Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, "Falling Slowly" (2006)


I'm normally pretty resistant to romancing rock band musician lifestyles (really!), but I have to admit the movie Once has really got under my skin. It's so tender and beautiful and convincing. In many ways the heart of it is this song, which represents a critical moment of connection in the movie and, as it happens, between the two players as well. Or, well, their own connection probably happened some other much more mundane way. But it is idealized in the scene built around this song, and all of that chemistry and electricity is poured into it, with the two of them shown playing together for the first time, tentatively feeling around for the keys and musical cues and so forth and then working themselves into the song and then suddenly hitting it. And I don't know how this song fits or does not into the (now former) relationship between Hansard and Irglova either, and after all the movie is a musical and a narrative work of fiction, so right right right. Poetic license. But "Falling Slowly" is not a song about being drunk, it's fairly obvious it's about that pesky other "in love" type of falling. Without the movie, the song might seem much more mundane, or overly sweet, or folkie in some tiresome way, though they are each one impossible for me to believe. But I can't say because the movie is how I experienced this song for the first time, and how I think of it, the filter through which I like to hear it. What I can say is that you really ought to go see the movie. Then tell me what you think of the song.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hell Among the Yearlings (1998)

There's an ever so slightly stuffy air of the self-conscious about Gillian Welch and her old-time folk music project, at least here on her second album, which is the one by her I know best (directed to it via a MOJO list). Welch was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, going to college at Santa Cruz, where it is said the Stanley Brothers reached out and touched her. She hooked up with her musical partner David Rawlings at Berklee. It's a funny background, but she's obviously a natural at this. It doesn't hurt any, of course, to have T-Bone Burnett twiddling the knobs and playing keyboards. The sound is loose and sparkling tight at once, clarified so every string and vocal croak practically can be heard vibrating—beautifully recorded, no surprise of course. Welch's singing holds the center of attention with a reedy commanding confidence, an ability to slip and slide around the notes and words and push against them in convincingly achy ways. And all the playing is fine as can be, shaped and textured and felt. A scan of the titles fleshes out the themes: "The Devil Had a Hold on Me," "Miner's Refrain," "Rock of Ages," "My Morphine." They are all originals, which vexingly then raises questions of what she has to tell us about the devil, miners, morphine, etc., or even yearlings for that matter. It's vexing because they are good questions. "Miner's Refrain," for example, puts me in mind of Harlan County U.S.A., a very fine movie. It sounds like it could play there, dropped in with any of the other musical sequences. But suddenly I realize I am hearing it more convincingly in terms of a shared experience over an acclaimed documentary than some bulletin from elsewhere, "down in a hole," let alone with urgency of narrative. It is as if Welch imagines herself into these dust bowl scenarios and then riffs off that, which is fine I suppose, especially for an early album, testing and trying things. I'm approximately at the point where I start to understand some of the generalized carping one hears about a presumed lack of authenticity, but I'm not sure it's fair, or even necessarily right. But I will say I appreciate Hell Among the Yearlings most when I take it on admittedly superficial terms, as tracks thrown up very occasionally into the shuffle stream or the album whole played through start to finish in track order a few days in a row to get the feel for it. Otherwise I don't pull it out.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Spellbound (2002)

USA, 97 minutes, documentary
Director/photography: Jeffrey Blitz
Music: Daniel Hulsizer
Editor: Yana Gorskaya

Spellbound is so formally effective as a documentary of the annual National Spelling Bee competition, sponsored by the E.W. Scripps company, a media conglomerate, and held in the late spring of each year in Washington, D.C., that one wonders why it hasn't been done more often. It focuses on the competition in one year, 1999, and well before the competition has begun hand-picks eight competitors to follow, traveling to their home towns, interviewing their families, friends, and teachers, and sketching five-minute portraits of each.

These choices were clearly not made randomly—among them are three of the final eight competitors, including the eventual winner, along with children of Mexican and Indian immigrants and children from poor and disadvantaged and from upper-middle-class and privileged households. Regions represented include California, D.C., Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It's a real potpourri, and if the mechanics behind it show, the final result speaks for itself: an absolutely riveting portrait of a competition capable of suspending time the way any closely contested athletic competition can.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The bulbous B pretends to be more important than it is by way of its position as the second letter of the alphabet. In fact, it is just the 20th most frequently used letter, ahead of only V, K, J, X, Q, and Z. But consider the word "alphabet," derived from the Greek for "alpha" and "beta," the first two letters of the alphabet. Thus the bumptious B even horns in on the word itself we use for the enterprise at hand. The nerve. Yet isn't this the way after all that people think? One, two, many. Alpha, beta, I'm tired of letters now. And therein lies the rub after all. The letter B pays a heavy penalty for its presumption, its jolly persistent appearances in the ABCs of things and all its bubbly baby talky buh buh buh. If the letter A is the alpha top of the top best of all, the letter B necessarily becomes the fall guy for everything else, winding up with a sleazy extra coat of "loser" for its troubles. B movies, B girls, B team, B squad, 2 hip 2 B square, graduate school F. For people, behaving for all the world as if there is no C, D, or E (let alone P, Q, or R), it's either A—which as we've seen tends to reflexively endorse its own indignity of inflations in the echo chamber of AA, AAA, AAAA, AAAAA, and so on, but which is always at least kind of terrific, good, and acceptable—or it's our friend we are suddenly not so sure about ourselves, the letter B, which seems to stink of something rather unpleasant. But come now. The letter B does have some things going for it. Unlike the vowels and many of the consonants we will see, a B is always a B. It has no multiple duties and is not approximated elsewise. And that is integrity, people, an element in short supply in this man's English alphabet. The sound it represents is always the same moderately complex consonant noise involving coordination with the voice and lips—by name a "voiced bilabial stop" (the term itself gaudy with Bs). Who can say what the logic was of putting that particular and distinct mouth noise second in the alphabet. We're stuck with it now, but then, we seem to be stuck with the silent "gh" in night and tight too. Puns: "be" is a very important word, let's not forget, and "bee" can combine with either or both quite harmoniously, e.g., "don't worry, bee happy" (accompanied by illustration of bumblebee). And say, here's a thought. Could the prominent position of the letter B actually reflect some primal brainstem instinct? After all, babies are pretty important to everyone and they get two of the darn things in a simple four-letter word: baby, which also, for what it's worth, happens to be what many of us call our sex partners at one time or another. And then all that baby talk. Granted, the letter G has stake in this too with the classic "goo-goo gah-gah," and of course "mama" and "papa," but after that isn't it all boo boo buh buh bub bub bub bub bub, etc. Crying out loud, look at the word we have for it: babbling.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Angelo Badalamenti, "Twin Peaks Theme" (1990)


I have a lot of memories and associations with this, not least how much the Pacific Northwest has become my home. I remember how exciting and what a novelty it was at that time for something with such a high profile—and so interesting—to be explicitly set in this region. Then the TV show itself turned out to be such a sensation, so weird and freaky and funny all at once, and became associated with strangely high spirits and anticipation too (compare The X-Files). But my favorite moment with all this happened on a winter night many years later, in those bad Bush years, when I stepped into a late-night bookstore insomniac and bleary and they had just started playing the Twin Peaks soundtrack album. I could not figure out what it was. It was the most beautiful feeling, a prolonged extended déjà vu. I became acutely aware that it was raining outside and very dark, but the lights of the storefronts across the street were visible, bars and a pharmacy and a pizza takeout. And of things like how the rain streaked against the window and what that did to the lights and what it sounded like when cars or now and then a truck drove by. It changed the whole scene and mood and I surreptitiously watched the other patrons, who sometimes seemed to be moving and swaying to the music. I suspect, musicologically speaking, it's pretty primitive stuff. Yet so evocative too. I skulked around the bookstore some 20 minutes and finally gave up and had to ask the clerk what it was. The answer was not surprising.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

City Lights (1931)

#1: City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

I realized later that I probably could have put Citizen Kane here and maybe even pulled it off. I got kind of cute with these last five picks—an embedded Top 5 for my #5, a four-hour movie for #4, a made-up trilogy for #3, and a matched pair of stellar performances for #2. I wanted my #1 to represent a singular, multifaceted talent at the top of his form, and that's Orson Welles and Citizen Kane without a doubt.

But it's also Charlie Chaplin and City Lights. The guy wrote it, directed it, edited it, stars in it, and he wrote all the music too. And it's great music. The talkies had already arrived and his moment was slipping away, but Chaplin still had a few good ones in him—his best, in fact—along with some strikingly innovative ideas about the place and purpose of sound. This is not a silent picture; it is, as billed, "a comedy romance in pantomime," and sound is a significant part of it even if dialogue isn't, for which he still uses (sparingly) the intertitle cards. It is original in ways that few pictures not done by Chaplin are.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Falling Off the Sky (2012)

What is basically the first album from the dB's in 25 years (and arguably only the second in 30) has turned out to be a welcome surprise on many levels, not least that it so good, with a set that sounds as close to a return to the mind meld between Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey as we could have hoped for. It feels as if they are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses both, playing effectively within their limitations. The Wikipedia entry makes it "jangle pop/power pop" and that's as good a way as any to start on this mess. But don't forget the overarching indie aesthetic, which remains important as constraining and ultimately defining element. The songs are verse/chorus/verse with lines that rhyme and stories about being in love, finding it, losing it, appreciating it, thinking about it a lot, still. No late midlife crisis this, as often as not evidently at peace with its decisions, living with them, unlike the youthful angst none of us can help, and which they rightly and neatly step the hell away from. Instead it's just about getting down to the matter of working with what they have, the stuff of their lives and memories and a persistent way of getting songs to fit together and work. It's much more often "beautiful" than "interesting," which I count as the happiest surprise of all. As we all know by now, or should, "nothing lasts," and so it was hard to know what the old crew had in mind and/or were capable of. It turns out to be pretty simple. They are still here, still in command of their various powers, still productive as a unit, with no airs or pretensions. The sequencing has some feel of a series of careful, deliberate statements: "That Time Is Gone," "Before We Were Born," "The Wonder of Love," it opens, moving quickly to the sublime, with soaring melodies and wide open singing and harmonies. Every track here is solid. I never would have guessed the dB's had another album in them. There might be more. But even if there's not this is as strikingly good a way of going out as any other I can think of at the moment. Feels like going home in a way, and infinitely sweet when it catches you in the right mood.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993)

John Lydon here takes on the difficult and neverending task of "correcting the record," in this case the highly visible, and visibly pored over, history of the Sex Pistols. He was a little late to the party, trailing 1989's Lipstick Traces and 1991's England's Dreaming, which effectively set the outlines, thanks in part to a combination of Malcolm McLaren's arguable overparticipation and Lydon's own underparticipation in those projects. But then Lydon practically compounds the problem with this "authorized autobiography" (though a nice touch, that) "with Keith and Kent Zimmerman," which casts an air of the smug and self-satisfied. It feels as if Lydon considers himself ultimately above all this, and so he is. There is minimal effort. It's basically an oral history with Lydon's voice overwhelmingly dominating the transcriptions. For me, if anything, it tends to undercut his case, which is powerful on its face. As Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols he is the first anyone would think of as the chief player in that drama, with Sid Vicious playing a critical supporting role. But the books by Greil Marcus and Jon Savage make powerful and persuasive cases for the importance of McLaren and, rather more incidentally, for Glen Matlock, who made significant contributions as a songwriter. Lydon comes off in this autobiography as a decent human being and an interesting enough cultural figure, sarcastic and radical and embittered though not unpleasantly so. But he seems more football fan than rock star somehow, and somehow this regular guy thing struck me as a tough sell. Certainly Lydon has carried on the most interesting post-Pistols career (though I don't think McLaren is actually that far behind him). But many of Lydon's arguments against the significance of, say, McLaren, or Situationism, seem to boil down to "Nah-nah, can't prove it. I was there and I say not," etc., without producing anything like a satisfying or credible alternative explanation for the hurricanes of phenomena that swirled around the Sex Pistols when they existed. Lydon could well be the one telling the truth, but his version seems by far the least interesting—thus, perhaps, the most convincing in one way. But still, if Lydon is going to stake his legacy on his vision and his words he might have considered taking on the work of composing them rather than simply switching on a tape recorder and speaking into it as the whim moved him. This is a bit disappointing.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Foreign Sound (2004)

It occurred to me for the first time recently, going back to this elusive and fascinating cover songs album by Caetano Veloso, the great Brazilian singer and songwriter, that the title could well have been plucked out of the compelling word salad of one of the bravest and most audacious covers here (of many), Bob Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)": "So don't fear if you hear / A foreign sound to your ear / It's alright, Ma," etc. At 22 tracks, this album is packed full, arms wide open, Walt Whitman style, I-am-large—I-contain-multitudes, with room for Fred Astaire, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Kurt Cobain, and Morris Alpert, which is the track order for the first five songs, so you know how fast it switches and what caps it reaches for: "The Carioca," "So in Love," "Always," "Come as You Are," and "Feelings." For every standard such as "Summertime" there's at least one mostly unexpected pick with an interesting history or twist: "Cry Me a River," which may or may not be associated with Barbra Streisand now but Julie London owned it first, "Nature Boy," a Nat King Cole song later covered by Big Star, "(Nothing But) Flowers," late Talking Heads, on and on it goes. In many ways it's a perfect freak show of references. But in case anyone was still wondering, Veloso proves over and over what a shrewd, insinuating, and overpowering performer he can be. As suggested by the songs already mentioned, there's a lot of extravagance in the choices, but after that it's strictly professional, with a variety of outfits assembled for the purposes of each song, some of which are just Veloso singing and playing guitar and others with big orchestras. But at the same time, from all these sessions, it also feels like an organic whole, more than arguably it has any right to. The bob and weave of these songs can be hypnotic, and there is much to be taken from close listening—the best touches are also the finest, sneaking up on you, often in Veloso's phrasings and scans. So many of these concept projects, such as tribute albums or a covers album such as this, often look better on paper but somehow don't translate, except the occasional inspired track. I admit I had my concerns seeing how wild A Foreign Sound can swing, from Nirvana to Elvis to DNA. It can go some pretty crazy places. But Veloso always seems to know where he is and what he is doing, so let it play, baby, I say let it play.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

USA, 103 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max von Sydow, Daniel Stern, Sam Waterston, Tony Roberts, Julie Kavner, Lewis Black, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Joanna Gleason

One of the best formulations I know of the appeal of the Marx Brothers is found late in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, his best movie of the '80s. In an implausible scene of suicide considered and averted (a Woody Allen staple even then), he makes the familiar case for Groucho and crew—inspired zaniness equated to life affirmation, that sort of thing. It is of a piece with the usual accolades for the Marx Brothers, and others such as Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Martin and Lewis, all that comedy of bygone times lost on me beyond certain undeniable quaint charms (e.g., Laurel and Hardy music). What's interesting to me, perhaps because I can't appreciate the Marx Brothers the way Woody Allen and so many others do, is how well it stands in as approximation of the way I feel about Woody Allen movies, and nearly as much as ever.

Even the bad ones validate ideals I hold dear—may even have learned in part absorbing Woody Allen's '70s movies—an irresistible vision of an urban lifestyle constructed around cultural markers and cityscapes, and at deeper levels identity, and ultimately alienation. Life, this self-absorbed and conflicted Woody Allen view seems to tell us, is about emotional connections, the rejection of commerce, and privilege, in about equal proportions. Or, as he puts it in Annie Hall, the world can be divided into the horrible and the miserable, and the best any of us can hope for is to be among the miserable. Which, in turn, is itself eternally belied by the easygoing roll and tumble of Woody Allen's jokes and situations, second nature by the time of Hannah and Her Sisters, enabling him in fact to pull off the rather remarkable stunt that I think distinguishes it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chris Bell, "Though I Know She Lies" (1974)


Chris Bell's one and only solo album came out in 1992 but he had been gone nearly 14 years by then, dead at 27 from a late night auto accident in East Memphis. He was a founding member of Big Star, mostly estranged from the band after the first album as Alex Chilton came more to take the central role. I Am the Cosmos truly sounds like a lost Big Star album. In fact, it also helps explain some of the curves and bends of Chilton's own post-Big Star career, which veered much more wildly, from real good bluesy stuff to effective noise squalls and back again to these dark nights of the adolescent soul, at which Big Star particularly excelled. In my opinion Third/Sister Lovers is as good as it ever got. That was long after Chris Bell had left the band, but Cosmos, recorded at approximately the same time, is nevertheless at the heart of the project, it can't be denied. Both albums are possessed of a similar eerie spirit, disconnected lost souls wandering the audio hollows of a recording studio. "Though I Know She Lies" closes the original '92 release, letting Bell retreat all the way into himself as the story turns blankly naturalistic, and thus bleak. As far as I'm concerned it's the deepest point reached by the album, which is otherwise the usual story about wanting a girl, told from multiple points of view, enlarged thematically as unrequited love, obsession, depression, yearning and failure to connect, even Christian faith. Just another story about a guy who liked a girl who didn't like him, and there are a lot of those. But seen from certain angles Bell makes it look like looking into the abyss.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

#2: Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)

In many ways I grew up with this movie; on an emotional level, I mean that literally. Properly speaking, it's more of a television mini-series—and something of an event at that when it ran on Swedish television in the spring of 1973. Stories are that the entire country stopped to watch each weekly episode (one per week on the same day and time is still a good way to look at it). The first version that I saw in the mid-'70s was the chopped-down cut made for a U.S. theatrical release, which reduced it from its six-part 300 minutes to a still-long 167 minutes and also dubbed all the dialogue into English. I was 19 or 20, and mostly just bored.

But some 15 years later, working my way through the thickets of a divorce, I saw that same version again on a VHS tape from the library and it all but did me in then and there. I have since seen the theatrical version without the dubbing, and eventually, when Criterion did it right as they do so much right, the entire mini-series, which of course I would now recommend without hesitation as the version to see. But I can say from experience that even the bowdlerized, dubbed version is worth a look, and I wouldn't hesitate if it was my only option.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

A lot of the features I have come to associate with Philip Roth were already in evidence in his first book, a collection of six stories published when Roth was 26. It is self-consciously concerned with "the Jewish experience in America" (or at least New Jersey) as literary theme. He is willing to expose various human foibles to the point where already, even here, people have tended to characterize him as "self-hating Jew." It can be acidly funny. It is always well-written—Roth's gifts as stylist are underestimated at one's peril. And it won a National Book Award, the beginning of a stream of such awards across his career that have left him waiting rather impatiently for his Nobel prize. It is an unseemly position of privilege he has come to occupy, and in such a context this early work does start to feel remarkably slight and unable to bear such weight. "Goodbye, Columbus," the story long enough to be considered a novella, was first published in The Paris Review (more privilege). To me it's actually more about class and the full-scale flight then underway to the suburbs, telling the story of a summer romance between the scrappy young narrator from Newark and a wealthy, haughty, and disaffected girl from Short Hills. The romance is reasonably convincing, much more so than the Newark details, which indeed reek of self-hatred, except it seems less about being Jewish than simply resenting impoverishment. The rest of the stories are more obviously (and almost reflexively, it sometimes seems, by rote exercise) exploring "the Jewish experience in America" (or at least New Jersey). They seem to me almost painfully timebound and dare I say irrelevant: broad farce about a suicide gesture, in the Army now, generational changing of the guard, etc. They hold more interest now, collectively, simply as the opening scene in what has become a rather long and mostly interesting play, Philip Roth's career. This is hardly the one above all others to read by him if you're only going to read one (I consider that to be Sabbath's Theater), nor the place to start if you're going to make a project of him (I'm not sure myself about that one). But if you're going to make a project of him, this has certainly got to be on the list.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dirt Track Date (1995)

This creased my attention about the time I was publishing a fanzine, came through the mails. I warmed to it a lot, having no clue what it was beyond the self-evident razor-sharp unit on display with full command of Southern boogaloo, from every pore. Digging around on the Internet for a little more information about Southern Culture on the Skids and Dirt Track Date, it appears it's the fifth of some dozen or more albums, including live sets, a covers album, so on so forth, and generally considered one of the best. So it appears at least I was infatuated with the right one (or that somebody sent me the right one) of a big bunch of choices, 1986-present: Southern-fried varieties of rockabilly, boogie woogie, and all the usual blues variations, done up to a tee with more or less straight faces, at least the music. This is a very fine band. The music is down and dirty and persistently insinuating, raw and rocking and a pleasure loud, all the things we know to say about the irresistible albums, and this is one of those for me. Overlaid on top of the grooves is a saucy wide-ranging psychotronic array of gestures, ridiculous science fiction and monster movies, Ed Roth hot rods, trailer culture, the usual freedoms of a certain vein of boozy devil-may-care. At that point, the jokes get nearly as good as the sizzling music, as indicated by some of the choice titles: "Skullbucket" (that's for an instrumental), "White Trash," "Fried Chicken and Gasoline," "8 Piece Box." But note that the jokes would not be so good if the music were not so unspeakably fine. That's where it all starts here, moving with spirit and attitude from groove to groove, approximately the Cramps times the B-52's (but these things are always so hard to calibrate with any accuracy, my appreciation for the Blasters is reflected in this mess too), 14 gem tracks in a row, each and every one dead on the money hot and full of itself and ready to go again. And the band evidently looked and saw all was so good they closed the album on the title song, featuring five whole minutes of pure dirt track din ("demolition derby figure eight"), engines droning away in and out of range, tires squealing, and not a whisper of music either. That takes a little getting used to, until you know that's the way they end the album. It is otherwise all pure pleasure.

Friday, January 11, 2013

21 Grams (2003)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall, Danny Huston, Paul Calderon

One more prestige production of the past with the prestige season of the present still (barely) upon us. 21 Grams is the kind of edgy upscale downbeat over-the-top melodrama/acting showcase that seems to put in an appearance most years one way or another, often indeed with Sean Penn in the cast—one thinks of Dead Man Walking or Mystic River, for example. Perhaps Silver Linings Playbook occupied the niche this year, though that did not seem to me generally quite as glum as many of these others, which often go to such formal narrative extremes to wring the ducts (Monster's Ball, Things We Lost in the Fire, you know what I'm talking about).

Certainly one sees similarities in terms of how 21 Grams has been put together. First and most obviously there is the big-name mainstream commercial acting talent, self-evidently "stretching": Sean Penn (who can make even running in place look like stretching), Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro—the latter two arguably at their peaks of popularity. Then there is the promising young director element, in this case Alejandro González Iñárritu, which is how I came to be gulled in. I thought his feature debut from 2000, Amores Perros, was shaggy and barely held together, but dazzled with ambition and creative energy. It seemed promising even to me to throw him in with Del Toro, Penn, and Watts, for a complicated story about lost souls in the modern world, miracles of medical science, the ways we insist on living, alienation, drugs and sex, redemption by fertility, cruel auto accidents, tortured Christianity, etc. Trauma and grief, in other words, we got 'em. Also spoilers, on the other side of the jump, big time (though here's the biggest spoiler of all: none of the narrative surprises are particularly surprising).

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Coming first in the alphabet, the letter A is overly familiar and taken for granted, abused for its position as often as offered as a mark of excellence. Hence all the Aarons of the world who take their first rankings as a given—and why shouldn't they?—simply expecting all the A qualities of life. And by "A qualities" you know immediately that I am talking about excellence, because in the end, in many ways, that is everything that the letter A is about, or people's unseemly grasping after it. Consider the worst abuses of the letter A, which may be found still in yellow pages telephone directories, where a column or more can occur of names beginning with at least three of them, often more, e.g., AAAA House & Key. There's a reflexive state of mind for you, isn't it? Locked out of the house. Panicked. Worried. Look up a locksmith. There they are. Yes. Better get AAAA. These charlatans don't even pretend to stand for anything. I think they just add another A every generation or so. At least Alcoholics Anonymous, the Automobile Association of America, and the American Association of Retired Persons go to the fig leaf of a real name. But alas the telephone directory mentality presides as well over sporting organizations, financial instruments, even meat regulations. It's not good enough to get a Grade A cut of meat. Oh no, it has to be Grade AAA. There appears to be no such thing as B in many of these places—on the rare occasion when it does appear, as with the ponderous exercises of financial instrument ratings agencies (AAa and Bb, and all that ... speaking of charlatans), even then there is never a C. It is a tiny alphabet indeed in these worlds. And what is the meaning of all the As? Sometimes more seems to signal an increase in excellence, as with minor league baseball teams. In other cases, as with divisions in the NCAA athletic programs classifications, fewer means the same thing. Oh wait. Those are Is, a subject for another time. At any rate, you see the problem, the usual classic one of psychological inflationary forces. It's rather like deciding that "excellent," with its crashing crescendo at the back of the throat on the "ex" and the satisfying many syllables, just didn't say enough in conversation any longer, and from now on one needed to say "excellent excellent" to mean the same thing. "Excellent excellent pie, Mrs. Cleaver." It is ridiculous on its face. Thank you, grasping world of commerce. And knowing people as we do, I think it's not unlikely that by the time of the 22nd century or so people will indeed be thanking hosts for excellent excellent excellent evenings. These are just a few of the problems familiar to the letter A, which otherwise does such yeoman's work as the third most used letter in the alphabet, on which score it doesn't hurt that it's also a vowel, representing sounds made in every language.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Down by the River" (1969)


Last summer Phil asked me to take part in a poll of best Neil Young songs (results here). I was happy to comply and placed this high on my list, tied at #4 with its fellow Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album track "Cinnamon Girl." "Cowgirl in the Sand," the third leg of that particular thematic album stool, landed slightly lower in my list, in the 20s. (In the poll, "Down by the River" was #3, "Cinnamon Girl" #6, and "Cowgirl in the Sand" #7.) "Down by the River" everybody probably knows, a simmering nine-minute sauté in which, among other things, Young takes a solo with some 30- or 40-odd repetitions of the same note. Fortunately it must be the right note, as the point usually needs to be made before people actually notice. Lord, though, in a nine-minute song of such simple, even primitive, narrative, there's ample opportunity for instrumental breaks and all manner of guitar foofaraw, and so it rolls and tumbles. That narrative, meanwhile, operates in territory of both Appalachian murder ballads and "Hey Joe," with its tragic incoherent revenge story, fragments really. "Down by the river," it basically goes, "I shot my baby." There's a little bit more to it than that, but not much. Yet out of it Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina) wring history somehow. It's not so surprising that it captured the late '60s mood so thoroughly it's become a Wonder Years staple of a type for evoking the time with proper visuals: shirtless freaks in top hats flashing the peace sign, etc., division of dark underside division. But it actually plays well in all circumstances, even the most latter-day such as while I am typing this, early dark with Christmas lights still visible late in the season from my window. It does seem better suited at the moment to dark and winter, I'll say that.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

'50s science fiction trilogy (1951-1956)

#3: The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) / The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

The rather high placement here and the trumped-up "trilogy" idea both are the result of bitterly fought negotiations on the part of me with my 11-year-old self, who threatened to blow up not just this project but all of Facebook and most of the known universe if he didn't get his way. He will tell you that he had to sacrifice separate rankings, This Island Earth, and the #1 slot, but I think I overheard him telling a reporter rather smugly that he's happy that he got 98% of everything he wanted.

I know I have my gaps here as everywhere, but sometimes it feels like science fiction is the one film genre that just keeps bringing me out, over and over again, like Charlie Brown poised to take the run and kick that football Lucy is holding for him. I seem to keep chasing it down even in the face of continual disappointment, and I am fiercely devoted to the things I like (I just rewatched the Abrams reboot of Star Trek the other night, for example, and was wowed all over again).


Monday, January 07, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)—Much better than I remembered. The A story suffers from terminal slightness, as so much of the '80s Woody Allens did, but the old comics sitting around the diner telling the story somehow makes it all work (even as it could have been much better).
Capote (2005)
City Lights (1931)—Holiday favorite.
Civilisation (1969)—I am finding my first look at this BBC series to be an oddly thrilling experience. I keep wondering what this stuffed shirt Sir Kenneth Clark is doing to pull that off and I've decided that it is the way he forces us to look at the magnificence, and contemplate it with him, for all these many hours.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—Holiday favorite.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Best American Essays 2002

For many years I was faithful to Robert Atwan's long-running Best American Essays series, which started in 1986. By the early '90s I was so enamored of the idea that I was good for the annual purchase, and it only dawned on me slowly that more often than not it was something of a chore to plow through, filled with work by a relatively small group of familiar names that recurred frequently. I finally gave it up after the 2009 edition, which seemed to me unusually deadened and of a trend long since going the wrong way. There's a case that this 2002 edition is no exception, with pieces by Atul Gawande, David Halberstam, Christopher Hitchens, Louis Menand, Gore Vidal, etc., and edited by no less a light than Stephen Jay Gould. But it remains my favorite of all of them, and only one of two I kept when I purged a roomful of books last summer to get back some living space. Much of its quality is actually the work of Gould, I think, a frequent contributor usual suspect himself in previous editions. I haven't read much of him but appreciate what I have. Not only is he a lucid, excellent writer, but his intersecting interests in science and culture provide a reliably valuable and informed point of view. In this collection he brings the clarity some more, even only in service as editor. The task he happened to be assigned in this case bore two additional burdens: sorting through the aftermath of 9/11 and dealing with a second bout of cancer, which killed him within weeks of finishing his work on this collection. One of the inherent nagging problems of the series and its chosen form is the paradox of looking for recent work while studiously striking an appropriate distance from news cycles, which is usually accomplished by ignoring most current events. This one is different. No other volume has ever been permeated so thoroughly by a single incident (or set of incidents), and it is to Gould's credit that he recognized the scope of 9/11 on the American psyche and fully engaged, adding the vital personal notes, in his introduction, that the event occurred 100 years to the day after his grandfather had arrived at Ellis Island as an immigrant, that if the towers had fallen north rather than straight down his home would have been destroyed, and incidentally that his 60th birthday had been the day before. At the same time he would not allow 9/11 to be the exclusive focus, writing, "[N]either decency nor common morality ... allow evil madmen to define history in this way." So there is also, for examples, great work from Jonathan Franzen and Barbara Ehrenreich on end-of-life calamities Alzheimer's and cancer, and a spirited and animating defense of literature from Mario Vargas Llosa—arguing that pursuit, examination, and analysis of it is not a refinement of privilege for a life that enables leisure but a crucial source of sustenance for everyone alive, very nearly a human right all unto itself. This is exactly the kind of volume I had hoped for every year back when it was habitual.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Get Close (1986)

What to make of this and every Pretenders album since? With a new, funkier band and with evident ongoing mellowing/maturing in evidence, it seems intended to serve an audience as much as anything. As a member of that audience I appreciated the gesture and note that it served the purpose reasonably well. In spite of tepid reviews at the time, I thought Get Close was a pretty good Pretenders album, underrated even, and allowed myself the usual infatuations, daily plays, etc. Coming back to it many years later, however, I was nonplussed to find it not quite adding up. It's clearly a drop-off point. The most obvious example is the weird shot she takes at Michael Jackson, which has become harder to brush aside as Chrissie Hynde being Chrissie Hynde, because now it seems weird in a way that helps get at some of the problems. "How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?" is your basic glass house moment, especially when you can't help noticing that it is itself pretty much a rip-off of David Bowie's "Fame" (which leads directly to the swamp of James Brown's "Hot," and oh, never mind, now it's complicated). She used to take her ire out on hypocrites and phonies. Now the target is someone who sold more albums than she ever could. And covering a Hendrix song doesn't make that OK ("Room Full of Mirrors," nonetheless a pretty good cover). After recent attempts at Get Close kept fizzling I finally remembered my favorite songs had been on the second vinyl side—"Don't Get Me Wrong" (#10 hit in November 1986), "I Remember You," and especially "Hymn for Her." Sure enough, they still sound pretty good, but not what they once were. They have grown thinner and less substantial, as if wasting away across time. Plus there is the ever more noxious "How Much Did You Get?" right in the middle of them. So maybe I stayed one album too long and at least from the vantage can wave you off this one. Fans will like it but fans already know. I will also say I have never entirely lost my appreciation for Hynde's pugnacious personality, her songwriting and singing powers, and generally her instincts, so I have checked in with most along the way—Packed!, Last of the Independents, Viva el Amor, etc., etc. There is at least one good song on each, but not much need to elaborate beyond that.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

USA, 43 minutes
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Cynthia Schneider, Todd Haynes
Photography: Barry Ellsworth
Music: The Carpenters
Cast/voices: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Melissa Brown, Rob LaBelle, Nannie Doyle, Cynthia Schneider, Larry Kole, Gwen Kraus

Todd Haynes's Superstar has won a fair amount of attention in certain circles, "the Barbie doll movie about Karen Carpenter," but along the way perhaps building such an outsized reputation (because so difficult to see) that it may seem disappointing to those encountering it for the first time. It's important to understand, for purposes of setting expectations, that Superstar is low-budget, crude, unruly, often awkwardly self-conscious filmmaking with production values just north of home movies. The voiced dialogue only occasionally and intermittently reaches the level of actual performance and the whole thing is wont to slip gears with little notice between straightforward biopic, social issue documentary, and pure fan love letter, among other things. More than anything it is a display of youthful exuberance.

It is only one of many ironies that its single greatest strength, the way it fills the soundtrack with Carpenters songs, is also one of two significant reasons it will probably never see a proper public release—at least, until that material finally slips into the public domain, well beyond any of our lifetimes. The movie gains unexpected energy from many directions. Its famous use of Barbie dolls, the thoughtful way it approaches Karen Carpenter, anorexia, and food generally, and its confident sense of the popular culture zeitgeist and how the Carpenters do and do not fit. But it is the greatest pleasure to watch always when there is a Carpenters song playing.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Kraftwerk, "Computer Love" (1981)


I've written before about how I encountered the album this comes from, Computer World, during an odd period in my life when I had no access to hi-fi gear beyond a shitty tabletop radio and one of those pre-Walkman shoebox types of cassette tape recorders. It's the only time in my adult life I have found myself in such a predicament and it only lasted six months. I was mostly doing without, which was weird enough, but a friend thought I should hear the Kraftwerk album and also Devo's New Traditionalists, which he put on the other side. I liked the Devo well enough, but Computer World is what kept bringing me back. Even at that I would not necessarily call "Computer Love" the best song on it—that would more likely be "Numbers" or "Pocket Calculator," because they also have the humor—but it's the longest, which makes me think it's the best at reproducing the experience of listening to this album, so full of such lovely, meditative, and humanizing music. Lasting more than seven minutes, and the story, such as it is, essentially a variation on the Greek story of Narcissus—so the humor is there after all, I finally see: "Could it be your face I see on my computer screen" (on the other hand, for those inclined to see in them prophets of the future, webcam interfacing decades ahead of its time)—it seems made to order for playing the way I did, in bed at night before turning in, under the covers, with the cassette recorder tucked beside one of my thighs. It was cold outside, one of the worst winters I saw in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year memo

Happy new year to everyone. I hope you have had a good year and the best to everyone for 2013. I've had a decent year—the job creators were more kind to me than they have been in some time, which leads me to conclude, hopefully, that the economy must be improving (in spite of the best efforts of some of those same job creators to hold their breath for four years until they turn blue). Let's hope it keeps improving! We need the work! On the other hand, I also hope I can maintain or even ramp up the blog posting schedule I've been keeping most days of most weeks. Honestly, I look at the output of some of my favorite blogs, such as Antagony & Ecstasy, Lost in the Movies, or The Sheila Variations, and feel feeble in comparison. But I'm doing the best I can!

FYI, what's ahead: I am about done with countdown projects—really. Once the Facebook 50 is over, which happens this month, that's it. Next month, on Tuesdays, I will have results of a bracket-style reviewers tourney I participated in last summer. After that, I plan to revisit some of the albums I wrote about (and once made available as downloads) in the earliest incarnation of this blog, and give them more extensive write-ups, inasmuch as anything I do around here can be considered extensive. These will be favorite or "great" albums.

That earlier incarnation of this blog, by the way, the vaguely disreputable 2006-2007 mp3 blog portion you know if you have ever inspected the archives, now amounts, by my calculation, to only about 20% of the total posts, having published my 1,000th post this past month. So, with nearly 80% of the whole thing now arguably legitimate (with or without scare quotes), and because I get the sense that people don't always like people who use pseudonyms on the Internet, I have decided to make a clean break and start publishing under my real name (with or without scare quotes), which is Jeff Pike. For the record, I still like and will still probably use the alias JPK to comment in many places. Just so you know.

More faskinatin' data about this blog: In approximately May 2010, about five months after my two-year hiatus ended, Google started providing statistics on site traffic. I am reproducing the current list of this blog's top 10 most viewed pages, mostly because it is so weird. The runaway winner, better than tripling the #2, is a review of a horror movie that mentions the name of a starlet. Similarly, I'm convinced the Dolly Parton song does so well because I had the wisdom to include the word "boob" in the write-up. Anyway, here, for your edification, delight, and conjectures about the obvious, are my best-known pages (with total pageviews as of Dec. 31, 2012, in parentheses).
1. The Ring (2002), Oct. 1, 2010 (18,083)
2. 21. Eminem, "Kim" (2000), Nov. 23, 2011 (5,955)
3. 32. Dolly Parton, "Down From Dover" (1970), Nov. 2, 2011 (4,918)
4. "Billie Jean" (1983), Jan. 17, 2011 (4,874)
5. The Godfather: Part II (1974), April 1, 2011 (4,493)
6. Led Zeppelin IV (1971), Sept. 10, 2011 (2,895)
7. Led Zeppelin II (1969), Sept. 3, 2011 (2,454)
8. Ghost World (2001), June 4, 2010 (2,436)
9. 18. Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (1980), Nov. 29, 2011 (2,190)
10. 77. Brian Eno, "Third Uncle" (1974), June 6, 2011 (2,043)

But all that is the past. As for the future, I have plans, I have plans: Fridays to continue on movies, Saturdays on albums, Sundays on books, Wednesdays on songs—all, as ever, as stamina allows. Mondays I have been trying to catch up with new(er) albums and movies, including a monthly rundown post on movies and TV I've been watching, and I plan to keep that up. On Thursdays, a project that honors the numbers 13, 26, and 52 with a consideration of the letters of the alphabet. And, later in the year, I am thinking of series more focused on filmmakers or other categories of movies, probably starting with Robert Altman. Other possibilities on my short list include Joe Dante and Gregory La Cava.

Last, I am going to take my sweet time this year with the year-end assessments in movies for 2012. So look for that down the line, probably March time frame. In the meanwhile I can share the following critical lists for you—
Favorite movies first seen in 2012: The Apu Trilogy; Days and Nights in the Forest; The Double Life of Veronique; The Fast Runner; The Hurt Locker; The Lord of the Rings; M. Hulot's Holiday; Paris, Texas; A Scene at the Sea; Wendy and Lucy
Favorite movies seen again in 2012: Alien, Broadway Danny Rose, Enter the Void, Goodfellas, In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., Pontypool, The Triplets of Belleville, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Yi Yi

Also, right, your own responsibilities in this overarching blog project. Please leave a comment once in a while. I appreciate knowing people have been here and read things and had a thought. I am notified of every comment, even on the oldest posts, so no one is ever lost in any shuffle. Comments absolutely tend to make my day, even the critical or challenging ones. So pretty please, with sugar on top, do what you have to to overcome the inertia now and then. You'll feel better, I'll feel better, we'll all feel better. OK, out. Thank you for your comments, visits, presence. Hope you all have a great year, from JEFF PIKE.