Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82) (Revenant, 1999)

Here's a contemporary review I wrote for MTV.com of the Grow Fins consumer fraud (aka box set). I had the opportunity to take a potshot at it in an Elizabeth Nelson Ringer article about box sets for which I was interviewed. But here's the full takedown. In terms of a letter grade, I'd give it a C-minus, docked a notch for the usurious price ($199 on Amazon but a copy can be had for $35 on Discogs as of this writing) and for the continued practice of ripping off even the most discerning music fans with pointless, infuriating reshuffles. If you want to know why Joan Crawford invented Napster, then read on.


Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Grow Fins – Rarities (1965-1982) (Revenant) 

Rating: ** 

Songs To Record: “Bellerin Plain” (CD 5, Track /4), “Electricity” (CD 2, Track 1), “Untitled 28” (CD 3, Track 28) and “Frownland” (CD 3, Track 17). 

Grow Fins suffers from the same problem as last year’s X anthology, Beyond and Back. Both are larded with inconsequential demos, outtakes and live cuts that do little to serve their legacies. No doubt this is a self-conscious strategy. If X went beyond and right back in their quest for a popularity they foolishly thought they deserved, then Captain Beefheart had to grow fins to prevent himself from drowning in the corporate chicanery that plagued his recorded output since the very beginning. These collections, then, come across as a sour grapes “Fuck you!” to the status quo that wouldn’t have them. In short, they’re astonishingly unlistenable for two artists whose recorded legacies are as endlessly listenable as any in pop music history.

Listenability is not a quality often associated with Beefheart. Ever since the talismanic double album Trout Mask Replica in 1969, he took the rock combo about as far out as it could go exploding his song structures with free jazz chaos. Not helping the medicine go down was the Captain’s own smokestack lightnin’ blues roar (pay no heed to gush about his “five-octave range” – he has about as much color as Joe Strummer). Yet the few adventurous listeners willing to scout through the music’s overwhelming density discovered a totally unique and, at times, absolutely frightening retreat not just from convention but from the very order of things. 

But even at his most uncompromised, Beefheart still provoked some sort of reaction (if only “ugh, turn that racket off!”). The saddest thing about the Beefheart Advanced Placement study guides on Grow Fins is that they’ll barely make an impression on unsuspecting neophytes at all. That’s fine by Revenant - trading attitude for étude, Grow Fins wasn’t compiled with neophytes in mind. But it doesn’t even seem to be for big fans like myself (scholars and obsessives aiming to refine their sensibility to the point of nauseum are more the target). From bland garage R&B demos to the first scrapings towards atonality (CD2’s live 1968 Cannes “Electricity” is fine but it’s only marginally better than the live 1968 UK version two cuts later), the first four CDs will teach you what you already know over and over again. 

CD3 is particularly obnoxious in this regard. It’s a complete run-through of a little more than half the songs on Trout Mask Replica with almost exactly the same arrangements but without Beefheart’s vocals. Don’t be fooled by the twenty-nine “Untitled” numbers – they’re mostly in-between song shuffling, doodling and silence. The four-second “Untitled 28,” for instance, is just a single guitar note. The purpose of this instrumental nightmare is to demonstrate how rehearsed and exacting the tumult actually was. Now that you know that, you don’t have to listen.

The last CD starts out strong towards the beginning with three excellent live songs from 1971. Here the Howlin’ Wolf/Ornette Coleman fusion is perfectly realized – the silence immediately after Beefheart’s sax-led finale to “Bellerin Plain” is literally breath-taking. But the disc soon devolves into drum solos, piano solos, guitar solos, voice solos, mellotron solos, etc. 

Worst of all, Grow Fins, which lists for around $90, could easily be winnowed down to four discs if not three. CDs 1 and 2 total 79:44 and while CD 4 has the enhanced live footage on it, the 12:33 of chit chat with the Capt.’s neighbor on the audio part is a total rip-off. So artist-run excavating indie labels are only in it for the art, huh?


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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Unsane (Steven Soderbergh, 2018)

Hot Ones is a show which pits celebrities against an array of increasingly hot sauces. With a Scoville measurement of 135,600, Da Bomb is the sauce which usually takes out even the toughest guests. But that has less to do with the hotness than the taste which Charlize Theron describes in her episode as "battery acid": "There's no flavor. That's just 'I want to fuck with you...' I like spice but...that's like somebody being an asshole. That's like a dick move right there...I just want to flip that bottle off. You just ruined this whole thing for me." Steven Soderbergh's Unsane is the movie equivalent of Da Bomb.

It boggles the mind trying to determine what on earth attracted Soderbergh to such a juvenile project. Perhaps the novelty of shooting the thing entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus quite o'er-crowed his spirit. In any event, he's ignored the bankruptcy of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer's screenplay. Unsane is a film of lies. It lies about stalking. It lies about mental health. It lies about involuntary commitment. It lies even about the very architecture of its own setting, a mental health facility which somehow houses a torture/death chamber that none of the employees know about. And while all films tell lies by their very nature, Unsane tells lies just to fuck with you, i.e., it consists of nothing more than a string of empty methods to generate horror. It's a dick move, a film that could ruin your whole evening. You just want to flip off Soderbergh, Bernstein, and Greer. Unsane is so bad, in fact, that I may up Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997*) to a D-minus since at least Haneke is honest about wanting to fuck with you.

Some critics have twisted themselves into a wiener package claiming that Unsane is an exercise in pure cinema or that it evinces Soderbergh's adeptness at making genre movies, both tactics providing an escape valve for a film's godawfulness. For instance, in his New Yorker review, Richard Brody praises the thin characterization of the protagonist Sawyer (Claire Foy): "Soderbergh approaches Sawyer merely as a collection of traits that embody the idea of a victim of stalking; she is a character composed solely of pieces that fit the needs of the story." But that's how all mainstream narrative films work. The very function of plot (as opposed to story) is to delimit character in ways that serve the story. It's just that there are tastier ways to go about doing so.

Celebrities on Hot Ones try two hotter sauces including Hot Ones: The Last Dab, a show creation with a Scoville measurement of 2,000,000+. As host Sean Evans (the hottest one of all!) explains: "There's a real culinary challenge to making something that's hot and tasty. Anyone can make something hot." With Unsane, Soderbergh is that cheap, anonymous anyone, an intermittently prestigious director who has forgotten that most viewers prefer not to suck on a battery for 98 minutes.

 Grade: F

*I consider it a spiritual triumph to have avoided the 2007 remake.


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Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Happy birthday Can: Tago Mago (United Artists, 1971)

More consistent than Monster Movie or Soundtracks, more functional than Ege Bamyasi, harder and funkier than Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma, the two-disc Tago Mago is Can's masterpiece. My disco promiscuity had long prevented me from bathing in the dub folds of "Aumgn" or marveling at the clicks and cuts of "Peking O" on the second disc. But prolonged exposure to Creel Pone and the films of Betzy Bromberg has softened me to their charms. "Aumgn" makes for terrific writing music at the very least. Still, the first disc is where Can discover fire. "Paperhouse" gnaws at the dancefloor stiffly but relentlessly while "Mushroom" ups the disco ante with stops, starts, and mini-breaks. And then the real fireworks pop off. "Oh Yeah" ain't here to play. With portentous electronics and Damo Suzuki's backwards vocals over Jaki Leibezeit's beastly banging, Can are here to remind you that there's no parking, baby, no parking on this dancefloor. A guitar gongs at 2:26 to light a fire under your ass in case you're getting tired already. And the side-long "Halleluhwah" is the apotheosis of Krautrock functionalism - 18:33 of funk stuttering forward as a bedrock for ever-fluctuating textures up top. It fades out at 4:36 but oh no, it ain't over, honey. After a perverse piano interlude, the stutter-funk returns at 5:04, fiercer than ever. If you're new to Can, there's no better introduction.

Grade: A

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Monday, February 01, 2021

A club-music questionnaire!

Live music sucks. So I'd like to check the rockism of the live-music questionnaire that's floating around now ("loudest concert"? who cares?) with this club-music variant.

First club experience: Hunters in Elk Grove, IL.

Best club experience: Halloween 2002 at Club Parking in Montréal. 

Runners-up: Mixing from Gloria Estefan's 'You'll Be Mine (Party Time) (Rosabel's Fiesta Mix)" to Albita's "El Chico Chevere [The Cute Boy] (Ralphi's Main Vox Mix)" for a crowd of straight folks at an afternoon street party outside of Gus' Mexican Cantina in Milwaukee.

The DJ (Kimberly Anne?) mixing from Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" to Ini Kamoze's "Here Comes the Hotstepper" on my birthday at 219 in Milwaukee.

Dancing to rock 'n' roll (!) and even punk (!!) at the Squeezebox party at Don Hill's during my first time in Manhattan in 1998.

Worst club experience: Matisse in Milwaukee. Getting turned away at the door because my friend had a sports jersey on. We were told later it was a gang thing (?).

Biggest club: Vortex in Chicago or Connection in Louisville.

Club attended most: Probably 219 in Milwaukee.

Most surprising experience: Matisse. I expected nothing from this dumpy club at 1806 E. North Avenue. Also, the bouncers were jerkwads (see above). But the DJ one evening (and possibly many more) was astonishing. All I remember is that he played Glam's "Hell's Party" (or some variation hereof).

Next club experience: Probably (The) Monster in Manhattan.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Spector (1939-2021)

You could hear Phil Spector's psychoses in his music, for better or worse. They resulted in more bombastic dreck than many 1960s hangers-on will ever admit (witness the freakish overrating of the Back to Mono box set). But they were also responsible for a solid hour or so of indelible music. His masterpiece remains The Crystals' "He's a Rebel," an end product of obsessive assholism. Listen to it as you remember Lana Clarkson and keep in mind the indignities inflicted upon Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Carol Connors, etc. And if you require an analysis of the relationship between Spector's murderous rage and his Wall of Sound, check out Vikram Jayanti's The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2009), one of the finest music documentaries I've ever seen.

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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Équation à un inconnu AKA Equation to an Unknown (Francis Savel [as Dietrich de Velsa], 1980)

Yann Gonzalez's Un couteau dans le cœur AKA Knife+Heart (2018) is one of my favorite films of the teens. So when I learned he was behind the resurrection of an obscure French gay porn film, Équation à un inconnu, the only film by painter Francis Savel, it became the easiest sell of 2020. Savel was renowned enough that in 1964 Guy Gilles directed an 18-minute portrait of him called Le Journal d'un combat with narration by Alain Delon.

He was also owner and artistic director of La Grande Eugène, "the first transvestites' cabaret of Paris," according to a press release from Altered Innocence, the label that released the film on Blu-ray. It's a role that served him well in capacities on two late Joseph Losey films - director of the cabaret show in Mr. Klein (1976) and costume/musical consultant for Don Giovanni (1979), both under the name Frantz Salieri.

Savel's painterly disposition is evident in many gorgeous shots from Équation à un inconnu.

But the most compelling quality of the film lies in how much it owes to a cruising aesthetic than coherent narrative form. Containing almost no dialogue and peopled with bodies not characters, Équation à un inconnu observes the coldness with which young men engage with and then detach themselves from sexual encounters. At various points, older men play resigned witness to the ceaseless drift, granted just enough screen time to frame the sex with a palpable melancholy. 

Indifference is the key emotional register. Savel makes sure to show a man walking past a scene of unspecified intensity. A café worker breaks up a blow job in the café bathroom but then urinates in the toilet as if nothing just happened. The climax begins with a lineup of beautiful guys in a tableau vivant with one boy sulking in the corner. Even the sunnier end-credits sequence is off-putting as two boys seem to be whistling along with the non-diegetic score. 

The problem for more casual viewers is that these modernist moments are so fleeting (perhaps appropriately so) that it becomes difficult to recommend Équation à un inconnu on an art-film level. The film is more of a slog than the average porn film of the era and not all that pleasurable to watch (again, perhaps appropriately so). No doubt I'm overrating it a tad. But it's a deeply curious thing that invites viewers to engage with and detach from it. So don't watch it; cruise it.

Grade: A-minus


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Cheaters (Joseph Kane, 1945)

I was hoping for a minor classic on the order of my beloved The Holly and the Ivy (George More O'Ferrall, 1952). But both Joseph Kane (veteran of dozens of 60-minute oaters) and Republic are out of their element when it comes to screwball comedy. For one thing, The Cheaters stints on the screwball, trading in physical comedy for a talky screenplay. For another, it adds little beyond some attractive performances (especially from the always dependable Billie Burke) to the simple-folk-teach-the-rich-Lessons template of My Man Godfrey. And so much time is spent on the convoluted story that the climactic renunciations of upper-class greed appear too swiftly; wealthy scion Reggie (David Holt) comes to his expiation in only one unconvincing line (guess I'll have to provide a screen grab). As Joan Crawford once said, forgettable but pleasant.

Grade: B

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