plus-in-the-making science fiction extravaganza. I know it's a bit of a mug's game to attempt to assign motivations or other psychological overlays to people's reactions to movies, especially those who write about them professionally or as a passionate hobby, but it has been very difficult to read them as anything but churlish backlash of some kind.

Look, I don't know that Avatar is one of those giant generational movies that comes along and (for better or worse) changes everything, the way that movies are looked at and/or made, a Citizen Kane or a Star Wars (make that Jaws) or a 2001 or whatever. But I also don't know that it isn't. And, having seen it a second time now at home, I know I like it a lot more than most of the writers I read and trust on these things—a lot more.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

74. Dream Syndicate, "That's What You Always Say" (1982)


This comes from Dream Syndicate's first (and best) album, which I have somehow found myself able to return to again and again over the long years. The Days of Wine and Roses has always carried the burden of its shreddy Lou-Reed-by-way-of-the-Velvet-Underground influences—but gracefully, I think. They wear that mantle well. I suspect most people who know the album at all will tend to proceed directly to the long track "Halloween," and of course that's a worthy bravura tour de force in its own right with its languorous attack and calculated squalls of noise. But in many ways I think the set finds its firmest footing with this, the third song in, in terms of sequencing. With the moody bass riff that opens the thing, the neat drumkit figure and little tangle of guitar that come along to inflect, and the tremendous spaces created by its escalating dynamics, it's always the point that really starts to catch my attention, if it's been a while, and the point on the album where I start to remember the appeal again. The simplicity and dedication to purpose is impressive. Steve Wynn and his various relationship complaints, pro forma and predictable for the most part, loom out of the haze of these constituent parts like a ghost forever haunted by the textures it finds itself capable of creating, a spirit locked into half-existence, practically reveling in that. No big surprises: verse-chorus-verse-solo as someone somewhere else has characterized these bits of business. Wynn notably apes Reed's ennui in the vocal here, as promised, and the solo may not be particularly lyrical but it's nicely ragged and squealing. Oh yeah, now you're ready for "Halloween."

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

75. Bryan Ferry, "Don't Worry Baby" (1973)


As far as I'm concerned the best solo album Bryan Ferry ever made was his first, 1973's These Foolish Things, a collection of oldies covers that was at once arch, bold, surprising, perverse, eccentric, sincere, and just plain entertaining nearly every step of the way. Even the duds were redeemed simply by the fact that he tried them, and the winners make you laugh for exactly the same reason. The ones that most typically excite comment are Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" (which I find a bit overly cute) and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," which probably gets the prize for most unexpected, not to mention how well Ferry makes it work in the sultry atmosphere in which the set lives and breathes. My own favorites include the title song—it glides in and out on a '70s production magic flying carpet, but retains all the romance of the Depression-era original. But the Beach Boys cover is the one that reliably blows me down. Ferry takes Brian Wilson's already nearly perfect gem about drag-racing and the quaking fear of the singer who is doing it anyway, because the girl loves him, and amps it all up even further. For the 4:15 that this goes on, the drums boom harder, the strings are sweeter and more deliberate, the chick singers mean it more, the singer is more certain than ever of his imminent death, and the heaven that beckons from the beyond is even more ... heavenly. As if to emphasize the point, it spends most of its last minute fading imperceptibly. Flashing guitar hero Phil Manzanera's all too brief licks and solos just leave you wanting more. Which is approximately how, among other foolish things, that it becomes one to play over and over.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

76. Merle Haggard, "Here in Frisco" (1975)


How time flies. I've been living with the essential Merle Haggard box, Down Every Road, for going on six years now, and I don't think I have even begun to get to the bottom of it. Haggard's work is a clinic in craft: the stories he tells, the laconic idioms of his lyrics, the sly wit, the simplicity of the arrangements and playing, and perhaps more than anything else, the deceptive artfulness of his phrasing, which sounds plain as can be until you start trying to sing with it. And, as "Here in Frisco" demonstrates, just when you think you know what he is, that's what he's not. I'm not sure how this one sits with the hardcore of his following, maybe they consider it an anomaly, but what surprises me is what a heartfelt expression of love for a city this is. And which city is that? Oh, sure, he goes with the term that tourists are warned never to use, but he's not mocking San Francisco in any way that I can detect. I just hear someone who loves where he is and wishes the one he loves were there with him too. I love the instantly evocative way he starts by locating himself via time zones ("It's 4 a.m. in New York City, 3 a.m. in Dallas / The night is still early here in Frisco"). Already the scope is as big, and as lonesome, as the entire country ("They say it's raining in Chicago, but it's cold and clear in Denver," he goes on)—and the middle of the night. I imagine him in a hotel listening to late-night radio, contemplating take-out Chinese, listening to the sounds of the city through an open window, and missing the woman to whom he never refers once, directly. But I think the whole song is about her, and she haunts San Francisco for the singer, and perhaps always has.

Monday, June 06, 2011

77. Brian Eno, "Third Uncle" (1974)


For the most part I think I like Brian Eno best as a collaborator, pushing the projects of the people he works with to surprising heights, helping each in turn find the personal Eno deep within, whether that's Roxy Music, David Bowie, David Byrne, the Walkabouts, or whoever. In his solo ventures, however, I find myself opting, track by track, for the rockers more than the soundscapes—even if one of my favorite albums by him, Another Green World, is all soundscape. One of the most delightful paradoxes about Eno is that you can never entirely make up your mind about anything. There is always a new wrinkle for everything. What that meant for this list, forced to pick just one song, was a choice between "King's Lead Hat" and this, both of which amp up the tempo and push electric guitars out front. It was not an easy choice but I settled on "Third Uncle" as much as anything because the album from which it comes, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), is so thoroughly charming and deserving of as wide an audience as possible. "Third Uncle" is a basic frontal assault, Eno style, with a rubbery bass catalyzing a convulsive choked-off electric guitar thrash and tom-heavy drumming, and very quickly propelling the dynamics directly into your face. Eventually the gnomic Eno enters the fray with a rhyming, mumbling stream-of-consciousness chant that feels nearly perfunctory. That ends on "then there was you," which appears to signal the point where Phil Manzanera can start pealing off dragways of a lyrical solo that is en toto all rawk all right. In fact, the whole thing is a kind of study in electric guitar, and in its way feels, by the manner in which it proceeds, almost like something by Erik Satie.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Stranger (1942)

When I read somewhere recently that Albert Camus was influenced in writing The Stranger by James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, I decided to circle back and see how much I might have missed in the classic existentialist text when reading it as a 20-year-old. Among Camus's novels, I had much preferred The Fall and especially The Plague, but mostly his work left me cold, particularly when I took a run at The Myth of Sisyphus, more of a philosophical treatise, for a college class. I can't say much has changed for me. The 1988 Matthew Ward translation in the Everyman's edition of The Stranger seems at least as opaque and unyielding as I remembered. There is a deceptively concrete lucidity to the language of this very short novel, to the way events are described and in how they unfold, with numerous short declarative sentences and straightforward exposition. But the events remain largely puzzling and inscrutable. Meursault, the narrator and main character, seems more like a reluctant psychotherapy patient, masking his sullenness at being forced to communicate with a certain mannered stoicism and willful refusal to respond. "Maman died today," the novel opens. "Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday." He never goes deeply into his experience of his mother's loss, and indeed the kinds of suspicions that this engenders for the reader (why is he writing this text if he has no interest in communication?) turn out to play no small part in the suspicion with which he is regarded by others within the novel. He could simply be a man going his own way—in fact, he almost certainly is—but when he overkills an Albanian native with whom a friend has been in conflict he is just as uncommunicative about that, beyond vague statements about the heat and the glare of the sun bothering him. The densely argued introduction to this edition alone points to some of the intellectualized levels at play here, with its sociopolitical background of European colonialism and the more immediate one of Vichy France and World War II, and literary/philosophical currents such as absurdism, naturalism, stoicism, and of course the big kahuna it came to represent, existentialism. But I am left disappointed by The Stranger, alienated by its refusal to engage on an emotional level (when that is the one it is expressly operating on) rather than what seems to me a purely intellectualized exercise altogether too cute by half. On the other hand, it does deepen my appreciation notably of what Cain managed with The Postman.

In case it's not at the library.

(Illustration from Masterpiece Comics.)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Foxbase Alpha (1991)

Saint Etienne's first album is so clever about the way it puts itself across that it's easy to miss the dull patches and the silly, ultimately tiresome foofaraw that lards it all up between the songs proper. The first thing it does, after 43 seconds of said nonsense, is throw up a cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" that is so audacious it is almost dazzling. All long-time Young fans, however, have been well aware since at least the release of the 1970 album with the original that Young has a certain and undeniable facility with melody (even, as on Trans, in Saint-Etienne-friendly electronics-/dance-heavy settings). (That's not Saint Etienne mainstay Sarah Cracknell singing on the Young cover, by the way, but Moira Lambert; Cracknell evidently was not yet fully on board, something hard to imagine at this point.) The songs here that work best for me now are things like "Carnt Sleep," "Girl VII," or "Nothing Can Stop Us"—all of which put Cracknell out front where she belongs, all soaring with deceptively simple beats, aching sweet strings, and vague wisps of poignant situation, structured to hit hard when you least expect it, capable of opening up a space in all the airy-fairy through which rockets of effect can blast and land hard. I listen to the way "Spring," for example, enters into itself, almost instantly pleasurable, the simple beats and a few simple lines, the strings sneaking in behind nearly imperceptibly, and suddenly I am in a place where springtime and spring fever mean something again, the possibilities for love and happiness are written into the strain of Cracknell's voice and the strange filters of production through which it is steeped. But now I'm reduced to merely describing effect. How exactly they do it is a rather more difficult matter to explain, except by way of the overbroad "songwriting." Whatever it is, it comes and goes, virtually disappearing altogether on songs such as "She's the One" (which name-checks "He Hit Me" for no apparent reason) or "London Belongs to Me," and especially in the longer so-called house exercises such as "Stoned to Say the Least" or "Like the Swallow," both of which run to upwards of seven minutes. Thank God it's so easy now to skip about among songs on albums.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

78. Roberto Menescal, "Surfboard" (1966)


Once again it is very difficult on a list such as this to thread the needle between everything that's worth looking into about one genre or artist, and everything else, without threatening to either swamp the whole project or grossly under-represent something. I'm electing the latter, with the caveat that there are a million places and more to explore Brazilian pop music above and beyond Menescal's sprightly compact instrumental workout. My taste for Brazilian pop started in earnest with the Beleza Tropical anthologies put together by David Byrne in the late '80s and into the '90s, which were my introduction to Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, and others. I was previously familiar, of course, with Astrud and Joao Gilberto and all that good Tom Jobim stuff (although I didn't specifically know the name Jobim then), which probably made its greatest impact in the U.S. with "The Girl From Ipanema." I knew Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66/'77/'88 from their presence on U.S. radio, but not Os Mutantes or a lot of other landmarks until just a few years ago. A million places and more to explore, but you may as well start with the Menescal, because in many ways it represents a good deal of the commonalities you will find: joyful up-tempo expressions, production values so high that they verge on easy listening fare, complex rhythms in the driver's seat, and no hesitation to sweeten it up and then sweeten it up further with whatever is at hand: strings, quite often, but really anything that will do—here, for example, flutes and a vibraphone in addition to the strings. Once you start on this stuff, I guarantee, you won't be able to get enough. So my suggestion is to just go ahead and start by springing for the Jobim box. That should hold you for awhile.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

79. Marshall Crenshaw, "Something's Gonna Happen" (1981)


You may unfortunately have to take my word on this, because whoever holds the copyright initially blocked it within 48 hours when I threw it up on YouTube (although a week later it appears to be accessible again, hence I'm trying the link). The downloadable version that you can purchase is not the one I came to know from a promo compilation of 20 years ago, which is the A-side of his debut single on the Shake label. I'm not about to get embroiled in a copyright dispute (and will remove the link by request), but I'm happy to second-guess Crenshaw himself if he thinks this isn't the best version out there of a terrific song and one of his best recordings ever. It busts right out of the gate and gallops along with a deceptive insouciance whose intensity is only revealed when you start moving to it or trying to sing along. It's all about the anticipation, and it's not exactly licit ("Now just forget about your boyfriend / And I'll forget about my girlfriend"), but when the guitar erupts at the break to take it home two things are immediately clear: 1) no point whatsoever in hesitating, and 2) Crenshaw may still be one of the best-kept secrets in rock 'n' roll. As songwriter, as guitar player, he's up there with some of the best pop auteurs. Or maybe I'm just getting carried away by the timeless moment? Suggestion: Hunt down any of his albums, the self-titled 1981 Warners debut is widely agreed to be his best and I have no argument with that. See what you think. If you like it, get some more. It's all good. Live with it for awhile. Then try to imagine a song in the style arguably even better.