Monday, January 30, 2012

Holy Mother of all that is Funky and Cool

Rodgers, Edwards, Thompson immediately pre-Chic in 1976. Doing Earth Wind and Fire. Wow. Some of the best music ever made starts here.

Nile Rodgers has the story behind the video on his wonderful blog here. (Note that Nile's acronym DHM means 'drunk hot mess'.)

Update: I heartily recommend the Six Million Steps soul/disco site and JJ's Smoking Sessions mixtapes/podcasts in particular to all Chic fans. Every mix that I've checked out has been spectacular. In most cases, obscurities and interview snippets rub shoulders with old favorites in way that's completely intoxicating. Your mileage may vary, but probably it won't. This stuff's gold.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Henry Fonda: an appreciation

Having just watched the excellent though somewhat diagrammatic Tin Star (1957) for the first time, and in light of being pretty bowled over by Jezebel (1937) last year, I'm starting to think that I might have under-rated Henry Fonda's career. I've definitely been one of those people who's big-upped Cary Grant for stretching his career at the top from the '30s to the '60s, but Fonda did the same thing.

Like Grant he has a bunch of golden age classics (The Lady Eve, Grapes of Wrath, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr Lincoln, Jezebel, My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, The Ox-bow Incident) and he also has a bunch of late '50s/'60s triumphs and show-stoppers thanks to veteran directors (The Longest Day, Advise and Consent, The Wrong Man, Tin Star, War and Peace) and young turks such as Lumet and Leone alike (Once Upon a Time in the West, Fail-safe, 12 Angry Men, The Best Man). Fonda has other achievements of course including hits like Mister Roberts and the late career show-case On Golden Pond, but it's the two large clusters of excellent films that are Fonda's claim to greatness. I count 8 near-masterpieces in the Golden Age cluster and 5 in the Late-'50s/'60s cluster. That's a career to stack up against anyone's.

For whatever reason, Fonda isn't as iconic as Grant or Bogart or Wayne or Astaire, but he's got as many great films to his credit as those guys, and he had as astonishingly long a career at the absolute top as Grant and Wayne did. Quite a guy in other words, and I for one will be careful to include him henceforth on the shortest of short lists of true Hollywood superstars that begins with names like Davis, Grant, Wayne...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Madness of Speaker Newt: Best TNR Cover of the '90s

Chris Christie is right (at least about what once was).

Update March 16, 2012: After failing to win two crucial southern primaries he'd banked on this week, Newt said the following:
The thing I find most disheartening of this campaign is the difficulty of talking about large ideas on a large scale, because the news media can’t cover it and candidly, my opponents can’t comprehend it…Let me talk for a second about technology and grand opportunities. Other than Ronald Reagan, I know of no Republican in my lifetime who’s been able to talk about this. That’s why I’m still running.
Keep talkin' Newt. The men in white coats are on their way...

Monday, January 23, 2012

All That Jazz image

Clicks in Ball of Fire (1941)

It's a cute conceit: Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea (Stanwyck) clicks her way through Hawks's Ball of Fire (1941), loses her click-mojo slightly near the end, but evidently has passed much of it on to her Professor-cherubs (who need it). BoF is a slight film in many ways, but it grows on you, and Stanwyck's on fire throughout. Of course, in 1941 Stanwyck was brilliant all over, doing The Lady Eve for Sturges and Meet John Doe for Capra. Two bona fide classics and a delightful romp: pretty good year.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Expressos' Want

The Expresso's Want (a.k.a. What She Wants), not previously available on youtube, is my favorite album track from the splendid Pillows and Ties (1981). It broadly apes the great Doc Pomus song (Marie's the Name Of) His Latest Flame which was a hit for Elvis in 1961. The Smiths' Rusholme Ruffians strip-mined the same tune 3 years later to excellent effect on Meat is Murder, but the Expressos got there first!

My visuals are from the Drum Boogie sequence in Hawks's Ball of Fire (1941). Although I regard BOF as second-tier Hawks and second-tier screwball more generally, Barbara Stanwyck is incandescent in it, and the Drum Boogie number lights that fuse. The unadulterated Drum Boogie number is widely available on youtube, e.g., here, so I hope that purists won't object to me adapting it to give the unjustly overlooked Expressos a boost. And if you like new wave girl pop, you owe it to yourself to see some screwballs of the '30s and '40s. There's a still under-explored connection between the feisty movie gal generation of Stanwyck, Colbert, Lombard, Arthur, etc. and the music generation of Pattie Smith, Siouxsie, Pauline Murray, Chrissie Hynde, and Debbie Harry (to which The Expressos' Roz Rayner certainly belongs).

Want's lyrics near as I can make out (corrections/improvements welcome) are as follows:

[That's what] Is there someone to meet here
[What you want] Every thing I see here
[Want] Somebody tell me
What you gonna do for a guy that's true?
[Want] A pretty conversation
[What you want] Electric lubrication
[Want] A whole lotta love from you

Is there someone here I can call on tonight?
Take me by the hand, I'll lead you to unite
Our feelings grow so tired I want to get out
And when I get the chance I can show you what I want

[You know you want] A little bit of loving
[What you want] A little bit of something
[Want] A whole lotta love from you

Got my tickets in the hand and I'm walking out the door
If you stop me now, I'll never walk away no more
If these sophisticated people for a while
And when I get the chance I can show you what I want

[You knows you want] Uh oh, come on
[What you want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme
[Want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme Owwww


If these sophisticated people for a while
And when I get the chance I can show you what I want

[You knows you want] Oh
[What you want] Oh, come on
[want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme
[Want] Give it to me
[Want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme
[Want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme
[Want] Ohhh
[What you want] Gimme gimme gimme gimme
[What you want]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jane Siberry's Symmetry (The Way Things Have To Be)

Jane Siberry's brilliant, gorgeous, but relatively obscure, geek-girl anthem, Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be) from her 1984 album No Borders Here hasn't been represented anywhere on youtube. My video plugs that gap. Our visuals are from the title number of Dames (1934), created and arranged by Busby Berkeley.

is a 'must see' film in my view (see this blog post for terrific promotional images from the film including the ultra-classy ad. image at right), but it has recently drawn attention mainly because Michel Gondry and Matthew Barney have spent the last 15 years strip-mining it! Edgar Wright, however, has repeatedly advocated for Dames itself by screening it at various festivals. At any rate, I think the combination of Siberry and Busby Berkeley works well - two genius level items together for the first time, what could go wrong! - and hope that the relatively distinct audiences for these materials might productively cross-pollinate.
While many people nowadays associate symmetry in film with Wes Anderson or Kubrick, Busby Berkeley got there first and deepest, especially in the numbers for a remarkable string of somewhat risque, pre-Code, pictures he directed for Warner Bros in the early 1930s. Note that Dames probably isn't the best starting point if you're new to Busby B., for that I recommend the very topical (Depression-themed) Gold-diggers of 1933, e.g., here, here and here.
Berkeley influenced Escher and the wider development of Topology, and since he occasionally had his chorines dance and rearrange themselves on what look for all the world like giant folded proteins and viruses, Berkeley's influence on the sciences probably hasn't fully played out even now.

Mind-bogglingly, given that it's now a favorite, I only heard Siberry's track for the first time just over a week ago thanks to the wonderful Now you're at Songblague! blog. (Forget politics, a week is a long time in music appreciation!) Since one of my discoveries of last year was (the original mix of) Moev's Cracked Mirror - which I only heard about from a College remix 'tape' after liking their contribution to Drive (2011)'s soundtrack - I'm beginning to think I've got a thing for '80s C(anadian)-pop, as the kids might say.

Finally, a couple of other (recently-new-to-me) Siberry exceptionally-goodies from the '80s. From The Speckless Sky (1985), Taxi Ride:

and from The Walking (1987), the official video (with somewhat unfortunate poor audio quality) for The Walking (And Constantly):

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Listening again to Metronomy's English Riviera

Metronomy's English Riviera was one of the most acclaimed albums of the last year (2011). I agreed with that consensus, but I'm further starting to think that it's a real classic (the sort of thing that'll be on 'end of decade' lists in 2020). So, let's listen through again, as if for the first time...

ER's first real track is the exquisite scene-setter, We Broke Free:

Airily Air-y, every note and timbre in its right place, ultra-precvise drums and percussion, a very 'dry' mix overall, nice. That's the sound of the record.
Onto the first single on the record (the actual fourth single released):

Roxanne Clifford (who? she's in a band called Veronica Falls and was in The Sexy Kids, but I don't know either of those) is drafted to do essential female vox. It's as livening for ER as Kim Deal is for The Pixies or Morgan Kibby is for M83. Great simple shaker percussion and handclaps matches a great, simple lyric about being surprised by love. The astringent ghost of Young Marble Giants' first record hangs heavily over this track, which is a good thing in my view. I wish I'd written this song. (Note that in my experience, at least when you're past 30 say,, and perhaps especially if you've been in a band or at least tried to write songs yourself at some point, it's always a good sign when an album has you asking yourself questions like 'Why didn't I write this?', 'This great song has always been "out there" to be discovered, why didn't someone else figure it out?' Not to mention if it provokes flat out envy and admiration: 'I wish I'd written this/I'd be so proud to have written this'!).
Now to ER's (actual and on the record) second single:

With its slightly spooky seaside fun fair feel, The Look has its Sea and Cake and eats it, topping off with a Winwood-y keyboard-trumpet fanfare/solo at the 3 min mark. Unbelievably tasty stuff.
Time for the lead-off single (third on the record):

Cooler and cooler. Twitchy bass and synth tones, feels a little Franz-ish overall but James Mount's restrained vocal unwinding into a repeated 'The Hours come...' refrain at the end of the track is the opposite of histrionic and is singular pure Metronomy delight. Probably the killer blow: listening from the beginning of the record, as with Let Down on OK Computer this is the track that inspires love. The album has you bad now.

Trouble's title reminds us of Coldplay's first album and sure enough the track does sound a little like that, albeit with enough touches to prevent anything too ernest or saccharine from breaking out. It's like all of the good song-writing and arranging ideas from Parachutes (since largely abandoned by Coldplay) bundled into one song, only without any of the irritating bits.
The third single (fourth on the actual album):

A fun imaginary travelogue, but The Bay's retro-disco beat is only OK in my view. This is the first track on ER that doesn't conspicuously over-achieve.

Loving Arm is more conspicuous coolness. Nice keyboards.

Corinne is the most rocking song on the record (so far and overall). Female vox return for the first time since Everything Goes My Way, although this time it's drummer Anna Prior chiming in. Great stuff.

More dry coolness. Not going to be everyone's cup of tea (but neither is Air or Stereolab or Jon Brion-period Aimee Mann, all of which are points of reference here), but I like it a lot. Drums rock out at the end, mad PA organ comes more front and center than its been before. Whirlygigs and bumper-cars, and pier-end funfairs - six minutes of English fading entropy perhaps. That fades into the final track:

A bit darker, what is going on here? Is the Metronomy show at the end of time now, careering off the rails, with sex pushing through the cool gentility ('She wants it all the time')? Mount plays his cards close to his chest at the end here. No, this record will stay in its comfort zone.

In sum, ER is an intensely contained record, rather like a Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch novel. It's obviously a 9/10 or 10/10 album - not a duff track on it and you want to listen to the whole thing again immediately to give its elements more chance to sink in. The absence of incredible highs and lows is inherently a little disturbing and makes its potential classic status difficult to judge. If I had to guess tho' I'd say that ER is going to be seminal. Like, say, the Cure's Disintegration or MBV's Loveless, ER is an exercise in purity and fastidiouness. It finds a note and a space and holds it. That sort of restraint and control risks boring people, but the purity will beguile if you can get on its wavelength, and over time, I'd say that more and more people will. I could be wrong, but with ER, Metronomy have announced themselves as a classic band, prepared to play the legacy/waiting game for an audience to grow behind them. Good for them and for us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hiroshima's (and J-pop's? and J-or-K-pop's?) Finest: Perfume

I'm new to J-pop and K-pop... but the trio from Hiroshima, Perfume, stand out. They've got some of En Vogue's glamor but with lots of sweet hooks in 'Nee' (only an appreviated vid. is embeddable; the full vid. is viewable here):

And there's some Bacharach (perhaps via Pizzicato 5) in 'Voice''s changes if you listen closely:

I'm not quite sure how they pull off having such skinny legs etc. without looking unhealthy (being v. young helps a lot obviously!), but they do. I'm also not completely sure about the lasting value of tightly-formatted, producer-driven pop (Perfume's big producer is Yasutaka Nakata) when one doesn't understand the language (as I don't here). Consider how much even musically great stuff like The Supremes and The Shangri-las (to stick with girl-centric dance-pop) suffers if you lose almost all lyrical content. Videos can help make up those losses, but not completely I suspect. That said, very melodic stuff from the Supremes through to Perfume seems to be more inherently intelligible (independent of language) than funk and hip-hop (which emphasize rhythm and lyrical and attitudinal richness over melody and chord changes). With Public Enemy or En Vogue or Missy Elliott, say, you really need to speak the language (and sharing a lot of very culturally specific background is also very desirable). Key K-popsters, 2NE1, have a harder row to hoe world-wide I think than Perfume or Kyary (Pon Pon Pon) precisely because they've got more hip-hop in them (but, chiming with freakytrigger's Frank Kogan, Spin Magazine doesn't see any problem for them).

Update: Perfume's Polyrhythm is a delicious, Daft Punk-ish confection (I think it substantially improves on the DP track, One More Time, that it apes), and this live video shows the potential for subtitling to work very well for music vids.:

Polyrhythm is used in this scene from Pixar's Cars 2:

which has caused some hand-wringing by some of Perfume's early fans. Perfume themselves didn't see the problem, and were downright adorable at the film's LA premiere to boot:

Perfume are so very corporate, but it works for them.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

London Belongs to Mia

[Unfortunately, youtube/Warner Bros appears to be blocking this vid. almost everywhere except in the UK. You'll have to click and see whether it works for you. My apologies if it doesn't. (Shakes fist in general direction of LA.)]

Andrea Arnold's instant-classic second feature, Fish Tank (2009), is the story of 15-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives in a housing estate near Tilbury on the edge of Greater London. 'London Belongs To Me' is a bizarrely-not-on-youtube-anywhere, track from Saint Etienne's classic debut album, Foxbase Alpha (1991). My video brings these two personal favorites together, I hope productively (and not just punningly). Fish Tank of course has its own musical agenda (Mia dances mainly to hip-hop) and Saint Etienne are more middle class/college/central London than Mia (and SE's title comes from a central-London-set 1945 novel, which was apparently well-filmed in 1948). Still, I think the pairing works. Maybe it's Arnold and Saint Etienne who are simpatico, and, of course my short vid. favors the severely beautiful (and Mia alone) above the more cumulative, tense and desperate (and Mia in conflict with others) aspects of Arnold's vision, thereby skewing matters towards SE's wry, near beatific take on London life. At any rate, all Saint Etienne Fans need to see Fish Tank, and Mia/Katie Jarvis fans (who are probably into Katy B nowadays) should explore SE generally and Foxbase Alpha in particular. And Katie Jarvis needs to act again! Cast her somebody.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Great Songs of the '90s: Prince's When The Lights Go Down

Prince in retiring muso mode channels Curtis Mayfield, shows off some jazz chops, and just rolls. Perfect in every way. An anonymizing, submerging antidote to the attention-seeking but also ADD-ed, personal-branding degradation that is the core of most popular and dance music.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

What 'alternative' means now (in music)

I just watched (OK, intermittently fast-forwarded though) '50 Top Alternative Anthems' on MTV Classic (down under). That list, which was topped by Creep, Seven Nation Army, and Love Will Tear Us Apart, also included Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, Outkast's Hey Ya, Oasis's Wonderwall, and The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony. But all of the latter were among the broadest of mainstream hits of their respective years. Each sold massively to everyone from hipsters to Grannies, all over the world, just as they were intended. One possibility is, then, that the always somewhat suspicious 'alternative' label has become completely meaningless and unhelpful.

But here's another possibility suggested by listening to the NPR: Planet Money (streamable/downloadable) podcast on Rihanna and contemporary (paradigmatically summer) hit-making. Music that's written, performed, and produced overwhelmingly by the artist/group his/her/itself (or jointly with a single Producer/Engineer team - say roughly along the lines of a George Martin or a Brian Eno or a Nigel Godrich) counts as 'alternative'. It's (broadly) individually expressive compared to the corporate/industrial/Darwinian/networked/distributed (it's not clear which if any of these descriptors is the right one!) model that Rihanna et al. use. The latter is proudly as close as possible to being purely expressive of/written by/a function of the market and the zeitgeist. The purpose of an outsize visual personality/front end (Rihanna, Xtina, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Kylie, etc...) in this model is to hide/distract from/make bearable the genericness/impersonality of the product. It says something about how popular music has evolved that formerly mainstream, ambitious outfits like Outkast and Gnarls and Oasis are starting to look like crazy DIY romantic freaks. It's the same evolution that's happened in movies: former epitomes of mainstream mass-entertainment direction such as Cameron and Spielberg start to look like wild-eyed romantic individualist auteurs next to the truly cynical, corporate ministrations of Sherlock Holmes Bastardized 2, Pirates 4-Eva, Marvel Comic Extrusion/Reboot/Carbuncle 2, etc.. Hence, Dana Stevens's quip about the contemporary movie situation: "Big, A-list movies that lack 3-D and a toy tie-in are the new scruffy indies".

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Maxine Sullivan's If I Had A Ribbon Bow (1940)

Most of the vids I put up on youtube are genuine videos, but just occasionally, when I notice that one of my very favorite songs or recordings isn't anywhere to be found on youtube, I prefer to whack up the track with just a single image to accompany it. That's the case here. This is the first known recording of the semi-traditional (Huey Prince and Louis Singer are listed as writers) 'If I had a Ribbon Bow'. According to Wikipedia, Maxine Sullivan recorded this in 1936, but it's collected on a Classics 1938-1941 CD, and iTunes/eMusic et al. identify the recording as from August 1, 1940. (My own copy of the track is on a strange, early '90s, 2-disc Sony compilation A Tribute to Black Entertainers.)

Sullivan was from Homestead (just outside Pittsburgh) PA, but hit the (semi-)big time in NYC, singing initially mostly at the Onyx Club w/ her (soon-to-be) husband John Kirby's band, but soon getting a radio show on CBS and performing and appearing in films with Louis Armstrong. Sullivan seems to have taken a decade or more off after her initial success to raise a family but came back in the late '50s, appearing in the famous A Great Day in Harlem photo with everyone.

Sullivan's early recordings had a very pure, cool, unaffected tone that partially anticipated songbook breakthroughs by Ella and others in the late '40s. And Sullivan was strikingly beautiful. In sum, although she's currently well-known only to early jazz-buffs, Sullivan's ripe for rediscovery by a wider audience.

Homestead itself is in the process of recovering its memory of Sullivan. Famous principally for steel, strikes, massacres and the great Negro League Baseball team The Homestead Greys w/ the legendary Josh Gibson ('The Black Babe Ruth? Hell no. Ruth was the white Josh Gibson!' is Homestead and Pittsburgh holy writ), Homestead can surely use Sullivan as an important female grace note to its predominantly ultra-macho history.

At any rate, I'd be amazed if this track doesn't eventually draw some advertizing interest. Can't you just hear it floating around some perfume or other luxe product? Fairport Convention's folky version not so much. Hippies.