Sunday, July 31, 2011

Best American Crime Reporting 2009

The 2009 edition was edited by Jeffrey Toobin, who I recall as a cable-news fixture in the '90s most notably on the O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky cases, on both of which he wrote serviceable, journeyman-like books. For all I know he's still a regular on cable news—my blood pressure doesn't allow me to look in on that circus very often any longer. Backstopped as always by Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook, it's likely that even a monkey from a Cary Grant movie could probably put together a creditable collection. Well, that's not entirely fair to Toobin; this is a good collection, and that's what counts. One case recounted here, in "Body Snatchers" by Dan P. Lee, involves a corrupt physician plying an illegal trade in harvested body parts on a surprising scale. It has since turned up more than once on Investigation Discovery channel shows (watch that channel long enough, I'm sorry to say I have discovered, and you start to see some of the same cases appearing with slightly different treatments on different shows). "Non-Lethal Force" by Alec Wilkinson is a nice examination of the ins and outs of law enforcement policy for controlling people without killing or unnecessarily harming them. There's an interesting piece on the JFK assassination too. And I was particularly struck by "Tribal Wars" by Matt McAllester, which recounts gang warfare troubles between Somalian refugees in my home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota—it's a situation that has developed since I left in the '80s and one I have been utterly oblivious to on return visits in recent years. Because it's on this personal level, it's hard to grasp, but there it all is, finely detailed. The usual spectrum of mayhem is present all through this collection, captured neatly in the list on the cover that someone evidently had a lot of fun putting together: "Suburban Murders," "Cage Fighter Cash Heists," "Lone Gunmen," "Credit Card Chaos," "Dead Presidents," "Mutilation in Mexico" (that's another Bowden article), "Migrating Miscreants," so on and so forth. The piece that has stuck with me most is called "American Murder Mystery" by Hanna Rosin. It looks at patterns of crime and housing in Memphis, Tennessee—which, as you may or may not know, has become one of the highest-crime cities in the U.S. in the past 15 years, along with Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; and other unlikely metro areas. It uncovers the disquieting, and discouraging, possibility of a connection with one strain of public housing policy. As usual these pieces are brisk and readable, and go by way too fast. Another worthy entry in this worthy series.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Electronic (1991)

Here's a super-group of another vintage, a collaboration between the Smiths' guitar figurehead Johnny Marr and New Order's man about melody Bernard Sumner (also a guitar player), with both Pet Shop Boys (but especially Neil Tennant) chipping in on a couple of numbers. The result is a reasonably pleasant, occasionally engaging almost-an-hour that spawned a few singles that kinda almost went over the top. In general, the sound tends more closely toward New Order than the Smiths, except when the Pet Shop Boys check in and drape their signature sound all over their main contribution, "The Patience of a Saint" (even the title sounds like PSB product). This was the first and only fruit of the Marr-Sumner collaboration for something like five years, though there was hardly a dearth of work from them otherwise. From the sound of it, everyone got along fine, but I'm not sure there's much spark. I should say, however, as a Pet Shop Boys fan, that I did welcome "Saint" at a point when the act was starting to stretch out three years at a time between albums, so that's something to take into account. (The best thing Tennant ever did with them, "Disappointed," would show up the following year as a single, and was even more welcome—Very not far off by then.) Those with a similar passion for New Order or for Johnny Marr generally might have had similar feelings. But I can't say this album has worn particularly well. As with another New Order side project, by the Other Two, it has its charms but they pale quickly. It's polite, chugs along with its keyboard beats and inflections and washes. Very pretty. Something to pop your fingers to here and there. Most tracks certainly worthy as fodder on mix tapes-cum-CDs, guaranteed to make friends with similar taste sit up and say, "Hey, what's that?" At one time these little promising collaborations seemed to be all over the place—Jack Frost, with the Church's Steve Kilbey and the Go-Betweens' Grant McLennan, was another one, proceeding with a similar kind of careful, cautiously successful vibe. For the most part they all seem now to work best as placeholders, even if they were probably never intended any such way. Thus, 20 years later, you might want to take this overall as a caveat.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Monkey Business (1952)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, I.A.L. Diamond, Harry Segall, Howard Hawks
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Leigh Harline
Editor: William B. Murphy
Cast: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Marlowe, George Winslow

This exercise in foolishness, directed by Howard Hawks, is constructed well enough to make itself likeable, even charming. The star-studded cast doesn't hurt anything either—Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, and Charles Coburn all get their chances to jump around and use juvenile voices, doing their variously silly impressions of youthful teens, while Marilyn Monroe, on the very cusp of becoming an icon, gets by fine with her fallback little dumb-blonde lost shtick, cooing and swishing around and showing off body parts (I'm always a little taken aback by her voluptuousness, forever expecting that her reputation for beauty will mean the usual quasi-anorexia of today).

It's the kind of movie I used to love finding on after-school matinees on TV, a confection built out of broad concept, even broader humor, and star turns artfully deployed, which I'm pretty sure adds up simply to testament of Hawks's ability to make a picture. Cary Grant plays Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a genius—the term is bandied about so casually it's drained of the typical pretensions and becomes a kind of equivalent of "dentist"—and an affable chemist who works for a big corporation on "formulas," which in turn produce products like nylons that won't run and popcorn bags that won't crackle. In this case he is working on a fountain-of-youth drug. Well, that's kind of like a popcorn bag that won't crackle.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

58. Verve, "The Drugs Don't Work" (1997)


Obviously another drug song, but one I find allusive, unexpected, and surprisingly utilitarian. I have typically taken it to be about a love interest whose antidepressant regime has begun to fail. Look into it a bit and you learn that singer/songwriter Richard Ashcroft had drug problems himself when he wrote it; also a dying father on drugs with side effects. "The Drugs Don't Work" comes from the album Urban Hymns and was a #1 hit in the UK. Stateside, only "Bitter Sweet Symphony" creased the top 40, along the way earning a frivolous lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, which the Stones won (and you still wonder about the reality of that deal at the crossroads). I like the Verve album pretty well even though it tends to clot a bit, the sawing sadness of it only coming into sharper focus on various songs but never changing much across its length. "Bitter Sweet" works it pretty well, so does "Sonnet," but it comes into its sharpest focus for me here. If it seems to me now very much of its time, perhaps that's because of the way I take it and the coincident rampant rise of antidepressant use in the late '90s, a fact in some ways depressing in itself even as I got caught up in it too for several years, a bit further down the road, and if pressed would have to acknowledge they do some good. I always thought Nick Tosches had the best line on the matter, characterizing them as a class as the only drug you take in which everyone around you feels better as a result. And I found them far more mood-altering than others seem to. Jesus Christ, isn't that exactly the reason people take them? But now I'm straying from the point.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

59. Wilco, "A Shot in the Arm" (1999)


I first heard this on the Summerteeth album, which I thought was pretty good even though it took awhile before I was inspired enough to sit down and sort it all out. That process, or something like it, was more the result of the 2002 documentary about Wilco and their later breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I never liked that album so much, but I was more or less instantly disposed toward the documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, because it's got one of the great titles—it could work as well for a novel, poem, regular movie, short story, or even just something to say to people. The movie bogged down some when it went into the weeds of unattractive band squabbles, and Jay Bennett (who died this past May) did not appear to me to be well treated by his bandmates or the filmmaker. But it made a convincing case that the band belongs to Jeff Tweedy anyway and the live playing is something else again, persuading me once and for all that Wilco is genuinely a force to be reckoned with. I have a memory—memory, that troublesome thing—that the movie is where "Shot in the Arm" really came screaming into my life, but now I'm not entirely positive it's in there and I can't find a song listing. In the ongoing tally of drug songs I'm adding up in this list, it has to count, for the title if nothing else, although the album is more generally about a failing marriage and the song does work on that level too. It starts off jaunty, enters in with dense and evocative lyrics, and at the chorus moves quickly into stratospheric realms. "Baby all I need is a shot in the arm"—that's your cue to turn it up.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (2007)

Back in the '90s I published a zine devoted to the various arts and sciences of mix tapes; it went by the somewhat unseemly name of "Tapeworm." I also had a good deal of interest then in writing personal essays, which I occasionally practiced in that zine and various others percolating along at the time (notably Frank Kogan's "Why Music Sucks"). I had the great good fortune to attract Rob Sheffield to contribute to "Tapeworm," which is neither here nor there, maybe more like an exercise of name-dropping and beside the point. The point is that, with this memoir, Sheffield has taken both those strains and virtually run circles around anyone else who has ever tried or even contemplated it. That's partly because he has such a sad and harrowing story to tell—in 1997 his wife of less than 10 years, Renee Crist, died suddenly at home with him from a pulmonary embolism—and partly because he's such a damn good writer, charming and witty and warm and knowledgeable. Crist was not just his partner in life and marriage, she was also an able music journalist in her own right (I was working on her to contribute to my zine back then too). They lived close to the bone in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the wages of the work and all their money went to sensible things such as music, shows, and clothes. Naturally they were consummate mix tape artists too. Sheffield opens up a box of his old mix tapes here, many made for Crist or with her in mind, a few with her direct input, others that preceded or followed her, and he listens and he remembers. There are 22 chapters, each featuring a tape, out of which Sheffield builds the story of a romance, a relationship, and a tragedy, weaving all through his encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and his good taste and his even better nature. It's hard to read in places—anyone who has ever lost anyone can expect to find Sheffield probing painful places one way or another. But it's amazingly light-hearted too, even as it never shrinks from anything. In the end, Sheffield does a good deal toward making something substantial out of what too often seems among the most inconsequential and silly career choices imaginable: the rock critic. He makes something substantial out of it, and brings the dignity too. This is a very nice book.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Blind Faith (1969)

Ultimately I come down in favor of this, but perhaps only because I did so in the first place back in high school. As a super-group, arguably the first, it still seems reasonably potent—notably via Eric Clapton, who doesn't step out nearly enough here, and Steve Winwood, who was never much of a singer but he sure turned into a hell of a talent scout; his keyboard presence here is fairly constant, not to say overbearing. Ginger Baker's star has fallen considerably at this point, however, and I'm not sure bass player Ric Grech (dead in 1990 at the age of 43 due to complications of alcoholism) ever amounted to that much of a super-someone. As a super-session (cf. Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield projects), it's surprisingly laidback and song-oriented, drawing its primary flavors like so much rock of its time out of the various psychic exhaustions of the late '60s. There's a gospel feel to some of this (Winwood however just mostly a caterwauling wannabe) and a country feel to a lot of it too. Most of the lyrical themes seem to involve redemption in one way or another: "Can't Find My Way Home," "Presence of the Lord," "Sea of Joy," so on and so forth. The centerpiece of the whole thing, and the place where it noticeably picks up the most energy, is the 15-minute workout "Do What You Like," which, though long and complete with unfortunate drum solo (more or less de rigueur for the time, of course), is nonetheless uptempo and sprightly, almost jazzy, and often just plain infectious and exuberant. The attack of Clapton's solo alone is worth the price of admission. It's got a pretty good groove too, certainly the best here by far. I like it quite a bit. I suppose it's fair enough to carp that it goes on too long but I'm more inclined to put that on the album opener, "Had to Cry Today," which is very nearly nine minutes of a whole lot of nuttin'. This always was a side 2 album for the most part. On the matter of the dueling cover art, I used to find the naked 14-year-old girl edgy and arty and to be preferred, which has to say something both about the times we lived in then and those we live in now. It's not even a question for me anymore. Give me the ugly beige version, please, and don't ever even bring up the naked 14-year-old girl again. Some things are just better left in the earth—or for future cyclicals.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lolita (1962)

UK/USA, 152 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Vladimir Nabokov, Stanley Kubrick
Photography: Oswald Morris
Music: Nelson Riddle
Editor: Anthony Harvey
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

Vladimir Nabokov, author of the novel on which this is based, gets full credit in the titles for the screenplay of Lolita, but later tales of the production make it clear it's actually much more the work of director Stanley Kubrick. Certainly it's hard for me to believe that Nabokov would have been responsible for the awkward frame here, where James Mason as Humbert Humbert confronts a scenery-chewing Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty in a disorientingly trashed mansion setting. That kind of storytelling device seems more a convention of the early '60s, or perhaps more generally just of movies. But the preamble especially seems to me wasted time in an arguably already too-long picture, and the closing few minutes don't add much either.

Well, they serve as showcase for Peter Sellers, which I suspect was the intent as much as anything. Sellers was a gifted screen comic, a kind of Robin Williams of his time, but I'm not sure Kubrick knew what to do with him as much as he might have thought, here or in Dr. Strangelove either. In what turns out to be more of a concise chamber drama enacted by a small cast set in the middle of a sprawling and almost kinda sorta lurid road movie (it was of course impossible to be as explicit as the material required), Sellers often seems to me the weak link.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

60. Beatles, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (1968)


This is mostly a John Lennon song but Paul McCartney has supposedly said (reported by Wikipedia without citation) that it's his favorite on the White Album. That alone arguably makes it as good an example as any of a "Lennon/McCartney" composition, so many written by one and tweaked by the other and hashed into their beguiling final forms in the studio (in many ways the real instrument they played over the arc of their career, one reason I'm satisfied to call George Martin the one and only fifth Beatle). I admit I'm a bit of a Beatles crank when it comes to the White Album; I think it somehow manages the feat of being a good deal less than the sum of its parts. But the parts that are good (this, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Good Night," a few others) are very, very good. Lennon later denied "Warm Gun" was the drug song so many read into it (i.e., gun = syringe) on the basis that his period of heroin addiction did not involve injections. Well, maybe. He claimed rather that he got it off a headline on a gun lovers' magazine. He did acknowledge the sexual innuendo, maintaining that side of it emerged as part of the sparking with Yoko Ono. But trying to "explain" this song falls short of the complexity and piercing harshness so compacted into its less than three minutes: the altogether oppressive vibe, a quasi rape scene rendered in classic Lennon streams of language, the squawls and menacing lines of guitar, "I need a fix 'cos I'm going down," a mother superior (what?) who "jumped the gun," and a vocal performance that flits in and out of something dredged from the bottom of a soul, with a good deal of dynamics. Plus "bang bang shoot shoot" going on in the background on the chorus—for the comic relief, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

61. Jacobites, "It'll All End Up in Tears" (1985)


The Jacobites were a British band of the '80s consisting of Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth with sometime support from Sudden's brother Epic Soundtracks (one of the great pseudonyms), Mark Lemon, and others. On a downloading tear a few years ago, after hearing of Sudden's death in 2006, I foraged for everything I could find by them and their various antecedents such as Swell Maps. But my favorite remains the first album I heard by them, which I knew in 1986 as The Ragged School (culled from their 1984 and 1985 British releases, Jacobites and Robespierre's Velvet Basement) and which contains this, "Ambulance Station," "Big Store," and other essentials. Taking the easy way out, here's from an album review I wrote for a Seattle paper then: "Naturally cliches are to be avoided, but what we have in the Jacobites is the source of some beautiful noise. Simple as that. The guitars are loud, deliberate and raw, sometimes spare and sweet, the tunes good enough to hum days later, and the overriding obsessions (love and death, what else?) communicated so perfectly, so powerfully, that beauty and horror are revealed as the same thing. Well, aren't they? ... [The Jacobites] deserve success, of course, but it'll never happen. More likely they'll find themselves in the same position as fellow obscuros Alex Chilton, or Nick Drake, whose haunting sensibilities the Jacobites occasionally match, even outdo. But at least we've got 'Ambulance Station.' And the bruising attack of 'Big Store.' And the Mick and Keith vocal harmonies of 'Hurt Me More.' And Dave Kusworth singing, 'And she feels / dead for just one moment.' And, and, and."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Light in August (1932)

Of the handful of great William Faulkner novels (and keeping in mind that even the second tier of his work is well above the top of all but a select few others), Light in August is probably the most pleasure to read, a big juicy pulp-fiction style of melodrama that swoops about among its elements like a bird of prey feeding on carrion—and thus, cautiously, I will suggest it as starting point if you have not yet read him. There are elements of this degree of storytelling power in The Sound and the Fury, but then there is also that novel's first hundred pages. As I Lay Dying is studied experiment. And both "The Bear" (probably more accurate to call a novella because so short, so make that Go Down, Moses) and Absalom, Absalom have long passages in which the language must be parsed slowly and patiently. By contrast, Light in August tends more toward simply introducing its themes and players and briskly setting them in motion, working everything with such facility and seeming ease into the kind of lurid gothic template into which he wanted so badly to fit Sanctuary (which, I will say, nonetheless remains very nearly one of his great ones too). To be sure, Light in August is not without the Faulkner trademarks of ornate brooding passages and elliptical structures, with long sentences and some tendency to favor the Latinate. The flashback, for example, to the troubled childhood of protagonist Joe Christmas (one of the great literary names) starts Chapter 6 with: "Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears." But that kind of thing is generally more for the effect here, and doesn't constitute the bulk of it. Me, I find this language utterly hypnotic, particularly once fully under Faulkner's sway, but I certainly understand that YMMV. As a study in racist anxiety, a continuing underpinning theme all through Faulkner's work, of course, Light in August veers more toward the clinical (not to say Freudian) understandings of "hysterical"; but also toward the connotation of "very funny," in which regard it may sometimes seem almost badly dated. On the other hand, some days I look around at things happening all the time in Southern politics even now and I have to wonder how dated after all that the kind of grotesque, deep-seated racism documented here really is.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

USA, 103 minutes, documentary
Director: Barbara Kopple
Photography: Kevin Keating, Hart Perry
Music: Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis
Editors: Nancy Baker, Mirra Bank, Lora Hays, Mary Lampson

All these years later, Harlan County U.S.A. leaps out now as an eye-opening, bracing, even galvanizing film, a historical moment so raw and visceral it is painful to contemplate (made even more so by our own political moment now unfolding in Midwestern states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin). I was alive, fully grown, and more or less politically conscious for the events documented here, in the early and mid-'70s, but it nonetheless all came as news to me the first time I saw this last year. I vaguely recall the news stories, and the film passing through in the '70s, but it was a blip that barely registered. That's on me, of course.

Looking at this now feels like peering through a telescope into another time, which in turn is busy itself looking through its own telescope into another time. Layers of history peel back inexorably, until everything about it begins to feel ancient, even almost prehistoric. The primary battle documented here is an attempt to get the management of the Duke Power Co., which controlled the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky, to recognize the mining union that the workers had voted to join. The strike that followed to force this issue lasted 13 months, and the conflict descended more than once into violence and dirty tricks, including the murder of one young miner that helped to hasten a settlement, but that appears never to have been prosecuted or even investigated.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

62. Kraftwerk, "Showroom Dummies" (1977)


Honestly, all you need to get the gist of what's going on here is the title and album cover (above)—these German pioneers of synthesizer pop and travelers in avant-garde nether regions come with a kind of sly sense of humor that's hard to know how to prepare for. Of course, by this point in their career, Kraftwerk principals Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider had all but given up interest in the clinical soundscapes, pointing themselves instead more or less directly into the heart of the pop sun, such as they understood it. The trappings are only the beginning of the charms of "Showroom Dummies." As this nifty little rattletrap unfolds across the six minutes that it goes, its features include the hushed and somber monotone of the vocals, sound effects of glass shattering, all manner of gentle stops and pivots, and the kind of lurching propulsion that stays with you a long while. "We go into a club / Then we start to dance / We are showroom dummies ... showroom dummies ... showroom dummies." There is arguably a debt here to filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or anyway a coinciding fascination with the surface textures of Weimar Germany, the tawdry, glinting, cruel world of fashion world glamour, which glows in the eyes of those greedy to escape. On the other hand, I understand the song may have been written in mocking response to a concert review that in turn made fun of the way they looked. And evidently the muttered preamble—"eins-zwei-drei-vier"—is there for the homage to contemporaries the Ramones. So that about settles it. The more you look into this the more there is packed into it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

63. Margo Guryan, "Under My Umbrella" (1968)


I owe thanks for this one to the blog blowupdoll ("YOU'RE JUST JEALOUS 'COS YOU CAN'T BE ME," which is probably true enough as far as it goes). I've had it parked over there in my blogroll for longer than I care to say. And it's also been awhile since I've made regular rounds to go forth and download things, so I was happy to check and see it's still up and going strong and evidently working the same territory—breathy chick singers of the '60s and '70s, or of the style. Margo Guryan wrote "Sunday Mornin'," the redoubtable Spanky & Our Gang (and, later, Oliver) hit of the late '60s, but it says in Wikipedia she didn't like touring so she didn't do it much and her career suffered some. It also says she tilted toward jazz until someone sat her down and played her the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." which naturally changed her life. (As whose hasn't it?) You can kind of pick that vibe out of "Under My Umbrella," the way the melody darts and soars, undergirded by the softly plonking "Chopsticks" piano figure. It's a lovely, entirely coherent production designed with laser focus to inspire feelings of swooning dreaminess. In memory I am always listening to this song lying on my back, looking at blue skies and fluffy clouds (in spite of the weather report in the lyrics) or maybe blowing puffy dandelion seed balls to smithereens off the stem. That kind of thing. Pure Peter Max '60s, all technicolor, a movie montage. It also carries a vaguely black & white Parisian vibe too, springtime and the season's warmth in the air. I don't very often hear the rain in this, though I appreciate the coziness of the titular image. Under her umbrella sounds like one of the nicest places to be in that turbulent decade.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s (1981)

I guess this may be the most well-used book that I own, its front cover melting away from coffee spills and surprisingly grimy from all the handling, its first 50 or so pages curling from the water damage of those coffee spills. I'm drinking coffee even at this moment, but keeping the cup a safe distance from the book. Lesson learned. The section at the back labeled ROCK AND ROLL. A BASIC RECORD LIBRARY is scored through with lines and markings intended to keep track of what I have and what I want, the better to more quickly construct lists on the way out the door on shopping trips to record stores. At the time, no one seemed close to Robert Christgau at being so completist in keeping up with rock 'n' roll, from the fringes and at the commercial centers, and though he arguably missed some of the landmarks even then (AC/DC dismissed in a section called "Distinctions Not Cost-Effective") and has evidently been swamped by the mountains of output in the decades since, he has still charted a territory and a taste and sensibility that is unmistakably his own and remains one of my most reliable sources—a true consumer guide that works for me in every sense of the term. He's also a lot of fun to browse and read, and worth going back to compare notes on specific albums and artists. (I do that nowadays mostly via his website, which probably contains nearly every word written here.) He can also be infuriatingly cantankerous about the things he misses and/or dismisses, though that is less of a problem in this '70s volume than it would become later, as in the '90s. In fairness, he is some 15 years my senior and has done a vastly better job than me of keeping up over the past decade, although I have no doubt many would dispute his conclusions as much as ever. When he lost his office at the "Village Voice" circa 2006 it was a kind of iconic moment, notably depressing, another one of those soul-crushing developments that came along with such regularity and virulent intensity during that time—"that time" not over yet, I suspect, one we are still well plunged into. (I wonder if it's ever going to get better.) At least, even if it's something as quotidian as snapshot analyses of music industry product, such as it is, there's something that seems to me still very profound with which to connect here. A passion, an acumen, the sense that these things actually matter. Sometimes I lose my way and have to fight to find it back. Robert Christgau doesn't seem to lose his way much, and via his work he's always there to lend a hand, help you get yourself pointed right again, and find music that works as solace, that makes everything seem worthwhile once again, even if fleetingly. A+

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Here, My Dear (1978)

As a concept album, Here, My Dear has few peers. It's the product in part of Marvin Gaye's final divorce settlement from his first wife of some 13 years, Anna Gordy, who agreed to accept the advance and a portion of the earnings from his "next album." Gaye turned it into a double-LP meditation that roams all over the landscape of love lost, with as much bitterness and venom (that starts in the title) as sadness and grief. It's in his lush post-What's Going On style, full of aimless and dense mixes that find numerous ways to strike home at multiple levels. The tracks are pretty long, the majority clocking in at five or six minutes or more, and they tend to mush together across the relatively broad scope, though jarring points, such as "attorney's fees" or crazy saxophone solos are capable of emerging from the welter at any moment. I suspect a much sharper and more affecting work could have come from an effort to cut this approximately in half, but obviously other motivations had to be in play as well. Maybe he intended the bigger package as a gesture of generosity. Or, conversely, maybe he didn't want it to be that successful—at that point in his career a double-LP wasn't necessarily what his fan base was looking for. Even more likely, once he started on the thematics of this I can well imagine that it could have just started pouring out of him, leaving him with very little facility or perspective to cut and focus it. The best song here, "When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You" (which needs little further explanation beyond that title) gets three incarnations, one less than a minute as an outgoing coda but both of the other two over six minutes. All, even the shorty, are fairly well larded through with self-pity, but it's not hard to sympathize where he's coming from for anyone who's been through it, and this is one key point where he opens a memorable window to the pain. Addressing divorce is a dirty thankless job but someone's got to do it—or make that, do it well, cf., the recent picture Blue Valentine, because it isn't often done well. Here, My Dear doesn't necessarily do it well, certainly not consistently across its massive breadth. But factored in as it is so concretely to the divorce itself makes it uniquely interesting. And it is, after all, Marvin Gaye working in his most self-consciously chosen signature style. It may be one only for the fans—but it's fair enough to call it essential for those fans.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost, France/Germany/UK, 128 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski
Photography: Pawel Edelman
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Herve de Luze
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Robert Pugh, Timothy Hutton, Jon Bernthal

I liked this quite a bit more the first time I saw it, so much so that I named it as my favorite movie of 2010 some six months or so ago (even understanding there were still a good many gaps to fill eventually, as there usually are with year-end exercises). I suppose I may have had some motivation to defend an artist whose work I love a good deal against the transgressions committed by the man, lately returned to higher profile. In my mind, I had The Ghost Writer slotted (in a generally weak year) as mid-range second-tier Polanski along with such titles as Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden. Now I'm inclined to put it more at the level of The Ninth Gate, an interesting mess with unfortunate overtones of professionalism and some pronounced tendency toward foolishness. A lot of my problems with it now lie in the story, particularly the ludicrous resolution, so of necessity there will be spoilers on the other side of the jump. Beware.

The good news is that it remains on the surface an appealing enough political thriller, reminiscent in many ways, I think almost self-consciously so, of Hitchcock—there's a bit of a "wrong man" thing going with the story and an intriguing mystery, but it's Alexandre Desplat's score that does much of the work recalling Hitchcock. There's even a theme that emerges toward the end that I swear comes directly out of a Hitchcock picture, though I can't put my finger on which one. But it's so familiar it's almost distracting. The music is overbearing, deliberately so, intruding constantly on the action, particularly in the transitions. If it were as bad as some of what we get from, say, Hans Zimmer, it would be unbearable simply because of the way it's used. Instead it's one of the most effective elements here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

64. James Brown, "Don't Tell It" (1972)


I wasn't about to let another hundred songs go by without including at least one from James Brown, who remains on the short list of my all-time favorites across a reasonably wide swath of music. Funny thing is, a good many of the songs that immediately spring to mind for him also find themselves with some version that was a top 40 hit. I mean, it's not hard to find great stuff by James Brown that never charted—but it's not as easy as you might think either. I'm going with this as much as anything because it somehow just leaped right out at me off the Make it Funky package (which is essential, along with Foundations of Funk and especially the Star Time box). I think it's one of his most convincing songs about sex and at the same time one of his most unusual in how explicitly it declares itself as illicit. More often, you may have noticed, James Brown is singing about working hard and dancing and generally trying to do the right thing—"Sex Machine" itself, for example, is only nominally about sex. In "Don't Tell It," the "main squeeze" with whom the singer is involved is somehow off-limits; whether that's because he or she (or both) are married is harder to tell. But it's definitely illicit, and as a prosecutor might say there is clearly knowledge of guilt here: "Don't tell it, don't tell it, don't tell it"—the repetition is the gist. Like that one guy and Mrs. Jones, they got a thing going on, they both know that it's wrong, but it's much too strong to let it go now. So don't tell it. Don't, don't tell it. Meanwhile, the groove is a stripped-down, slow-smoldering affair that threatens continually to bust wide open and burn the house down. That tension is exactly what makes this worth returning to again and again.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

65. Elvis Presley, "Blue Moon" (1954)


Perhaps the first unfathomable mystery in rock 'n' roll was Elvis Presley's "Blue Moon," recorded in 1954 at Memphis's Sun studios, with Sam Phillips producing, and Scotty Moore and Bill Black providing support on guitar and bass. This unassuming little thing almost always requires a twist of the volume knob. It sneaks in like one late to the curtain, and then somehow becomes the show itself. Its clip-clop rhythm, its heavy echo on Presley's keening delivery, and its utter hush remain as strangely affecting as lifting one's head to the night sky and seeing UFOs: a confluence of imagination and technology at once transcendent, powerful, and elusive. Where does it come from? What does it want from us? As vinyl, memory etched as permanent artifact, it is ultimately more dependent on production than performance. But the performance is not without its points, as when Elvis glides out like some cartoon character swirling over the edge of a cliff, and floats there, buoyed by his own tremulous incoherent falsetto, unencumbered by everything but the sounds of vowels. Its strangeness has long invited interpretations related to death and the afterlife and other mysteries of the universe. It was never a hit of any kind, though it showed up here and there often enough: thrown onto Presley's first album along with other unreleased Sun material; then released as the A-side of a no-hit single in September 1956, a casual afterthought for RCA, busy by then spewing out Elvis product in every direction. It also appeared on an EP that year and, 20 years later, on the essential Sun Sessions album. All who have heard it remember it. Many think it a little weird.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Best American Crime Reporting 2010

I've spent a lot of years falling for a few of these "Best American" annuals. The essays series edited by Robert Atwan was my go-to volume starting in the '80s, but at some point I finally noticed the predictably low ratio of good to bad, and the even lower ratio of stellar to good, not to mention that basically it's the same 30 or 40 names percolating through on a regular basis. The music series edited by Daphne Carr the past several years is generally worth dipping into, but dipping seems to be all I ever do. My old reliable has turned out to be this crime reporting series edited for about a decade now by Otto Penzler (proprietor of both the Mysterious Press and New York's Mysterious Bookshop, and editor of many another worthwhile project as well) and Thomas H. Cook. It's a familiar drill: Penzler and Cook bring in a name editor each year to help winnow down the final selections and write an introduction. In this case, because of the lead times involved and the nature of the material, each article also gets a "coda" to bring us up to date on the investigation and/or criminals and/or victims and/or issues we've been reading about. A good 80% of the stuff collected is very good or better, which is the kind of high ratio I like—but then, you have to be interested in the vaguely unseemly dynamics of true crime if that's going to work for you. As far as I'm concerned, they have all been pretty good so far.

This most recent volume's name editor is Stephen Dubner, who was not much of a name to me—a one-time staffer at the "New York Times Magazine." It kicks off with Calvin Trillin's winsome poetic punch from "The Nation" at Roman Polanski defenders ("Why make him into some Darth Vader / For sodomizing one eighth grader," etc.), then follows it up with a more serious Trillin piece on a case of disaffected murder in the upper Midwest. That reminded me again how good Trillin can be on crime, but you have to pick the work out of the potpourri of his catalog (Killings is the only one I know, and it's pretty good). A Jeffrey Toobin "New Yorker" piece here riffs on Polanski in a rumination (cum navel-gazer) on celebrities who get off easy, so you can imagine what the general preoccupation is that wraps around this collection like a haze. Not that it's particularly single-minded. There are interesting pieces about a sickeningly prolific serial killer who operated in post-Perestroika Moscow, a look at John Wilkes Booth, a rundown on a Seattle lowlife who racked up 112 convictions ("Not arrests, convictions," writer Rick Anderson is at pains to tell us: "94 misdemeanors and 18 felonies"). The latter is ultimately more an indictment of a justice system than a single man. There's a brief if easy excoriation here of Bernie Madoff and his antecedents, and a weird jape that the writer (Maximillian Potter) compares reasonably enough to a Coen brothers scenario, involving a buffalo skeleton marked up by scrimshaw scenes from the Bible. There's a sober recollection of Etan Patz, a six-year-old who disappeared in New York in 1979 and whose still unsolved case has forever changed the way missing kids cases are treated. Along the way, not just here but all through the series, "The New Yorker" is revealed as perhaps the single best source of true-crime literature that we have. But my favorite piece this time is from "Harper's." Written by Charles Bowden, a true-crime careerist, "The Sicario" is a very hard and unflinching look at what Mexico's drug trade is turning life into in Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. It's horrifying, an extended interview with a hit man who claims to be trying to get out of the life, but of necessity is constantly looking over his shoulder. The piece is thick with the life-and-death paranoia by which people appear to be living and dying in that part of the world. If he's just telling stories, he's telling good ones. It has since been turned into a documentary, El sicario: Room 164, for which Bowden got a co-writing credit. I want to see it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

I Want You (1976)

Not much point trying to deny what this intends to be—a make-out album, pure and simple. Put it on, dim the lights. You can guess the rest. As it happens, I never had occasion to use it that way, but I certainly came to a near instant infatuation with it a few years after its release, picking it out of the library at a community radio station with which I was involved, taking it home and taping it, and playing it constantly for an intensely brief period. I suspect I'm in a minority here. It seems to be more widely agreed on as not one of Marvin Gaye's best, though co-producer Leon Ware tends to get most of the blame for that. Robert Christgau dismisses it with a C+. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that a lot of cocaine use was involved in the recording and production. And out of 11 tracks, the title song gets three variations (two labeled parenthetically as "intro jam" though in fairness both quite a bit shorter), "After the Dance" two versions (the first an instrumental that sounds like it could have been ripped out of the soundtrack of a porno). That accounts for nearly half of the tracks right there. You see how I'm throwing out the caveats and reasons to skip it. I understand the complaints, and I admit I find my interest fading on the second half. But still it remains so sexy and sweet even in its aimlessness, and when it connects it's like being emotionally clobbered in a fell swoop. It still sounds pretty good now too, with that lush swooning thing he kicked off with What's Going On and spent the rest of his career essentially going back to again and again. Even when the politics and humanity of that great breakthrough have arguably been debased, as here, it's sultry and seductive, distinctly and uniquely alluring, allusive, beautiful. The first three songs seal the deal for me out of the gate—"I Want You" proper, advancing like a theme stated, and then the lovely and appealing "Come Live With Me Angel," a knockout punch and at 6:31 the longest track here, and then finishing off with the instrumental "After the Dance." Later, I lost track of the album almost entirely, the tape went missing or bad at some point and I forgot about it, until recently. Nice to hear again.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Fort Apache (1948)

USA, 125 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, James Warner Bellah
Photography: Archie Stout, William H. Clothier
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendáriz, George O'Brien, Victor McLaglen, Miguel Inclán, Hank Worden

My self-rehabilitation project re: John Ford took a decided turn for the better when I came across Fort Apache. It's nicely effective, perfectly enjoyable, and Ford to the core, a western with John Wayne set in Monument Valley.

Monument Valley, even shot in a harsh dusty black and white, remains imposing as ever, its wide open spaces and the alien shapes of its mountains and rock formations establishing a backdrop that keeps one off balance, identifying with the isolation of the characters. In a way it's a distraction—yet in another way as much a character as anyone walking around on two legs. It's oppressive, bearing down on the story more and more as the story develops, the characters for the most part eventually just lost in it, as at least one of them simply becomes just lost.