Monday, March 23, 2015

Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005)

Unpublished review of one of my fave records of 2005:

The few records Amadou & Mariam, “The Blind Couple of Mali,” have released stateside underscored their status as hip, globetrotting world music stars. So it’s perfectly natural that their music skipped from the Paris café to the Delta back porch. This fabulous new disc strays even further from any pure Malian genre if such a thing even exists. The title translates as “Sunday in Bamako,” the capital of Mali. But it actually sounds like Sunday all over the world. This is less a function of genre hopping as it an immersion in sounds that are indigenous to most places on earth – crowds, overheard crosstalk, police sirens, music off in the distance. Thanks for the new direction can be given to polyglot musical genius Manu Chao. His production transforms even the longest songs into off-the-cuff, ridiculously catchy snippets. Awash in French folk song, Ali Farka Toure-style blues, and mild ska pulsations and yet as bright and slick as Sheryl Crow soaking up the sun, this is one mighty fine all-night festival.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

Well after taking in Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012), I finally caught up with Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the book on which the film...well, actually, had I read Manohla Dargis' NY Times review before watching, I'd have known that the film is only tangentially related to the book. It pretzels up some facts and centers much of the dramatic energy on a blossoming affair between Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Whitfield Cook, a story which gets no play in Rebello's tight historical account of Psycho's controversial journey to screen. That leaves Gervasi's film a fun but rather empty exercise. Rebello's book is much more useful while never stinting on the fun. So below are the choicest quotes therein starting with a knockout simile concerning the media storm surrounding Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer who inspired Robert Bloch's 1959 novel on which Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece was based.


The press and the ambulance chasers attached themselves to Plainfield like piranha on a drowning sumo wrestler.


In private Hitchcock railed. To the public he made light, as when he told the New York Times about his frustration in finding suitable material: “Newspaper headlines tell too many outlandish stories from real life that drive the spinner of suspense fiction to further extremes. I always regard the fact that we’ve got to outwit the audience to keep them with us. They’re highly trained detectives looking at us out there right now.”


Stefano perceived that the way to engage Hitchcock's imagination was to conceptualize and verbalize the story in terms of visuals. According to Stefano, "He was not interested in characters or motivation at all. That was the writer's job. If I said, 'I'd like to give the girl an air of desperation,' he'd say, 'Fine, fine.' But when I said, 'In the opening of the film, I'd like a helicopter shot over the city, then go right up to the seedy hotel where Marion is spending her lunch hour with Sam,' he said, 'We'll go right into the window!' That sort of thing excited him."


Once Hitchcock and Stefano had completed the breakdown, it was all over but the shooting. "We had lunch and toasted the project with champagne," said Stefano. "He looked very sad, and said, 'The picture's over. Now I have to go and put it on film.'"


After the director had arranged a private showing of Vertigo at the writer’s request, Stefano believed he had at last glimpsed the man who hid behind the mask. “Here was this incredibly beautiful movie he had made that nobody went to see or said nice things about it," Stefano said. “I told him I thought it was his best film. It brought him to near-tears."


Only Dean Stockwell strikes one as a viable alternative [to Perkins].


Miles remained philosophical about losing the chance for stardom in Vertigo. “Hitchcock got his picture," she said. "I got a son."

Stefano and Hitchcock had deliberately layered-in certain risqué elements as a ruse to divert the censors from more crucial concerns: primarily the action that took place in the shower and bathroom.


“Wimpy” was used as a substitute moniker for all in-house communications regarding the film. The story perhaps stems from the fact that the name of the second-unit cameraman on the picture, Rex Wimpy, appeared on clapboards and production sheets, and hence in some on-the-set stills for Psycho.


"We did between fourteen to eighteen setups a day, which, for a major motion picture director, is a lot."


Hitchcock suppressed any synopsis of the plot for public consumption. No other director had done this since Cecil B. DeMille on The Ten Commandments.  [Is this a joke? Don't we already know the story?]


Bass: " By modern standards, we don't think that represents staccato cutting because we've gotten so accustomed to flashcuts. But to have, in those days - I don't know what it was, two minutes, three minutes, whatever the sequence ran? - forty or sixty cuts, whatever it might be -was just a very new idea stylistically. As a title person, it was a very natural thing to use that quick-cutting, montage technique to deliver what amounted to an impressionistic, rather than a linear, view of the murder."

On-set wardrobe supervisor Rita Riggs elaborated about stand-in Marli Renfro and her director: "Because of makeup, of course, the model could not wear even a robe. But she became so comfortable, I recall her sitting quite nude except for this crazy little patch we always put over the pubic hair, talking with Mr. Hitchcock."


Hitchcock, throughout his career, maintained a healthy irreverence toward the guardians of law and order, and his view of Arbogast - smug, glib, tenacious, slightly dull - is no exception. In film after film, Hitchcock challenges his audiences to cry out "Why don't the hero and heroine go straight to the police?" Because, implies Hitchcock in answer, all that they will find is a universe of Milton Arbogasts. As the director so often put it, "Logic is dull."


Hitchcock and his screenwriter knew that the [headshrinker-explains-all] scene, the bane of creative types, was “obligatory”: a chance for the audience to catch its collective breath while the “logic” buffs among them got their fill of the facts.


"I still thought it would be clever to have a male voice reading the lines [of Mrs. Bates], which is why I suggested Paul Jasmin to Hitch,” Perkins said. Jasmin, then twenty-three, a Montana-born budding actor who stormed Hollywood with hopes of becoming the next Montgomery Clift or Gary Cooper, was a natural mimic, a practical joker, and a friend of Perkins.


“I was studying to be an actor,” recalled Jasmin."I did this old-lady character named 'Eunice Ayers,' a no-bullshit, Marjorie Main kind of gal. Tony [Perkins] and [Broadway and film star] Elaine Stritch used to egg me on, so I’d call up big stars like Rosalind Russell and put her on with this voice for hours. Stanley Kubrick was directing Spartacus at Universal at the time and, through a press agent, he heard about our little pranks, loved them, and began to tape the conversations. Then, Tony told Hitchcock about me and gave him some of the tapes.”

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Miranda Lambert: "Automatic"

Wherein I try to salvage the low point from Miranda Lambert's Platinum.

"Automatic" is gross nostalgia, pining for the days when folks wrote letters and read maps and stayed married. But Lambert only co-wrote it. It seems the true culprit is frequent collaborator Natalie Hemby who in a Rolling Stone interview defended the staying married line ("Everybody wants a quick fix, and sometimes that's not the best thing for you") although she'd never jettison her GPS. For some, Lambert's willingness to cede the songwriting to someone else compromises her authority, especially to someone who doesn't fully believe her own sentiments. And indeed "Automatic" feels dislocated as if her voice cannot account for the song's construction, e.g., how the anthemic chorus is incommensurate with the rote nostalgia of the lyrics. Why this music with that sentiment?

But I prefer to hear it through John Leland's typically genius theory of a transgressive pop music that incorporates, even actively solicits, errors and imbalances. In Leland's example, the weak voices of Madonna, Lisa Lisa, Exposé, Cover Girls, Janet Jackson, Stacey Q, Company B, etc. were no match for the outsized emotions they attempted to convey. But because of the mismatch, they wound up accessing a different kind of authorial voice, a mystical one that might know something but isn't telling. Instead of assuming that these pitch-challenged disco princesses surrendered all authority to their producers and/or hired songwriters, Leland finds an epistemological uncertainty more radical than the assurance that an auteur like, oh, Bob Dylan knows exactly what he's doing. What possessed Taylor Dayne to pronounce on night explosions better left to the rafter-shaking abilities of Martha Wash or Jocelyn Brown? And later, why did TLC use (or acquiesce to?) melancholic synths to convey their desire for "No Scrubs"?* Down such rabbit holes goes music of a perpetual becoming. With the personae unsettled, the songs can go in any direction and avoid the one-way street of the auteur's meaning.

And so it is with "Automatic." How will this recording artist which is not one expend the energy she uses to power into the chorus? Who exactly is she talking to? Even if we could divine an interlocutor, what will they do with their nostalgia? Like the most captivating pop music, "Automatic" is poised before action in a thrilling inbetweenness.

*Carly Carioli wrote beautifully on this aspect for the 1999 Pazz & Jop list in the February 22, 2000 issue of The Village Voice, p. 80: "As with [Anal Cunt] or the Crystals, the emotional delivery and mundane subject matter are utterly at odds - schoolyard complaints turned into high gospel-operatic drama, fanzine grammar dressed up in limousine sass."

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Friday, March 13, 2015

I Forgot These Singles! Feat. A Preliminary 1960s List!

For years I've been keeping track of the great singles I either forgot to include on my decade top 100s or hadn't heard yet. So seeing as how it's been a decade since I compiled them, I figured it's time for an update. I've listed them below in rough preferential order with some brief comments. I've updated the singles lists with links to each. And, perhaps to prevent me from continuing with such an insane project, I've included a preliminary 1960s singles list also in rough preferential order although numbers 1 and 2 are pretty firm...for now.

1970s
She Trinity: "Climb That Tree" (President, 1970) - A glimpse of a woman-centered prog-psych aesthetic we should have heard more of and a top ten single for me.

Prime Time: "Good Times Theme" (Motown, 1978) - Greatest TV theme of all time.

Middle of the Road: "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" (RCA, 1971) - Thank you, Breakfast on Pluto.

The Osmonds: "Crazy Horses" (MGM, 1972) - The most criminal omission from Xgau's 1970s Consumer Guide book was Phase III because more music fans should know how these boys could jam like Sabbath. In fact, it was a trip to inform some metal-freak friends that they were not listening to unreleased Sabbath but rather this bubblerock nugget.

Wire: "A Question of Degree" (Harvest, 1979) - These boys knew their disco with de facto breaks and a sticky money shot.

Joe Walsh: "Life's Been Good" (Asylum, 1978) - I'm still waiting for Don Henley's version: "Life Hasn't Been As Good As You People Seem To Think It's Been, Ya Know."

1980s
Culture Club: "The War Song" (Epic, 1984) - My favorite Culture Club song until I read Boy's autobio Take It Like a Man and learned that "Time (Clock of the Heart)" was about gay unrequited love whereupon it tore my heart out.

The S.O.S. Band: "Just Be Good to Me" (Tabu, 1983) - The 9:00-minute version, please, the better to highlight the most obsessive psychogroove of the decade.

Tight Fit: "Fantasy Island" (Jive, 1982) - The most exact, and sparkly, ABBA clone extant.

Bucks Fizz: "My Camera Never Lies" (RCA, 1982) - Another ABBA clone with demented lyrics for people who think pop music is just so darn assembly line.

Paul McCartney: "Press" (Capitol, 1986) - Another classic money shot and the man's finest solo single ever.

Kenny Loggins with Steve Perry: "Don't Fight It" (Columbia, 1982) - Steve Perry should have gotten out of Journey more often.

Stacy Lattisaw: "Attack of the Name Game" (Cotillion, 1982) - Kack it back, I gotta Kack attack
I gotta Kee Ky Koe the Kack a jack
Turn the Tevin, gotta move the Mevin
Gotta wham-bam funkify the Fevin, my name is Kevin
Well, can you picture that?
Also, can Mariah Carey pick 'em or what?

USA For Africa: "We Are The World" (Columbia, 1985)- Steve Perry should have gotten out of Journey more often, Part 2.

Crown Heights Affair: "You Gave Me Love" (De-Lite, 1980) - The Utah Saints picked the best parts. But the intro and outro are still eeeeevil.

Too low: Debbie Deb: "When I Hear Music" (Jam Packed 1983) at #22

1990s
Overweight Pooch: "Hip House Party" (A&M, 1991) - Only a shade less gravity-defying than "It Takes Two" and a top ten single for me.

Daphne and Celeste: "Ooh Stick You!" (Universal, 1999) - Dada bubblerap so threatening that they had water bottles thrown at them during some live event. Pop - it's so punk!

Satoshi Tomiie: "Sneaky One (Original Mix)" (SMEJ Associated, 1999) - In his essential "In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco," Walter Hughes demonstrates how disco empties out language to shake off all remnants of textuality. But house took that aspect even further, e.g., this post-verbal screech party. It lifts you right up to the ceiling of the club. Also try the Nevins Club Mix of Angelica: "Quando M'en Vo" (Atlantic, 1997). The opera queens on your floor will lose it.

Donna Blakely feat. Ralphi Rosario: "Take Me Up" (Underground Construction, 1997) - Ralphi's Original Club Mix is a peak record. But also try Légo's Mix for a bumping party starter.

2000s
Azari & III: "Reckless (With Your Love)" (Permanent Vacation, 2009) - I didn't hear this until the teens but this is all I could up with for the Aughts. What did I miss?

1960s

The Trashmen: “Surfin’ Bird” (Garrett, 1963)
The Tammys: “Egyptian Shumba” (United Artists 1964)
Wilson Pickett: “Land of 1000 Dances” (Atlantic 1966)
Gino Washington: “Gino is a Coward” (SonBert 1964)
The Flirtations: “Nothing But a Heartache”  (Deram 1968)
Pebbles & Bamm-Bamm: “Snow Flake” (Hanna-Barbera 1965)
The Crystals: “He’s a Rebel” (Philles, 1962)
The Remains: "Don't Look Back" (Epic 1966)
Lou Christie: “Lightnin’ Strikes” (MGM 1965)
Lou Christie: “Rhapsody in the Rain” (MGM 1966)
The Elastik Band: "Spazz" (Atco 2967)
The Calico Wall: “Flight Reaction”/“Beep” (Turtle c. 1966)
John’s Children: “A Midsummer's Night Scene” (Track 1967)
The First Gear: “Leave My Kitten Alone” (Pye 1964)
The Bluestars: "Social End Product" (Allied International 1966)
The Music Machine: "Talk Talk" (Original Sound 1966)
The Balloon Farm: "A Question of Temperature" (Laurie 1967)
The Marvelettes: “Twistin’ Postman” (Tamla 1961)
Gene Pitney: “Every Breath I Take” (Musicor 1961)
The Exciters: “He’s Got The Power” (United Artists 1963)
The Shangri-Las: “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (Red Bird 1964)
Ginny Arnell: “Dumb Head” (MGM 1963)
Claudine Clark: “Party Lights” (Chancellor 1962)
The Chiffons: "Nobody Knows What's Goin' On (In My Mind But Me)" (Laurie 1965)
The Equals: “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” (President 1969)
Love: “My Little Red Book” (Elektra, 1966)
The Idle Race: "Days of the Broken Arrows" (Liberty 1969)
Episode Six: "Love Hate Revenge" (Pye 1967)
The Calico Wall: “I’m a Living Sickness” (Turtle c. 1966)

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Favorite Singles: A Self-examination

Why are my favorite singles my favorite singles? I can list the attributes of what I consider a great single: shtick, novelty, irritating repetitions, sound effects, a desire to force your ear's undivided attention, an overall obnoxiousness, and, sure, a rhythm that mates ants with pants. But that value system is as arbitrary as any other. So where exactly did it come from? Thanks to Albin J. Zak's I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America (University of Michigan Press, 2010), I now have an inkling.

Bucking the Marcus, Guralnick, etc. tradition of writing history through a pantheon of geniuses, Zak contends that the very nature of rock and roll depends more on its status as recordings that swept away the Tin Pan Alley industrial model centered on sheet music. Rock and roll records were voracious, inauthentic things that tried anything once and many times more if it hit.

“Rock and roll songs happily bore vestigial features of their sonic influences – R&B, country, pop ballad, novelty, blues, and so forth – but in the hands of rock and roll songwriters the sources were deconstructed and their elements recycled as pastiches of found objects. If stylistic integrity was sacrificed, vitality and freshness were at the fore, as was an implicit understanding that a song need only suggest an expressive direction. For ultimately a rock and roll’s spirit and sense relied on the material form of a sound recording. Rock and roll songwriting was a reimaging of pop song style that recognized the transformative effects of both crossover and recording technology” (192).

"By the standards of transparent sonic representation and stylistic authenticity, all rock and roll records were contrivances. They flaunted a bargain with the recording machine and a disregard for boundaries of style or idiom. A certain number of appalling hit records was simply a sign that the process was working properly" (209).
 
And rock and roll records had to hit hard and fast. A Tin Pan Alley song was a template inviting infinite interpretation. But a rock and roll record was a world unto itself, one whose thunder could be stolen by a cover. So the architects of rock and roll adopted a vivid pragmatism to juice as much longevity as possible from the evanescent Top 40. Shtick, novelty, irritation, sound effects, all that comprised a mode of survival as much as the backbeat you can't lose it that has provided the focus for most rock historians.

“As Johnny Otis summed it up, rock and roll ‘took over all the things that made R&B different from big band swing: the after-beat on a steady four; the influence of boogie woogie; the triplets on piano; eight-to-the-bar on the top-hat cymbal; and the shuffle pattern of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes.’ But young people’s fascination was not limited to the big beat or R&B and country borrowings. What the first descriptions of rock and roll usually omitted was how much it also owed to mainstream pop. Commentators failed to grasp that what made the new music so unpredictable, for many unbearable, yet ultimately revolutionary was its indiscriminate merging of all existing idioms regardless of provenance or aesthetic tradition. It remained in a continuous state of novelty, an evolutionary process in which repertory and stylistic habits were intermingled freely” (176).

And so it remains today all the way up to A. G. Cook's remix of How To Dress Well's "Repeat Pleasure," my favorite single of 2014 and maybe even of all time. But while shtick, novelty, etc. is the essence of the single, if not rock and roll (if not pop), that's certainly not the case with rock and all its well-meaning, album-centered offshoots. In service to the album's gestalt, an individual song has to keep its more subtle place in the narrative rather than announce itself as vividly as a single would. That's why it's so infuriating when critics list obvious album cuts on their top ten singles lists - they're memories of the albums on their top ten lists rather than worlds unto themselves.

These distinctions came to the fore when I was having difficulty ranking the songs on Exile on Main St. As an album about getting up and going despite an enormous sense of fatigue, my favorite cut has always been "Soul Survivor" simply by virtue of it coming last. From the woozy, in medias res opening that sounds like a blow to the head to the fade out where they're still rocking out like dogs, it's the epitome of getting knocked down and getting back up again. Had it been released as a single, there's no way it could have competed with something as exquisite as "Wig Wam Bam." But after an hour of breakdowns, it's the most energetic thing in the universe.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)

In order to adopt the freshest possible perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey, I avoided all trailers, reviews, and even the E. L. James blockbuster novel on which the film is based. But I couldn't resist Emma Green's panicky Atlantic article "Consent Isn't Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades," an epic that neglects to name one "sex-positive feminist" but quotes Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Green argues that the fans as well as "most everyone...on college campuses and eleswhere" don't understand the importance of consent, hence the article's tagline: "Fifty Shades of Grey Gets BDSM Dangerously Wrong." Wrong. The film is not about BDSM per se; rather, it's about drearily wealthy Christian Grey's attempt to engage virgin English major Anastasia Steele in a BDSM relationship. Like most media geared towards women, it concerns the delaying of a relationship, not the consummation or maintenance thereof. Anastasia abrades against Christian's demands at every turn including an itemized contract he's drawn up for her as his potential submissive. Indeed, Green got this wrong in her original post thus occasioning a retraction: "This post originally stated that Ana formally signed a contract with Christian. The characters negotiate line items, and she verbally agrees to many of the stipulations listed in the contract. We regret the error." A rather large error since the negotiations occupy much of the screen time and weaken Green's argument. To be certain, Anastasia has agency throughout and proves to be the character with whom you'd most want to spend an hour. Christian is a corporate James Bond flashing business cards on jismy stock and gliding past a row of sleek, stupid sports cars. But Anastasia reads Hardy, wears a Mint Records (home of the greatest album so far this century) t-shirt, and why isn't she more interested in her hunky coworker at the hardware store anyway? Cuz...
No, the real troubling aspect of the film is the ending which is no such thing at all. Fifty Shades of Grey (both the film and the first book in the series, so I'm told) cuts off with a cliffhanger. Tune in...next year maybe to find out what happens next. So where I walked in excited about one of the precious few Hollywood franchises to cater to women, I left asking the same question Mark Harris does in his terrific Grantland piece mourning the colonization of Hollywood by television aesthetics: "How do you import TV’s essential quality to the big screen without sacrificing the sense of immersive, self-contained completeness that for decades has been a central element of the movie experience?" Of course, Harris means the Hollywood movie experience. Plenty of avant-garde films repel attempts at immersion. And while mammoth films such as Out 1 and Heimat and Berlin Alexanderplatz have embraced the serial form, their episodes don't turn on the resolution of an enigma. Fifty Shades of Grey does and its atomization into three (or four, I bet) films feels exploitative. In short, to borrow Harris' words, it's not a movie; it's a miniseries.  So ultimately, I can't tell you what I thought of it. It's not over yet!

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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