Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Quick album reviews

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Greatest Hits (MCA, 1993)
Synths on "You Got Lucky?" Sitar on "Don't Come Around Here No More?" Videos and videos? How did such a meat and potatas rock-n-roller (not rocker) get away with such stuff? Ah but who cares about the arbitrary mores and ideals of his audience? He's a damn fine pastiche primarily because he doesn't feel like a pastiche. Also because almost every track here (and I truly am interested in searching elsewhere - "About To Give Out" tucked away on that last one was a terrific punk-burner) is absurdly hummable. Always my fave: the Byrdsy swirly "The Waiting." The chorus is awkward, of course: it should sing: "You take it on faith/You take it to heart." But you just gotta love how Petty sacrifices lyrical smoothness for rebop by adding a funky "the" in front of heart.

Pernice Brothers: Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont, 2003)
Poppy (but who isn't). Pretty (good). Short (even better). Light (best of all). But of course that leads to the what's the point question. Haven't sat down with the lyrics yet but I doubt they'll teach me anything the Hollies taught me to ignore ages ago. Wasn't Yours, Mine & Ours a Lucille Ball movie about a family with a bunch of kids? Wish I was sure Joe Pernice had the answer.

Kings of Leon: Holy Roller Novocaine EP (RCA, 2003)
The roots rock Strokes. Haven't heard the full-length yet. I'm sure it's fine but it's not pushing my ineffable buttons the way the Strokes do. Maybe it's not disco enough. But maybe boogie madness isn't their strong point - the chorus to "California Waiting" pokes out like nothing on the Strokes disc. So then what IS their strong point? Am I supposed to read Blue Cheer or Mudhoney into the very Blue Cheer-like title? Sure hope not. Or is my failure to immediately get with this reflective of a class bias? The upward mobility built into the Strokes' upsurges and committed forward motion might be a kind of upper middle class lingua franca in ceratin parts of America. Kings of Leon's musical tropes are nothing of the sort even though the bros themsevles might be bourgie bourgie. The Strokes share a bit of the distanced, effected snobbery of, well, all I can think of is The Thompson Twins' great but somewhat jokey cover of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" None of that is here. Still listening.

Party Monster (TVT, 2003)
The soundtrack to the film I'm most dying to see at this very moment (well, in terms of readily seeable films). I dig the soundtrack but it makes me itchy and not necessarily in a good way. Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts" blends it frighteningly well with all the posed-out electroclash and temper tantrum house music.

Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis - Deluxe Edition (Rhino, 1969/1999)
Does anyone hate this record? Simon Reynolds? Kodwo Eshun? I just want to mention that my fave track happens to be Dusty's too: "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore." And yeesh - is it really only 25 minutes long? Should we fault the album for this? I'm obviously leaning towards no but I suppose it makes it less immortal for some. Anyhoo, I finally sat and concentrated on the bonus tracks from this Deluxe Edition. The Jeffy Barry tracks are particularly listless. Their failure is not so much a function of bad songs as arrangements that impel Dusty to belt, never her strong suit. And, of course, the Memphis Cats are sorely missed on the bottom. Bad song: "Love Shine Down." The only cut that would make it on a mix tape is "Willie & Laura Mae Jones."

Quarterflash (Geffen, 1981)
What a great album! I listened to it three times today. But if I can't convince anyone I know of Steely Dan's genius, how am I gunna do it for this lesser tribute band ("Williams Avenue" is sooooo "Peg")? And the lyrics - sheesh. Fuck and run; fuck and run - is that all anyone on the West Coast ever does? Rindy Ross manages to make couplets like "I didn't have a chance in art school/You offered to help this poor fool" sing - worthy of Morrissey if not Colin Snowsell. Dig the cover - radioactive man repeated in a series. Their next album, Take Another Picture (which I've yet to hear), is a family reunion photo of showroom dummies. Nicely mirrors the perils of serial monogamy in the lyrics. "Valerie" - great unrequited lesbian love song. And yes, this was the first band I ever saw live (opening for Elton John!!).

Dancehall 101: Vol. 1 (VP, 2000)
It sounds great at home since it offers more vertical pleasures than most dancehall (or just plain dance) comps. But tempo is a problem here. Just too freakin' slow for me. Were I on the floor, the only track I'd request is Cutty Ranks' "Limb by Limb" and maybe Red Rat's "Dwayne" (my fave track on the disc) for perversity's sake. "Dwayne" is jaw-dropping, confusing background and foreground with a shifting bassline that doubles for hooks. And his toast or rap or cry or whatever tries to keep up.

New Order: Get Ready (Reprise, 2001)
New Order want it all. Their sound is so heavy and layered that their breaks contain drum-bass-guitar. And yet it never sacrifices beat, catchiness or verse-chorus-verse. Still touched by the hand of god after all these years.

The Funk Box (Hip-O, 2000)
By now, I'm only listening to the tracks I don't know (or don't know that well). I still don't get Pleasure's "Glide" or The Blackbyrds' "Do It, Fluid." But after finally reading the liner notes, I know why. Both are progenitors of acid jazz (now we know whose houses to egg) and rare groove (please - I don't know wanna know). I can also live without The Average White Band's "School Boy Crush" (Eric B and Rakim's "Microphone Fiend" does nicely, thank you). But The Temptations' "Shakey Ground," The Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby," The New Birth's "I Can Understand It," Graham Central Station's "The Jam" and even Marvin Gaye's slice of soundtrack "'T' Plays It Cool" are all growing or fully grown on me. I thought of making a CD of just the tracks I wasn't familiar with to get to know them better (nine or so minutes of Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" always derails me). But I did that with the Nuggets II box and when I played it again on the drive back to Montréal, I got sad/annoyed: no Creation or John's Children. :( Still, seeing as how I haven't shaken the genius of Sugar and Poison yet, the track that gets me off the most is Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More, Baby." So sexy-angsty as if you were fucking and at the same time thinking about how you're gonna pay all your bills.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Movie Vomit

Down With Love (Peyton Reed, 2003)
Who wants to start a Peyton Reed cult with me? The man knows swift energy. But that energy flows with a, dare I say it, Lubitsch touch, esp. when his cuts amount to word plays. And I adored the tangled, convoluted, prolonged climax - yet another indication of the fragility of the heterosexual hegemony. Then there's the extras: "It's like a musical in spots." And yet the slam-bang musical number is thrown in at the end (over the end credits, I believe) just like that Australian rock band film the name of which I can't freakin' remember. We're still closeted about the musical.

The King of Jazz (John Murray Anderson, 1930)
This great revue makes no attempt to mask its theatricality. Not once do you see an angle towards the "audience." Almost avant in its non-teleological taxonomy. Terrific music too.

Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, 1944)
Fascinating up against All That Heaven Allows as a demonstration of how the middle class (at least in the 1950s) was the new aristocracy with all the vagaries that implies.

A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003)
Just plain awful. You'd think the music angle might rise this above the condescension of Guffman and Best in Show. But now that I think of it, I actually prefer the numbers in Guffman to these. At the very least, I thought I'd have a repertoire of silly songs to sing. But not a single one matches dead-on, genius parodies like (SCTV's? and were any of these people involved with that? if so, shame on them!) "Cliff the Magic Squirrel," "Jimmy Joe" or "Bottle of Wine" in that Peter, Paul and Mary parody. The scenes purporting to show the post-60s decline of these bands were incredibly sloppy and too scant anyway. Thus there was a seriously diminished sense of what was at stake in the reunion concert. For example, the bland, suburban house/life that "Cher" lived in - how did she get there? how did this clash with her folkie past? And why did she end up at a trade show? There was nothing inevitable about this development and thus it seemed not only (again) sloppy but rather mean-spirited as well (and yet given their Guffman track record, why was I surprised at this?). And if you think this is too much to ask of comedy, I got two words for you: Preston Sturges. Hell, I got two more words for you: Legally Blonde. I think the only time I laughed was during the Fred Willard scenes and conceptually, he didn't even have to be in the thing. And no, I didn't watch the extras. If I saw it in the theatre, I would have never got to the DVD in the first place so fuck off!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
For about 3/4 of this, I wanted to put my head through the wall. Movies don't get more arch than this. It was so bad that I'm now afraid to revisit the Tennessee Williams plays and flicks I adored as a pre-teen. Shi', was this really all that realistic even back in the 60s? Taylor's performance was horrendous but I'm not sure it was her fault. As Crawford said of When Ladies Meet, what actress on earth could make these lines come alive? Sandy Dennis was even worse. You wonder if she ever got drunk in her life. The boys fare better but Richard Burton is such a heavy and George Segal such a piece of notebook paper that they couldn't mitigate the essential inhumanity of the proceedings. For a while, I tried to treat it like an absurdist play a la Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Surely, they all sounded like Martians working through the English language for the first time in a dialogue scheme rife with movie allusions, aphorisms, song snippets, hebephrenic babbling, etc. Everything is so forced and unnatural in this putative temple of realism that it seems a crime against culture that this film is so revered and something like Showgirls gets universally derided (at first). But then as it becomes clear that they've been playing a game all along, I started to think about Higashi's DeMille book and the importance of games in centralizing Hollywood cinema around the white heterosexual middle class. So yet again, you can start to see the seams in heterosexual hegemony here. The evening is one extended forced confession. Forced, quite literally. Sandy and George are forced to play audience to Liz and Dick's game. They must witness their heterosexuality with gets fused with the "real" Liz and Dick off-camera. This may explain the gay fascination with the movie. Still, I couldn't find one bitchy quote for the ages and in this, Tough Guys Don't Dance is a much gayer film. And the mild payoff mentioned above comes so late in the film that I doubt I'd have the stomach to sit through the thing again in order to work through those issues.

Party Monster (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2003)
I went in with a shitty attitude since I've yet to read a positive review. But I wound up liking it a great deal and wonder how much unacknowledged homophobia has to do with its negative reception. Macauly Culkin's performance is severely underrated. Sure, you can tell he is "acting" all the way through and given our impoverished view of acting, we can only accept a "realist" style that effaces any actorly inflections. Which, of course, is a pile of horseshit but doubly so here because what could anyone expect from Michael Alig himself except actorly inflections? I'm not one for realism but clearly, a "realistic" portrayal of a man with a tenuous at best hold on reality (and not just due to rampant drug abuse) simply wouldn't work. I laughed out loud several times. And was quite moved by the scene where James St. James didn't know how to touch Michael. Even flaming creatures like these have intimacy issues just like a strong, silent, truck-driving, bread-winning husband might. But on the downside, I hated what they did with Gitsie. A thankless role for Chloe Sevigny, it served to heterosexualize the dénoument in the most chicken shit way. I mean, why show Alig's capture by the feds while he's sleeping with Gitsie and not his final capture for Angel's murder when he's at a motel with Freeze? Still, I liked how it all ended with the fame wheel still turning in the most disturbing manner. Double feature with The Sniper?

The Fat Spy (Joseph Cates, 1965)
This film had no idea what it wanted to be. Beach movie parody. Robert Downey-style text fuck. Groan-inducing Diller/Hope-style comedy. Awful band showcase. A beach movie in its own right. I couldn't quite recommend this. But I found its disjunctions fascinating.

The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952)
Stunningly shot. Gritty and all. But we're meant to feel sorry for the sad sack sniper and that makes me itchy. His enemy isn't women but modernity. Always getting yelled at by citizens for standing in the wrong place or whatnot. And the constant reprimands start to feel cartoonish thus giving the lie to the grittiness.

Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937)
I was quite taken with this. The boarding house scenes were fuckin' riotious: Lincoln answering the door, the stunt man, the admiral penguin. And I dug the faux commie climax. Of course, it can't end until Leslie Howard has been properly sexualized. But alone the way, there's some great slapstick violence. He's got Joan Blondell in his arms and she asks dreamily "Don't you know what to do next?" And he flips her over his shoulder and she crashes into a wall. Quite shocking but nonetheless a quintessential glimpse into the perils of heterosexual socializing.

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
Yeah, it's pretty static in spots. But a sci-fi musical with naughty double entendres, reversible clothing, vending machine babies, Orwellian pre-arranged marriages, futuristic cityscapes that anticipate Blade Runner and Minority Report, Martians that play like a colonialist concept of primitive Africans and the yummy Frank Albertson (with shirt off in one scene!)? From 1930? Are you tough enough to resist all that?

The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (Frank Tashlin, 1968)
Tashlin wrote this train wreck too. Spent part of the day reading the IMDb on these late Bob Hope horrors. The user comments are fascinating. One dude quoted a Hee Haw-caliber joke typical of this era as something rib-tickling. Must be a nervous sort that giggles at everything. I mean, these jokes are so not funny that they're almost like statements of fact nowhere in the same orbit as jokes. But even the negative comments are way, way out. One chap actually ripped on Boy Did I Get A Wrong Number! because the rooms in the film were too big (the kitchen was downright drafty, he noted). It's like the IMDb has instigated this tradition of wild surreal criticism where films are placed in the nuttiest of taxonomies. I mean, what film showcases the most perfectly sized room of all-time? Would the classical Hollywood system allow us to even notice it? Anyhoo, I should probably have my head examined for making fine distinctions with this shit but the drab cinematography in The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell only served to highlight the pastel percolation of Boy Did I Get A Wrong Number! In the end, I imagine the most offensive thing about it is its extreme dullness. And yet I'm hooked - I can't wait to see Eight on the Lam now. Is it because these films are so reassuring in the best pop kind of sense? Or is it quite the opposite, because they bask in Hope's sick privilege? Maybe my tendency to think of the films from this era as one film speaks to my desire to read Hope's biography into this "film." For sure, his self-referential Bing Crosby dig bears this out. In fact, so does the From Here to Eternity parody, reflecting perhaps a certain sadness or resignation at not being able to insert oneself into serious cinema history the way Burt Lancaster has. The obvious parallels here are Jerry Lewis and Hugo Haas. Their oeuvres are like a perversion of the auteur theory. They're so "there" in their films that one cannot help but read them as biography, even in the capital B A&E sense. For me, though, there's a considerably lesser payoff with Bob Hope. Where Lewis is a genius and Haas is uniquely grotesque, Hope is just plain boring, convictionless. So maybe the focus should be on Phyllis Diller. Anyone have a copy of Did You Hear The One About The Traveling Saleslady?

The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935)
Eh. At first, I thought this would make a nifty female oedipal double feature with The Seventh Victim. But Margaret Sullavan acclimates herself too quickly to big city life and consumer capitalism. That we can blame on screenwriter Preston Sturges, I imagine. But Wyler's direction seems bored. When he glides his camera in to start the climactic shot-reverse shot with Herbert Marshall and Frank Morgan (goddamn - are those two in every movie?), it's like he suddenly woke up or something...too late, of course. Sturges would have lent all that deceit a certain fury. But the movie stuff towards the beginning is ace. Has anyone written on the need for usherettes? What did it mean that one could catch a film in the middle? It says something about the zonked direction that the hilarious film-within-the-film (which Marshall mirrors at the end with his "Don't go") is more dynamic that anything in the film proper. But what's with that final shot? Is Sullavan still freaked about something?

Tough Guys Don't Dance (Norman Mailer, 1987)
A stone-cold classic. Heterosexual camp? So relentlessly self-deconstructive that there's no one left with whom to identify. It's all dizzying surface play - confusing flashbacks, needless repetitions, eternal one-liners ("Get your ass off my pillow!") that seem pinned onto the characters, laughter and pain that play like unrecouperable register shifts. Like the great Showgirls but even more so, everyone seems like primitive monsters trying out the human body for the first time which accounts for the completely unpredictable twists and the cartoonish Southern accents. And that horrifying, ersatz piece of 80s soundtrack played at the coke party and over the final credits (told ya about needless repetitions) was actually written by Angelo Badalamenti and sung by Pam Tillis ("One lovin' man who'll stick around" - sounds like a Stephin Merritt parody)! It's positively making my head spin as I write. No wonder I've been hankering to see Mildred Pierce (or The Fabulous Baker Boys) lately - films as great as this make me feel as if I'll never appreciate the "well-made" film again.

A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)
A chattering, flickering terror train. This film takes the phantasmagoria of Lonesome and Sunrise and extends throughout practically every scene. Very little is naturalistic here. No titles (sub- or inter-) so I imagine it's a lot like how some people adored Les Vampires without titles. As usual, I needed some story help from the IMDb. But I imagine everyone feels exhausted after watching this - there's simply no way to contain it. I note, though, that in an early tracking shot of the cells, the polka dots on the walls perform the same movement as those at the beginning and end of Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother. But since I don't know what it means in Anger's film, I'll leave it for further research if it's significant at all. And what was with the music? Who do it? It doesn't fit sorta in the way the the music on those shitty DVDs of Metropolis don't fit. But whereas in the latter case, pathetic boredom is the result, here it just makes it creepier: all clangy, creepy atmospherics. It sounds as if someone played a record to it and just let it run out. The last two minutes sound like a needle on the groove. Sheesh - I'm getting ooked out just writing this.

Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
To me, this still cuts both Sunrise and L'Atalante. One impulse, though, is to fault it for its simpy story. I wonder if Ferrara's films, e.g. New Rose Hotel, merely carry on in Fejos' ecstatic tradition with a more complex story line. But who cares, really? At the very least, it does without the brutishness of Sunrise and L'Atalante. And so much about the city: distraction, dizziness, chance meetings, losing rings, losing lovers, crowds, on and on. Divine.

The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)
I'm still not quite there with this one. it clearly requires more attention than I gave it, e.g. I thought the funeral was for the lech who was shot in the previous scene and I had no idea that the woman who returned to town was a prostitute. Perhaps I need to read the stories on which it is based. Or see Judge Priest again. And can I just say one thing: the title sucks.

The Man With the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
Eleanor Parker again and in a shockingly different role. I hated her character in terms of sexual politics (why didn't one of the evil cops get dead at the end instead of her?) but what a performance! And my main man Preminger - very Daisy Kenyon, this. More doors, thresholds and windows to peer/cut through. A door will close in front of the camera and then CUT! we're in the room anyway. Ditto with a shade closing. No private sphere escapes him. And his play with backgrounds is masterful. Several times I had to rewind to see what was always there in front of me. At the beginning, the dancing drunk is in the background and he finally gets his drink as Sinatra crosses over to the bar. Then Sinatra takes his place in the frame for some foreshadowing. The entrance of the peddler is creepy because he doesn't really enter. Sinatra gets his drum, brings it back to the bar with the camera following and as he moves back towards the door, the camera catches the peddler already chillin' in the bar. Twice, Kim Novak is in the background at the bar. Sinatra gives her a look but I didn't even notice. Preminger's refusal to cut almost makes the film like goddamned early 1900s cinema. The Sinatra/Parker apt. was always shot from the left until the peddler barges in and the camera follows him in from the right. So cinematic and yet it felt like a play paradoxically. Maybe because the sets were so (self-consciously?) faux. Oh and the music too where every piece of drug paraphernalia has it own orchestral blat. To top it all off, there's that great scene/shot outside the dept. store window of a perfect het kitchen scene with dummy wife and husband. They discuss what should be going on and then perform a het routine. Why does this scene get replayed again and again in Hollywood cinema? Think of the eerie bear costume scene from Laughter and Higashi's comments on role-playing in the DeMille book. And of course, there's always my beloved Some Call it Loving.

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourner, 1950)
Talk about genre border disputes. The packaging calls it a Western and plays up the gun-toting preacher angle which is a small part of the film. I suppose it is a Western in a way. I mean, who the hell is the pastor to just come into town and say he's gunna hold church right there in the bar? It's as dubious a claim as any in, say, a Mann Western. Yet whereas in, say, Bend of the River, the land claims are much larger, here the pastor only means to make his mark on a small town. So the locality of it all makes it feel less like a Western. But it's just as much about building a community like a musical. And through song no less - check the title. And while I wouldn't go so far as to call it a melodrama, I find it fascinating that the trailer at the end of the tape took pains to sell the film to both men and women. With the great Ellen Drew (anyone wanna start a cult with me?) Overall, not quite Meet Me in St. Louis but pretty funkin' close.

Scaramouche (George Sidney, 1952)
The climactic sword duel is really quite smashing. It ends, as it has to, on stage and indeed it is shot like a musical number. Here we have just as much bricolage as in the "Good Morning" number from Singin' in the Rain: the sandbags, the set furniture, the scaffolding, the painted backdrops. But if bricolage in the musical is to bear the brunt of film's original sin of separating actor from audience (unlike theatre), then what does the bricolage mean here? The George Sidney obsession continues (anyone have the much-maligned Pepe on video?) although Viva Las Vegas from a few days back was a nightmare. Grotesquely bad which is different from so bad it's good and just plain bad. I stared at it in fascinated horror as I would a plane crash.

Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)
I had problems with it at first but this film continues to haunt me two days after seeing it. I'm still reading Bérénice Reynaud's brilliant piece on it in Senses of Cinema (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/wanda.html). Maybe it's male of me but I still wanna ask: if the master's house cannot be destroyed using the master's tools, does that mean you have to end up with a film where a woman gets slapped around?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Montréal, take me home...

Gawd, all the Niagara bitching sounds like "Holiday in Waikiki." And only April 2004? It seems like all this happened a lifetime ago.

Saturday, April 17th, 2004
11:38 am

My trip back to Sin City was a necessary evil - evil in that it drained me of loonies and drove me rather loony; necessary in that I got to see good friends and had to fulfill some professional obligations (or I got to see how some friendships were fulfilled amidst professional obligations). Ostensibly, I was back on the 401 to act as co-organizer of the storied Print Culture & The City conference. Saner, meaner people would have just blown it off. After all, it was already on my CV (and, having attended several eye-crossing meetings and done some preliminary work, it deserved to be on there) which I just know got me into my program of choice. Plus, neither print culture nor the city is my study object of choice (more like my object of derision in the latter case). So, the professional obligation was definitely not to myself beyond the fact that a few people will vaguely remember me as being dependable (and having an eternally patient husband willing to clock in 60 hours on the highway for his honey). I met a lot of nice people (my fave being U of Toronto's Sarah Brouillette who I sadly didn't run into until the toodle-oo party) and had an overall blast comme d'habitude. But also comme d'habitude, the intellectual stimulation was decidedly low voltage. Like the charnel house that was IASPM-Montreal last July, too many of the papers were of the "Look what I found!!!" variety, failing to follow it up with a "And here's why we should give a shit." No names (how crass of you!). Just the memories.

But let's jump back to some travelogue meat. Stuart and I decided to break up the trip for the first time since our first time (visions of Oshawa dance in my head). So I suggested London since it's the setting of the second greatest film of all-time (visions of The Hart of London dance in my head). And Stuart sealed the deal when he found a restaurant called Garlic's in the handy AAA book. We're both garlic FREAKS, known to chew on raw cloves in our immune systems' weaker moments. Needless to say, the restaurant was a hit. We started off with bread and two different kinds of butter/dipping sauces. One was apple-jalapeño or something like that. Next up was a roasted whole bulb of garlic as a spread, not bitter like the two times I roasted garlic. Then cream of garlic soup (swoon!). For the main course, I had Garlic's Linguini (linguini with roasted chicken, pancetta, wild mushrooms and snow peas in a garlic cream sprinkled with fried garlic) and Stuart had Roasted Garlic Penne (penne with roasted garlic, roasted red peppers, wild mushrooms, pine nuts, black olives in a basil pesto). We were too stuffed to brave garlic ice cream and besides, I had already tried it in Milwaukee with vomitorious results. The gay-seeming waiter provided entertainment with two difficult parties seated near us. One didn't like broccoli and told him to substitute it with whatever. Quoth the waiter: "Okay, I can't just go up to the cook and say 'Substitute the broccoli with whatever!' Look at other items on the menu to see what vegetables we have and pick one of those." As he whisked away, the broccoli-hater huffed "He was getting a little testy there." Rightfully so, sez I. What the fuck? The cook didn't get your bio, toots! Then someone else couldn't have anything cooked in olive oil. Okay, I live in a different country and I managed to figure the menu out BEFORE I got there. Maybe you shouldn't go to a restaurant that advertises extra virgin olive oil. (Sheesh - these are the kind of people responsible for the frazzled clerk at our hotel. He was practically groveling because someone fucked up our reservation and he had to give us a smoking room. I assured him that we were grateful to have the luxury of actually sleeping rather than driving 15 hours. Yes, I want a goddamn Bozo Button!)

All gassed up, we headed to Museum London on the Thames River (hmmm...) to see some Jack Chambers (the man behind The Hart of London) paintings. We discovered a huge, horny canvas by Atilla Lukacs and promptly bought a huge, horny book all about him (along with The Films of Jack Chambers which I knew I'd find in the gift shop). There was a huge room that was open to the public while being set up for a banquet. Inside was a Warhol, a Leger, a Mondrian but gawd knows what else because there were no placards (is that the word?) telling us what the hell we were looking at (or if they were even originals). Since it took up such a huge space, it was a huge letdown. Overall, though, I liked the modest scale of the museum, the fact that one could get in a good look at everything in about an hour. Plus, the room of nudes was pretty nervy. Wonder how parents explained Lukacs' dirty jockstraps and skinhead homoeroticism.

It was soooo refreshing to arrive in Montréal and not feel like an extra from Dawn of the Dead (the original, please) for once. I stayed at the lovely, commodious B&B Casa de Wurster y Thrift, alternately known as either The Thrift Store or The Wurst (depending on your mood, I suppose). Dove right into conference preparations. Then immediately after that tsunami blew over, dove right into my Rocky Horror/Shock Treatment/anti-Queer Eye/anti-capitalism paper. I was writing it on the computer of Samantha C. Thrift and about four pages in, Bill Gates' gremlins froze the screen. I managed to retrieve my masterpiece in progress but Sam's PC never fully recovered. I felt like shit even though it was Bill Gates' fault. So I had to finish on Jessica's shit laptop (not a slight on Jessica's purchasing habits; ALL laptops suck. It took a full ten seconds for me to get reacquainted with my mouse back home.).

So I only really got to chill out by the weekend. On Friday afternoon, Crabbycakes Snowsell and I took in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or whatever it's called. Pretty to look at but it's really Forrest Gump in reverse. Very American in its implicit devaluation of spotful minds. And, yawn, oh so het, just like that other pretty picture, Lost in Translation. Friday night saw me reluctantly sucked into a game of Scrabble which I dominated with the double word score on "quiz." Deeper into Friday night was dancing at Saphir which dominated all. Absolute blast although I wish I was dorky enough to bring paper and pen to write down Plastic's mixes (I know she deftly mixed "Whip It" out of something but what?). Highlights: "Roadrunner," "Stranded," "Barracuda," "Start Me Up," something new by Peaches and a bratty burner in which some bad boy tells a series of brief stories each ending with "Whatever!" and punctuated by a punk blat. Anyone know it? The great Poutine Palace afterward, my savage choice for best restaurant in Montréal. Saturday was a blur. Sunday was movie night with Atomic, Foam Soap and Robin Anne (the Western pronunciation): Xanadu, which didn't go over too well, and Christmas in July, which fared better.

The rest of my time was spent with goodbyes of varying degrees of maudlinity, capped off with a hug from the winner of Academic Idol, Will Straw and Indian buffet with famed homosexual cum metrosexual Ger Zielinski. Still, I'm not too sad about leaving Montréal, especially since I peeped Jessica's Rough Guide to Montréal and realized I had done (or rather seen) most of what I was supposed to. I'll miss my friends and the wild night life. But I look forward to putting the horrors of the border, immigration, etc. behind me. It will be sweet indeed to just cruise right over that Texas border and head straight for Austin with no papers necessary.

And that's just part one. Part two is our belated Niagara Falls honeymoon. But before that, we headed dry-eyed out of Sin City directly into Cobourg, Ontario to visit the Marie Dressler Museum. A bit of school: Dressler was THE number one box office star of the early 1930s in America, remarkable given that she was overweight and over 60 years old. She was born in Cobourg, about an hour and a half east of Toronto. Absolutely gorgeous city with a surprisingly lively downtown. And just past downtown, hidden in the middle of unassuming suburban dwellings, lies the house where she was born which now houses the Cobourg and District Economic Development and Tourism office. There's a plaque outside explaining Marie which we dutifully read before walking in. To the right was an attractive young woman seated at a computer and I told her why we were here. She got up and led us to our left into a small room which is basically the extent of the museum. The far end is taken up by a recreation of a scene from Min and Bill (for which Dressler won a best actress Oscar) with a wax Marie and Wallace Beery. How weird it must be to work there and know these figures are posing in a nearby room. A ledge separates us from the scene and on it are piled disparate photographs/publicity stills of and magazines about Dressler. Two glass cases - one displaying sheet music with Marie's mug on the covers, the other jaundiced newspaper articles. There's a photo album of clips documenting the house's history (fire gutted it in 1989), an upright glass case hawking Marie Dressler teacups, a dress she wore designed by the great Adrian (but for what film?) and an organ with no obvious link to Dressler. We watched a 7-minute video on her life and the woman working there closed two glass doors for our privacy (I guess). While we were watching, an even more beautiful woman came into the office and smiled at us as she walked up to the desk. I wanted to shout "What do you people actually DO here?!?" (Well, they do have an old film festival in October....) The hallway outside the museum room had some photos and lobby cards so I took the opportunity to snoop around a bit - just antiseptic offices. I signed the guestbook (most came from Toronto) and asked the desk gal how many people visit a year. She said she didn't know but I suspected she said that because the numbers were low. And that was it. The whole shebang took about twenty, thirty minutes tops. I was in a daze as we floated back to the car. Outside, I saw an older woman working in her yard. She lived in the house next to Dressler's and I wanted to ask her if she even knew it was there. I didn't, natch, but would it be so wild if she didn't know about it? I mean, that little room is so godforsaken that I'm not even sure visiting it brought it to life. It gave off the same kind of mystery as hopelessly unconsumable vinyl LPs at a Salvation Army that you pass by as if they were rooted like trees, except here it was more monumental. The objects are stationed in this tiny little room in this tiny little house in this tiny little city whereas thrift store records possess at least the possibility of motion. On the drive out of town, I kept exercising fantasies of how the Marie Dressler Museum might get used at some future date. All I could come up with is the image of a film scholar on a research project organizing the chaotic stack of photos, animating the ghostly monuments in the process.

What a contrast to Niagara Falls where everything is as blandly utilitarian as fly paper. It works like fly paper too. As you're watching the falls, all the tourist traps keep you stuck to the town. Someone suggest a book to me that tells the story about how some evil entrepreneur(s) saw the throngs of people staring at the pretty waters and set up some random bullshit wax museums and gift shops to bleed some money out of them. Oy the wax museums! We went to three, four if you count Ripley's Believe It Or Not. And let's talk about Ripley for one goddamned minute. Basically what we're seeing in the museum is a rich man's spoils. In this, it reminded me of House on the Rock in Wisconsin. In fact, if they took Nick at Nite and made it a town (Branson, as per Simpsons wisdom), then they did the same with House on the Rock and called it Niagara Falls. Back to Ripley - motherfucker gets to travel all over the globe, amassing all this exotica and us dodos get to just gawk at it behind glass. And all under the premise that it may not be true! As a staunch postmodernist, I should be grinning like a jackass. But Milli Vanilli were never serving up Truth as the main dish. So for me, the most fascinating exhibit was a jumble of letters and photos from a man who repeatedly wrote to Ripley, taking him up on his offer to provide photographic evidence of each oddity. I envisioned this man as our surrogate, comparatively immobile in relation to jet-setting Ripley, forcing a sort of charity from his privileged travels.

And that's the good part because at least Ripley's gobbled up some time. The wax museums took about 15 minutes tops to drag through. We went to three. The movie one probably perked my nipples up the most. I dug the irreverent inclusion of the final bloody scene from Fatal Attraction but they spelled Glenn Close's name incorrectly (same with several others). The rock-n-roll one was shoddy as fuck because what mise-en-scene can you recognizably place Nirvana or Little Richard in? As a result, there was little to look at beyond the figures themselves. The Sex Pistols (all two of them) were in front of the Union Jack. Jerry Lee Lewis was at the piano. Little Richard wasn't. Robert Smith (perhaps appropriately but still surprisingly) brooded all by his lonesome. Copies of old concert posters on the walls made a pathetic attempt at more eye candy. Ugh.

And then there was the Alien Invasion one. Double ugh. First off, I note that the boy who took our money at the rock museum was kind of a rocker type himself. He even marveled at Stuart's clear green Visa card like a true Dave Matthews fan. The guys working Alien Invasion were clearly struggling actors. The hopeful who took our money looked liked Rob Zombie but in a "I can be a Rob Zombie type for your film" kind of way. And when I saw another dude sitting on the floor, scarfing down his takeout before some sort of showtime, it hit me that this was going to be a haunted house with live actors. I avoided several similar attractions since the rides between Milwaukee and Montréal were haunted house enough for me. I got suckered into this one because it really was a wax museum for the first part. But it was three in the afternoon. We were the only people there. I would have felt much less like a big fucking dork had there been more people around. But as it was, I wanted to tell them, "Look, dudes, don't bother with us. Just let us walk around."

The wax part had figures you could have seen in the movie museum (Alien, Pumpkinhead). There were some newspaper articles about Roswell and I asked Stuart if he knew how far it was from Austin so we could be suckers there too. At which point, some dude jumps out and asks "What do you want to know about Roswell?!?" He scared the shit out of me but kept sprouting off Roswell facts after I told him I just wanted to know how far it was from Austin. Turns out, he's one of the live actors. "Ok, at this point of the exhibit, guys, you can choose either the yellow chicken door or..." I forget what the other was called. Stuart asked what the difference was and we choose the tough guy door where the actors grab at you. I sooooo didn't want to go through with this. But it was a lot less scary than I anticipated, although, like the last haunted house I was in, it was so pitch black we couldn't move forward. I had to ask "which way do we go?" into the darkness and a creepy "this way!" led us through. It was all so dorky. These were guys I would meet at a bar and discuss Saphir-like music, maybe a little harder (more Epitaph label stuff, I would imagine, more metal, more Tool). But here, we were forced to collectively deceive ourselves for ten minutes. For once, I had trouble with earnestness.

The Falls were hypnotic, yes. I'm glad I saw them. We took a tour behind the Falls which was a bit of a waste. This boy in a group of about 75 (!) Illinois college students said "This is it?!?!? I could have used that money for food." Indeed.

But for the entire time, I kept feeling as if I had a big sign on my forehead reading "SUCKER!" And I also felt as if I had to walk on eggshells amongst the people who actually live and work there. They all reminded me of that Simpsons where the family goes to Itchy and Scratchy Land and Marge and Homer split off to Parents Island or something like that. They dance at a place where it's New Year's Eve every day. As "Auld Lang Syne" plays, they're clearly loving it and they say to a waiter, "It must be wonderful to ring in the new year over and over and over" to which he replies "Please kill me." One other thing to note is that there were tons of kids around, "bad" kids with skateboards and such so I knew they weren't tourists. We went to a Tim Horton's (I'll miss ya, baby!) outside of the touristy area and there were all these black-cad do-badders hanging out in the parking lot. I wanted to ask them what it was like to live here but I felt that was too orientalist. Still, I'd love to learn about actually living there. And I hope Las Vegas fares a bit better for the Benjaminian in me.

On the trip back, it became clear to me that my life with Stuart has become a Jerry Lewis movie by this point. Instead of screaming at each other over some miscommunication, we wind up laughing our asses off. Seriously. We were literally in tears over three king size soft drinks from Burger King and a perpetually beeping gas pump. It was literally like a string a gags from The Disorderly Orderly. I'm not sure if recounting it all in detail would be as funny for you as it was for us, though. Besides, most of my friends cannot stand Jerry Lewis to begin with. But hey - it's better than crying.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Ken burns ass: Notes on Ken Burns' Jazz

I FINALLY finished ALL TEN FREAKIN' VOLUMES of Ken Burns' Jazz. I'm surprised at how objectionable I found it. Two (2!!!) volumes on swing? And, yes, Louis Armstrong was the very greatest musician of the 20th century. But then it should have just been called Ken Burns' Louis Armstrong in that case. He certainly warrants almost twenty hours of footage. Or perhaps it could have been called something like Classic Jazz. It's a standard objection, I know, but I find it appalling that we're only at 1961 by Volume 9! I concede that I watched it through my popist colored lenses, convulsing at what is now America's classical music, with all the snobberies and inequities of institutional funding that implies. Look, I can't get enough Monk lately. Even paid cash money for the Ken Burns' Jazz Monk CD at Borders in Chicago. Still, I'd love to see twenty hours articulating a pop aesthetic - all the assembly line arrangments and dance crazes and novelty tunes and schmaltzy renditions. Who will fund Kevin Bozelka's American Pop: A Video History (named after my favorite ever box set)?

Below are the notes I scribbled while watching. Some of them don't even make sense to me. Most of it's just songs I need to hear or artists I need to know or factoids I should spout off at parties or questions I want answered. I figure if I had to suffer through all ten volumes, you should too in some way.

Ken Burns' Jazz

Vol. 1 -
Creole virtuosos fused with Negro bluesmen to create jazz. They were integrated because Creoles became "black" under Jim Crow Laws.
Vernon and Irene Castle danced a cleaner version of black dances.
Freddie Keppard turned down his chance to record the first jazz record because he was afraid his style would get stolen.

Vol. 2 -
Speakeasies gave jazz musicians jobs. And it actually eroded stiff morals. Women didn't drink in saloons but they did in speakeasies.
James B. Johnson wrote "The Charleston."
Willie "The Lion" Smith - Stride piano, cutting contexts.
James "Bubber" Miley - Played with Duke.
Austin High Gang - from Austin, IL; Jimmy McPartland
New Orleans Rhythm Kings - aped Oliver/Armstrong
Paul Whiteman - orchestrated jazz; made it precise/predictable as classical music; gave work to black arrangers
Fletcher Henderson - black king of jazz in NYC
Why did audiences recognize Satch's genius right away? It often seems as if genius is/was way ahead (or behind) of audiences? Why did it coincide with Satch?

Vol. 3 -
Babe Egan's Hollywood Redheads - all-girl orchestra
Jean Goldkette had the first great white band
Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues
Black Swan Records - all-black label
Frankie Trumbauer - "Singin' The Blues"
Morton - "Dead Man Blues;" lost steam because the world became focused on soloists rather than New Orleans polyphony
Irving Mills - took 55% of Ellington's earnings and half of publishing
"Black and Tan Fantasy"

Vol. 4 -
Record industry dies somewhat in the 1930s; radio becomes huge and paradoxically disseminates more black music.
Fats Waller - "Handful of Keys"
Big band - an American invention; it's what we have instead of the symphony
Henderson - reeds/brass/rhythm
Savoy - first integrated building
Artie Shaw - "Music on radio sold products and that sickened you."
Let's Dance radio show played rhumbas, sweet dance, hot swing. Benny Goodman's groups won an audition (who else auditioned?) by one vote to appear regularly on the show. Goodman used Henderson's arrangements. "King Porter Stomp"
People listened more than danced to Duke. "Sepia Panorama," "Black Beauty," "Reminiscing in Tempo." No irony nor protest but wonder, pride.
Armstrong - Johnny Collins vs. Tommy Rockwell/Dutch Schultz. Collins overbooked Armstrong and failed to pay his taxes.
Goodman - The West had a reputation for being corny. Club managers wanted dance music, waltzes. Jazz vs. dance/pop/stock arrangements. But "King Porter Stomp" was huge in LA. Why there? Nowhere else?

Vol. 5 -
Goodman played to high school students (not teenagers) at the Paramount in Times Square.
Boys dancing together! 12:00 in.
Ellington - "Symphony in Black" "Jazz is music; swing business." Narrator: He continued on his own independent course, refusing to be categorized.
Helen Oakley suggested Goodman put Teddy Wilson on stage.

Vol. 6 -
Why Kansas City? Dream of the West for African-Americans.
Mary Lou Williams
Implications of Carnegie Hall date in 1938?
Count Basie - importance of space/time. Sparse playing.

Vol. 7 -
If Kansas City was so hot, why did Charlie Parker leave it for NYC?
Cab Calloway couldn't tolerate Dizzy's antics and improvisations. "Chinese music."
Billy Strayhorn - gay!!
Duke was sick of the constricting, pop song format.

Vol. 8 –
Notice how the swing volumes had a flashy intro card. This one ("Risk") just has stark lettering on black background. Now, it’s “young people” who flock to see Sinatra and the singing idols. Who's in the pic with the “No Dancing” sign? And “No Dancing” - gimme a break. Fuck off!
Classical musicians called them “the devil’s intervals;” boppers called them “flatted fifths.”
Satchmo smoked week almost daily.
Ellison on hootin'/honkin' saxes.
Parker's mother wanted no jazz at his funeral.
Granz - Parker with strings
Marsalis - horse destroyed jazz's communal feeling.
Louis Jordan/R&B - why introduced him/it?
Miles Davis did not have Dizzy's virtuosity so he based his style on timbre/melody. Very tender sound to come out of a man. "Bird and Dizz were great but they weren't sweet. We shook people's ears a little softer, took the music more mainstream." The shock horror!
Modern Jazz Quartet - cool, demanded respect.
Parker's admirers thought they could do what he could. Only the most highly skilled musicians could play bebop. Beats thought it was spontaneous - anyone could do it. Allen Ginsberg - available to all; just pick up your axe and blow. Enthusiasts misunderstood.
Joe Hendricks (I think): They tried to say to the audience “Look, lift yourselves up to where we are. We’re not that far out there, you know. We’re just a little more hip than the average person. So come on, get hip, you know. Dig this. Dig this. Take that wax out of your ears.
Wynton: When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it not how does it come to you. Like, Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you. Or the art of Picasso won’t come to you. Shakespeare. You have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.
Moose The Mooche – Parker’s dealer
Wasted for the sessions of “Bebop” and “Lover Man”
Gillespie – Melba Liston – trombonist
Chano Pozo _ congas (from Cuba)
Gillespie: “Dancers didn’t care whether we played a flatted fifth or a rupture one hundred and twenty-ninth. They’d just stand around the bandstand and gawk.” Well, which is it? You want dancers or not?
Frankie Manning: It was not music for dancing.
More signs: You Must Be Seated
Lindy Hopping Strictly Prohibited By Order of the Management
Wilson - Monk found cracks in the diatonic scale which Western music is based on. Played with splayed fingers, percussive style. Half steps.
Billie Holiday - "Autumn in New York"
Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, etc. in LA. Serene sound. Cool/West Coast Jazz. Dave Brubeck - "Blue Rondo A La Turk." Paul Desmond.
"Take Five" - first jazz million seller.
Granz - Jazz at the Philharmonic Troupe - integrated.
Armstrong - "Whiffenpoof Song"
5/15/47 – Armstrong appears with Teagarden at NY’s Town Hall; led to All Stars.
City father of New Orleans would not let Armstrong play cuz Teagarden was in the band; this is why he’s not buried there now.

Volume 9 -
Guess I didn't learn anything.

Volume 10 -
Freedom Now Suite - Max Roach, Oscar Brown Jr., Abbey Lincoln
charles mingus presents charles mingus - columbia records refused to have the lyrics on "Original Faubus Fables" on the record so Mingus released it on Candid Records.
Art Ensemble of Chicago - not since Black Swan Records in the 1920s did a all-black entity control all aspects of the business
Cecil Taylor once said that since he prepared for his concerts, the audience should prepare too.
Branford Marsalis: "That's total self-indulgent bullshit as far as I'm concerned. I mean, you know, I love baseball. I mean, I'm not going to go and catch a hundred grounders before I got to a game. That's what we pay to see them do what they do. And to appreciate them."
Ellington kissed Nixon four times, one for each cheek
George Wein - Invited Led Zep and Sly to Newport Jazz Festival. Miles stayed for four days where he would normally jet. At 43, he felt old. "I started realizing that most rock musicians didn't know anything about music. But they were popular and I wasn't prepared to be a memory yet."
Gerald Early: "What happened, I think, was that the very elements that made Miles such a great band leader in the earlier days when he was playing acoustic music when he was able to bring out everybody's individuality within the framework of his own vision fell apart with the fusion bands cuz there was too much going on and too much of people not listening to each other. So instead of being the kind of challenge that jazz normally is when people are listening to each other and trying to solo but compliment at the same time just became playing tennis without a net."

Friday, July 22, 2005

A Fela A Day

In an effort to become searchable, I will be placing most of my Livejournal posts here (no, I couldn't get any search engines to find my Livejournal; yes, I asked for help; no, "help" said the problem was with Google et al. and not with Livejournal). So if this blog doesn't work, then I have no hope in cyberspace, where everyone (supposedly) can hear you scream.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005
3:34 am
A Fela a day keeps the stockpiling away (I hope)
So I've been sitting on MCA's 25 Fela reissues, most featuring two albums on one disc, pretty much since they were released in 2000 and 2001. A few of them made it into my beloved System 9 iMac (which I still keep given how much my System 10 iMacs have acted like PCs, i.e. horribly). But mostly, they sat scrunched together out of alphabetical order near my difficult-to-get-to reference shelves. Until now, the summer between the first and second years of my PhD program. Not even two weeks in and I'm getting all Howard Hughes-like. Fela, pull me out of it (since you're probably never gunna get a chance again). So June is Fela month, kiddies! Each day, I will review one reissue after having heard it no less than two times (but usually three or more). Hopefully, this will give me the sense that I've actually DONE something with the fuckers which is only apt since my husband drove them 24 hours in a U-Haul teetering with my gross accumulation. I'm ashamed; this is my meager, meager penance.

Fela Kuti: Expensive Shit/He Miss Road (MCA 2000)

My bedtime reading last night was A Whore Just Like The Rest by one R. Meltzer, the inventor of dada rock criticism (and perhaps the genre's sole practitioner although a lot of Scott Seward's stuff unintentionally comes close for most people, I imagine). After cackling for the nth time at those genius San Diego Reader blurbs (his Seattle Weekly ones aren't up to such hilarious par), I drifted into a tension dream about how lil ole pop concision me was going to tackle all that Afrobeat changing same. Somehow my dreamworld got the idea that Meltzer was all about process not end result which is a crappier way of saying that I think he has nothing to say (slightly less than another nothing-to-say avatar whose name I won't mention...yet) but he says that nothing so brilliantly. Fine ok - it's the ultimate in geekdom to dream about such things. But you see, I wasn't all the way under yet. My conscious mind was trying to con my unconscious into writing tomorrow's Fela review for me (or "me" or whatever) just like I dreamt of T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie" before I ever heard it (it came out like Chic playing "Looking for the Perfect Beat" which turns out to be a damn good description). So thanx uncon - I'll run with that.

I'd never claim that Fela had nothing to say. But his music is indeed largely process. Sure, there are climaxes and twists and turns to the stories. But too much funky expanse separates those peaks and valleys for them to register with any significant dramatic oomph, at least to western ears although I'm not sure drama is even the point here. Still, you read the liner notes here and it tells this insane, well, story about Nigerian Nazis searching Fela's shit (not his possessions, his actual feces) for traces of marijuana. Then you go back to "Expensive Shit," the song "commemorating" the event, and the narrative thrust just isn't there. Neither is a certain sardonic charge I get from other Fela tracks. The "ha ha fuck you" I see on the cover (Fela and many wives black powerin' behind the barbed wire surrounding his Kalakuta Republic compound) is what I just can't hear in the song. Or maybe he just wanted to get "ha ha" across. In the end, it comes off only marginally more enervated than the "lighthearted" "He Miss Road" which latter is a tad too slight to be extracting for some impossible Afrobeat mix tape. "Monday Morning In Lagos" rides atop triplet rhythms supposedly indigenous to West African although no music I've ever heard from the region has such a crippled lumber. The effect is like your little GTO being stuck behind one of those hetero horse carriages. Go be romantic somewhere else! Off the streets, fuckers! Really a draaaaag.

My favorite track is paradoxically the longest, "It's No Possible." It's the one that intermittently calls me back (ya know, like tv is supposed to do). Starts with funky guitar but soon the organ riffs over it and eventually burbles into damn near "Rated X" territory. But some "oh my turn now?" drumming lays down the beat for one dreary minute (Tony Allen "bombs" all right but not in the way the liner notes suggest) until the percussion gets all middle part of "Whole Lotta Love." Morse code bass, then funky guitar, then less Milesish organ then finally horns make the sound progressively less feverish. Isn't the gradual introduction of instruments supposed to cause a fever? By the time Fela's voice jumps on board eleven minutes in, we've been listening to jazz for too long. The thing ends on some psychedelic reverb I wish was exploited more. If Bill Laswell was my roomie, we could edit the fucker down and beef up the beats. But as Fela says, it's no possible.

Btw, I listened to this disc at least six times. Performance anxiety, I guess.

Current Mood: agitated
Current Music: Sequal: "Tell The Truth" (FINALLY!)

Friday, June 3rd, 2005
5:33 pm
A Fela A Day 2
Fela Kuti: Shakara/London Scene (MCA 2000)

In 1998 (apparently - just checked on the slowly-superseding-allmusic.com discogs.com to make sure), I picked up a 12" sound unheard (well, I was at the great but chaotic Gramophone Records in Chicago and I didn't want to waste any time previewing anything) by Afro Elements called "Lagos Jump" on the Ibadan label. Turns out to be a slight houseification (really "quantization" for you jockey types out there) of Fela's "Shakara" courtesy of Kerri Chandler and friend who prudently excised the man's vocals. A mite scandalous, I know. I guess they can (sorta) get away with it because both sides are dubs (but of what, Miss Chandler? of WHAT?). In any event, whenever DJs want to throw some Afrobeat into their set, they now (or then - 1998 still feels pretty moderne to me) have only themselves to blame (rather than the fallibility of Fela's crew) if the beats don't match up. Chandler & Co. have even provided an intro before the itchy sax/guitar hook/groove kicks in.

Of course, the original "Shakara" here starts with that itchiness from the git, rendering the track damn near roach-infested for at least two minutes. One of my fave Felas, it gives up even more itchiness (relegated to the three-note, bugged-out guitar figures this time) before moving into all that damn soloing, always a deafspot with me and Fela. If I can't figure out what Lester Young is doing his saxophone, I'm certainly never gunna know just what exactly Fela or Igo Chico or whoever are doing (or not doing) with theirs. Still, a fine intro to the disc along with a lesser classic, "Lady," the sexual politics of which I'll reserve commentary on until a more (or do I mean less?) enlightened moment.

The second album wedged in here is actually called Fela's London Scene, to be precise. Recorded at Abbey Road in 1971, these were the first songs to be released after Fela and Nigeria 70's nine-month stay in Los Angeles (on expired temporary visas!) in 1970, "performing regular gigs at a local club while deeply immersing themselves in the African-American counter-culture." I need some more education on that, e.g. who the hell HEARD them at this time? And that ain't all: "If the slow, languorous tempos of 'J'ehin J'ehin' and 'Egbe Mi O' carried the strong scent of ganja, they also deconstructed nearly everything Fela had done during the 1960s, when he was playing in his frantic 'highlife-jazz' style." Now I'm no fool - I knew 25 CDs didn't exhaust the man's oeuvre. But a whole 'nother mode before all this? Jack Smith, grant me the wisdom and serenity and O I forget the rest.

Liner noter Michael E. Veal neglects to mention that ganja urges long-windedness too. A song with slow, languorous tempos need not chomp on for fourteen minutes. Just ask Tricky. Or David Foster. Veal claims that the rhythm shift in "J'ehin J'ehin" "must have had the dancers scurrying." I'd say their rump shakes were probably only mildly more insistent. And speaking of mild, "Egbe Mi O" is all about keeping it mild on the dancefloor with such lines (supposedly sung in English although I can't hear it) as "all your pants got torn at the bottom of your ass" and "you dance too much/your hat dropped/and it got stolen" and (in Yoruba) "you dance too much/you almost died." How many songs in the western tradition express such a sentiment? There's no parking, baby, no parking on our dancefloors. Or even idling, really. But I think the problem with so much African music for western ears and butts is how ferocious it's not. It rarely makes you feel mighty real. More like mighty relaxed. Fela is more ass-kickin' than most and thus an excellent entry point into the music of the continent. But this is the first song I've heard that epitomizes the mild/wild, African/western dancefloor distinctions.

Still, we got the same "story" problems here. "Egbe Mi O" caps off its initial phrases with five portentous horn blats. And what do they portend? More and more disco. More and more soloing. At about ten minutes, Fela implores "everybody outside of this record" to "all sing together this beautiful African tune." The high-pitched chorus on "Laaaaa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, la-la-la" sounds suspiciously like the ones you might hear on an Esquivel record. But they build to a, well, ferocity the space age bachelor would have found too vulgar for the Holiday Inn set. And then those same horn blats end the song, portending nothing at all this time. I guess, then, that the story (or do I mean moral?) is of a dancer keeping it mild, building the intensity, but building it too high so that nothing but danger is received in the end. Insofar as the song is non-narrative, I guess one would have to call it avant-garde. But it's avant-garde in the way that TLC's "No Scrubs" is with contradictory elements rubbing up against one another.

"Who're You" is easier to swallow (it's faster, for one) but no less nutty and thus my fave of this lot. A horny phrase piles on enough goodies to bear two minutes of repetition. Fela plays "an African folk tune" on electric piano with Monk-like clusters. Or accidents. Doesn't matter. It dances great.

Veal kinda brushes off "Buy Africa" and "Fight To Finish" so I will too. I'm beat.

Saturday, June 4th, 2005
3:43 am
A Fela A Day 3
Fela Kuti: Coffin For Head Of State/Unknown Soldier (MCA 2000)

Part 2 of the former song/track/album/groove is on Best Best, the better part. And "Shuffering and Shmiling" is a more scandalous dump on religion. Most of the power in "Unknown Soldier" rests on the chorus. Fela just gives forth with recitatives (though dig his sickened chortle at 25:20 right before he explains the song's title). But the chorus plays the army advancing on Fela's Kalakuta compound, an eerie device made all the more unsettling by the detached professionalism of their singing. When the bastards start marauding, the lyric sheet says that the chorus merely repeats "Yes." But it actually sounds like baby talk. Someone please advise because I have the creeps. And, of course, by this point, Fela's done reciting for the moment, crying "them kill my mama" over and over. Two questions: Fela says Stevie Wonder was present during the attack. True? Or some poetics I'm missing? Also: sounds like Fela says "I'm finished mother" at the end. True? Finally, peep this liner note nugget from the man himself: "I can't stand all that short music. We dance long distance here, so no three-minute music for me." He said it.

Current Mood: wonderin'
Current Music: Armand Van Helden v Jaydee:You Dont Even Know Plastic Dreams

Sunday, June 5th, 2005
11:57 pm
A Fela A Day 4
Fela Kuti: V.I.P/Authority Stealing (MCA 2000)

I've been spending waaaay too much time on the albums that fail to make much of an impression on me for fear of forty Fela freaks telling me I didn't give this or that enough of a chance. Well, I heard this one about ten times although I couldn't promise that it always had my undivided attention. "V.I.P." (Vagabonds in Power) comes at us live from Berlin in 1978. Now live recordings often allow an artist to stretch out. But, um, this is Fela we're talking about here. He's already Stretch Armstrong. Granted, the twenty-minute cut offers only about thirteen minutes of music due to an unboogieable opening monologue. And it builds a recognizable tension, more so than the rather slight, non-live "Authority Stealing." But one couldn't quite exactly call the resulting release orgasmic. Instead, several mild climaxes gush forth, first with the chorus, then the keybs, then the horns. Kinda sloppy. Sure, I like getting sloppy now and then. But these eternal unreturns remind me more of the trick you just want to kick out after the mess is made.

I'm sure there's something grotesquely male about my dislike of multiple climaxes. I've always been a tad scandalized by the two (!) cum shots that close the version of New Order's "The Perfect Kiss" on Substance. Trust me - it was orgasmic enough the first time. Anything more would just cheapen the effect. But really, all I can do to offset any potential phallocentrism in the review above is to claim once again that it's the femme chorus that carries most of the track's feverish power.

I'm sure I'll run into someone some day who'll tell me that "Authority Stealing" was unbearably intense for them. Maybe Michael B. Richman of Portland, Maine who's reviewed several of the Fela twofers on Amazon.com, the nut. But even he advises the neophyte to start elsewhere. And I say there's only so far you can stretch a rubber band before it breaks. Or you do.

Current Mood: hazy
Current Music: Mathilde Santing: "Behind A Painted Smile"

Monday, June 6th, 2005
11:56 pm
A Fela A Day 5
Fela Kuti: Yellow Fever/Na Poi (MCA 2000)

The twenty-five minute version of the how-to fuck book "Na Poi" pokes holes through all the voodoo - often you hear only one or two instruments for long stretches, leaving a lot of air for you to breathe in. But then I went back to "Yellow Fever" for comparison and it didn't sound all that voodoo to me either. Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn't be listening to all these one after the other. Maybe I need to spin some Paris Sisters in between.

Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: Sick Bees: The Marina Album

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005
12:12 am
A Fela A Day 6
Fela Kuti: Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood

Just when I thought I was starting to get sick of this crazy project, in trucks "Opposite People." Opening beats somersault forward (did someone sample these or am I just thinking of the machine that kicks off Sly's godlike "Brave & Strong?") and the guitar scurries around comedically, almost Keystone Kop-like. Fast fast too. The sax honks like a hoedown happenin'. Add in a typically ear-catching chorus shouting back to Fela, especially effective on words like "Shakara" (hello again!) and "Katakata" (pidgin for pandemonium), and we have something that sounds awfully similar to classic gospel (why had this never occurred to me before?). "Sorrow Tears and Blood" is his most effective response to the 2/77 Kalakuta raid. The lyrics function like a chaotically edited news spot. "Someone nearly died" (cut) "Some people lost some bread" (cut) "Someone just died." And yet again, the chorus brings the fever: "Hey yeah!" over and over again. Pat your brow.

Ok so we all know why Adé never made it as the next Marley (no lyrics in English; groove not ferocious enough). But Fela was trucking simultaneously with Marley and even outran him. He had plenty of lingua franca lyrics. He was legibly funky. What happened (or didn't)? My guess: lack of widely available edited versions.

Current Mood: rejuvenated
Current Music: Palomar: "Albacore"

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005
5:05 pm
A Fela A Day 7
A moment of silence for Anne Bancroft.

Okay, moment's up. Too bad only auteur freaks have seen her greatest performance - as Dr. Cartwright in 7 Women, my very fave John Ford. Also, didjaknow that she was the first choice for...wait for it...Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? Greatness surrounded this woman. R.I.P.

Fela Kuti: Shuffering And Shmiling/No Agreement (MCA 2000)

"Shuffering And Shmiling" has long been my fave Fela. Maybe it's because the way the bass leads the groove (and leaves the guitar with little to do - nyah! nyah! - always fun to make fun of guitars..and really, it deserves it this time...it's not really even pushing the beat forward) reminds me of New Order. Ok, it sounds Peter Hooky not at all. But the IDEA reminds me of New Order (and actually, they could do a nifty cover of "S&S"). The lyrics catch Fela at his funniest and most acidic. The phrase "quel scandale!" was invented for THIS. The man reduces both Christianity AND Islam to gibberish in the face of their significant contributions to the unequal distribution of wealth. A finer critique of religion in song there is not (not even XTC's "Dear God" or Big Stevie's "Superstition"). "Why not African religion?" the cover asks. Well, why not, I suppose. Where's that song, though? Is it "Perambulator," named on the cover too but not included on the disc (come on - 25 Fela albums are NOT enough)?

Still, bitch I must. My attention sags during the sax solo in this twenty-five minute version. As usual, the version on Best Best will do more than nicely. And speaking of solos, Lester Bowie jizzes all over "No Agreement." Damned if I know what makes it special, if anything. But there's a nice full stop along the way. "Dog Eat Dog" is an, um, instrumental. Say hells no.

Current Mood: cleansed
Current Music: Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (blame Jessica)

Friday, June 10th, 2005
3:31 am
A Fela A Day 8
Fela Kuti: Original Suffer Head/I.T.T. (MCA 2000)

I'm sure Byrne and Co. heard Fela before dropping the first side of Remain in Light in 1980. But is it possible that Fela heard them right back in 1982 with "Original Suffer Head?" Very "Crosseyed and Painless," that one. Maybe even in a little of Candido's "Jingo" in there too. And just like "Jingo," it looks forward to house (the opening organ bit could almost be kicking off Moonshine's long lost U.K. Dance Hits comp from 1994). Drums goofy and hyper, scattering every which way, with the bass making nerve-wracked suggestions, Shaggy to the percussionists' Scooby. Guitars stiff, almost new wavey. Horns doing little to calm everyone down. All very staccato. It holds up for twenty-one minutes too, esp. since the lyrics are such a read. Fela excoriates the First and Second Worlds for sucking up resources as he methodically runs through the depletion of water, light, food, and house (as in shelter, dummy..no, not the club Shelter either). Takes a bit of time, as one might imagine. Lyric of the day: "Suffer-Head must go/Je'fa-Head must come" (Je'fa is Yoruba for "Free-of-charge").

And then there's "Power Show." Shit goddamn - I think I have a new fave Fela! In an oblique way, it reminds me of the one of the first songs I can recall hearing as a wee young goat - Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years." That song always scared the shit out of me and, of course, I now know why. The Dans bumrushed the pop charts and succeeded in getting the world to chirp along with whatever sick, nihilistic shit was mucking up their minds. Even before pubes, I could somehow sense this twisted plan of attack, a feeling of sour (bitter? salty? certainly not sweet unless it's sickeningly sweet like those awful marshmallow Peeps) resignation washing over me. I get the same sense with "Power Show." On the surface, it's oh so smoooooth, kinda like classic Spinners (aha! - "I'll Be Around" was another song that always made me feel confusingly sad...eventually figured that one too, natch - you just know the probably way too nice dude singing wants the gal he's being around for and doesn't stand a chance of getting her). The solos are played for comfort and even pure melodic delight as is Fela's singing. Witness how he runs up and down the staff on "show-ow-ow-ow-ow." Soon, you're talking long walks on the beach. You're enjoying nights by the fireplace. You're eating sushi. But of all of sudden, you remember something you have to get done by the end of the week. Or you're overcome with thoughts about how old you've suddenly become, how little you think you've accomplished in life. No rage, no despair. But worry. Exhaustion. Quiet desperation.

Fitting, I suppose. The song's about how various officials showboat, abuse their power. Fela first targets an immigration officer which really hit home with me given my many shitty encounters with said Nazis. See, this is how the song works. It doesn't SOUND like it's about an immigration officer. But there he is, giving you the run around and even taking a shit (I'm not kidding here) while you wait for his verdict ("no go cross" in Fela's case). And talk about depletion. It all really wears Fela out. Fatigue - the best rock 'n' disco subject. David Toop should have placed this at the end of Sugar and Poison instead of Chic's "At Last I Am Free" (the latter fits perfectly, of course, but a bit TOO perfectly).

As for "I.T.T.," great song but two words: Best Best.

(One quick side note. The other song I can remember scaring me as a child was Chicago's "Saturday in the Park." But that's only because it sucked. Such a rock critic back then.)

Current Mood: bloated
Current Music: 100 Flowers: "California's Falling Into The Ocean"

Saturday, June 11th, 2005
5:48 am
A Fela A Day 9
Fela Kuti: Stalemate/Fear Not For Man (MCA 2000)

Michael E. Veal calls these "fairly skeletal in their development" which he blames on Fela's preoccupations after the raid on Kalakuta. Fine. But then: "These two albums must go down as two of the funkiest albums to come out of Africa during the 1970s." Wha??? Skeletal and funky are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Take Dirty Mind-era Prince, for instance. But I don't hear a "Head" here. What I do hear is too much of Fela "rapping" (really just talking), not enough chorus, one instrumental, one almost instrumental, and scant, tossed-off musical information all throughout. The dullest of the lot so far. And I listened to the fuckers five times.

Current Mood: restless
Current Music: Prince: "Head"

Monday, June 13th, 2005
12:30 am
A Fela A Day 10
Fela Kuti: Confusion/Gentleman (MCA 2000)

The appropriately entitled "Confusion" makes for Fela's trippiest track. The opening five-minute keyb/drum conversation never reeks of the long-winded pretension we usually receive with solos, particularly of the drum variety. Fela and Tony Allen bang ever-intensifying shivers out of their instruments before a polite groove kicks in. Only for two minutes, though. At which point Allen - he don't stop, he don't stop, hitting like a faster, more herky-jerky Ziggy Modeliste. Keybs and guitar add more confusion and then get set for some very On the Cornerish trumpet (no?). Fela sings of the confusion of currencies and languages in Nigeria and eventually the ends of his phrases get sucked up into psychedelic reverb that could have stepped right off of Nuggets Vol. 3. The weed musta been choice that day.

"Gentleman" is better better on Best Best. On "Fefe Naa Efe," Fela makes his electric piano sound like soukous guitar pointillism. "Igbe" is recommended to those who think African music never gets out of gentle sway mode. I no longer have my BPM counter but trust me - the first minute especially is probably too fast (and nervous) for you to dance to. Fast and nervous - hmmm. Decidedly not qualities one associates with African music. And yet, here they are again. There's a paper in there somewhere. And kudos to congaist Henry Kofi for going nutso.

Current Mood: sluggish
Current Music: Nils Petter Molvaer: "Axis of Ignorance"

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005
1:46 am
A Fela A Day 11
Fela Kuti: Everything Scatter/Noise For Vendor Mouth (MCA 2001)

Whew! Done with the first batch. "Everything Scatter" (1975 - forgot to include original dates) is the keeper here. After a briefly intense organ (electric piano?) soak, horns bring the fever. But whereas I would've kept them blaring non-stop until the next act, Fela separates them with two and a half measures of sax solos. At first, the coitus interruptus annoyed me. But the on-again, off-again feel started to sound like coitus anyway. And someone please advise - what does Tony Allen hit to make that clipped, stuttering sound that juts out at you? Is he merely hitting higher-pitched drums (sound like across between a tom and a snare to me)? Towards the beginning of the song, he sets things off with a more recognizable bassier thwomp. The sound I'm talking about starts right after the introduction of the great irritating guiars lines at 1:36. I can also hear it on Mixmaster Mike + Lateef and The Gift of Gab's noise-bringing version of "Kalakuta Show." it kinda piddles on the surface of the beat and yet is paradoxically responsible for moving everyone forward. Everything scatters so nicely that Fela and chorus fail to impress this time out. No lyrics reprinted so I'll probably never get to wax brilliant on that aspect ever again. But Mabinuori Kayode Idowu provides precis. Wonder what Ugandans thought of Fela's call here to heed Idi Amin's advice.

The other three tracks are tired (as am I). But at least one of them fades out, something you rarely hear with Fela and indeed most African music. Probably because its sustained oases already embrace the illusion of eternity.

Current Mood: Garlicly rejuvenated
Current Music: The New Pornographers: "Twin Cinema"

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005
12:42 am
A Fela A Day 12
Fela Kuti: Monkey Banana/Excuse O (MCA 2001)

A title like "Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism is the Boss" (1975) promises scintillating funkadelics. But this motor booty affair has flat tires with massive blood loss on the highways. For missiles targeting the deliberately shoddy nature of third world education, I'll take Mighty Sparrow's "Dan is the Man (in the Van)." And "Boss" is the best cut here. Fela simply sounds tired throughout. I guess that's what happens when you've released twelve albums in three years (or is that one year?). Or maybe there were some pitch control problems in the mastering. "Excuse O" (1975), in particular, warbles noticeably.

Current Mood: Second windy
Current Music: !!!: Louden Up Now

Thursday, June 16th, 2005
5:14 am
A Fela A Day 13
Fela Kuti: Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles (MCA 2001)

"Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake AM" goes slower than "Go Slow" (both 1972). Fela and chorus definitely sound like they're having trouble sleeping, lumbering all zombie-like towards who-knows-what sorts of dangers. Ah! but this song has nothing to do with sleepwalking. Trouble itself is sleeping here and Provocation (yanga) wakes "him" up. So it's actually about people who are already at their wit's ends getting fucked with by cops or landlords. But while the title translates as "toying with a loaded gun," the principals here are less on the verge of going postal than really fagged-out by all the button-pushing. Very 1972. That word the chorus moans is apparently "Palaver!"

"Shenshema," confusingly deemed one of The Fela Singles even though it's previously unreleased, is pretty good too. The drummer (Tony Allen, I imagine) motors most Modelistely with cowbells that go-go. The music thins out under the singing. But then comes the grungiest electric piano I've ever heard. Kinda punky overall. "Ariya" (1973) will prove indispensable for the Nigerian version of Austin Powers. "Question Jam Answer" moves pretty fast but puts out just before orgasm. So slow Fela wins out over fast this time. Novel.

"Roforofo Fight" is on Best Best in its entirety.

Current Mood: dazed
Current Music: Brooks: "Man-Size"

Friday, June 17th, 2005
12:40 am
A Fela A Day 14
Fela: Fela With Ginger Baker Live! (MCA 2001)

This 1971 show turned out much better than I anticipated. Thought the live setting would prove an invitation to wank. But really, how much longer can the man wank? It's not a double CD, after all (gawd, there's a scary thought). Still, the studio versions will do fine as usual (especially since a drum solo disfigures "Ye Ye De Smell"). And for wank, you get the 1978 extravaganza "Ginger Baker & Tony Allen Drum Solo," all 16:22 of which I actually listened to while working out. Pretty loud too. Only once, though. Drum solos are inherently pointless, no?

You can tell MCA was scraping the barrel bottom with this second batch of releases. No lyrics which leaves Idowu to explain them (and nothing else). What I want to know is who at MCA knew Fela's oeuvre well enough to shoot his best shots during round one.

P.S. My G5 hates these reissues and this CD in particular. After three tries, it still wouldn't give the disc back. On the fourth, it ejaculated it out with a force one would would expect from an Electric Dreams-style comedy. Sorrrreeee!!

Current Mood: sore
Current Music: Frankie Valli & The 4 Seasons: "Lucky Ladybug"

Saturday, June 18th, 2005
4:50 am
A Fela A Day 15
Fela: Open & Close/Afrodisiac (MCA 2001)

Frustrating. This is probably the most consistent of the second (or even first) batch. But its consistency stems from averaging out high points against low rather than non-stop listenability. Every track kicks ass here at some point. And every track fizzles out in almost equal dollops. Take "Alu Jon Jonki Jon," (1972-1973) for instance, which pulls out of the lot with Fela's most visceral hello. Staccato horns shout back and forth for over a minute, each imploring the other to yank it out of the quicksand. Fela comes to their aid at 1:18 with the chorus, freeing the horns to toot together. But at 2:06, we're already back to the introductory fever. The process repeats for another two minutes or so until you think Fela will ride the beast into the spheres (only fitting for a Yoruban myth about animals sacrificing their mothers in a community cooking pot). Alas, everything pares back way too much to give room for Fela singing and more goddamned solos. The battle has raged on elsewhere and all that's left on the field is gunsmoke and the stench of rotting flesh, maybe a lucky vulture or two. Very little life left. And don't try to tell me Fela's only building up tension towards orgasm. At 9:51, he goes absolutely fuckin' Rated X psycho on his electric piano for almost a solid minute...then a full stop and back to the lifeless boogie! The man teases but never lets us cum.

Can it be, then, that what Fela requires here is...MORE REPETITION?!?! Well, yes. Keep those horns hollerin' at one another for the full 12:41. You can still have your solos too. Only now you have to compete with this brass-beat THING charging forward. Someone PLEASE do a remix to these specifications.

So "Open & Close" (1971) closes down too often. "Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo" (1971) should be more onomatopoeic. "Eko Ile," (1972-1973) a veritable choo-choo train with hooting keybs, loses steam (at 6:41, no less). And the horns in "Je'nwi Temi (Don't Gag Me)" and especially " Jeun Ko Ku (Chop'n Quench)" (both (1972-1973) are a tad too Austin Powers/Herb Alpert urbane to appease any gods.

Current Mood: New Orderly
Current Music: Wide Right: "Royanne"

Monday, June 20th, 2005
12:18 am
A Fela A Day 16
Fela: Koola Lobitos 1964-1968/The '69 L.A. Sessions (MCA 2001)

Truly abysmal liner notes this time. Idowu doesn't even let us know that Koola Lobitos was the name of Fela's band at the time. Maybe it's the translation. Or a crappy editor.

The first half is Fela in highlife mode, hornier and faster than the highlife I've heard. Picks to click include "Omuti Tide" and "Laise Lairo."

And then there's these peculiar L.A. sessions which sound very London, like they just stepped off the set of Blowup. Supposedly influenced by James Brown but seriously deficient in chicken scratch. Or more precisely, the chicken scratch never identifies the one and the three as the staff of Ra. And horny! Barely a moment goes by without someone blowing this or that brass. Doesn't help that they blow more blood, sweat & tears than sorrow, tears, and blood (check out the start of "Witchcraft"). And do I hear a little Bobby Bland in it all? I'm thinking "Don't Cry No More" and "Turn On Your Love Light," no? Though the big difference would be that Bland's singing songs whereas Fela cannot wait to break out of song-like lengths. So his funky horns race forward until they slam into the four-minute mark. As a bridge towards whatever Fela thought Afrobeat would be, this is fascinating stuff. But it gets wearying rather quickly. And when everything slows down, it slips right off the edge of consciousness.

Current Mood: postal
Current Music: Simply Red: Money's Too Tight To Mention

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005
4:26 am
A Fela A Day 17
Fela: Army Arrangement (MCA 2001)

I still haven't heard Bill Laswell's remix and edit of the original 30:01 title cut. But I have full faith in my powers of prediction that it will smoke this version, especially since a superior edited version is already on Best Best. The other track is the previously unreleased 29:15 original version of "Government Chicken Boy." Didn't Laswell remix (or at least edit) this one too? Anyway, it's the hands down winner on this particular release. A ten-second horn intro promises something lively and spirited. Instead, we get damn near funereal drums that sound like a "ooga-chaka" parody of what most Westerners think African music sounds like. The more sluggish rhythms might be due to the passing down of sticks from Tony Allen to Egypt 80 drummer Francis Foster (what's with all the Western names for drummers?). In any event, the beat stays sluggish for the rest of the twenty-nine minutes! Various themes are stated before a totally handleable sax solo, handleable because the horns keep reinstating a theme around it. But also because of the retarded tempos. No one has any energy to really show off here. It takes until 13:39 for any voices to come in and it's mostly Fela making chicken noises. Fela & Co. rip on "establishment boys" for a while and then a deliciously unvirtuosic organ (electric piano? which the hell is it?!?) solo drags its ass in at 21:46. Fela decides to sing a "traditional African song" at 25:11. I'd claim that the remainder resembles a demented "Tusk" if "Tusk" weren't already demented. But where "Tusk" was coked-up, "Government Chicken Boy" is weeded-down. It's as if Fleetwood Mac forced their marching band to play for twenty-four hours before recording. (Hey, it works! Orson Welles kept Joseph Cotten up for a day before shooting his drunk scene in Citizen Kane and just listen how hilariously Cotten slurs the word "criticism." Even Welles is smirking.) At the very end, we get that perky horn intro and the song just sputters out. Why did Fela see fit to place this kind of music to lyrics lambasting chickenshit public officials? A deeply, deeply strange one.

Current Mood: no longer insomniac!
Current Music: OK GO: OH NO

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005
4:34 am
A Fela A Day 18
Fela: Live in Amsterdam (MCA 2001)

"Unlike most titles in the MCA reissue series, this one is not two albums on one CD," claims ole reliable Michael B Richman of Amazon/Fela fame. But actually, it is. Capitol released it as a double album in 1984. Not that I feel overjoyed to pull out that factoid. Despite again winding up better than anticipated, this live date captured by Dennis Bovell in late 1983 still jogs annoyingly in place. The thin recording renders "You Gimme Shit I Give You Shit" more full of shit than threatening. And "Custom Check Point" gets my vote as the Fela track that most sounds like a record needle stuck in a groove, albeit a mildly funky one. Too bad - it's about disrespecting the colonialist borders of Africa. As for "M.O.P. (Movement of the People) Political Statement Number 1," not one of its 37:04 offended. But we shall never meet again.

Current Mood: A good sleepy
Current Music: A Raincoat: "It Came in the Night"

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005
3:55 am
A Fela A Day 19
Fela: J.J.D./Unnecessary Begging (MCA 2001)

"J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop)" (1977) was recorded live at Kalakuta Republik and catches Fela at his speediest. The opening conga runs faster than "In The Bush" on 78. A little tiring after six plays. But great cover. "Ofersee Hairways" has just dropped a freshly Westernized Johnny down onto Lagos. He sports many new patches, some of which read "I Love USA" and "Jesus Saves." Also "Sex." And something "Boy," perhaps a comment on his manhood. Hmmm.

Fela slows things down for "Unnecessary Begging," thins things out for "No Buredi (No Bread)" (both 1976). Too much in both cases.

Perhaps the overdose effects are starting to show.

Current Mood: horny
Current Music: New Order: "Everyone Everywhere"

Friday, June 24th, 2005
11:57 pm
A Fela A Day 20
Fela: Ikoyi Blindness/Kalakuta Show (MCA 2001)

I actually dig the horns in the former (1976). They're riffy for once. No doubt, that's my problem with solos in general. They rarely form repetitions (but not too many now!) that can coagulate into riffs or hooks. Although piano solos rarely seem to bug me. I'm much more attracted to Earl "Fatha" Hines or Art Tatum or Monk than I am, oh, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. Must ponder. Also: another great cover painting by Ghariokwu Lemmi.

I'll keep "Kalakuta Show" (1976) around mostly for the memory of how Mixmaster Mike and the Blackalicious boys made it more appropriately chaotic.

Current Mood: eh, ya know
Current Music: The Click Five: "I Think We're Alone Now"

Saturday, June 25th, 2005
4:47 am
A Fela A Day 21
Fela: Zombie (MCA 2001)

"Zombie" (1976-1977) is a classic, arguably the most important Fela song ever given how much needless tragedy it triggered. But it's on Best Best in its entirety. You can hear boos on the prevously unreleased "Mistake (Live At The Berlin Jazz Festival - 1978)." Apparently, Fela wasn't jazz enough for them. "No disco! No Travolta!" shouted the jazzbos although I can't hear it nor can I hear anything Fela might be saying to them. Disco? Well, sure, I suppose. But if he was no Ornette Coleman, he was certainly no Patrick Adams either (much less Travolta - sheesh). Besides, you can hear just as many people cheering in the crowd. Still, like a lot of live Fela, it's pretty DOA. Not sure I'd be booing exactly. But definitely "time to go get a hot dog" worthy. Is this track really supposed to be the Afrobeat equivalent of Dylan's Live 1966?

Check out this review of "Zombie" from Amazon: "My seven year old son who is heavily into monsters etc. is absolutely obsessed with this record. He tells me it's because the big Fela is singing about zombies. What really hooked him in though, is the phat grooves laid down by Afrika '70 on this superb platter." What a freakin' riot!!! I was into monsters well before I was seven. But I couldn't discern phat grooves until I was 19 or so. So how does dude know those are what hooked his son in? Did the little lad cast aside his Dawn of the Dead action kit and start bustin' out with a funky chicken? I should think not!

Current Mood: Studio psych-thirsty
Current Music: The Poppy Family: "There's No Blood In Bone"

Sunday, June 26th, 2005
7:37 pm
A Fela A Day 22
Fela: Upside Down/Music of Many Colours (MCA 2001)

"Collection conceived and prepared for CD by Jean-Pierre Haie/Universal Music France." So I guess he gets the glory for the conceptual coup of a Fela disc featuring not one but two (2!) lead vocalists who are NOT Fela! Sandra Akanke Isidore, Fela's stateside hand holder, visited Nigeria in 1976 and laid down "Upside Down" on which she sings (or rather, according to the liner notes, Fela makes her sing) about the disorganization of Africa over tinkly Brownisms. Would make a great mixtape with Sonny/Linda Sharrock's "Black Woman" and The Art Ensemble of Chicago/Fontella Bass' "Theme de Yoyo."

Thank Jack Smith that Fela recorded "2000 Blacks Got To Be Free" (1980) after that jazz concert discussed last time because this is the real disco with boogie bass runs and a metronomic foundation for easy mixing. Still, he couldn't have picked a more jazzy disco conspirator than Roy Ayers (well, maybe Herbie Mann but certainly not Brick of "Dazz! Dazz! Disco Jazz!" fame). Ayers mans (Manns?) his vibraphone and provides some breathy vocals. Would make a rather sad mixtape with Hugh Mundell's "Africa Must Be Free by 1983."

Neither of the above lends Fela a new rabid democrat profile. But what a refreshing surprise! And yet oddly enough, the best track comes from the man himself on the mic. "Africa Centre of the World" shines like prime Adé and sparkles like Disneyland. Fela opens his diary and tells about his time as a student in London where various enlightened Englishmen took him for a primate. Ayers contributes some good vibes (both kinds).

Only low point: another version of "Go Slow."

Current Mood: My arm hurts
Current Music: Spoon live heard from a bar across the street

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005
12:19 am
A Fela A Day 23
Fela: Underground System (MCA 2001)

This was apparently Fela's last album (though not mine) and it's the way I prefer to remember him. Both the title track and "Pansa Pansa" (1992) rush by in their discontentedness. The former contains many viscerally pissed-off moments: the sax squeal at 12:21, the stubborn full-stop at 17:13, the drummer's brief temper tantrum at 23:18, Fela's (I assume) Monky cluster fucks on non-electric piano throughout. On "Pansa Pansa," Fela runs through some of his songs that have pissed off the Nigerian authorities. But even at the end, he's ready to give them pansa pansa (more more). The last ninety seconds of sticky chorus shouts are as chillingly final as any I know. The song may be over but the rage isn't. I doubt anyone would ever use this word to describe such speedy menace but I find both cuts moving. Inspirational even. This is the true sound of restlessness. Here's hoping Fela finally found a little wherever his battered body went in 1997.

Tacked on is "Confusion Break Bones (C.B.B.)," a track from 1990's ODOO album. It would have made a less poetic finale given how battle-worn the thing feels. But ooh is it ever so gorgeously sad! The guitar sways like it's just been hit by a batterram rather than a gentle breeze. The sax is Fela's most bluesy. The horn and chorus arrangements respond with an ever-shifting melody bank, seizing one's ear for the entire 29:10. Everything moves very methodically, very precisely. Not as threatening as the other two cuts. But it's one staunch character.

A keeper all around.

Current Mood: awake
Current Music: Amerie: "1 Thing"

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005
3:23 am
A Fela A Day 24
Fela: Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O. (MCA 2001)

My computer really hates the former track/album so I had to reconstruct it in bits and pieces. All I'll say, then, is that it has the feel of a light, tropical vacation to it, a spiritual brother to "Confusion Break Bones" last time out. And yet, the music seems "inappropriate" for a song about how ununited the United Nations are. Does this make Fela a modernist?

"O.D.O.O." seems a tad aimless at 31:53. I don't recall the edit on Best Best at the moment but I'm sure it's more useful.

One more to go!!!!!

Current Mood: Gen Xy
Current Music: The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart

Friday, July 1st, 2005
11:35 am
A Fela A Day 25
Fela: Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (MCA 2001)

J'ai fini! Aussi, je suis fini! And yes, I know the difference between the two and mean both.

Milhouse (of Simpsons fame) on Miles Davis: "So, when do they start singing?" I hear ya, kid. Sometimes jazz is like visiting a town with no townsfolk in it. Or the townsfolk refuse to tell you where the location of the nearest necessary room. And the same holds true for Fela. I don't require voices as signposts. But when Fela funks on in lockstep, it helps to find a person to assure you that you haven't entered one of those Twilight Zone kiddie playsets where the train keeps pulling into to the same station. And by "person," I don't mean a person's voice per se. Just a new element.

But usually, it means voices. Fela places a vocal chorus up front on "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" (1986) and it softens you up for the solos and the 25:48 long haul. It's a strategy similar to the one some porn opportunist used for the Pamela and Tommy tape whereby a blow job aria was edited out of sequence and inserted towards the beginning so that we didn't have to sit through interminable vacation footage before we got to the creamy stuff. But the track is a bit soft to begin with, like a lot of his music from this era. I'm really digging 1980s Fela for this very reason - there's more resolve to it, more Marquee Moon than Blank Generation. Like a certain sweet softness can foster hard changes. Or at least a new chapter. 1970s Fela was often like watching Fela watch TV. 1980s Fela is like watching Fela watching The Ellen Degeneres Show and wondering out loud how much longer he can refrain from applying the phrase "sell out" to a cultural laborer for the first time in his life and then getting depressed by a news break that interrupts Ellen announcing Sandra Day O'Connor's step down from the Supreme Court and wondering to himself which Nazi Bush will use to stack the deck and then REALLY enjoying a glass of ice water with a huge chunk of lemon in it and being startled by his husband screaming like a girl because a roach fell on him and then figuring out a way to get the thing out of the house without killing it and then throwing up his hands when the little fucker escapes into the dark recesses of his closet upon hearing Sebastian meow. And then. And then. Sounds like narrative is what I'm asking for again. But it's really something more like drift or better, episodes. Anyhoo, I love it, esp. the part where the program is brought to you by the letters "K" and "G."

Fela dropped out for a while in 1981. So disgusted was he with the state of Nigeria that all he could do was "Look and Laugh" (1986). I suppose then that digging this era means digging a resigned if not defeated Fela. Well, at least he created a 30:49 track about his torpor. What did you do with yours? And I bet you can't laugh as musically as he does.

"Just Like That" (1989) is taken from the Beasts of No Nation album. The sax is most Milesy which probably just means some echo was added. The dénouement is feverish. Some of the vocals were piped in from Mars. I'm gunna keep it.

By "keep it," I mean that I intend to create a mp3 CD (that other kind just doesn't work with Fela) to supplement Best Best (and I'm going to revisit Best Best in a few days after all this insanity has subsided a tad). But I'm not sure archiving and Fela go hand in hand. The very fact that the man requires 700 MB of compression rather than 80 minutes of time time suggests that his oeuvre will somehow be perpetually in the process, forever working and moving beyond any attempt to capture it. I suppose one could say this about any artist: "The essentials of BLANK demand three Bear Family boxes minimum." But this "in the process" quality is a property of the music itself in a way that it's not with the music of, oh I don't know, Johnny Cash. So, in a perversely appropriate way, MCA's gross reissue plan accurately reflects the sounds it stockpiles. A Fela a day is still not enough time to catch up with it. But that's Fela - he always needed to strut one step ahead because the state of Nigeria was always trying to hold him back.

Current Mood: hangin'
Current Music: Le Souk Sunday Sessions