Monday, December 22, 2014

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

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

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

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


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

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


Saturday, December 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 06, 2014

Two utterly related films

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Mardi Gras (Edmund Goulding, 1958)

One need only compare Best Foot Forward with its quasi-remake Mardi Gras to grasp the sorry state the Hollywood musical was in after rock 'n' roll. Dick Sargent (the second Darrin on Bewitched), Tommy Sands, Gary Crosby (Bing's son), and Pat Boone sleepwalk through a story by Curtis Harrington, of all people. Goulding couldn't save it even if he weren't sleepwalking himself. This was his last film in a rather undistinguished career (including the freakishly overrated Grand Hotel). What little oomph he brought to The Old Maid or Nightmare Alley had evaporated by this point. Crummy songs, poorly distributed musical numbers, no choreography to speak of, the pits. Some decent cheesecake, though.