Wednesday, August 31, 2011

48. Yoko Ono, "I Don't Know Why" (1981)


This is a dramatically charged song, of course. It comes from the album Season of Glass, recorded and released in the six months following the murder of John Lennon (evidently assembled in part from the same sessions that produced Double Fantasy, as Lennon is credited here for guitars and keyboards). The cover of the album famously features the eyeglasses Lennon was wearing at the time of his death, broken and bloodstained by the gunshots that killed him. To say that the material is intended as an exercise in catharsis would be an understatement. Its intentions are plain. I was actually afraid to even listen to it for more than a year, as I've written about before. The surprise is that Yoko Ono had somehow suddenly so absorbed his sensibility as to make it sound approximately like the collaborations I think Lennon always wanted with her. Most of this song is a pretty good example of that, rolling in like a fully loaded tank, thrumming with malevolence. The carefully enunciated lyrics are vaguely biting but mostly just expressions of her confusion about the source of all the hatred directed toward them. And so it proceeds, its details sad, almost unbearably so in moments ("my body's so empty without you"). Then, in the last 30 seconds, as it positions itself for the fade-out, her rage suddenly makes its appearance. It cuts through like a knife. There's a certain unflattering sense of privilege to it that makes me think it almost had to be improvised right on the spot, if not at this point than at whatever moment it was recorded and later inserted here as is. It feels like a blow to the body, stunning—the pain is vividly there to witness and to feel, and then just like that the song is over.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

49. Electronic, "Disappointed" (1992)


This being one of those songs that may be found in multiple versions and mixes, it's probably necessary for me to say that I think I prefer the "Electronic Mix" (aka "Original Mix") as opposed to the "Single Mix"—though certainly either is superior to any others I know. But the former uses its extra 1:20 or so to get particularly good and lush. The song itself is virtually restricted to motifs and gestures, nothing concrete about it at all, but the mood does carry a good load of its own particularities, and the thing is just so beautiful when it swells up big. It's another Electronic song all draped in Pet Shop Boys finery, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to call it their best running away. Keyboard washes tall as skyscrapers, chukka-chukka guitar that rides it up and down, Bee Gees-like sighing "ahhhs," a focused self-determination as it fully engages, and the bonbon operatics as it cascades into the chorus. "Disappointed, once more / Disillusioned, encore." I'm not, of course, "disappointed" myself, at least not with this lovely confection (of course I have been disappointed in love, why else rank something like this so high?). All that lovely candy-coated Gilbert O'Sullivan crap, great big wads of sweet self-pity and the colossal heaving sigh that accompanies the main declaration. It's basically "Alone Again (Naturally)" updated for a world that now includes a vaster array of sonic textures and machines that make beats. Compare and contrast: "I promise myself to treat myself / And visit a nearby tower / And climbing to the top / Throw myself off" vs. "From the sound of your voice, the promise you make / You're somebody I can believe in / Someone who won't leave me feeling..." Well, you can guess the rest. And that's about it. Except: over all too soon.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Best American Crime Reporting 2008

This edition was edited by Jonathan Kellerman, a reasonably prolific crime novelist I may have read one book by somewhere along the line (I fell way behind on crime fiction a long time ago, though I still poke away at it now and then). Kellerman is a psychologist by profession and there's some reflection of that here in some of his final choices. There's an essay by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) from "The New Yorker," for example, "Dangerous Minds," which sets out to debunk the whole notion of criminal profiling. It's convincing enough, but then so are its defenders. My thoughts on this are plainly not clear yet. There's an interesting piece by Mark Bowden from "The Atlantic" that makes a strong case, based on a concrete example, that torture is simply not effective. That's always something I like to hear. Another piece from "The New Yorker," this one by Tad Friend, offers a fascinating profile of a death-row prison administrator. In general, this collection seems to have a bit more of these types of articles—there's also an examination of a super-maximum prison and a harrowing story of what happens to a witness to a crime who stands up to do the right thing—but the strange wonders of human mayhem make their appearances too, as they must. In one, a con man fools people into thinking he was formerly a player with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he does so and gets away with it for awhile—in Pittsburgh. There's a kind of moral x-ray of a cold-case rape and murder finally solved when a serial killer is run to ground and happens to mention that he did that one too. It's sad, with issues of justice and victimology right at its heart. There's also the story of Eric Volz here, a popular figure on the true-crime TV shows. Volz, an American national living in Nicaragua in 2006, was arrested and imprisoned for the murder of his girlfriend, Doris Jiminez (there is some analogue in this case, perhaps only in terms of the terrors of overseas justice but I think a bit more than that, with the more recent Amanda Knox case in Italy); Volz was eventually released, as the story here and its coda details, when a Nicaraguan appeals court overturned the conviction. More fun treatments on the cover of the stories inside as well: "personal mythmaking," "vain terrorists," "criminal organ donors," "murder in the mountains," etc. Another good one.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Led Zeppelin (1969)

I don't know what there is to say. I didn't expect it would all sound so fresh and so vital still. I mean, the gap between Iron Butterfly's signature LP and this first of an impressive run by Led Zeppelin feels positively galactic now. Iron Butterfly was just a clown car circus act by comparison, unpacking guitar, organ, drum, weird-noises passages stacked onto its dinky wheezy rickety chassis and chugging around the ring in circles. By comparison, this is Olympian-like and of the gods not just in its big thundering attack system (prototyped two songs in with the 6:41 "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"), signaled in the first place by the brash and brisk opening of "Good Times Bad Times." And on to the good stuff, the rest of the original side 1: "You Shook Me," "Dazed and Confused." It's all the confidence. Here they are, busy at inventing a whole new architecture of rock 'n' roll, with guitar riffs, power chords, a crunchy bottom, a singer and lead guitar player who interact with one another as call and response unit, a prototype of metal singers who ply the higher registers (and may or may not wear leotards). This really is all business, even with four songs longer than six minutes each. It's funny to look at the "Rolling Stone" and various hippie-oriented reviewers of its time, who spoke as though cautiously down on them, vaguely disapproving, comparing them unfavorably to the Jeff Beck Group and Cream. They must have known on some level they had a tiger by the tail. Or perhaps the music was too big to sight clearly along the edges, overwhelming to the task of description. It couldn't be any more clear to anyone listening today, I think. This is theatrics but tight and controlled, and all strictly of the aural persuasion, the insinuating levels at play, the soaring and swooping and the plain gestures of strength, as when "Dazed and Confused" goes off a cliff. It's just so big, all of it, every moment, track to track. A total homerun. Also no accident I imagine that Page would know, from previous experience in the Yardbirds and a predisposition to it in the first place, how to root this so plainly and so persuasively in mid-century American Mississippi River musical blues forms and gestures and vocabulary. He did (and wasn't always exactly ethical about it), even if it was hard to see at the time. Just solid.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Staircase (2004)

Soupçons, France, 360 minutes, documentary, TV
Director/writer: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Photography: Pierre Molin, Isabelle Razavet
Music: Joel Goodman, Jocelyn Pook
Editors: Jean-Pierre Bloc, Sophie Brunet, Adam Lichtenstein, Scott Stevenson

This is really top-notch, a huge step forward it seems to me for filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade from his previous essay at true crime, 2001's Murder on a Sunday Morning (the only other one of his I know). It's worth seeing no matter what your predisposition may or may not be to this case. The production values are way beyond most such fare, and he allows himself ample room to deal with the reasonably complex case and trial and all its various characters, central and supporting alike, the whole thing clocking in at some six hours, with a confident sense of structure and pacing and superb, affecting original music from Joel Goodman and Jocelyn Pook. It's definitely worth spending the time with.

This seems to me a much more interesting case than the one he was working with in Sunday Morning—it could be his skill that makes it interesting, though, as the case had never particularly appealed to me before. It was a popular one circa 2003, when the trial took place. I've also seen it treated on TV on "Forensic Files," on one or more of the one-hour true crimers ("The Investigators," "48 Hours Mystery," "Dateline," "On the Case," whatever), and even a bit of it when Court TV was devoting day times to covering the trial in real time. In fact, I knew of someone who was actually into following it there on her work-from-home days. She was absolutely convinced of the guilt of novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of bludgeoning his wife Kathleen to death, her body found at the bottom of a staircase in their home in December 2001 following a late-night phone call Michael placed to 911.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

50. Michelle Shocked, "Anchorage" (1988)


This song is so sad and so pretty; something about it touched me so I frequently found myself in tears before it was through (not sure exactly what the something is but it's also found in a modest hit Glen Campbell had in 1968, "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife"). Its story and all the words are plainspoken and resonant, constantly advancing a simple but powerful narrative: the singer, recently located to New York City for her skateboard punk-rocker career, has written to an old Texas friend and received a reply, which came from Anchorage, Alaska. She reads it: "Hey girl it's about time you wrote / It's been over two years now my old friend." She continues: "Hey girl I think the last time I saw you / Was on me and Leroy's wedding day / What was the name of that love song you played / I forgot how it goes, I don't recall how it goes." In that momentary shift into forgetfulness, the enormous distances between them are suddenly sensed. The dagger goes in when the letter writer is relating quotidian news items and her moment of truth quietly arrives, underlined by its nervous repetition: "Leroy got a better job so we moved / Kevin lost a tooth, now he's starting school / I got a brand new eight month old baby girl / I sound like a housewife / Hey Chel I think I'm a housewife." It's a strikingly beautiful moment and by that point the song itself is about all wound up, the gorgeous sound of the strings sawing away on the lovely melodies, the chorus already established once and now you're probably about ready to start singing along. If it's in your range you get to sing it as loud as you possibly can. It's a glorious bittersweet moment, with a perfectly apt metaphor at its center, inflected by the realities we all know well of physical distances and friends and family and time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

51. L7, "Wargasm" (1992)


L7 really gets it going on the Bricks Are Heavy album and this where it starts, a seething rant whose full intent is clear from the neologism of its title forward. It's January 1991 and all the glory is in front of us. Looking over my list, I guess there's still one song ahead that could be called antiwar, so maybe this isn't technically my favorite of all, but it does put me back in the times, the glorious Iraq War, the good Iraq War, and I think the bristling contempt of it is just right, sounded furiously from inside a noisy maelstrom and drowned out almost perfectly. You can just barely hear it if you turn your head right. The big attack is a real feature, of course—guitars at the ready, ho! Throbbing—they've sure got the sense for metal. But I guess you have to call this is grunge, because it's also deeply sarcastic like punk-rock and gets political about things and impolite and biting when it does so: "Tie a yellow ribbon 'round the amputee / Masturbate watch it on TV / Crocodile tears for the refugee / Wargasm, wargasm one, two, three." Guitar solo. "The Pentagon know how to turn us on," etc. Then one of them starts shrieking like a Yoko Ono sample is introduced. Howzat? Yet it fits perfectly, really works. Never sounded better, in fact. Caterwauling away, with this big bottom going on under it. Spittin' it out, in roaring waves. There's another song on that album that I love for all the menace in its first line and the way it's bitten off: "My diet pill has just worn off." They can be really funny, but here they're just pissed and somehow, the two combine into inspired lines and attitudes and a whale of a fucking time.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Buddenbrooks (1901)

I'm familiar only with the classic H.T. Lowe-Porter translation of Thomas Mann's first novel; even though I found the John E. Woods translation of The Magic Mountain a bit better than Lowe-Porter's, with Buddenbrooks it's more just a matter of sticking with the copy I have, a problem of being a cheapskate. I'm no Thomas Mann scholar—just a fan, at least of the two novels by him that I know and like best. Buddenbrooks is another outsize work, but rather more straightforward than The Magic Mountain, backfilling with 19th-century German history where Mountain tends to use philosophy and other sports of the intellect. In a way it's kind of a straight version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, taking a middle-class family of German merchants and tracing their decline across a few generations (the Woods translation, indeed, bears the subtitle The Decline of a Family). As always, Mann is preoccupied with the place of the creative soul in the modernizing world, a world often defined and controlled by monied interests. The most likeable people also tend to be the most naïve, and many times the least likeable are the most successful. So it goes, as someone said elsewhere of other circumstances. But there's much more to Mann and Buddenbrooks than just artist and businessman. Mann's language is so elegant and charming, even in translation, that it really does make me wonder what it must be like in the original German. His characters are richly detailed, uniquely human, and almost always recognizable one way or another. They are people we know. And Mann's ability to construct a narrative that feels as big as an ocean, one to simply dive into knowing the way is sure, is a pleasure and probably accounts for why I consider him still my favorite of the great European novelists. Buddenbrooks is his first, and even if it never seems to me to read like a first novel in virtually any way, I think I'd still point to it as the best place to start if you're ever thinking of making a project of reading him. Oddly enough, perhaps, I have struggled with a good deal of the rest of his oeuvre: I like his stories and shorter pieces, such as "Death in Venice," but rarely feel moved to return to them. On numerous occasions I have struggled with and never finished the Felix Krull novel. And while lately I have been making my way (slowly) through the Joseph and His Brothers quartet, and find them pleasurable enough, they are a bit more deeply Biblical than suits my taste. But Buddenbrooks I love.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)

Even though I bought this within a year of its release—one of my first-ever album purchases out of a retail outlet and incidentally contributing to its rank, as Wikipedia informs me, as the #31 best-selling album ever—I somehow never realized until recently that the nonsense syllables are actually a rendering of "in the Garden of Eden." Not sure how I missed that. Next thing, and this is at least as obvious as the Bible reference should have been to me, you can skip the first vinyl side. Move right along. Nothing to see here. In fact, I would hazard to guess that the handful or so of times I have listened recently to these five songs is very likely as much as I ever listened to them way back. No, this is all about the 17-minute title song occupying side 2, in which Iron Butterfly borrows Ray Manzarek's organ, looms as heavy as it can at all points, even offers up a drum solo, which I didn't like much even back then, and back then I thought drum solos were pretty cool. It used to get played late at night on the underground FM stations, but I'm not sure how much anyone over the age of 13—certainly over the age of 21—ever dug it. Has it aged well? No, I don't think so. Nostalgists, even you are likely to be disappointed; I speak with authority as a nostalgist myself. The weird noises that start to set in along about the 11:00 mark are kind of interesting (used to give me the willies in the middle of the night), but for the most part it all just drones and lumbers along and offers up thin gruel. Probably the one lasting legacy Iron Butterfly can claim is the naming strategy for the band, pairing a reasonably dense metallic substance as a qualifier for something that flies (I see that it was also a nickname for '30s musical star Jeanette MacDonald, but I'm sure that is entirely unrelated). Others used the strategy as they could, and one band in particular made an outstanding career for itself that would start with a bang in the year that followed the release of this, and proceed from there to go nuclear.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sicko (2007)

USA, 123 minutes, documentary
Director/writer: Michael Moore
Photography: Andrew Black, Daniel Marracino
Editors: Geoffrey Richman, Chris Seward, Dan Swietlik

It probably didn't hurt that I got around to seeing this the first time only days after the passage of the health care reform bill last year, when it was still possible to believe, or hope, that the travesties documented by Moore's film might finally be on the wane. To be sure, some of the most grotesque of them have been eliminated, such as preexisting condition clauses. But as more information emerges about the particulars of the reforms—more usefully thought of as health insurance rather than health care reforms, though there's little question the insurance reforms at least have been badly needed—and getting them implemented, along with the super-toxic political environment now in play, likely mitigates a good deal of that.

Sadly enough, Sicko is almost certainly still as relevant as the day it was released, now and into the foreseeable future. One of Moore's shrewdest strategies here is to place his primary focus not on the uninsured, which for so long dominated the public health care debate, but rather on those with health insurance, who blithely believe with the masses of insured people that they are personally backstopped in the event of setbacks and calamities to their health.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

52. John Cale, "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" (1974)


John Cale veered all over the place from Europeanized string chamber music to discordant avant-garde thought experiments to, his own term, dirtyass rock 'n' roll. He was never the main man in the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed saw to that early and often, but he brought something that was sorely missed in his absence, a natural chaos-maker with formal training that helped shape some of their best stuff. (They were also fine without him, as it turned out, just more wonders of that band.) I tend to go for the rock 'n' roll, so I like Fear and Slow Dazzle and the live Sabotage albums probably best. He peaked for me in the mid-/late '70s. Phil Manzanera is playing guitar on this one, and Eno ... is there. "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" is the first song on the first side of Fear and lets you in on much of what's ahead: the piano miked tight and very bangy, the half-drunken Welsh-inflected stream of sing-along vocals, and the slow-build dynamics, starting with open spaces and Cale working out a simple melody. Then gradually it accrues sounds to its side like burrs until the whole thing is nigh unto a raging behemoth that feels just seconds from a messy explosion of some kind. I'm exaggerating—that description better fits the formidable eight-minute "Gun," which opens the second side of the album. But this is a nice warm-up—more palatable, even sweet, by comparison. Or something. Maybe it's the explicit anxiety. Might as well be right there with it, that's what John Cale seems to be saying. Feel that anxiety. Can you feel it?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

53. Drifters, "Fools Fall in Love" (1957)


Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this originally for the Drifters—the circa 1957 model of the Drifters, that is, which featured Johnny Moore on lead vocals—and to me it's one of the purest pieces of rock 'n' roll to be heard. Elvis Presley recorded it a decade later and came as close as anyone to getting a hit out of it, but of course missing the charts only cements the case on some level for its purity. Brash and supple, uptempo with a vengeance, entered into on a brushed drumkit and gently choogling sax, Moore's clarion yelp is all over it in a matter of seconds, powered by doop-a-doo-wop background moaners and chatterers, interrupted briefly only for a solo in which a guitar plucked on the lower strings carries on a conversation of some erudition with the aforementioned sax before Moore retrieves it again and drives it to a glorious sunset. Over and done, 2:30. It's not a typical Drifters song, although, to be fair, it's not exactly easy to defend the idea of a "typical Drifters" song in the first place. There's the Clyde McPhatter style typified by "Money Honey," or the Ben E. King style typified by "Save the Last Dance for Me." Rudy Lewis was the singer for "Up on the Roof" and "On Broadway." Johnny Moore was back for "Under the Boardwalk," but that's not very much like "Fools Fall in Love." I'd say you're better off going with the Leiber & Stoller label, because they've got the credentials and they're the ones who knew their way around this kind of easy-rollicking rock 'n' roll with such supreme confidence. Whoever gets the credit, it's one for the ages.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991)

Objectively speaking, Mary Gaitskill's first novel is probably the least skillful of all her books, including her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, published three years earlier. One gets the unmistakable sense that she was a story writer by inclination who had been encouraged—even harried—by various factotums of the publishing industry to produce a novel, which conventional wisdom (and, indeed, experience) argues is more likely to bring the commercial potential. (In many ways Veronica, her other novel, operates like an extended story, eschewing the structures and developments of a novel.) But for all that, Two Girls, Fat and Thin remains a favorite of mine. I like its depictions of a life in Manhattan that revolves around eking by on temp work while working on the kind of writing style that gets you published in the "Village Voice." In carefully modulated bursts, Gaitskill works up her own version of such a style, which is a pleasure to read both as parody and, to be honest about it, probably because I tend to be notably susceptible to "Village Voice" tricks of the trade, e.g., the cunning knowingness evinced by constant cultural one-upmanship reference, the shallow embrace of outrageous gestures of fashion, and/or the contempt for sentimentality even as one celebrates art rooted in sentimentality, so on and so forth. At the same time, Gaitskill takes one of her deepest plunges here into the interiority of sadomasochistic sexuality, which becomes an entire universe in her hands, a dark, scary, alluring, sexy place where people go, consciously and otherwise, to damage themselves. Awkward and obvious elements—such as naming one of the protagonists vying for supremacy here Justine Shade, or more generally the transparent mockery of Ayn Rand and Objectivism—live side by side with scenes that are frank, brutal, and absolutely convincing. It can also be very funny, a tale of children away from home trying to act the way they imagine grown-ups do, making their mistakes and hurrying away from them, the psychological equivalent of a cat who believes it has hidden itself by tucking only its head under the couch. The flaws of everyone here are plainly obvious to anyone but those who possess them, and it operates on that level as a comedy of manners. It's altogether a rich stew of late-20th-century urban experience, a charming, black, and vastly entertaining one, and one that I still enjoy returning to frequently.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (1988)

Here's another one I picked out of a slush pile in a newspaper office back in the day. It makes the unusual mistake of leading with its worst track, an ill-advised cover of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." I'm hard put to think of very many other albums that have done that. Born in the U.S.A., I guess, which had a similar effect on me in terms of delaying my interest—it's just not that encouraging when the worst foot is put forward, is it? On the other hand, the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, which has some ties to Steel Pulse but whose players are otherwise mostly unknown to me and in general so obscure that it doesn't even merit a Wikipedia entry proper, was shrewd enough at least to follow that up with their best track, "Love and Hate" (listen), which in turn is so good they even knew to include a second version here (labeled an instrumental but actually with vocals). They call themselves an orchestra evidently because string players such as solo violinists are featured prominently, and also likely because the orchestral (or faux orchestral) sweetening is layered on with swooning abandon. It's reggae to the extent of the general structure and texture of the beats, which nonetheless tend to be well submerged in the mixes. The players, as shown on the cover, also appear to wear dreads, and if that doesn't make something reggae I don't know what does. As a vinyl product I relied mostly on its first side, which includes "Love and Hate" and then a few others nearly as good; the second side included another weird cover, "As Time Goes By" (which at least is better than the Calloway) along with an instrumental version of same, and also the second "Love and Hate." So it's reasonably skimpy business here, 10 songs, two repeated, and thus I suppose little surprise that they never hit big, or even hit little. But "Love and Hate" was one of those songs I adored and frequently included on tape mixes, partly for the surprise value derived from its obscurity but mostly just because I like it so much, and love it still, and thus remain willing to stump for it hard. Which raises the question: WHEN DOES THE COMEBACK TOUR START?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

USA/UK, 99 minutes, documentary
Director: Marina Zenovich
Writers: Joe Bini, P.G. Morgan, Marina Zenovich
Photography: Tanja Koop
Editor: Joe Bini

This HBO documentary preceded by little more than a year the revival of interest in Roman Polanski's case following his arrest in Switzerland in 2009, when it appeared possible that he might be extradited to the U.S. I never even noticed it going by, but a friend included it on his list early in 2010 of the best films of the 2000s, so between that and all the furor I knew it was one I wanted to see. And it is indeed worth seeing—among other virtues, for me, it includes information I hadn't known about the legal and ethical improprieties of the presiding judge of the case in the '70s, Laurence Rittenband (who died in 1993). More generally, it seems to me eminently fair, not only about the crime itself, which it doesn't minimize, but also about all the events that swirled around it and the people involved. It doesn't excuse Polanski, but it provides a useful context.

This is one of those cases, of course, in which people tend to line up on opposite sides and take their pleasure throwing blunt objects at one another in the service of discourse (see also O.J. Simpson, Jonbenet Ramsey, Monica Lewinsky, second Iraq War, or, more recently, Casey Anthony). So I want to tread carefully. There's no question that Polanski committed a crime, no question that his defenders often say such silly things that they are, on balance, actively harmful to Polanski's cause, e.g., Whoopi Goldberg's assertion, "I know it wasn't rape-rape" (we all know she wasn't there). And certainly it's a useful thought experiment to ask what if it had been the filmmaker's daughter, or anyone's, who had been the victim in this case.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

54. Marianne Faithfull, "Why D'ya Do It" (1979)


This bracing, foul-mouthed six-minute+ finale to Marianne Faithfull's postpunk comeback bid, the Broken English album, basically set the terms of the effort plain. The next phase of her career was not going to be the whisper-sweet flower-child coffeehouse princess of "As Tears Go By," but something rather more like a full-grown woman sunk into depression and addiction and jealousy and rage, exploding with volcanic force. "Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed," is the way she puts it, trying to explain her feelings. At the same time, even as the emotional tenor rarely drifts far from that of a gaping wound, the production by Steve Winwood (where'd he come from?!) is pretty slick, a dancefloor groove with tidy beats, little keyboard washes and fills, and a raw electric guitar to play off and reflect the mood. Sometimes I hear this and it's just right, other times it's too much. But even when it's too much it never seems like a shallow exercise in shock—the strange particularities ("get stoned on my hash," "cobwebs up her fanny") ground it in something that feels utterly like lived experience. It's like finding the diary of a stranger on the street, starting to read it for entertainment, and finally reaching the parts where you wish you never had. Nothing Faithfull has done since has ever come close to the dour confessionals found here. She went on to more or less reinvent herself in a strain of Brechtian artsong, an heir to Marlene Dietrich, dipped in jazz and croaking vocals and wise from life experience. Everything she has done since has been worth looking into, but I can't help thinking that the veracity of the entire back end of her career is rooted one way or another in the unforgettable moment of this one song.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

55. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Rainy Day, Dream Away" (1968)


This is the kickoff to one of the great album sides, effectively a kind of album within the album. Electric Ladyland is altogether outstanding, of course, not least because close study quickly reveals there is no end of albums within the album, crisscrossing across the sides and the tracking sequences and sonic textures and melodies and motifs and themes. (Start, and finish, with the "Voodoo Chile" arc, which closes the first and last sides of the original double-album package. There's plenty more when you go looking for it.) A lot of the elements that made Jimi Hendrix a titan, profound and throwaway equally, are present in this deceptive three-minute goof: the light-hearted dope-smoking scenario and the reminder of what a sweet moment such activity provides from the inside on a rainy day, the lazy woodshedding feel of this particular jam, with its smoldering groove anchored by a rich Hammond organ sound and inflected by a sax. And then the way that the guitar, at the very end, almost right on the fade, steps up and starts talking: "Whoa! Wuh-oh. Well what did you think, hmm? That I couldn't do this all day and in my sleep too?" That's a rough rendition—no Alta Vista Babel Fish translator is ever going to work out the fine points. In fact, it functions as something of a hyperlink to two separate points within the album. The next song on the side is "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," a supremely beautiful and dreamy meditation that winds like smoke from a night fire toward black sky and stars, crashing then on the shore of the nearly nine-minute "Moon, Turn the Tides...Gently, Gently," which follows it. That's side 3. Meanwhile, side 4 opens with "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" and that exact same talking guitar last heard toward the end of "Rainy Day, Dream Away." Oh, oop, what do you know, another direction it could have gone. Another direction it went.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)

I was drawn to Erik Larson's account of the Chicago world's fair of the late 19th century (officially, the 1893 Columbian Exposition) more for the promise of its true-crime trappings than its history. But in the end the history proves to be more interesting by far. It's true that the crime Larson has incorporated, essentially the pinnacle of the career of serial killer H.H. Holmes, is lurid and intriguing. Entering into the wide-open economic boom of Chicago at the time, Holmes, who was also a wily businessman, found a way to build a hotel that was literally a chamber of horrors. Here's Wikipedia: "... the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions." Select rooms were soundproofed and fitted out with gas lines for convenience in torture and murder. It was easily accessible to the fairgrounds and Holmes was operating it at full capacity during the fair. But Larson is somehow altogether too genteel about telling this half of his story, shrinking from the horror of it and even, in the alternating chapters devoted to it, taking on an almost schoolmarm tut-tutting tone, his distaste for these events all too plainly overwhelming any fascination. One would likely have to count this a virtue, but the result is that the story in Larson's hands lacks the punch one would expect from knowing the details of the case. Larson clearly has a good deal more interest in the machinations and various events of the fair itself and that is where this book really shines. I had long been vaguely aware of its outsize impact, notably on the architecture of Chicago and even the U.S. writ large, but Larson really lays out the whole thing well here: the scope and ambition, the disasters that attended the rush to pull it together in such a compressed time frame, the stellar participants (Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge, Scott Joplin, Buffalo Bill, many others), and even handfuls of fun facts I had not really known before, such as that this was the occasion for the invention and first appearance of the Ferris Wheel, which was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in a Paris exposition of the previous decade. Other products introduced include Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, and even the hamburger. The fair was a huge success on many levels, including its historical impact, and Larson has done a great job of framing its importance and filling in the fine points and the details that tell. As for the true crime that's incidentally packed in here, probably one of the other accounts of H.H. Holmes has what I was hoping to find on that.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Raise the Pressure (1996)

To my surprise I'm prepared to call this second Electronic album the better of the first two. It's a surprise because I was actually quite fond of that first one in its time, and dismissed this in its as something of a disappointment. But somewhere along the line it really got its hooks in. The songs that work most on me here, such as "Out of My League" and "Second Nature" and "Time Can Tell," were not necessarily the attempts to find a hit—generally this follow-up never did nearly as well as the first. I'm certainly fond of the kickoff track, "Forbidden City," which eked into the UK top 20 and sets the terms for much of what's to come: sparkling production, self-conscious mid-'90s electronica flourishes subordinated to soft mood and charged atmosphere, and the soaring finery of gifted songwriters who just happen to be clicking better than anyone, even themselves, probably could have suspected. No Neil Tennant this time, just Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner and their merry band of keyboardists (one of the latter, Karl Bartos, gets co-writing credit with Marr and Sumner on nearly half of the 13 tracks here). It's a long album, lasting over an hour, and came at a time when the traditional approaches to listening to an album were dying their last deaths. Thus it has always tended to work best for me on shuffle, where the sequencing is remarkably apt on the fly (the vacuous 44-second "Interlude" notwithstanding). In such fashion, it has wormed its way permanently into my heart. Listening to something like "Out of My League," floating in and out of its pleasures, with its plain-spun attack, its unfeigned innocence and aching joy, and its ability to insinuate so deeply, it's hard to connect back to the various alienations and disaffections of Joy Division and the Smiths, where these fine fellows find their origins. But there you have it. I have a lot of admiration and respect and love for that early groundbreaking work, of course, and in terms of iconoclasm it still has it all over the Electronic project. But I just view the Electronic project as more horizon-broadening, more wall-tearing-down, middle-aged perhaps but worthy in its own right. If this is selling out, I'm buying.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Precious (2009)

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, USA, 109 minutes
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher, Sapphire
Photography: Andrew Dunn
Music: Mario Grigorov
Editor: Joe Klotz
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, Bill Sage, Sapphire

For all the abuse that it may deserve for the obnoxious official release title—which, on balance, may or may not have done the African-American novelist and poet Sapphire very much good—and for the abuse that it doesn't deserve because of its association with Oprah Winfrey (and, OK, Tyler Perry too), who has been known to get a few things right, I think in the end that Precious has to be counted as a good one. It draws its contrasts starkly, and many of its horrors seem calculated to shock—the obesity, the abuse, the family and other circumstances. But they never feel made up or particularly gratuitous, and in the end it comes across to me as a refreshing and interesting parable of "the system" actually working. I'm not sure there's that much wrong with wanting to stand and cheer for someone who can face down and survive the kinds of things that are going on here and, oh yeah, out there too.

Much has rightly been made of Gabourey Sidibe's brave performance. She owns this top to bottom. It's not just her physical presence, though certainly that's the first thing you notice—implacable, stolid, enduring as the earth itself even as she lumbers across it. But she's also nearly pitch-perfect emotionally, in the way she starts as so fully collapsed within herself, surviving at the most fundamental levels, and gradually begins to crawl out of all that, almost like a slow-motion second birth. Late in the movie, as she tentatively engages with the world, it becomes obvious how smart she is and also devastatingly funny. The transformation is really done well, in the screenplay and direction as well as in Sidibe's performance. But it's ultimately her performance that puts it over most effectively and makes Precious such a pleasure to watch in spite of everything.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

56. Buddy Holly, "True Love Ways" (1958)


There are nice stories out there about this song and about Buddy Holly. It was written for his wife, Maria Elena Santiago, as a wedding gift. A picture of their wedding kiss is now displayed at the restaurant over the table where he proposed to her on their first date. "True Love Ways" doesn't last even three minutes but it's a love song every second, and a beautiful, haunting one that never grows old. In rock 'n' roll history it's among the first ever to be recorded with orchestral accompaniment—Holly's own innovation. When I tote up the various losses from untimely rock star deaths I still count Holly as among the most devastating. Had he lived I think he would have made the best accommodations to the British Invasion bands, if only because his work already provided key markers for their orientations in the first place—he had proved, with the Crickets and with his lavish songwriting gifts, that a rock 'n' roll band writing its own material could be practically boundless in its versatility. At the end of his life, still only 22, he was planning to settle and live with his wife in New York's Greenwich Village, which raises any number of tantalizing what-ifs regarding the burgeoning folk music scene and the coming of Bob Dylan in that time and place. But none of that was to be, of course. You can fit the best of Holly's work now onto a single CD, with a second one there for scraps and oddities. But this remains one of his greatest, a lush and sweet and simple ode to love and its joys, built from the materials of melody and sonic texture and ardor, drawing its greatest strengths from right out of the air like a magician releasing doves.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

57. Kristen Vigard, "God Give Me Strength" (1996)


I wish I knew more about the contractual terms of this—my impression is they must be pretty tight, not to say positively draconian. Illeana Douglas lip-synchs to it in a key scene from the movie Grace of My Heart (a gem worth tracking down), and that's the last you're ever going to hear of it practically for the rest of your life. Co-written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, the (inferior) Costello vocal version of it plays over the end credits and appears exclusively on the soundtrack, notwithstanding that it's the one scene and not the credits crawl that's memorable. There was no YouTube then, but there is now, so you can go visit the clip whenever you like for the full-on effect. Me, there's something inside that has to possess, so I did a little detective work and found that the version I want lives on a cheesy compilation from 1999 called Love Scene: Romantic Movie Music (with songs from other movies like Sleepless in Seattle, Stealing Beauty, and The Commitments). Vigard, a soaps player and lifetime back-bencher, recorded another version in 2004 on her album God, Loves and Angels, which is ... not the original. My connection to this song, and this version, is all about the movie from which it comes, its story and that particular scene. Vigard's performance is exactly right, just tentative and plain enough to sound reasonably like a demo or audition knocked off in the moment, but with strong undercurrents and flashes of emotion that power it and strike hard. Douglas isn't singing, but she's playing it off equally exactly right, so maybe the best way to hear it is in the YouTube clip, and skip tracking down the album which I did all the work of doing for you. Better yet, see the whole movie. It's a thing of beauty.