Thursday, September 17, 2009

Little Eva: "The Loco-Motion" (1962)

Little Eva's original "Loco-Motion" is the song I've been high on lately. One of those things where you've heard a song a million times but never really listened to it. I really listened to it recently, and was blown away.

It's marked by a perfect musical economy. Not a note wasted, not one more instrument or lick than necessary. Which is not to say it's minimalist: in fact it's a very full and satisfying little record. It's just that it's put together with incredible craftsmanship. That's Goffin and King for ya.

I mean, listen to the drumming. Tough and snarey on the intro and refrain, insistently clangey on the verse, locking into the saxophones on the turnaround. Nothing fancy, but what's there is just right. And speaking of saxophones, dig how much release there is in that sudden sax solo, and how it then dies down into a tension-building stutter, setting up the renewed release of the refrain.

This is a very professional record, in the best sense of the word. But as with much great pop music, it's not any one thing that makes it a perfect record - not just the professionalism - but a combination of things - in this case the tension between the professionalism of the music (including the very solid songwriting, an argument in favor of formula if there ever was one) and something very amateurish.

Which is Little Eva herself. It's well known that she was Goffin and King's babysitter: a background almost too right to be true. She sounds like a teenager in this vocal, and of course that's just what the Brill Building loved in 1962. But she doesn't sound like a scared teenager, or an inept one. She's a great natural vocalist, in charge of the song from the get-go. The producers know it: they put her way up front in the mix, dominating the backing vocals. She's a primary color, not a delicate shade; a belter, if such a thing were possible in the girl-group milieu. She manages to sound both innocent (the unvarnished accent on "swang your hips now") and expert (the second "come on" that ends the verse), spontaneous ("yay-yay-yayeyay") and in control (same interjection).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Following up on this, we watched Meaning of Life the other night. Myohmyohmy but I laughed. So let's play a high school game and rank the Python films. For me it's Holy Grail and Meaning of Life neck and neck for no. 1, with Life of Brian a rather distant third. Which may seem odd; I think most people would agree that Life of Brian is Python's best film qua film. Hell, I agree with that proposition.

But it's not quaness that I look to the Pythons for. It's not professionalism or craft (at least not any craft recognizable to me) that made me videotape as many episodes as I could from MTV and WETA back in 1986 and 1987, lovingly label, name, and decorate the tape boxes, and then keep the damn things for twenty years despite layers of original static and growing tape fuzz. It was sheer demented genius, and philosophy.

Holy Grail is the former. It has some deeper meaning, some intellectual subtext, but mostly it's just surreal humor, enough to make you weep with laughter. I never tire of it; I'm not alone in that. Meaning of Life is the latter: it's almost desperately open about its ideas, as if the Pythons figured they may never get another chance to say what they really think with at least a few people listening. I listened. When I was in eleventh grade it felt like Python were the only ones in the world really thinking about stuff. Okay, sure, I was pretty full of myself - but they meant a lot to me.

Thing is, neither Holy Grail nor Meaning of Life are all that great as movies qua movies. Holy Grail makes a point of it, flouting any rule it can divine, of course; and Meaning of Life is, as John Cleese objected at the time (according to the DVD commentary), just a collection of sketches that has trouble justifying its running time.

Life of Brian, meanwhile, is a good movie. A tight film, well-told, with enough jokes to keep you laughing, but not enough to distract from creating characters and telling their stories. It's the perfect balance - some classic Python absurdity, some very focused subtext, all in the service of the story. But you know how I feel about perfection. And Life of Brian does that: it doesn't make me laugh as hard as Holy Grail, or think as hard as Meaning of Life. I admire it; but the others I love.

Anyway, what I really wanted to say was this. That Meaning of Life is clearly the most philosophical of the three Python films, but then right in the middle of it (literally) they place what just might be their most inspired bit of surrealism ever. Completely meaningless, and utterly, eye-poppingly, gaspingly funny. And it went wherever I did go.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Portraits By Ellington (1992)

Picked this up because I'm going to see this outfit next week. Have one of the LCJO's albums, which I bought after seeing them once in '95 or so, and I always meant to pick this one up.

It was recorded live in 1991. It's old: back from when the LCJO was concentrating on (re)establishing Duke at the head of the classic jazz canon. Back when it was still concentrating on trying to (as Stanley Crouch put it in the notes to their next release) "create a viable jazz canon." I'm sure that's still one of their goals, but now they've moved on to include other composers. Duke's place is secure.

The whole album's good listening, but the centerpiece and masterpiece is the "Liberian Suite." Jaw-dropping, this. Twenty-seven minutes of slow-burn soul. What instrumentation! Solos for vocalist (Milt Grayson, sounding like a bow-tied version of Leon Thomas), clarinet, vibes, violin, and timpani, in addition to the standard saxes and brass (the best trumpet solo on the record, by the way, isn't by Wynton Marsalis: it's by Lew Soloff, in the suite).

And each one of these unusual instruments cuts deeper than the last. By the time you get to the timpani (yes, timpani) solo, you've been so worked over, body and soul, that the timpani doesn't have to thunder. It whispers. Who would've thought a timpani could make you want ot cry? This one does.

The only way to really judge this record would be with knowledge of Duke's original versions of these tunes. Not an easy thing, since many of these are rather obscure pieces, at least to a novice like me. I know I love what I'm hearing, but I haven't heard an Ellington recording of "Liberian Suite," so I don't know if what I'm loving is the performance or the composition. At this point I guess it doesn't matter. I think Duke's will be my next acquisition, which is probably mostly what LCJO was aiming for here.