Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Old 97's, "Holly Jolly Christmas" (1995)


If writing about a Christmas song in July is perverse, then I am perverse. But the anthology this comes from, Big Iron's Honkey-Tonk Holidays: Christmas in Deep Noellum, appears to be a hard find now, and maybe you want the time. I know you will want it for the coming season. That’s my story and I'm sticking to it. Written by Johnny Marks, who also concocted "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and, indeed, made himself something of a specialist in seasonal fare, though he was Jewish (perhaps, somehow, because he was Jewish?), "Holly Jolly Christmas" is, of course, the classic Burl Ives. It blew up out of a 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, and Burl has owned it ever since because no one does it better. But that doesn't mean other people shouldn't keep trying, as it's a fine Christmas standard, mercifully short, and there's room on this bus for everyone. Ask Johnny Marks. The Old 97's key right in, keeping it spry and loose, tarting it up with raunchy horns, and inserting a twangy fluid guitar to texture the melody. It feels almost sloppy, but really it's pretty tight, and the song's forward momentum and polish play well against the relaxed performance. Plus it's stubbornly evocative of holiday times. Well, the whole album is, mixing up standards like this and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Little Drummer Boy," and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" with new models that can hit hard (don't miss "Alcoholidays" by the Sutcliffs). In sum, in short, oh by golly have a holly jolly Christmas, this year.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

(There's a less fragmented version here.)

For me, with Beatles albums before Sgt. Pepper, it has taken some getting used to the "real" UK tracks and sequencing (not to mention things gone entirely missing since, such as the album Hey Jude, a favorite). It's no bother attempting to sort it out, of course, and indeed the new versions are better in many cases. But I still miss elements of what I knew. The US Hard Day's Night (with red instead of blue album cover art) was one of the first albums I owned, and I played it to death, but it's fairly different from this one. For example, it included an instrumental version of "This Boy" from the movie soundtrack. I'm not even sure that's commercially available now, or where it is if so. Still, the UK version is better, if only because it has more Beatles songs from this great period. Here's about some of them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Manhattan (1979)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: George Gershwin
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne Hoffman, Bella Abzug, Wallace Shawn, Michael O'Donoghue

I was once pleased to call Manhattan my favorite movie, prized above all others, desert island selection (never mind how you play those), etc. By the early '90s and the time of the Woody Allen / Mia Farrow tabloid spectacle I was more interested in forgetting it. In the event of the movie question, I quietly started calling another movie my favorite—City Lights, which has distinctive affinities—and didn't even bother to look at Manhattan again for a very long time.

It's the Tracy character and narrative thread causing the problems, of course, with the awkward (and unmistakable) overtones of predatory sex. I don't actually believe Woody Allen is a pedophile, or anything other than a somewhat boorish and clueless person. I also don't think it's enough to say that his personal life doesn't matter, only the work does. That's a sensible approach and one that mostly works with, say, Roman Polanski. But looking at Manhattan again closely underscores how determinedly Woody Allen interjects himself, on a very personal basis, into the center of his pictures.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Steely Dan, "Glamour Profession" (1980)


Can it be that I have made my peace with Gaucho, the last Steely Dan album until 2000? Maybe. Thanks to an oddly insistent shuffle, I became more intimately acquainted with the longest song on it, "Glamour Profession," which clocks in at a breezy 7:30. Vaguely hostile when one notices the words ("It's a glamour profession / The L.A. concession"), it is otherwise sweet and smooth as can be. My objections before were something about "too antiseptic"—the struggle actually started with Aja, a few years earlier, and continued with Donald Fagen's first solo, Nightfly (now my favorite of the bunch). I hear a peculiar and distinct willfulness between the bitter tenor of the words (which I tend to believe, as that's long been the stock in trade) and the ultra-buffed sheen. It speaks to me of counting slowly to 10 before acting, of not getting mad but getting even, of never letting them see you sweat. Living well is the best revenge, but there also seems to be some quantity of flashpoint anger held in check. It's unnerving. It's not exactly happy music though you could probably play it in a mall (maybe it has been played in malls, where's ASCAP/BMI when you need them?). It washes down like a fresh smoothie, but what are these knots and points? The notes feel chosen so deliberately, the flecks of guitar figures and fat sax lines dropped in, the shivery touch of the piano keys feeling for its lines across the structure, all as if to make some unpleasant point. There's something passive-aggressive about it. It's as rejecting in its way as the contemporaneous punk-rock, which they so elaborately stood apart from (because what else could they do?). So when it starts to let go and soar, on its own terms, at about the 5:20 point, it's really nothing less than exhilarating.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cropper's Cabin (1952)

Cropper's Cabin came out the same year as The Killer Inside Me, and feels like a rush job—but then, so does Killer, and much of Thompson's catalog. It slots pretty easily into a certain hillbilly mode of pulp fiction, set in the familiar environs of Oklahoma, but with many trappings of the Old South, white trash division. Moonshine and intimations of incest, for example, tend to be givens, the sharecroppers are growing cotton, and they are sharecroppers. There's a flavor of Oklahoma in a general lust for oil, but that's mostly in the background as a motivational device. As usual, Thompson plays with genre clichés and expectations at will. So the sharecropper's boy Tommy Carver (who narrates) is involved with the landlord's hot daughter. His family background is complicated and creepy—widowed stepfather with a bought-and-purchased 14-year-old helpmeet (who is of age in the present time of the tale, but of course having sex with both stepfather and stepson). This is definitely second-tier Thompson, at best, but nonetheless with many of the Dostoevskian touches we know him by: the fulminations at fate, the aw-shucks language masking deeper issues, the wanton ways of worthless reprobates, and a story that dissolves into nothing before ... The End. He's done it better elsewhere but he usually does it pretty well, and on that level Cropper's Cabin is worthy enough. There's also a murder mystery in the middle of it, though typically enough that becomes incidental. Some interesting lore about Oklahoma and Native Americans rounds it out, things we don't really need to know but evidently Thompson thought we might find them interesting, mostly concerned with the Trail of Tears and then the later Oklahoma Land Rush. So it's not exactly a mystery, and it's not exactly the hillbilly pulp sub-genre, but something of both, and vintage Jim Thompson more than anything. You don't want to start here, but you might want to end up here.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Illinois (2005)

This album (and Sufjan Stevens more generally) landed on my to-do list back when it was still kind of new, during George W. Bush's second term and the halcyon days of mp3 blogs and easy download availability, which posed intriguing new oceans of taste. The offerings of those blogs were indeed so overwhelmingly plentiful that time considerations started to creep in. I needed to attempt triangulating affinities based on various factors, noting albums promoted/given away that I already knew and appreciated, and then examining what I didn't know and seeing how frequently they appeared across multiple blogs. Many overlapping considerations, of course. The mp3 bloggers I knew (whose only commonality, if any, was a shared inclination one way or another toward prog), were fans and thus further from my typical rock critical sources and so interesting to me in that regard. I admit when I saw Christgau gave the album an A- that helped, plus my brother was still living in Illinois at the time and I let that serve as signal too. So the rationales are put together for why we act. As for the album, I was put off by the same things that worried Christgau, Stevens's Christianity and predisposition toward classical music stylings, plus the damn thing goes on nearly 75 minutes, which makes it the equivalent of an old-fashioned daunting vinyl double-LP. (Remember when Guns N' Roses released two of those at the same time? But I see I am still railing against CD technology, even as it is dying.) It is also one of those albums packed with annoying whimsical sub-minute tracks. So Illinois is way too long, and it's usually too pretty and always too buffed-up clean for my taste. But there are pleasures. Everyone (meaning me, Christgau, and mass audience as statistical cohort) seems to be in agreement that the best thing here is the softly epic "Chicago," which swirls and dances about and is alluring. On non-musical levels, I do appreciate both the choice of theme and the way it is treated. I am fascinated and intrigued by individual American states myself, with all their associated factoids and cultural markers, and I like the things Stevens piles in here: Chicago world's fair of 1893, Superman, John Wayne Gacy, the great city of Chicago, Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, etc., etc. It's a splendid jumble and the sum effect by design inevitably puts one into an Illinois state of mind, desired or not. Stevens did this before, of course, with his home state of Michigan, altogether a more interesting state than Illinois by my lights. So I guess that will have to be the next step on my Sufjan Stevens journey, even if it is the earlier album, and mp3 blogs are all but gone.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spring, "Shyin' Away" (1973)


Earworm: Approach with caution. Produced by Brian Wilson (it says), featuring his then-wife Marilyn with Diane Rovell, formerly the Honeys, "Shyin' Away" is one of the last things we got from Spring before the acrimonies of divorce and various hapless comeback efforts threw it into obscurity for good. Even an obscure band from the UK had the legal clout to force the change of name to "American Spring." Such indignities do not prepare one for the pure confectionery pleasures of "Shyin' Away," which is approximately what you would expect, from the times and from the talent. Equal parts TV theme song and nagging early-'70s AM radio style, it's got something that went to work on me when I finally crossed it more than 30 years on: the upbeat chug-a-lug, the whispery clarion vocals climbing over one another, the swoops and darts of the verse melody, the way it sails into the chorus like a boat into a harbor at sunset. It's a terrible earworm but a beautiful one for all that, one I do not mind hearing when I wake or it comes floating into my head at all hours. It has its chin out and is plucky as hell. Wilson got top billing for production but most parties seem to agree that his contributions were much less than those of David Sandler, a point underscored by the songwriting credit on the 45 (their last of three), which goes to "D. Sandler - B. Wilson - D. Rovell." I think even Sandler might agree it's running away the best thing he ever did. For me, I'm pretty sure I saw the drama play out in the movie Grace of My Heart. I can never quite get it out of my heart now, let alone my head.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Mirror (1975)

Zerkalo, USSR, 108 minutes
Director: Andrei Tarkovksy
Writers: Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Arseni Tarkovsky
Photography: Georgi Rerberg
Music: Eduard Artemev
Editor: Lyudmila Feiginova
Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Larisa Tarkovskaya, Oleg Yankovsky, Ignat Daniltsev, Anatoli Solonitsin, Alla Demidova, Arseni Tarkovsky

By all I can tell, The Mirror was shot and first released in the USSR (under heavy official sanction, which prevented it from entry into Cannes) and then made its way slowly across the world—the first screening in the U.S. was 1983, according to IMDb—approximately during the period when I was busy attending revival house and art film theater series, taking film appreciation classes, and thinking a lot about movies. Yet even the name was plain unfamiliar to me many years later when I ran across it in a list of Greatest Films You Must See or some such. I shoveled The Mirror on in to my Netflix queue, along with two more highly regarded Tarkovsky pictures I knew only dimly, Andrei Rublev and Ivan's Childhood.

In retrospect, I think I can see how Andrei Rublev could become for some what I found in, say, The Mother and the Whore or Berlin Alexanderplatz: a vast, bewildering, disorienting film unlike any other, certainly unlike anything before it, and profoundly formative somehow. By comparison, The Mirror is more chamber suite, moderated by the focused scope and intimacies of autobiography. No surprise, it requires patience, and probably some previously existing predisposition toward director/co-writer Andrei Tarkovsky's work. Few filmmakers seem to me as capable of exploiting the daunting levels of complexity the medium can accommodate. But the slipperiness of the narrative handholds are frustrating. Yet there it sits at #27 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monks, "I Hate You" (1966)


Wikipedia has the Monks down as "avant-garde garage" so I guess that settles that. The five American soldier nobodies who were stationed in Germany in the mid-'60s and who make up this band didn't just happen on to the way they sound, but put it together carefully. They poured everything into one album, Black Monk Time, and then waited 33 years and more for the rest of the world to even begin catching up. I think we're just about there now. The project does indeed fit the post-Beatles DIY "garage" aesthetic that inspired suburban youth across America in 1966 (in a post-Stones vein, more in line with the Chocolate Watchband and Standells). It often sounds like blueprint and instruction manual for the Velvet Underground and Stooges, not just ahead of its time but nearly out of it entirely, hovering above and gazing beatifically far, far into the future. They were probably using the term "shoegaze" even then, and laughing at the comparative feebleness. Few bands clobber one over the head quite so artfully as the Monks, with a bottom that feels like the extra Gs of a massive planet, flattening the features of the face into a mask and threatening to collapse bones into jelly. Yet for all that, it moves ("lumbers" obscures the precision) with energy, menace, and sardonic charm. It means you no harm but it means you no good either, just a small part of the moth/flame draw. I picked this for the title, which typically for the Monks clarifies everything and nothing ("Well you know my hate's everlastin', baby, yeah yeah! / But call me"). You can't go wrong with anything on the album at large.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Public Burning (1977)

Robert Coover's weird, contemporaneous "novel" about Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs trial was an interesting study for me in levels of reading difficulty. I use the scare quotes because, while it is plainly fiction, it is steeped in historical events to such an extent that it knowingly blurs lines we are trained to keep distinct. Although it runs over 500 pages, the language is perfectly clear, even exquisite in a self-consciously American way. I was often amazed at the levels on which Coover operates—drawing on American mythology and vernacular both (along with a profound sense for how the American mind thinks and feels and acts), it hits some real heights of expression, satire, and plain sardonic observation. Perhaps the single most amazing aspect, out of a handful or more of them, is not only how spot-on Coover is in capturing the interior voice of Richard Nixon—it sounds just like him! or I believed it anyway—but how well he succeeds in making Nixon a sympathetic character, without changing a jot of the man's ridiculous and painful self-pitying narcissism (nor his instinctive bent to be a crook). It's plain amazing, I tells ya, and the half of the book narrated by Nixon is the best part. My problem—and one I suspect puts me squarely in the camp of middlebrow, where I belong—is that I knew basically from page one how the story ends, with adjustments for Coover's flights of fancy, such as moving the Rosenberg executions to Times Square, the intrigue Ethel Rosenberg has with Nixon (and where it takes them here), etc., etc. I appreciated the language, the detail, and the humor. But it does get a bit dense. I should say something about the things everybody talks about. It is indeed an odd novel in the way it so directly involved a living, well-known personage, Nixon, in a historical setting that many readers likely remembered well at the time the book was published in 1977, over which extravagant fabulations are lathered on with heavy hand. It is so bitter as to be startling. Because the Rosenberg case and execution happened before I was born, and I'd never heard much or read up on it, much of the book was instructive (though I had to consult Wikipedia now and then to verify or debunk specific plot points). In fact, I kind of got mad all over again for the first time about it. As (peripherally) guilty of espionage as the Rosenbergs may have been, they were hardly major players in getting crucial nuclear information to the Russians, and they certainly did not deserve death sentences. It's a sad chapter in American history. But it's only incidental to what I think Coover is mainly up to here anyway. Obviously this is as much about Watergate as it is about the Rosenberg executions. Even more than that, it's about the American character, which sounds a bit vague and inflated until one sees how well Coover has put together so many baffling and infuriating quirks and conflicts that are all at once so familiar. I must say it goes beyond the pale for me in the last scene with Nixon and Uncle Sam, but I chalk it up to Coover wanting to make sure we got the point. There are actually some very funny things here along the way, even laugh out loud funny. But this book is not for the laughs.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Pretenders, "Precious" (1979)


You will notice that one of the great album openers of all time (to one of the great album sides of all time) actually starts with a spot of in-studio chipmunk chatter in the periphery. That only makes it greater. Every detail about this simply makes it greater. It's just a little rock 'n' roll song of three and a half minutes, but it somehow moves with great natural force like a gleaming streamlined bullet train at night, massive, traveling a great distance, capable of tremendous speed. It throbs with potency, swaggers and slinks about the cloistered space of sound it creates. It stops, pops, shifts about. It works up skintight grooves and bursts them at will with showers of sparking, churning sound. The band is locked in place. Songwriter / singer Chrissie Hynde makes her mocking points, couched in an ocean of sexuality, every fiber posing a familiar proposition, one thing alone on the mind of this song: "I was feeling kind of ethereal 'cos I'm precious / I had my eye on your imperial you're so precious ... Made me wanna, made me wanna, you made me make it / Oh, you're so mean." Such a great first impression, such a great way to start. It sets the tone for an album that will explore more of the nuances and repercussions of the liaisons, locates the emotional origins in Cleveland, and explodes when moved to do so, among other things showing off one of the most delicious toss-away declarations of "fuck off" to be heard anywhere ever. It's so fun when new artists are this good, and it still sounds new to these ears even allowing that it is nearly 35 years old now.

Monday, July 01, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—Seeing the first two Universal Frankensteins virtually back to back has convinced me once and for all that the sequel is much the better picture, brimming with strange and wonderful ideas: Mary Shelley herself telling the tale to her husband Percy and Lord Byron in the setup frame, a zany new mad scientist who grows miniatures that he keeps in glass jars, the monster learning to speak and wanting a wife, Elsa Lanchester's face as framing device. It is at once scarier (though perhaps less shocking) and more fun and way more funny than the first. Stone classic.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)—Nice to see again after a long while, one of the first I stayed up to watch on late night TV. Some of the shock scenes and the especially the menacing soundtrack tended to bring me right back there. The Universal formula usually included a tortured Promethean aspect to its monsters, a cursed spawn of hell taint, and interior knowledge of their own hideousness and/or depravity, and here the highly intelligent fish-man, who appears to have breeding on his mind and his mind on breeding, eventually wiggles into the slotted tragic role more or less. Not altogether convincing and so something of a weak entry by and large, but a prize nostalgia item to revisit, at least this time.