Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This Year's Model (1978/1993)

(Also this.)

I guess it took me 15 years to fix on This Year's Model as Elvis Costello's best album and my stone favorite by him. That's partly because for many years there Costello pumped out product, fine product, like a crazy man, a regular dot-matrix printing machine churning through the reams. So I had good reasons for setting this album aside—Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Taking Liberties, other stray singles, etc. As it turned out, however, This Year's Model improved immeasurably with the 1993 Rykodisc CD, which with a few deft moves and additions clarified so much. There always were version problems with this one. The original UK release had "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" instead of "Radio, Radio," likely the biggest difference between the two, and for me a huge one. So I am happy settling for that year's model—1993—over the original which I knew.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954)

I'm not sure what it says that one of the most typical and evocative titles concocted by Jim Thompson serves a story that reminds me more of minor keys in Theodore Dreiser and especially An American Tragedy. Oh yes, there's a glancing thread of incest, and sure, it's no doubt the ritzy hotel setting and the ambitious bellboy that puts me in mind of Dreiser. This is more of a caper story, which I find little more appealing here than I do when I find them in the movies. The swell-looking babe referenced in the title, and a good many other characters, harbor secrets. Our job is to read the novel until we find them out. The two places where Thompson seems most engaged are the details of the caper, with its complicated mess of betrayals, which is central to the story at hand, and the Freudian / Oedipal tensions between our hero the bellboy and his father, which is not. It's something like the stage act where multiple plates are set spinning atop of thin dowels. Busy busy. I kind of get the sense someone might have suggested Thompson try a proper beginning, middle, and end because so much attention is given to the plot. He really seems to have something he wants to say about the love between a mother and son but it's beside the caper point. The result feels muddled and belabored and often not that interesting. But it's still capable of the classic Thompson style—brusque, crazy, headlong. The image of the swell-looking babe is powerful and strange, even if her role is ultimately mundane and she's wasted. As for Dusty Rhodes, the bellboy, he's fine, another standard-issue Thompson figure—wise, underemployed, and desperate. The story is told third-person but it is so far inside Rhodes's head I kept being surprised it wasn't first-person. So, overall, a lesser Jim Thompson, a little mechanical and unsatisfying. But good enough, and interesting enough in the way it opened the door into the next one, as he evidently decided to start putting the monster female figures that haunt and devil his work right into the titles of the novels.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Modern English, "I Melt With You" (1982)


Modern English came along early enough that Wikipedia labels it a New Wave rather than a New Romantic act, but it was at least harbinger of the "second British Invasion" and an adequate standard of the times too: not just in the lush, soft, breathless, keyboardy way it proceeds but in the nuclear anxiety it embraces, as "melting with you" turns out to be dying in the arms of a lover at the onset of the final conflagration. Dinner by candlelight and long walks on the beach. Holding hands and no need for words. Mushroom cloud and out. At the time, we knew that was on the way (the TV movie The Day After became something of a media saturation event early in 1983, which may have been the peak for that). More fitting, I think, that "I Melt With You" served as soaring montage music in the teen movie Valley Girl, with Deborah Foreman and an 18-year-old Nicolas Cage. The churchy stained-glass tones of the song filter the empty-headed cheese just enough to make the moment romantic and energized, although remember also this is a Nicolas Cage performance we are talking about. One worth seeing nonetheless. Modern English plays it feather-light and deadly serious, with no evidence of a real thought of consequence in its pretty head. We hear "I Melt With You" everywhere nowadays, don't we? Shopping malls, laundromats, elevators, waiting rooms. Or is that my imagination? I keep looking in my Billboard book for the chart information but it is never there. I keep thinking if Spandau Ballet and Simple Minds managed to score top 10 hits this should have at least cracked the 40. Am I crazy?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Farewell to Arms (1929)

If a revisit to The Sun Also Rises was disappointing, A Farewell to Arms was worse. The only redeeming part of it, to at least start with the good, was the war scene of retreat and confusion in the last third, when our faithful narrator must finally jump into the river to escape. The love story I thought was hideous—juvenile, empty, unbelievable. If there are or were women like Catherine Barkley in the world, they are harder now for me to take seriously—that whole stoic, long-suffering, plucky figure seems to me mostly a relic of abandoned values and passé. Seems to be, let me say, as we know that all things pass and all things return again and that's how we do it. But in this post-feminist early 21st century a character like that seems to me irrelevant. The first time I read this, circa 1975, I found the ending moving and touching, and I should say that this time I was again affected by it. All sentiment, of course, because this time I also raged against it on another level—I mean, what obvious manipulative claptrap. He leaves the war, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Events defy belief. It's too much. In this novel over and over it is the silently suffering stoic, sucking it all up and never making a peep about the pain. People nowadays may talk too much about pain and emotions—but people of that age certainly did not talk enough. Thus A Farewell to Arms seems to me more than anything else just dated. War is hard, but this story is hard in remarkably uninteresting ways. There are numerous conversations here that include apologies for saying too much, requests to stop saying so much, etc. I like to think that this is all a thing of the past, but we'll know better a hundred years from now. Meanwhile, of course, there are the usual Hemingway strengths, such as they are, some I had not noticed before, or forgotten, such as the extreme brevity of the first chapter, which gives it the feel of a curtain-raising invocation, and brings a kind of initial high that I only wish had been merited by what follows.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bruce Springsteen, "Downbound Train" (1984)


More confessions of a one-time Bruce Springsteen snob: This is pretty much the song that turned me around on him forever, the reason I favor Born in the U.S.A. of all his albums (also the sequence of which this is part from "Cover Me" through to "I'm on Fire," and speaking of which also all those hits too, except the title song). I know it's the triumphal ascendance point of his career, an annoying point in the careers of many. It's harder to feel special when you're sharing the object of your adoration with whole stadiumsful  of people showing up late. And some signs here already perhaps of the problems that were ahead, the frustrating admixture of bloat and vacuousness in there with all the good stuff. But one of the things I like most about Bruce Springsteen is that he looks around and feels sad, genuinely sad. "Downbound Train," which feels like a lost alternate-universe fragment of a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, might be the best example of that I know. He's talking about injustice in as lucid and straightforward a manner as could be. He's not looking away from anything. He's working in a carwash. It grounds the high points of his other songs, delivers their joys better knowing all the extremes are acknowledged and felt. This is how I think Bruce Springsteen does it. He is carrying a heavy load in this song—presumably why it's a train. I love the way the burden flattens the words in his mouth into rounded vowels and sliding growls. On the lines "Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang / Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain," he is practically just moaning and honking. It's good that people make lyrics available on the Internet, although thinking about it now every sense of those words is there in the vocal—the sense of working, and futility.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Making History (1983)

Linton Kwesi Johnson's great moment—or at least the one I happen to know best—is out of print now and looks to have become a pricy collector's item, so I recommend the Independant Intavenshan anthology, which contains all of the tracks from Making History and 28 more besides. Absolutely worth it. Widely characterized as a "dub poet," which is close enough—the musical accompaniment is heavily atmospheric strains of Jamaica and Johnson is a highly regarded poet (published in the Penguin Modern Classics collection). This is another album, I have since figured out, that we all seemed to have found out about from the "A" Robert Christgau gave it, so credit due thatwise. It actually bears a fair amount of musical variety across its seven tracks—including one, "Reggae Fi Radni," that sounds plucked from parts of Nino Rota's soundtrack for the Godfather movies. The last track ("New Crass Massahkah") settles into unaccompanied vocal recitation, spacing out its simple musical statements. The first four songs, which are as good as it gets, work lively, satisfying strains on uptempo grooves. On all of them Johnson steps in reciting polemic in a thick, deep patois, which can be heard as musical itself, blending in nicely, but is difficult to understand. Certain fragments swim up unmistakably: "Di eagle an' di bear people livin' in fear of impending nuclear war fear," "From England to Poland / Every step across di ocean / The ruling class is dem is in a mess, oh yes / Di capitalist system are regress / But di Soviet system nah progress / So which one of dem yuh think is best," and "it was in april nineteen eighty wan / doun inna di ghetto of Brixtan" (the latter available in full at The Poetry Archive). Well, we already knew the drift from the song titles: "Di Eagle an di Bear," "Wat About di Workin' Class?," "Di Great Insohreckshan." And we knew the level of ambition from the title of the album. What was harder to guess was how musically it would be delivered. Until that last track, this thing moves with propulsive force. Perhaps some drag to the vocal, it can be rumbling and monotonous, but the charge of the words as they clarify counterbalances that well, for me at least, and there is an amazing force to the album sustained surprisingly well.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Sonic Youth, "Titanium Expose" (1990)


After Daydream Nation thoroughly crossed my wires, "Titanium Expose" took a while to sneak up on me. I didn't care either way about the major label thing but I was never a particular partisan of its home, Goo, aside from the fact it's square in the middle of their great years. So it's good. In fact, it's very fine. But it's also when it started becoming a matter of sorting out hits and misses. Always some of both in Sonic Youth albums for many years—still, actually. For the longest time "Titanium Expose" was one of those fine points, that song near the end. In the CD era of listening to one-sided or scrambled sequencing it seemed more work always to distinguish one from another, or they could blur. Anyway, this is where I get all rock star-crossed. Swoon, high as a kite, did that just happen? See also The Year Punk Broke, opening shot. What it felt like and what it was like. That's found nearly pure in scattered passages of the 6:25 "Titanium Expose," floating up for maybe a minute altogether, when it's wound up right, when the pounding suddenly turns sublime, ecstatic, throbbing, powerful, etc. Life force, alive. At about the 3:50 mark, and the best of it lasts 20 seconds there—20 seconds good for a lifetime's faith. Here's where the breaking bread happens. All the good adjectives. I've heard it so much I have a hard time hearing it any more. It's already over and done, and I missed again (at least on a conscious level) it. But it's part of my brain or psyche now anyway. "Titanium Expose" will always have a place.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)—An efficient and predictably wonderful documentary about the amazing Doc Pomus, author of Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" and approximately one million more great songs you already know and love ("A Teenager in Love," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me"). Lots of interesting people show up—Lieber & Stoller, Shawn Colvin, Dion, Dr. John, B.B. King, Lou Reed, more. Must-see.
Alexandra (2007)—First picture I've seen by director and writer Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark probably the right place to start, oh well). Some very nicely realized moments, but I never connected with the story of an old woman traveling to a Chechen training camp to visit her grandson. It seemed at once fanciful and elaborately grim, which in this case was not good.
The Bigamist (1953)—An interesting noir/woman's picture cross-breed directed by Ida Lupino. Making a mountain of a molehill on the matter referenced in the title, but basically right, almost documentarian, on a common way it happens, and plenty of nice, weird moments along the way. Definitely worth seeing.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)—The bitter-saccharine adventures of Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place have become something like a reliable old friend for me at this point. Often schmaltzy but with a wonderful heart.