Friday, December 24, 2010

Children, go where I send thee

No high school kid in the '80s listened to as much Peter, Paul & Mary as I did. I listened to them all the time in high school, and basically never since. But I've been rediscovering them recently. I may be working up to a serious post on them, but in the meantime, here they are singing "Jane, Jane" (a.k.a. "Children, Go Where I Send Thee") in 1966.

Imagine a time when this was the height of cool.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Big Country

Big Country's problem was the problem a lot of bands have. When they burst on the scene it was with a sound, a musical idea, that was fully formed and dramatically different from anything that anybody had heard before. But when the novelty wore off, it became apparent (to a lot of listeners, anyway) that they didn't have much else to offer.

So, that sound. Obviously, it's the bagpipe thing. Using the e-bow, among other things, to make their guitars sound like bagpipes, and then writing twin-guitar melodies that sounded like they could have been stolen from old Highland hymns. These they laid atop rhythms that conjured up images of bekilted regiments alternately marching and pogoing. The whole announced the band as unabashedly, not to say self-consciously, Scottish in an era when British pop was opening itself up to contributions from border nations. In other words, since Ireland had coughed up U2, it fell to Big Country to represent Scotland, and the Alarm to hold up the Welsh end.

I know the band remained big in Europe more or less through the '90s, but really, it was all over for them after their first couple of years, as far as I can tell. The tricks started to sound old, but when they moved away from them, it became apparent that they didn't have any other musical ideas: everything I've heard from their second album and beyond is either a retread of ideas from their first, or else sub-U2 heartland-rock empty bombast.

But for an album and maybe a half - from 1983 into 1984 - Big Country managed to wring an amazing amount of awesome from their one idea. Everybody knows their two big singles, "In A Big Country" and "Fields Of Fire." But their whole first album, The Crossing, is brilliant - consistently satisfying, despite consisting mainly of different twists on the rock'n'roll fife-and-drum-corps sound. And they managed to survive on the artistic momentum from that album for a little while: a splendidly re-recorded version of "Chance" from the album, a decent non-album single, "Wonderland," and a handful of nice b-sides (including "The Crossing," a belated title track for the first album, and a good farewell to their golden youth) all complement that remarkable debut. Add in a few highlights from the second album, and you have a perfect Big Country disc, all you'd ever need.

Things I love about Big Country, then. When Stuart yells "shock" or "shot" or whatever the hell it is he yells over the intro to the album version of "In A Big Country" (the drum section in our high school marching band used to warm up with this, and of course they all yelled "shock." Us dopey clarinet players lived for that). That pugnacious, anthemic bass couplet at the beginning of "Fields Of Fire," way up on the neck. The crazy buoyancy of "Harvest Home," somehow sounding both old as the hills and new as the sunrise. The brooding, inscrutable "The Storm," which is basically a couple of Walter Scott novels set to Fairport Convention music. Their surprisingly affecting take on "Tracks Of My Tears."

I respect punk. But I think the most interesting music to emerge from the movement came when the punks started to outgrow punk and (re)discover other kinds of music.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Walter Mosley: A Little Yellow Dog (1996) and Gone Fishin' (1997)

Of course I had Walter Mosley in mind when I was writing my private little riposte to Doc-X last night. I mean, here's a perfect example of books that take the conventions of a genre, in this case the private eye mystery thriller, and use them as a means of getting at something else entirely. We get at something really important and true about the black experience in America in the 20th century through Easy Rawlins not in spite of the fact that he's a character in a thriller, but precisely because he is. Our understanding of the way private eyes are supposed to act, their relationships with the law and the criminal element, their moral codes, their stance vis-a-vis society, all of this generalized, genre-specific knowledge helps us to further understand Easy Rawlins because we see how he both adheres to and departs from what his genre leads us to expect. And the more we read Easy Rawlins the more we realize that both his adherences to and departures from the model are conditioned by America's racial history.

That's what we see in A Little Yellow Dog (1996), the fifth in the series. By this point (it's 1963), Rawlins has lost all connection with the knight-errant template. He's not even casually a private eye anymore - in fact, he's not self-employed anymore. He's taken a job as a school janitor, and he's trying to make it work, to leave the street behind him. Would Sam Spade do that? Would Sam Spade have to do that? No. And so now we've learned something about the difference between Sam Spade and Easy Rawlins. We know something, too, about the kinds of opportunities that were available to black men in the '60s in L.A., even black men who read Ian Fleming and Emile Zola and Marcus Aurelius. We know something about the kinds of relationships it was possible for such men to have with the police, and how very different those relationships were from those enjoyed by, say, Jake Gittes.

Maybe Mosley could have gotten this far with Easy without making him into a private-eye figure in a thriller-patterned series. Maybe. But then read the sixth book in the series, Gone Fishin' (1997). It's not a thriller. It's a story of Easy Rawlins's youth, of his time with Mouse in Houston. Their back story - their origin story, to put it in superhero terms. There's mystery here with a capital M, as the story involves witches, voodoo, fever dreams, and bayou Brigadoons, but no sleuthing.

And it's not, I'd venture to say, entirely a success. It's an essential entry in the series - for five books Mosley has had Easy alluding to dark secrets in his past, and more than that to the wild and scary ways of Houston and the bayou country from which so many of his L.A. acquaintances hail. East Texas and West Louisiana sort of take on the same resonance in these books that Chinatown does in that movie. Well, here we go back and experience it first-hand.

So as a way of opening up this character and his life experiences, it's effective. And it does a great job of sketching an almost mythic, slightly romanticized vision of life in the black deep South before the War - Mosley doesn't disguise the poverty or violence, but he does allow his descriptions of the milieu to echo Faulkner's lyricism, and his rendering of the journey to remind us of Huckleberry Finn.

But our view of all of this is, in a way, passive. Easy is so young, so naive, and so helpless for so much of the book that, through his eyes, we don't really understand a lot of what's happening to him - even the central murder is left a little ambiguous. And this means that we don't come to quite as deep an understanding of this society as we do of the L.A. of the other installments in the series. There's one exception - through the character of Miss Dixon, Mosley shows us the heartbreaking precariousness of black life in the south, as the death of this one indifferent white landlord manages to destroy the whole town of Pariah, located on her land. We understand how impossible it is to build a life when you don't have access to the money you'd need to buy the land to build it on.

Anyway, as I say, the novel has its strengths. But as a whole it didn't feel as richly detailed, as thoroughly known, as the other books in the series. And who knows why that is - I don't know much about Mosley's life, only what's on Wikipedia, but it may be that he knows L.A. in the '60s a lot better, more personally, than he knows East Texas in the '30s. But I think it's also because the formula of the detective story forces the hero to be out and active, meeting people, putting clues together. That formula is absent in Gone Fishin' - and that's a valid decision, and maybe Easy's passivity here is really what Mosley wanted to explore (his epiphany, after all, is to learn to read).

But you see what I'm driving at, in my characteristically roundabout way: I think it's genre that allowed Mosley to explore black L.A. so well. Absent genre, we don't know black East Texas nearly as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Edward Docx, genre fiction, literary fiction

I just got back from Powell's and Kinokuniya in Portland with a sackful of books that include both James Church and Terry Eagleton, the Tale of the Heike and a new manga, and I find that I'm late to the party, as usual, I see. (Or is it that I'm crashing? I can never tell.) Edward Docx (who seems to be a British novelist, rather than a file I can't open with my old version of Office) fired a broadside against genre fiction last week in the Guardian.

He seems to have two main gripes about it. First is that it's badly written. I tend to agree with him about Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown, his two main whipping-boys. At the same time, I heartily agree with Laura Miller at Salon, who notes that cliché-ridden writing is not necessarily a drawback for some readers in some situations. Drawing on C.S. Lewis, Miller is defending accessible prose and those who read it- kind of echoing B.R. Myers' famous assault on the Cult of the Sentence from a decade ago. The gist is that not every reader is always, or even ever, up for prose that, sentence by sentence, tortures itself in an effort to avoid cliché. It's work to read, and some of us just like to read for pleasure.

I agree with Miller, but in fact I don't think she goes quite far enough: she's still buying into the same dichotomy that Docx is setting up, that "serviceable" prose, prose that "flows," that's easily readable, is artistically inferior - she just seems to be saying, lay off those who think that. They know what they like.

I'd go farther: I hold that sentence-smithing is only part of what goes into novel-writing. What goes into a novel? Sentences - syntax and grammar and style - of course, but also story - pacing and plot construction and character. And, beneath all that, there's the possibility, at least, of subtext, theme, ideas.

And none of these things presupposes skill at the others. Anybody who's read an academic book knows that you can have deep ideas but still be unable to express them in beautiful sentences. And anybody who's read Larsson or Brown knows that you can have a story that works for the reader without beautiful sentences. Likewise, one could point to any number of high-lit novels that prove you can have ideas and style without having to pay any attention to the mechanics of storytelling, or even the need to have a story to tell.

Why can't we recognize that since novels involve a lot of different skills, it's possible for novels to have different kinds of excellence? To say that Larsson and Brown are lousy sentence-writers but still manage to write interesting novels is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. They're not good sentence-writers, but they are excellent storytellers. There's real skill there. And the appreciation of skill is a large part of the apprehension of art, no?

In short, to say these novels are badly written, and to have that charge mean what Docx means, is to oversimplify what's involved in writing a novel. They are extremely well-written, I'd say - and the purely workmanlike nature of their sentences is part of that, allowing the reader to follow the plot (and whatever ideas the authors may have embedded in the plot) without getting hung up on individual word choices.

Docx's second point - and I'll admit that this is a pretty ballsy claim to make in 2010 - is that genre fiction is inherently inferior to non-genre, self-consciously literary fiction:
...even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. ...If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.
I happen to think he's wrong, but I'm going to argue this point not by example but by analogy. Recently I was teaching an 18th-century Japanese comic book that was parodying popular sermonizing, using the metaphor of the kite. Ah, yes, the kite metaphor: I had this explained to me in Sunday School. You've seen kites high in the sky, straining against their tethers. They look for all the world like they're trying to get free and fly away into the ether, but are restrained by the string. The string looks like bondage. But in fact it's only the string that allows them to fly - cut the string, and the kite falls to the earth pretty quickly. Rules (the sermon goes) are like this - they may appear to be restrictions on freedom, but in fact they're the only things that allow us any freedom at all.

In the comic book in question, the parody came in when the author took this basically common-sensical metaphor and elaborated it beyond all believability, driving the point home with mock-pedantry for thirty pages. Very funny stuff. But at the same time it does make you think about the central metaphor, and how it is pretty common-sensical. (A mixture of parodic and sincere didacticism was this author's hallmark.)

And that's how I look at genre fiction. To Docx, the conventions of genre fiction look like rules that curtail the novelist's freedom and limit his/her potential. Certainly it may work that way for some writers - conventions can certainly be a crutch - but not all of them. For some writers conventions are the kite strings that allow them to soar - rules that spur creativity, or focus it, rather than kill it. To say that genre constraints interfere with the novelist's ability to write a good novel is like saying that Shakespeare might have been a great poet if he hadn't been constricted by the rules of the sonnet form.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Yamada Yoshihiro: Hyouge-mono

We have a little colony of middle-aged manga readers here in the Wetwang, and one of the things we've been passing around among ourselves lately is this series. Hyouge-mono へうげもの, by Yamada Yoshihiro 山田芳裕. It's been going on since 2005, and it's up to the eleventh volume. I've read ten.

(The title itself poses interesting problems. Based on how it's pronounced, standard romanization would be Hyôgemono; the publisher romanizes it Hyouge-mono, following the romanization system taught in schools in Japan, which doesn't use macrons or (or the circumflex, the poor man's macron). But that's not what's interesting: it's that the Japanese title uses old orthography. In modern usage, the word would be written ひょうげ者, but the author has chosen to use the old-old-fashioned へうげもの, which does have a certain pungency. I deal with a lot of of old orthography in my day job, and I'm always tempted to romanize it as-is, to reproduce the old flava. So we could think of this as heugemono. The problem is it wouldn't be pronounced that way, any more than people would have actually said "ye olde" with a y sound. ...I really ought to leave this kind of thing to No-sword-san, though. He's better at it.)

(Oh, yeah, the word itself, what does it mean? Ye Buffoon, maybe?)

Heugemono is about Furuta Oribe, a late 16th-century warlord and tea master. Thus, this is approximately the three-millionth pop-culture retelling of the Nobunaga-Hideyoshi-Ieyasu era. A tired subject, to say the least, but Yamada manages to breathe a little life into the old triple corpse.

The gimmick is that this is a history manga, yes, but also essentially an educational manga. That is, by tracing Furuta's interest in tea and its culture, the manga is doubling as a crash course in Famous Tea Bowls, their manufacture, appraisal, and collection.

That goes a long way to explaining why Mrs. Sgt. T, the art historian, loves this manga. I love it for different reasons.

First of all, the art. Yamada has a wonderfully thick, bold line, simultaneously giving his characters solidity and volume and also knocking you out of the story a little bit so that you get stuck on their poppish perfection. Meanwhile, his mise-en-scene - what he chooses to show you and how - is masterful, making use of inventive panelization, closeups, beautiful detail, and an excellent design sense. All of this is in service of a visual vision that includes both the grittiest battle scenes and the goofiest spit-takes, plus the occasional sex scene (there's an unmistakeable whiff of dirty old man wafting from the pages, but it's appropriate).

Second of all, the subtext. Yamada is intentionally paralleling the aesthetic impulse with the imperial: for Furuta and the other characters, art collecting and territorial conquest are one and the same. The desire to fully articulate, realize, and promulgate a particular ideal of beauty shades over into the desire to expand one's rule by force. Sen no Rikyû, in Yamada's vision, is every bit as manipulative, as lustful for power, as violent (in a spiritual if not a physical sense), as Hideyoshi.

This is a brilliant move. We're used to thinking of tea aesthetics in particular as being ascetic, unworldly, antimaterialistic - their embrace by the warlords is usually presented as some kind of paradox. Yamada is suggesting that it's not - that the obsession with aesthetic purity and material perfection (even perfection-in-imperfection) fits in perfectly well with bloodlust. It's a fantastic critique of materialism.

But not preachy, either. Here's where the dirty-old-man aspect comes in: Yamada is, I'm convinced, conscious of his critique of the cult of art, but at the same time his love for art, for things, for all that he's critiquing, oozes out of every frame. Mixed feelings: my middle name.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Walter Mosley: Black Betty (1994)

Things just keep getting tougher and tougher for Easy Rawlins. And that, my brothers and sisters, seems to be the point.

So, coming to the first book in this series from the film, I was most enthralled by the setting, and the hero: postwar black LA, full of promise, streets mean but still sunstruck, perfect stomping grounds for a hero full of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Ezekiel Rawlins helped defeat the Nazis: surely there was a place for him in the city of angels. And as embodied by Denzel Washington, that confidence shone through: it never blinded Easy to the realities of life in Watts, but it let him master them.

When I opened the second book and found the story jumping forward five years, I was disappointed, most of all because I felt there was much more to be explored and savored in that moment, and in Rawlins as 1948 found him.

Each book so far in the series makes that jump: five years forward for A Red Death, three more years for White Butterfly, and five years again for Black Betty. By now it's pretty clear to me what Mosley is trying to do: he's not content to create a black PI in a perfect noir world. He's out for nothing less than a dissection of the death of the postwar dream for black folk.

It's a painful read, at times; I have a hard time imagining Denzel playing the Easy Rawlins of Black Betty. I'm sure he could, but: the point is, Rawlins by this point is not the smooth, quiet, confident man of thirteen years before, but a man who has seen so much cruelty and malice in the eyes of white LA that he's barely hanging on. And he's angry, eloquently angry: in his internal monologues he pulls no punches in his diagnoses of what's happening to blacks in America, even as Martin Luther King is marching. The Easy Rawlins series started out concerned with a moment of promise; by this point it's clear that it's about broken promises. About betrayal.

And Easy Rawlins is still there.


Of course, these books aren't entirely about Rawlins getting the shit pounded out of him by white cops. There's also sex. More precisely, there's desire.

That theme comes through strongest in this book, and that's part of why I think it's my favorite so far. The title character doesn't appear in the narrative present until the end of the book - Rawlins's job is to find her. But she lives in the descriptions of various characters Rawlins meets, and in his own memories - he knew her as a child in Houston, when she was carnality incarnate.

What Mosley is doing here, I'm guessing, is tapping into an African American archetype every bit as potent as that of Stagger Lee. Black Betty, in Leadbelly's song, is almost an empty signifier - a name, an image, an alliteration, a rhythm, and a series of suggestive, enigmatic commands - "run yonder," "jump steady," "turn around." Could be about a prison train, a whiskey bottle, a gun, or a woman. Could be, but isn't: of course it's about a woman. With a name like that.

Rawlins's search for Black Betty takes on a mythic power, and so when he finally finds her, and has to break her heart, sees her collapsed, helpless, weeping, it just tears the reader up inside.


Yeah, Ram Jam's 1977 version of it is pretty archetypal, too. It rocks. It must be dealt with.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jimi Hendrix: Baggy's Rehearsal Sessions (2002)

This was one of the earlier Dagger Records releases; I only got around to it recently. Basically that's because I always figured, how good could rehearsals be? And these didn't seem to have too good a reputation.

I was wrong. It's one of the more satisfying Hendrix releases of its decade.

It draws from the 12/18-19/69 rehearsals for the New Year's 1970 gigs at the Fillmore East by the Band of Gypsys. Those gigs have been pretty thoroughly explored on disc; in addition, quite a few tracks cut by this lineup in the studio have been released. As a result there's nothing here that can't be heard elsewhere, except for the jazzy "Baggy's Jam," which isn't the most memorable part of the disc.

But as far as I can tell, most of what's here sounds better here than elsewhere. The best example is "Message To Love." It's a little slower than the more familiar versions, which turns out to enhance the groove. And since this was recorded live to two-track, nobody could mix the backing vocals too low, as is the case on other versions. Here they're right up front, emphasizing the ragged soul underpinnings of Jimi's music in this period. It sounds, in other words, like a band performance, like three friends making music together. That it all collapses at the end into a bunch of Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley impressions just makes it that much more fun. All this and jokes, too.

Walter Mosley: White Butterfly (1992)

White Butterfly is the third book in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. We keep jumping forward five years at a time: this one takes place in 1956, and I just started the fourth book and know that it's 1961 there. Mosley has a program, evidently.

Rawlins is growing in interesting ways. As a narrator, by this stage his ruminations on race relations pull no punches whatsoever, to the point that I at first felt they were a bit too on-the-nose, subtextually speaking. But that's not the best way to think about it: rather, this is a voice Mosley's developing, a consciousness, and why wouldn't he be conscious of the times he's living in and what's driving them?

What we've got in Easy Rawlins by this point is the man who, in Dylan's formulation, is trying to "live outside the law," and who therefore "must be honest." Fair enough - Rawlins does try to live by his own code of honor - but what's also true of the black man trying to live outside the law in 1956 Los Angeles, according to Mosley, is that he must keep himself hidden, and keep himself protected.

Hiding is the theme of this particular installment: not only is the murder he's investigating all about a girl assuming a false identity, but the problems in Rawlins' own life stem from his inability to reveal himself, in all his dimensions, to his wife. Rawlins is a rich man in this book, a property owner - he's living the dream - except that he can't let anybody, not even his wife, know what he owns. The only way to make it work is if he almost completely effaces himself. Invisible Man territory, right?

The protection comes, as it does in the first two books, in the person of Easy's friend from Houston, Raymond Alexander, "Mouse." Here in the third book I finally come to understand Mouse, as a character. He's violent, unpredictable, a good man in a fight, but all too likely to bring that fight to you. He's also full of lust for life, and so full of pride that you just know he'll never back down from anybody.

He is, to give him another name, Stagger Lee. Mosley is, I'm convinced (and I'm a bit embarrassed that it took me three books to figure it out), giving the Stagger Lee myth yet another lease on life with Mouse. How does he fit in? Rawlins hates Mouse as much as he loves him: hates his hair-trigger temper, and his lack of qualms about murder. Wishes he could survive without resort to his violence: but he can't. Mouse is the only way Rawlins can survive outside the law: Mouse is essential. And since living inside the law is an unbearable humiliation...

Again, on one level it's standard private-eye stuff, the knight errant flirting with darker forces. But on another level it's a pattern that comes from deep within African-American cultural traditions. These are serious books.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Anno Hideaki: Love & Pop (1998)

Love & Pop is a film about enjô kôsai (subsidized dating) released at the height of the public hysteria about the phenomenon (1998). I was in Japan during those years - teaching at a high school, in fact - and while I can't pretend to any specialized knowledge, I tend to lean toward the idea that the scandal was overblown: a typical case of adults freaking out about what they imagine (fantasize) their kids might be doing. The kids themselves were alright. On the aggregate, at least.

Which is not to say that this film, which depicts the phenomenon as if it were real, is sensationalist. Working from a Murakami Ryû novel, it's doing what Ryû likes to do with topics like this, which is to aim at somehow humanizing all the participants, so that you understand all their motivations and reactions, while studiously avoiding a dry sociological approach: which is to say, you manage to get an objective sense of the states of mind of the girls and their johns, while simultaneously owning up to your own subjective state of erotic excitement and moral worked-up-ness. Like, Ryû can't help but ogle, and he also can't help but smirk, but somehow he (almost?) convinces you that these responses are honest and worth including in the total picture. Ryû's a dirty old man, and has been since he was a young man, but he's also a smart social observer and critic, and he never lets you forget either.

But, all that's not what's brilliant about this film. What's brilliant about it is director Anno Hideaki's camerawork. He's shooting on DV, and from weird angles - under tables, up through dinner dishes, through the bottom of a beer mug while it's being drunk from, from beds looking up at ceilings, from ceilings looking down at beds. The camera is always moving, the point of view is always shifting, and none of the moves and shifts are dictated by the logic of the narrative. I think this creates two effects.

One is the hidden camera effect. Sometimes it's a security camera, but more often it's the hidden porn camera effect: we're constantly gazing at the high school girls protagonists from odd angles, as if we're hiding in a purse or behind a chair or in the corner, and we're constantly getting closeups of random parts of them - wrists, ankles, shoulders, lips. We're constantly circling around them, or darting under them, or sneaking up behind them. The camera is, quite forcefully, putting us in the position of the voyeuristic male obsessed with high school girls (not a rare type in Japan, a fact that fueled the whole subsidized dating scare - it was plausible because everybody knew lots of guys wanted it to happen like that). Combine that with the way guys seem to jump out of nowhere, offering these girls impossible amounts of money just to have dinner with them (literally, just that), and you get a pretty compelling depiction of what it must be like to constantly be the center of unwanted eroticizing attention. These girls are always being watched, at an age when they're still pretty innocent. How would any sane person process that kind of attention?

The other effect is the dream camera. If the hidden-camera effect in this film is, not precisely objective, but rather radically objectivizing in its view of the girls, the other thing Anno's camera does is to depict their subjectivity in an equally radical way. Often this happens when the camera is a stand-in for the gaze of the main girl, Hiromi, in extreme ways: we see through her eyes as she splashes water in her face/the lens. Once we're used to assuming her perspective, we begin to notice that when the camera is not stealing voyeuristic glances at her and her friends, it's often gazing off into space, at the sky, or at buildings, at gutters or stairwells. The city of Tokyo, specifically the environs of Shibuya, is seen with a mundane and yet somehow luminous beauty in this film, and I think it's because we're seeing it through the eyes of a (putatively) innocent and dreamy 16-year-old girl. She thinks deeply about things, but with the pure inexperienced urgency of the teenager: we know this from the voiceovers. And she herself is constantly looking - she carries her camera everywhere, and is always taking pictures. And what she sees is - peace and beauty, love and pop. Not, usually, the dangers stalking her.

Put these two perspectives together and you get, of course, an excellent correlative to Murakami's approach. More than that, you get a heartbreaking vision of vulnerability and perversion, tranquility and menace, in end-of-the-century Tokyo.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chara: Caramel Milk (2000)

Caramel Milk is a compilation of the second phase of Chara's career, after her hit "Swallowtail Butterfly" revitalized her career. That single, from a 1996 film of the same name and credited to Yen Town Band, a fictional band featured in the film (it's a great film, by the way, set in a polyglot dystopian/utopian near-future Tokyo), is the best thing on the album. A lullaby-like ballad sung by Chara in her most blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo voice, it rises to prom-night intensity on the refrain, where the singer bursts unexpectedly into soulful wailing. Add strings and sitar noises and you've got yourself a perfect late-'90s J-pop record.

Unfortunately, it's, as I say, the best thing on the disc. In fact, it might be the only listenable thing on the disc. Chara's one of those artists whose look and sound are memorable enough that if you spent enough time in Japan in the '90s and early '00s you'd know who she was even if you were as half-hearted in your interest in J-pop as I was. Meaning, I knew who she was, and liked the aforementioned song well enough to, eventually, getting around to buying a compilation that included it. And, eventually, listening to it with full attention.

The other songs on here were recorded in the wake of "Swallowtail Butterfly," and they sound like it: similarly intricate musical settings, gesturing toward sunshine pop, soul, dance music, and the typical Sunday-morning chiffon-curtain J-pop ballad. But whereas "Swallowtail Butterfly" sounds effortless and inevitable, the rest here sound overthought: every sound is not just carefully chosen, but intricately shaped and processed and spun. The recordings are full of detail, and no doubt a full connoisseurial accounting of them would prove the good taste of artist and producer - but this kind of thing can be awfully tiring. And here it's not balanced by particularly memorable melodies.

Above all, it turns out that I find Chara's singing style positively irritating. It turns out I have very little patience for blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo vocals.

So why write about it? Why, out of the blue, pick on poor Chara? Because listening to the dozen or so really unbearable songs on this record gave me a new appreciation for just how good the good song is. Like, suddenly the effortlessness of it sounds like a massive achievement; suddenly I understand that the producer, Kobayashi Takeshi, about whom I know nothing, did wonders in coaxing that kind of a vocal out of Chara. I'm not quite a poptimist, but I do try to cultivate a healthy appreciation for what goes into making a good pop record, to balance out my reflexive rockism.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Contemporary American literature: MFA vs. NYC

Note to self: if you ever get interested, even slightly, in the contemporary American literary scene, Chad Harbach is at Slate to tell you all about it. It's a long-ass article, and full of that trademark Slate snark, but even if only half of it is true, it explains a lot about what you've inadvertently absorbed about modern lit without really understanding: the place of New York, the place of not-New York, the importance of Raymond Carver. It's good enough to almost make you feel guilty about not having read anybody mentioned in the article except Nabokov, Faulkner, Carver, Pynchon, Auster, O'Brien, and Diaz. Remember that feeling.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (1994)

I saw this for the first time in Tokyo in '96 or so, and now it mostly brings back memories of the go-go '90s, of burgeoning Asian chic, of night in the world's biggest cities, and oh yes of my 20s, of innocence bruised but not yet broken, of that particular ennui that comes from spending too much time in both discos and used bookstores.

Or something like that. Another way to say it might be that at the time I was (probably) in love with Faye Wong, and it was a love that seemed both real and realistic; now I'm in love with someone flesh and blood, and Faye Wong in this movie strikes me as (duh) a cute cinematic construct: the kind of girl a young man might fall in love with. Tony Leung? Not so much...

But then, what do I know from Tony Leung? His character is largely a cipher in this movie. He's a policeman.

What's a policeman to Wong Kar-Wai? Here and in Days of Being Wild they seem to have a kind of iconic significance. Is it the anonymity - the tendency he gives them to hide in the shadows of their caps, and to identify themselves by their badge numbers? Is it that the authority makes them a shorthand for masculinity, of a particularly repressed variety? Is it something as simple and universal as the allure of a man in uniform - even when, like Kaneshiro Takeshi here, he doesn't wear a uniform?

(As with As Tears Go By, I find that the original Chinese title of this film, 重慶森林 or Chungking Jungle, gives it a specificity of place that the English version lacks. The outdoor escalator that provides such memorable visuals in the second half also dates the film - that is, it would have been a signifier of up-to-dateness in 1994.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Kurosawa Akira's Ran (1985)

Ran (1985) didn't start as one of my favorite Kurosawa films, but every time I see it (and I've lost count of how many times that is) I discover more depths. What kind of depths? The same that I find in most of his films: visual compositions that suggest character, or unarticulated meanings. Not to mention startling beauty.

This time I was struck by his handling of the sequence of Hidetora's madness, and how his fool Kyoami (one of the wonders of the film is how successfully AK maps Shakespeare's fool onto medieval Japanese kyogen performers) treats him.

Specifically I'm thinking of the scene in the grass under the sunlight next to the ruined castle of Tsurumaru's clan, and then moment when Kyoami puts on Hidetora's head a helmet woven of grass, with two yellow flowers as a crest. This detail is, of course, a reference to the performance tradition that has Lear wear a daisy-chain crown during his madness on the heath. But there's more to notice about it than that.

First there's the change of the crown to a warrior's helmet. This is only in keeping with the change of setting: a medieval warlord wasn't a king, and Japanese rulers didn't wear crowns anyway. And it's surprising how natural the grass helmet looks - like it was Kyoami's idea, rather than one borrowed from another culture in another century.

And part of that naturalness is that the grass helmet resonates with the Japanese poetic tradition. Particularly it called to my mind (this time, finally) two verses by Bashô that Kurosawa would most certainly have been familiar with, since they're among the most famous in the language. Both come from the great poet's haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Interior, and they both come from moments when Bashô has visited places associated with great medieval battles and the generals who fought them.

At a now-peaceful battlefield, Bashô writes (my translation; everybody's got his or her own):

Summer grass
of warriors' dreams

And later, viewing a helmet worn by a famous warrior of yore:

under the helmet
a cricket

I submit that with Hidetora's helmet made of grass, a helmet covering a warrior now reduced to (reborn as?) a chirping simpleton, Kurosawa is invoking these poems, and the whole discourse on the transience of martial glory that has attached to them over the centuries. An eminently appropriate interpolation to Lear, but more importantly a way of enriching Kurosawa's own take on war and warmongers.

By this point, Kurosawa - for better or for worse - has ceased trying to be an entertainer, and is allowing himself to try to be an artist on the fullest scale he can imagine. This is, to be sure, responsible for some of this film's imperfections - but it also allows him to realize masterful moments like this one.

Monday, November 15, 2010

James Church: A Corpse in the Koryo (2006)

The Tanuki is focused exclusively on Japan now, but it so happens that as an undergrad he was a Japan/Asian Studies double major. Never studied Chinese or Korean language, but took his share of classes about them. Was firmly committed to trans-regionalism.

One of the most interesting classes he took was one on Korean politics. This was fascinating for a number of reasons. First there was the savory weirdness of being the only Japanophile in the room: the rest of the class was Koreanists. Americans who study Asian languages and cultures tend to internalize the prejudices of the culture we study, meaning I was getting cold stares from all these white Korean-studies kids for having the temerity to study Japan - didn't I know what Japan had done to Korea? Weird...

But that was the least of it. The instructor was the real trip. He was not an academic, but a recently-retired government guy (I forget which branch) who had spent most of his career observing North Korea professionally. So part of the time he'd lecture on orthodox topics, South Korea over the most recent couple of decades, its transition to full-fledged democracy, and how that democracy worked and didn't work - this would have been 1995 or 1996.

And part of the time he'd bring in printouts of the latest State (I think) Department updates on the situation in North Korea, presumably nothing too secret but definitely more detailed than what CNN was feeding us (and this was back when CNN actually tried to report news). And then tell us What It All Meant. Like, the fact that this particular military unit had been spotted moving around up by the Chinese border probably meant that thus and such a faction's fortunes were on the rise, or the fact that the regime was admitting to X amount of crop failures probably meant that the actual failures were 3X. He had old Kim Jong Il's number, it sounded like. Again, this was '95 or '96, the height of the famine, but very little news was getting out. Based on what he was telling us (and he had this very intense, knowing, worldly air about him, almost as good as Donald Sutherland in JFK), we were all sure that the regime was going to fall by the time finals rolled around, and we were going to have a front-row seat for it, as it were.



James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo is a thriller set in North Korea. It was evidently quite widely written up when it appeared way, way back in '06, but I missed it; really, though, what more do you need to know than that it's a thriller set in North Korea? Can it get more intriguing?

Assuming that "Church" is better informed than the guy the Tanuki studied with, this is an amazing portrait of that country. He succeeds in humanizing his characters, without either downplaying the oppressiveness of the system they live under or resorting to making any of them martyrs for a resistance movement. That would have been easy; instead, he gives us people who have their grievances against their government, and sometimes yearn to be elsewhere, but still recognize North Korea as their home. I say he humanizes the North Koreans, and really I think that's the book's greatest accomplishment. The Kim dynasty have been such cartoonish dictators, and the Arirang Festival is such a bizarre and creepy spectacle, that in a world of unfathomable complexity the temptation to seize on North Korea as a simple enemy has been basically irresistible. People talking about mass insanity and stuff like that. Right. That's not what Church gives us. He gives us ordinary people living under pressures most of us can barely imagine, and then acting pretty much like we would.

Empathy is still the hardest thing to achieve.

As a thriller, it's pretty good. It doesn't really give you the standard thrill of putting together a puzzle as a case is gradually, or even suddenly solved - most of the time we're in the dark, right along with the protagonist Inspector O (that's not an initial: that's his name). It's more spy novel than crime novel, really; it's all about how people protect themselves in a situation where nobody can be trusted. O's paradox - how to solve crimes in a climate where knowing anything, learning anything, can potentially damn you - is one I found moving.

Tea. Church takes a page out of somebody's textbook on how to construct a thriller and gives his character a mundane want that is never fulfilled. O wants a cup of tea, and spends the whole book looking for one. As a ploy for constructing suspense and revealing character it does feel a little mechanical, but it is effective, and the choice of tea as the elusive object of desire is a good one: tea being so abundant in East Asia, its scarcity in O's North Korea is particularly resonant.


Turns out there's a minor, possibly abortive, attempt at an Internete meme surrounding Pyongyang's traffic girls. Sign me up. They're very cute.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)

I just finished Kazuo Ishiguro's fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995). I started it just after finishing Oliver Twist - that's how long I've been struggling to get through it. This is a bad, bad book.

I'm not absolutely positive I get everything he's trying to do - I'll admit that right up front. It seems to me that he's trying to craft some sort of existentialist fable in a surrealistic mode, using dream logic and absurdist machinery. The Kafka homage is clear: the unnamed Central European setting, the hints of totalitarianism, the characters' tendency to babble.

But whereas in Kafka this sort of thing creates unbearable tension broken only by wicked, knowing humor, here everything falls flat. What should be funny is just maddening. What should be resonant is just trivial. I kept remembering Wyndham Lewis's famous dis of Gertrude Stein: "Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing; the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along." That's this book: thick, slow, dreary, boring, and endless.

That's all I have to say about the book, really. It didn't do it for me. But you may wish to read reviews by people who liked the book. This reviewer posits a reading that might cause the book to make a certain amount of sense; I didn't see much internal evidence to support the reading, and even if it's true, it doesn't make the book any less atrociously boring, but it's a nice try. This reviewer gushes. Not much one can say in response. Glad he liked it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Walter Wanderley: Talkin' Verve (1998)

Walter Wanderley gets no respect. First of all there's the indignity that nobody's ever heard of him. Then there's the fact that he has a nerdy name (so does the Tanuki: this is the face of commiseration), and looked like he should have been managing the men's wear department at a small department store in the mid-Atlantic region. He was a bossa nova star in Brazil who came, like many others, to the US to capitalize on the craze here, but he arrived a little too late to really enjoy it. And his instrument - the organ - doesn't immediately spring to mind when you think of bossa nova. As the liner notes, by John Corbett again, say, the combination conjures up images of "demented Wurlitzer salesmen and a frustrated roller-rink operator or two."

That's how you know Walter Wanderley gets no respect: in the late '90s the guy is starting to get enough attention from club-music outfits and whatnot that his label, Verve, decides to devote a volume of the Talkin' Verve series to him (1998). But they're embarrassed enough about it to feel like they have to present him ironically - look at that stack of sliced American sandwich cheese on that cover. "Cool and refreshing!" Yeah? If I were to attempt to decode this, to recreate the thinking behind it, I might come up with something like this: "Yeah, Creed Taylor signed this guy, but the label never gave him the big push, and, well, I don't know jazz, but isn't Jimmy Smith the jazz organ player, and we already have him, but then again the cool kids seem to be interested in this guy for some reason, but you know, they're kids, it's probably just a goof, but still, maybe there's a buck to be made there, but only if we let them know we're in on the joke - I know, let's put cheese on the cover. 'Cause, you know, he's kind of cheesy, but we know that, so it's okay."

Does that make it okay? I dunno. All I know is that Corbett spends his whole essay trying to hit the sweet spot of youthful irony while simultaneously letting any serious jazz fans who might be reading know that he's not fooled, he doesn't take Wanderley seriously.

But I do. And I don't know jazz, but I know a distinctive sound, a complex emotional approach, a sharp sense of syncopation, a crack rhythm section, and a vervacious take on melody when I hear it. And that's what I hear here, and I would have welcomed an attempt to teach me a little more about where that comes from and what it means. While I'm snapping my fingers and smiling a goofy smile because it's all so nerdy and unexpectedly fun.

I keep harping on the liner notes to this series. It's not that I'm looking to be told what to like and why: I trust my own taste. But I don't trust my own knowledge: or rather, I trust that it's limited, and can be improved, particularly in the area of jazz and contingent musics, and in fact I welcome instruction there.

...You'd never mistake Wanderley for Jimmy Smith. Smith's organ purrs like a cat. Wanderley's sound is more twisted than that. I don't know what he did to his rig, but each note punches and then quickly dissipates into a haze of colored light, like a puff of dry ice. And it's true, the cumbersome mechanical nature of the organ makes it an unlikely bossa instrument - it kind of lumbers where the acoustic guitar can skip and dance - but Wanderley makes that work for him. He plays with determined agility, and a wholly fresh sense of the rhythmic role of keyboard chords, and he makes that dry ice punch sound really...funky is the only word. Like, heaviness plus tricky rhythmic exactitude equals something Fred Wesley might have appreciated.

There's something here. Check him out with Astrud on "Tristeza." Kicking back on "Music To Watch Girls By." Twizzling the perfect melancholy sunset sailboat bossa with Luiz Henrique on "Blue Island."

I need a new word. Kitsch doesn't cut it: it implies that it's not worth liking, no matter that you like it. Whereas I tend to think that if you like something, genuinely like it, that's kind of a clue that there's something there worth liking. Follow that, and it might lead you to interesting places.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bill Wyman, but not that Bill Wyman, imagines Mick Jagger responding to Keith Richards

There's a rock journalist named Bill Wyman who's not, and I repeat not, the same person as the one-time Rolling Stones bassist. Over at Slate, he's written a piece on Keith Richards's memoir - you may have heard he published one. He does it from the coy perspective, fictionalized, of Mick Jagger stating his own case.

It's a little snarky about the Stones' later work, not to mention inaccurate (if they avoid their '80s albums in concert so assiduously then why were two songs from Undercover featured on Shine A Light?). But overall it's an excellent corrective to the Keef-mythologizing (which I love, by the way) that marks absolutely all writing on the Rolling Stones. Like, Keef may have been the genius in the Stones, but it fell to Mick to be the adult. What would you have done?

I won't even quote from it. It has to be read in its entirety.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Astrud Gilberto: Talkin' Verve (1997)

The killer track here is the opener, "Beginnings." Yes, that's a cover of the Chicago song. The first time through it, you'll think: this is shit, Astrud should not be covering Chicago, and this song should not be covered like this. The second time through it, you'll think: well, actually she may have a point there. The third time through it, you'll be in love. The arrangements are almost identical; the one Astrud uses is a little lighter, with a little more beach in the rhythm and a little less grease in the horns, but still it's mostly the same arrangement. And she sings the same melody: all she does is whisper it, rather than croon it like Robert Lamm. But that's all she needs to do. It's a prototypical case of less is more: by whispering that gorgeous melody, she makes it even more powerful, even more seductive. Chicago's "Beginnings" gets you up and dancing; Astrud's sends you flying.

I've loved Astrud's voice for years and years, placing her at or near the top of any barroom discussions of sexiest female singers. But my opinion of her was entirely based on her work with Stan Getz: Getz/Gilberto, sure, but more than that Getz/Gilberto #2 and Getz Au Go Go (I've always maintained that the definitive version of "The Girl From Ipanema" isn't the original, but the live version from #2). I'd always avoided Astrud's solo work for Verve, as I'd read that it was lame.

How wrong I was, if this disc is a fair sampling. And it may not be: this disc concentrates on her later Verve recordings, from 1966 to 1970, avoiding her immediate post-Getz work. Whatever: what's here is really really nice. A lot of bossa nova, to be sure, much of it in lush orchestrations by Gil Evans (tending to the moody: "Berimbau") or Eumir Deodato. But a lot is straight pop: covers of Chicago, the Bee Gees, Nilsson, Petula Clark, the Association. All is interesting, and at best beguiling: "Crickets Sing For Anamaria," "Maria Quiet," "So Nice (Summer Samba)" with the limpid accompaniment of Walter Wanderley...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Talkin' Verve With A Twist (1997)

Another one of those themed multiartist Verve compilations: Talkin' Verve With A Twist, 1997. The theme of this one seems to be lounge jazz, as was popular back at the turn of the century. Oh, we Gen X-ers do love our irony.

Like the Cool volume, Verve's compilers seem to have felt it necessary to dip into their non-Verve-proper holdings to make this work. About half of everything here was originally released on Mercury, Metro, MGM, or Fontana. I don't know enough to know if that means anything, except that perhaps Verve's releases in the '60s, while working - pioneering? - the same pop-jazz territory, still had more jazz cred than these other labels' offerings. I dunno.

In any case, these are pretty straight pop, with enough horns to fool you for a moment or two, but usually no real improvisation. So it's as pop that most of it has to be judged. Some of it is okay: the Xavier Cugat numbers are pleasant, Art Heatlie and the Electric Saxophone's take on "Peter Gunn" is fun, Willie Bobo's "It's Not Unusual" is as awesome as you think it will be. And some of it is dire: poor Stan Getz tootling through "Marrakesh Express," Blossom Dearie embarrassing all within hearing with "Blossom's Blues" - I feel like I need to add a few extra sets of quotation marks to that last one just to distance myself from any assumption that I might accept it as a blues...

Quotation marks. The liner notes, by John Corbett this time, are a doozy, imagining a turn-of-the-century hipster drinking cocktails and reading Susan Sontag's "Notes On Camp."
Literally - that's the conceit. It's a valiant try, but in the end it just makes my head hurt. I'm of the generation raised on camp and irony, so that I, like I suspect most of the people I know, sometimes can't figure out whether I really like something or just "like" it, or whether there's any difference at all... But Sontag's essay has never proved particularly helpful to me in sorting through these issues, and Corbett's, while kind of entertaining, just feels weird. Like, does he think this music is worth re-releasing or not? Does it have any musical value, anything to offer that's worth taking out of the quotation marks? I can't tell from his essay. Maybe he assumed none of his readers would care. But I do.

Bob Dylan In Concert Brandeis University 1963 (2010)

So there was a bonus disc that you got for pre-ordering the Witmark Demos. It's a partial but professional recording of a show at Brandeis University, 5/10/63. The tape hadn't been circulating - it was in the private collection of the late Ralph Gleason, and you can read about its discovery here - so this was real news to collectors.

It's short for a CD but almost forty minutes long - a vinyl album, if you remember those, and longtime Dylan fans know there was never a proper Dylan live album in the '60s, despite well-known plans for one. This would have done just fine: excellent sound, excellent performance. Somewhat odd setlist: it's strange that he's still performing "Talking Bear Mountain" this late, and even odder that he seems to be encoring with it. But it helps lighten the mood.

It needed it. One of the things this disc shows is how full of mood swings a Dylan show was during this period. Granted that this is a very incomplete picture of the night's proceedings, still it can give you whiplash, going from the goofy horniness of "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance" to the sardonic satire of "Talkin' John Birch" to the wrist-slittingly depressing "Hollis Brown" and "Masters Of War." Then back to comedy with "Talkin' WWIII." Then contemplation with "Bob Dylan's Dream." I mean, this was some serious journey Dylan was asking his listeners to follow him on.

I'm glad we have this show. I'm glad Sony released it so promptly after discovering it. I'm glad I was fortunate enough to be able to preorder at the right time to get it.

Does that sound snarky? The whole bonus-disc concept rankles. It bugs me that this valuable document, this pleasurable listening experience, is not really available to anyone who wants it - just those who manage jump through the right hoops right now. What about that kid who gets turned onto Dylan next year, and obsessively sets out to collect it all? What does he do about this disc? I think about these things. That's why I'm a liberal. Sony, on the other hand, wants me to be a libertarian about it: I got mine, so fuck everybody else.

Side note: when I was growing up, the John Birch Society was nothing but a line you may or may not have read in a history textbook. It felt about as relevant to the world I knew as, say, the Whiskey Rebellion. Listening to it this morning on the way to work, I was amazed at how resonant it's become to me. Dismayed, too, of course...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos (1962-1963/2010)

Paul Simon sang, "Somebody says what's a better thing to do? / Well it's not just me and it's not just you." Here's a better thing to do.

I must say, I wasn't expecting this. As a card-carrying Sick Dylan Fan, I've had the Witmark and Leeds demos for many years: they're a cornerstone of any collection of Dylan's folk/protest period. Absolutely indispensable. Sony/Columbia knew this, and had been slowly and steadily poaching from them for years for archival releases, bonus tracks, what-have-you. See the list here of what's been released where.

And I figured that's what they'd go on doing for the foreseeable future. They knew what a marvelous cache of recordings these are, and so did the hardcore fans - but we weren't clamoring for their release, and the unconverted didn't know about them.

But here they are. And I have to hand it to Sony: they did it right. The right thing to do was to release all the Witmark demos, including the fragments, the ones in lousy sound quality, the ones where Dylan's performance is indifferent. The righter thing to do, since there was room, was to release the Leeds demos as well, including the duplicate. And, lo and behold, I think they did it. Alan Fraser (linked to above: Searching for a Gem), who is pretty authoritative, says that there's one Leeds demo missing, "He Was A Friend Of Mine," but Olof, who's a little more authoritative, says that this is actually the Columbia studio recording from the first album sessions, submitted as a demo, in which case it's already been released, and doesn't properly belong here. Fraser also mentions a promo acetate that surfaced in 2004 of "Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag," but seems to be suggesting that this recording, too, was a Columbia recording that was simply submitted as a demo.

Thus, it appears to me that everything that should be here - everything we know about (and there could be more we don't know about) - is here. That's something, for Sony. They don't seem to have held anything in reserve to tempt/taunt us with later. They did right by us.

Everything else is just gravy. An informative and insightful essay by Colin Escott that contextualizes the recordings not only in Dylan's career but in the mid-century music business. An excellent selection of photos (God, sez the wife: Dylan was cute when he was young). And great sound. That is, there are still a number of tracks that sound kind of awful, but that's because that's how the tapes sound; they've done wonders with what they had to work with.

(The only odd thing is that there are no recording dates beyond the "1962-1964" of the title. We know approximately when each one was recorded, sometimes to the month, sometimes only to the season; even that much information would have helped the listener chart Dylan's growth, and figure out how these fit in with things on other volumes of the Bootleg Series. Oh well, there's always Olof.)

The music? As I say, this is indispensable stuff. Don't be fooled by reviews saying a lot of these tracks are minor. There are a dozen or so compositions on here that have simply never been released before, in any form, and one or two more that only the most avid of collectors will have heard - dig, an entire album's worth of new Dylan songs from his first great rush of songwriting genius. How can that not be essential listening? Even the minor compositions have that solid sense of melody, that nascent-rocker's sense of rhythm, that poet's gift for language that marks Dylan in this period. And some of them are decidely unminor. "The Death Of Emmett Till," "Farewell," "Long Time Gone," "All Over You" - I'd put these up against almost anything else Dylan did at the time.

It helps that most of the previously-unreleased compositions fall either in or near the protest-song category. For fans too young to have experience the era, Dylan's protest phase has always seemed a little elusive. Even his most protest-y albums have their share of personal-sounding songs, so it's always a little hard to grasp why people had such a one-dimensional view of him that they could be surprised when he abandoned protest for poetry. This collection helps, by showing just how many protest songs he was writing and rejecting. Anybody who knew him, or saw him at the folk festivals, or hung out in the Village coffee shops, would have been aware of many of these songs, and they would have helped
cement his image as a hardcore protest songwriter.

Listen to these discs in order. Even if you're going to disperse the songs into your work-in-progress Complete Dylan In Chronological Order, listen to these discs as-is first. It's an amazing experience, one mad rush of genius, delivered with disarming casualness (these were never meant to be heard by the public).

Monday, November 1, 2010

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Watching this again now, having recently rewatched all of Tarantino's films, and having seen all (I think?) of Robert Rodriguez's, it seems pretty easy to pick out what belongs to which director. I mean, I know Tarantino is credited with the script and Rodriguez with the direction, but I wouldn't be surprised if the actual division of labor wasn't as clear-cut as the credits have it. Everything about the film's first half - until they cross into Mexico - feels like Tarantino, and everything about the second half feels like Rodriguez.

In fact, from this vantage point, From Dusk Till Dawn looks like nothing so much as the prototype for Grindhouse - if the order of the component flix in that were reversed. Here, in fact, the order makes a little more sense, with the Tarantino-esque long, slow buildup followed by the Rodriguezian carnival-like climax. I'm not sure which arrangement I find more satisfying, to tell the truth; this feels more natural, which might actually be an argument in favor of Grindhouse.

How does it stack up? The Tarantino elements aren't quite primo Tarantino. After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the two killers here feel a little tired. The idea is interesting - a twisted version of the classic criminal partnership, almost an Of Mice And Men thing - and it's fun to see both Clooney play against type. But their dialogue doesn't have anything like the juice of what Tarantino gave the criminals in his first two films. Even the de rigueur opening monologue, here given to Earl McGraw, is kind of dry.

But the Rodriguez half (if that's what it is), the vampire shootout, is amazing, as lubed-up and slobbering as the first half is desiccated. It's got sex (Salma Hayek's dance is one of the hottest ever committed on celluloid), violence (vampire massacrees that make your most lurid dreams come true), and even rock and roll (Tito and the Tarantulas: Los Lobos meets ZZ Top). Each element goes just a little farther than you'd expected, until the movie almost dissolves into a ripe pulpy mass. It's even got humor - Rodriguez's fearless vampire-killers, it turns out, have been taking notes from the kids in Lost Boys - you can draw a line from here to Spy Kids, it turns out.

Does it mean anything, or is it just good dirty fun? Consider how neatly the film breaks down into two tonally different halves, and how the border between them is the Border itself; consider the you-all-look-alike snark of having Cheech Marin play not one, not two, but three different roles in the second half of the fim; consider that we're following two hardened criminals and one apostate preacher down, down, down, until they land in a den of iniquity that turns out to be the lair of the devil's children... As far as this movie is concerned, Mexico is Hell - this is Tarantino and Rodriguez playing with, laughing at, and relishing the gringo's suspicion of his southern neighbors, no?

Then there's the curious detail of where Clooney and his brother think they're headed. El Rey. The King. Never defined: some mythical vision of safety for the criminal element, where they'll be forever beyond the reach of the law. Someplace to which Cheech - who we've already seen as the Border Guard and the tout at the mouth of the vampires' den - is going to guide them. Someplace so dangerous that Clooney thinks the preacher's daughter, who has just survived a battle with hundreds of vampires, won't survive there. If that's not ominous, I don't know what is.


(I want to run through all of Robert Rodriguez's movies someday, too, but I'm waiting for Roadracers to come out on DVD. I saw it once, ages ago, and loved it, but don't remember it well enough to write about.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where The Wild Things Are (film version): 2009

We just saw Where The Wild Things Are and - hey, wait, where's the party? Oh, right, it ended like last year...

Pretty much everything I have to say about this film was said by Jim Emerson, already and better, here and here. I agree with every word he writes - except maybe I didn't like the good parts quite as much as he did.

So instead of trying to analyze this film myself, I'll just quote from Emerson:
The movie's adulterated sensibility is that of an alienated grown-up looking back at the (somewhat romanticized, over-intellectualized) misery of childhood and denying or downplaying the equally real fun stuff -- the in-the-moment joy, the exhilaration of being and imagining and doing and playing. So, in some sense it's a corrective to all those stupid "Isn't it wonderful being a kid?" movies that remember childhood through equally distorted rose-tinted lenses.... Especially the Wild Things, who aren't so much wild as the very opposite: neurotic, overgrown, overanalytical, dysfunctionally domesticated. They don't need a fake boy king, they cry out for group therapy. That's the source of my ambivalence about the movie as a whole: It's so transparently a narcissistic adult's diagnostic reinterpretation of childhood ("Will you keep out all the sadness?").
And maybe part of the reason why the highs weren't as high for me, while the lows were just as low, is that childhood, preadolescence, isn't the part of my early life that haunts me: it's the teen years. I don't think about much at all that happened before I was about 13 - for better or for worse. High-school navelgazing I'm all over (need I say I'm hooked on Glee right now?), but childhood navelgazing doesn't resonate much for me. Dunno why.

But that aside, I am a narcissistic adult, so I'll tell you how this movie made me feel. Old. This movie felt like it was aimed at an audience of twenty-somethings, maybe just hitting thirty. The way the Wild Things talked, as well as the whole set of concerns, the anxiety about growing up and the vivid memories of childhood innocence, the sense that you can feel innocence slipping away from you by the second: all of that is the sensibility of someone not too many years out of college, I think. And I'm way past that, and this movie reminded me of it.

That's not a flaw in the movie, certainly. But the more I think about it, it is a peculiarity. I mean, I grew up on Maurice Sendak just like today's twenty-somethings did; more to the point, I was born within months of both Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, who are responsible for this film. So why does their movie not speak to me? Why does it feel like it doesn't want to speak to my generation, but to the next one down? (If I was more familiar with Jonze's and/or Eggers' work, I might think there was an answer to that question; but I'm not sure.)

Maybe it's not actually old that the movie makes me feel, but alienated. Maybe this really is the voice of my generation, and I just don't speak that language. Maybe (gasp) I just don't fit in. Told ya high school was my favorite trauma ;)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cool Talkin' Verve (1997)

Dig? Alongside the individual artist sets, the Talkin' Verve series involved a bunch of various artist comps. The idea, no doubt, was to entice clubbers and other kids into exploring the Verve catalog with themed discs, exploring aesthetics that hooked into then-contemporary trends. Thus there were discs aimed at the Lounge puppies, the Swing-Revival mayflies, the Latin renaissance, etc.

Like most things Verve does, at first glance this looks like a nice idea, at second glance it seems a little overcooked by marketing, and then at third glance it turns out to be a surprisingly solid project. The third-glance aspect of this is that each of these themed discs actually seems to be trying to educate the (hypothetical) listener about a particular aspect of the jazz aesthetic. Like, sincerely.

This one is addressing itself to the concept of Cool. And so the liner notes, by Larry Kart, very seriously (not to say academically) try to orient the reader to what cool means in a jazz context, how it ties in with existentialist instincts and ego-problems, love and loss - not bad for two scant pages. He writes:
I once knew a young woman whose finest wish was to be secretly filmed as she went about her daily routine, then to be allowed to rerun endlessly the resulting footage: "The Story of You", starring...who else? This is the grandiose side of Cool's dream. More or less alone in the world - with the connections broken, invisible, or failing to work - it just might be that it does all radiate outward from you, as you walk the rain-soaked streets of a deserted city in the stage set of your mind.

The music is impeccable, each one an overspilling bucket drawn from the deep chill waters of the jazz well. And a lot of the tracks are rare - not just in the sense of things that hadn't (at this point) been issued yet on CD, but also the kind of thing you still wouldn't run across very easily. A fantastic tenor duet (i.e., just them, no rhythm section) between Al Cohn and Zoot Sims called "Improvisation for Unaccompanied Saxophones." A great piece by Stan Getz's mid-bossa-nova flirtation with a vibraphone quartet with Gary Burton, "6-Nix-Quix-Flix" (known in live versions issued at the time, but here's the studio rendition).

And, my favorite moments, two big-band pieces from my favorite arrangers. Oliver Nelson gives us a magnificently moody take on "St. Louis Blues," which moves from abstract contemplation of the truths of Handy's theme to a supremely angsty trumpet-rhythm-section jam. And Gil Evans contributes a veritable fantasia on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful."

It's a disc worth seeking out, if you're at all open to anthologies; I'm still at the stage in my jazz larnin' that I find them useful.

The only criticism I have about it is that in order to construct this vision (for example, in order to include the de rigeur Coltrane and Miles cuts), Verve had to resort to their holdings in the erstwhile Mercury and Fontana catalogs. Lately I've become quite interested in understanding the character of Verve as a label, and so I have to mentally dismiss the Mercury tracks here (however excellent they are in their own right) as belonging to a different story.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New York Magazine taxidermizes the hipster

I've been known to fulminate about hipsters in these pages from time to time. Or link to other writers' more eloquent fulminations. But of course I realize that my scorn for the type partially arises from jealousy - I was never as cool as that, even in my prime - and partially stems from a frustrated ignorance - I am Mr. Jones, and I don't know entirely what's going on there. I thought I could intuit it, and I disliked what I intuited, but kind of also hated myself for judging so harshly, but kind of also took that self-hatred out on the hipsters... (None of which means that hipsters aren't a plague on our cities: just that the whole hipster-baiting thing is kind of a waste of energy, and I regret it. As Hunter wrote, "ain't no time to hate.")

Mark Greif has a long (five clicks!) article on New York Magazine's website right now called "What Was the Hipster?" It's kind of humorous, what with the artifacts-under-glass tone and all - it's not devoid of hipster room-full-of-mirrors irony itself - but I think it's a fundamentally serious attempt to understand this subculture as a subculture. It's a fascinating read, but what I want to know is, is it accurate? It squares with what little I know about the evolution of oppositional and elite-consumerist youth cultures over the last twenty years; and it seems to account convincingly for the most readily observable features of the hipster's behavior. But maybe I'm just happy because it tends to confirm my preconceptions.

It's really worth a read.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Jimi Hendrix: Valleys Of Neptune (2010) and associated singles

After a lifetime of casually grooving to his spacey takes on space and time, the Tanuki started seriously collecting Jimi Hendrix sometime around 1994. For those of you keeping score and nursing grudges, this would have been just before the Hendrix family gained legal control over Jimi's recordings. My appetite had been whetted by the last few releases of the old regime (Blues, Woodstock, and Voodoo Soup), but I had also read about the various crimes against art that the old regime had perpetrated on Jimi's music, and so I was happy to learn that somebody else was taking over and planning to do things right. And I was happy to be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, before I'd invested much money in a Jimi collection.

Doing things right, in my book, meant, above all, putting Jimi's catalog in order. For twenty-five years his unreleased studio recordings had been overdubbed, sliced'n'diced, recycled and repackaged, and just generally exploitated. And his live work had been sneaking out on various almost-barely-legit labels, with lousy sound and sloppy dating, and garish covers by addled French painters. It was time for somebody to release things in an organized fashion, so that the newcomer (me! me! me!) could start to make sense of it all.

Things started out very auspiciously. The Hendrix family's re-releases of the core studio albums, the Experience's only three finished works, were exemplary. I've read some complaints, but I always thought the sound was fine, the packaging was attractive and authentic, the liner notes informative and clear (except for a pompous and useless "I was there" essay by Derek Taylor in Electric Ladyland), and the music basically complete. Are You Experienced?, for example, was brought together with all the associated non-elpee single sides, and all the tracks that were released on either the UK or US versions of the album but not both. Unbelievably, this was the first time this had been done. (For some reason they didn't do this with Axis: Bold As Love: chronologically that's where "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" belongs, but of course that song was placed on the third album; its b-side, however, could have been added to one or the other, but was held back for a later release.)

What they did next was even more auspicious. Each previous regime had presented what purported to be the last album, the one Jimi was working on, and had supposedly almost completed, when he died. First it was The Cry Of Love, then it was Voodoo Soup. It was no surprise that the Family made their own stab at it. What was nice was that First Rays Of The New Rising Sun turned out to be definitive. The liner notes marshalled convincing evidence that it represented as nearly as possible Jimi's final ideas on the album, and the music contained within was magnificently presented, and for the most part effectively sequenced.

With the canon re-established they then set about organizing the rest of the stuff, all the myriad studio experiments and all the live stuff. And I loved how they set about this. With South Saturn Delta they gave us the bulk of the previously-released, universally-loved studio tracks that hadn't made it onto First Rays, plus some stuff nobody had heard before. Systematic, is how it felt. It didn't have everything on it, but it was a great start.

Their handling of the live work was even more satisfying. They wisely, in my opinion, started out by issuing more-complete, and thus definitive, versions of the key live albums that previous regimes and insurgencies had released. Thus a complete (for any reasonable intent and purpose) Woodstock, and a nice two-disc set of Fillmore East shows to supplement the lovingly-reissued Band Of Gypsys.

The first misstep, in my opinion, was the 2000 box set: for what they were charging, I was disappointed at how short the four discs were (they could have fit fifteen minutes or so more on each disc). More seriously, it felt like a hodgepodge: some genuinely interesting studio things (but still not all of the previously-released, now-unavailable stuff), some relatively superfluous alternate takes, some great live stuff (but nothing close to a complete show)... Rather than picking one thing to do and doing it well, it did several things rather half-heartedly.

And things only went downhill from there. What had been a gratifyingly steady stream of major live releases petered out - in the 2000s the Family managed to give us a definitive Isle of Wight, but the other things we got were a long-overdue (but still unexciting, because it was the one thing the previous regime had gotten completely right) Monterey Pop and a curiously short and incomplete Berkeley set. And there were no other major-market studio releases after the box.

Instead the Family launched an internet-order only "official bootleg" series, Dagger Records. This was a welcome development, although I don't think in the end it was as well done as it could have been. The studio collections were interesting, and picked up a few more bits and pieces of the previously-released, now-unavailable oeuvre (but still not all). The live stuff was sometimes quite nice, but concentrated too much on obscure and incomplete and skeevy-sounding tapes for my taste. Like, why release Fehmarn when you still haven't done anything with the phenomenal Winterland '68 tapes?

And that's where things stood until this year. A fantastic late-'90s start had turned into a long, slow, frustrating decade in the '00s (as was true of so many things). ...For the record, I don't think it was entirely the Family's fault. I gather that the company was all but paralyzed by lawsuits, first against a series of European outfits who were managing to get semi-legitimate but shamelessly misleading discs into the shops for several years beginning in the early '00s, and then by the lawsuits following Jimi's dad's death.

Sony stepped in this year, leasing the rights to manage Jimi's catalogue for the next ten years. They launched the new new regime with a slew of reissues and archival releases this year. Valleys Of Neptune was the summer's big news, although the marquee event seems to be the West Coast Seattle Boy box due next month.

It should have been good news to Hendrix fans that the lawsuits were done and a major, determined record label was stepping in to get things going again. Truth be told, though, I was bummed. This is because, as a longtime Dylan fan, I've seen how Sony likes to handle rich catalogs like this: with the water-torture method. Dribs and drabs now and then, and nothing like a comprehensive, systematic, respectful (both of the artist and the fans) treatment.

And that's what we have here. Valleys Of Neptune is the most random of all the latter-day Hendrix releases. It's self-consciously referencing South Saturn Delta (which everybody loved), but whereas that was a judicious cross-section of Jimi's career, including tracks from his earliest sessions and his latest, both new things and things that had been previously released but deleted, all in the service of a clear vision of how our understanding of Jimi's work could be expanded, this is a shapeless mess. All tracks but one come from sessions in February and April of 1969, just after Electric Ladyland and just before the Experience broke up. This was a very fertile period, and tracks from these sessions have graced several previous releases; this could, therefore, have been a definitive last look at the last phase of the original Experience. So why then do they toss in "Mr. Bad Luck" from 1967? What rhyme or reason is there in that? Either focus or cast a wide net, people.

What else could this release have been? It includes a number of compositions that, although they're basically embryonic versions of familiar tunes, are nonetheless distinct enough that they stand alone nicely. The title tune, for instance, and "Crying Blue Rain," "Lullaby For The Summer," and "Ships Passing Through The Night." These could have been the nucleus of a great album full of "new" Hendrix tunes - but instead they fill out the disc with alternate recordings of some of the most familiar Hendrix tunes in the catalog. Yet another "Red House"? Another "Lover Man"? Really?

The thing is, there are still more than enough things out there in the category of previously-released but now-unavailable tracks to have filled out such a release. Viz. "Peace In Mississippi," a great aggro instrumental that was on Voodoo Soup and nothing since. In fact they were aware enough of that track's value that they put it on the b-side of a "Valleys Of Neptune" single released only through Walmart's website. Why consign it to obscurity?

Because that's what Sony does. Someday they'll resurrect it for a major release, but until then why not squeeze a few more bucks out of the faithful? Why give them a thoughtfully-compiled, thorough compilation when they'll buy a half-assed one now, and maybe another one later?

I can see they're starting it again for the fall. Damn me, I'll probably buy the box when it comes out. And already I'm disappointed because the single they've released to promote it, "Love Or Confusion," includes a fantastic, really revelatory b-side called "12 Bar With Horns." It won't be on the box.

What do I care? I bought both singles: I have what I need. And anything else I decide I need is out there, if I care to look for it.

But I do care. A good reissue is a thing of beauty. Blue Wild Angel, South Saturn Delta, BBC Sessions: these opened my eyes and thrilled my ears, not just because they contained great music but because they were thorough enough and coherent enough to make a convincing case for that music. I've seldom had that happen with a Sony re-release: they always leave me feeling like I know and understand less, because I know what they've left off. And why they've left it off.

(Oh yeah. The music on Valleys Of Neptune. Well, it's surprisingly great. Even some of the more familiar cuts. There's nothing to my ears that distinguishes this version of "Hear My Train A-Comin'" from the average live version, nothing special, but it's still a magnificent example of the mature Experience in all its raging glory. It's all good. It's just badly contextualized.)

(Oh, yeah again. Most of what I know about Hendrix's catalog comes from this inestimably awesome website: The Jimi Hendrix Record Guide. Don't let the old-school graphics put you off. This guy knows his Jimi.)