Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Downton Abbey (2010)

We caught part of an episode of Downton Abbey on PBS a few weeks ago, and we were hooked, sort of against our wills. (Against my will, I guess. I suppose I still have that American male inbred resistance to PBS's Anglophilia, even though, when it comes right down to it, I love that kind of shit.) Read up on it and learned that PBS was presenting it wrong, so put the DVDs in the queue (lovely Anglophilic word, that). You, O Reader, may wish to do the same. It's good.

Watch any random ten minutes, and you'll probably think, as I did, "gee, this feels like Gosford Park." And you won't be wrong: it's written by the same guy. What leads you to make the association is, undoubtedly, the upstairs-downstairs nature of the story, where we get the traumas of the nobles intertwined with those of the commoners in such a way that neither feels trivialized and each resonates with the other in interesting ways. But whereas Gosford Park crammed it all into a little over two hours, channeled it into a murder mystery, and crossed it with Robert Altman's trademark stylistic obsessions, making it as much about savoring the textures of the scenes as about understanding the world, here it's stretched out over seven episodes, presented in the context of a dynastic succession crisis, and slowed down so that each separate character is given time to develop. The result is a full realization of all the rich insights that Gosford Park mostly just hinted at. (Plus lots of eye candy in terms of settings and costumes, and some wickedly satisfying villains.)

Downton Abbey is also, incidentally, the kind of thing I mean when I say that American TV shows could sometimes benefit from a more limited run, planned into them from the beginning. At seven episodes and somewhere around nine hours, this can develop the storylines and relationship much more than a/the movie, but without drawing them out needlessly as would happen if this were an American series. At the end of the seventh episode, you really feel like things are wrapped up meaningfully, if not to your perfect satisfaction. They're going to make a second series, and I'll watch it, but there's something very aesthetically pleasing about it the way it stands.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Moody Blues: In Search Of The Lost Chord

The Moody Blues' second album was released in June 1968. It was the band shorn of orchestra: it's all one whether the band decided to do it for themselves, or the orchestra turned back into a pumpkin. Regardless, it turned out they didn't need it. Between them and Sir Mel of Lotron they could play, or fake it on, enough instruments to create virtually (virtually create?) the same lush sound as on their first album.

In Search Of The Lost Chord gets my vote for their best record. Its big hit is only slightly less ubiquitous than those from its predecessor, its concept is not quite as toe-curling, and it has a lower percentage of weak songs than any other. It's the Moody Blues at their most purely musical - which is to say, at their most naive and innocent. Which is odd to say about an album whose primary concern is drugs.

That's not quite right. The primary concern here is the Search - i.e., Man's Search For Meaning. Once again it sounds like they got their concept from one of those BBC deep-thought discussion programs Monty Python were always poking fun at. Then again, risible or not, surely, man, or men, and women too, surely, have been known, or rather observed, or at least suspected, surely, to search, seek, or otherwise grope about, upon occasion, surely, if not rather more frequently, for purpose, transcendence, satisfaction, and/or, not to put too fine a point on it, meaning. It happens, surely. Particularly when you're in your twenties. So why not write a song or two or twelve about it? That is, I mean, if you're not too terribly wedded to the idea of another silly love song - not that there's anything wrong with those, either, mind you... But there's room in the world for more than that, surely?

Okay, I won't call you Shirley again.


No orchestra means no outside orchestral composer/arranger means no overture. We cut right to the first bit of doggerel. Which is to say, the record opens with a poem, again. This one, "Departure," isn't quite as mallowy as the ones on the first record. Indeed, it includes a slightly intriguing exploration of synesthesia that suggests they've been thinking about the poetic implications of their recent chemical excursions. Plus, it's short, and blasts right into "Ride My See-Saw."

This time they front-load the John Lodge rocker, and it's almost as much of a classic as "Peak Hour." Maybe not quite as mind-drillingly psychedelic, but just as propulsive, just as freakbeat-tastic. And this one has the distinction of teaching us that Justin Hayward could play a pretty mean electric guitar solo when called upon to do so: there's enough fuzz on here to freak out a peach. It's wicked. You never would've guessed it to look at Hayward, or - more to the point - to hear him sing.

Then it's on to another Ray Thomas children's song, another march around the nursery in tin soldier gear. "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume," it's called. Yeah. The search, dig? Great White Explorer in pith helmet and gaiters, machete-ing his way through Arctic snows, as allegory for the Search for Meaning: that jungle is in your mind, see. So, I guess I'd call this a misstep: too precious for my taste, by half.

But the album's stunner follows: the epic "Legend Of A Mind." And speaking of things you never would've guessed by looking at or listening to guys: Ray Thomas wrote it. All is forgiven. It's a true rock anthem. From the elegant cleverness of the lyrics ("he'll fly his astral plane") to the melody that matches them (the mellotron delivering tasteful bombing-run whines and drones on command), from the delirious calliope of the main guitar riff to the soulful (!) flute in the middle section, this is epic stuff. It's almost trippy enough to make you believe the Moody Blues actually dropped acid.


Unfortunately it's wrapped in a thoroughly mediocre John Lodge number, "House Of Four Doors." The idea is that between them "Doors" and "Legend" make something of a suite (with, just possibly, a pun intended there between the musical suite and the suite of rooms that presumably lies beyond those doors)(nah, I doubt it). That is, Part 1 of "House Of Four Doors" talks about searching through a mystical house, and behind each door is another stage (wouldn't you know) in the evolution of music. This is something they were evidently big on, the Moodys: they'd construct another song about this same concept on a later album. Neither time would it be a highlight; here it's just some noodling on premodern instruments, and then the fourth door opens and, boom: acid rock. The problem is that "House" is just kind of a boring song. A drag, in the parlance of the day.

But as with Days Of Future Passed, the second side is solid enough to redeem any missteps that came before. It's probably no coincidence that once again, this is where the Justin Hayward numbers are.

It opens with "Voices In the Sky," which, in fine Wordsworthian fashion, manages to rhapsodize about tweeting birds in such tones as to suggest heavenly chorales. And it's right about this point when you realize that Hayward has a gift. He was by no means the whole story with the Moody Blues, but he was the biggest part of it. He was the most consistent songwriter among them by far, with a seemingly endless stock of ethereal ballads. Those were his forté, obviously. He could play with a fuzz-box surprisingly well, and as future albums would reveal he could peel off a rocker when he needed to, like a bill off a wad of hundreds, but it's songs like "Voices In The Sky" that are his true achievement. Songs that suggest his soul was not a rocker's at all, but something that would have been equally or perhaps more at home twenty, forty, a hundred years before. And it's just as well: they'll kick you out of the Rock Stars' Union for writing a song with "bluebird" in the lyrics.

And the band is right there with him. That's important to note. Flute recorded so hot that it starts to distort, Indian percussion, Pinder's folly building to a fine crescendo, and the well-rehearsed groove-shift under the climactic line on the refrain: "calling to" (drum-tap) "me."

Pinder's two songs are on the b-side of the album, and they're just as motley a pair as they were on the first album. The first is "Thinking Is The Best Way To Travel." Are we still in the concept, by the way? I guess we are: mind-candy has given way to pure imagination, I suppose. There's something charmingly amateurish about Pinder's compositions, I find: not an adult's fulsome attempt to talk to a child, which is how Thomas's kiddie songs strike me, but genuine boyish enthusiasm. Like, he sounds like the one who had the most fun in the '60s. This number is typical: a trippy acoustic guitar rhythm brought perilously close to funky by backwards-sounding Beatley percussion and Sputnik sounds. A little too shaggy to be a hit single, i.e. to stand on its own, but a nice complement to Hayward's too-commercial-for-his-own-good sensibilities.

"Visions Of Paradise" is another ethereal Hayward ballad, this one co-written with Thomas, and it amps up the Indian elements. Pinder, evidently, wasn't the only one with an Orientalist bone in his body. On this song they do their best to paint an aural portrait of the kind of shimmery, gauzy, Darjeelingy paradise they imagine in the lyrics. In true Moodys fashion it drifts through patches of dramatic melancholy in between sun-struck stretches of contentment.

Are we there yet? I think so - it's clear that Man's Search has led him to some kind of paradise. Time to wrap things up, right? And they will, in such a way as to suggest that this vision is no mirage, but a true testimony of the power of sitars and tablas to create an ecstasy effect. (I think it was Robert Penn Warren who said you shouldn't try to illustrate virtue, only how to approach or avoid it. But that's the difference between music and literature: the Paradiso is a boring read. I'm sure, however, that the soundtrack would have been awesome.)

But the Moody Blues, for all their pretensions to pop art, are also pop artists, and canny when they need to be: they also have, they think, another blockbuster Hayward ballad on their hands, and where better to put it than right at the climax of the second side? This is "The Actor," which has precisely nothing to do with the album's concept, as far as I can tell. But it is a breathtaking composition, a worthy successor to "Nights In White Satin," even though it was never, for some reason, released as a single. Masterful in its progression of musical moods, from the barely-reined-in triplets of the instrumental intro to the soft-shoe stride of the verse to the wistful spiraling kneel that ends it to the determined canter of the refrain.

I've said it before: I don't know if the Moody Blues were prog. I haven't yet figured out what I even mean by "prog." But they did display a certain textual and formal ambition - their concept albums, their pop-song suites. And if they weren't virtuosi at their instruments they were nevertheless a very musical band, always opting to make their point through careful arrangement and graceful playing rather than forceful riffing or, gasp, mere volume. They understood dynamics, restraint, and musical color.

Musical color: that's synesthesia, by the way. Which is what they return to with the benedictory poem, "The Word" - we're back to the concept, and it's time to wrap things up with a nice dose of inappropriate Logocentrism. No matter: once again it throws us headlong into a song.

Which happens to be Mike Pinder's other song, "Om." Yes, in 1968 the Moody Blues wrote a song called "Om." Part of the chorus ran "hea-ea-ven." More Instant Raga - almost insufferable, except those Anglican vocal harmonies are entrancing.

That's it. Eureka. The Moody Blues were psychedelic choirboys: fuzz-boxes and ashrams and acid adventures as imagined by rosy-cheeked boys up in the loft after the service has ended. Lysergy as liturgy, and vice-versa.