Friday, February 28, 2014

Another Friday

Another week and another month gone - I am sorry for the state of this blog. Best intentions or not, I have been very lax in posting here.... Though - I thought I had been a bit more explicit in that post about my hopes to write this year, with comments not only on the history posts I want to do (and will, once campaigning season starts in 1864) but on some of the other things I hoped to do... I guess not... But... I can make plenty of excuses for not posting, some coming down to laziness, some to doing other things - traveling, watching soccer and hockey (the only part of the Olympics I care about really) - but thankfully, a big part of it has been due to a certain non-blogging productivity (as they say in the Corporate World; "productivity" I mean.) I've been reading history, cramming, you could say, for the spring and summer, when Grant and Sherman go off to redeem the United States of America, and 50 years later, when Europe destroys itself and much of the world, though also, in some backhanded way, helps maybe start freeing itself and the world. That's a topic for another day - but WWI and the Civil War are topics that can keep you very occupied.

All right; that is all for now. This is Oscar weekend - I hope to offer some humble something for that... but right now - music, just music...

1. Bob Dylan - I Want You
2. Keiji Haino/Tatsuya Yoshida - Cchjdisoiugpodf
3. Mars Volta - Conjugal Burns
4. Galaxie 300 - When Will You Come Home (live)
5. Blue Oyster Cult - ME 262 (live)
6. Distillers - Hall of Mirrors
7. Melt Banana - His Name is Mickey (live - the live records are heavily represented today!)
8. Gomez - Shot Shot (live)
9. X-Ray Specs - Identity
10. Robert Wyatt - Fragment

Video? A couple songs from X-Ray Specs, live, rehearsal - O Bondage, Up Yours and Identity:

And - not the piece listed above, but - here's Keiji Haino and Tatsuya Yoshida, playing with Damo Suzuki (and others) - what's not to like?

And another performance, rocking out a bit....

And Galaxie 500, live in a high school gym:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Still Winter? Friday Music

Suddenly - it's still February, but the weather has changed. Warm - rainy - like it's jumped a month ahead. I can't complain - I have had my fill of winter. Another storm this week - a very pretty storm this week - icy and shiny snow on the trees, though awful slick slush underfoot. Still - I don't mind winter that much, but I think I have had my fill. Though it won't take me long to start complaining about the rain, if that's what comes next...

Onwards - music - simple random 10 this week, it is. Here goes:

1. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
2. Pere Ubu - Ray Gun Suitcase
3. Second Hand - Rhubard! [Mojo collection psych rock...]
4. Janelle Monae - Electric Lady
5. Fleetwood Mac - I don't Wanna Know
6. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - 09-15-00
7. Devendra Banhart - Dogs they Make Up the Dark
8. Modest Mouse - Convenient Parking
9. Feelies - Raised Eyebrows
10. Big Black - Kitty Empire

Nice set of songs there, in their way. Let's start, though, with something else - RIP Bob Casale:

And because this might be their best guitar song - and - one of the greatest, strangest, covers ever:

From the randomizer - The Feelies:

And Janelle Monae, on Arsenio:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Left of the Dial

This month's band of the month post will not be as long as usual - because I have done it already, reviewing Color Me Obsessed, the Replacements movie. That post is really the model of these posts - right down to the heavy autobiography. The Replacements were extremely important to me - they marked a definitive break with pop music, and maybe most importantly, with the radio. All the bands I've listed up to now (except Johnny Cash, probably, who I discovered mostly through records people I knew had) I discovered on the radio, listened to and became a fan of from the radio, which led me to the records, and so on.

The Replacements were the first band I came to love that I did not discover through the radio. I did hear them on the radio - they got some airplay when Tim came out, and I think I heard Hold My Life and probably Kiss me on the Bus on the radio - and those songs were enough to convince me to buy the new record (Tim it was.) I also saw them on Saturday Night Live - surprised and delighted by that, making a point of watching it... But I was inclined to like them anyway - I mentioned in the DVD review that I read about them before I heard them, in college newspapers, maybe even in Time or Rolling Stone - and even then, I was beginning to find radio too restrictive. I'd heard a lot of the underground bands in college, on college radio, and late night specials on the more mainstream channels - REM, Husker Du, Mission of Burma, SSD - bands I didn't hear on the regular radio, and by the time I got done with college, I was growing restless. The underground bands that did get on the radio later - REM and X, say, or Joy Division - were better, certainly more interesting, than what was being played in 1985 - so by then I knew I wasn't getting the whole story, and had to find it.

If I'd had any money to spare, I'd have done it all quicker, instead of buying half a dozen records a year. But broke as I was, I spared it for Tim (and Candy Apple Gray, about the same time)> That proved the concept. I'll to paraphrase myself: songs like Hold My Life, Bastards of the Young, Little Mascara, Left of the Dial, Kiss Me on the Bus, Here Comes a Regular - struck me, from the first listen, as being the best written songs I had heard in years, as good as anything I knew. The words particularly - they told stories, I recognized the people in them, they were clever, full of word play, sharp, surprising images and turns of phrase, there weren't cliches - or the cliches were jokes, the jokes were funny - they gave us a world. They were set to the music they needed to be set to - and performed with almost unexplainable directness. Loose, almost careless sounding, but still, somehow, precise, sharp, completely committed. And after that, for a year or two, The Mats were my favorite band in the world. They were what I wanted rock music to sound like. It certainly helped that I saw them, right at the end of their Bob Stinson days, a couple weeks before Westerberg broke his arm and they cancelled their tour and a couple months before they fired poor Bob from his own band. Seeing them live - they came as advertised, an odd mix of drunken shenanigans, half serious covers, snarky noise, and those fucking incredible songs, given strange, sloppy, but usually completely committed readings. They were funny and mind-blowingly brilliant at once. They ended up playing Mississippi Queen until the cops escorted them off the stage at closing time. My god, they were great.

And after the Replacements, almost all the bands I discovered, loved, still love, I discovered somewhere other than the radio - and a lot of them, I never heard on the radio. The Feelies I saw live, the first time I had ever heard them; Pere Ubu - I heard Peter Murphy's cover of Final Solution, but otherwise, I read about them somewhere and bought records on the recommendation; The Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets I read about, and they sounded interesting enough to check out - bought a Puppets record; went to see the Surfers without having ever heard them (that will make a lively essay when I get to it.) By the late 80s, even the more mainstream bands I liked I found somewhere else, usually MTV - Jane's Addiction; Public Enemy. (Talk about nostalgia - mentioning MTV makes me nostalgic for the days when people were nostalgic for the days when MTV played music.) In the 80s, though, most of these bands I found by reading - I could lay my hands on half a dozen little newspapers - college papers, indie papers, music papers. Since the 90s, most of the bands I have discovered I have found through the internet - a lot by clicking through the related materials on All Music or YouTube - and magazines, Mojo and The Wire mainly. There you go. It was liberating and still is - it means I am dependent on the amount of work am willing to do to find new music, not on someone else putting them on the radio.

And I was willing to do a lot of work in the 80s. The second half of that decade I may have been broke, but what discretionary income I had ended up at Newbury Comix or the Channel - I bought lots of records, went to lots of shows - national acts (almost all playing clubs - The Channel, the Rat, TT The Bears, The Paradise), local acts - or just bars with a house band of some kind. It was good, and I probably feel as much at home listening to music from that time as any time - Mats and Husker Du, Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers, Feelies, REM (though this is a bit past their time), Public Enemy, KRS-1, NWA, Ministry, The Cramps, locals like the Zulus, Galaxie 500, Buffalo Tom, Christmas, The Blood Oranges... it was a good time, and it started with the Replacements.

That's enough. Let's do the list:

1. Within Your Reach
2. Hold My Life
3. Can't Hardly Wait
4. Answering Machine
5. Color Me Impressed
6. Bastards of the Young
7. Alex Chilton
8. I Will Dare
9. Little Mascara
10. Unsatisfied

Video - start with this, late, 1991, but an early song - I first heard it live, their Pleased to Meet Me tour, post-Bob - they were still good then, but far more professional seeming, and a good deal less interesting. But this is such a gorgeous song - and I went away obsessed with it. It's got Westerberg's way with words - the brilliant twists, sun keeps rising in the west - and the way he twists them live, coming up with new versions, as clever as the originals, sometimes... or - ignoring the originals. Downplaying them in a way that just reiterates how good he is... what can I say.

Saturday Night live - Bastards of the Young:

What a mess by mmr421

Music only version of Can't Hardly Wait, live in 86 - great stuff, which was never guaranteed in those days:

And a very fine live version of Color Me Impressed, 1983:

And finally - Hold My Life, 2013 - Paul and Tommy reliving the old days...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

It has taken me about a month to realize I had my 2013 top ten all wrong. A month, and 3 viewings, have made it clear that Inside Llewyn Davis is the film of the year, and belongs among the best of the Coen Brothers' body of work.

It took the three viewings - some of their films have hit me immediately, some have taken time to sink in - all of them, I think, have gotten richer with each viewing - this one seemed like a fine film on first viewing, but has only grown since. It might be less pushy than most of their films - it is definitely their straightest film. It's not an adaptation, not a parody, not a remake, not a genre picture int heir usual style. It might be a comedy, but it's less laugh out loud funny than most of their comedies - never over the top int he way they usually go. It's quieter, though just as harsh, and just as impeccably made, and just as stylized, on so many levels - carefully composed, as images, as a story - as the rest of their works. It might be their straightest film, but it does continue their method of picking a time and place, a kind of community, and working out a kind of idealized, stylized version of it - here, Greenwich Village in the 60s, the heyday of the folk scene, right about the time Bob Dylan shows up and claims it in the name of rock and roll. I suspect they got that trick from Robert Altman, who always favored it, and gave himself over to it completely through the last years of his career. Like him, they work down into the world - the settings, communities, the surfaces and underlying values, are all integral to their films - they create abstracted, perfected distilled versions of them, that still reveal the world to you. Greenwich Village in the 60s - which provides the details, the specifics of the story, and the characters - though also like nearly all of their films, this one ends up being an Odyssey. A character on an epic journey, that usually does't actually go anywhere (round in circles in time and place) - in this case, a sailor fallen from grace with the sea.

The story is about Llewyn Davis - folk singer; erstwhile merchant seaman; New York native with a Welsh father and Italian mother (giving him an odd look, offering critics room to speculate on what his real ethnicity might be); a good singer and picker, but a pretty horrid person. Broke, homeless, facing winter without a coat, carting around the detritus of his floundering music career (a crate of remaindered records), and then a cat, belonging to one of his benefactors... He is a schmuck, tramping haplessly around New York, couch to couch (the Gorfeins, academics on the upper west side; Jim and Jean, fellow folk singers in the Village; his sister, out in Queens, or the Bronx [I'm not sure which; though I think they mentioned it]; and anywhere else that will have him, which here includes a fellow failed folkie with a couch, and a car driving to Chicago), surviving, more or less, trying to make a living as a musician. Musically - he's good, drawing on the deep well of material the country has to offer - blues, folk songs, fishing songs - but maybe not good enough to carry the material himself? or maybe too morose, personally, as in his musical selection, to get past the circle of connoisseurs who like his stuff. Whatever it is - he's sinking.

And that is the story, really. The film starts at the end, loops back a week or so, and trails him forward to the end again - a journey that doesn't get him anywhere. The plot revolves around a couple things: raising money to pay for Jean's abortion; trying to return the Gorfein's cat; driving to Chicago and back, partly because the car is a place to sleep, and he's used up his good will in NY, partly in hopes of seeing the great impresario, Bud Grossman. All of these are loops - all of them doubles, too - Jean's not the first woman he's gotten pregnant, a fact that has significance in the story; he rescues the Gorfein's cat, loses it, finds it - only to find it isn't their cat; he goes to Chicago in one car, drives back in another one. It's like that - he's on a loop, and going down, though - you can read it how you would.

He's hard to like, Llewyn Davis - but he's easy to feel for. The Coens have a reputation for mistreating their characters - for creating caricatures, people that seem like cartoons - but it seems to me, the more you watch their films, the more obvious it is how much they care about their people. Seeing a film three times in a month will help - you pick up the details, as you go, and you see, I think, the ways they reveal character, reveal facets of their characters. They are interesting - it's hard to find a lot of people in their films that they seem to genuinely hate. Though there are usually a couple - often John Goodman characters, and that's the case here. His Roland Turner, a ponderous, smug, junkie jazz musician, is about as hateful as you can get (though Goodman is glorious at it - the voice, the mannerisms, the timing - he is a master) - but even Turner....

He's a bit of a sad case, I suppose - but there's more, a moment, a detail, that shifts things, I think. It's hard to notice on one viewing (I certainly didn't quite catch it) - when Llewyn tells him about his partner's suicide. Llewyn's in the driver's seat, Turner in the back, both in the shot - and when Llewyn tells the story, you see Goodman turn, wince, just for a second - a moment where he is human; only to himself - Llewyn doesn't see, and he doesn't give anything away - he gathers himself, and goes right back into his asshole act, cracking that you're supposed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, not the George Washington bridge... But it's fascinating. It shows, among other things, how much of the asshole act is an act - a defense against he world. Which makes him a lot like Llewyn, to tell the truth - Llewyn puts on the asshole act to push people away, just as much, and just as consciously, as Turner. But little moments like that one, the way Turner turns away, almost in pain, before pulling himself back together, acting the villain again - make the film.

What makes a villain though - well, take Llewyn. He's sour and selfish throughout, but not really awful - but he does two things (maybe three, though the third isn't quite his doing) that are hard to forgive. He abandons the cat on the highway; he heckles a nice old lady at the Gaslight. They are unforgivable because they are really the same thing - he's punching down; he's attacking someone weaker than himself. It's why you feel his abandonment of the cat more than his abandonment of Turner - because Turner is clearly not weaker than Llewyn (except through his own behavior.) It's what makes Turner so insufferable, as well - he is a bully - taking Llewyn as his punching bag, someone, finally, worse off than he is.

I'm not inclined, generally, to make too much of the morality of characters in film - this guy is a good guy, this one bad - but it's hard to deny that the Coens make morality one of the central problems of their films. They are all about how to live - choices - how to treat people; never simplified, they are not morality lectures - but there is a kind of exploration of human behavior, stylized and anatomized, in all their films.

Take Jean. I have seen more than one comment about her that either abused the Coens for the misogyny of her characterization, or criticized her behavior directly, for being a shrew, angry and bitter. Those are pretty much the same complaint, and both rooted in the idea that Jean is a shrew - angry and selfish and unfair, a slut even. But I don't see it; I don't see her character that way, and I don't think the Coens are quite portraying her that way. Now - she is certainly angry - she is mad as hell for most of the film... But how could you say it is irrational or unfair? Why shouldn't she be in a wrath over Llewyn? how is she supposed to react? Mix in, I suppose, her anger at herself, and maybe the sense that she is punching down - taking her regret out on Llewyn; add whatever she feels about dead and gone Mikey - but these things hardly make her anger less understandable. And seeing the film more than once makes clearer the rest of the story - reveals the world she lives in. Everyone wants to fuck her. Everyone who gets a chance does. A lot of people, one imagines, like Papi, fuck her because they can - she needs them, they use her. Maybe it's less clear at first, but it's more obvious seeing it again, she is living in a nastily misogynistic world - how could she not be pissed? She's a smart, talented woman, that everyone takes for granted, except as someone to fuck. How is her reaction anything other than logical? The men around her treat her as a prop - Papi says it all - but Llewyn obviously thinks so too; Jim is nice and competent and oblivious, at the mercy of hard cases like Papi and Llewyn.

And there's another detail I caught the second or third time around - maybe one I'm reading more into than I should, but still - important, I think. Some time between the night Jim and Jean sing with Troy at the Gaslight and the end when Llewyn sings there, Papi fucks her - and then tells Llewyn, if you want to play the gaslight... But there's a glitch there, isn't there? Papi hadn't fucked her the week before, and Jim and Jean have obviously been playing the Gaslight for a while. They make money for Papi - she doesn't have to fuck him for the gig. Which makes me wonder if maybe the reason she fucks him is to get Llewyn a gig. I don't know - maybe I'm over thinking it - but... It makes the scene when he comes back to town, when she tells Llewyn he can play there (even though he played less than a month before), just a bit more devastating. And turns Papi's line - if you want to play the gaslight - a little inside out. I don't think Llewyn catches on - he reacts with a kind of jealousy and general rage - and he's never quite self-aware enough to think or notice that maybe someone somewhere might be doing him a favor without having him whine for it... and if they were, he'd spit int heir face, maybe... but I can't help it. That scene knocks me on my ass.

And so... One more thing, before I go, about the music, and about the performances of the music... There's an interesting pattern to Llewyn's songs: he is constantly shown singing to blanks. The invisible (smoke shrouded) audiences; his senile father; the impassive Bud Grossman; the junkie Turner; or all by himself (in the empty Gate of Horn, say.) The only exceptions are the rather joyous foolishness of the session (which he does for a buck - the one thing he really does do to pay the rent - and that he insists on bad-mouthing, whether he enjoyed it or not), and the dinner party, where his audience's enthusiasm stops him cold. He sings to the void - and when his audience isn't a void, he fights it. He seems lost when people respond to music - he is lost when the audience sings along at the Gaslight on 500 Miles; he loses his shit when Lillian sings along at the dinner. He uses it to attack Turner, engaging him in a parody of the singalong style of folk singer (he's an anti-Pete Seeger, there - no preaching, none of that will to create a community). There's also the odd fact that his songs get more melancholy the more of an audience he has. He can sing a lively number like Green Green Rocky Road to his hostile car mates, sing bits of Cocaine Blues by himself; but when he has an audience that matters, the songs become all the more grim. Faced with a chance to get a career, impress the important Bud Grossman, he picks the most miserable song he can find, suffering, death, loss.... though also, a song that gives away far more of his inner being than he thinks. (Because another thing this film is obsessed with [without quite saying so] is birth, children, fathers, families - things turn on pregnancies, births, fathers and sons.) It's strange, but to the point. He is comfortable singing to the void; he somehow does reveal, something - pouring his soul into it, singing from inside Llewyn Davis - though the act of connecting to another person seems to fill him with despair.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Friday Random Ten

Another week, another snowstorm, another stretch without much content on this blog - well - we shall see how it goes. It's been an odd month, more productive for me than it would appear here - hopefully something will come of it. Out in the world, the Olympics are starting, but seem more than usually ugly this year, what with the Russian government (and the darker parts of Russian society) doing all it can to show that evil is not a Communist monopoly.... I doubt I will pay much attention this year.

But for now, stick with the better things, like music, and ten songs chosen at random by iTunes - enjoy:

1. Neil Young - The Needle and theDamage Done [iTunes remembers Philip Seymour Hoffman, I guess]
2. The Allman Brothers - Melissa
3. Boris w/ Merzbow - Flower Sun Rain
4. The Meters - Be My Lady
5. Xiu Xiu - King Earth, King Earth
6. Meat Puppets - Roof with a Hole
7. Six Organs of Admittance - They Fixed my Broken Mirror Today
8. Gene Vincent - Rocky Road Blues
9. PJ Harvey - Grow Grow Grom
10. Butthole Surfers - Sea Ferring

And video? Mr. Young, singing on the Johnny CAsh show seems right:

And lacking a live clip of Gene Vincent, here's Chris Thile and Michael Daves playing Rocky ROad Blues:

Monday, February 03, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I don't have a lot to add to the remembrances of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was, without question, one of the best actors of the past 20 years, someone whose presence in a film always marked it. He was a strange figure - had a kind of reassuring presence on screen, even when his characters were boiling front he beginning. And oh so many of them came to a boil, and he could wig out with the best of them. Or - wig out without breaking that air of calm. Strange, but - you can see it through his career. Brant in the Big Lebowski, a put upon lackey, visibly holding himself together on the face of intolerable (and not quite glimpsed) provocations. Up to Dodds, in The Master, working to keep his cool, to maintain his equilibrium, his sense of being in control all the time - until he's not.

All right. I was thinking about him the other day, about actors and directors, and how well he served PT Anderson, and how I hoped he'd make another film with the Coens, or work with Wes Anderson or Quinten Tarantino - those writer-directors who give their actors words to work with,tones and inflections, who use their voices as much as their faces. Because too - more than anything - Hoffman's greatness was in his voice. So this - Hoffman's voice, and his and Joaquin Phoenix's faces - is maybe the center, if not his best moment, his purest.