Saturday, February 21, 2009

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009)


It’s been a tough year for Van Morrison fans.

2008 started out promisingly enough. A new record deal resulted in Van having his own record company, Exile, to be distributed through Polydor/Universal, and to launch it they started releasing new remasters of his classic albums. The project was supposed to take in basically everything from Tupelo Honey through What’s Wrong With This Picture, plus Them. They were supposed to come out in four batches, and each remaster was supposed to include bonus tracks. So far so good, and the first two series came out on schedule. They were a bit stingy with the bonus tracks, but there were some definite gems in there.

We also got a new album, Keep It Simple, last March. Opinions vary about it (I find it pleasant but minor, with a couple of tracks excepted), but hey, any new Van is welcome.

Then things went wacky. Don’t know exactly what happened (why? see below), but something seems to have made the Exile/Polydor deal run aground. The third and fourth rounds of remasters never appeared, and next thing we know we’re hearing that Van has a new deal, with EMI, and a new vanity label, Listen To The Lion Records. One assumes this is why the remasters were canceled: they were part of the old deal, and when that fell through, so did they. One may also speculate that at some point the new regime is going to resume the remasters program: the work has already been done, one figures, so somebody’s going to try to recoup their investment. In the meantime, though, half of Van’s back catalog is out of print. If, like me, you thought this was the right time to fill in the gaps in your Van the Man collection, you just might be s.o.l. Used copies of the last remaster of Hard Nose The Highway are going for 35 bucks.

Why don’t we know more about this stuff? Because when the Exile deal started, Van seems to have decided it was time to declare war on his most loyal fans. He sicced his lawyers on the fan sites, hounding them right off the net. I’m talking a couple of seriously dedicated, informative, educational, and in every respect harmless sites, full of nothing but praise for Van, and run on an entirely non-profit basis. All gone. The only Van sites you can find now are a rudimentary fan shrine that looks like it was designed in 1995 and never updated, and a blog that pretends to be independent, but that’s obviously an official publicity arm of the Van organization. And now that Exile’s been banished, even the official Van Morrison website has been downgraded to an ad for the new live album. (Although it does look like they’re trying to bring a full-function website back, gradually.)

Like I say, it’s been a tough year to be a Van Morrison fan. You can hardly even talk about the guy online. I’ll probably get a cease-and-desist from his lawyers just for writing his name on this blog.

Where do things stand now? I mentioned a new album, and if you’re at all interested in Van you know he just released a disc called Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, from a series of shows he did there last fall at which he played that classic album in its entirety. He’s repeating the stunt in New York and London this spring.

I say stunt, and no matter how good the results, there’s something about this that smacks of the publicity grab. New record deal, new label, time to make some noise, do something to goose up demand for…whatever comes next.

None of which means that the music can’t be transcendent.

First impressions:

As with most Van releases, the artwork looks like it was slapped together in about ten minutes. Notice the close-but-no-cigar font they use to write "Astral Weeks." The handwritten “Van Morrison” cut’n’pasted from A Sense Of Wonder. The booklet is just as carelessly done. “Cypress” Avenue? A credit for John Densmore playing on a song that doesn’t appear on the CD?

Most of all dig the Listen To The Lion Records logo. Could it get more grandiose? Van’s the King of the Jungle! The Lion of Judah! Aslan! And not only is it a ridiculous logo, it’s huge – have you ever seen a record company logo take up a bigger proportion of the CD cover?

None of which means the music can’t be transcendent.

The music:

Let’s understand what we really have here. It’s not like Van hasn’t been performing songs from Astral Weeks. They’ve popped up from time to time throughout his career. What he hadn’t done is perform them as a set, at least not since before he actually released the album. And because there was no real Astral Weeks tour back in 1969, he had never performed these songs with something like the instrumentation you hear on the original album. So this is not really a long-awaited rediscovery of Astral Weeks, but an imitation of Brian Wilson: let’s perform the album as written, as a bloc, ‘cause that’s a very promotable thing. High concept, as they say.

And that’s what we have here: Astral Weeks in its entirety, performed by a band equipped to approximate the studio arrangements. Meaning: we have a harpsichord, a flute, cellos, violins, lots of acoustic guitars, a stand-up bass. And we have one guy (besides Van) who performed on the original album, Jay Berliner.

He changes the order. “Slim Slow Slider” is now third, and the proceedings end with “Madame George.” This makes a lot of sense in terms of the pacing of a live show: bring the bluesy number up nearer the front, and end with the longest, most climactic number. Right away this signals what Van’s up to here: turning Astral Weeks into something that makes sense as show business.

Like a lot of people, I love Astral Weeks. Maybe not as much as Lester Bangs did, but I do have a special affection for it. Every time I hear it I discover something new in it, and not just little nuances. The songs themselves, which at first seemed nearly unintelligible in their intensity, stand out clearer to me each time. I start to appreciate their careful structure, the planning that underlies their improvised feel. The key, it seems to me, is the intensity. Van’s singing with as much desperation as he ever would, wringing every drop of emotion out of every line, and the musicians are right there with him, sawing away, creating as much discord as harmony. It’s a beautiful record, but not usually a comforting or comfortable one.

The live version is both comforting and comfortable. He decides not to end the way the album does, with “Slim Slow Slider” slipping alarmingly quickly from mere depression into chaos. Instead we get the formal, lingering goodbye of “Madame George,” and its peaceful musical resolution. And even in its earlier position, “Slim Slow Slider” is approached much more as a conventional blues, with room for the players to stretch out; its disturbing overtones are smoothed out; there are hints of the free jazz of the original near the end, but only hints. And this is followed by “Sweet Thing,” which will heal anybody’s blues.

But “Sweet Thing,” too, is changed. On the original album, it’s a delicate hothouse flower. It’s enchanting, but it can leave you feeling like Sam Gamgee in Lothlorien, a little nervous in the presence of all that beauty. Here he brings it down to earth with a chuffing harmonica solo at the end. This kind of move happens throughout the album. A lot of details of the arrangements are recreated – you’ll pick out a distinctive harpsichord line here, a bass fill there. But a lot of the sharper corners are blunted, too. The performances, for all that they’re by a special band assembled for the occasion, partake of the smoothness that has characterized Van’s ensembles for the last thirty years or so.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Van’s singing. It’s good – he displays far more range and agility, far more interest in stretching and exploring the material, than he did on Keep It Simple, or his Austin City Limits live album. But it’s earthbound, rather than ethereal. He finds the blues at the heart of every song here, and works it. This makes for a very different Astral Weeks – not really astral at all, actually. The most telling moment for me (and I reserve the right to change my mind after more listens) is at the very end of “Astral Weeks,” the first song. He takes us through a new closing vamp (incidentally, he’s started copyrighting his vamps separately, as if they were new songs: what’s with that?) on the “I believe I’ve transcended” line, and he gets really soft with it. We’re just about to take off – he’s really transported us up to the astral plane, looking down. But he doesn’t leave it – as the song ends and the musicians dissolve into their closing glissandos and whatnot, Van raises his voice again and repeats the “transcended” line in a soul growl. It kind of destroys the moment; more than that it tells us that we’re here precisely not to go soaring off into the astral plane.

We’re here to appreciate a new take on old classics. Certainly to tap into the blues vein that’s always run through Van’s work. To savor creative singing and excellent playing on some favorite tunes. Maybe even to think about the idea of transcending, or to include the motif of transcendence among the colors and moods this music invokes. But we’re not here to actually transcend in the very moment. Get healed on your own time.

None of which means the music isn’t good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Puffy AmiYumi: Boogie Woogie No. 5 etc.

Last time the Tanuki was in Japan he rented some CDs by a duo called Puffy and sweated them down into a disc of their best singles. If you don't know Puffy, you really should. If you spent any time in Japan in the late '90s, they were inescapable, but they're still around and doing good work today. In fact, I'd venture to say that in the ten years since their debut in 1996 they put out one of the best strings of singles I'm aware of anybody anywhere ever putting out. Just one perfect pop record after another.

It helps that they're backed by one of J-pop's reigning geniuses, Okuda Tamio. His group Unicorn was big in the '80s, and he's had a decent solo career going ever since, but Puffy is how he's really left his mark. He writes many of their best tunes and oversees a lot of the production, and the result is like two girls in the candy store of pop. You can pick out elements of the Beatles, the Who, ELO, and countless others in their songs - in addition to bits of things like rhumbas, boogie-woogies, and other song forms that survived in '60s Japanese pop after they'd been eradicated by rock in the west.

All of which makes it sound like pastiche, but it's saved from being just a poppier Pizzicato Five by the fact that Okuda writes really good songs, and Puffy make really good records. Like, the melodies are always well-developed, the arrangements are always creative and incisive, and the singing - well, the girls themselves aren't excellent singers, but they're incredibly friendly- sounding. Unlike, say, P-5 or some Western pop magpies I could think of, they never disappear up the wazoo of their pop culture obsessions, and they never let themselves get dragged down by the irony of the music nerd. It's pure pop in the best sense, like a sunny afternoon in the park.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

James Bond review: Moonraker (1979)

CUT TO THE CHASE: The rot sets in.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The black silk shirts are very cool. The gaucho poncho is not. Having sex while weightless is cool. Constantly raising his eyebrows in mock surprise is not. Stealing a parachute off a guy during freefall is cool. Letting himself get trapped in a g-force simulator is not. And so it goes in this dog of a Bond, by far the worst in the series to this point. If only we could say it wouldn’t get any worse. But it would.

The film has two huge problems, as well as a bunch of minor ones. It has a few minor charms, as well, but nothing to offset its flaws.

The first problem is that, after a brief fling with letting Bond be Bond, in all his louche glory, they’re back to imitating other varieties of action film. The first two times they did this it was not a fatal flaw, but third time’s a charm, I guess. In Moonraker they’re trying to cash in on the sci-fi craze—this is two years after Star Wars changed everything—and the results are just wrong. Avert-your-eyes wrong.

The second problem is that they’re doing everything they can to turn 007 into farce. The gondola that turns into a motorboat and then into a hovercraft; the return of the Italian guy who sees Bond and thinks he’s been drinking too much vino; the pigeons doing a double-take. The aforementioned gaucho interlude. The fact that Roger Moore’s characteristic facial expression is no longer a smirk, but raised eyebrows, Moore’s answer to the pigeons’ double-take.

What Makes Bond Bond: When he’s trying to shoot the poison-filled globes with the space shuttle’s laser beams, the automatic firing system fails, and he has to switch to manual. Yes, James Bond has the Force.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: The white suit he’s wearing when he arrives in Rio. He owns it – you never once think he looks like John Travolta.

BAD GUYS: Drax. For the second film in a row the villain is a madman who’s trying to kill everyone on earth so he can reshape the world into his personal idea of paradise. Must have been something going around.

More critically, for the second film in a row the actor playing the villain tries to keep it low-key. Michael Lonsdale at least tries to find the humor in it; I think he’s attempting to create dread through drollery. But the impression he leaves is predominantly one of oddness. There’s something unbalanced about his physique, boffinish about his face, that makes him a very weird choice for the Dr. No meets late-period Charles Foster Kane vibe of the character as written. All told he’s not one of the great Bond villains, but he might be the strangest.

Take his henchmen, for example. His first, Chang (why does he bear a Chinese name but dress in Japanese kendô gear the whole time?), might be the lamest of all the henchmen in the series. His trump card is to attack Bond with a wooden practice sword. Why don’t we just have Jaws put on boxing gloves while we’re at it?

Then Drax hires Jaws (“well, if you can get him, of course…” – nice line). An unwelcome return, certainly. He was good in The Spy Who Loved Me, but not good enough to excuse making him a recurring character. His presence here is basically an excuse to show Bond trying to punch him in the mouth once again.

All of this is silly, when Drax already has the scariest enforcers of all – the supermodels who wander his estates striking magazine poses in silence. Downright eerie.

It’s worth noting how incredibly formulaic Drax is as a villain, just like Stromberg before him. The producers started the Moore series by ditching SPECTRE, but so far, except for Scaramanga, all they can come up with to replace it is ersatz Blofelds. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the best Bonds to come would also center around ersatz Blofelds. But it does go to show how good a literary/cinematic creation Blofeld was. Or, more probably, how good a creation Goldfinger was – the original ersatz Blofeld.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Corinne Clery as Corinne Dufour, Emily Bolton as Manuela (Our Man in Rio), and Lois Chiles as Dr. Goodhead, for a GS of 3. Chiles is fine; the character is written with more grace than sex appeal, but that’s about right. She’s the first in a long line of attempts to soften Bond’s misogyny by forcing him to ally himself with capable professional women. Chiles is at least more credible in that capacity than Denise Richards would be twenty years later.

Clery, meanwhile, is a really interesting casting choice, I think. Her claim to fame before this was The Story of O. Eroticism in Bond films is all about the tease – the frosted glass in the shower that blurs the image of the Bond girl inside, the artfully shot silhouettes in the credit sequences. Partly this is to preserve the PG or PG-13 rating so high school boys can go see the films, but it’s also because the series has always been, as we noted from the outset, a fantasy, and fantasy works best with suggestion. It’s one thing to see Barbara Bach nearly falling out of her gown, or Ursula Andress almost overspilling her bikini, or Daniela Bianchi barely snatching up her sheet in time – but if we ever actually saw anything, the magic would disappear. They hold to that principle with Clery, too, but casting someone from such a notorious erotic film introduces (for those who recognize her) an unexpected note of real sex into the Bond fantasy world. Curious.

AND VIOLENCE: A couple of bright spots here. The skydiving without a parachute in the precredit sequence is exciting, even if it is a bit too self-conscious an attempt to outdo The Spy Who Loved Me. And the fight on the cable cars in Rio is well done. Any goodwill these generate, though, is squandered by everything that happens after Bond finds Drax’s Amazon hideout. I shiver with horror just thinking about it.

This is perhaps the place to note that this film does contain one scene, a very brief one, that I find to be one of the highlights of the entire series. In Rio, Bond and Manuela are casing one of Drax’s warehouses, and Bond leaves Manuela in the alleyway alone. In the street in the distance we can see samba dancers and other revelers go by, but the alley is dark and quiet. Then Jaws shows up, dressed in this oversized clown costume with a huge mock-up head. As he nears Manuela he takes off the head to attack her. As ridiculous as anything else in the movie, of course, but there’s something accidentally indelible about this image. Something about the lighting, the sound, but most of all Richard Kiel’s head coming out of that droopy clown costume, that achieves a dignity that approaches poetry. It’s like a horror-movie version of one of Picasso’s saltimbanque pictures. Very strange.

BOYS WITH TOYS: The scene where Bond goes around Goodhead’s hotel room and spring all her CIA gadgets is amusing. And some of Bond’s own gadgets are cool – the cigarette-case safecracker, for example, is a witty update of the briefcase safecracker from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

On the other hand, the entire Q sequence is too silly for words, as is the speedboat/hovercraft gondola. And of course, with the laser-firing space shuttles and the hidden space station, this film contains the most ridiculous gadgets of all. I don’t mind a little science fiction in my 007, but this is just egregiously bad.

Why is it so bad? I think it goes beyond the fact that it’s a Star Wars knockoff, and even beyond the fact that it just looks stupid, with everybody pretending to be weightless. It’s the laser guns: this means that they’re not even trying to make it believable. Usually the gadgets in a Bond film are at most a couple of generations removed from what’s possible at the moment. They’re the kind of thing that you could sort of squint and believe, and somehow that’s important for the kind of fantasy the series creates. It has to be sort of, more or less, within reach. By arming those space shuttles with blasters the producers are kissing the Bond fantasy goodbye.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The California stretch is short, and it was really filmed in France, but it’s still enough to invoke my rule against Bond visiting the U.S. After that we get Venice and Rio, which are nice, before we go to – outer space. I’m toying with an axiom that says you can judge the appropriateness of a 007 location by how likely it is that it’ll call for Bond to wear a tuxedo. Outer space is, well, right out.

ETC.: The Binder sequence is good enough, again with the trampoline girls. Lush and romantic, a good match for the Shirley Bassey title song. As for the song, it’s got great atmosphere, but it lacks the sultry quality of Bassey’s two previous outings. Even the disco mix over the closing credits can’t heat it up… Lois Maxwell is officially too old to play Moneypenny here. It’s just depressing to see Moore flirting with her now. The producers were in a tough position, no doubt, because Moore was getting a bit old for his role, too, and replacing Maxwell with a younger actress would have underscored how old Moore was starting to look. Unfortunately we’d have to endure both for another three films after this… Other things about this movie that suck: Jaws’s girlfriend. Jaws turning into a good guy at the end. How noticeable the product placement is getting. The assassin in the coffin in Venice. The business about Drax feeding his dogs in Bond’s presence – like we’re supposed to be scared because he has his dogs well trained? I could go on…

RATING: 002.