Friday, December 30, 2011

My Paprika, My Life

Paprika (2006) is the brilliant final film by anime director Satashi Kon, who died tragically of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 46. Bike was Andrew Brough's short-lived, post-Straitjacket Fits group. Its cover of Abba's 'My Love, My Life' was the standout track on the (patchy) 1995, Flying Nun Abba tribute, Abbasalutely. Paprika, Bike's cover, and Abba's original song (a somewhat unheralded album track from Arrival, but see here) all deserve to be more widely known than they are. I intend this vid. to contribute to building the audience for each of them, in part by demonstrating some surprising commonalities.
  • Arrival was basically Abba's Rubber Soul/Revolver, which Bike literalizes.
  • Abba's 30-something concerns about hall-of-mirrors effects in long-term, adult relationships are the principal realistic, domestic counterparts of Paprika's Philip K. Dick-style, divided-self, dream-within-dream-scapes.
I've seen it on your face
Tells me more than any worn-out old phrase
So now we'll go separate ways
Never again we two
Never again, nothing I can do

[Chorus] Like an image passing by, my love, my life
In the mirror of your eyes, my love, my life
I can see it all so clearly
(See it all so clearly)
Answer me sincerely
(Answer me sincerely)
Was it a dream, a lie?
Like reflections of your mind, my love, my life
Are the words you try to find, my love, my life
But I know I don't possess you
So go away, God bless you
You are still my love and my life
Still my one and only

I've watched you look away
Tell me is it really so hard to say?
Oh, this has been my longest day
Sitting here close to you
Knowing that maybe tonight we're through.


Friday, December 23, 2011

My fave 18 tracks of 2011

Like most people, much of the music that's really grabbed me in 2011 was released long ago, and is just mostly new-to-me. So, old albums by Amy Winehouse, Brothers Johnson, Carla Bley and Paul Haines, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Clothilde, Evelyn King, Expressos, Fleetwood Mac, Fox, Harold Grosskopf, Holly and the Italians, Husker Du, Kanye West, King Crimson, Lalo Schifrin, Lou Reed, Moev, The National, The Shangri-Las, Sonic Youth, and 5th Dimension are a lot of what's really moved me this year.

I tend to encounter current releases more at the level of singles and through vids (on tv or on youtube). Here are my 1-18 fave new tracks (Q. Why 18? A1. Fits on a cd. A2. After 18 I found myself repeating artists, which made for a less interesting list.) Some of these records have been played to death at this point, so a high placing here doesn't necessarily capture how I feel about a given song now, rather it registers how the track impacted on me initially. That is, I rate a song highly for list purposes just if it (and/or its vid.) rocked me back on my heels and dominated my mental space for some period. Rihanna's and Lana Del Rey's songs and vids, in particular, just did blow me away for several weeks each, hence they're my songs of the year:

We Found Love Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris
Video Games Lana Del Rey
Somebody That I Used To Know Gotye ft. Kimbra
Queen Of Hearts Fucked Up
Blackout Anna Calvi
Holocene Bon Iver
Rolling In The Deep Adele
Motivation [Lil B] Clams Casino
Everything Goes My Way Metronomy
Keep You Class Actress
Countdown Beyonce
Winter Beats I Break Horses
Novacane Frank Ocean
Crystalline Björk
Dirt Wu Lyf
A Real Hero
College ft. Electric Youth
Need You Now Cut Copy
Gucci Gucci Kreayshawn

Monday, December 19, 2011

You know you have an Alison Brie problem

When you find yourself getting inexplicably angry whenever Community spends much time with anyone other than her character Annie:

I'm starting to think that this response might interfere with Mad Men Season 5 when it screens. Like everyone else, I've loved the Trudy and Pete Campbell 'surprisingly strong marriage' sub-plot on MM, but my now evidently borderline prurient interest in Trudy (Alison Brie) may throw off the equipoise of my interest in the show. I'll be slightly, unconsciously angry at Don and Sally etc...for drawing attention away from Trudy, which is crazy!

At any rate, I hope Brie does some movies soon, and that, in particular, someone writes a great screwball comedy for her. She's incredibly funny and smart as well as being smoking hot in a pretty-gal-next-door way. That's the combination that Lombard/Colbert/Stanwyck/Dunne/Hopkins/Arthur had in Hollywood's golden age. Make it so again Hollywood!

Gaga's Problem Identified

One of the most illuminating pieces about Gaga from her Fame/Fame Monster, 2010 prime was Overkiller Queen by David Schmader. Schmader's best point comes late in the article:
Much is made of Gaga's extensive plundering of Madonna, but not enough is made of the speed and intensity with which this plundering has occurred. It took Madonna six years to get from dance-floor diva to international hit-maker to high-art pop icon; it took Gaga four singles, all culled from her debut album. Much like Bo Diddley sped up the blues to make rock 'n' roll, Stefani Germanotta sped up the pop machine that made Madonna to make Lady Gaga.
In the light of all of the singles from Born This Way, this now seems even more right to me than it did in 2010 only with a darker twist. Yes, Gaga leapt directly from Holiday to Like a Prayer/Vogue/Justify My Love/Deeper and Deeper (take your pick), i.e., to the Madonna of Cultural Studies departments. But that's a problem: while there are obvious high-points from that more conceptual, overexposing 1989-1992 Madonna (esp. the tracks I just mentioned), that's a period in which Madonna's music feels secondary to exhibitionism, cultural provocation and domination for its own sake. During that period Madonna burned through a lot of the good will she'd accumulated from her first three, pretty immaculate albums, and she just plain wore out her welcome with a lot of people. Madonna the self-conscious media artist/student of her own image had its moments, but taken as a whole it was too much, too calculating, and ultimately just tiring and boring (in the special way that only the over-wrought and over-stimulating risks - 'Oh, you again. Always with the wanting of attention. Go away!').

It's mildly heretical to say it, but that middle period Madonna, while superficially triumphant was actually a bit toxic. Madonna had to go away for while after it and come back with a more self-contained, more musical focus. Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, and Music were the result of that pulling back from excess, and they jointly constitute the second great career peak for M. after her initial not-putting-a-foot-wrong/breakthrough period that continued up through the True Blue album. (I count Confessions on a Dancefloor and its tour as M's much lonelier third career peak - five years later we're still waiting to see whether that's all she wrote for M. at pop's top-table - she'll have lasted longer than anyone else if it is.)

Again, heretical though it is to say it, the 'Madonna Studies' period of M. that Gaga has indeed fast-forwarded to, while impressive in certain ways was also obnoxious and unconvincing, and with the perspective of distance was a kind of creative low for M. (notwithstanding its special resonances with certain sub-cultures).

Gaga is currently only superficially triumphant: all of the Born This Way singles have been tiring and boring, hectoring, un-musical attention events. They may deepen Gaga's connections with certain core fans and true believers, but for a wider public it's a disastrous turn. Madonna had all the cultural political capital gained from her first three albums to spend down, whereas Gaga's obnoxious and exhausting phase has to be 'funded' out of only the handful of broadly appealing singles up to Bad Romance. That's a problem. Schmader (and others) called the phenomenon right back in 2010 but they didn't see the problem that posed for Gaga and for the public alike.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

When the Sunrise Hits

Murnau's Sunrise (1927) is one of the greatest silent films (e.g., Welles, Wilder, Minnelli, and Gondry have all stolen shots from the sequences I collect in this video). Slowdive's 'When the Sun Hits' is one of the greatest 'shoegaze' tracks. In this vid. I combine them, and, in effect, streamline Sunrise away from its controversial (abortive) murder plot (and the somewhat problematic acting choices encouraged). This is meant as a kind of proof of concept that Sunrise could have worked in a less abstract/philosophical mode. That is, in principle, Murnau could have kept almost all of his film's ultra-spectacular visuals, while using a more modern/looser Stewart/Stanwyck acting style (traces of which are there in the performances in any case), thereby becoming a kind of hypercharged, expessionistic Lubitsch.

Of course, Murnau and Sunrise in particular are great just the way they are: flamboyant, mad, and almost impossible to take completely straight. Let me explain.

The violence in Sunrise's (abortive) murder plot destabilizes the narrative, pitching it into Night of the Hunter/Vertigo/Blue Velvet territory. The Man originally responds to The City Gal's drowning suggestion by attempting to throttle her, and later he reacts to The Obtrusive Man who hits on/harasses The Wife by just-barely-faux knifing him in the face (David Lynch recycles the latter scene as Dorothy Vallens's just-barely knifing Jeffrey in the face). These sorts of scenes (up to and including the Man's second near-strangling of the City Gal at the end of the film) mark The Man as seriously unstable/sociopathic, which in turn makes the wife's forgiveness etc. of him unbelievable and dangerous. If we interpret the whole film as 'what actually happened' then one must fear for the Wife and the Baby's safety long term. The principal way around this problem is to embark on a grand overall re-reading of the film: everything from the Man going to bed thinking about killing his Wife (which is visually signposted by the superimposed waters of the lake) until the final 'Finis' sunrise is the Man's dream-state. That's some elephant to swallow, and I don't think that Murnau compels us to accept such an interpretation. Rather I think that Murnau opens this as one possible interpretation of Sunrise, just as Hitchcock protects the readings that Vertigo's several discontinuities open (most famously the 'Incident at Owl Creek Bridge' interpretation of everything after Vertigo's apparently-impossible-to-be-saved-from opening scene). Our projected, streamlined, more-Lubitschy Sunrise would trade away this sort of haunting, crazy richness for greater naturalism and linear intelligibility.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Moev's Cracked Mirror

Just heard this for the first time on a College mix-tape... Wow. Very much in a Chris and Cosey vein, I almost can't believe I've never heard of this early '80s band before (apparently they're from BC, Canada - I suppose that that was a little out of the way at the time).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Holly and The Italians (in praise of)

The only track from Holly and the Italians that I remember from my youth is 1980's Miles Away:

Looking back, this should have been some sort of hit: it's a perfect power-pop song, and Holly Beth Vincent's voice has star-quality (w/ Florence Welch esp. in Dog Days perhaps being the closest comparison case), and she's flat out cool in the (gold-standard) Chrissie Hynde/PJ Harvey-ish/Karen O-ish way in the vid.. Mark Sidgwick and Steve Dalton (a.k.a. Steve Young) monster the bass and drums respectively on this one like they're McKagan and Adler respectively. (Were the latter guys listening?)

Other tracks seem specifically influential on others:

Youth Coup sounds like both Liz Phair's Exile (esp. 6'1") and PJ Harvey's Stories (esp. Good Fortune) to me.

Rock against Romance sounds a lot like G'n'R's Sweet Child o' Mine (only without Slash's great signature riff and Axel's special yowl over the top).

HATI evidently cut it live too: here are stonking versions of Youth Coup and Rock against Romance on OGWT (live in the tv studio w/o an audience). Holly's skinny sleek and is on her guitar (just rocking basically), injured leg notwithstanding:

Or consider Poster Boy:

I think it substantially anticipates both G'n'R's Rocket Queen and Green Day's When I Come Around.

And consider Means to a Den:

Surely that anticipates much of C86 pop (and Juliana Hatfield and...).

HATI also did quite a nice line in more traditional girl-pop, including esp. a cover of the Chiffons' Just for Tonight (for which the great Ellie Greenwich did some backing vox) as well as the single that got them a record deal in the first place, Tell That Girl to Shut Up.

In sum, HATI was a very good band with a magnetic singer and front-woman that never quite got its due, except indirectly/sincerely, by being diffusely influential and possibly being extensively strip-mined by others.

Exquisite Music from Azerbaijan

I'd never heard of Aziza Mustafa Zadeh until yesterday, but according to wikipedia she's sold 15 million records to somebody. If this exquisite, intriguing jazz/ambient/classical piece from 2004 is anything to go by, that success is richly deserved. In any case, Zadeh's a composer and performer to watch.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Class Actress album needs more work (2 songs)

The new single Weekend feels to me like a demo rather than a final version. It's at least a few bpm too slow in my view, some of the synth timbres need more development and to be mixed more dynamically, and the song's various bridges and transitions feel untidy and not at all inevitable. There's a great, catchy track struggling to get out here, but it needs work (one suspects that Robyn and her producers, who have that Berry Gordy quality control model down pat, would never have let this version pass).

Bienvenue seems to be one of the best (so far) non-single tracks on the album. But it could probably have done to be the album-opener: it's title means 'Welcome!' after all, and since it's pointless denying Bienvenue's 'Age of Consent' vibe, why not embrace that track's positioning? In my view too, Bienvenue needs a little AoC guitar (or I'm in Love with a German Film Star guitar or... something) in the mix somewhere.

In sum, both these songs have potential, but neither fulfils it as recorded which irritates whereas good pop (from Borderline to Hang With Me in the relevant tradition) exhilirates. Having heard most of the rest of Rapprocher, nothing seems up to the level of Keep You or to the title track of last year's Journal of Ardency e.p.. The album's overall feel is muted, languid, not trying hard enough (I've had the same problem with a lot of Ladytron), which is a bummer for indie dance-pop. Too bad.

P.S., I've lately been disappointed by Bjork's Biophilia (Vespertine refigured as a narrowly intellectual gesture - although I've come around a bit on Crystalline) and by M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (a double length Saturday = Youth with half the charm). What I've heard from Feist's Metals does nothing for me, and the much-hyped Dum Dum Girls seem to me to be wildly under-done (and I love '60s girl-groups). That's left Anna Calvi as my current album and discovery of the year. Calvi just rules. Even her (free/downloadable) classical mixtape is terrific. Beyond that, old Sonic Youth stuff (esp. Bad Moon Rising and Daydream Nation) and the last three National albums have rocked my world lately.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Israel Dagg eludes Quade Cooper

Obviously the All Blacks' jazz-dance training is paying dividends. And who's naming the players in this Rugby World Cup? Herman Melville?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

John Williams's NBC theme

Best youtube comment about it:
It sounds like ET on a horse being chased by Darth Vader... [DannyFox06 2 months ago]
Indeed, but that would, of course, completely rule! Anyhow, like Elmer Bernstein's National Geographic theme, I take this to be a very good porting out of populist movie classical idioms to the even more populist TV-transition form. Inspiring for generations of kids I'm sure.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Top Music Slams

The National are Nickelback with a Joy Division record.
Muse are Depeche Mode covering Queen.
[Just the examples that I can remember right now. Will try to add to and update the list periodically.]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Great Songs of the '90s: Temple of the Dog's Hunger Strike

It's hard to explain what this song and its vid. meant at the time to kids all over, but let me try. It meant that even the side-projects, back-story-fill-ins of the Seattle/NW scene completely killed. And this song, apart from a couple of heavy chords, is just a soulful rocker that Aerosmith or Bruce Springsteen could have done. Hunger Strike therefore meant that the whole axis of rock, not just its alternative-metal-punk subcultures, had shifted to.... Discovery Park on the far side of Magnolia in Seattle. Beautiful man.

Great Songs of the '90s: Dre's The Day the Niggaz Took Over

The angriest, most potent, most downright frightening track on Dre's monumental The Chronic (1992).
One thing that feels quite distinctive about the early-mid '90s period: there were lots of different music scenes, all of which were worth exploring, and the key works in each new area were genuinely astounding. The effect was that if you only bought one grunge album in 1994 it was probably Superunknown, and that was a great choice! If you only bought one rap album in 1992-1994 it was probably The Chronic, and that was a great choice! If you bought one ambient/IDM album it was probably Aphex Twin... And so on. The good and the popular and well-known were highly in-synch, so if you explored in any direction the rewards were immediate. Relatively self-contained near-masterpieces that taught you how to speak a new musical language were obvious everywhere....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Great Songs of the '90s: Blur's To The End

Sigh. The best track from Parklife had one of the greatest vids. ever.

Update: Blur fans have often wondered about the gal in this vid. (i.e., playing the Delphine Seyrig role). I've often seen people suggest that she's Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab, but that's clearly wrong. Happily, the woman in question recently identified herself on youtube as Amanda Doyle. She's still working as a model, and has kept her looks and then some. (Her Rachel Weisz-y, super-good-version-of-a-girl-you-might-actually-know look doesn't really go out of style I'd say.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Great Songs of the '90s: Lucas's Lucas with the Lid Off

The song's great but, of course, it's inseparable from its video, which definitively announced (as in 'Who the hell made that thing I just saw?') the arrival of Michel Gondry. Gondry had already made a bit of a splash with his vid. for Bjork's Human Behavior, but this new vid was at another level (the gap between these two vids roughly corresponds to the gap between Gondry's first two feature films, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine). Above all, this song and vid. is a reminder of just how explosive and exciting music overall was for a while in the early-mid '90s. Huge movements were underway like grunge and industrial and gangster rap and trip-hop and ambient and IDM and grind-core metal and jungle and different flavors of electronica and brit-pop - all of which were pretty great and worth checking out - but there were also fantastic pop outsiders and one-off things around. I don't actually remember hearing Lucas with the lid off on the radio (but it was a moderate-sized hit so someone must have played it), but MTV would play its ker-razy video occasionally, especially late at night (they ended up nom'ing it for one of their vid. awards). In that context, it was a little like stumbling into the best dream you'd ever had.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Great Songs of the '90s: Tricky's Overcome

Closely related to Massive Attack's Karmacoma, Tricky's lesser-known track is better. Needless to say, it's not often that someone gets the better of MA!

'You're a couple, especially when your bodies double.
To placate, and then you wait for the next Kuwait. Karmacoma.'
Best couplet of the '90s? Probably.

Great Songs of the '90s: Elliott Smith's Everything Reminds Me of Her

Arguably the most brutal, tragic, mental health-related early death in pop music between Cobain and Winehouse, Smith's guitar on this track is supernally beautiful, and the song itself is so great it should be a standard by now. Sigh.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Great Songs of the '90s: Nirvana's All Apologies

Like most people, I prefer the unplugged version to the one on In Utero. Truth be told tho', any number of Nirvana's unplugged tracks could be on my list.

Great Songs of the '90s: Ace of Base's The Sign

Swedish pop genius and Abba's visual template in particular re-emerged at the height of grunge. It was truly refreshing and connected subterraneanly with the Abba reawakening birthed by Priscilla Queen of the Desert and, esp., Muriel's Wedding in 1994. Unfortunately, the band (three of them including the two gals were siblings) had some of Abba's ultimate instability. Rather like Agnetha before her, Linn ('the blonde one') had evident misgivings about being the visual focus of the group and maybe about pop-music generally. By 1998 she was half out of the band and never again a focus, and soon after that she seems to have become a full recluse.

Oh well, we'll always have All that She Wants and The Sign! The vid. for the latter is a bit of a wonder - Linn kills it and is apparently happy to do so (however fleeting that feeling was for her), and the vid. itself is boundlessly energetic with insert shots of Ankhs and other symbols seemingly influenced by dream sequences from Ken Russell's Altered States! This felt a little odd at the time but the slightly mystifying/unsettling feeling it evoked in viewers helped 'weigh down' the poppy froth of the music in my experience (again the template is Abba, whose videos used Bergman/Persona shots in the same sort of way).

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Realistic Relativistic Spacecraft and Impact Events

As everyone knows by now, impacts from space have occasionally devastated much of life on earth, most recently and famously in the K-T boundary impact event, 65 million years ago, that appears to have killed off most dinosaurs. Typically, impactors from space that come from within the solar system arrive at 20-50 km/s. And the specific impactor that shmushed the dinosaurs' world was probably a hard/dense rock (not ice), say 3000 kg/m^3, 10-14 km in diameter. That's remarkable: something doesn't need to be 'the size of Texas' (a la Michael Bay's Armageddon (1998)) or to be travelling at anything like relativistic speeds (say > .1C = 30,000 km/s) is required to obliterate much of life on Earth.

But what if an impactor is out at one of these extremes? Well, supposing that 'something the size of TX' means a 10^4 (a 100x100) scaling up of mass from the actual K-T event impactor then K-T-level impact energy results from only 1/100 the v, i.e., only .2-.5 km/s = 200-500 m/s, the speed of current fighter planes.

And what about a space-ship moving at relativistic velocities, i.e., the sort of thing that travel to the stars 'without warp drive' will require? Won't it look like a very dangerous projectiles to any other life-forms who spot it, as it were, in-coming?

Suppose as a kind of base-line that the sort of space-ship that could conceivably sustain technological life for 20+ years would be at least the size/mass of the largest current aircraft carriers, which are about 100,000 long tons = ~ 10 million kg. For simplicity, ignoring relativistic effects, how fast does does an aircraft-carrier-scale ship have to be going to have the kinetic energy of the K-T impactor?

Current estimates of the K-T impactor energy are 400-420 x 10^21 J. Solving for v we get that the aircraft carrier would have to be traveling at ~ 90,000 km/s ~ .3C to do K-T-type damage. If we take relativistic effects on kinetic energy into account, the sufficient-for-a-K-T-disaster v computes out to ~ .29C.

On the one hand, then, why build a Death Star when you can devastate a planet just by ramming something the size of the Starship Enterprise or Space Battleship Yamato into it (at anything like their normal speeds)? On the other hand, the sorts of moderately large spaceships humans might use to get to the stars over a generation (e.g., accelerating continuously at 1 g for the first half of the trip then decelerating at the same rate for the second half) are going to look like menaces to intelligences at the other end. If the decceleration goes wrong, e.g., fuel runs out early or some such thing, then those ships will 'come in hot', at a non-trivial fraction of C, and will threaten to destroy civilizations and possibly life more generally at their destination. Look out.

Great Songs of the '90s: Underworld's Dirty Epic

The best mind-bending long-form dance track of the '90s in my view.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Madonna's W.E.

All the early word suggested that W.E. had the godawful (almost inevitably unsatisfying) Julie and Julia, unbalanced nobody&somebody ('Wally and Wallis'), dual-time-period structure, and that it further might borrow a trick or two from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Uh-oh! Probably only someone as instinctive and masterful as Almodovar could get a nobody&somebody structure to fly, and Marie Antoinette would have been a disaster but for Sofia C.'s exquisite, hipster taste - so really isn't copiable or a template for anyone else.

And given that Edward VIII was an appalling, unlikeable guy in reality (whether Simpson was too is disputed), a female-centric, outsider/American like Madonna will be tempted, as art of being highly sympathetic to Simpson, to be evasive about Edward VIII. That is, if you don't soften the realities of Edward somehow, Simpson may start to look like a complete idiot, and at worst like a complete reprobate herself. So Madonna's likely going to be doubly tempted: to elide both Simpson's own significant sympathies with and ties to the Nazis, and the basic fact that she married a guy who honestly dreamed during WW2 of a Nazi victory and of his own future as Hitler's lieutenant-ruler over the remains of the British Empire is going to pall for most people. The latter point lends itself to a story of grim irony: Wallis Simpson saves the UK and the world by inadvertently helping to bring low the horrifying Edward VIII. But that's not a very romantic tale and, in any case, it's complex and can't be squeezed into half a film, so doesn't sound at all like what Madonna's offering.

First reviews of W.E. from the Venice Film Festival including this bollocking from the Guardian suggest that all of the structural and stylistic and thematic chickens that seemed to loom over this film have in fact come home to roost, e.g., apparently the modern-time-period parallel female figure in the film, Wally (played by Abby Cornish) says of Simpson and Edward VIII that they were 'naive not Nazis'. Well, we await the context of that quote - perhaps Wally is being an airhead when she makes that remark. But, preliminarily, 'Double uh-oh! What a trap Madonna's fallen into!' Apparently, however, the film has some nice cinematography, design, and (maybe) music.

I'm a big Madonna fan overall, but this project sounded bad from the beginning, has a pointless/stupid title (see discussion below), and now appears to be tepid at best in actuality. I will wait for a few more reviews before making a final decision about whether to see W.E. at a cinema, but things aren't looking good.

W.E.'s title makes me think of Zamyatin's We (hence our image above). And, seriously, wouldn't M. have enjoyed making a film of that more? Her music video work with, say, Fincher on Express Yourself and Romanek on Bedtime Story, etc. should have given her some clues about how to stage that sort of intelligent, dystopian sci-fi. And We's character, I-330 is an erotic subversive who says things like "There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite." One wants to say, "C'mon M., that's you! Film that." W.E., by way of contrast, sounds more like a film representation of M.'s faux-British accent. Triple uh-oh insofar as that's so.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Charlotte Kemp Muhl

I first came across her a few days ago at Stereogum in this image from their Serge Gainsbourg tribute concert coverage:
As in 'Who's that sitting behind Beck?'
It turns out that she's Charlotte K M, girlfriend and sometime musical partner of Sean Lennon, and also a top model in her own right. This tumblr page has the basic evidence that she's one of those truly spooky beauties who never takes a bad picture and who can look like almost anything while always looking exactly like herself. When the camera loves you in that very specific, strong way (you're Audrey Hep. or Milla Jov. say), Hollywood and fame more generally usually comes knocking (and ordinary mortals feel like killing themselves!). It'll be interesting to see whether that happens in this case. At any rate, here are a couple of nice images of CKM in casual musician mode:

Reading around, CKM has done a few silly interviews (leading some people to claim she's vapid and a calculating dater/climber, etc.), but otherwise she seems to have impressed people with her smarts and general sensibility. We'll see.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Glasser mix!

Treasury of We (Delorean remix) is streamable and downloadable from stereogum here. I like it a lot: tasty Chime-period, Orbital house grooves on top of the usual Glasser tricks. In general, with Glasser (esp. as remixed - I loved the Lindstrom remix of Mirrorage too), Class Actress, Ronika, and the like cranking out cool, melodic dance-pop tunes the dub-step/off-speed hip-hop that has been the principal recent alternative to Dr Luke/Stargate/Martin/Guetta eurotrash (original) dance mainstream at last has some serious competition. Yay.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Favourite Albums?

The Guardian is running a series of articles where their music columnists (one by one) choose their favorite albums, e.g., here. The authors select albums that mean or have meant the most to them, which may or may not correspond to the albums they think are best in some relatively rigorous, defensible, quasi-objective sense.

Most of the writers so far have chosen albums that they first encountered during their teenage or college years, and for the most part they've further chosen albums that were further actually released then. That's as one might have predicted: you were maximally open to new things, and you were there when this great thing happened. I have my own bunch of faves in that vein, e.g., Off the Wall, The Lexicon of Love, A Walk across the Rooftops, Meat is Murder, Tallulah, Weezer (Blue Album), OK Computer, Second Toughest in the Infants, Vespertine, etc..

But, like many people presumably, I have a bunch of faves that don't fit this model. For example, Hunky Dory, the Superfly Soundtrack and Freewheelin' are three real comfort albums for me despite the fact that I don't have an 'I was there/This was mine' connection with any of them. And some of my most precious, oft-returned-to albums are true compilations of older materials: the Beatles Red and Blue double collections, e.g.,

the Bacharach box set 'The Look of Love':

and the Verve Records collection of heartbreak standards, 'When Love Goes Wrong', which I flat out adore:

Here's the latter's unbeatable track-listing (with my 7 absolute favourite tracks bolded):
1. Good Morning Heartache Billie Holiday
2. Born To Be Blue Chet Baker
3. It Never Entered My Mind Johnny Hartman
4. Everybody's Somebody's Fool Lionel Hampton
5. A Woman Alone With The Blues Peggy Lee
6. A Woman's Intuition Beverly Kenney
7. Everything Happens To Me Frank D'Rone
8. I Fall In Love Too Easily Shirley Horn
9. Here's That Rainy Day Helen Merrill
10. I'm Through With Love Arthur Prysock
11. I'm A Fool To Want You Dinah Washington
12. What Will I Tell My Heart? Billy Eckstine
13. But Not For Me Sarah Vaughan
14. Reaching For The Moon Ella Fitzgerald
15. Gloomy Sunday Mel Tormé
I picked up this compilation reduced to $4.99 (or something equally farcical) and it's probably the single best purchase I've ever made. I suspect that some people would regard this as a multiply unfair or inauthentic choice for 'My Favourite Album'. But these are some of the best recordings by some of the best performers of some of the best songs ever written. It's just a fact as far as I'm concerned that no one artist or group can compete with what amounts to the whole of (wretched!) human experience distilled (the disc is so awesome that fantastic tracks from Holiday and Fitzgerald aren't in the top tier of stuff on it!).

If I'm honest about my preferences now and don't overweight nostalgia for, as it were (thanks Morrissey!), 'lay in awe on the bedroom floor', teenage and extended teenage enthusiasms then When Love Goes Wrong has to be my choice. The Bacharach box and the Beatles' double collections probably contend with Hunky Dory and Off the Wall and Tallulah for second.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Women in Rock/Pop 1980 vs 2011

In 2011 women, and particularly solo women dominate both the pop charts (Gaga, Perry, Rhianna, Beyonce, Adele, Winehouse, Pink, Kesha, etc.) and the, as it were, indie charts (Florence, Janelle Monae, Robyn, Lykke Li, Calvi, PJ, Newsom, Bat for Lashes, Feist, Glasser, Class Actress, etc.). Not to mention acts like Dirty Projectors and Sleigh Bells that have strong female components.

I suspect that, for better or worse, this level of female dominance is a recent phenomenon. That said, I think one can make a case for 1980 as a banner year for women in rock/pop, one that's at least the equal of current times in terms of quantity of female excellence if not in terms of, say, overall quantity or overall market share. So let's make that case by listing important female-centered acts, singles and albums from 1980 in the order, near as I can judge, of their importance and excellence. Note that I've included items that charted very extensively in 1980 even if they were first released in 1979, and I've honored the best by selecting two vids. just for each of the 'top seven' items on my list.

1. The Pretenders (First self-titled album, Brass In Pocket, Stop Your Sobbing, Tattooed Love Boys, Up The Neck)

Chrissie Hynde arrives and explodes. This flawless album, with monster song after monster song, one of the greatest debuts was deservedly everywhere the whole year. Tragic deaths would scar the band soon after this, and the first album's incredibly tight guitars and rhythm section wouldn't repeat. Hynde would be good again after this but never quite this good.

2. Marianne Faithfull (Broken English, Ballad of Lucy Jordan, Broken English, Working Class Hero)

A '60s 'it'-girl returns a woman and makes an angry masterpiece and testament album. With brilliant synth-work from Steve Winwood (who'd obviously paid close attention to Eno's work for Nico in the mid. '70s).

3. Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees (Kaleidoscope, Happy House, Christine, Red Light)

Siouxsie the prototype, highly haughty, super-creative, indie 'it'-girl with the great haircuts arrives. With John McGeoch in her band she was now unstoppable, as 1981's Juju would further establish.

4. B-52s (First self-titled album, Rock Lobster, Planet Claire, 52 Girls)

Huge down under for the whole year, the B-52s debut contained three of the best party dance-tracks of all time.

5. Blondie (Eat to the Beat, Atomic, Dreaming, The Hardest Part, Call Me)

Blondie's strengths - clever concepts, Debbie Harry's voice and image, Clem Burke's ace drumming (fusing disco beats with rock power) - were perfectly displayed across this series of singles.

6. Abba (Super Trouper, Super Trouper, The Winner Takes It All, One of Us, On and On and On, Gimme Gimme Gimme (A man after midnight), Happy New Year)

Abba were fraying at the seams personally by 1980, were just past their hit-making prime, and were in any case subject to incredible back-lash. But even firing on only 80% of their cylinders, Abba's output was still better than most acts ever achieve.

7. The Motels (First self-titled album, Careful, Total Control, Danger)

Martha Davis introduced a note of LA Noir to pop across two albums in 1980, both of which were all over the radio down under. She and the Motels would break through in the US only with their third album, but their earlier records, and Davis's original sultry, smokey schtick were more deserving.

8. Kate Bush (Never for Ever, Babooshka, Army Dreamers)

Kate Bush continued to show that she was smarter and weirder than anyone else in music since Bowie. Even if you didn't like her latest exactly, she was someone to be reckoned with.

9. Diana Ross (Diana, Upside Down, I'm Coming Out)

Diana Ross had the two classiest dance tracks of the year courtesy largely of Chic, with whom Ross fought. Ross brought in her own engineer to remix, change tempos etc.. I'd always assumed that Chic's original mixes would be better, but having heard them recently, I must say that I prefer Ross's speeded up, slightly poppier mixes. Ross appears to have been very shrewd.

10. Young Marble Giants (Colossal Youth)

The retiring, intellectual, cool person's record of 1980. Alison Statton's vocals are tightly rationed throughout the record, but are an indie blueprint whenever they appear.

11. Olivia Newton-John (Magic, Xanadu, Suddenly)

One of the worst movies ever made had three good, cheesy, pop hits for Ms Newton-John.

12. Pat Benatar (Heartbreaker, We live for love, Hit me with your best shot)

Benatar arrived in 1980 with a series of great singles, spread over two so-so albums. Her albums would improve after this but her singles were never this good again. The gods are cruel!

13. Grace Jones (Warm Leatherette)

Grace wouldn't really arrive until 1981's Pull up to the Bumper single, but the Warm Leatherette album and its title track (a The Normal cover) announced the arrival of someone to watch.

14. Pointer Sisters (He's So Shy)

The Pointer Sisters continued their run of great singles by revisiting the ace groove from The Brothers Johnson's I'll be good to you and Prince's I wanna be your lover. (Note that the rudimentary video's shot in LA's famous Bradbury building.)

15. Holly Vincent (Miles Away)

Holly and The Italians (w/ Holly Vincent's stonking voice, guitar, and general coolness) released a pretty great album in 1981 (which they never really followed up), but this 1980 single was an especial stunner.

16. Lori and the Chameleons (The Lonely Spy)

This pretty stunning single could have been featured on Pitchfork last week! It anticipates and may have influenced recent, well-received work by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Glasser, Lykke Li, Grimes,...

17. Lipps Inc. (Funkytown)

An alternately irritating/awesome hit song.

18. Toyah Wilcox (Ieya)

Some sort of masterpiece that Toyah was never able to follow up.

19. Flying Lizards (Money)

Just a fun as hell cover and video.

In sum, there were a heck of a lot of women in both mainstream and, as it were, indie charts in 1980. The best stuff was all-time-great, and much of the rest was either solidly entertaining or interesting in a where-will-this-person-go-next? way or both.

Friday, August 12, 2011

South Park Psycho

South Park's recent Season 15 ep. 6: City Sushi ended with an homage to Psycho's final scene. Instead of a double dissolve from Norman to mother/skull to car-being-pulled-from-swamp we got Chinese restaurant guy to crazy white psychiatrist guy to City Wok restaurant. Click the above image for details!

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Shangri-Las II

A simple vid I made for a remix of one of their 'Shadow' Morton penned/produced classics from the Stonewall (1996) soundtrack. The mix is nothing special really, but the Shangs. haven't been remixed much, so it struck me as worthwhile getting up on youtube.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Shangri-Las

Like a lot of people, I've been re-listening to Amy Winehouse over the past week or so, and really appreciating her pop sensibility. That's led me to explore some of Winehouse's pop/girl-group influences a little more thoroughly than before, esp. the Shangri-Las. The Shangs' best records are simply incredible: great songs including a bunch written by Brill Building, presiding geniuses Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, fabulously atmospheric conceptual productions, and great vocal/dramatic performances by Mary Weiss. A heck of lot of stuff that we all love from the last 40 years of music from the Velvets and Lou Reed to the Who to Gainsbourg to Abba to the Ramones to Blondie to Kate Bush to Propaganda to (I'd argue) MBV to Winehouse to Bat for Lashes is deeply indebted to the Shangs' colloquial melodramatics. And just look at them in early 1965:

And listen to where they got to by 1966:

and where they began in 1964:

They had 'it' from the beginning, and never lost 'it'. Just, wow. The Shangs haven't so far been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Greenwich and Barry are in, as are The Ronettes and Darlene Love). That should change. Lesley Gore and the Crystals deserve to be inducted too, but the Shangs are a bigger omission in my view. The conceptualness and cinematicness that the Shangs introduced to pop means that the history of pop and rock simply doesn't decode properly without them. Their omission may be part of what Frida from Abba had in mind when (at Abba's own induction) she pointedly, smartly drew attention to how few female artists had made it in to the Hall:

p.s. If you need convincing that Ellie Greenwich's genius extended beyond her monumental '60s tunes, consider the following:
EG: Yep. And years later, I was working with Cyndi Lauper on her single "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". And during the rehearsals, they got kind of... stuck on the breakdown part of the song. So I thought for a minute, and then it came to me: "Girls. They want. Wanna Have Fun. Girls. They wanna have. Just wanna, they just wanna. Girls. Girls just wanna have fu-un." And so that's what we went with.
That, of course, is the bit of the song that pushed it over the top into joyousness/greatness, making it an instant classic/standard.

Monday, August 01, 2011

M83's Skin of the Night

I'm late to the party on this 2008 track and its album... but I like it a lot. Neu!, Simple Minds, Kate Bush, Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, Modern Eon, MBV, maybe a little Massive Attack are the obvious, general, background influences on the album, aside from the direct model of Air (M83 are French). And the 'Thou shalt not fall' chant from The Lost Boys s/track may have helped shape this track in particular. (I've sometimes heard 'of the night' and 'the night' designated/mocked as none-more-'80s phrases: think Benatar, Winwood etc.. I'm open to that idea, but want to see some data!)
p.s. Excellent live at (fab!) KCRW version here:

Nouvelle Vague's version of Psych. Furs' Heaven

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A disputed image

Anna Calvi again

There are quite a few talented, dramatic, haughty girls (where I use 'girl' just to signal newness, and in a relatively non-age-specific way, cf. 'riot girl', 'roaring girls/boys') around in popular music right now, and I applaud the trend, but, for me, among recent entries, Anna Calvi has jumped out ahead of the pack:

One problem, I've yet to hear an album version of one of her songs that is as good as, say, the best three or four live performances of that song available on youtube. Calvi's performance skills and presence are so strong that it's evidently going to be hard to match that and capture that on record. Strong performers from Joanna Newsom to Janelle Monae to Gaga have all had to find some way to do this consistently, albeit in each of those cases too there are songs where the live versions are markedly superior, so maybe this isn't a problem that can ever be completely solved. At any rate, in my view Calvi's still got some work to do on the recording side, perhaps she has yet to find the perfect studio collaborator (Eno's watching over her, so presumably that's a problems that'll be solved). Apart from that, though, she's fabulous, appears to have everything figured out and to have almost no limits.

p.s. In my view, anyone who prefers Gaga's Edge of Glory nonsense over Calvi's Desire for an '80s-big-rock fix needs his or her head examined:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sylvian and Sakamoto's Bamboo Music (1982)

And the B-side, Bamboo Houses (which was arguably even better):

Extraordinarily talented and serious and beautiful, Sylvian was too good for pop music (it felt at the time like pop music for aliens, for a higher form of life than humans were currently capable of). Amazing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Antlers' I don't want love

Don't know anything abut these guys, but this is a purdy half-song. Where's the rest of it?

Keep Watching

I have put a vid. up on youtube here of a 4 bar Class Actress loop (from the end of the fab. new single Keep You) over a minute from near the end of Snyder's Watchmen film.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fox's S-S-Single Bed

A #1 hit in Australia and #4 hit in the UK in 1976, this record (with just a little reinstrumentation and fattening of the bass) could be in the charts in 2011 (e.g., it would then sound a lot like one of Gaga's best songs, Summerboy). Cartoonish, vaguely inhuman vocal tone? Check. Nursery rhyme lyric? Check. Danceable but somehow deracinated? Check. All of that's pretty appalling on one level, but on another level it's an inspired formula that obviously works for lots of people. SB seems to foreshadow much of modern dance-pop in something like the way I Feel Love and TEE and Pop Muzik do.

Update July 19, 2011: I've been listening to Fox's eponymous debut album from 1975. It's fantastic, and like S-S-Single Bed seems way ahead of its time. Very impressive stuff. I can hear why it didn't quite blow up at the time: there's no Lady Marmalade or Dancing Queen or I Feel Love or Holiday or Bad Romance, no one song that really leaps out in that unignorable, star-making way. But there's a consistent vibe here that's fresh and appealing, one that with hindsight lots of subsequent people have reinvented bits of. Fave tracks include Pretty Boy, Red Letter Day, and the Abba-ish Imagine me Imagine you, but, seriously, almost every song (I can do without the Love Letters cover) is great.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jobriath's Inside

Finally, this largely unheard masterwork, should-be-a-standard is up on youtube. For how long one wonders (I tried uploading it several times and was rejected)? Enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In flagranti

Brain magazine is a source of some of the best dance + soundtrack mixes around today. Everything I've sampled from them has become a staple. Its In flagranti mix [NSFW graphics!], for example, is utterly outstanding. Highly recommended. Brain magazine is a French site, so it's also a good chance to practise reading a little colloquial, subject-specific French.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Bette Davis, resmitten with

What a gal! I'd not seen any of Davis's TV interviews from the '70s and early '80s until recently. Before that I knew her just from her ding-dong classics (esp. All about Eve, Now Voyager, Dark Victory, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Letter), and from her later near-disastrous, post-stroke, Oscar shows appearances (as presenter but also as Testimonial awardee IIRC). Youtube, however, enables me and others to fill in that sort of gap: it's a treasure-trove of interviews that awesomely display Davis's smarts and 'stand and deliver' personal style. Having spent a few hours clicking around through these items, I'm blown away again, resmitten. Over the next month I'll try to rewatch some of my existing Davis faves and check out at least the obvious biggies that I've missed before (esp. Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, and her Elizabeth I movie, if I can get hold of them). Go here for Meryl Streep's lovely tribute to Davis if you need further inspiration to do the same. Streep describes herself and her high school girlfriends regularly watching Davis's classics on after-school tv in the 1960s, and as taking lessons from Davis on 'how to scare the hell out of men'. Haw haw!

Update July 13, 2011: Just saw The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Pretty good w/ a powerhouse lead performance from Davis (who's unafraid to play ugly and unappealing and super-high-maintenance - Davis's frantically fidgeting Elizabeth I feels like a prototype for Olivier's later Richard III). Unfortunately, despite some interesting, almost 3-D effect focal length tricks from director Curtiz, the script and production is very stagey and somewhat hard to believe. E.g., the few outdoor scenes are filled with incredibly bright, steady CA sunshine that's ridiculous for England - the soundstage, interior light is much better although it's still unrealistically bright for the renaissance/medieval world; and Flynn's Essex is given some absurd lines that make him a proto-Locke or Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the casting of Errol Flynn (w/ a Korngold score) and Olivia de Havilland as an insolent lady-in-waiting (who should surely have lost her head!) invites comparison with Robin Hood and GWTW, respectively, but PLEE isn't nearly as much fun or as spectacular as those. At any rate, next up: Jezebel.
Update August 1, 2011: After some delays, Jezebel! More excellent work from Davis in a well-made film with an unfortunately too predictable script. The 'noble'/self-sacrificing ending is an odd beast because it's evidently also a deeply self-interested ending on Davis's Julee's part. At any rate, it's impossible to be moved by what happens because of the conflicted stances the action embodies. The ending then comes to symbolize the complexity of our feelings about all of the main characters. Nobody comes out especially well, so I guess that makes J a rather good drama, but it's no Dark Victory or Now Voyager. J's setting and content invites comparison with GWTW - but, alas, that just makes me appreciate GWTW's scale, spectacle, casting, and score even more. Fonda's a bit of wet-blanket compared to Gable, as is the good-girl foil to Davis (Margaret Lindsay's Amy) compared to De Havilland's Melanie. Deep down too, I wonder whether Julee's character even quite makes sense. She's supposed to be a free spirit/spitfire. But she's also supposed to mope around the house, to receive no callers etc. for a year after things blow up with Press. That doesn't seem like a plausible combination to me. Also, we're supposed to believe that Julee's red dress scandalizes society, and that that then has consequences with Press. But the movie focuses completely on the fallout with Press, so that it's as if it forgets that Julee is now regarded as a scarlet/wild/trollop-y woman and should be paying social prices independently of Press for her non-conformism. Maybe my two complaints are connected and may be jointly answers as follows: maybe we're supposed to infer that Julee holes up for a year after Press leaves in part because New Orleans society now largely shuns her. But if that's so then I think it needed to be clarified, e.g., there's a scene missing, perhaps of people crossing the street to avoid Julee that we need.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The best rock formation in The Searchers

Very cool, no? (Click for bigger, more gloriously VistaVisiony version.) It reminds me a little of a Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars:

Obviously SW alludes directly to The Searchers in the 'Luke finds his home destroyed and Aunt and Uncle killed' scene, but Lucas's debts to Ford are diffuse and v. extensive, from the cinematography to the treatment of 'natives speaking their own languages'.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Class Actress's Keep You

Possible song of the year? I think so:

[Hat-tip to stereogum.]
But is there enough going on timbrally, say by the 'middle eight', to maintain broad interest? I love the basic backing track and the vocal and the way the whole thing just beds in, but a sense of something else crashing through that technotic surface - some other vocal melodies? some guitar? - might have been worth exploring. Compare with Steve Stevens's entry into this:

Bonus thought: Maybe Class Actress, Zola Jesus, Romika, and Little Boots should join forces, form an '80s super-group: Acoustic Psychiatry (what Kraftwerk described themelves as doing/being) or possibly The Acoustic Psychiatrists.
Update July 1: Still loving this, but one problem: the mp3 that's been released is so fricking *loud*. When you look at the signal, it's completely bricked (no beat structure in the signal *at all* - incredible!) and it's clipping everywhere. I've ended up loading the file into Garageband and remastering it down by 2.7 dB just so it doesn't give me headaches if I listen to it repeatedly (as I'm currently wont to do). For God's sake people, loudness and zero dynamic range stink. Way to kill your own music.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

iMovie and iDvd '11 are pieces of crap

Just to begin with:
  1. Chaptering within movies is crippled
  2. Positioning and resizing of images in 'drop zones' and menus is crippled
  3. No frame-grabbing of images from videos
  4. It's almost impossible to add transitions without increasing project duration (often apparently by random amounts - this has to be seen to be believed)
All of these very basic functionalities were available even in iMovie '04 on my previous iBook, so Apple has gone out of its way to make recent versions of its programs almost unusable (unless you don't mind creating movies and dvds that look absolutely terrible).

Also, more generally, both programs have work flows that are dumbed down to an incredible degree. Using them is like being trapped in software Idiocracy. What an appalling company Apple has become: rich, abusive towards its users, contemptuous of norms of incremental and logical design.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nasty Surprises in the Old Testament

1. Rivers of Babylon
The pop song (in all its forms - one of the best episodes of Mad Men, Season 1 had a great one) cycles around the following lyrics:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;
ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Require from us a song -
Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
rather less frequently adding:
Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight here tonight
As wikipedia observes, while the last couplet comes from Psalm 19, the song mainly rehearses Psalm 137, which recounts the yearnings of the Jewish people for Jerusalem and their freedom while they are in exile, enslaved in Babylon (i.e., after the catastrophe of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first temple etc. in 587-586 BCE).

The song has a stately, mournful, undramatic, unaggressive feel (disco versions are metronomic), and it achieves this largely because it cuts off just before Psalm 137 gets interesting, i.e., by causally checking the enemies list back in Israel ('When we get free, we're comin' for you Edomites!'), and by climaxing with brutal, close-to-hand horror. Here's the full Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried,“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter [of] Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Because the Psalms are relatively free-floating songs/hymns, it's not entirely clear what situation is envisaged here. Are the enslaved Jews just metaphorically by the rivers of Babylon (i.e., in the same sense that anyone who's in LA is 'by the Pacific'), or is this a completely literal scene: Jewish women (presumably) literally on the banks of, e.g., the Euphrates doing their Babylonian masters' laundry, occasionally encouraged by (possibly genuinely curious, not especially sadistic, but the Psalm does go out of its way to call them 'tormentors') overseers/guards to sing songs of their homeland while they work? I suspect that it's the latter. The hanging of harps in the poplars places us outside and possibly at riverside, and the horror image of the final line seems to build on the traditional laundry method that involves slapping the laundry against flat rocks at waters' edge. If this interpretation is on the right track then the horror image is actually two-fold:
  1. The enslaved women who are doing your laundry by beating it against rocks, are thinking of beating your infants' brains out as they do so
  2. The women who are doing your laundry will (eventually and probably sooner rather than later) be providing your child-care.
The infanticide threat therefore is doubly concrete, and no mere fantasy. That said, the intensity of resistance that the fantasy itself expresses is frightening, and should be chastening for slave-holders. Slave rebellion of the household help - check. General Biblical idea that infants are fair game in a rough neighborhood - check.

2. David and Goliath

You may remember, as it were, from Sunday School, the story of unafraid, unarmored shepherd-boy David killing the highly armored, 9 ft tall Philistine warrior, Goliath of Gath with just a sling and a rock (effectively just because he's got God on his side, hence David's lack of fear, confidence, etc.). 1 Samuel 17 continues:
50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.
52 Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron.
53 When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.
54 David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.
55 As [King] Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine [Note the cool mini-rewind, flashback structure here!], he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”
56 The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.”
57 As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head.
58 “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
Sunday School never mentioned or elaborated on the beheading part, but it's clearly of the utmost significance to the author of 1 Samuel, hence the repetition. The next chapter flashes back again to the entrance of David into Jerusalem to further flesh out the scene:
6 When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres.
7 As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
So this is the image to have: David is instantly transformed from an unknown shepherd boy to national hero, where this change is capped by his entering the city in triumph before a crowd of thousands with the head of Goliath in his hand (it's irresistible to imagine him holding it aloft). Sunday Bloody Sunday school! At any rate, most of 1 Samuel 18 is concerned with Saul's paranoia about (and attempts to kill) David:
22 Then Saul ordered his attendants: “Speak to David privately and say, ‘Look, the king likes you, and his attendants all love you; now become his son-in-law.’”
23 They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”
24 When Saul’s servants told him what David had said,
25 Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.
26 When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed,
27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage.
The gruesome laying waste to Philistines is treated as a sideshow, almost as a gag 'Saul, the Putz, thought he'd set David a task that would get him killed, but no!' And note how David actually kills twice as many Philistines as Saul asked for as the bride price (which was what Saul thought would be enough for David to get himself well and truly killed - Saul's got the Terminator on his hands). Charming. And how utterly miserable that the Philistines have been remembered only incidentally as a kind of joke ('You Philistine!').

3. Joshua and Jericho
One of the most beloved of traditional Sunday School stories is the Battle of Jericho: the Jews parade the Ark of the Covenant around the walls of the city of Jericho once per day for six days, and on the seventh day they do 7 laps of the city with it. Then priests blow their horns, and, at Joshua's command, the people all shout at once, and....the city's wall collapses, the Jews take over the city, the end.

But not so fast! Not only is all the shouting and horn-blowing just pageantry (it's the Ark as a Raiders-style, divine WMD that's doing the work surely!), but also the Sunday School version cuts off just as things start to get interesting in Joshua 6 and Joshua more generally. After the wall comes down:

21 [The Jews] devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys...
24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD’s house....
26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the LORD is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.”
27 So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.
It's worth mentioning that by the Jews' own account in Joshua the people of Jericho had never done anything to or against the Jews (it's actually a little surprising to me that there's no attempt made to gin up some Gulf of Tonkin-like incident or 'those people disrespected the Lord'-type pseudo-charge against the people of Jericho). Rather the text is very clear: Jericho and its people are just IN THE WAY, i.e., they just happen to be living in a region that God has now supposedly granted uniquely to the Jews. QED. Kill, kill, kill, but retain valuable dry goods (but see below).

Most of the rest of Joshua continues and completes the programme begun at Jericho (although it had been promised explicitly by Moses in Deuteronomy 9 ('Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky... the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you'): the extermination of every existing settlement or group of people west of the Jordan River (at least) so that Israel will be able to be founded on a blank page. After Jericho comes Ai in Joshua 8 (after some 'not following the Lord's instructions' shenanigans in Joshua 7):
24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it.
25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai.
26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai.
27 But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua.
28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.
29 He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.
And so on. Note that the livestock are spared and carried off this time. Can anyone seriously believe that God changed his instructions from Jericho to Ai? Surely not. The only reality here is that Israel's methods are evolving (note the king's corpse impaled bit), being perfected. It's crazy/overkill/a luxury for a conquering army on the march to waste its enemies' livestock. God isn't changing his mind, the Jews are just becoming better, smarter terrorizers and ethnic cleansers. 'As God wished/commanded us' has just been rubber-stamped over every new malicious step.

Wikipedia's articles on the Book of Joshua and on the concept of herem (which apparently implies an exterminationist agenda) contain good, well-referenced summaries of scholars' hand-wringing about some of the most brazen and abhorrent propagandizing in favor of ethnic cleansing and genocide one could ever hope to see.

4. The Grapes of Wrath
Most of us know the phrase 'The Grapes of Wrath' from Steinbeck's novel and also from The Battle Hymn of the Republic (the 'Glory glory hallelujah, his truth is marching on' one) from the US's Civil War. But the Biblical roots of the phrase are obscure for most people. Although the phrase turns up in Revelations, it first appears in one of the most cinematic and horrifying passages in the Bible: the beginning of Isaiah 63. At this point in Isaiah there's about to be a new birth of freedom for the Jews as they've been released from slavery in Babylon and are now trudging back to their homeland or what's left of it. In Chapter 61, the narrator tells us that now at last all will be well.

4 [The Jews] will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.
7 Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.
“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.
This is all sounding very ominous, like we're about to have a replay of the Joshua only with God himself very much on the scene this time. Isaiah 62 builds suspense:
8 The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled;
9 but those who harvest it will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who gather the grapes will drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.”
We await the Ark's appearance? But, no, God himself is on the case. Cue the Morricone: it's the man with no name, actually God as John Doe from Se7en, emerging from the haze.
1 Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.”
2 Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress?
3 “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
The narrator speaks quasi-fantastically for the whole of Israel conceived as 'on the road', trudging back to Zion from their 50 year Babylonian nightmare. Who is the blood-splattered stranger on the road from Bozrah, the mountain fortress of Edom, the narrator/Israel asks?

It's the Jews' God, and he has slaughtered all of the Edomites in their most impregnable fortress. This appears to be grudge-settling of an especially expansive, 'best when it's cold' form: remember Psalm 137 (Section 1 above) in which the Edomites cheered when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem etc.. After 40-50 years of enslavement, it's now payback time for the Jews. God's ticked that he had to do all the work himself this time around (a good Joshua is hard to find I suppose), still, it is accomplished. God's almost literally bathing in the blood of the Jews' enemies. God appears to be hoping that this action will be a one-off, that the Jews themselves will take things from here, i.e., now that they have this fresh example of what sort of barbarism's required to make the vision of Israel as 'land of milk and honey for the Jews' real. God will still be decisive for the Jews, but he'll mainly act in relatively abstract or invisible ways, e.g., invisibly ensuring the Jews win all their battle, etc.. The grapes of wrath, then, are enemies of the Jews being squished like grapes by a wrathful deity championing his favorite people again and again. The Battle Hymn of the Republic's first verse (all that anyone ever remembers) is:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Yankee soldiers marching against the South invoke the monstrous image of a John Doe God. Yee Haw.

A quick word about the rest of Isaiah 63: in effect the narrator is then led to reflect on what this reboot for the Jews means: won't they just screw everything up all over again? Isn't it inevitable that God will eventually tire of the Jews' lack of righteousness, of their general wickedness and disobedience? Won't God ultimately let the Jews' enemies overrun them as punishment for their inevitable frailty? What's the point if so? The narrator asks a plaintive question which David Plotz calls the toughest question in the Bible:

17 Why, LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?
The Narrator then seems to morph this question into a kind of plea that God should be more of a hands-on ruler of the Jews, at least if there's to be much hope. Fat chance of that! But interpretation here is very difficult. Isaiah is an incredibly complex, multi-authorial work, full of prophecy but also grappling with the historical realities of the reverse diaspora/new Exodus. Isaiah's fantastical levels of violence and truly psychopathic God are deeply disturbing, even if they're intended as fantasies, just as the infanticide plea in Rivers of Babylon in Psalms is even if it's interpreted just as a fantasy signaling the implacability of Jewish resistance.

In some ways, nothing can prepare one for the horror and terror of the Old Testament, and it's probably appropriate that kids should be spared much of it (of course the Richard Dawkinses of the world think that exposing kids to any religious texts at all is child abuse!). But it's often great literature - extremely cinematic with the spareness of a well-written screenplay - and it's spookily pseudo-historical too (in a way that speaks to the shape of many current events in the Middle East), so it's gripping stuff. At a deep level too the OT grapples with the problem of how to pass on wisdom to future generations who'll be living in very different times (and who'll tend to largely have forgotten all the precedents for the next shocking crisis). The unexpurgated version of the OT is therefore an amazing resource for adults, allowing them, among other things, to reflect upon the simplicitudes of childhood, and the shortness of effective cultural memory.