Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Replacements, "Alex Chilton" (1987)


A lot of time gone by since I'd had occasion to give this one-time staple of the late '80s another listen, and something about it didn't sound exactly right. I thought at first it was the tempo, seemed rushed, but according to Scott Miller in his indispensable Music: What Happened?, "the CD mastering ... sounds like someone lost the thread of a grand compression plan." He swears by the vinyl version. Sure enough, the original music video I turned up sounds more like it. It's a gushing fan letter before it is anything else, by design, and interestingly not only Paul Westerberg but also Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars get songwriting credit. It is thus so much a group effort it is practically heartwarming. If they can't help themselves with the title, they play it more coy in the song itself. Westerberg blurs the name-checking so it doesn't exactly jump out, but there's no mistaking the sentiment in the chorus: "I'm in love with that song." It's perfect. It's exactly the point—the love, not the song. Which song? Any song—this song even. That's up to you, and a good part of what makes this work. It also sounds more like a Replacements than an Alex Chilton song, another nice point. When I manage to stop thinking and parsing so much, however, and let it play as something that wells up and pricks insistently at one's ears, then it really starts to become apparent what they have managed here. It's a song about being in love with music, admirably overcoming any tendency toward striking the pose of disaffection, and simply giving in to the pleasures of a good song.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Eels, "Your Lucky Day in Hell" (1996)


The Eels is essentially a one-man project, the man in question being Mark Oliver Everett, aka "E" (hence, somehow, one presumes, the name of the band), who is the son of a quantum physicist. I don't know the Eels well—in fact, this song, third single from the first album, Beautiful Freak, is for me more on the order of another CMJ discovery (Vol. 38, October 1996, track 2) and subsequent handy mix tape staple. It's possible you know it from one of its movie appearances, in Scream 2, Grosse Pointe Blank, Dead Man on Campus, and Yes Man. I have the first three Eels albums on my hard drive but haven't sat down yet to study them properly. This song, which has more or less made a study of me, has so far been quite enough. How does anyone duplicate the experience of one great song anyway? Last week, when I happened to be having my own private series of lucky days in hell, I found out one of its best uses is as tonic. It is moody affectation from the start, slow and deliberate, with layers of chiming vibe chords and a whining guitar, and then reedy, pulpy keyboard fills fleshing it out. The first line, so strange, powerful, and evocative: "Mama gripped onto the milkman's hand / and then she finally gave birth." This song moves and feels like a bad mood, like an inescapable bad day bearing down, yet at the same time providing the escape. I guess the word I'm looking for is "cathartic," but it didn't start out that way. It insinuates first as shrewd, doomy, intelligent pop music self-consciously slumming, slightly distant and above-it. Then it moves in for the soothing kill. It seems to know where I live.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Marquise of O— and Other Stories (1806-1811)

Heinrich von Kleist was a German writer of somewhat morbid tendencies who did most of his work during the period of the Napoleonic wars before committing suicide (with his girlfriend) in his mid-30s in 1811. He is one of those occasional writers of the relatively far past, two centuries distant now in this case, who somehow seem strikingly modern—"cinematic" is a term I have seen applied to von Kleist more than once. Interestingly, the movie treatment of The Marquise of O— (which I have not seen) was directed by Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker regarded with suspicion in some quarters as being overly literary. The Penguin collection of von Kleist stories, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves in the '70s—I have it on good authority that a Martin Greenberg translation is to be preferred, but couldn't find it—is indeed some kind of revelation. Modern, cinematic, yes, all true enough, those words are good too. But even more than that, von Kleist is a stone cold master of intricate plotting. The complications are legion in The Marquis of O—, a mixed-up story of sexual intrigue, honor, and class, and yet presented so lucidly that one races to finish. There are few cheats, and the tales remain sturdy and symmetrical as clockwork. On the surface these stories would appear to be anything but, with long convoluted sentences and paragraphs that may sprawl for pages, confronting one with virtual walls of type. But never mind that. Just start reading. You won't stop. The Marquise of O— presently vies with another novella, Michael Kohlhaas, as von Kleist's most famous. They are both splendid. In Michael Kohlhaas an honorable horse-trader seeks justice in a relatively minor civil matter, only to see it explode into international catastrophe. This one is truly cinematic, playing much like a Sergio Leone picture. Contrast these novellas with "The Beggarwoman of Lacorno," a short short ghost story of merely three pages, brilliantly done: scary, uncanny, and with its pieces moved expertly about its board even in the tight confines of the space. None of the rest of the stories in this collection were up to these three for me—"The Earthquake in Chile" came closest—but once started with this guy one doesn't tend to want to stop anyway. He's that good.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Lou Reed, "Heavenly Arms" (1982)


It's none of my business, but I still miss Sylvia. In retrospect, maybe Lou Reed was more in love with something she helped him find in himself than with her—though who can say that isn't the reason most of us are in love in the first place anyway? Not my business, as I said, and beside the point anyway. I can go visit her any time I like in this song (or, if not her, then what I miss, because obviously I don't know her). It's the song Reed used to climax The Blue Mask, his first great album of yet another reascendant period, the early '80s. And that's no coincidence, because among other things the (carefully incidental) priority is on the lines of a heterosexual agenda. "I love women, I think they're great," he says in the song "Women." Everywhere you look on that album it is women, women, women. So if it's going to be a torch song at the end the ground is laid. But it's laid with other elements too: this amazing band he assembled, with Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Saunders on an aching soulful bass, and rock-solid drummer Doane Perry. The birth of 2 guitars bass drum as self-conscious ethos buoys this. Not to mention something about emotional recovery, the details hazy but the feeling of assessing and owning up strong here. It all comes to a bracing head in "Heavenly Arms," one of Reed's most nakedly revealing songs. The heavenly arms of the title belong to Sylvia, of course, called out by name. Not just called out, but implored, beseeched, howled for, from as vulnerable a point as may ever have been recorded, more or less. A bellow of love. It's fair enough to call it calculating—it's Lou Reed, after all, and I've outlined the case above. But that doesn't mean it won't move you, over and over again.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Blow Out (1981)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Brian De Palma, Bill Mesce Jr.
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Curt May, Deborah Everton

Brian De Palma is not shy about naming the root sources of this great paranoid political thriller in the interview with Noah Baumbach that's on the Criterion DVD, and they are the obvious ones: Antonioni's Blow-Up, Coppola's The Conversation, and, more generally, media treatment of the JFK assassination, energized by De Palma's own evident personal obsessions. Actually, the first root source is probably his own movie of the previous year, Dressed to Kill, which also cast Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz in key roles, is also a self-consciously derivative sexxee thriller, and incidentally made a surprise hit. De Palma says he intended Blow Out to be a small film but when John Travolta expressed interest it soon became big.

It's true the narrative gets rickety if you think about it, but Blow Out is so calculatedly cinematic (the De Palma touch) that, once engaged, its powers are practically irresistible. It opens on a scene from an ultra-low-budget slasher, famously one of the earliest and still most effective uses of steadicam technology. It's also one of the great trick openings to any movie, and a complicated set piece in its own right, with a dormitory at night, a knife-wielding maniac lurking outside the windows (also a random peeping Tom), while inside hot college coeds are dancing, squabbling, masturbating, having sex, walking around in their underwear past doors labeled "Shower," etc.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Doors, "Waiting for the Sun" (1970)


Wikipedia covers the main points regarding my initial confusion, on a disambiguation page: "Waiting for the Sun is a 1968 album by The Doors [pictured above].... 'Waiting for the Sun' [is] a song by The Doors from their 1970 album, Morrison Hotel." This oddness did not matter to my brother and his friends, who introduced me to Morrison Hotel, and especially "Waiting for the Sun," which they championed tirelessly. They recommended listening to it with headphones, an exciting new consumer electronic product at the time—and loud, needless to say. It was a bracing reintroduction to the Doors, following the pop hits. There's a context for it, I should mention—Jim Morrison & co. fighting for counterculture integrity after the disgrace of those hits, taking on the blues late, and incidentally in more trouble for alleged self-exposure antics on the part of Morrison in live performance in Miami. Talk about identity crisis. But the various shuttlings about between proto-gothy poets of doom, teen heartthrobs, and drunken white blues boys were surprisingly seamless, partly because they managed it by distending to embody the contradictions. And what a fine example we have here. Taking care of the teens is the easy part, with equal parts California sun worship and the skeevy Lizard King persona already well established. Then they proved surprisingly adept as a blues band, starting with Morrison Hotel particularly. The Doors as musical enterprise remain underestimated at one's peril. As for the poets of doom shtick, well, that's actually what makes this work. "Can't you feel it now that spring has come? / That it's time to live in the scattered sun." Key word here, I think, being "scattered," which torques it just enough in a certain direction that it amplifies the effect of the band coming in so hard, lending it an almost majestic quality. Especially if you are listening to it on headphones very loud.

Monday, May 06, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Another Woman (1988)—Woody Allen comfort classic I must visit periodically. I swear that it is underrated.
Autumn Sonata (1978)—Minor late Bergman. Liv Ullmann is amazing as per the usual. Ingrid Bergman effective enough, but I was often distracted attempting to recognize her.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)—Elaborate Fritz Lang thought experiment that wears the garb of noir with flair, and typically drives to a dismal but satisfying end. Players and story not that impressive, but the doomy mood makes it.
The Big Sleep (1946)—It used to bug me the way the plot doesn't add up here. I resented the work it made me do for nothing, but I'm mostly past that now. It's vintage Howard Hawks, with a heavy, classic noir vibe thrumming all through, and if that's not enough, there's the chemistry between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, which is palpable. And if that's not enough, well, what are you, dead?
Black Sunday (1960)—First time seeing this classic Italian gothic, the first film Mario Bava directed and the vehicle (if "vehicle" is the right word) that launched Barbara Steele. I love the grainy black and white and it's packed with great moments and images, veering between creative, energetic, often chilling, and sometimes high camp.
The Crowd (1928)—King Vidor silent picture with a few very famous images, such as a crane shot into a skyscraper office with endless rows and columns of desks and workers, which Billy Wilder later borrowed for The Apartment. The Crowd is mostly preoccupied with a theme of its time, the transition and tension between urban and rural living. Many dead spots, but goes interesting places, and then there are those amazing shots.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Empire Falls (2001)

Richard Russo's big fat Pulitzer winner has any number of things going for it. It is utterly engaging, it is often very funny, and the last image is crystalline, if slightly overwrought, a perfect note of olde New England gothic. It is contemporary, but grounded. And it builds to an insane momentum that kept me anyway up way past my bedtime one night in a fever to finish it. I liked his earlier Straight Man nearly as much, maybe more, and recommend them both with little hesitation. The hesitation is a matter of something not so easily identified. I shouldn't be complaining when a novelist does his job so well, but for all its complexity it all resolves rather neatly. Not every last thread here is tied up, but those that aren't (e.g., whither Miles?) feel calculatedly ambiguous, tidy setups for reading groups (and/or American lit courses if things go well). The artfulness sometimes feel too artful, the angst almost pro forma, and the bonhomie forced. But now I'm churlish, complaining because it's too good. It's true that there are perhaps overly generous portions of feel-good moments. But the countervailing forces are often so strong that I was relieved to be able to remind myself that Russo is a writer of comedies of manners. If some things are going to sting, nothing's going to be traumatic. It's almost perfect on the slow dissolution of the mid-20th-century American postwar economy, the way all those small towns collapsed under the weight of their own naïve optimism (as we often view it now), as captains of industry pulled the rug out from under them by degrees. That is clearly the novel's great strength, and accounts for much of how it came to win all its various prizes. (That and the fact that it's olde New England, which is a topic for another time.) The characters are richly imagined and the complexities of the plot unfold with barely a misstep. Virtually every new chapter grabs hold hard and propels the momentum further, which is exactly how you go about keeping somebody up overnight. If it seems vaguely overwrought in its totality, as with that final image, it's still hard to complain that it doesn't get just about everything just right.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

David Bowie, "The Prettiest Star" (1973)


As time goes by, I find myself growing ever more fond of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane LP. One indication of the dimensions of the thing is how it seems like a different song stands out every time I listen to it again, and I believe each song on it has now had at least one turn by this point. Lately it has been this utterly ridiculous, utterly adorable valentine to happiness, led (by the nose, even) by a crackling electric guitar picking out the notes of the juicy tune one by one, like methodically going through the jelly beans to snag all the prizes. And what are those prizes? That guitar, I said, for one thing. The simplicity of the sentiment. The homely ardor. The plaintive quality. And all its many little parts, lyrical and musical. Reading up on it for once, I see "The Prettiest Star" was recorded originally in 1970 and featured Marc Bolan on guitar. This version, it says, has "Mick Ronson recreating Bolan's original guitar part almost note-for-note" (Wikipedia, of course). Looking that version of the song up (here) and hearing it for the first time, I see that that is true. In fact, Bolan's playing sounds better than Ronson's. But the 1973 version with Ronson is way the better recording and performance overall, I think. Bowie and everyone around him had been exposed to the New York Dolls by then, which did a world of good for the whole bunch—in terms of the music, I mean. In that way, "The Prettiest Star" straddles both its origins and its apex remarkably well, hippie dippie aplenty enough all right but all decked out now with the knowing Mick Jagger smirk. The saxophone, meanwhile, keeps it rock 'n' roll. And the hand-clapping, shuffle-stepping, workin' it doo dah that chugs it along, that's there for the effect. Pretty good effect.