Sunday, March 12, 2006

Coincidences are corny but still...

Worse than corny, in fact. Probably an utter waste of time. I had a friend who delighted in telling me that EVERY TIME he looked at the clock, a "significant" number would be staring back at him: 12:34 or 11:11. Every time, huh? Never noticed when it was 7:32? And big deal - even if it were true, what IS the significance of 4:56?

But I've had several music coincidences (two very recent) and they've all occurred in the car. And by the end of this, I'm gunna try to justify wasting your time with them.

The first happened back in Milwaukee. I was getting in my car, just about ready to leave a parking lot when I spot a ex-friend walking across the street. Gawd, I wanted to leave Brew City without ever seeing this moral weakling again but there he was, fucking up my line of vision with extreme shadiness.

And just as I waiting for him to pass from my peripherals (forever? please?), my ALL-TIME FAVORITE SINGLE comes on the radio!! This would be T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie" (Mirage 1981 [really 1980 but I include it in 1981 to make that year the greatest for singles ever; and really, most people first enjoyed it in 1981 so...]). Needless to say, I'd never heard it on the radio before or since. Unlike the cretin hoppin before me, this song always gave me a hap hap happy heart. And now it was telling me to move the fuck on and out. Later chump!

The next happened a few weeks ago. I was driving on fumes frantically looking for a gas station. I even turned off the AC to preserve microlitres (a shocking practice for Austin...both turning off AC and preserving gas)! Señor Smoke, the lovely latest from Electric Six, was in the CD player. The third song, "Bite Me," comes on and sings "Are you ready to siphon gasoline?" Um, no!!! I managed to find a gas station NANOSECONDS later.

Then just tonight, I was sick of my specially made CAR MADNESS!!! CD (79 minutes of ACTUAL most played songs on iTunes) so I left AM radio on and caught "Everybody's Talkin'" in the middle. Ah yes, B.J. Thomas. "Everybody's talkin' at me..." Wasn't this from a film? Midnight Cowboy? Wait a minute! That's not B.J. Thomas; it's Nilsson! And just as I realized my mistake, the next song starts and it's...wait for it..."Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' which IS B.J. Thomas! Not sooo odd since both were from late 1960s films. But sooo odd that it was a B.J. Thomas song, no?

In any case, this never happens in my living room. And that's most likely because I almost never musick at home; I just listen to music. Now I know Christopher Small didn't coin the term to mean "jamming to tunes in your car." But there at least, music encounters other contexts which can theoretically lead to some real musicking. Something's gotta.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, OPEN RANGE and unrevisionist genre films

First off, thanx soooo much to Mike Grost for hipping me to HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. One of the things I adored about it was how unrevisionist it was. It seems as if after a certain point in history, Hollywood could burp up ONLY revisionist/baroque/reflexive genre films. Take Tom Schatz's four stages of genre development: experimental, classical, refinement, baroque...the end. Or Jane Feuer's model - experimentation, classical, reflexivity...the end. As Rick Altman puts it, "(in these) teleological histor(ies), genres...only...shuttle back and forth between experimentation and reflexivity" (from FILM/GENRE, p. 22). Hasn't the revisionist or baroque or self-reflexive western been with us since at least BROKEN ARROW (1950)? That's 56 years of revising! What about the Lash La Rue-style programmers that were still being pumped out in the 1950s or our pal William Witney and his serials? Much of that activity moved over to TV, I know. But it still disrupts tidy histories.

And so does HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. While watching it, I said to the Mr., "Sheesh - even the Astaire/Rogers musicals were more radical than this!" Though probably not the MacDonald/Eddy horrors (STILL can't make it through MAYTIME). HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is the classical classical musical - the genre's conventions have reached their equilibrium...yet 2006.

I'm thinking about this in the wake of Blake Lucas' admission on the a_film_by list a few months back of being unmoved by several recent westerns (if not the post-1969 and/or revisionist western in general) such as THE MISSING (I think) and OPEN RANGE. Not a fan of the former. But what I found so thrilling about OPEN RANGE was that I kept waiting for the revisionist moment that never came. It genuinely guided me through the film. Maltin Inc. is right - OPEN RANGE is "as simple as a Roy Rogers B movie." But in an era when it supposedly shouldn't exist.

Now at over 2 hours, OPEN RANGE can't be ALL that simple. And HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL does feature an interracial romance. But the revisionism one might juice from these films could barely fill a shot glass.

This bothers me to a certain extent. Schatz says that genre films in the baroque/ revisionist stage make the genre's form the film's content. Thus these films can be more potentially appealing to those of a formalist bent. Believe it or not, there IS a formalist side to me that OPEN RANGE and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL definitely do not engage. Don't go to either for genius explorations of space or whatnot! Right now, I'm more than fine with this lack of formalist oomph largely because there are so few integrated musicals around. But if indeed the marketplace becomes flooded with them (and it may - see below), the impact of each film will necessarily be diluted.

But I love these films now because they encapsulate a chaotic history rather than a teleological or (and I want to make this point very clear) circular one. Because we all know where teleological and circular histories lead, don't we, Boomers?

And it pays to think about such things sooner than later. Check out this piece by Mikael Wood from the Village Voice on HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. The thing is on freakin' fire!!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jermaine Stewart: "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" (Arista 1986)

I recall with much fondness the day I watched both Tarkovsky's STALKER and George Cukor's IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. STALKER was fine enough. But Tarkovsky was nattering at me, getting all up in my grill. I didn't even finish it. IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU, by contrast, seemed so porous, so spongelike, allowing me to worm in and out of its myriad crevices. Cukor may or may not be a genius. But he certainly wasn't authoritative (at least not in this instance). That is to say, he wasn't handing me a vision from on high; he was handing off a sack of Legos for this little mouse to toy with.

Pop music works in the same fashion. Much of the best of it doesn't speak authoritatively. Intentions often miss their destinations. Take "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off." If there's any authority on display here, it's in Jermaine's hope that his pretty gross come on line backfires. "I'm going to tell you that we don't have to take our clothes off in the hopes that my sensitive admonitions will wind up getting your clothes off anyway." Depeche Mode was pulling a similar trick around the same time. "I'm too depressed to fuck which makes me all the more fuckable." Same with The Cure. "Aw fuck it, let's go to bed." Clever blokes, them.

But of course, there's always the possibility Jermaine means what he sings (oh lordy!). In which case, the joke is on him. What's the main reason he gives for why he and his girl should keep their clothes on? The fact that they are young (so is the night). And yet he suggests some cherry wine in the chorus! Oh so a nay for skinny dipping but a yay for underage alcohol consumption? A rather shaky moral platform there, Jer. Now the husband suggests that "cherry wine" means "non-alcoholic." And Dave Gurney adds that "young" can mean "21." But a quick Google search reveals that "cherry wine" can fuck you up. And 21, 15 or 45, the wine will lead right back to skinny dipping anyway. Which in turn will lead to babies making babies.

But the most damning evidence against his moral superiority is that the song sounds like a SUCCESSFUL mack. Compare that opening twinkle twinkle little melody with its counterpart in Debbie Deb's 1983 freestyle fantasia "When I Hear Music." The night is so young in the latter track too. But along with a panoply of sound effects meant to evoke the sensory overload of a disco, the melody clearly dazzles Deb to the point of self-obliteration. An explosion goes off immediately after the line "the guys looked really fine/they almost blew my mind." The guys literally DID blow her mind. Indeed, Deb disappears so absolutely that a robot finishes the verse and even then, "he" only repeats her last line. There's no scheming here; only a wide-eyed sense of amazement rendered frighteningly precarious by the singer's vulnerability. This is clearly Deb's first time at the club and you worry she'll run into someone like Jermaine.

In Jermaine's hands, the "When I Hear Music" melody is capped by a synth revving its engine suggesting a second act, a destination. During the verses, the mix gives him plenty of space to plot things out - only drums and synth bass under his vocals. "Why you wanna move so fast?" he asks in the pre-chorus but by then, the tempo is moving so fast. And the chorus is sheer conquest, a wonder of nature that shot the song to number two with a bullet. This ejaculation explains why everyone sings along and dances to it as if we DO have to take our clothes off to have a good time, oh yeah! Or at best, we don't have to take our clothes off to have a good time but it would sure help. Heck, I bet this song provided the soundtrack to many a naked dance party.

So where the entirety of "When I Hear Music" is frozen over in disco dust, "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" marks some real progression towards The P. And that's simply not what the lyrics are after (in one register). One could chalk up this disconnect to the fact that this was really Narada Michael Walden's baby and not Jermaine Stewart's. But Walden is perfectly capable of matching sound to lyric. The cluttered, tacky production and whistling guitars of "So Emotional" suit Whitney Houston's shock and awe emotionality. Even "Freeway of Love" sounds like veritable interstate romance. But "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" seems the richer song. It gives us the authority to play along with Jermaine's game. Or we could just humor him and head out with Debbie Deb for a snack after bar close.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My email namesake turns down Hummer money!!

Holy Swiss cheeses! The second greatest all-female band in popular music history (the first is here) made the news! Voici:

'The post-punk band LiLiPUT, who broke up more than 20 years ago, could have pocketed $50,000 for "Heidi's Head" after making close to nothing during their five-year existence. But they, too (in aidditon to The Thermals and Trans Am), said no (to Hummer).

"At least I can sleep without nightmares," Marlene Marder reasoned.'

That's actually "Hedi's Head" not "Heidi's" although Heidi certainly makes sense (wasn't that Swiss Miss's nom de chocolat?). And it's easy to hear why Hummer wanted Hedi and her head. Those soleil-fried opening chords ring out "Summer road trip!" But where LiLiPUT's music discovered new planets, Hummer is merely content to destroy this one. A perfect match on one level. So kudos to Marlene Marder for standing her (our) ground. Read the entire article here.

And here's a nifty review of the LiLiPUT reissue I wrote for CMJ:

LiLiPUT: LiLiPUT (Kill Rock Stars)
File Under: The best damn all-female band in the world
R.I.Y.L.: Raincoats, Slits, Delta 5

Kurt Cobain picked the wrong graduates from the Rough Trade school of postpunk for alternative canonization in the early 90’s. Fine as The Raincoats were, they couldn’t sell a bridge as brilliantly as LiLiPUT (née Kleenex before a lawsuit occasioned a name change). This two-disc set covers their 1978-83 oeuvre and was previously available only via mailorder from Zurich in ‘93 until the riot grrrls at Kill Rock Stars finally stepped up to honor their godmothers. What Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and so many others have inherited was a raging formalist spirit akin to Wire. But where Wire perfected the punk miniature, these Swiss misses were more expansive, pasting together sections of first-wave energy rush like a Kurt Schwitters collage. A phalanx of squeaky toys, rape whistles and non-words brought them closer to the music’s putative roots in Dada than any other band of the era while their several-songs-in-one disorder is detectable in contemporaneous hip-hop - 1981’s eternal “Eisiger Wind” changes lanes as frequently as “Looking for the Perfect Beat” and stands with it as one of the greatest singles of the 80’s. This was punk not as an opportunity for expression but as a strange new world in which to take up residency. You’ll never hear those Sniffin’ Glue chords in the same way again.
- Kevin John