Tuesday, January 20, 2015

More on Kim Fowley

Here's an excerpt about Kim Fowley from Evelyn McDonnell's book Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways. It fleshes out his Dickensian childhood as well as a formative encounter with music biz hucksterism:


Kim’s mother married again, to musical arranger William Friml. Kim received his first music-biz lesson by listening through the walls as his stepfather worked with musicians to craft hits and careers. It was an education not in musical inspiration, talent development, and the frisson of collaboration, but in shrewd packaging and manipulation—the worst mass-culture nightmare of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school.

“The client would come in and these guys would figure out ways around their inabilities to sing and play and perform, and at the end of it they had a package and would make thousands of dollars a week,” he recalls. “That’s when I learned how to record attitude and arrange attitude, as opposed to actually having musical talent. The Runaways, for example, as a group were not great. They had strengths and weaknesses individually, and I was always aware of what they couldn’t do musically, and I would hide that from the audience, and then I would play on the things they could do… I learned at a young age that not everybody who walks in the doors is Caruso or somebody who’s going to be Al Jolson and stop the show every night. Some of these people don’t deserve to be on a stage, they don’t deserve to be on an album cover, but they have pretty faces, or they can dance, or they can do something else, and then suddenly, it becomes product...

And these two quotes portray him a pre-rock type, perhaps born a bit too early, more comfortable in a world where songwriting duties were atomized instead of clustered in the singer-songwriter:

But despite its volume, Fowley’s portfolio is incoherent, random, inconclusive—a testament to valuing quantity over quality. “He must have had twenty misses for every hit, if not thirty or forty,” says Cliff Burnstein, who did early record promotion for the Runaways, then became one of the top managers in the music business. “His hits came out of a more freewheeling era of pop, which had changed radically by the 70s.”
In 1974 Fowley recognized the New York Dolls’ androgynous appeal and decided Los Angeles needed its own idols of raunch and roll. So he assembled the Hollywood Stars: five male, long-haired rockers, including sometime Flaming Groovie Terry Rae and future Runaways songwriter Mark Anthony. At the time, the singer-songwriters of the Foothills—Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King—dominated the California music scene. Manufacturing a glam band was a way to counteract the troubadour tradition and put power back in the hands of producers and publishers, of hustlers like Kim.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Kim Fowley (1939-2015)

By the time he was fifteen, Kim Fowley, who died Thursday from bladder cancer at the age of 75, knew what he wanted to do with his life. The son of actors Douglas Fowley (the apoplectic director in Singin' in the Rain) and Shelby Payne, he had an unstable childhood bouncing around foster homes after his parents divorced. But Payne later married pianist/arranger William Friml, son of ASCAP co-founder Rudolph Friml, and young Fowley found himself surrounded by film and music industry types in the 1950s who kept tossing around the name Paul Gregory, a producer/agent who helmed greatest film of all time candidate The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Gregory was the type of character who rose to prominence with the decline of the old Hollywood studio system in the post-WWII years when long-term contracts gave way to putting together self-incorporated talent into package deals. A greater emphasis was placed on the hustle and with a heat generator like Gregory as his inspiration, Kim Fowley embarked on a career as the archetypal rock 'n' roll hustler.

To grasp the breadth of his hustle, one need only learn that he was associated with both Helen Reddy and GG Allin. His CV reads like a target riddled with many, many desperate attempts to hit a bullseye. He would latch onto an act either on their way up (The Runaways) or on their way down (The Byrds). But only very early in his career did he get the timing right producing The Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop," a US number one in 1960, The Murmaids' "Popsicles and Icicles," and B. Bumble and the Stingers' incredible "Nut Rocker," a boogie woogie version of "The Nutcracker Suite" on which Fowley took songwriting credit. When those pension plans dried up, he launched one of the most dumbfounding recording careers in rock 'n' roll history.

It was really more a negative image of a recording career. Here was this thing over there called rock 'n' roll or psychedelia or glam or punk or new wave and Fowley would fire off a cheap, cynical exploitation of it in order to generate any sort of buzz. "The Trip," a decent-sized hit in 1965, established his m.o. -  a monologue rambling about something mock-transgressive while a band dribbled on anonymously in the background. As teens in the 1980s, my Gen X friends and I adored "The Trip" and Outrageous which we heard as chinks in the Boomer armor, blatant attempts to con the counterculture into buying back bits of itself. But Fowley was capable of real songs such as "Bubble Gum" from Outrageous, later covered by Sonic Youth, and the late 1970s über-catchy power pop nugget "Motorboat." When Kiss went meta on Destroyer, naturally they turned to Fowley for two hilarious snapshots of the rock star grind - "King of the Night Time World" and "Do You Love Me?" And he was hustling right up to the very end, providing several songs for Ariel Pink' 2014 album pom pom. Too bad there's no copyright in lighting lighters at concerts, a practice Fowley was said to have initiated for the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969.

Kim Fowley was sleaze incarnate, a skeevy rock 'n' roll lizard perpetually slithering his way to the next big thing. For a taste of his grotesqueries, read the epic Ugly Things interview (finally made available here) on an empty stomach. But we're unsettled by Fowley because he lays bare the mechanisms of the capitalist treadmill. We're all hustlers to a certain extent. And now that we're all becoming self-incorporated free agents, Kim Fowley's anti-career has the feel of a premonition about it.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pazz and Jop 2014

Albums:

10. Objekt: Flatland (PAN)
This British-born, Berlin-based wannabe technomancer's Freerotation DJ set is friendlier and more varied. But it's also 90 minutes long. Flatland captures his concentration in digestible form. For a lark, we asked 100 IDM enthusiasts in a blindfold test to identify which of these eleven tracks was the interlude. Not a single one could answer because all eleven sound like interlocking devices, hence the well-chosen Objekt moniker. Or perhaps "étude" is the more appropriate designation since except for some mushy moments in the middle, each track is a study in how to maintain a beat no matter how many squiggly noises you throw at it. Not really danceable and maybe not all that intelligent. But definitely Music, a product as coldly functional as a Nest thermostat learning how to read humans.

9. Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown)
Heterosexuality  - the ultimate novelty. From "Love is Strange" to "My Baby Daddy" to "Somebody That I Used to Know," it provides variety and he said/she said drama. But yo - when I called for a disco takeover, I didn't mean at the expense of all R&B and non-EDM-infused hip-hop ever. Babyface's disappearance from the Hot 100 as well as Braxton's need to reality TV it up in order to stay relevant are tragedies of the highest musical order. The creators of one of the five most gutwrenchingly gorgeous ballads in recording history ("There's No Me Without You") deserve better. So while this is the best soap opera/quasi-concept album since Koffee Brown's Mars/Venus, I prefer to hear it as an angry rejoinder to the erasure of black voices on the radio/charts, especially in "I Wish," the one track Braxton wrote so nakedly by herself: "I hope she gives you a disease/So that you will see/But not enough to make you die/But only make you cry/Like you did to me." 

8. Jason Derulo: Talk Dirty (Warner Bros.)
To gain a sense of the confused state of R&B in the teens, Talk Dirty repackages 2013's full-length Tattoos which was released only as a five-song EP in the States as if such distinctions mattered anymore. And, surprise surprise, the lead single was the well-named EDM stomper "The Other Side." Nevertheless, this was the giddiest ear grab of 2014. The promises of marriage don't prove Derulo the most generous love man standing; the ever-cascading hooks do - marching bands, bubblegum pops, sexy slide whistles, iPhone 5 Lollipop Kids, Balkan Beat Box horns. Best song: "Trumpets" which reminds me of "You Remind Me of Something" and all the other songs that get my honeys hot. Best hook: an almost prelapsarian running time of 37:54.

7. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (4AD)
Gunning for artist of the decade, Merrill Garbus streamlines her Pere Ubu-Laura Nyro fusion while remaining impatient, demanding, and almost maniacally extroverted. Even through the unpredictable phrasing and uncategorizable detail, she seems more relatable now in both personal (procrastination worries, a love song to her support network) and political modes (the West as cannibals). Her "Paper Planes" can't be far behind.

6. Run The Jewels: Run The Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Still austere like the dystopic 1970s/1980s sci-fi flicks their synths (and sometimes raps) evoke. But this second collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P showcases many austerities, several abrasive ones to a track, an abundant austerity, if you will. That helps the words go down until...you read the words which evoke the existential terror of the present dystopias in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, where next. If "From the womb to the tomb/Why do we fight to live?" seems a bit lightweight, try "It's all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittings." And if it sounds like they're wallowing, know that they're already recording Run The Jewels 3.

5. Pinch & Mumdance: Pinch B2B Mumdance (Tectonic)
As with the disappearance of R&B artists from the Hot 100, we should be fuming about the elimination of MCs from the weightless nu-grime pumped in the 2014 Rewind issue of The Wire. But Mumdance has already proven himself and then some in the realm of grime proper with the arresting clangfest "Take Time" featuring Novelist. So why shouldn't he indulge his arty instrumental side here? This mix, available the previous year for free here in slightly different form, takes a while to get going. But soon the industrial grind starts to give off sparks, especially with the flushing cash registers on Mumdance's own "The Sprawl." Don't think Dizzee Rascal sans Dizzee. Think the climactic triptych from Ministry's Twitch as aesthetic strategy.

4. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?)
They've already become indie rock gods by recalling damn near every band in the Pantheon. So today, I invoke The Feelies for their ability to leave you "tingling with a head full of empty," a description courtesy of John Piccarella that suits even better the barn-raising title track/song-not-single of the year. Tomorrow, I shall invoke Pavement for the band's tense, kinetic way with the slow ones. The next day, The Fall for their fecundity and totally wired danceability. And I cannot wait for their equivalent of The Complete Peel Sessions. It's gonna be a stunner.

3. Wussy: Attica! (Shake It!)
I am too down with the Apollonian, to choose a word beloved by Alfred Soto. Although I didn't think it possible, the bar band of dreams' fifth album just might be their best yet even though "Bug" so does not hint at death metal (wha??) and they haven't, and will never, surpass Sonic Youth in the distorto-guitar sweepstakes. Such caterwaul has no play in their modest, but heroic, project which is to locate the humane in a world of broken dreams and burning homes, a sensibility echoed by their benevolent and frankly beautiful fanbase. But, to paraphase Xgau on another modest act, if Wussy are ever to escape the cult status they're sick of, they'd better pick up some pizzazz somewhere, say, from...

2. Miranda Lambert: Platinum (RCA Nashville)
...country's reigning artist. I'll tackle the low point ("Automatic") later. But the fact that I even want to salvage it should demonstrate my love for this album. It's spunkier, rowdier, flashier than either Pistol Annies outing. And it's a veritable shrine to the craft of songwriting with choruses that buck our expectations and codas that could survive a nuclear blast. Just in time for that godawful Dangerous Minds "exposé" on "how mind-numbingly formulaic and shitty Country pop music has become" (hells no I won't link to it).

1. Mindtroll: EP #4 (Bandcamp)
Four songs with a total time shorter than my #9 single. Face it - albums are just so 2013. These four arty goofballs create a spare yet busy sound in Brooklyn with a sugar intake that suggests a less funky but equally fractured Stick Men. Subjects include falling into a well and making a pun out of it, avoiding a gangsta cat who won't hesitate to slash your tires, not falling for a toddler's bullshit, and losing your hat which latter song splinters into four different directions in under two minutes. Sounds includes seagulls, meows, and voices shouting over one another. "Baby Sluts" skewers the nuturing instinct as scandalously as She Mob's "Teacher." But Mindtroll know the ways of the child. They're brats trying to romance our kneecaps. And if you have any tolerance whatsoever for hyperactive self-indulgence, you might just pick them up.

Singles:

10. Capital Cities feat. André 3000: "Farrah Fawcett Hair" (Lazy Hook/Capitol)
Would that all listicles could be so soulful. Tom T. Hall will cover. Drag queens already have.

9. Jack J: "Something (On My Mind)" (Mood Hut)
No surprise this ten-minute slab of melancholy jazzy house comes from a cold climate (Vancouver). The chattering, unstable drums, the Vitamin D-deficient keyboards moans, the desolate sax peals all add up to a soundtrack more appropriate for an aimless wintry walk than the dancefloor. The walk might clear your head. Or it might be your final destination because you have nowhere else to go.  

8. Fly Young Red: "Throw That Boy Pussy" (Fly Young Red)
Nicki Minaj, allow me to point you to the best ass eater although he won't be dining at your prodigious mounds. Hells yes this is here because Fly's so damn fly and his ode to man-to-man anilingus is as nasty as it wants to be. But mostly it's here for the reference to Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" which signals Fly's intention to take up a place in hip-hop history. I look forward to 25 years from now when some queer (or not) rapper references "Throw That Boy Pussy" as a matter of course.

7. Dominique Young Unique: "Throw It Down" (Sony)
Now that Ms. Unique has placed four singles (see below) on my top ten lists so far this decade, I'm forced to ponder her failure to generate buzz alongside Azealia Banks or even Minaj. Maybe she puts so much care into her music that she forgets to radiate personality through her raps. In any event, "Throw It Down" brings the noise, rings the alarm, throws it down, all that, with PE squeals for texture, a Knight Rider rip as connective tissue, and a chorus that does nothing but stutter. Stutter toughly, that is.

6. Le Youth ft. Dominique Young Unique: "Dance With Me" (Sony)
Unique's rap is mere decoration here. But it serves to slam home this silky dance track's central conceit - a stream of consciousness exhumation of TLC's "No Scrubs." In typical disco fashion, it doesn't need to sit still to honor the past. History on the fly, in the mix as it were, simultaneously looking back and pushing forward.

5. Rae Sremmurd: "No Flex Zone" (Eardrumma/Interscope)
Here's hoping these two teens from Tupelo never lose their stuffed-up, adolescent timbre because they could get over by rapping their iPhone contacts. Instead, they had the catchiest chorus of the year and a motto that forbids not boasting but being mean. Then they spend the rest of the track boasting.

4. Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne: "Rather Be" (Atlantic/Warner)
There was no reason why this UK #1/US #10 should have worked. Brits who took the Pet Shop Boys' fantasy of Debussy to a disco beat a bit too seriously, this cello-violin-drums-laptop combo portended the worst case of arid talent and virtuosity superseding all other signs of pop life. But their previous hit, "Mozart's House," impressed me by ridiculing classical (and any other) types who think EDM is repetitive ("it is re-repetitive!" they boast) and "Rather Be" disarmed me completely. My favorite music moment of 2014 occurs when the beat drops out of the chorus not to construct a mini break but for sweet eccentricity's sake. And the lyrics contain a poptimist motto for the ages: "Know with all of your heart, you can't shame me."

3. MC Bin Laden feat. MC 2K: "Passinho do Faraó" (KLProdutora)
An evangelical Christian with a flock of kids in costumes to do his crazed musical bidding, MC Bin Laden reduces the already spare sound of baile funk to whatever step is just above acapella. His rhythms sputter like a steam engine, frequently breaking down or swerving off course unpredictably. Vocals and sound effects hang together in irritating repetitions. No clue what's going on lyrically here. Something about a pharaoh with a voice intoning "tumba...tumba...tumba" over and over. But this is just a placeholder anyway for his overall oeuvre every example of which I've adored including the dozens of numbers he performs like spontaneous outbursts of song on the streets. Best of all, he's avoided the ostentaçao (ostentatious) variant of baile funk because, according to this informative Afropop Worldwide article, it "encourages poor people of the favelas to spend money that they don’t have." In short, his music is spare yet busy, even rich, just like Mindtroll's. Hmmm - seems to be a theme nowadays.   

2. Stitches: "Brick In Yo Face" (Stitches_TMI)
A Facebook friend wondered how he'd get a job with that AK-47 tattooed on his face. But he branded himself for the sins of us drips living the straight and narrow. And you should bow down to him because this is one lumbering dinosaur of a cartoon. Go ahead and spend your energy determining how real his commitment is to dealing bricks of cocaine. I prefer to thrill to the moment when he screams "I love selling blow," easily the money shot of the year. Live, he hoists mock bricks filled with flour at select lucky fans. Stitches, I promise to take one to the face...if I don't have to work the next morning.

1. How To Dress Well: "Repeat Pleasure (A. G. Cook Remix)" (PC Music)
Unlike "Brick In Yo Face," the output of the London-based PC Music empire rarely got past the theoretical stage. Too much of it sounded like twisted ideas about housey chart pop and chirpy video game soundtracks rather than the thing itself - fascinating to ponder but rather abstract in the end. But label owner A. G. Cook's radical reconstruction of How To Dress Well's (né Tom Krell) swirly neo-soul transcends ye olde parody/pastiche distinction. On one level, it's a prank on the order of "I Knelt 2day Where Jesus Knelt" in which Lisa Suckdog switches the speed on a 33-rpm Christian record to 45-rpm for the last word of the title hymn. Cook severely pitch shifts Krell's vocals for a woozy, psychedelic effect akin to the opening of The Poppy Family's "There No Blood in Bone" before the singing eventually proceeds untreated. He even seems to honor the song's gravitas with a backdrop of nothing more than huge held synth chords. Then Krell revs into his falsetto for the line "pleasure repeats on and on/even broken my heart will go on," the song's gushiest, most vulnerable point, indeed its climax. But Cook extracts only "broken my heart will go" and repeats it well past the point of absurdity. It's juvenile and obnoxious, a bad joke. Unlike Celine Dion, his heart will not go on as the remix now means to bleed the song of its gravitas. And then a miracle happens. Cook clings to the repetition so long that it becomes an element in its own right. It is a pleasure that repeats on and on. He loves this thing so much that he structures yellow stars and pink clovers around it. The immense chords return, firing off like a steel mill furnace now, and so does a brief spell of untreated singing. And then the repeated pleasure comes back like an inevitability, cocooned in the warmth as a gargantuan chord change sends it into the stratosphere. I hear an idiot transmission from outer space. I hear David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence safe for eternity under the watchful eye of The Blue Fairy. I hear all the dorks and misfits who ever found life in the repetitions and gimmickry of popular music floating in peace at last amongst the deities. 
 Albums
1. Mindtroll: EP #4 (Bandcamp)
2. Miranda Lambert: Platinum (RCA Nashville)
3. Wussy: Attica! (Shake It!)
4. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?)
5. Pitch & Mumdance: Pinch B2B Mumdance (Tectonic)
6. Run The Jewels: Run The Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
7. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (4AD)
8. Jason Derulo: Talk Dirty (Warner Bros.)
9. Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown)
10. Objekt: Flatland (PAN)

Singles
1. How To Dress Well: "Repeat Pleasure (A. G. Cook Remix)" (PC Music)
2. Stitches: "Brick In Yo Face" (Stitches_TMI)
3. MC Bin Laden feat. MC 2K: "Passinho do Faraó" (KLProdutora)
4. Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne: "Rather Be" (Atlantic/Warner)
5. Rae Sremmurd: "No Flex Zone" (Eardrumma/Interscope)
6. Le Youth ft. Dominique Young Unique: "Dance With Me" (Sony)
7. Dominique Young Unique: "Throw It Down" (Sony)
8. Fly Young Red: "Throw That Boy Pussy" (Fly Young Red)
9. Jack J: "Something (On My Mind)" (Mood Hut)
10. Capital Cities: "Farrah Fawcett Hair" (Lazy Hook/Capitol)

And I didn't even have room for Shamir's gloriously fruity "On The Regular," Katy Perry's chorusless-but-not-really "Dark Horse," Usher ready to get down on "Good Kisser," etc. 

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014)

(spoilers; in fact, THE spoiler, if you care)

Marshall McLuhan was fond of "does a fish know it's wet" metaphors to demonstrate the pervasive spread of mass media. For McLuhan, the ability to jump outside of the mass media fishbowl forms a cornerstone of critical thought in a modern, perpetually plugged-in democracy. So I wonder how hopeless he would have found The Lego Movie

On the surface, it seems exactly what McLuhan ordered. A computer-animated Lego world is run with soul-deadening precision and efficiency by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). But lone schlub Emmett (Chris Pratt) gathers a mini-utopia of misfits to fight Business (that's with a capital B, mind) in a battle for creativity. Perfect - we can never have enough films taking a stand against the captains of industry. Only, lo, it turns out that this world is a mere subset of a live-action world. In Twilight Zone fashion, a father played by a flesh and blood Ferrell lords over his gargantuan Lego set, a veritable orgy of discretionary income, and reprimands his son for embellishing his antiseptically coiffured play land with nonsensical combinations. Eventually, the son inspires dad to unclench and allow his imagination to create a less rationalized world with a corresponding utopia forged in the animated world. 

In essence, then, we have a fish bowl within a fish bowl. The clever/evil gambit of the film is to have us cheer the defeat of the arid business hegemony in the animated world so that we ignore the machinations of the live-action world, populated only by dad and son. For the one creative option the film will never allow us to exercise is to not buy Legos. This is the nightmare of A Scanner Darkly, a mediatized environment with no outside, dreamt of in McLuhan's philosophy but the precise contours of which would no doubt prove as baffling to him as it is every day for us fish.

And yet I can't help fixating on the window in dad's basement where he keeps his Legoland.
Is this the way out of the fish bowl within the fish bowl? I'd hate to posit "nature" as the answer except as a severely unplugged mode of existence. But what else is out there? Sex? Drugs? Can't be rock 'n roll; too much a product of the culture industry. The avant-garde? The essay form? Meditation? Klieg lights? Another fishbowl?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let us thank Him for our food - Garth Brooks' new album

Garth Brooks: Man Against Machine (RCA Nashville, 2014)

"Mom," in which a fetus converses with God, is no grosser than lead single "People Loving People," in which the title salve rids the world of evil. He hoists one up for the hard working zombies and de facto cowboys whose idea of paradise is a day out fishing. This song celebrates the road, that one the hearth. In short, the latest Garth Brooks album could've been released unobtrusively in 2002 after his last one, Scarecrow. So the significance question is up for grabs. What can it mean for the SoundScan champion to release an album in the age of austerity/sharity? With Brooks down to three co-writes, only two tracks (both brilliant conceits) hint at an answer. "She's Tired of Boys" flips "That Summer" around. Garth is now the older partner boinking a girl "full of college" while guitar fireworks replace the requisite sex scene and a second chorus simultaneously - so chaste, so horny, so Garth. And when that girl kicks him to the curb, he wishes he could be "Cold Like That." No, Garth, no, we cry. We want you standing inside the fire. But, of course, he can't be cold like that. He's Garth Brooks! He's just saying that to ensnare us/his next conquest. It's a tactic borrowed from The Cure, King Krule, Depeche Mode (who, after all, surmised that "People are People") and it fits him beautifully. So goth, so Garth.

And here's my slightly edited Addicted to Noise review of that silly billy Chris Gaines album.

 

Garth Brooks: In…The Life of Chris Gaines (Capitol)
Rating: ** (out of I forget how many)
Release Date: 9/28/99

Oh boy. Where to start with this one? Brooks is singing here as Chris Gaines, a thirty-two year old pop star with black flippy hair, a soul patch and a bio. Think David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust although Brooks insists Gaines is not his alter ego. He’s a character in an upcoming film tentatively titled The Lamb about the life of Gaines who Brooks will play. This album is merely the “pre-soundtrack.” Freak – party of one? Or is that two?
I wish I could give two grades here – one musical, one theoretical.  I’m pretty sure it’s his worst album ever but it has gobs of theoretical appeal so I’ve added an extra star to compensate. This is where he finally joins The Artist and Wacko Jacko in Bellevue’s Bigger Than Life Pop Stars wing. And I say the world is a better place for it.
Here’s what I mean. I was at a wedding last weekend and the ONLY musician discussed AT ALL the entire evening was Garth Brooks and what the hell he was doing lately. Some thought he looked cute. Some thought he was nuts. But it gave us something to talk about, something even to measure our lives against.
My life is boring. I try to make sensible decisions. I worry about partying too much, saving money for my future, eating too much etc. I don’t want the same concerns in my pop music. I want egregious miscalculations and abortive career moves that will potentially alienate millions of fans. I want it to be a freakshow that I can stammer on about and use to energize my dull existence. This album provides me with that thrill.
Still – fun as it is to talk about at parties, it’s no fun at all to listen to. This was supposed to be his rock move but Garth Brooks already rocks much harder than Chris Gaines whose idea of crunch is ugly Wallflowers (“Unsigned Letter”) and cold as ice Foreigner (“My Love Tells Me So”). Every time I hear the revolting guitar shuffle at the beginning of “Main Street,” I’m reminded of how much an “organic” band can sound as stilted as a Casio preset. This should've been car-crash brilliant. But you just keep hearing the skid over and over. The only time you actually horrible wreck is on the properly hideous Cheryl Wheeler/Youngbloods mélange “Right Now.” There are works of art from Mae West’s swansong Sextette to The Postman to Slick Rick’s The Ruler’s Back that offer real pleasure while displaying enormous egos gone too far. Here I’m reminded that the alternate title is Chris Gaines’ Greatest Hits so there’s a way in which Brooks is trying to force the hands of time because he feels as if he’s losing his grip on it. It comes to us all, Garth; whether or not we find it funny or awful how time slips away is a different matter.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

D'Angelo: Voodoo (Cheeba/Virgin, 2000)

In anticipation of D'Angelo's fifteen-years-aborning Black Messiah, reportedly to be released on Tuesday, I decided to try once again to hear what so many others adore about Voodoo. And after playing it twice in a row this afternoon, I still don't get it. My Addicted to Noise review is below and I stand by it. The two reference points for me remain Eno and Sly's Riot. But Riot has give to it, acknowledging Me Decade fatigue but not for one second succumbing to it. Voodoo is all foreplay and no pop, mad stamina and no delivery, Viagra music, wearying if not flat-out tedious. Another Green World or Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics or On Land are bereft of ego and allow the listener to waft in and out. D'Angelo is always front and center whether he's mumbling over verse-chorus-verse, blurring distinctions with his falsetto, or consigning multitracked D'Angelos to the curbs of his soundscape. He wafts in and out of you and after 79 minutes, never mind 158, you just want to swat him away.

I'd work harder on turning these negatives into dearly held values if I hadn't heard from several sources at the time (not just Xgau) that his live shows "changed everything up except 'Untitled'" (direct quote from an acquaintance) and several stops on the tour inspired religious experiences. No bootlegs have turned up that I know of and that's still no guarantee of visions of R&B Jesus. So for now (and probably always), Voodoo remains a skeleton of something greater that someone else witnessed.

Voodoo (Cheeba/Virgin)
Rating: **1/2
Release Date: 1/25/00
 

The seventy-nine minutes of live jam and indistinct falsetto and melodic deficiency syndrome that is Voodoo, D'Angelo's sophomore disc, has little to do with the state of R&B today. Rather less monumental than that, its main achievement lies merely in how it makes his 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, sound so articulate. All sorts of noises which previously came across as too abstract or barely audible have now taken on the force of mnemonic devices: the snaky bass line in "Alright;" the warm catchiness of the title hook in "When We Get By;" the dew gathering on the keybs in "Jonz in My Bonz."
Who knows which parts of Voodoo will come to the fore once the next album is out in 2005? Many critics have amazingly claimed to hear them right now. You read about the funky space transmissions in "Devil's Pie," the backwards guitar in "Africa," the brief jazzy interlude tacked onto the end of "One Mo'Gin," all somehow seized as major pleasures. But either they're working too hard at it or they're just bullshitting because D'Angelo is barely throwing them a bone here. He's much more interested in subsuming the potential hooks and shape-shifters above into a long, undifferentiated flow.
Further obscuring any recognition factor was the decision to emulate flow through the use of tentative live jams. Where most popular artists resort to live jams as building blocks, D'Angelo opted to keep their discursive feel, reserving studio sorcery mainly for his multi-tracked, mush-mouthed falsetto. He mumbles from the margins of an already marginal music while Rootsman ?uestlove's perversely unwavering four-on-the-floor refuses to direct the flow towards the dancefloor (or anywhere really). So labeling anything in the lyric sheet "chorus" or "bridge" is obviously a tease. If you follow the verse to "Chicken Grease," quite possibly the most anti-social "get down everybody" song ever recorded, you'll notice the sour minimalism is supposed to "breakdown." But the chicken-scratch guitar is so slight and quiet that it barely registers as sound much less a breakdown.
So what does that leave to listen to? Not much or, as Greg Tate put it in Vibe, "D'Angelo defin(es) himself as much by what his funk refuses to do as by what it does to legitimately function in the post-James Brown continuum." Ok, especially in the post-everything era, that line is relatively easy to buy. But it'd smell a lot less like manure if Voodoo's running length wasn't seventy-nine minutes, twenty-six longer than Brown Sugar. D'Angelo is subject to the laws of diminishing returns just as decisively as the most anonymous ambient doodler – it's hard to keep the foreplay up that long without the promise of some sort of gush to come. Had he pruned back some, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" might have sounded as Princely as claimed. "The Line" would have told us something about his tardiness (or his tradiness) and came off as outré and less chickenshit than the debut's "Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker." And listeners wouldn't have to try so hard to enjoy it all just because they've been waiting so long for the second coming of the neosoul messiah.

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Two utterly related films

A bargain basement Grapes of Wrath, Three Faces West (Bernard Vorhaus, 1940) follows Dr. Braun (Charles Coburn) and his daughter, Leni (Sigrid Gurie, the Norwegian Garbo; check out her curiously intimate IMDB biography), two refugees from Hitler, to the States where they offer their services to a small town ravaged by unforgiving Dust Bowl winds and drought. Leni immediately despises the town's shabby living conditions and is determined to leave the following morning. But Dr. Braun's humanitarian impulses win out and Leni soon falls in love with John Phillips (John Wayne), a farmer who will lead the town to reportedly greener pastures in Oregon.

For the first half of this solid-plus effort from Republic, Vorhaus exhibits a leisureliness that should please Ford fans. For instance, it takes almost half an hour in a 75-minute film for Dr. Braun to make the final decision to stay in the town. That leaves time for a love triangle and a rogue farmer battling The Duke for power en route to Oregon. The triangle is extinguished in a rushed denouement which is a tad disorienting. But the speed up serves to underline the formation of the heterosexual at the end as the arbitrary imperative that it is, always a welcome reminder.
Best part occurs when John takes on the Soil Conservation Division of the Department of Agriculture which deems his town "doomed": "You can't shove us around to match pretty pins on your maps. We're not swivel chair farmers. And we're not licked yet!" He'll have none of that bureaucracy! But of course, they are licked and John's humbled capitulation to moving west makes this a very different kind of western (which to some might mean it's no kind of western at all).


As per the cynical practice of so much exploitation cinema, The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight, 1968) is a Frankenstein's monster of a film. Slapped together to capitalize on Mansfield's car crash death in 1967, it's a sleazy mondo film comprised of abandoned footage from another mondo film shot in 1964 called Jayne Mansfield Reports Europe and filled out with scenes from several Mansfield films, new material featuring bad body doubles and eliciting Kuleshov-effect-abusing reaction shots of Mansfield, and, of course, stills of the car crash. I was all prepared to quote the windy, awkwardly phrased, über-camp narration from Ms. Mansfield until I discovered that it was performed by her voice dubber Carolyn De Fonseca. Turning Mansfield herself into a Frankstein's monster in this manner brought out the prude in me and I soon lost the humor in (oh ok) such howlers as "The Eiffel Tower......[that's a real pause, by the way] was built in 1889. That's so long ago! And high!" So for me, the chief pleasure was in its glimpses of pre-Stonewall gay life in visits to an "underground" bar and a drag contest as well as some staged cruising.













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