Wednesday, August 31, 2011

90's Hit Parade #34

Bjork - Headphones

I remember reading in SPIN or something at the time that Bjork wrote "Headphones" as for "her boyfriend, Tricky." According to wikipedia, it was actually written to Graham Massey (of 808 State, collaborator on much of Post), "as a thank you for his mix-tapes." But it was indeed produced by Tricky (who also remixed it for the subsequent remix album), so maybe it was written with Tricky, and I misread it. Bjork herself (again, according to wiki) calls it "a love letter to sound. The sound of sound."

So it's a song about falling asleep listening to music on your headphones, and it seems to be designed specifically to be listened to on headphones while falling asleep. The lyrics are the most abstract on the album, and they become less coherent as they go on, observing her own reactions to the music: "These abstract wordless movements/They start off cells that haven't been touched before...I don't recognize myself/This is very interesting." All the while, these round little percussive sounds bounce around behind her. If you've ever fallen asleep with headphones on, gradually losing consciousness of the music as it ceases to be something separate from yourself, you can relate.

Bonus Beat:

Bjork - Human Behavior

A classic 120 Minutes video. This is one of those rare videos that not only goes perfectly with the song, but actually elevates the song. I wish I could explain why, something about the surreal visuals and the way they seem to respond to the rhythm of the song. I looks like something that might be on the TV in a room you enter in your dream. It's a great song, but I swear it's not quite as good when I hear it absent the video.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

90's Hit Parade #35

Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the Name

One of the most overplayed songs of the decade: I'd wager that the first 45 seconds of "Killing in the Name" are more recognizable than the opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But Rage totally earn that place in the 90's canon. They just tower above the lame funk-metal bands like Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz that people thought were hot shit back then, and nobody remembers now. For one thing, Rage understand metal. Tom Morello does what great metal guitarists do: he makes memorable, heavy riffs. His style of duplicating the Public Enemy "buzz" sound uses techniques similar to those Eddie Van Halen used to make the cool sounds on his classic heavy metal records, then he'll drop a crushing Black Sabbath-style riff into the mix. For another thing, they understand funk--check out that walking bassline on "Guerrilla Radio"and try to imagine anything that cool on a Korn record. It's unpossible! And "Killing in the Name" stands out as a great fucking rock-n-roll record, especially in that amazing moment after the guitar solo, when the whole song is climaxing/falling apart while Zach chants "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" until the band comes back in even harder, backing up the fuck you chant. Not only that, but they kept the pace up for three LP's, if anything getting better and harder as they went on.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Funky Tuba

If your kid gets assigned tuba in marching band, and they think it's an uncool instrument, show them this. "Voodoo Chile" kicks in around the 4:00 mark. You can find the studio album, Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, here, courtesy of Mining the Audio Motherlode. Quite enjoying this.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

90's Hit Parade #36

The Drive-By Truckers - Late for Church

Back in 1998, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley hadn't yet developed into the great songwriters they would become (they hit their mark with 2000's Southern Rock Opera). Fortunately, they had a secret weapon in bassist Adam Howell, who contributed this beautiful little tune to their debut album. A classic slacker anthem set in the milieu of gorgeous Appalachian folk music, perfect for sitting on the porch eatin' boiled peanuts and drinking beer on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And when the harmonies kick in on the "I am an angel" chorus...damn, you just never heard anything so beautiful. I probably won't get a second entry up this week, maybe I'll double up next week.


Friday, August 19, 2011

90's Hit Parade, #37

Ice Cube - You Can't Fade Me

I tried to pick a different Ice Cube song. I really did. I listened repeatedly to his three early 90's albums (not that that's any great sacrifice--AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Death Certificate and Predator comprise one of the best three-album stretches in history), but this song is just the epitome of Ice Cube-ness. Yes, this is the one with the line "What I ought to do is kick the bitch in the tummy." It's a disturbing song (although the line is not quite as harsh in the context of the song as when it's pulled out by itself), one that I'm not very comfortable with (which might be the point), and one that was controversial even among the hip hop community of the time for its seething misogyny and violence. I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about it in terms of "violence against women"--for Ice Cube's character, violence is an acceptable way of dealing with anyone, probably the ONLY acceptable medium of human interaction (or at least the only one worth writing lyrics about). This particular song at least sets up some tension: his instinct is to kill the woman, but he knows he can't get away with it. Cube casts himself as the victim here, and I don't doubt that grifters like his female nemesis actually exist (the song may even be based on first-person experience). I see it more as a portrait of an ugly world than an expression of misogyny, but I say that without trying to obscure the misogynist worldview that supports every line of the story.

Speaking of streaks, it's also worth noting that Most Wanted was produced by Public Enemy's production crew, The Bomb Squad, the same year as Fear of a Black Planet (my favorite album of all time). "Cant' Fade Me" is track 5 on Most Wanted, "Welcome to the Terrordome" is track 5 on Black Planet, both are the highlights of their respective albums, so it's perhaps worth comparing.

Fear of a Black Planet starts slow, the sample collage "Contract on the World Love Jam" slowly forming out of wind sounds, revealing a slow, funky beat that finally hardens as it transitions into the mid-tempo "Brothers Gonna Work it Out." Momentum builds through the James Brown funk of "911 is a Joke" and the taught collage "Incident at 66.6 FM," then the floodgates open up and the group lets loose with the full-speed "Welcome to the Terrordome." Chuck D is at his best when he's working at this car chase speed, throwing his complex lyrics at the listener faster than the ear can process them.

AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted starts out full speed, with (following the opening skit) "The Nigga You Love to Hate" and "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" back to back (you can tell the song changes from the brief skit that separates them). Cube is doing Chuck D a bit here (the line "(I'll) never tell you to get down, it's all about comin' up" is a classic bit of Chuck D-style wordplay), but Cube relates to Chuck roughly the same way young Mick Jagger related to Bob Dylan: Chuck's rhymes come from his frontal cortex, Cube's come directly from his dick. On track 4, "What They Hittin' Foe?" the beat drops down to a mid-tempo hard funk, and you feel Cube slide into his wheelhouse. This beat fits his voice. He can throw syllables like punches on the beats. The violence and swagger of Ice Cube comes out hard and percussive. In this mode, he sounds more like KRS-One than Chuck D. "What They Hittin' Foe?" goes by too quickly (1:22, to be exact), then Cube yells "Kick an old school beat," and "You Can't Fade Me" starts up. Now we're even further into the bucking beat, a little smoother, and even more suited to Ice Cube's voice (the next song, "Once Upon a Time in the Projects," goes even further into his territory, but I don't think he rises to the occasion quite as well). As Cube unfolds his ugly little story, we get a clear picture of his character, his violence, his pride, his world. And all the time, this incredible rhythmic performance, his raps functioning not only as the vocal but almost as another drum track. When he talks about kicking the bitch in the tummy, you feel the kick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 8:30 pm, Ice House Annex

Come on out for a night of improvisational comedy!

90's Hit Parade #38

Jane's Addiction - Been Caught Stealing

Jane's Addiction were (along with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone) constants among my social circle during my college years in the late 80's/early 90's. But there was always some discomfort with this song, as often happens when people spend several years thinking of a band as the emblem of their outcast subculture and suddenly see them embraced by the mainstream (and this was just a hint of what would happen with Nirvana less than a year later). The first time I heard "Been Caught Stealing" blasting out of a frat house, I was a bit shocked, but I think the negative reaction is completely wrong. In fact, what's awesome about this song is precisely that it was a hit. Think about it: this is a song about shoplifting that got played on the radio and MTV, that became a big hit, that everyone was listening to. That's so much more subversive than whatever purist underground music you're championing. I mean, people still get pissed off about people "stealing" music on the internet. This is a song about actually stealing actual THINGS! I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty damn cool. (Embedding disabled on the official video, but here it is if you want it.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Notes on Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

While not a great movie by any means, Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds as summer entertainment because it actually delivers what it promises: an army of killer apes going on a rampage in San Francisco and fucking people up. It probably should have been more violent (I'll get to that in a minute), but it really gave me something I've always wanted to see.

There's not a lot of original thought in Rise. Like Avatar, it seems to be a quilt stitched together from scenes, shots and dialogue from other movies (the first half of the film seems almost directly transposed from last year's horror flick Splice). But unlike Avatar, it didn't bore me. The trick, I suppose, is that it made me feel the plight of the apes. I would also add that director Rupert Wyatt has a gift for capturing images that just look cool. They're mostly looted from every other film ever made, but the movie looks great, especially once the ape uprising begins. The classic western image of Injuns rising from over a hill on the horizon looks so much cooler when the Injuns in question are apes. And central to the film is one brilliant image, the one used over and over in the ad campaign, that serves to represent the whole film in a singular moment. I probably don't need to explain further (you've seen the image even if you haven't seen the movie), but it's that shot where Cesar is looking at Brian Cox through the glass of his cage, giving him a blank ape look, then turns around and let's us see a face that displays not only intelligence, but violent rage suppressed into grim determination. This is also the most unintentionally funny scene in the movie. Brian Cox happens upon the apes doing some sort of organized exercise, stops for a minute to watch them...and then just shrugs and goes on with his day. "Apes forming an army, that's a funny thing, eh? Ah well, doty-doty-doh."

I should mention that I'm not really a huge fan of any of the original movies. I mean, I like them and all, they're fine scifi films, but they've never been holy texts to me or anything. In the original prequels (Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the latter of which mirrors the plot of Rise) the stories were parables for the civil rights movement, and some of that carries over to Rise, but it's removed from the social context. Maybe the struggle still continues today, but it certainly doesn't look like it did in the 60's. The original apes films were made when America was still pretty much a battlefield, and those themes resonated with the audience. In 2011, I don't think the images of an ape being sprayed with a firehose, or snarled at by a police dog, or of police in riot gear lining a bridge, have the same resonance for the audience, but the filmmakers seem to think there's something there, and even have Cesar stop a gorilla from killing a police officer, marking him as a stand-in for Martin Luther King. (Again, seems like a huge misstep. My recollection of Conquest is fuzzy, but Wikipedia tells me that during that uprising, the apes killed plenty of cops. This one could certainly have used more blood.) I was trying to square this in my mind when I saw an image that did look familiar from recent memory: the police collectively turning and running from the apes. It reminded me of video I saw last year (can't seem to find that particular clip on YouTube, but here's a similar video) of Iranian riot police turning and running from crowds of protesters. These Hollywood films are made with an eye toward international distribution, and considering all the unrest in the Arab/Muslim world (and elsewhere, in places like Burma), maybe this story will find some some resonance overseas that it can't quite connect with here. (For reference, compare the photo above of riot police assaulting the marchers on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, with the one below of a similar march in Cairo, Egypt from earlier this year.)

Finally, I didn't particularly like the ending. The apes all go off to live peacefully in Muir Woods? Well, it's doubtful that they'll be allowed to do that (despite Cesar's pacifist impulses, they've left a lot of destruction and at least a small body count behind). The military will probably be in to wipe them out soon enough. Or, I suppose, they will be needed for more cruel medical experiments to produce a vaccine to counteract the virus that will be spreading around the globe by the time the second film starts. Regardless, I didn't like this upbeat, pastoral ending. I saw a better one. Cesar should have died in the battle, and with him the pacifist approach to the ape revolution. The apes escape, and after Cesar's dramatic death scene, we see the ugly ass ape from the research lab with the huge chip on his shoulder become the alpha. MLK has been replaced by Malcolm X, and the war between ape and human is on. (I loved the design of that ape, by the way. There's one scene where we see him walking through the crowd during the riots that reminds me of Banksy's caveman image.)

Final thought: is that Draco Malfoy kid doomed to play mean little assholes for the rest of his career?

Friday, August 12, 2011

90's Hit Parade #39

Fishbone - Housework

There are certain sounds that I have an almost fetish-like love for. No matter how mediocre the material, if the Ramones are playing anthemic punk rock, if Black Sabbath is cranking out slow, heavy riffage, if the Beastie Boys are rapping, I'm happy. I'll gladly listen to the worst Holwin' Wolf blues record you can dig up. And as lame and annoying as Fishbone got, as much padding as they filled out their sprawling records with, as corny as their attempts at humor sometimes were, as lunkheaded as their political anthems could be, if they start playing ska, to this day my ears prick up.

Reality of My Surroundings is considered by some a high point of their career. I think the album's too damn long, and contains a lot of just bad stuff ("Fight the Youth" is exhibit A, and that "If I Were a...I'd" shit keeps fucking up the flow of the album). I think of it together with all the other overlong, disappointing follow-ups of 1991 (Red Hot Chili Peppers' Bloodsugarsexmagic, Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Back, De La Soul is Dead...although I have certainly reversed my position on that one...lame records by Butthole Surfers, Ministry, I forget what else). But I'll readily admit there are some real gems buried on it, none better than "Housework," which is almost the platonic ideal of a Fishbone song: the bouncy, manic ska, the dixieland horn jam, the breakdown into 3/4, that cool piano that kicks it off...all just perfect!

Bonus Bonin':

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

90's Hit Parade #40

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Old School

I included this on my best of the 00's post, but it's actually from late '99, so I'm double dipping. If you like the funky, second-line music on HBO's Treme, this captures that New Orleans feel better than anything I've ever heard, and keeps it up for an epic 12 minutes! Horns blast, drums thump, and the whole things sways back and forth like a drunk trying to find his way home from Bourbon Street. This is one of my favorite long-form jams, maybe right behind "Sister Ray."

Friday, August 05, 2011

90's Hit Parade #41

Eric B and Rakim - Don't Sweat the Technique

Rakim stood out from his peers (Chuck D, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane) for his Miles Davis-cool delivery. When the others were working at being as hard as possible, Rakim was laying back, his flow rough but calm. So it makes sense that he would eventually start rhyming over jazz samples. But the duo's use of jazz is nothing like A Tribe Called Quest or Digable Planets. The samples come fast and dissonant. Compared to the Bomb Squad production on Public Enemy records, it's relatively simple and uncluttered, but it has the same effect of overwhelming the senses, and centers Rakim's voice as the calm in the eye of the storm.

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 5 (25-21)

25. Once (John Carney, 2006)
Two musicians meet in Dublin. They form a friendship, collaborate on some music, maybe fall in love, and in the end, go their separate ways. Not really a typical musical plot, and the music isn't really typical of musicals either, being mostly low-key, folky ballads. In fact, there's really nothing quite like Once, which takes the aesthetic of a small indie film and sets it to beautiful music. It just feels...right. There's something about the chemistry of the two musicians, the process of working together to create a song, the way their voices suddenly meld together in the film's signature song "Falling Slowly," that's beautiful in its own right while still being a nice little metaphor for, you know, doin' the honkity-bonkity.

24. The American Astronaut (Corey McAbee, 2001)

I stopped going to midnight movies around the time I turned 30. Can't stay awake through them anymore. But if I was gonna sit in a cold, damp theater after midnight to watch an oddball movie with a receptive crowd, the movie I'd want to watch is The American Astronaut. Written, directed and starring Cory McAbee, head of the indie band The Bill Nayer Show, who contributed all the music, TAA is an offbeat scifi musical filmed in high-contrast black and white on cheap sets. Like most rock operas, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but in this case that's a feature more than a bug, as the story unfolds in a strange dream logic, like something you'd dream after falling asleep while watching an old 50's scifi flick on late night TV. But unlike most rock operas, or for that matter most musicals, the songs are all great: solid, memorable, and extremely catchy. If you did watch this at a midnight movie, you'd remember all the songs the next day.

23. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
The challenge of filming Lord of the Rings is unusual. Making a movie that the target audience has been picturing in their head for 10, 20, 30 years? Yeah, no pressure there, right? The books themselves aren't all that great as literature. Their strength is in how completely they present an immersive world that young dreamers can lose themselves in. It even has maps! (I personally prefer The Hobbit, the story of this guy who just wants to live a quiet life and eat a lot, suddenly pulled into this world of adventure and dragons and magic rings.)

It was no surprise to me that Peter Jackson could pull it off, despite having done nothing on this scale yet. He had obvious talent, as demonstrated by Heavenly Creatures (one of my favorite films), and the rest of his filmography demonstrated all the requisite traits for carrying out such a project: attention to detail, commitment to concepts (and to taking ideas as far as they could possibly go), and a fascination with practical effects. And the results of Jackson and his team's effort is almost frighteningly satisfying.

The films sometimes even improve on the source material. One example: reading the books, I never liked the fact that Legolas fights exclusively with a bow and arrow, even in close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. It just seemed silly, like he ought to have a long sword for this stuff. But the choreography in the films convinces me, especially in the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Legolas fires an arrow at an orc, then grabs another one and, in one fluid motion, stabs another orc in the eye with the arrow, loads it into a bow and shoots down a third orc.

Another fantastic scene is the lighting of the beacons. This scene is in the books, but do you remember it? Well, if you're the type to have read the books 30 times growing up, you probably do. (I never really got through the whole thing when I was a kid, and finally sat down to read them as the movies were getting made. As an adolescent, I always preferred the Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melnibone series, where they'd get right to the violence and monsters instead of having 20 page descriptions of the woods.) But for most, it's not a scene you'd spend a lot of time thinking about. Seeing it, you are overwhelmed by the scale, the incredible distance represented by the path of the beacons, the idea of soldiers whose sole job it is to sit in a station high atop the Misty Mountains awaiting the sign.

So: Extended cut or theatrical cut? Well, for Fellowship of the Ring, I could go either way. The theatrical cut is probably better for newcomers, and contains as much as you really need of the story. The extended cut is for the fans, who just want to spend a little more time in this world. For The Two Towers, you really need the extended cut. TTT just contains too much story. In the theatrical cut, it feels crowded, jumping from plot point to plot point with no room to breathe: thishappenedandthenthishappenedandthenthishappened... For Return of the King, I'll take the theatrical. You lose that great scene with Saruman and Wormtongue, but the movie is too long to begin with (although probably better paced than the book, which goes on for 100 pages after the climax, with all that shit about The Gray Havens).

22. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
In Shane Black's reflexive film noir tribute/sendup, Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief (classic film noir character) who suddenly finds himself cast as an actor in a crime thriller, and subsequently finds himself living through his own noir adventure. The funniest bits regard Harry's constant frustration at the world's stubborn refusal to follow the rules of movie cliches. Shane Black, of course, has a good view from which to write such comedy. He got very rich writing lousy blockbuster action movies in the 80's and 90's before going into exile from which he finally emerged to direct his own script, and a lot of the comedy is directed at himself, the Hollywood process and the movies that ended up being made from his scripts. And of course, KKBB has the advantage of having Robert Downey Jr., a brilliant character actor with enough charisma to be a leading man, doing some of his best work with a great foil to bounce off of in Val Kilmer, a once popular but rather dull leading man who has recreated himself as a brilliant character actor.

21. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi, 2007)
Coming of age is always a bit difficult, but coming of age in post-revolution Iran is a whole other story. Marjane Satrapi first published her memoir in the form of a French language comic book in 2000, then adapted it into this French-language animated film in 2007. The story of a sass-mouthed young girl growing up in a repressive society where everyone is constantly watched, and finding escape through Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden, is illustrated with a beautiful combination of Persian art and cartoon motifs. Persian friends have told me that this is as accurate a portrayal of growing up in Iranian society as they have ever seen. What makes it so awesome is that, even in the darkest, most repressive days of Iran's history, Marjane still sees the world as a teenage girl, and tells her story with playful humor even as the bodies are stacking up, in a way that never feels false (compare to the awful attempt at a holocaust comedy in Life is Beautiful, which never feels anything BUT false).

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

90's Hit Parade #42

Rev. Horton Heat - Liquor, Beer and Wine

OK, first of all, let me say that if you're going to buy one Horton Heat album, it should be his third LP, Full Custom Gospel Sounds (produced by Gibby of Butthole Surfers). This song is from his fourth album, Liquor in the Front (produced by Al Jourgenson of Ministry). Heat is a fine guitarist and a strong frontman, but his rockabilly schtick gets old pretty fast (and even faster when he attempts some kind of lounge singer act on songs like "It's Martini Time"). But I do think this pitch-perfect country song hits the spot. I'm not exactly sure how to sub-classify it, though. It sounds kinda like a hybrid of western swing and honky tonk, but I'm hardly an expert on country and western subgenres.