Wednesday, January 31, 2007

TheBandDrove VanHard

oh my god, that title is annoying, but i had to go there (try saying it fast)...

so Rich Shapero is not as much of a concern now. he sparked much spirited discussion over the weekend though. that's not to say you shouldn't report back to me w/ "Wild Animus" findings.

i'm thinking about Van Morrison. John posted a li'l while ago about "Veedon Fleece," a weirdly titled release from 1974. i'd owned this puppy on vinyl for a good spell, but had never really dug into it. over the past few days--after being prompted by my friend and former bandmate Tom, who had dl'd the thing via John's site--i've been wading in and i've been real happy.

i, like every other human, am obsessed w/ "Astral Weeks," and this one is clearly related, if much, much mellower. "Astral Weeks" is uber-mellow, but it's sort of fraught with desire and such; this one is more contented, jazzy, laid-back, not as much about the ecstatic release. but there's still this sense of just sort of riffing on one idea and traveling with it. the pieces on "Veedon Fleece" seem more like vamps to me than songs; the band just plays this one pattern and Van will sort of move through and around it as he pleases. the music plays the straight man or something. i don't know these pieces that well yet, but this is my first impression.

as with any time i think of Van--who at times (perhaps my most lucid and rational ones) i have called my favorite singer of all time--i think about Van and the Band--who at times i have called my favorite band of all time. anyway, their barely documented partnership is one of the most sublime musical phenomena there is. the two instances i can think of are "Caravan," from "The Last Waltz," and "4% Pantomime" from "Cahoots."

now the former is fucking classic--always will be. the video
() is something you need to see if you haven't--a) for Morrison's sick-ass track-suit-style onesie and b) for his vertically challenged roundhouse air-kicks near the end. also the performance itself is ridick, esp. the part in the second verse when he growls "Turn up yr rahdio / So we can get down to what's really wrong, really wrong, really wrong..."--a true WTFx1000 moment in the annals of classic rock.

but that is really just the Band backing Van Morrison. "4% Pantomime" is a true collaboration, a duet between Richard Manuel and Van where they really feed off each other and just summon this steamroller of drunken revelry. it's a super-odd, rambling, free-form tune, one that took me quite a while to appreciate, but that is now firmly fixed in my pantheon.

lyrically, it's superweird. first of all, the singers address each other by name, or at least moniker, i.e., Van sings, "Oh, Richard," while Richard goes, "Oh, Belfast cowboy"--how fucking awesome is that? the song seems to start as this sort of lament re: the lifestyle of the performing musician; in that classic wounded, sardonic way of his, Manuel sings, "The management said they were sorry, for the inconvenience you were suffering / And mister booking agent, please have mercy--don't book the jobs so far apart." then there's a lot of talk about poker and a bunch of nice gambling metaphors and whatnot.

the real jewel of the song for me though is Van's delivery in the second verse--the dude goes into this crazy asymmetrical cadence that sounds totally stream-of-consciousness: "Dealer's been dealing me bad hands / From the bottom of the deck / Without the slightest blush / And I don't know whether to call or check / But right now I've got a royal flush...." so he enunciates every syllable in "From the bottom of the deck" in this really forceful staccato way and then speeds up as he approaches "I don't know whether to call or check" and slurs into that phrase and then he gets sort of tripped up on the "right" of "right now," so it sounds like "right-a now." i've rewound this thing countless times, and all i can say--and maybe this is a cop out, but i really really mean it--is that it's like a jazz horn player. it's just him experimenting with phrasing in a whimsical, joyous, off-the-top-of-his-head way. it's some without-a-net shit, i'm telling you and it continues into the second part of the verse--it really sounds like he's rapping.

also look out for when Levon does this corny cymbal crash in the first verse to accent Richard's line "We went up to Griffith Park with a fifth of Johnny Walker Red / And smashed it on a rock [crash!] and wept / While the old couple looked on into the dawn [i think he says "dawn"]."

the pleasures of this performance are myriad, legion, fucking transcendent. Van rambling, "It's a full house tonight / Everybody in town is a loser / Yeah, you bet"; it goes on and on. goddamn, dude. anyway, please enjoy and cherish...

The Band with Van Morrison - 4% Pantomime

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Someone had thundered

excerpt from an interview with Rich Shapero. if you haven't been indoctrinated, plz see previous post.

J: Where did you grow up?

RS: The City of the Angels.

J: Among angels?

RS: No, among zombies. I had to go north to find my angels.

J: Are you referring to your artistic muses?

RS: No, I was thinking of the women who introduced me to the idea that life is worthwhile. When I showed up for my high school reunion, they had me on the "In Memoriam" list. No one thought I had survived into adulthood.

J: Were you a punk?

RS: I wish. Punks are cool. They have identities and loyalties.

J: You have a more positive outlook now.

RS: Yes. Thunderously more.


today's Shapero link: his company, Crosspoint Venture Partners, "architects of tomorrow's winning technology segments."

Friday, January 26, 2007

Breaking DFSBP news: "Wild Animus" Beast-Man, Rich Shapero

it is with considerable mirth/great wariness that i report to you my discovery of the work of one Rich Shapero.

my friend Laal went to the Clipse concert the other night and returned with an odd sort of souvenir: a complimentary CD handed to her and other concertgoers upon their exit by a young Hispanic woman. i discovered this artifact on L's dresser last night and was instantly intrigued. the disc is credited to a man named Rich Shapero, depicted on the back as a middle-aged white dude standing in a snowy naturescape and squinting against the cold. the title of the release is "Wild Animus," but "The Ram" is also written on the cover, which bears an extremely cheesy, yet lavishly executed, cave-painting-style silhouette of a charging ram. it looks really Photoshopped and slick and wanna-be edgy.

opening the CD booklet, i saw more of the same: all this animal-themed faux-Native American imagery rendered in a really sensationalistic clip-arty style. then i started to browse through the lyrics and i was shocked--shocked!--by what i found. the first song, "From the Flames," begins, "The flesh is sizzling, / Limb muscles twitching, / Deep tissues pulling where the boiling blood anoints." the rest of the songs share this horrifically bad, wanna-be-deep-and-shocking vibe, and this theme emerges of a dude turning into a ram: "Draw my gaze in. / Chest covered with fur, not skin. / A white muzzle where my face has been."

but at the back of the booklet was the info that sent me into spasms of curiosity. the extensive list of Shapero's sidemen wasn't populated by fellow nobodies, but rather by well-respected veteran session musicians! ... Marc Ribot (polymathic downtown guitarist), Airto Moreira (Brazilian percussionist who's worked with Miles Davis and just about everyone else), Jim Keltner (drummer on a lot of the Beatles' solo stuff), Jerry Marotta (session drummer for Peter Gabriel and a ton of other megastars) and a bunch more. i turned the CD over and saw that it appeared to be self-released (label credit was "Too Far"--never heard of it). obviously, i'm thinking, "who the fuck is this guy?"

and then i played the CD. sweet, sweet jesus, this shit is heinous, but in a really fascinating way. basically it's atmospheric and slighty rootsy art rock, almost psychedelic, but really, really lush and meticulous with all these cheesy flourishes; just super overproduced and studio-sounding. but the vocals are the kicker: unbelievably tuneless, nasal and undramatic. it just sounds like some dorky white dude reciting poetry; there's a hint of a melody, but this dude just flat-out cannot sing a lick. just remarkable how shitty it is. the structures and arrangements are actually kind of avant-garde and interesting, which isn't really surprising given the players, but the overall effect is the worst kind of pretentious, self-important garbage. there's some superweird sections that almost sound sarcastic, such as on the jaunty "Cock and Spring" (yes, that's the actual title), but it's pretty clear that Mr. Shapero is not kidding in the least.

i almost didn't want to Google the guy, didn't want to know more. the enigma i was faced with was just too delicious and fraught with meaning; i was having too much fun trying to figure out who in the hell this musically impaired mook was that he was able to get world-class musicians to execute this piece of garbage. my only thought was that he had to be filthy rich.

i took the CD to work and quickly intro'd it to my colleagues. one by one, the jaws of each member of the "Time Out New York" music staff dropped as they demo'd the thing. even w/ preparation, this shit is straight-up shockingly awful.

Googling ensued, of course, and the facts were fascinating. i'll let a San Franciso Chronicle piece from '04 give you the basics:

"With deep pockets and an even deeper belief in his inner Hemingway, first-time novelist Rich Shapero is taking vanity publishing to a new level.

The Silicon Valley venture capitalist wrote his novel, founded a company to publish it and then launched one of the biggest and most colorful individual book giveaways ever.

Shapero, 56, is spending nearly a half-million dollars to promote "Wild Animus," due in stores in early October. And he has a 13-city book tour planned."

so this CD in my possession is the audio companion to a novel self-published in '04 by a frickin' venture capitalist?!? it's appparently being handed out all across the country at youth-oriented events. i can only imagine how many people left Webster Hall the other night with this thing in hand and played it only to recoil in horror. maybe i should start a support group.

anyway, there are some pretty strong feeelings on this guy floating around the web. one article--on Lyndon LaRouche's homepage no less--is entitled "'Wild Animus' Beast-Man, Rich Shapero, Exposed! (Please, put your pants back on.)" in it, Wesley Irwin describes the novel "Wild Animus" as--get this--"a detriment to the mental health of anyone who reads it" and summarizes the plot thusly:

"The story is about a "disillusioned UC Berkeley graduate" who "leaves behind a world of protests and riots to follow a wild, inner calling." The main character, "Sam," who, like Shapero in the '60s, takes mind-bending trips on LSD, ends up following his "wild animus" up to Seattle, and then into the remote regions of Alaska where he has an inner "truth-seeking" experience that takes him all the way to the "breaking point" of his sanity. In the book, he turns into an animal, specifically, a ram, renames himself "Ransom," freaks out on his girlfriend, and ends up dying in the wilderness of Alaska."

are you fucking kidding me?!?

Irwin goes on to posit that Shapero's whole survivalist/savage viewpoint is a conservative ruse:

"Why is this book being targetted into youth/political areas across Washington, Oregon, and California, weeks before what is probably the most important Presidential election in our lifetimes? It clearly promotes running away from facing today's frightening political realities, into a drug-induced schizophrenic escape into the wilderness, instead of effectively fighting (which the LaRouche Youth Movement is) against the mentally ill George Bush's, and Dick Cheney's preventive-war policy, which must be smashed if our U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence are going to survive."

daaaaaamn, son, this is some heavy shit. there are interviews with Shapero online, but i haven't yet delved into them yet. in the meantime, here's some relevant links so you can begin your own research. together, we must find out everything there is to know about Rich Shapero. DFSBP is now officially on "Wild Animus" watch; please report back with any findings.

Shapero interview on "BookCrossing"

website of Shapero's publishing imprint, Too Far

Rich Shapero CV

and lastly, an mp3 of "From the Flames" itself. please brace yourself, i implore you; this is no game. it's a whole new, insidious, can't-look-away kind of bad.

seriously, be alert, vigilant, etc. on this. Too Far/Wild Animus may be the new Scientology, or worse.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


sorta fell of the Altman wagon near the end of the run. sorry, Bob. one i most regret missing is perhaps "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"--anyone seen that?--but i felt that the IFC had me in a tractor beam and was casting an unhealthy pall over my social life so i stayed away.

speaking of that life, i feel as though many of the rock bands that have been moving me the most recently have been those staffed by friends. i told you all about Yukon a little while back. by all means, check them the fuk out here, as they continue to rule. there may be another Stay FKD/Yukon show and/or a split release in the works--will let thee know.

the other unit i need to speak with you about may be well known to some DFSBP readers, if i may be so bold as to assume that y'all exist as such, and that is the shadowy Brooklyn crew known as Birthday Boyz. have known these chaps for along time. can't give you the exact chronology, but the band sprang out of a group known as Cadre Bravura that existed at a college that shall go unnamed around the time that i was graduating from said institution. Cadre gave way to, i believe, Guts, with whom Stay Fucked played at the Local/Rock Star Bar waaaaay back in April of '03 (with the much-missed Timber and the much-missed Snack Truck, the latter of whom i hear is back in action--Matt, are you out there?!?), which swapped a member out and became Birthday Boyz in god knows when. anyway, these guys have been pals of myself and Stay FKD and Aa (in which i played for a spell) for a good while, etc.

i'm very excited and happy for them because they have just dropped a gorgeous-looking and -sounding 12" (recorded by Converge's Kurt Ballou), which documents "The Bro Cycle," i.e., the three long songs which have made up their live sets over the past few years. this one is a split release between three labels: London's Life in a Box, Cali's Unfun and Brooklyn's Waking. how they pulled that trifecta off, i have no idea, but all you really need to know is that this is simply a fantastic release and ought to be gobbled by all fans of heavy music.

the Birthday Boyz play a strain of very dire, dynamic, metallic post-hardcore music. the sound is all about the build, the churn, the catharsis, the soaring guitar break, the crushing re-entry. i keep coming back to the word dire, because these guys play as if it's just the end of everything, but there's this really intense beauty being harnessed as well. it's not dark as much as it is just extreme and heavy in the emotional as well as physical senses.

seeing them live, as i was lucky enough to do this past Friday when Stay FKD shared a bill w/ them at the awesomely revamped Glasslands, i was reminded that their concerts are like taking communion or something. they're just very intense, even grave experiences; you'll rarely see a band live that MEANS it more than these guys or that communicates with each other and the music on such a visceral level. the songs are mathy and fairly chopsy, but there's really not much of a sense of shredding, per se; the band has a very collective feel--they really churn as a unit. you mainly notice the virtuosity in the songcraft and the epic dynamics and the savage performance energy. Birthday Boyz really make the most of the whole screaming-away-from-the-mike thing; the vocals are like pure emoting and are always totally buried in the music--they almost sound like they're being screamed from within a burning building or something. i don't think i've ever understood a single word in a BBoyz song, but the screaming gets a really powerful message across nonetheless.

there's a fascinating subtext to all this intensity, one that really helps to set this band apart, and that's their strange insular sense of humor. "The Bro Cycle," song titles like "Gaybroham Lincoln," "Ho Money Bro Problemz," "Basketball," etc. etc. ever since i've known these guys, they've been quick to undercut their serious-as-hell music with jokey presentation and it makes for a pretty fascinating, head-spinning juxtaposition. a lot of times jokiness is used in music to cover up lackluster concepts or execution, but the BBoyz have nothing to hide or apologize for. this humor has simply become part of the mystique with this band, a mystique that persists even among their friends--it's just a really cool, subversive effect.

so pick up "The Bro Cycle" at the BBoyz site here. the music is gorgeous and heavy as shit, with riffs that will not leave your head--DFSBP promise on that one. samples are at their myspace page. gotta give a bigass kudos to drummer Greg on the gorgeous, imagination-fueling artwork you see above. it's just superclassy and mysterious and hopeful and even more so b/c you'd have absolutely no idea from the packaging what the music inside might sound like. i'd almost think it was some sort of electronica or hip-hop. it just looks super contemporary, edgy, boundless, profound, etc. and the music is all of those things as well.

there's a lot of b.s. "abstract metal" and heavy music that's getting all self-consciously arty flying around. there's a meticulous craft happening in BBoyz songs that i wouldn't hesitate to call "art," but they don't skimp on the riffs, the complexity, the weight, the force whatsoever. it's just elemental shit, really.

$$$$$noteworthy BBoyz-related projects are guitarist Hunter's avant-black-metal dealio Holy War, not to be mistaken with the incredible and short-lived Holy Wars, which teamed Hunter with Ben of Zs/Archaeopteryx/The Fugue, Tony of Archaeopteryx/Stay FKD and Phil of Timber/From Cocaine to Rogaine. in other words, local math-metal nirvana.$$$$$


been digging the new vocal-style Hella disc, "There's No 666 in Outer Space" quite a bit. this one will start fights and will be summarily dumped on by all haters of non-"Hold Your Horse Is" and -"The Devil Isn't Red" Hella but those folks are annoying. this is a really strong, dense, gorgeous disc. there's some weakness in the lyrics and the singing in general, but overall, i'm really into what this fleshed-out lineup is doing.

bring on the Andrew Hill. still mesmerized by "Time Lines," and i'm digging a bit on "The Day the World Stood Still," an octet disc he recorded live in '03 in Scandinavia. Hill can be ephemeral as a player and get swallowed up by his ensembles and that sort happens on "The Day...," but there's some really hot and heavy composition happening here that's worth sticking around for. praise be to latter-day Hill and in general to one of the most original musicians i've ever dug.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Altmania: "Brewster McCloud" (1970) / "Countdown" (1968) / "Nashville" (1975)

getting a little behind on the Altman documentation, so let's get to it. i took in my latest double feature last night and it was a weird one, let me tell you.

i had been wanting to see "Brewster McCloud" forever. mention this movie in public and you'll basically get either a quizzical look or a knowing smile and nod--actually that applies to a lot of things you could possibly mention, but you get the idea. what i mean is that it's a cult movie, and with very good reason.

the premise is just incredible. Bud Cort, he of "Harold and Maude," plays the title character, an (take it away IMDB) "owlish, intellectual boy who lives in a fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome." as if that weren't weird enough, he spends most of his time studying birds and constructing a pair of elaborate mechanical wings in the hopes of taking flight. not to mention murdering people who cross him.

as you might guess from the subject matter, "Brewster McCloud" is a comedy, but a dark and at times really disturbing one. a few of the subplots and minor characters are really silly and over the top--Michael Murphy as a hotshot detective with an extensive turtleneck collection; Rene Auberjonois as this bird-expert professor whose increasingly cracked out and bird-mimicking lectures to no one in particular are interspersed throughout the movie; Shelley Duvall, in her film debut, playing Brewster's sexy drag-racing girlfriend.

but some of the other stuff going on gets pretty intense. Brewster's sex life, or lack thereof, is fascinating. basically, he's got this guardian angel, Louise, played by Sally Kellerman (a.k.a. "Hot Lips" of "M*A*S*H" fame--weird to think, incidentally that "Brewster" was Altman's follow-up to "M*A*S*H") who trails him and helps steer the police off his trail. but she seems to have him in this weird thrall, encouraging him to practice celibacy. there's a very odd scene where she's bathing him and calmly describing how he shouldn't need sex as an escape since the wings he's building are going to be his real source of freedom. she's nude during this part and you see these weird markings on her back that look like scars from torn-off wings--like i said, very, very weird.

anyway, despite Brewster's lack of interest in sex, girls throw themselves at him. for one, there's this pretty and somewhat insane girl Hope (Jennifer Salt), who's always coming into Brewster's lair and compulsively masturbating in front of him. this results in one of the most straight-up fucked scenes i've ever scene in a film. basically she comes in while he's doing chin-ups, gets into his bed and starts servicing herself as she watches him work out; she's even counting his reps out loud as she reaches climax. Altman cuts between him and her for an uncomfortably long time and it just gets completely out of control. as odd as the scenario is, maybe the weirdest thing is Bud Cort's appearance. if you've ever seen "Harold and Maude," you know that he has this really odd, smooth boyish face; he was pretty young at the time of this movie (22), but there's still a huge contrast between his features and his wiry, muscular body. and Altman makes sure you see all of that, as he's wearing only a black Speedo during all of this. some really crazy shit, i'm telling you.

the movie is a bit too long for its own good and the pervasive wackiness gets old after awhile, but the finale is pretty wondrous. i don't think it's spoiling too much to say that there's a phenomenal flying sequence at the end. the wings themselves (designed by Leon Ericsen) are a marvel to behold and incredibly realistic. if this movie was made today (which it absolutely would not be, for like 8 million reasons), they'd be CGI, but these are 100% real, and even though i doubt Cort is using them unassisted, they're still a marvelous mechanical sight.

a few other noteworthy things... there's some really nice Altman gimmickry re: the credits. he loves to do those fake-showy cast introductions, but here he saves it till the end, when all the players inexplicably come out as part of a circus. he also does this sort of "retake" of the opening credits after a singer onscreen asks her orchestra to start a piece again...

also, it occurred to me watching "Brewster" what a big influence Altman had on Wes Anderson. yeah, the ensemble cast thing you see in "Tenenbaums" obviously owes a lot to Bob, but also the use of music in "Brewster" reminded me of some of those awesome Anderson music-video-style sequences, like when Gwyneth Paltrow is sort of drifting out of the bus toward Luke Wilson in "Tenenbaums" with Nico blaring. anyway, there's a scene that reminded me of that near the end of "Brewster": Brewster has dissed his guardian angel by getting laid, and she abandons him, walking out of the Astrodome without a look back. there's this long aerial shot where you see her leaving from behind, with this gorgeous, haunting song "Last of the Unnatural Acts" by someone named John Phillips. it's very creepy and Leonard Cohen-ish, and the lyrics seem to be about Brewster: "All of the rain that falls on the world cannot cleanse away what's been done / And all of the winds can't blow away the curse, nature requires that you come..."

whoa. had to download and play that song back a few times to hear that. pretty heavy song. who is this John Phillips guy?


my apologies if i give short shrift to "Countdown," but i think you'll understand when i tell you about it. the prospect of an Altman-helmed space flick starring James Caan and Robert Duvall was enticing to say the least, but alas this one's pretty stodgy. it's pre-"M*A*S*H," which was obviously a watershed in terms of pervasive sarcasm/cynicism/modernity, and it's much more dated than "That Cold Day in the Park," which also felt rather creaky in spots.

the movie is an at-times painfully wooden fictionalized account of the space race, released a year before Armstrong's moon walk. Caan plays Lee Stigler, the one who's sent to the moon, while Duvall is his bitter, severe colleague, named--get this--"Chiz," who gets replaced by Stigler at the last minute due to a technicality.

maybe the most interesting thing about the movie (aside from the stunning casualwear--the film abounds with chinos and short-sleeved polos, often rocked poolside) is that it prefigures what has since become a bona fide film genre--obviously fueled in recent years by subsequent history, i.e. the Challenger--that being the "tense space flick." "2001," released the same year, oddly enough, shares a lot of these qualities, which you also see in (if my memory is serving me correctly) "Apollo 13," "The Right Stuff" and even something like "Space Camp." basically there's the whole business about "Is it safe to go up there?" and one of the astronauts (in this case Duvall) is inevitably hot-headed and rash and is like "I know I can fly this thing, now you've got to send me up there!" and then there's the whole "how does it effect the NASA wives" thing, and one of the spouses of course overhears the astronauts talking in hushed tones about some secret or risky aspect of the program. and then there's the tension between the astronauts based on who gets the more prestigious assignment. and then there's the claustrophobia verging on horror during the mission itself, blah, blah, blah.

anyway, all that stuff is here, but the movie is pretty tedious nonetheless. the acting is the real downfall; it's just remarkably, pervasively wooden. every interaction feels painfully scripted and it's just weird to see Duvall and Caan, two actors who would go on to do such naturalistic stuff, behaving in this dated, straitjacketed way. there's nothing really innovative about the look and the plot just sort of creeps along. not to mention perhaps the most dated and annoying aspect of the film, which is the unrelenting score, that essentially interprets every line for you with some dramatic, wanna-be-unsettling swoop. it's like a laugh track or something, just so intrusive.

i will say that the actual inside-the-shuttle and on-the-moon stuff was pretty intense. there's a long sequence where radio communication is breaking down between Duvall and Caan that really gives you a sense of the precariousness of space travel: if that radio goes dead, the astronaut is royally fucked. and the two are communicating over this increasingly crackly radio and it's just really freaky. the moon sequence itself is also genuinely eerie and almost worth the "price of admission" (like you're ever going to get another chance to see this relic in the theaters!). Caan may or may not have gone insane at this point and he's just sort of bouncing along casually (or maybe it just looks that way in low gravity), despite the fact that he's dangerously close to running out of oxygen.

anyway, a period oddity for Bob fans only.


"Nashville" is the same way. not!

this is considered Altman's masterpiece and it's genuinely fucking phenomenal and should be seen by everyone. it's a huge, sprawling ensemble thing like "Short Cuts" was later, but this one is set in the glitzy Nashville music scene just after Vietnam, and as you might guess, it's a musical. weirdly enough, a lot of the actors wrote their own songs to perform in the movie.

basically, i have to say that my absolute favorite element of "Nashville," this time around as well as when i first saw it in high school, is Keith Carradine. he plays this handsome asshole folk-pop star, Tom Frank, who's part of this singing group, Tom, Bill and Mary. Tom is in love with Mary, who happens to be married to Bill, and is sleeping with her behind Bill's back. this creates for some pretty icy, devastating scenes, but none as fucked up as Carradine's phenomenal performance of a self-penned tune called "I'm Easy" ("It's not my way to love you just when no one's lookin'") in front of a packed house that includes both Bill and Mary (the latter played by a gorgeous and icy Christina Raines; she has like two lines in the movie but gives an incredibly affecting performance). the scene can be found on YouTube here and i suggest you get out the tissue box before viewing:

there's really not a bad actor in this thing: Henry Gibson as the pompous, preening country star Haven Hamilton; Lily Tomlin as the powerfully reserved gospel singer Linnea Reese; Geraldine Chaplin as the insanely pretentious and inadvertantly racist BBC journalist Opal (her monologues are some of the most hilarious scenes in the movie). but maybe my favorite next to Carradine is Michael Murphy as John Triplette, this smooth-talking casually arrogant advocate for the mysterious reformist presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Murphy is just an amazingly natural actor, and to hear Triplette going around trying to sell all these died-in-the-wool country singers on backing Walker, a loopy ultraliberal, is just hilarious. at one point, his pitch includes the line "I'm not trying to sell you a bill of goods," and his oily yet confessional delivery is priceless. i'll admit that i'm a sucker for Murphy--just love to hear that drawl. his cameo in "That Cold Day" just totally rules.

anyway, there are lot of similarities here w/ "Short Cuts," which is basically just a more-contemporary L.A.-set "Nashville." in that movie, the framing device is the mayfly epidemics, whereas here it's Hal Phillip Walker's campaign vans going around broadcasting his oddball slogans (my favorite is "Hasn't Christmas always smelled like oranges to you?"). also, there's this climactic tragedy that feels almost like an apocalypse or certainly an irreparable loss of innocence. Gibson running around at the end after [the horrific incident i won't spoil] urging the crowd to sing and saying "This is Nashville, not Texas," or somesuch, is pretty intense. especially so since we've learned that his wife was a die-hard Kennedy booster--there's a really poignant and unusual scene where she just waxes on how much she loved John and Bobby.

anyway, this movie is a classic for a reason. it's absolutely hysterical and has this intense creeping cynicism about it. it sums up the '70s and Altman's whole vibe big time. it's basically an extremely realistic simulation of entropy/disillusionment taking effect on a culture.

look out for a hysterical Elliott Gould cameo. he plays himself, but doesn't he sort of always?

as an add'l treat: here's Carradine doing "I'm Easy" at the '76 Golden Globes:


ps: best album of '06 not to appear on my offishal Top 10 list is Andrew Hill's "Time Lines." a little diffuse in parts (drumming could be more solid) but the writing is gorgeous and Hill's playing straight-up gets better and more free-sounding with age. it really, really, really does.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Altmania: "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969) / "Images" (1972)

caught the double feature last night of two early Bob flicks, both basically about women going crazy. "Images" is the much more well-known film, and seems to have a pretty good reputation, but i wasn't that into it at all. i enjoyed "That Cold Day in the Park" a lot more. it dealt with some of the same subject matter and moods, but in a much subtler way. "Images" was really labored, arty and pretentious, almost like a parody of an art film in places. there was good stuff there, but it wasn't half as mysterious and great as "Cold Day."

for some reason, i had been under the impression that "M*A*S*H" was Altman's first film, but apparently, it was just his breakthrough one. if you look on IMDB, he's got a ton of movies stretching back to the early '50s--go figure. anyway, "That Cold Day" is from '69, three years before "M*A*S*H."

it's the story of a rich, lonely middle-aged woman, Frances (Sandy Dennis), living in British Columbia. one day during a rainstorm, she looks out the window and sees a youngish man (Michael Burns) sitting in the park alone. she goes down and asks him in and he stays with her for a few days. it pretty quickly becomes obvious that she's fixated on him in an unhealthy way and things progress from there.

at first, i wasn't that into the movie. it has a pretty sappy and oppressive score, at least in the early sections, and this really reddish, monochrome, sort of dated look to it, and it takes it time plotwise. basically you're seeing this woman move about her apartment and take the guy in and feed and clothe him and all that, but you just can't really see where the movie is going. the man is at first totally mute; Dennis keeps trying to get him to speak, but he won't say anything. the first sign of life he shows is doing this really weird, almost striptease-like dance for her when she plays him some records--that's a hell of a scene and it marked the point where the movie started to get interesting for me. you start to realize that she's terribly lonely and if not in love with this guy, at least totally enchanted with him.

Sandy Dennis is a really awesome actress, just very endearing and sad. she's very prim and British and she has this sort of puffy, pale face; it's very pretty, but it always sort of looks as if she's just been crying. she's just a poignant person to watch.

the movie takes some exceedingly weird turns. Dennis's apartment has this really stuffy, aristocratic air, and Altman does an amazing job of creating contrast when we see Burns leave. he goes and visits his gorgeous, debaucherous sister, Nina (Susanne Benton), living in this sort of hippie pad/houseboat. she's got this cheesy boyfriend who says "groovy" a lot and is really into weed. anyway, so as soon as Burns gets there, he starts talking really straightforwardly about this crazy lady that's been taking care of him, which is pretty shocking since he's been mute for like 45 minutes. you can tell that he's sort of been touched by her feeding and clothing him and the rest, but his sister and the boyfriend are laughing about the whole thing and being pretty flippant. it's just a really intense change of atmosphere: the spacious, pristine apartment to a cramped houseboat where this dissipated couple lives.

anyway, things get weirder and weirder. Burns brings Dennis back some--get this--pot cookies and there's an amazing stoned sequence where she's like gazing raptly at her feet and hands and the two play blind man's bluff. the tension here is pretty intense; she wants him so bad at this point and he's basically just leading her on. the next day, Burns's sister comes by when Dennis is out and he keeps telling her to leave but she won't. she just insists on sort of luxuriating in the bath and she's basically trying to seduce him and it's clearly driving him crazy. (i'm surprised that Susanne Benton doesn't really seem to have had much of a career after this; she's an absolutely gorgeous and tantalizing and magnetic presence in these scenes.) you can tell he's torn b/c on one hand he finds Dennis ridiculous, but on the other hand he feels protective of her. you don't really get to know Burns's character that well, but he's pretty fascinating even so.

sorry about all the damn plot summary. it's just that the plot is made up of these sort of mundane events that seem insignificant but take on a lot of weight. the movie just sort of creeps along, growing ever more perverse. i won't really get into the final sequence and spoil things, but let's just say it's really shocking the amount of ground the movie traverses. at the beginning it feels like a relic, almost like a movie from the '50s, but by the end we're firmly in seedy, fucked-up '70s territory.

as for the Altman-y aspects, there's a good amount of the overlapping dialogue happening, and some really cool examples of that wandering-camera stuff i talked about in the "Vincent and Theo" entry. i know it's been said a million times--someone, i think it was Andrew Sarris, called the style "polyphonic" and that's damned perfect--but this is really probably his most recognizable stylistic move as a director; it really seems to be in basically all the movies. also, there's a great cameo by the Altman mainstay Michael Murphy--you know, that tall, preppy, drawly dude who plays the assassin in "Nashville." him interacting with Dennis is just priceless; like Elliott Gould at that time, he just had this amazing naturalness to his acting--he always seems to be sort of playing himself. as my friend Kyle said of Gould in "California Split," it's behaving, not acting.

anyway, i guess this movie doesn't play much, so see it if you ever get the chance. there's definitely elements to it that are really dated, but there's some really unforgettable stuff and definitely a strong Altman flavor once the movie hits its stride.


compared to the creeping, gradually accruing tension of "Cold Day," i found "Images" frustratingly blatant. from the first moment, it announces itself as a "difficult," "experimental" film--whereas "Cold Day" builds imperceptibly to a state of feverish madness, "Images" starts there and stays there. in respect, it's very dated, very sort of wanna-be Euro. it's certainly not a total washout--it's visually stunning, for one--but i have to admit i was pretty bored by it in spots.

basically it's about this gorgeous British woman (Susannah York) who's a children's-book author. in the first few minutes, it's pretty clear that she's out of her mind; she's plagued by these audiovisual hallucinations of past lovers and she's on the verge of a total breakdown throughout the movie. she insists that her husband take her to their cabin in the English countryside to unwind, but alas, she can't escape the fact that she's totally fucking bonkers.

anyway, so the visuals are really where this movie is at. the countryside is absolutely gorgeous: waterfalls, rolling green hills, beautiful autumn panoramas, and all conforming to this drab, wintery palette--you almost feel like you're catching a cold from watching the movie. it just has this wonderfully damp, dark, chilly, British look to it, just incredibly lush.

but the whole simulation-of-insanity thing is really overboard and tedious. two minutes can't go by without some menacing, atonal clang on the soundtrack, accompanied by a vision of the ghost of one of York's dead lovers, or some other horrific hallucination. York does a good job considering the circumstances, and as i said, she looks absolutely gorgeous, but there's not really much to the character. there's some psychosexual stuff sort of bubbling near the surface--she apparently has a history of infidelity and she can't seem to break the habit--but nothing too well-defined, or for that matter, compelling.

the supporting cast is much more interesting. first, there's York's three lovers, Rene Auberjonois as Hugh, Marcel Bozzuffi as Rene and Hugh Millais as Marcel (whoa, that's really weird; i didn't notice that little name game that was going on until i looked up those actors on IMDB). they each have a really different vibe: Rene is witty and Continental, Marcel is lusty, bearish and perverted, and Hugh is bland and dorky but somehow kind of endearing. throughout the movie, she's sort of ping-ponging between these men in her mind; you're never really sure what's a flashback or a hallucination and what's actually happening.

the other character of note is Cathryn Harrison as Susannah (well, what do you know, there's another actor-charater name swap for ya; Bob, you so clever), Marcel's young daughter. she's a beautiful girl and a great actress; her character becomes fixated on Susannah and seems to idolize her, and she does a great job of conveying this adolescent vibe of straining for maturity but still being a kid. the scenes between her and York are really intimate and tender; Altman films them right up close while they sit by the fire doing a puzzle and they just make a really striking pair. all the actors in the movie really have strong looks to them.

but alas, Altman jerks you around so much that you just grow numb. the movie has an ostensible climax, but it doesn't feel any more momentous or stirring than any of the 700 other "ooh-how-scary" phantasmagoric outbursts that have come before. i just wasn't buying a lot of the "disjointed" vibe; it just felt very contrived. the movie was at its strongest when it was quiet and subtle, just like "Cold Day" was most of the way through.

one thing "Images" made me think about is Altman as a writer versus Altman as an adapter. "Images" was an entirely original idea, whereas so many others--"Short Cuts," "The Player," "Prairie Home Companion," "Popeye," etc.--were adapted. actually, "Images" was apparently based on some children's book that Susannah York wrote, and there are passages from it in the narration, but as far as i know, the story of the schizo author is all original. anyway, something to think about.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Altmania continues: "Vincent and Theo" (1990)

it's been a long time (if ever) since i copied the entirety of a film-series schedule into my datebook. but given my current Altman fever, the minute i heard about IFC Center's Altman retrospective, i knew i needed to plan my next few weeks around this thing (especially since i pretty much slept on that "Altman in the '70s" thing they did at Film Forum a few years ago). if you're planning on attending any of it (schedule here), maybe i'll see you there.

last night i saw "Vincent and Theo." it wasn't one of my most anticipated unseen Altmans, but i'm interested in anything of his at this point. i didn't love it, but it's a very cool movie with some pretty heavy acting and interesting Altman flourishes.

the title tips you off to how much this movie really comes down to two actors: Tim Roth as Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Rhys (who i've never seen before) as his brother, Theo. the movie is basically about how they have this sort of intertwined madness, a weird symbiotic relationship that serves as a both a supportive and destructive force in each of their lives.

at the crux of the movie is the idea that the two are different but the same: at first you see them arguing about art v. commerce. Vincent is living in squalor--check out Roth's gnarly chompers--and Theo comes to visit him. Theo's working as an art dealer at this hoity-toity gallery in Paris and Vincent keeps harping on him to try to get his paintings shown. throughout the film, Theo is torn between the obligations of selling art and the feeling that his brother's work really does deserve a chance. the brothers exist in different social strata, but they share a quality of madness. Vincent channels it into his art, and later into masochistic behavior, and Theo doesn't really know what to do with it.

the scenes where Theo's passions get the best of him are some of the strongest in the movie. there are several pretty perverse sex scenes where Rhys is just amazing. in one, he and this French woman are smearing paint all over each other and licking it off during foreplay; it's really animalistic and kind of disturbing, but the acting is amazing. in another, he's with the girl he later marries and he's just sort of licking and biting her all over obsessively. some really primal and psycho shit happening.

Vincent acts out in similar ways. there are tons of scenes where he just shrieks suddenly, or paints his face or someone else's, or threatens violence. in a way, the whole "tortured artist" notion becomes a bit tedious after a while; you sort of just keep waiting for the next outburst. but some scenes, like when Vincent goes to the country with the smarmy Paul Gaugin (Wladimir Yordanoff) have an amazing tension. there's one sequence where Gaugin is preparing a salad and making this really pretentious analogy between that process and painting, and Roth just sits there pouring wine in his mouth and letting it dribble out. just totally weird, immature, psychotic behavior, but you almost want to side with him given how offensive Gaugin is.

the film has a wonderful look. there's a lot of dark, squalid interiors and parched outdoor scenes. there's some amazing shots of Roth painting in fields of wheat or sunflowers that really seem authentic. some of the painting scenes themselves can be a bit tedious--such as when Vincent starts hallucinating among the sunflowers and destroys one of his canvases--but Roth does a damn good job with the Herculean task of actually conveying a painter at work. he's got these nice tic-type motions that he does with his mouth. Roth is great at portraying this kind of obsessive, passionate, half-there character; he's perfect for the role.

there's a really interesting sequence at the beginning where Altman is cross-cutting between modern-day footage of Christie's auction house, where a Van Gogh is being sold for many millions of dollars, and shots of Roth staring into space, reclining in his filthy one-room apartment. at first, this struck me as a little heavy-handed, but after seeing the movie, the notion is pretty powerful.

basically, as silly as this sounds, the movie is about the plight of the genius who toils in obscurity, and Altman does a good job of depicting how being ahead of one's time artistically, however romantic that might be, can be as devastating as it is satisfying. it's kind of a trite idea, suffering for your art, but Roth makes you believe that some people really don't have a choice: they have to create in a certain way, even if they destroy themselves in the process.

but anyway, that idea of posthumous recognition is pretty mindblowing. the movie is kind of like Altman saying a big "fuck you" to anyone who's ever sauntered into the MOMA and bought a Van Gogh mug or umbrella. it's like he wants to undermine the whole mechanism that spits on an artist while he or she is alive and then saints them when they're dead. it's a pretty powerful idea, and something we never think about: people we now think of as icons leading these miserable, obscure lives. i can't think of many other examples, though i know there are many. Kafka comes to mind.

anyway, so as with so many Altman films, there's also the question of what makes it an Altman film. there's definitely a lot in the camerawork that screams Altman, like his weird tendency to start shots with these sort of dated-seeming zooms, or this thing where he'll sort of drift over and focus on a seemingly irrelevant action or object at the end of (or even during) a shot. he's always sort of reframing actions here--just like in the bar scene in "California Split" where Gould and Segal are talking and then he pans over to the strippers having an argument.

another Altman thing i noticed here is his relentless way of dealing with unstable characters. he seems to almost relish the sense of weird, creepy claustrophobia, the process of losing your mind, and he'll just fixate on it, without giving his characters any respite. "3 Women" is this way; Shelley Duvall's character just gets continually shit on in the later part of the movie, as does Cynthia Stevenson's character in "The Player" (Griffin's assistant Bonnie Sherow) and Andie McDowell in "Short Cuts." i've heard it said that Altman has no sympathy for his characters and i can see why people say that. his movies can feel very, very mean--with this creepy sense of entropy or atheism or what have you.

there's also another thing i noticed which is his fixation on the evil quality of laughter. like in "Shortcuts," there's this really freaky sequence where Matthew Modine walks out of the room and Julianne Moore and Madeline Stowe are just cackling about him in this really sick, sinister way; there's a similar scene in "The Player," where Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett are laughing hysterically, and pretty cruelly, at Tim Robbins. there was one part in "Vincent and Theo" that was intensely reminiscent of these scenes (or vice versa, since "V and T" came first), when Theo and his wife sort of tumble to the floor in this euphoric laughter after having a nasty argument.

the end of the film--you can probably guess what happens--is pretty devastating. (by this point, Theo is wasting away from syphilis and there's an amazing scene where he walks out of the bathroom and says matter-of-factly to his wife, "I can't pee.") but it's just as sad all the way through; Altman is basically depicting two people who, in modern parlance, just can't deal. they're both just complete messes and their relationships are all disastrous, including the one they have with each other, though it provides them with such comfort. if it sounds like a heavy and somewhat heavy-handed movie, it is. also, it drags quite a bit. but the acting is superb and makes it worthwhile whether or not you have a particular interest in Van Gogh's work.

hoping to catch "Images" and perhaps "That Cold Day in the Park" tomorrow. i'm really psyched all this is going down. double features are two for the price of one!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Cuckold, and new dreams

a few quick things...

saw "Notes on a Scandal." it's a funny sort of movie b/c if you've seen the preview, you've basically seen the movie. if you liked/were titillated by the preview, you will like the movie. i must say that i was indeed titillated by the preview and thus was by the movie.

it's always sorta comforting in some sick way to watch a downfall, let alone two, and this one is really well-acted to boot. Cate Blanchett is beautiful and super-believable as a teacher who sleeps with one of her teenage students, and Judi Dench is super evil and fucked-up as her colleague who tries to destroy her reputation. my favorite actor in the film is Bill Nighy (see above), who just 100% *is* his character, a washed-up professor/writer who married Blanchett when she was 20. he's just the ultimate pathetic cuckold and kind of a despicable man in his bourgeois pretension, but at the same time you really feel for him; his outburst when he finds out about the affair might be the strongest scene in the movie.


thinking about more '70s jazz. Downtown Music Gallery has the whole damn Black Saint/Soul Note catalog and i can't walk in there without buying something. in case you're not familiar, these twin labels recorded everyone who was anyone in avant-garde jazz in the '70s and '80s; though the recording quality on a lot of the discs is a little rock-ish and dated, these discs are generally invaluable.

picked up the first record by the Ornette alum superband Old and New Dreams. (the record is simply credited to the players--Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Eddie Blackwell--and is actually called "Old and New Dreams"; the band later took that as its name.) it smokes in a huge way. as any who reads this blog knows, i love the collective ideal--especially in jazz, where it's so rare. all the players except Blackwell contribute tunes here and the soloing is basically communal. the horns are always overlapping and the rhythm section supports but just does what it pleases.

this is truly music where you can listen to what any player is doing at any time and be completely floored--all anyone could ever ask of jazz. Haden has those awesome, slidey chords he does; Blackwell is just swinging and stuttering at ludicrous tempos--the dude was an utter monster; and the soloists sound ecstatic to be playing over such a sick rhythm section. can't recommend this highly enough.

also am digging the title track of Don Pullen's 1975 album "Healing Force." it's a solo piano disc and the piece in question is part of what i indiscreetly call the "sex jazz" school of piano, which is when jazz piano sort of mingles freely and gloriously with a superwistful and borderline (or actually) cheesy melodic vibe. like you could almost hear Steve Perry or Michael McDonald singing over it but b/c it's a jazz master, things start there and get more awesome or complex. Paul Bley's performance in the doc "Imagine the Sound" exemplifies this for me, but this Pullen track is a real gem of this sort as well. it's got this swooning, heart-tugging theme that actually has that effect; it just makes you want to squint and shake your head in that deep-listening way. yeah, kinda cheesy, but so damn soulful.


want to point out that the new Deerhoof album, "Friend Opportunity," is really frickin' excellent. am reviewing it for "Time Out," so don't wanna say too much pre-publication. but let's just say that there are a few of those amazing turbopop gems a la "Milk Man" or "Dummy Discards a Heart" or "Twin Killers" that you just know are going to rule live, plus also many surprises. (lots more keybs/electronix, and an almost hip-hoppy vibe in places!)

am so so happy to hear guitarist John Dieterich (that's him up there) really showcased througout, especially on the long, long last track "Look Away." i've been a huge fan of his since the Colossamite days (check out Natural Dreamers and Gorge Trio as well) and am psyched that he is getting a popular forum via Deerhoof. he is really one of my favorite guitarists--a real post-Beefheart noisy slicer, but at the same time ultra-grounded in gnarly classic rock. he can nod to the whole history of rock, both avant-garde and totally not, without ever seeming to genre hop in a postmodern way.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Critic's pass: a way

if you please, my top 10 records of '06 list--featuring Baby Dayliner, the impressively cheekboned man you see above, sitting pretty at number one--can be found here, along with those of my fellow "Time Out" music folk.

i don't know what it is about Baby Dayliner; i really don't. he's just an original. his music is funny, somewhat kitschy, but also really poignant in this impossible-to-put-your-finger-on way. there's just this very rock-solid sense that he means it. try this song and see what happens.

Baby Dayliner - Critics Pass Away (from the Brassland album of the same name)


also recommended from the '06 crop is the above High Two-issued self-titled debut by Shot x Shot (say "shot by shot"), an excellent Philly jazz quartet featuring my good friend Dan Scofield. saw them tonight at Tea Lounge in Park Slope. all the players are very serious, but i'm especially impressed by their drummer, Dan Capecchi; he's fierce, resourceful, thoughtful and just thoroughly badass. these guys improvise in a very gritty, hard and in-the-moment way. it's very emotional music, but tightly controlled in its presentation--there's no simulated strain in the performance. it's cathartic but not soul-baring; there's elements of free jazz, but none of that tedious pseudo-spirituality. the players have all internalized the music (not always a given in jazz) and they play it very deeply, highlighting all the nuances; when they improvise, it's very directional, purposeful. there's just a really great sense of engagement.

one reason for this is that this is a BAND. non jazz listeners may not realize this but a lot of jazz groups aren't collectives in the way that rock bands are. ok, well a lot of rock bands aren't true collectives either. but even stable membership is rare in a jazz band, and shared writing duty is even more so; Shot x Shot has both. it's like when i was talking about how special the Descendents/All axis was and citing the shared writing duties; it's a phenomenon that really makes for equal investment, everyone throwing their hat in, etc. Shot x Shot has been honing their shit collectively for years and it shows. just deep, serious, modern music without the slightest sense of gimmick. the players are all young, unassuming dudes--hip, but not hipster. Dan and the rest like rock and tons of other stuff but they don't feel the need to trot that out in Shot x Shot. it's "just" jazz, and that's fucking great.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Clutch the hand of yr creator

i've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: one of my favorite blogs of them all is "Built on a Weak Spot," maintained by one Jonathan Harnish of Missouri. i think i originally stumbled across this site when doing a web search for tidbits about Craw. there was a glowing post about them, which immediately endeared me to BOAWS, and there were a few other things that caught my eye, namely that the blogger was from Missouri (i'm from KC) and that the name was taken from a song by Quicksand, another one of my favorite bands.

but all this is sort of incidental. really what i like about the site is that it encapsulates one of my favorite things about blogging: the fact that there's no obligation whatsoever to be timely. as someone who writes regularly for a print magazine, i have to keep up with what's current, but as anyone who loves music or movies or books or what-have-you knows, that's not always how the brain works. i.e., a lot of the time, the stuff that's most interesting to me isn't timely whatsoever; it's just whatever is grabbing you. lately it's been Fahey and Altman. can't say why--i've just been fascinated by the both of them for a long time now and i'm in a phase where that's what i want to be checking out. anyway, so BOAWS abides by this ethos to a T: Jon basically just posts about whatever band he's thinking about that day, be it a current one or one from the early-'90s heyday of noise/math rock that i grew up amid. his writing is totally unpretentious; really all he's saying is, "check this out, why don't you." but the posts are totally concise and accessible and always equipped w/ mp3 examples. anyway, so check out Built on a Weak Spot when you get a chance.

in honor of this whole idea, i thought i'd talk a little about Clutch, a band that has given me a great deal of pleasure since high school. my friend Drew was the first one to get into them and at his recommendation, they quickly became a staple among me and my friends. we were all super into metal at that time, like Pantera and White Zombie and Metallica and Megadeth and what have you--just super straightforward and for the most part entirely unself-conscious frickin' metal. there was no such thing as the Fucking Champs back then, but there were bands that copped to the absurdities of the genre, and Clutch were pioneers in that respect.

their early music--the stuff we heard first--was brutal and driving, very riff-heavy, with kind of a ferocious hardcore edge. it was played in very relentless, workmanlike way, and the band had this whole sort of iconography and ideology that matched that vibe. there was this blue-collar or hick vibe running through the whole presentation: like their T-shirts used to be these mock-ups of gas-station-attendent jerseys, with a fake name tag that said "Marcus," a reference to their song "A Shogun Named Marcus."

the very earliest stuff, like what you hear on the "Passive Restraints" EP, was recorded before the band really embraced humor. it had this strange ascetic ethos that kind of exalted the idea of manual labor. the cover showed a man working beside an ox in a field and the lyrics had this weird, almost Communist bent to them, e.g. "We'll thresh the psyche and till the pride / Distill the blood, proclaim the gun divine/ Damn the foul ego, praise the promised swarm / We are the ploughshare and yet we are the sword." so there was some pretty weird and kinda overwrought shit happening lyrically, but it was very effective when coupled with the bellowing vocal style and driving, badass heaviness of the music.

as you can tell from the title, the next disc, "Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths," was where the humor really started to become more overt. the cover was a prime piece blue-collar kitsch, as you can see here:

and the lyrics advanced that whole vibe. they were these crazy, surreal and often just flat-out hilarious stories about monster trucks, cola wars and the like. the aforementioned "A Shogun Named Marcus" is a really fun song and got some decent airplay on MTV.

this was the album where vocalist/lyricist Neil Fallon really came into his own as some kind of crazy poet of postmodern pop-cultural kitsch. "Marcus" featured quasi-rapped lines like "Kamikaze backbone / Nine iron spitfire / Continental samurai / Oh my lord / Brown sugar, sweet potato / Sour mash, baby back / Redneck romance, bless my soul," and another song "Walking in the Great Shining Path of Monster Trucks," which became a sleeper fan favorite, began with this great verse: "Well I crashed a Cadillac through the gates of Hell / And returned with a fist full of dollars / And Evel Knievel like Virgil / Was a gentleman as well as a scholar."

so anyway, you get the idea. as goofy as the lyrics were, though, the music stayed pretty much badass and brutal. even though there was a strong emphasis on post-Sabbath riffage, there was still the hardcore-style intensity. that combo of humor and heaviness was really attractive to us at the time. bands like Pantera fucked around and laughed at themselves between songs and on their home videos, but the music was always so goddamn serious and self-important. Clutch lifted the veil a little and made it seem ok to dig metal while at the same time poking fun at the dorky, male-dominated, overserious side of it.

but there were limits to our acceptance. i will never forget the day my friend Adam came over to my house with the follow-up to "Transnational Speedway League," which was simply called "Clutch." he rang my doorbell, handed the disc to me and said simply, "The mighty Clutch hath fallen."

examining the artwork, i could kind of see what he was talking about. the whole package had this retro '50s spaceman vibe and there was a picture of the band in these fake lab coats inside. they were really pushing the kitsch at this point and as i'd soon find out, the music had taken a very large step in that direction as well.

whereas "TSL" was, though very humorous, unequivocally a metal record, "Clutch" was something else: a bona fide psychedelic rock disc, with strong overtones of '70s funk. the whole thing had a very stoner-like aura, and even the production was all retro. in place of Neil Fallon's bark of old was a kind of laid-back drawl and sometimes, a raspy, Onyx-like rap thing. it was a disconcerting change and it made huge waves among my metalhead friends.

i'm not trying to sound like i was all enlightened and open-minded at that time, but i have to say that i don't remember truly grasping what the big deal was. the sound was different, yeah, but i adjusted to it pretty quickly and remember embracing "Clutch" within a week as the most badass record i'd ever heard. i wasn't really familiar with Sabbath, Zeppelin, et al at the time, but i sensed when i checked this out that it was channeling the awesomest elements of classic rock.

the band never really looked back. the next disc, "The Elephant Riders," jettisoned the space theme for a Civil War motif, but the sound was similar: massive, hugely catchy boogie rock with the same crazy, surreal lyrics. it was like they were simultaneously the most badass rock band ever and a parody of said band.

unlike many bands from their era, Clutch is still going strong. they've made a point of touring their asses off and have a huge cult following. they were ping-ponged between a few major labels in the '90s, but now they're on this metal indie called DRT and they seem to be doing fine. pretty much anything you'd want to know is at Pro-Rock, their expertly maintained website. admittedly they haven't changed much since the late '90s and the shtick is a little rote at this point, but the live shows are still ferocious.

i will provide some before-and-after mp3s to give you a sense of the transformation the band underwent, but i just want to share a quick personal anecdote...

my buds and i went and saw these guys like 20 times in high school and college, and we usually hung around before and after the show for autographs and that type of thing. one time they were playing KC and a bunch of my friends went down early to try to chill with them.

i arrived late and saw their bus outside the venue, but my friends were nowhere to be found. so i was just sort of standing outside looking left and right and hoping i'd catch a glimpse of my friends, when suddenly the door of the bus opens and out walks Clutch's singer, Neil Fallon himself. he looks right at me with this really mean glare, points and growls, "Are you Hank Shteamer?!"

of course i'm totally stunned, and i'm like, "Uhhhhh, uh, yeah. why???" and, still glaring, he's like, "Get in here!!!" and points back inside the bus. so i follow him in and through a haze of pot smoke, i see all of my friends in there, laughing hysterically and getting stoned with the band. Neil starts laughing and pats me on the back and in i went. it may not be as cool as the time my friend took shots with Pantera, but it was up there.

so here's three Clutch songs: one is a heavy and pretty serious "before" example from "Transnational Speedway League," and the other two are "after" the watershed conversion to boogie rock. it's all good, but if you put yrself in the frame of mind of a 16-year-old metalhead from Kansas, you might be able to get a sense of the betrayal some of my friends felt when they heard the later stuff.

the last track, "Eight Times Over Miss October," is completely masterful: it's like turbocharged classic rock--referencing the vintage stuff, but in some ways even more enjoyable. check out how soulful and gritty the vocals are--Fallon really evolved into a very heavy belter. hilarious lyrics too. both "Clutch" and "The Elephant Riders" totally rule--i know of no better driving music--and i'm sure you can pick them up from some Amazon vendor for like five bucks. also, do not pass up the chance to see theme live: they weren't kidding when they named that site "Pro-Rock." anyway...

Clutch - Bacchanal (from "Transnational Speedway League" - 1993)

Clutch - Spacegrass (from "Clutch" - 1995)

Clutch - Eight Times Over Miss October (from "The Elephant Riders" - 1998)

It's just... Cirroc?!?

up until just now, i had found YouTube to be wondrous but incomplete. rare clips of Thelonious Monk and John Fahey, Crispin Glover acting out on late-night TV, video diaries of stoned dudes rambling about insects--that was all good and well, but something vital was missing: "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer."

there's little i could say that would do justice to the brilliance of these classic SNL skits, but i wanted to bring up one interesting point. i always thought it was funny that the writers bothered to give the title character a name; i originally imagined it as being spelled "Keyrock," as in, "It's just Keyrock, your honor, and yes, I'm ready." in doing some internet searches, though, i found out that it's actually spelled "Cirroc." wtf??? where does that come from?

as far as i know, the text of the name never appeared on the show, but "cirroc unfrozen" gets 1080 Google hits, while "keyrock unfrozen" only gets like 75. weird, no?

also, note the usage and pronunciation of the word "crevasse" in the opening montage.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The [athlete's name] of [some non-athletic field]

Ted Reichman vowed to step up his blogging and he is delivering. the most recent post on Surviving the Crunch discusses not only his understandable joy in getting Pynchon references but also refers to Pedro Almodovar as--get this--"the Wade Boggs of cinema." i'm always a sucker for the well-timed sports reference.

now i want to figure out who the Marv Albert of cinema is...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Yes, *that* "Popeye"

feeling a bit dreary since returning from KC a few days ago. New Year's Day showers are not helping matters.

do, however, have more good news from the Altman camp, and that is that "Popeye" is a very cool movie. yes, i said "Popeye." in discussing this one with various folks over the past couple days, i mostly have gotten pretty incredulous reactions, for obvious reasons. at the same time though, most people who have seen the movie have a really positive opinion of it. but even those folks are surprised to learn that Altman did it.

from what i gather, directors in the old days had to be able to do genre movies on command. like it wasn't about the director's identity, or the whole auteur thing, but just telling the story and abiding by the conventions of the Western or the horror movie or the screwball comedy or whatever. maybe this is oversimplifying things, but i'm pretty sure there were plenty of directors in the old days--and now too--who just sort of know how to make movies but don't really have a vision so they can adapt to any type of scenario.

Altman has done a fair amount of what you could call genre movies: "Gosford Park" is textbook British interclass intrigue, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is a Western of sorts, "3 Women" is a European-style art film (that's not really an official genre, but stylistically it is), and from what i hear, "Quintet"--which i can't wait to see--is a postapocalyptic sci-fi sort of a thing.

the party line on "McCabe" is that it's a subversion of the values of the Western and while it'd be neat and tidy to say that Altman subverts every genre he dabbles in, it's not really true. which brings me back to "Popeye," which is, in the simplest terms, a cartoony musical. it's not much more or less than that, i.e., i don't think Altman is subverting the material. at the same time, though, it's an immensely enjoyable and well-crafted film.

the coolest thing about the movie is how you really feel like you're watching a live action cartoon. Sweethaven, where the movie takes place, is this tiny seaside town and it has a really cozy yet artificial feel, like a movie backlot. like you get the feeling that you could walk around the whole town in five minutes.

also, all the actors do an amazing job of creating caricatures--they all have these really exaggerated affectations that bring to mind cartoons. Robin Williams is just awesome as Popeye: of course he's outfitted with those grotesquely enlarged forearms and calves, but beyond that, he just animates the character so well, with the ever-present pipe and squinty eye. i haven't read much of the comic book, but he really gets at the--yeah, this might sound a little stupid--philosophical center of the character, which is just sort of "I yam what I yam," as he sings in one of the songs. he's got that kind of blue-collar philosopher vibe, i.e., "I don't know much, but I do know right from wrong."

there's one hilarious scene where Wimpy (you know, the fat dude who loves hamburgers) steals Popeye's orphan Swee'pea and takes him to the racetrack, and Popeye ends up in a whorehouse. he's cursing the immorality of the place, calling it a "house of ill repuke" (he's always subbing "k" where it doesn't belong, e.g. Swee'pea is an "orphink"), and talking about how he doesn't want to catch a "venerable disease." good stuff.

there isn't a bad actor in the movie, to be honest, and even the ones playing bit parts make you smile when they're supposed to. Shelley Duvall is adorable as Olive Oyl; she really nails the physical comedy at the heart of the role: she's all gangly and clumsy and dorky. her pratfalls are often accompanied by silly sound effects like in cartoons. and Paul L. Smith is great at evoking Bluto's blustery rage; there's an awesome scene where Olive Oyl stands him up at their engagement party and he's just getting madder and madder and destroying everything in the house. really awesome cartoon mayhem.

there are tons of memorable tableaux that really feel like comic-book panels coming to life, such as this great prizefight, a chaotic dinner scene, that engagement party, a barfight, all these great, timeless small-town scenarios just teeming with characters like in a Brueghel painting. and it's great how the movie just sort of lapses seamlessly into utter fantasy, like how Popeye does the human-punching-bag thing on some dude's face, or how Bluto bonks Popeye over the head and literally drills him through a dock. the stunts and special effects in these parts are hilarious and awesome, like the actors just suddenly become animated or something. it's hard to describe, but for example, there's this one part where Bluto kicks Popeye down a hill and he starts rolling; in one shot, it's clearly Williams, but in the next, it's a rag doll or something. just a lot of great absurd effects like that.

all the actors really tear into their roles, relishing the chance to mug so extensively. (i wouldn't want to neglect mentioning Ray Walston, who's totally hilarious as Popeye's grizzled dad.) what's cool though is that like a lot of the best Disney movies, some of the scenes are really poignant despite all the silliness. the courtship between Popeye and Olive Oyl is just super cute and fun to watch; there's one of those classic "Lady and the Tramp" moments where they get closer and closer and closer before kissing and it's just really sweet and captivating to watch (the pic above is from that exchange). and Williams and Walston play off each other amazingly in their scenes together; they're just totally inhabiting their roles and riffing on the characters.

the songs, which are by none other than loopy popsmith Harry Nilsson (anyone seen/heard "The Point"? it's his weirdo cartoon--i.e., actually animated--musical about individuality), are really, really odd and circusy and sort of uncatchy/avant-garde. a lot of them are just one word or phrase repeated ad nauseum, i.e., the Bluto theme, which goes something like, "I'm mean--you know what I mean?" or the Olive Oyl song, where Duvall just tunelessly rambles, "He needs me, he needs me, he needs me." the melodies aren't all that memorable (except of course the "Popeye the sailor man" finale, but i'm almost positive that one originated in the cartoon and isn't a Nilsson composition), but the performances are really fun and spirited. Duvall just straight up can't sing, but she makes that into a virtue.

so is it an Altman movie, per se? sooooort of, i guess. Altman loves him some ensemble casts, and this film certainly has one. it also makes use of that overlapping dialogue stuff he's famous for in some of the crowd scenes. but it's more just a really fun cartoon riff; it's not exactly a kids movie--more of whimsical fantasy really. though it drags on a bit at the end, i'd recommend it to anyone who likes smiling. cool to see some of that old crazy Robin Williams too.

there's a few clips from the flick on YouTube (what the hell *can't* you find on that site?), so here's a little taste. this is the "He Needs Me" song. it's a pretty fascinating and poignant scene. as you hear right off the bat, what's going on is that Swee'pea has been kidnapped and Popeye is sulking about it. Olive Oyl is eavesdropping and she hears him say, "Olive was right." this is basically when she finds out he's in love with her. really cute and staged in a really nice way. the clip gives you a real sense of the film's strange, surreal atmosphere--kinda Tim Burtonish almost, but not as precious. anyhoo, "He Needs Me":