Archive for July, 2012

Howling At The Moon, by Walter Yetnikoff

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

Howling At The Moon, Walter Yetnikoff – I pulled this off the shelf at the library because I thought it was about the Ramones, but then I saw that it was the autobiography of Walter Yetnikoff (!!!!!), one of the seriously huge music executives of the 1980s. Okay – pay attention.

The book is okay, and not as good as the biography of David Geffen, but it has its moments. Most of it is confession about drug abuse, with plenty of hinting at raunchy casting couch sessions. He gets into the business, he meets Clive Davis, he skips over the period of 1962 to 1967 when rock was born (or, at least, it was then commercialized). The first act of significance that he mentions is Janis Joplin. He glosses over significant periods, such as Janis’ death (he mainly only stops to note that she sold more in death than in life). He screams, he yells, he’s a boor, he cares about people, his sarcasm and sense or irony is intact. He also has a magnificent roster of the top-selling icons of all time on his rolodex: James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Meatloaf, the Rolling Stones (eventually), Paul Simon (ooops… falling out), Bob Dylan, Boston (!!!), Men At Work, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul McCartney (not really… almost…) and Marvin Gaye. Oh yeah, and also this guy called Bruce Springsteen. And another solo artist, some kid… Michael Jackson. Ever heard of him. Imagine that – having the hottest acts of the 1980s, minus Madonna, under your wing. Wow!

No single record changed the business – and my life – as powerfully as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, Joel’s An Innocent Man, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Men At WOrk’ Business As Usual, Boston’s Boston – all huge career-defining records. But as a sales phenomenon, Thriller eclipsed them all. At one point the damn thing was selling a million copies a week. I’d never seen such figures. Michael had once again reinvented himself, only this time as the third prong of pop’s Holy Trilogy – now it was Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Not many people can write about what that sort of thing feels like, but Velvel is one of them.

But besides skipping over huge areas, the book is very funny, and talks about drugs in an especially frank manner.

The sexual side of our relationship was especially steamy. That’s because it was based on a menage a trios – Boom Boom, me and cocaine. How does an egomaniac become more maniacal? Give him coke. How does self-absorption, self-obsession, self-aggrandizement take on deeper dimensions? Try coke. I tried it, liked it and made it part of my acting-out operation.

Yetnikoff’s funniest story is about Bob Dylan, and it’s one for the record books:

Sitting next to Bob and his mother, I was astonished by their dialogue. The mysterious poet suddenly turned into little Bobby Zimmerman.
You’re not eating, Bobby,” said Mom as his girlfriend, Carol, was cutting up his food as though he were an infant.
“Please, Ma. You’re embarrassing me.”
“I saw you ate nothing for lunch. You’re skin and bones.”
“I’m eating, Ma, I’m eating”
“And have you thanked Mr Yenikoff for this lovely dinner?”
“Thank you, Walter.”
“You’re mumbling, Bobby. I don’t think Mr Yetnikoff heard you”
“He heard me, “Dylan said sarcastically.
“Bobby, be nice.”
“Does your son always give you this much trouble?” I asked.
“Bobby? God forbid. Bobby gives me such naches. He’s a good boy, a regular mensch. He calls, he writes, he listens to his mother. Every mother should have such a son.”
“Stop, Ma,” said Bob. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“You should be embarrassed,” I said to Dylan. “You’re a fraud.”
He looked at me quizzically. I explained, “Aren’t you the guy who wore, ‘Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command… the times they are a-changin’…’? So why are you whining to your mother?”
“I wrote that a long time ago. Is it okay with you if I love my mother?”
“That’s wonderful. I understand you’ve done the definitive version of ‘My Yiddische Momma.’”
He smiled.

The book ends with his downfall – kicked out of Sony, a failed Miles Davis biopic under his belt, a failed Velvel Records project, he goes back to counseling drunks and addicts in Patterson in New Jersey. Full circle. Great story.

His final words are parting shots at the industry:

When I get back home, the phone’s ringing. It’s a big-shot Washington, DC, lawyer considering suing the major labels for defrauding artists. He wants to sign me up as a consigliere for his case. This gets me excited.
“You know more about questionable accounting principles than anyone,” he says.
“I know that artists are greedy and the labels are less than straightforward. If you ask me who’s wose, I’ll have to think about it.”
“What overall philospophy drives the companies?”
“Pay the artist as little as you can. Tie up the artist for as long as you can. Recoup as often as you can.”
“What are the most egregious ways that the companies can cheat?”
“I’m not sure ‘cheat’ is the right word. But I am sure, at least in my day, that royalties were never paid on 100 percent sales. You paid on 85 percent and called the other 15 percent breakage – even bought the breakage applied to shellac records from the forties and fifties. What’s more, you pay artists half royalties on their overseas sales. You say that’s due to the cost of setting up your subsidiaries. Even when those costs have diminished, though, you keep paying the lower rate. On foreign sales, the company benefits from a tax credit not eh artists’ royalties. The royalties have nothing to do witht he company, but the company pays less taxes. Meanwhile, the artist doesn’t even know it’s happening. you charge at least half of the video costs to the artists. You charge the artist the coast of packaging. That could be 10 percent t- or one dollar on the wholesale ten-dollar price of a CD – when actual packaging costs might be a quarter. It goes on a nd on. Or at least it did in the music world of the seventies and eighties.”
“And the artists’ lawyers never objected?”
“In the age of excess, the artists’ lawyers were as greedy as the artists and the labels. The artists’ lawyers were going for huge advances for their clients and themselves. They didn’t give a shit about the small print. It a was all about the big bucks.”
“So it was corrupt.”
“Morally maybe. But legally it was written out in documents no one bothered to read.”
“But what about the big point – isn’t it true that ten when the company goes int he black with a CD, even when massive sales wipe out costs, even then the artist’s statement can still show red – or a lot less black than it should?”
“There are ways to pump up those costs on paper so that royalties are delayed or even permanently denied.”
“And you’re willing to testify to those ways in a court of law?”
“I’m not willing to do anything but get off the pone with you and try to regain my goddamn peace of mind.”
“Can i call you again?”
“Let me call you.”

Earlier on he explained that the record labels gave half royalties on CDs, citing the cost of producing the CDs themselves, long after the cost of producing CDs dropped. I’m not sure what ever became of that conversation… but it sure is interesting that it’s in the book. Ah… he’s a lawyer… he probably knows what he can say and can’t say.

Great book!

Top Gun

Friday, July 20th, 2012

TG

TG


Top Gun – Zen is really into jets, so I thought I should let him watch the ultimate jet plane movie… Tony Scott’s Top Gun!! Full of awful acting, terrible singing, hokey characters, a bad script, weird cold war antics that never happened (did they?), the film is a B-movie from end to end that should have flopped at the box office. Somehow it didn’t – it had the star power of Tom Cruise, the like ability of Anthony Edwards, the who-cares-that-she’s-a-geek beauty of Kelly McGillis, and a great soundtrack full of anthems… before all that became cliche. The failure of Iron Eagle and other jet movies proved that either people only had the patience to watch Top Gun once, or there was tremendous loyalty to the Cruise-Scott formula (the fact that they didn’t try a sequel also showed that they didn’t dare push their luck). Great.

The movie is hard to bear if you don’t like macho boys like Cruise with a thing to prove. Tom Skerritt is great, especially for those of us who remember him in M*A*S*H (although his “I knew your dad” speeches are grotesque – perhaps Tarantino had Christopher Walken mock this in Pulp Fiction), and so is Meg Ryan, appearing here for nearly the first time, when she is still scrawny, small-chested and plain looking, spouting awesome lines like “Maverick, you big stud, take me to bed or lose me forever.”

Ultimately, there’s a lot happening in the film, which is good, and Tony Scott is an awesome director (even if he’s overshadowed by his brother Ridley). l loved Vampire’s Kiss, and other Tony Scott films. Which is more than I can say about Tom Cruise…

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

PMH

PMH


Platform, by Michel Houellebecq – My friend sent this to me with the highest praises, hinting at its excess, calling it an intriguing read. I read it with great interest and liked it very much from the start. The main character, Michel, is an arrogant French civil servant who is cryptic, intelligent, and more than just a little weird. Unmarried, he’s drifted through life, his father’s been murdered (this tale forms the opening chapter of the book – it was an honor killing, father had been banging a young Algerian girl, and her brother didn’t take too kindly to that situation), he forms no solid attachments, and seems to be somewhat addicted to sex, which he seems to prefer paying for. His character is fascinating in his misanthropistic sarcasm and penetrating criticism, much like the character Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. A good example of this evil voice spews forth against the airline that takes him and his tour group to Thailand, where he aspired to do nothing than to criticize silently his fellow travelers and indulge in endless masseuses:

The crew do their level best to maximize [in-flight] stress by preventing you from combating it by habitual means. Deprived of cigarettes, reading matter and, as happens more and more frequently, sometimes even deprived of alcohol. Thank God the bitches don’t do body searches yet; as an experienced passenger, I had been able to stock up on some necessities for survival: a few 21-mg Nicorette patches, sleeping pills, a flask of Southern Comfort. I fell into a thick sleep as we were flying over the former East Germany.

He contemplates his sleeping neighbor on the flight:

I picked up the paperback which had fallen at his feet: a shitty Anglo-Saxon bestseller by one Frederick Forsyth. I had read something by this halfwit, full of heavy-handed eulogies to Margaret Thatcher and ludicrous depictions of the USSR as the evil empire. I’d wondered how he managed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I leafed through his new opus; apparently, this time, the roles of the bad guys were played by Serb nationalists; here was a man who kept up to date with current affairs. As for his beloved hero, the tedious Jason Monk, he had gone back into service with the CIA, which had formed an alliance of convenience with the Chechen mafia. Well! I thought, replacing the book on my neighbor’s knees, what a charming sense of morality bestselling British authors have.

Houellebecq gives a similar skewering to John Grisham’s The Firm.

The narration gets surreal:

A cockroach approached just as I was about to get into the bath. It was just the right time for a cockroach to make an appearance in my life; couldn’t have been better. It scuttled quickly across the porcelain, the little bugger; I looked around for a slipper, but actually I knew my chances of squashing him were small. What was the point in trying? And what good was [the masseuse] Oon, in spite of her marvelously elastic vagina? We were already doomed. Cockroaches copulate gracelessly, with no apparent pleasure; but they also do it repeatedly, and their genetic mutations are rapid and efficient. There is absolutely nothing we can do about cockroaches.

He also spouts on about the documentaries he’s recently viewed, quiz shows, and behavioral psychology; clearly a man with too much time on his hands – and yes, he’s a really weird guy. “I masturbated gently so I could read in peace, producing just a few drips.” Noting the bombing of the Burmese train bridge recounted in “Bridge Over The River Kwai”, Michel observes that “Things have changed little since then – it is still impossible to get a decent rail conniption between Singapore and Delhi.”

The book meanders along in the cynical misadventures of bourgeois French misfits in Indochina; Michel returns to Paris and takes up a wild sexual relationship with one of the women on his tour and they begin a wild liaison. They fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck. He is blissful. She is blissful. She works in a travel agency, and so his world becomes a discussion of the world of travel companies, tour organizers, business plans; briefly, the book becomes quite dull. The girlfriend, Valerie, has a boss, and for a while the book seems like it will become more about him then Michel – quel horreur!! But somehow, it shifts back to Michel (his murdered father by now long forgotten). Michel eventually becomes a consultant to this successful travel executive, Jean-Yves (Valerie’s boss; his marriage has soured; so what), and they spend time together in spite of themselves:

Halfway along the path to inebriation, just before mindlessness ensues, one sometimes experiences moments of heightened lucidity. The decline of western sexuality was undoubtedly a major sociological phenomena which it would be futile to attempt to explain by such and such a specific psychological factor; glancing at Jean-Yves, I realized however that he perfectly illustrated my thesis, so much so that it was almost embarrassing. Not only did he not fuck any more and didn’t have the time to go looking, but he no longer really wanted to, and , worse still, he felt decay written on his flesh – he was beginning to smell of the stench of death. “But…” he objected after a long moment of hesitation, “I’ve heard wife-swapping clubs are quite successful.”

Michel’s work as a civil servant continues, and he meets an artist who makes realistic rubber casts of her clitoris. “She was quite sweet, this girl, for a contemporary artist; I almost felt like asking her to come to an orgy some night, I was sure she’d get along well with Valerie.” There’s nothing to it, just another superfluous episode in the life of a man for which sex has become his entire existence, but it’s illustrative anyway.

But, of course, life doesn’t always work out – in novels it probably shouldn’t – and to match Michel’s heaven he’s cast in hell. He doesn’t know how to live life any more and at the end of the book we find him in Krabi, shattered, like Colin Firth’s character Adrian in the film Apartment Zero.

It’s an interesting book, an amusing book, a tragic book, and it has one fascinating character. But it’s also a diluted book, and these fumes are not quite enough to make a good book great.

My Big Bad Indiana Jones page

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Recently Zen and Naoko and I have been watching hit movies from the 1980s, since Zen is anyway a big fan of the Star Wars movies, and now it’s time to meet Dr Jones!

I showed Zen the DVD box and told him that the actor is someone he’s seen before in another movie, it took him about 30 seconds to figure out that Indiana Jones is played by the same guy who plays Han Solo. All right, Zen!

ROTLA

ROTLA


Riders of the Lost Ark – The movie is awesome, full of great lines, great scenes (Han shoots first!), great temple-destroying effects and flesh-melting graphics, and an earth-defeating theme that doesn’t need to destroy the earth (hello Michael Bey) to get the job done. Plus lots of snakes! Great dialogue: “Asps… very dangerous… you go first.” “We are merely passing through history. This… this is history.” Everyone’s seen the movie anyway, so there’s no need to review it scene by scene. If you’re one of the few people around who’ve never seen it, make sure that you do.

The extras are good fun too. There are quite a few interviews from 1981, with Spielberg saying he told George Lucas he wanted to do a James Bond movie with a John Wayne score. Tom Selleck was cast, but couldn’t do it in the end. Spielberg explained how Et, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind all went over budget, his goal was to get Raiders in under budget and under schedule (he’s not saying so, but he was probably under massive pressure coming from somewhere else – maybe his own pocketbook – to do so), it came in 15 days under schedule. Nice. Since this came out in the prelude to Indiana Jones 4, the crappy crystal skull movie that was ruined by a bad screenplay and the presence of Shia Laboeuf (not that it didn’t make money for the studio, but still…), Shia makes an appearance to give comments, as does Cate Blanchett. Very nice re-creation of the melting head scene where they explain how it was done. Fascinating. Great photo gallery, some images of which I snapped with my own camera from the screen, see below. Shots of George Lucas hanging out with Stephen Spielberg on sets all over the world, in his white tube socks, looks really weird.

IJATTOD

IJATTOD


Indiana Jones and the Temle of Doom – A gory, silly and freaky weird movie (inflatable rafts go flying out of airplanes, etc). Nice opening sequence of poison, antidotes, torch singers (one – Kate Capshaw, who ends up marrying the director), annoying little kids, nutty Old Shanghai setting, corrupt Chinese businessmen, and all sorts of other nonsense. Oddly, the villains decide to doom Indiana Jones by ordering the crew of the airplane that is flying them to abandon ship midi-air (jump out over the Himalayas with parachutes) and allow the ship to smash pilotless into a mountain. What kind of a plan is that? Naturally, Dr Jones and his sidekicks survive by riding an inflatable raft from a mountaintop to the foothills of the Himilayas in no time, they then also get up and walk away from the incident. And it just gets more ridiculous from there. Great. Two good parts in the film – near the beginning when he thinks that he’s escaped gangster businessman Lao Che in an airplane, when the door of the we see that the plane is owned by Lao Che Air Services (i.e. he hasn’t escaped Lao Che’s clutches, he only thinks he has) and Lao Che and companion’s evil laughter; the other good part is Indy and Willie’s smutty discourse where they momentarily forget that they’re in the lion’s den and want to have a good time with each other (Short Round can’t watch, though, or he has to pay a hundred). Some nice dialogue: “Hey, Dr Jones, no time for love – we’ve got company.”

Special features show Stephen Spielberg being interviewed that he wanted the second Indiana Jones movie to be the darkest of the trilogy, perhaps mirroring what was happening with the Star Wars trilogy (makes no sense, since the Indiana Jones stories don’t bother with continuity!), but he was probably just after an excuse to justify lower sales since he knew there was no way the second film could be as good as the first. His screw-around movie, so it was not as commercial as parts one and three. The idea of the mine chase, with its gravity-defying stunts, had been slotted for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it didn’t come off. The camera catches George saying “I’m more of a humor guy than a dark guy.” Yes, George Lucas – the guy with the best sense of humor in all Hollywood. Harrison Ford talking about how there were 8,000-10,000 snakes on the set, thousands of which escaped each day. Among the “snakes” were lizards called glass snakes (they’re lizards because they blink). We learn that the Tunisia scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark was the same spot that R2-D2 was captured by the Jawas in Star Wars. Elsa Schneider resented Sean Connery in Raiders III, “he had my role” (why are people from the third movie popping up in the bonus materials of the second movie?). Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplay, notes that it’s very rare to have a beautiful woman who can do comedy. Huh?

IJATLC

IJATLC


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – The highlight of this film is surely the opening sequence of the young Indiana Jones, played by River Phoenix, stopping artifact looters (ironic, since this is what Indy himself is at the beginning of the first movie), nice chase sequence, great animals (snakes! a lion!!). Cool iconography, with the villain of that sequence looking like Indiana Jones later will… although we’re not sure why someone who defeated the young Indy would eventually become his style inspiration.

The film has a lot of satisfying elements from the first movie – Nazis, cartoonish deaths at the end – and a great, great role for Sean Connery as Indy’s dad, the two great actors have awesome chemistry. The bickering, the emotions, the “dad” scenes – all come off very well. There’s also less opportunity for sluttishness from evil/beautiful Nazi women (we had plenty of sluttishness in Temple of Doom). Decent dialogue, like “how dare you kiss me,” horniness and outrageousness on both sides, very funny. “Nazis – I hate those guys.” Great scene of Indy in Berlin, tons of Nazi regalia, hilarious face-to-face with Adolf Hitler. “No ticket!!” “He chose… poorly.” Airplane in tunnel scene completely outrageous, but also funny. Using seagulls to defeat the enemy… ingenious. How do they come up with these things?

Disco-looking Raiders of the Lost Ark poster

Disco-looking Raiders of the Lost Ark poster

Disco-looking Raiders of the Lost Ark poster (part II)

Disco-looking Raiders of the Lost Ark poster (part II)

Belloq bust

Belloq bust

Tied to a post and lovin' it!!

Tied to a post and lovin' it!!

Joke heiroglyphics in the Well of Souls

Joke heiroglyphics in the Well of Souls

Cowboy Junkies, The Nomad Series

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

TCGTNS

TCGTNS


Cowboy Junkies, The Nomad Series – I’ve always liked the Cowboy Junkies, and The Trinity Sessions is one of my favorite albums, I also adore their follow-up albums – Caution Horses, Black-Eyed Man, Pale Sun Crescent Moon with its cover of a Dinosaur Jr song – and I sing their songs in my guitar set. They somehow, inexplicably, fell off my radar a few years ago. I have no idea why – they never became a “has been band”, they always made good music, but they escaped my notice. Now, I find that they produced four CDs in 18 months under a “Nomad” series, and have now released it as a set for $20, along with a fifth CD of odds and ends, and how can I resist? It’s so wonderful, after 20 years, to have the Cowboy Junkies adding gravitational stress to my CD rack. It’s a better world we live in now.

The songs on the Nomad Series are supposed to be built around a concept, but I don’t know what unifies them, because each CD is very much its own recording. And, like all good Cowboy Junkies songs, they fall into just a handful of categories: the wistful, mournful slow strummer, the (relatively) upbeat “rocker” (the Cowboy Junkies can only “rock” so hard, but they all make use of artistic distortion), the wan pop song, the freaky experimental number, and the distinct, characteristic cover song.

The first of the five CDs, “Renmin Park”, starts off with some found sounds, Chinese martial music that sounds like Oktoberfest tunes, then some Chinese traditional singing, plucking, park sounds, people hanging out. The first full song, the title track, is a beautiful, wan, wistful mourner that is just Margo’s voice and Michael’s spare guitar, with later some Chinese fiddle thrown in. Gorgeous. “Sir Fancis Bacon At The Net” is freaky and weird, starting with a very percussive Chinese voice looped, with Margo providing her normal beautiful voice paired with her own ghostly distorted voice. The song is hauntingly freaky, with funky drums and a sliiiiiiding bass dirging things along. “Stranger Here” is a relatively dull song in the poppish vein, nothing special. “A Few Bags Of Grain” moves along nicely with brush drums, a bass line, and a crisp, sweet piano evoking that spooky drunk late night mysticism of weird lights and silence. “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” is even stiller and more Cowboy Junkies-like. It also rises up on its hind legs and growls later on with massive waves of feedback-drenched guitar. “(You’ve Got to Get) A Good Heart” gives great drum madness with swift bass lines, Margo Timmins’ voice nearly everywhere. Nice. After a while, though, we get some sort of weird Chinese child counting to eight (yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba), but somehow off-beat to the song. Both are nice, but combined they are… curious… “Cicadas” has more Renmin Park people voice, the sounds of cicadas, and then a nice song about them, a croaking groan from Timmins, echoes with other strange sounds – a spooky, spooky tune. “My Fall” is a beautiful pop song the likes of which you’ve never heard before… or have heard a million times before. It combines weird Chinese orchestras and modern electronic noise rollings. Heavenly. “Little Dark Heart” is like the type of Cowboy Junkies song we would have heard on albums all these years – the scratchy guitar, the slow beat of the drums, the wail of the fiddle, a bit of burbling organ. Nice. “A Walk In The Park” is a nice song, although it’s tough to take as well – it is an absolutely crushingly, stunningly beautiful song, The Cowboy Junkies playing while a Chinese singer makes his song, plays fiddle, and adds sound effects – absolutely, atrociously a piece of art… in the park! Wow!! I mean… sure. Why not? Right? The final song is “Renmin Park (Revisited)”, a punning title for a song that re-creates the opening song, albeit with a male singer (I can’t figure out who this is, it’s not mentioned in the liner notes – I wonder if it’s Michael Timmins.

The second album in the collection, Demons, is a collection of covers, all from the doomed Vic Chesnutt (years previous they had sought to nestle under the shaky Townes Van Zandt in his twilight years). The band puts 11 of the covers on this album, while six more went into to the Extras CD (“Old Hotel”, “Marathon”, “Sad Peter Pan, “Guilty By Association”, “Forthright” and “Stay Inside”. I’ve put the Vic Chesnutt originals at the end of this entry.

The Cowboy Junkies tend to amp up the music on their versions, adding in rolling organ, or dripping feedback. The first song, “Wrong Piano,” is a very simple guitar song in the Vic Chesnutt version, but the Cowboy Junkies play it with full-on Neil Young “Cowgirl In The Sand”-ish guitar and Band-ish organ, with plenty of instrumental flourishes. In “Flirted With You All My Life”, which starts of just as mellow as the original, Margo Timmins doesn’t feel the need to change the lyrics “I am a man…” But the song picks up quickly and becomes way blustery, cool acid guitar and burbling guitar rising and ebbing throughout the song. Great! “See You Round”, the original Vic Chesnutt version, is all babbling, scratchy vocals and layers of guitar, while the Cowboy Junkies’ version sounds like a real band effort, Margo Timmins’ expressive and throaty roar lighting up the night, while Chesnutt’s hardly lights up a corner of the basement (but hey – it’s a voice with tons of character!). The Cowboy Junkies’ version is also heavily organ-fuelled. Probably the song with the greatest difference between original and cover is “Betty Lonely”, which Chesnutt beats out of a guitar, evenly, with a pack of backup singers (he’s learned a thing or two from Leonard Cohen albums) that is also slightly Beatles-esque of the”While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “Across the Universe” spooky era, while the Cowboy Junkies begin with a blast of organ that takes them deep into Angelo Badalamenti territory. So both are going where they haven’t gone before – great! Vic’s “Square Room” starts with a near-whisper, you can really only hear his voice, then a wee wee bit of guitar. His voice no longer sounds jarring, but very nice indeed. Feedback rears its head from time to time, just the right touch. The Cowboy Junkies version starts off like something from the Trinity Sessions, that voice and that acoustic guitar. Wow. Each sy lab ble is strong ly pro nounc ed. “Just a titled alcoholic/waxing bucolic”, the words, float over the room, overstated, not like Chesnutt’s understated and swallowed. Both songs are nearly equally melancholic. “Ladle” is a bit of electric folk from Vic Chesnutt, great kronky guitar, a bit grungy even nearly (in the vocals, not just the guitar). The Cowboy Junkies version is just as spooky and haunting, with great singing by Margo and some nice backup from a male voice. Vic Chesnutt’s “Supernatural” is full of Spanish-sounding guitar, bruising brushes and wiry vocals, the Cowboy Junkies’ version is a very faithful adaption with Spanish guitar, and some spooky noises. “West Of Rome” is mainly voice and piano on the original version, when the Cowboy Junkies do it they keep it also very minimal, adding some percussion also. “Strange Language” is a groovy REM-sounding album, the Junkies also cover it pretty faithfully. “We Hovered With Short Wings” is real Angelo Badalametti territory, with a really strange spooky midnight mood of brushes on drums, stand-up bass, and bizarre night noises, Chesnutt’s voice nearly inaudible as it comes in, warming up after a few bars. Vic Chesnutt sings it a bit higher than Margo Timmins does, the Cowboy Junkies bringing in instruments not heard in the original, but subtle, always subtle. “When The Bottom Fell Out” is a bit different – the Vic Chesnutt song is just his voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies’ version starts with a snatch of dialogue from Chesnutt, eventually getting into a full-band The Band-like dirge with full organ and horn section, fleshing the song out quite fully indeed.

The third album, Sing In My Meadows, is an experimental one, the band performing what the call “acid-blues,” which has them channeling “Miles at the Isle of Wight deep in his Bitches Brew phase; Captain Beefheart and his Mirror Man psychoses; The Birthday Party live at the Electric Ballroom circa 1981 (Margo, Al and I were in that audience); Neil and Crazy Horse in the back room at SIR… overdriven and thick with electricity.” I don’t know if they necessarily pull it off; but still, this is probably my favorite of the bunch, because you can really get lost in these songs, with their weird, chunky guitar and zombie beats. The first song, “Continental Drift” opens with pounding drum pattern, it is very heavy, there’s hard guitar, a squawking saxophone keeping things Morphine-y, mysterious. The first half of the song is instrumental, then there’s singing and surreal lyrics and a freaky, pounding beat. I don’t know what continental drift is supposed to be. “It’s Heavy Down Here” is a wondrously murky song that fades in, slinks in, totally weirded out, freaky, styley, doom-y even. One minute of fuzz, four minutes of Margo Timmins moaning, with a male voice in the background. Wow. “3rd Crusade” is a bit faster, funkier, there’s some sort of keyboard progression, and restrained vocals. “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold”, swells and ebbs, and a discernible chorus. Nice. “Late Night Radio” is like a pretty regular Cowboy Junkies song, and may have even appeared on the Trinity Sessions in a much slowed-down version. Or maybe there’s something of an early REM song about it. Unfortunately, the hypnotic chorus repeats just a few times too often, wearing out its welcome, but the zooming glooming of the guitar, which hovers like some evil firefly, invokes and captures. “Sing In My Meadows” is a fun, sweeping song that seems not just a little bit horny. Launching as it does with wild drums and great guitar wailing, “Hunted” is a wild, insane, frantic song that the band had initially recorded on their Pale Sun Crescent Moon, except that here they really kick out the jams and get outright noisy (and sound way more mature/way less funky than they did in 1993). “A Bride’s Price” is a lovely piece of bass and guitar and drum rambling, with Margo’s voice twisted and distorted all over the place. The closing song “I Move On” – also the longest track on the disk at just over six minutes – comes off like the bastard brother of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, in all of its maddened rolling organ-infused chaos, nearly two minutes into the song the lyrics kick up, distorted and foaming at the mouth. Amazing songs, all the more astounding is the thought that they were recorded over only four days.

“The Wilderness”, the fourth and final recording in the original series, . The first song “Unanswered Letter (For JB)” is a groovy electric clicker that shaves along zippily, amplifies in parts with subtle, squealing electronics. The song chugs along excellently and in high spirits. “Idle Tales” has some sort of burning piano riff at the beginning that sounds like it’s had a bit of the Sigur Ros treatment before the song gets chilly and mellow – acoustic guitar, Margo’s sensuous voice, and the occasional power chord, a bit of this and that coming in slowly. A stunningly beautiful number anyone would fall deeply in love with. It is a song of great restraint and endless experimentation – touching and well-balanced (not sure they needed the slight background choir that comes in momentarily at the end, though). “We Are The Selfish One” is mainly voice and acoustic guitar, with a few other flourishes. It’s nice, but a bit dull. “Angels In The Wilderness” is duller yet, but it’s nice enough; has the stripes of an earnest radio song, perhaps, I dunno. “Damaged From The Start” is similarly nice, simple and dull. “Fairytale” is a pretty tale that seems like it has something to say, with that chopping mandolin that recalls Cowboy Junkies albums past. “Staring Man” has a bit of fiddle in it, giving it the aura of the first real country-ish song of the album. “The Confession of Georgie E” is a beautiful slow song (they seem to all be beautiful slow songs), and “I Let Him In” is absolutely, screamingly dull! “Fuck, I Hate The Cold” has the most life of any song on the album, with its big fat chords, its boppy lead guitar, its dramatic vocalizing – it swings and sways and is absolutely, painstakingly, Canadian-ish-ed-ly true!

The extras are good! “My Boy Burns” is spooky as hell, and rises and ebbs the way a good Cowboy Junkies song should. “The Girl Behind The Man Behind The Gun” is an even better song, moody, with moments of thickly distorted guitar spooking things up, and Margo alternating talk-singing with pure wailing. The song speeds up, slows down, goes acoustic, each element of the best Cowboy Junkies songs is present in this song. “Punching Holes Through” is sweet and mysterious with lone high notes, a great beat, sweet sweet beauty like nothing from the past. Achingly great song. You hear this song once and you know it’s been close to your soul many times before. Deserves to be immortalized on the soundtrack of a really great movie. “Demons” is a sweet, jumpy number, sung by a male voice, quite a bit different than any of the songs that preceded it. It is also the last Cowboy Junkies song on the collection.

But with only four of the ten songs on the last disc by the Cowboy Junkies and six by Vic Chesnutt, this dis really does also belong to the late singer-songwriter. “Old Hotel” by Vic Chesnutt is simple voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies perform it with the full band, but with Margo Timmins’ voice sounding like it’s been recorded at a distance. After some time big fat distorted guitar comes floating in, momentarily. Great beats, great song. “Marathon” is an awesome-wicked Vic Chesnutt song, sung with voice and guitar and a wee bit of background ambient noise, full on emotion and sensitivity. The Cowboy Junkies’ version makes the song sound even sadder, if that’s even possible. “Sad Peter Pan” is a nice mellow Vic Chesnutt song, the Cowboy Junkies version is acoustic guitar and voice and clarinet, a beautiful interpretation. The book is pierced by weird sound effects that chop through everything. Lovely. “Guilty By Association” is one of Chesnutt’s better-known song, not sure why it’s not on the main album, “Demons”, this version of Chesnutt’s vocal-guitar-strings number is stunning, with its gloomy note-by-note thrummings, accompanied by spooky background ambient noise (soundscapes?), and the now-formulaic Neil Young guitar sound (how did they recreate that?). “Forthright”, a beautiful acoustic guitar-voice-brushed drum song that already sounds like a Cowboy Junkies number is played by the Cowboy Junkies with a bit of brioche – that ambient sound, the beautiful bungee bass with the immaculate drum sound, and that haunting Margo Timmins voice, splashes of this guitar sound and that drifting in from time to time – really perfect production by the Meisters. Both versions are very long and lovely. “Stay Inside” is the last song on the series of discs; the Vic Chesnutt version has plenty of backing vocals, some of them by great doo-wop bands, glooming on and on over this chorus-like, affirming tune.

It’s just amazing to listen to both versions – the original next to the tribute/cover. What a musical education… I’d never listened to Chesnutt before.

Vic Chesnutt songs on Demons, Nomad Series disc 2

Vic Chesnutt – “Wrong Piano”

Vic Chesnutt – “I Flirted With You All My Life”

Vic Chesnutt – “See You Around”

Vic Chesnutt – “Betty Lonely”

Vic Chesnutt – “Square Room”

Vic Chesnutt – “Ladle”

Vic Chesnutt – “Supernatural”

Vic Chesnutt – “West Of Rome”

Vic Chesnutt – “Strange Language”

Vic Chesnutt – “We Hovered With Short Wings”

Vic Chesnutt – “When The Bottom Fell Out”

Vic Chesnutt songs on Extras, Nomad Series disc 5

“Old Hotel”

“Marathon”

“Sad Peter Pan”

“Guilty By Association”

“Forthright”

“Stay Inside”

Here’s a bonus: Madonna singing backup on “Guilty By Association” with main singer Joe Henry, her brother-in-law

Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

LMBOA

LMBOA


Lorrie Moore, Birds of America – I read this a few years ago when my friend Matt lent it to me, and I remember liking it very much; but since I just had a general sense of liking it, without remembering any specific stories, I thought it might be a good idea to re-read it, since I’ve been looking for a good book to read after a string of unsatisfying reads. Oddly, I hardly liked it as much this time around; maybe the fact that I couldn’t remember a single story should have been a red flag (the same thing happened with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Weird.

Moore’s characters are like John Updike’s – American middle-class, middle-aged, troubled marriages, intellectual or semi-intellectual, easily capable of making witty, wry remarks that come off as unnatural. The book has 12 stories in it, each about 20-25 pages long, a good length for a story to reasonably flesh out its characters (the stories in the second half of the book are longer than those in the first half, very clever – save those for the readers with patience to make it that far). Since the book is called Birds Of America, most of the stories make a mention or two of birds (which makes me wonder if Moore called the collection that after realizing the common theme, or if she set out to do something like this in the first place; chicken or egg; I think it’s probably the former, but it may be the latter too; there, that’s a Lorrie Moore-ism, ha ha ha…). The first story, “Willing”, is about a washed up Hollywood actress who leaves Hollywood behind to live an anonymous life in Chicago, meets Joe Sixpack, who cheats on her. At the end of the book she turns into a bird, but not after some amusing phone calls with her gay buddy in California. Sidra, pushing 40, is a sympathetic character, I liked her very much, and am fascinated by the thought that she threw herself out that window, kind of like Marianne Faithfull’s mentally ill lover. “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is about a woman who’s having trouble with her marriage who travels around Ireland with her mother, eventually visiting the Blarney Stone. Nice story, not sure what it was trying to tell me. “Dance In America” is a short story about a dancer. “Community Life” is about a sarcastic Romanian librarian who hooks up with a phony grassroots who cheats on her (everybody cheats on everybody else, usually for not good reason at all). “Agnes Of Iowa” is about an unattractive girl from Iowa who fails at an attempt to build a life for herself in New York City, then moves back to Iowa, marries a man older than herself, and tries to conceive as their marriage becomes loveless and fails. Banal decades are filled with heartfelt yearnings. She falls in love with a South African poet (?!?!). “Charades” is a confusing story about a bunch of friends and family who play charades one Saturday night (I think this is a regular type of event). It seems to be a metaphor for something, but I’m not clever enough to figure it out. Maybe I’ll re-read this story (if I don’t add to this entry it means that I have not re-read it…). “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” refers both to the “12 Days Of Christmas” song and birds in America. Very clever, very (fairly?) self conscious. The story is about an odd woman called Aileen who loves her dead cat more than she loves her husband or her daughter (why would pathetic people like this marry?). Aileen and Jack go around having ironic conversations.

“I think you should see someone.”
“Are we talking a psychologist or an affair?”
“An affair, of course,” Jack scowled. “An affair!”

“Just go talk to someone,” he said. “Our health plan will cover part.”
Okay,” she said. “Okay. Just – no more metaphors.”

The psychologist is found, one who works on a project basis and guarantees results by Christmas, and there’s more witty conversation. “Beautiful Grade” is even more Updike-ian (or is it Irving-ian?), it’s about divorced academics and their friends, one of whom is dating his student, and what becomes of this affair; there’s also a Yugoslavian wife of a Texan professor who’s lusted upon and affaired with within this shallow university clique. Honestly – what kind of a world does Lorrie Moore inhabit that she gets these sorts of inspirations? Is this Graham Greene? Is this Hemingway? Is this Virginia Woolf or Mary Shelly?

“What You Want To Do Is Fine” is something a little different (finally!), it’s a story about a blind man and his lover, a straight is trying something new after his wife ran off, taking their daughter with her. They wander around the US, spouting wry commentary. “Real Estate” is about yet another troubled middle-aged couple – I hardly need to read these stories to know what they’re about – the husband has had affairs, the wife Ruth doesn’t want to leave him, she develops cancer, they sell their house and have misadventures finding and then getting used to their new house, which has pests (including a squatter that they discover months after moving in!!!). She then develops an interest in firearms. The story then tries to be different by reproducing two pages of “ha ha ha ha ha” at the start, which is appreciated. Love it; not like the closing of Portnoy’s Complaint (even I know that) at all. There’s a seemingly-superfluous subplot about another man whose wife leaves him because he can’t name a single song, much less sing it, who goes around robbing middle-aged families, trying to learn songs from them. That thing, about how Ruth was getting into firearms, becomes important at this point. “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” is about Mother, Father and Baby, who are never named. Baby has baby cancer, Mother and Father spend the next weeks or months with the heroes in pediatric oncology (peed onk) coping. It ends well – the baby never really had cancer. Oh, ha ha… “Terrific Mother” is about a wry, motherless woman who is being pursued by a bearded academic who takes her to Italy on an academic retreat with scholars from across Academia (the guy who’s written six books on The Canterbury Tales, the sociologist who gauges the reaction of people after they’re told that the chef has AIDS, yes yes yes. The relationship goes nowhere, and I’m hardly surprised…

Magus, Sun Worshipper

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Magus

Magus


Magus, Sun Worshipper – This is a side project of Leslie Low, best known for making sensitive music with The Observatory and previously with his Humpback Oak band, and Mark Dolmont, someone he knows (but I know nothing about this person). The gatefold cardboard CD pack comes with a poster on one side (a pic of the sun rising from 30,000 feet), and a black CD in a black envelope in the other. Nice. The songs are hot and fantastic, driving and intense, and nothing on teeny weeny little bit like The Observatiory, or anything Leslie Low has ever done before (I cannot speak for Dolmont). None of the songs contain lyrics, they are mainly guitar and drums (spastic drum! frantic guitar!!!) and the occasional samples of carnival effects, and all sorts of other stuff. The riffs are like sped-up doom metal, but with whacky equilibrium, near-Om-ish, and it’s near-perfect. I love it. No standout tracks – each track is equally splendificient. Wicked crescendo electronics augmenting “Synthetic Waves”, wow!

The Observatory, Catacombs

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

OC

OC


The Observatory, Catacombs – The album was released in early 2012 to pre-orders, and if you pre-ordered you could download the demos of the songs. Cool! I have a bunch of other Observatory albums, and they’re always a dark, twisted treat.

When my CD arrived, I was a little disappointed with the packaging – apparently it had been done in some sort of disappearing printing process, but with an 18cm x 18cm folder to house the regular-sized CD, I wondered why they made it look like I was getting an old vinyl single. Cool.

The album is suffused in deep melancholia, of course, broody atmospherics that the Observatory does so well, and weird, angular sounds. The first song, “Peace And Quiet”, is merely two chords, spaced out over the 0:26 track, then “Headworm” gets started with crazy, angular sounds, until Leslie Low’s dark Peter Murphy-like voice comes in. The title track “Catacombs” has a lot more life, with a crazy, dark, distorted riff, and wild, willful percussion. “Ends To No Means” burbles along with electronics, and another riff similar to that of “Catacombs”, bomping and bomping with strange layers and layers of sound sound sound, then zooming Sonic Youth clattering guitar solo. Love it. “The Argument” is also based on a cool, simple riff that combines distorted guitar and electronic, it almost sounds new wave, albeit in a sorta Peter Murphy-ish way. It ends as a somber, melancholic piano dirge. “Accidentagram”, one of the few songs that is quite a bit shorter than its demo, which is strange, because it is ambitious – it starts off with a bit of vocally-focussed burbling and meandering, before kicking out the jams with some nutty electronics and noise after 1:40, just grooving on and on and on and on… two rounds of that and it’s a song. “Insomnia” gets started quickly with a gloomy bass riff that’s very attractive nonetheless, sweet singing, it’s chilled and mellow throughout, with clock-y arrangements. Ooooooooohhhhhhh….! “One-Dimensional One” is all doom-y voices and drums, with a bit of scratchy noise. Dark, spooky, majestic, driving on and on and on and on and on! If any of the other songs were dark, “Out Of The Furrow” out-darks them all with a spooky horror soundtrack intro (is this a scary metal prelude for a song that never comes?), and then strange near-Talk Talk-ish dark pop song. “Anger And Futility”, rounding out the release, is sad-sounding, but not very dark, a very quiet song that sings out “let it die…” Strange melodica songs going on there too, the song ends with some Merzbow noisy scratching. Nice.

MDNA, by Madonna

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

MM

MM


MDNA, by Madonna – Cool cover, wacky pictures of Madonna throughout the booklet, where each turn of the page reveals a letter of her name on one side with a picture facing it (self-centered much? Oh yeah… it’s Madonna). I bought some sort of extended version that comes with a second disc of five bonus songs, but the whole thing still adds up to under 72 minutes anyway, so it really could have fit onto one disc. Oops! The CD is okay, but it’s very electro – not a shred of guitar on this, so no Iggy Pop-isms when Madonna plays any of the tracks from this live, and no Monty. Well, no wonder – it’s produced by William Orbit, who she worked with on Ray Of Light. There is also no song on this that is as cool as “Ray Of Light” or “Frozen”, although “Girls Gone Wild” and “I Fucked Up” come close.

Opening track, “Girl Gone Wild” is a great disco song that starts off with some sort of prayer to God, reminiscent of something she’s done earlier. “Gang Bang” is disco/gangsta rap, with gunshots, sort of a revisit of the Nancy Sinatra song, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, where Madonna is shooting her evil lover and his new ho. It’s not pretty:

And I’m going straight to Hell,
And I got a lot of friends there,
And if I see that bitch in Hell,
I’m gonna shoot him in the head again,
‘Cause I wanna see him die over,
And over, and over, and over,
And over, and over, and over, and over,
Now drive bitch!
I said drive bitch!
And while you’re at it die bitch!
That’s right drive bitch,
Now drive bitch!
I said drive bitch!
And while you’re at it drive bitch!
That’s right drive bitch,
Now if you’re gonna act like a bitch,
Then you’re gonna die like a bitch.

“Now if you’re going to act like a bitch… then you’re going to die like a bitch.” Hmmmm… won’t let the kids hear this one. I sure don’t like this Madonna. The next song, “I’m Addicted” is a bit of Ray Of Light-era electro-pop, sweet and goofy, angular even. This one also has the cool, funky chant of “M-D-N-A, M-D-N-A…” etc. “Turn Up The Radio”, even more poppy, but with a bit of a message. “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is Madonna’s collaboration in a pop song with MIA and Nicki Minaj (oh, a wee bit of scratch guitar here… I’m wrong). “L-U-V Madonna, Y-O-U you wanna?” Luv it! “Some Girls” is pure dance floor, with big fat beats, nothing special here. “Superstar” sounds like something Madonna would have put out in the 1980s, for better or worse. “I Don’t Give A” is edgier, funkier, harder techno, rappier, poppier – this song has it all, including some sass from Nicky Minaj (who?). And it’s full of Orbit-isms, such as snatches of zonky electronic noise. It also has wanky “dramatic opera” music like what you’d hear in a movie about King Arthur or something. “Sinner” is a great, fun song, with a catchy chorus – “I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner, I like it that way.” “Love Spent” is a dramatic song with dramatic lyrics, “hold me like your money, tell me that you want me, spend your love on me, spend your love on me,” that is very Euro-disco. It also has pretty bad lyrics. “We opened up a joint account/ Would it put an end to all your doubts/ Frankly, if my name was Benjamin/ We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.” Huh?!? Probably another song lashing out at her ex-husband Guy Ritchie, who knows. Nice guitar sample, though. “Masterpiece” is a pretty song with another guitar sample, “it seems to me that’s what you are/ a rare and priceless work of art.” Great song, second real standout on the album. “Falling Free” is one of those dramatic “Live To Tell” types of songs that focuses a lot on Madonna’s voice, she harmonizes with herself all over the place, it also has those danc-y European production values without being a dance song – strings and electronics, dramatic like Sandy Denny or Kirsty McColl. Very same, a bit dull, dramatic, but a good album closer. “Beautiful Killer” is good electronic fun that is cut out of a classic Madonna mould (apparently it’s about Alain Delon’s film “Le Samourai”), while “I Fucked Up” is a great song to listen to again and again, with fun, beautiful vibes and lyrics. It also has an awesome sense of regret:

We coulda bought a house with a swimming pool
Fill it up with Warhols, it would be so cool
Coulda gone buyin’ estates in the countryside
With a pack of great things kissing eye to eye
We coulda do the world in a private jet
Run naked on the beach all soaking wet
We coulda found a mountain seen a perfect sunrise
Written our names across the sky
We coulda got a building built on the echo run
We coulda got ourselves arrested and sold our mum
We coulda live like crazy til’ the day we die
Instead I made you cry

“B-Day Song” is a boppy old beach song that doesn’t really sound like a Madonna song at all, very 1960s. “Best Friend” seems to be another “I miss Guy Ritchie” song, it is full of personal lyrics, some of them quite good “every man who walks through that door/ will be compared to you for ever more” and some of them quite bad “maybe I challenged you a little bit too much/ we could have had two drivers on the clutch”. The CD tops it all off with a “party rock remix” of “Give Me ALl Your Luvin’” that is about 40 seconds longer than the original. It’s got a funky party opener, it sounds like you’re in some sleazy European disco well after midnight, not sure who you are, who you’re dancing with, what’s going on. It’s good fun.

The Amazing Spider-man movie

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

TASM

TASM


The Amazing Spider-man – Wow, I’ve seen a re-boot a mere 10 years since the first Spider-man movie hit the theaters. Okay, so Tobet Maguire wasn’t the most awesome Spider-man (it seems like James Franco would have made a better bet, the way things have turned out, but at least he’s not become as typecast as Maguire now is and lives to act again). This one tries different things – it doesn’t make a big deal about Peter Parker being an outcast and a science geek, it just makes him a social outcast (the science geek is only hinted at). It hints at Peter’s parents, which was ignored for the first 40 years of Spider-man’s history. It rushes right into “someone close to Peter is told his secret identity”, again something that didn’t happen ever. So it breaks a lot of taboos right off the bat. It also tells simple stories – Peter chases the Lizard, because it’s some sort of game. He fights him, nearly dies, others do, no one is sure why. And why does the Lizard crave universal lizard-ness? We’re never really convinced.

The plot is awful. Andrew Garfield is a bit too twitchy to be Peter Parker, his head too small, his lips too bloody, his teeth too grey… ditto for Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Bad things will happen. And yet, the story is pleasant, perhaps due to the CG, which really works! I liked it, probably for the first time ever.

The screenplay, for all of its limitations, also does its best to make the sequel self-evident – we need to meet Norman Osborn, we need to find out what happens to Uncle Ben’s killer (does he, I don’t know, become the possessor of the Cosmic Cube, or the recipient of the alien Spider-man suit/Venom/Carnage thingy), we need to, I suppose, watch Gwen Stacy get thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge. And maybe we need to also meet another Mary Jane Watson.

Let’s see what happens. I may not have liked the movie a lot, but my son did, my friend did, my wife did, all of the people I went to see it did, all of the people in the theatre liked it… hmmm…