Saturday, July 26, 2014

LP of the Week - "The Roches" (1979)

Just as a reminder, the posts in this category are about an album that I own only on vinyl.

"The Roches" was a subject of disagreement from the time it was released in 1979.  On the plus side, Christgau gave it an "A," and it finished 11th in that year's Pazz & Jop Poll (right between Donna Summer and Dave Edmunds).  On the negative side, Greil Marcus panned the album in a pretty aggressive way, and if memory serves chalked its critical success up to New York critics.  Which is probably true; the three sisters (Maggie, Terre and Suzzy) were born in New Jersey, and if the legend is to be believed, honed their vocal chops singing on NYC street corners, the songs more often than not being Christmas carols.  They're probably best known for "We Three Kings," their 1990 Christmas LP, which if you're interested is one of the greatest pop Christmas albums ever released.  But at least at the time, this record was a pretty big deal, because it sounded so different than anything else being released at the time.

And there's no doubt about it, "The Roches" is a singular album.  I'm not sure that I'd call it great, but it includes three undeniably great songs - "Hammond Song," "Mr. Sellack," and (especially) "Pretty and High."  The vocals throughout are drop-dead perfect, as is the spare instrumentation (the album was produced by Robert Fripp in "audio verite," whatever that means).  The album is most successful (in the form of the three songs above) when it stops being so self-conscious, and focuses on the songs themselves.  There are other songs on the record that are nearly as strong, "The Troubles" and "The Married Men" among them, but on those the sisters (in their writing and singing) are trying to be a little too clever for their own good.  I wonder whether they would seem stronger when performed live; there's clearly an interplay between artist and listener that's being attempted, but it comes across less effectively on vinyl.

And "Pretty and High" - man, what a great song.  The opening is just perfect:

She came on the stage
in a dress like the sky
she had painted a sunset
around her eyes
and all of the people
were charmed and surprised
at how pretty and high and shy she was
pretty and high and shy

As for the ending, well; it's best to just listen all the way through:

"The Roches," 1979.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" - The summer's clear winner

First things first: as titles, "Dawn" should have come before "Rise."

But now that we've got that out of the way, I really have nothing negative to say about "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."  This movie, and its predecessor "Rise," are successfully pulling off a very neat trick.  We know how this story is going to end, so the key is making the journey interesting.  And it's not as if we're covering new territory here.  Many of my generation and older are intimately familiar with the mythology of the "Planet of the Apes."  My dad took me to see the original in 1968 (when I was 8 years old), and even though it's unlikely that my thinking at that time was sophisticated enough to fully appreciate the political statements being made in the film, there were plenty of scenes that stuck with me - when Charlton Heston first spoke in captivity, and the legendary final scene along the beach among them.

And while some of the sequels were somewhat cheesy, let's not forget the pedigree of that very first film - directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would win an Oscar for "Patton," Heston, and some all-time great character actors including Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and James Whitmore.  Not to mention a screenplay to which Rod Serling contributed.  We're talking about a lot of talent there.  And Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel?  Also the author of "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."  Not exactly a slouch himself.

But even with all that, it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that the 21st Century reboot of the franchise (and let's just concede that Tim Burton's attempt was a misfire) is superior in all aspects (with a minor asterisk, see below) to the original series of films.  First of all, the movie benefits from the 21st Century technology that allows actors such as Andy Serkis and Toby Kobell to play apes without having to don costumes that may have been impressive for their time, but looked less like real apes than humans dressed up in really neat Halloween costumes.  And the set design?  Part of what makes "Dawn" so impressive is how it looks - the ape compound in Muir Woods, and how San Francisco looks after the plague that has eradicated most of the human race.  If there isn't an Oscar nomination for someone in there, there's no justice.

And the story?  Undeniably powerful.  Make no bones about it, this is a tragedy.  But as in all great tragedies, even as the story unfolds towards its inexorable conclusion, and you bite your lip at the unnecessary behavior that moves it towards that point, you can understand the motivation behind the characters who would be considered the "villains" - Koba for the apes, Dreyfus for the humans.  Both have been scarred - Koba literally, at the hands of his former human tormentors; and Dreyfus, figuratively, who has lost his family as a result of the plague that for which he believes (incorrectly) that the apes were responsible.  Given what they know - the hands they have been dealt - none of their actions, even as you cringe as they are taken, are "unreasonable" from their limited points of view.

As was the case in "Rise," the central figure of "Dawn" is Caesar, the leader who eventually realizes that leadership alone is not enough to control events.  The comparisons to Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Saga" are apt - like Michael, leadership was thrust upon Caesar against his will, and like Michael he has compassion for his enemies - but only up to a certain point.  At the conclusion of "Dawn" he has recaptured his position of leadership, but now he faces a job that he never wanted to have in the first place - again, much like Michael.  Andy Serkis plays his internal conflict perfectly - he grieves for what has happened, but he is prepared to take it to its logical conclusion.  And when you attack his family, he's going to fight back.

The only asterisk?  We've yet to see a human character drawn with as much clarity as any of the apes.  The closest was probably John Lithgow in "Rise," and both Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke do the best with what they were given in "Dawn" - but that is still something to work on for the next movie.

But that too is part of what makes this series of "Planet of the Apes" films so exciting - seeing exactly how the filmmakers resolve those issues.   I just wish we didn't have to wait so long.

Story of a vacation told in five photos

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flashback Film: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)

I don't remember the exact date that I saw "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for the first time, but I do remember where I saw it (the original version of the Arden Fair Cinemas, long gone and missed by few) and with whom I saw it (my cousins Bill and Mary).  This was a rare treat - all of the parents had seen the movie, deemed it suitable for young viewers such as us, and let us go into the theater all by ourselves.  We were 13, 10 and 9 at the time, so that may not seem like such a big deal today, but trust me - it was a big deal for us.

Back in the days before Blu-Ray, DVD, or even VHS, "big" films with box-office potential even years after their release would see a second life in the cinemas.  Butch Cassidy was such a film, so in the spring of '76 I saw it for a second time, this time with my brothers Andrew and Pat.

As the years have gone by, I've watched it a lot, and since it is available on Netflix Streaming, decided to give it another go a couple of weeks ago.  Back when I was a kid, this was a magical film - even having seen few movies in the "grown up" theaters, this pretty quickly became the best film I'd ever seen.

Watching it now, I still think it's great - but it isn't quite that good, and it certainly doesn't hold up as well as its spiritual twin, "The Sting" (which is one of the few perfect movies ever made).  And frankly, it's a bit of an odd duck. Why?  Consider the following:

First, when you get right down to it, it's really three movies in one:

Part 1 is the setup, when we meet Butch and Sundance for the first time and are introduced to Etta, the love of their life, and the grungy but highly entertaining members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  Even within this section of the movie, there are abrupt shifts in tone: parts are very gritty, others are close to pure comedy.

Part 2 is the chase, where Butch and Sundance are pursued by a posse with almost mystical powers ("Who are those guys?") to, literally, the edge of the abyss.  This is the best section of the film, even though there isn't a ton of dialogue, because it allows Newman and Redford to just be themselves, developing an onscreen rapport that is justifiably legendary.

Part 3 could be called "Fishes out of water in Bolivia," and it's the least successful part of the film, if only because we've seen better examples of everything that it tries during the first two acts.  But this is where you get to see Strother Martin in action, only one of the all-time great character actors, so it's not a total loss.

Second, the music.  It doesn't have what you would call a traditional score, but it does have music, credited to composer Burt Bacharach.  Don't get me wrong - I think Bacharach is a genius, but this is far from his best work.  I know that "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" won the Oscar and all, but it's pretty pedestrian for a Bacharach/David tune, and the scene in which it appears (though cute) is entirely gratuitous.

And then, during the Bolivian adventures, there is an extended scene where we see glimpses of Butch and Sundance going back to their old ways, which is accompanied by music that is as out of place as anything I've ever heard in a movie.  It's sounds like the score to a really bad Broadway musical, and it just destroys the momentum of the movie.  A previous, similar interlude was much more successful, showing Butch, Sundance and Etta during their trip down to Bolivia, where they lived and were treated like royalty.

But those are really small quibbles, nit-picking if you prefer.  In addition to Strother Martin, it's got an incredible cast of character actors: Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, Ted Cassidy, Kenneth Mars, Cloris Leachman.  And it's got Newman and Redford, demonstrating with ease why they deserved their legendary status.  That's film history right there, folks.

Old 97's deliver a messed up masterpiece

"Most Messed Up," the new album by the Old 97's, is packaged in spartan fashion.  It includes neither liner notes nor a lyric sheet.  On the back cover, you see that there are "Twelve songs in total," with an album length of "Thirty-nine minutes, fifty-seven seconds."  And then, "Play this album loud."  With that admonition a gauntlet has been thrown down, and the only thing that remains is to find out whether the band can deliver on the promise.

The answer is a resounding "yes."  In fact, "Most Messed Up" is my favorite album of the the year -  certainly the most fun, and probably the truest to the spirit of rock 'n roll.  If "Born to Run" was "a '57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records" (the great line by Greil Marcus), then "Most Messed Up" is akin to a Dodge Charger that's been driving all night long, a little overheated, running mostly on melted down bottles of Jack Daniels and whatever "medicines" the band was able to get their hands on.

The first clue to what the album is all about can be found in the song titles: "Longer Than You've Been Alive" (which is how the long the band has been playing together), "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On," "Wheels Off," "Wasted," "Intervention," "Most Messed Up."  The second clue can be found in the band credits, just below those for the band regulars: "Additional electric guitar and vocals: Tommy Stinson."  For those too young to remember, Stinson was a founding member of The Replacements, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) of American post-punk bands.  The first few listens, I couldn't quite put my finger on what the sound of "Most Messed Up" reminded me of - but seeing that credit to Stinson, it all came into focus, because there's a distinct "Let it Be" and "Tim" (The Replacements' first two albums) vibe to the proceedings.  The album sounds like it was recorded in one take, without any breaks for silly things like guitar tuning, rehearsals or overdubs.  It's a bit of a mess, but a glorious one.

And while there's no lyrics sheet, you can find them easily enough on the band's website.  A few choice nuggets:

bottles of whiskey bottles of beer

there’s a bottle of medicine somewhere ‘round here

we’ve been in nightclubs and we’ve been in bars

honky-tonks and theaters from Memphis to Mars

most of our shows were a triumph of rock

although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock

"Longer Than You've Been Alive"

this is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey

and sleeping till 2 on a warm afternoon

telling your journal how badly you miss me

and you can’t believe I’ll be coming so soon

this is the ballad of anticipation

waiting and waiting and waiting and then

finally getting the one you’ve been wanting

and guess what it’s time to start waiting again

"This Is the Ballad"

stop squeezin’ my shoes quit killin’ my buzz

why you wreckin’ my mood what are you the fuzz

I’m so far gone I can’t never get found

I am the most messed up motherf*cker in this town

"Most Messed Up"

The Old 97's have been around for more than twenty years, and I don't think many people would accuse them of being a household name.  That's probably not going to change with the release of "Most Messed Up," and it's unlikely that the band had any expectations that it would.  But trust me, this is about as good as it gets.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Seven Song Perfect Playlist: The Ramones

1. "Blitzkrieg Bop"

2. "Sheena is a Punk Rocker"

3. "Rockaway Beach"

4. "We're a Happy Family"

5. "I Wanna Be Sedated"

6. "Teenage Lobotomy"

7. "Cretin Hop"

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #22 - "Who's Next" (1971)

I've got quite a history with this album.

At one time in my life, I might have ranked it up in the top ten.  At another time, it wouldn't have made the list at all.  So what happened?

Let's start at the beginning.  Spring of 1974, I'm wrapping up 8th grade, and hanging out at a friend's house after school.  His brother plops the album on the turntable, and the first song coming out of the speakers is "Getting in Tune."  It's the second side, followed by "Going Mobile," "Behind Blue Eyes" and the epic "Won't Get Fooled Again."  I'm hooked - and it's almost as if a new world has opened up.  Looking back now, it was probably the first "pantheon album" that I'd ever heard - what most objective observers would call the best album from a band considered to be one of best ever.

Fast forward to the fall of 1980 - my first quarter at Berkeley, during that time when you're trying to figure out the right balance between freedom (I can do anything I want, any time I want!) and responsibility (Oh yeah, there's that whole study and do well on your grades thing still hanging overhead).  Trying to get used to a bunch of people from different backgrounds, with different tastes and different whims.  And, perhaps most importantly to someone like myself, with different musical tastes.

So at any given point during my two years in the dorms, that might have meant the guy who went in for folk-era Dylan, or the guy who was into Eno's ambient music, or the young lady who went more for the hardcore stuff (X, Flipper), or in one particular instance, the guy who owned two albums and played them at length, nearly every day - one of them being "Who's Next" (the other was Todd Rundgren's "Something/Anything," which at least had the virtue of being a double album).  What I learned in that one nine-month period is that there are no albums that can withstand that amount of playing - not even an album as great as "Who's Next."  It was nearly 20 years before I could listen to it again.

Once I made peace with it, there could be no question that this was one of the greatest albums ever recorded; the prototype of what would now be considered the classic "classic rock" album.  From the majestic opening of "Baba O'Riley," to the perfect Roger Daltrey vocals, to the outright beauty of some of the music ("The Song Is Over," "Behind Blue Eyes"), to the humor of John Entwistle's "My Wife," and to what was probably the last great drumming of Keith Moon's career - it's damn near perfect.

Give it another 10 years, and it may wind its way all the back to the top ten.