Thursday, January 19, 2017

Film on film

The title of this book, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, excited me and gave me pause. The good part: a book about the world of people who collect film--not DVDs, not videotape, but movies on film. I know that private collectors have been responsible for restoring missing sections of classic films and in some cases have had the only extant copies of some movies thought missing, so this seemed like an interesting topic. What gave me pause: the word "bizarre." That could be either promising (colorful interesting characters) or threatening (are we talking about mentally ill people here?). As it turned out, they are definitely more colorful than ill. Calvin Thomas Beck, the editor of the legendary horror movie magazine Castle of Frankenstein, is mentioned in passing as being a little like Psycho's Norman Bates, but due to his love for his mother, not for any murderous activities. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a missed opportunity.

The authors, film collectors in one way or another themselves, have essentially put together a collection of short magazine article-length interviews with a number of these collectors, even giving some pages to a couple of famous people (Roddy McDowell, Kevin Brownlow). Some individual chapters are fairly interesting, but what's missing is a chronological, overarching narrative that explains the whole phenomenon: How did the private collecting of film prints get started in the first place? Where do most of them come from--pilfered from studio archives? Duped from theatrical prints? Why were studios, for a time, so hot to crack down on the collectors? (McDowell was the subject of a sting-type operation in the 70s that got a lot of press.) Unless I missed something, I didn't get comprehensive answers to any of these questions. I did spend some time in the company of some unusual folks--though many of their stories are blandly sad--but I wish there had been more ambition on the part of the authors to tell a fuller story.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Real Gone Christmas, part 3

It's 2017 but I wanted to get in a few words about two more Christmas music reissues from Real Gone Music that arrived after the 25th. The music of Italian conductor and arranger Mantovani pretty much defines "easy listening" music (or, for a more pejorative term, elevator music) of the 1960s: a big light-orchestra sound with lush, cascading strings, taken at a fairly slow tempo. Christmas Carols is a reissue of a 1958 stereo version of an earlier mono album and it's exactly what one would expect from Mantovani: big, bright symphonic arrangements of traditional carols. And, as one expects from Real Gone Music, the remastering is spectacularly clear and bold. For fans of this style, this is perfection, though for myself, if I want to hear instrumental Christmas carols, I'll probably opt for the classical style orchestras or smaller ensembles.

For years, RCA put out instrumental easy listening records under the "Living" moniker: Living Strings, Living Brass, etc. The Living Voices were, of course, vocal, and their albums were a big part of my childhood, not because my family ever owned any, but because they were everywhere, not just in record stores but in bargain bins, drug stores, grocery stores, Woolworth's--pretty much any place that ever stocked records seemed to have room for a few Living Strings or Voices albums. As the liner notes to this CD reissue note, the Living Voices was not any one group or conductor, though the entire series of Living albums was under the control of producer Ethel Gabriel. Two albums are included in this Living Voices reissue and they are by completely different ensembles.
The first, Living Voices Sing Christmas Music, came out in 1962, but was actually a reissue of a 1959 album by the Ralph Hunter Choir. The second, The Little Drummer Boy from 1965, was mostly arranged by Anita Kerr, best known for albums in the 60s she produced with the San Sebastian Strings which set the poems of Rod McKeun to music. Had I not read this information, I'm not sure I would have noticed the differences between the two. Both albums have that familiar lush and creamy middle-of-the-road sound, and the selection of songs is par for the course; a few carols, a few contemporary songs. But since I was listening for differences, I did hear them.

The Anita Kerr record, The Little Drummer Boy, is the more traditional one, though the choral sound seems a bit smaller than on the other Real Gone CDs I've been listening to. It's well produced but fairly undistinguished, except for two lesser-known songs from Broadway musicals of the era: "Be a Santa" from Subways Are for Sleeping and "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" from Here's Love (a musical version of Miracle on 34th Street)--versions of both are also included as bonus tracks on the Christmas Mitch Miller reissue from Real Gone Music.

The Ralph Hunter album, however, tinkers more with the arrangements. They aren't jazzy or cocktail-ish; in fact, the tempos are taken quite slowly. But every so often, there's an odd touch. On "White Christmas," a piercing soprano voice noodles wordlessly in the background on occasion. "The Wassail Song" begins cleverly, with a fade-in as though this band of carolers was slowly approaching, but oddly, at the end, a small marching band begins plays, quite merrily but still unexpectedly. There is also an odd little version of "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" without lyrics but with voices almost scatting over the melody.

This album might join my permanent Christmas repertoire, perhaps visited more sparingly than some others. But I've certainly enjoyed listening closely to these albums from Real Gone Music, discovering subtleties and oddities that might otherwise have just slipped through my consciousness like, well, elevator music.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Real Gone Christmas, part 2

Last time, I reviewed four new CDs of reissued Christmas music from the late 50s and early 60s from Real Gone Music. Roughly in order of my preference from best to least, they were by Mitch Miller and the Gang, The Robert Shaw Chorale, The Norman Luboff Choir and The Ray Conniff Singers. Today I decided to test drive, so to speak, my favorite carol, one which all four groups perform, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I'll be comparing them to my favorite version which is from my favorite carol album, Carols for Christmas by David Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Choir and Brass Ensemble. Their version opens with a nice blast of brass though the accompaniment remains fairly subtle throughout. They also sing all three of the verses. I found I ranked the four albums' renditions in the same order I ranked the albums.

The Mitch Miller version begins with a slight bit of music box-like instrumentation but is otherwise acappella, with the voices vigorous and clear. The Shaw version is part of a medley and is fine if unremarkable. On the Luboff album, it's also part of a medley (and they only sing the first verse) and uses full orchestral backing which occasionally threatens to upstage the singers. Of course, the Ray Conniff version, also in a medley, is the odd one out; the choir sounds almost folksy, like the Kingston Trio or the Brothers Four, with a sort of samba beat. It's not exactly unpleasant but it's, well, weird.

This got me thinking about the Christmas music canon and looking at the very traditional selection of songs for these albums, most all of which we still hear over and over again today. The Mitch Miller album has 13 songs (plus some bonus tracks from later projects) and all of them are familiar carols, including "Joy to the World," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "The First Noel," and of course, "Silent Night." For the most part, the same can be said for the Shaw and Luboff albums, though the outlier is "Baloo Lammy," a Scottish carol which I'd never heard before, and which Luboff does two versions of--the CD is a collection of two albums.

Both Shaw and Luboff do lots of medleys which seems like a strange strategy. Mostly, the songs are not melded together, but simply performed separately with a few seconds of silence between them, and they are not typically put together for any logical reason. For example, one of the Shaw medleys consists of the spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain" followed by the Ukranian "Carol of the Bells," the British "Here We Come A-Wassailing" (with a slight variant melody), and "Deck the Halls." Nothing seems to connect them except perhaps that they are all more joyful than somber. But Luboff connects "The First Noel" with "Wassail Wassail All Over the Town," and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Definitely not sure why.

The Conniff CD is the only one in which pop Christmas songs ("White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," etc.) outnumber carols, as befits his jazzy easy listening arrangements, and again, they are all songs we still hear, except for an original, "Christmas Bride," which is actually a decent little pop tune. So my guess is that, just as the 50s made albums popular, they also set in place the modern pop Christmas canon, which does get added to over time (The Eagles, Mariah Carey, Wham!). But any current-day listener will find little on any of these CDs that he or she can't sing along with.

Lastly, a curmudgeonly rant: Real Gone, do you really sell the bulk of your material in brick and mortar music or book stores? I bet you don't; I bet you sell primarily online. Then why do you insist on using that old-fashioned "security" labeling adhesive strip at the top of the CD that requires such work to peel off and then requires an application of Goo Gone (or peanut butter) in order to get the sticky mess off the plastic?? I still buy several physical CDs a year, and it's been my experience that many if not most of the majors aren't using this method anymore, or they're using a cleaner adhesive. Honestly, this will affect future buying decisions of your products on my part.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Real Gone Christmas, part 1

Real Gone Music is a reissue label run by one the founders of the great reissue company Collector's Choice Music. They license music of the past from record labels such as Columbia and RCA and do historical reissues of albums long out of print. This fall, I bought some of their CDs of newly reissued Christmas music from four groups and artists of the 60s: The Robert Shaw Chorale, The Norman Luboff Choir, Mitch Miller and the Gang, and The Ray Conniff Singers.

These albums run the gamut of traditional Christmas styles of choral group recordings of the 1960s (as opposed to solo singer albums). As I listened, I realized that the four here are all examples of different kinds of choral recordings, and as I have no real knowledge of the musical vocabulary used in the field, I'll use my own jargon. The Robert Shaw Chorale's Christmas Hymns and Carols, Volume 1 is an example of the traditional choir, one you might hear in your own church or local concert hall. It's a full sound, numbering I would guess between 30 and 50 singers, and it's given a large, echoey ambience, as though recorded in a cathedral or hall. I would assume their repertoire would be mostly sacred or classical. The voices are arranged and recorded to be well-blended, with individual singers not standing our from the crowd. Depending on the song ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Silent Night") it can be a rather hushed sound, especially as all the songs are unaccompanied by instrumentation, so I had to crank the volume while I was in the car, but this one comes closest to a traditional Christmas Eve album, at least in my house. 3 stars out of 4 for this one.

Next is the Norman Luboff Choir who, despite its name, is more a chorus than a choir. There is apparently not a hard and fast distinction, but the Luboff group sounds smaller than the Shaw group, their arrangements are generally more "popular" in style, and the voices are not as well blended, whether due to arrangement or recording--you can hear the occasional distinct singer bleeding through the choral mix. This CD contains two albums. The first one, from 1956, consists of acapella traditional carols; the second one, from 1964, features full orchestral backing and markedly more modern arrangements, and though it repeats a handful of carols from the first album ("Joy to the World," "The First Nowell"), it also contains a number of contemporary songs such as "Silver Bells" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." As such, it is practically an archetypal example of the 60s pop choral Christmas album. The recording is clear and shiny, and digital cleanup makes it sound much more recent than over 50 years old. 3 stars.

My personal favorite of the four albums is Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch Miller and the Gang. Miller's group had a hot streak in the late 50s and early 60s with albums and a television program in which he conducted a male chorus in mostly old-timey standards; the Sing-Along part relied on printed lyrics provided with the records and lyrics at the bottom of the screen for the TV show. On this album, a few female voices join the men. The carols (all traditional ones) are mostly unaccompanied except for occasional bells or a harp starting a song off. The singing is robust without needing tricked-up arrangements and, again, the remastering makes it sound crisp and strong. 4 stars.

Now, the strange one. The name Ray Conniff always conjured up smooth, easy listening elevator music to me. But this CD, The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings, is mostly anything but. Actually, individual songs could easily slip in and out of one's consciousness without leaving a mark, but some of the arrangements are fairly jazzy, and sometimes way out in left field. The singers are surrounded by a lush and playful orchestra, and the singers sometimes make an effort to sound like they're indulging in impromptu horsing around, as in "Sleigh Ride" when someone yells, "Hey kids, wanna go on a sleigh ride?" and the response is a gruff, deafening cacophony of yelling, and not even particularly joyous yelling. Many of the songs have been modernized; added lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" include, "He had a red schnozzola/It was like a traffic light." I'm not sure I can give this style of singing a name--it's a middle-class white 50s middle-of-the-road jazz chorus? I can't take too much of this in one sitting, but it does make for something different. 2-1/2 stars.

Next post, some musings about these albums and the establishment of the Christmas song canon, and a curmudgeonly complaint aimed at Real Gone Music.

Friday, December 2, 2016

2 Beach Boys

The Beach Boys are by now a legendary band whose vocal and instrumental.arrangements changed the face of pop music in the 60s. Part of their myth is that Brian Wilson was the musical genius whose various beakdowns--caused by drugs, past parental abuse, and the music business--brought an end to the Boys' most fertile period of creativity (1963-1968). While Brian more or less sat out the rest of the decade, the rest of the band, led by Brian's cousin Mike Love, kept touring and remained popular not due to any new music but to the repackaging of their classic material. I've read two books by outside authors about the group, and now we have two memoirs published this season by the two "leaders" of the band, and while Wilson and Love obviously have different takes on what happened, they somewhat surprisingly reinforce the myth in non-contradictory ways.

"I Am Brian Wilson" is Wilson's second book (the first, Wouldn't It Be Nice, from 1991, which I have not read, was not well-received). This is one the better celeb autobiographies I've read, largely because his voice on the page sounds like what I imagine he actually sounds like: a little child-like, lost and hurting (though not self-pitying), but also aware of his success and what his music has meant for his fans. He lays bare most of the events of his life, from his complicated relationship with his bullying father to his ambiguous feelings about his brothers and bandmates, to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his infamous psychiatrist, Eugene Landry, to what seem to be his very rewarding years of the past decade. It's an interesting and briskly-paced read, but also depressing when you consider the great music that Wilson never made, or think about the band the Beach Boys might have become but didn't.

Mike Love, a lead singer and songwriter, is the Beach Boy who has the reputation for being hot-headed and contentious. His style (or his co-writer's style) is smooth and very readable, but he still comes off as a little pompous and not immediately likeable. Though he tries very hard to come off as sympathetic to Brian and his troubles, it seems clear that he carries some resentment about the collapse(s) of the band, and understandably so. This book works best as a complement and corrective for Brian's book--I read Brian's first which may have affected my reactions. Love makes a particularly good case that he was shafted for years by Wilson over songwriting credits, a problem which led to a lawsuit that Wilson doesn't talk about in his book. I also have to give credit to Love for sticking with the group all this time. Without him, the band would surely have ceased to exist many years ago, and even if they haven't made truly great music since the 70s (though I very much like the 2012 album That's Why God Made the Radio), I still like knowing they're still out there plugging along in some form. Both books are interesting, though if you only want to pick one, I'd go for Love's book which is more direct and less fuzzy than Wilson's.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Life and times of a songwriter

Carole Bayer Sager is in the Songwriters Hall of fame for co-writing such songs as "Everything Old Is New Again" (used in a wonderful dance number in All That Jazz), "Heartlight," "That's What Friends Are For," "Arthur's Theme," "Don't Cry Out Loud," and "Nobody Does It Better." But to me, Sager is the woman who sang the quirky little song "You're Moving Out Today" back in the 70s, and who co-wrote some wonderful songs on Melissa Manchester's first few albums (especially "Midnight Blue," "Just You and I," and "Come In From the Rain").

This light and fluffy memoir is fun and easy to read, but it dissipates quickly. She's actually at her best when writing about the songwriting process, but let's face it, many readers will be looking for juicy tidbits about the men in her life, primarily Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach, and she does drop a few gossipy items about both--I had always assumed that Hamlisch was gay and that he and Sager were just good friends, but that appears to be false--though they never married, they were in a full-fledged relationship for years. Though both men were disappointments to her, she avoids making either one a villain--well, Bacharach comes off as quite a jackass, but maybe that's the price of musical genius. She also writes about friends such as Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Allen, drops a couple of gossipy tidbits about Dionne Warwicke, Bob Dylan (yes, she wrote a song with him!) and George Lucas, and it sounds like her relationship with Melissa Manchester may have been a bit strained. I enjoyed reading this but the writing is rather pedestrian, and, as I noted, its contents leave the mind fairly quickly. Still, I'd heartily recommend this to readers of celeb bios.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Girls on and off trains

In at attempt to keep this blog from going too quiet for too long (as it had for most of 2016), I'm planning on writing shorter reviews and comments. Let's see how it goes. I read Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train and found it to be a good, if not great, thriller in the Gone Girl mold of narrative trickery--multiple viewpoints, fractured chronology, weirdly evasive moments when the author is trying to keep information from us without making it too obvious that she is. The story of an alcoholic mess of a woman who gets tangled up not only with her ex-husband and his new wife but also with the disappearance (and possible death) of a young woman who had been the ex's nanny works fairly on the page, but it doesn't quite translate well to the screen.

The voices and overlapping storylines that flowed well on the page feel jerky and artificial on screen. Emily Blunt (pictured) does the best she can with the unpleasant title character, but the other two important women (Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson) seem interchangable--it's a plot point that the two have similar looks but neither one developed a strong individual character to care about. The men (Justin Theroux, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez) are more strongly drawn but their internal lives remain blank--partly because we're supposed to kept guessing about which of them, if any, is a killer. They could have been better written characters and still not given away the game. It's an ugly looking movie as well. The one thing about the film I thought was interesting was how often the train of the title is seen and heard in the background. Otherwise, this is a so-so thriller that I wish was creepier.