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 ;)