Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ten Years After, "Adventures of a Young Organ" (1967)


Fun facts about Ten Years After (things I did not know dept.): The band stretches all the way back to 1960, with guitar player Alvin Lee (who died earlier this year) and bass player Leo Lyons putting together an act called Ivan Jay & the Jaycats. The outfit then went through several name changes (and some personnel adjustments) before settling on Ten Years After in 1966, which was in honor of Elvis Presley's banner year. I knew them first and chiefly as practitioners of acid-rock because of their Woodstock performance of "I'm Going Home," with Alvin Lee's famously impossible speedy play. This is how most people knew them at the time, I'm pretty sure, and many of the albums (spotty, to me, all of them) played more or less explicitly to that. But the first, self-titled album is something else altogether, showcasing a band that is much closer to a jazz unit. "Adventures of a Young Organ" is as good an example as any, a brief song by Lee and organ player Chick Churchill with heavy intimations of Jimmy Smith and other Hammond-style players. Yes, they were already looking to their blues-rock future on that album too, with a cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and a 10-minute workup on a song with another Willie Dixon songwriting credit, "Help Me." But it's this cleaned-up bluesy-jazzy bent that I liked best about it and it's still my favorite album by them—the only one I like without reservation. Others have played this type of music better (I already mentioned Jimmy Smith) but something about the way it flouted my expectations ultimately made me very fond of it, with this song as its basic model.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wuthering Heights (1847)

I suppose I can't recommend entirely without reservation this stone classic of British literature—last time I went through turned out to be a bit of a slog. But I certainly think it's worth at least a dip for one and all. Emily Bronte's monumental first and only novel (she otherwise focused her literary energies on poetry and died at the age of 30, the year after this was published), Wuthering Heights came out the same year as her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre and her sister Anne's Agnes Grey. I don't know Agnes Grey, but of the other two, more famous works, I think Jane Eyre is both more effective as a novel and more conventional (and it's not that conventional). Wuthering Heights is the next-best thing to full-on raving ghost/monster story, wild and howling and weird, gothic on steroids, buckled together with leather strapping and paste. Class distinctions are rendered metaphorically as stark lines between humans and beasts, and the great Byronic hero of Wuthering Heights, the remarkable Heathcliff, is of course on the wrong side of that line. Heathcliff notably has powers to compel and bend his betters to his desires, after coming to live with them originally as an orphan found on the streets of London, adopted out of the soft heart of the family patriarch. The combination of Heathcliff's ruthlessness in pursuing his ends and the family's sheltered, well-mannered naivete is the recipe for the disaster imminent from the first page. The forbidden passion between Heathcliff and the scion's daughter Catherine provides much of the dramatic tension, as Heathcliff and his will to power rise to great heights, while the rest are humiliated and torn to pieces and put into the earth one way or another, against the backdrop of gray skies and lonely barren moors. "Atmospheric" does not begin to describe it; "deranged" is closer to it in many passages. It can be a wild ride. In many ways it walks and talks and bears the trappings of the standard 19th-century novel of manners, with gentle folk gathering for fine meals and social occasions, and love interests emerging by degree. But the like of Heathcliff had never appeared in one of these before. His sheer gravitational force subverts and distorts everything around him, making a real mockery of the genteel upper class and their ways and values. It was the first time I read Wuthering Heights that I got the most out of it, taken utterly by surprise by the stunts recorded herein. I'm not sure what made the more recent reading so hard—perhaps the language, which of course is antiquated and made further eccentric with thick dialect (toned down somewhat after Emily's death by sister Charlotte in a later edition ... I can only imagine the original)—perhaps the sideways manner it crabs in and around its narrative developments. But the good news, if you haven't read it, is that you could well be in for a big treat.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar (2003)

I've spent most of my life indifferent to Joan Baez, but I like "Diamonds and Rust" (the song, not the album) so much I never entirely count her out, and this album, for one, has finally justified my persistence, such as it is. I caught up to it a year or two after release; it was the Steve Earle song, "Christmas in Washington," that drew me in—though it is about 1996 (and though it name-checks Woody Guthrie) I heard it through the filter of 2004, and its deep melancholy felt like respite, a connection sorely needed, however misinterpreted. I also liked the title of the album, which further underlined the appeal of the song, so I took a chance. It's a pretty good album overall. On close inspection, the basic idea appears to be casting a net and covering songs of a later generation and certain musical sympathies. So there's at least one songwriting credit apiece for Earle, Ryan Adams, Greg Brown, Natalie Merchant, and Gillian Welch, among others. The production by Mark Spector layers on a thick, buffed-up sheen that occasionally feels a little suffocating, but if it's undeniably pristine it comes up well short of sterile. It works fine with Baez's clarion singing, as true as ever at 62, her age when she recorded this album. And the implications of the title are not shirked on either. The Natalie Merchant cover, "Motherland," for example, with its carefully positioned post-grunge squalls, is well within the explicit promise of dark chords and big guitars—I admit it surprised me Baez could pull that off, but I'm happy for the schooling. On the other hand, the sensibilities of Baez and the songwriters are mostly aligned, but occasionally jarring, as in "Elvis Presley Blues" (by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), another brick in the myth of the cultural shit-house that is the day Elvis Presley died (compare Elvis: What Happened?, or the Odds, "Wendy Under the Stars"). I can believe it's someone else's experience—and see no reason to think it's not Welch's and/or Rawlings's—but it does make me wonder what Joan Baez was actually doing and thinking and feeling that day. The cultural figure she seems most genuinely involved with on this album, judging by what I hear as her commitment in singing the song, is not Elvis but rather the beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, who appears ghost fashion in Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter." In my mind, that's as it should be. It grounds the album well within her sensibility, and enables her to reach beyond it credibly and with admirable force. So, finally, a Joan Baez album I can count as a real pleasure. I think I'd have to say it was worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Man Out of Time" (1982)


"Man Out of Time" is one more gorgeous mess buried between the vaporizing screams in the middle of Imperial Bedroom, an album that I recall reviewed as Elvis Costello's "Cole Porter album" (or "George Gershwin," or "Tin Pan Alley"). It was also dissed contrarian-wise by Robert Christgau in a year when it stormed to the head of the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. Maybe Christgau was right—not sure who would be willing to go full-throated on it anymore. It always struck me if anything as more Costello's shot at Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road (Parke Puterbaugh got that right in Rolling Stone)—because of the choice of producer Geoff Emerick, who engineered those Beatles albums, but also because of its ambition and how studio-focused and tricked-up it can be. It was the first Costello album that seemed to require study (and they all did for me after this). I remain suspicious of this self-training to like things—"you have to listen to it a few times, man"—but at any rate the judgment stuck. "Man Out of Time" still seems a terrific wounded cry of the soul, absolutely stunning at about the time of the title phrase, and definitely recommended for singing along. The words are typically fussy and cute: "'Cos the high heel he used to be has been ground down / And he listens for the footsteps that would follow him around," for example. It doesn't say that much and the attention to the foot-related activities is distracting and beside the point. But whatever, he gets a pass because his pop instincts remain so true. I really am not sure what this song is about, but it's obvious it comes from a profoundly felt place, one I naturally feel and respond to. That's good enough for me.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Annie Hall (1977)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)—This seemed a very strange picture for director Sam Peckinpah, lighthearted and even resorting to fast-forward slapstick in places. It's loose and loopy and always engaging, but somewhat untethered. Jason Robards does everything he can to ground it in something you can hang onto, and almost succeeds. Worth seeing.
Bananas (1971)—Some really great bits I had all but forgotten. Laughing out loud, yes, it happened.
Le Boucher (1970)—Serial killer story by director and writer Claude Chabrol. I thought it had more of a handle on its late-'60s setting than "the criminal mindset," which anyway seemed as metaphorical as everything else here. Plenty of anomie to go around, but worth seeing.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)—Most heist stories are pretty dull affairs for me, not so interested in these wheels within wheels battles of wits, let alone highly specific security/vault procedures (or jewels, or gold, or cash porn). But this shot at it by director and writer Jean-Pierre Melville looks great, almost antiseptically clean, deploying swaths of color with precision. The tone is deeply desolate. I have a feeling it wears well.
The Conformist (1970)—My first time seeing what is likely Bernardo Bertolucci's best-regarded picture. It's nicely put together, swirling and colorful and allusive, with a harrowing chase scene at the finish, and Jean-Louis Trintignant nearly perfect as a cipher. If it struck me as too plunged into the aesthetics and preoccupations of its time—paranoid and still brooding over the sins of fascism (not that there's anything wrong with that)—I have a feeling it's another one that improves.
Contempt (1963)

Friday, October 04, 2013

Network (1976)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Paddy Chayevsky
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Elliott Lawrence
Editor: Alan Heim
Cast: Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Wesley Addy, Kathy Cronkite, Lee Richardson, Arthur Burghardt

Network is one of those movies with a not undeserved reputation for getting things right, large and small. But first and more than anything it is an acting showcase, cast almost perfectly, built around stellar performances (at least six by my count), realized via Sidney Lumet, a director deeply simpatico with the art. Then it lucked into one of those defining iconic things, which defined it, ultimately outgrew and overshadowed it in many ways, in the catch phrase, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore," writer Paddy Chayevsky's nearly perfect mantra of learned helplessness, resonating more than ever today. I'm willing to bet it's a feeling familiar to anyone reading this. The reverberation of that sense is one of the great surprises and enduring pleasures of this picture.

Full disclosure: I didn't much like Network at the time of its release. I thought it was too broad and obvious, and was put off by the highfalutin corporate vocabulary, even more by what I perceived as satire that was simply too easy. I didn't believe it. But seeing it decades later brought a shock of recognition, in its pitch-perfect sense of corporate environment and notably in its anticipation of those tabloid talk shows we got from Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, all stocked with armies of raging plain folks and the depressing sense their motivations were just shallow, or incoherent—and certainly manipulated. Or, as Yeats described the situation some time ago, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Julie London, "Gone With the Wind" (1955)


Some years back I tumbled onto a trove of Julie London's mid-'50s recordings that completely turned me around. Before that I had associated her only with "Cry Me a River" (a song I was indifferent to because of the Barbra Streisand version) and with Jack Webb, her husband for a time. Shortly after that marriage ended, in 1954, her career took off, with a long string of albums starting in 1955. My favorite is Calendar Girl, a concept album before anyone thought of concept albums—13 tracks: "June in January," "February Brings the Rain," "Melancholy March," etc., finishing on "Warm in December" and "Thirteenth Month." But "Gone With the Wind" comes from what is probably the better starting place, her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, which includes "Cry Me a River," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "It Never Entered My Mind," and many other standards. "Gone With the Wind" finishes the album in typical style. I like how it practically defines that style as it does so. Here's what you just heard, bub: scraps and pieces blowing around, deceptively casual yet tightly executed, thrilling in their moment and then gone. Most of her songs, here and elsewhere, rarely run even to three minutes. They are quiet and subtle, almost fussy, and here there is only a bass player and guitar player padding around behind her, and the reverb that is thrown on the vocal toward the end. Excess is not within the ken of this music. It's practically nothing but her voice, and her voice is practically nothing but a whisper and a thought, and she made many albums like it, each as good as the next, filled with this simple formula and a grab bag of sweet tunes.