Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Not arriving

The Old Curmudgeon (um, that's me) says science-fiction movies have been on a steady decline since 2001. Well, since 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. 2001 was widely seen as the first adult sci-fi movie, one that was not intended for kiddies or the feeble-minded. There were no bug-eyed monsters, no blasting laser beams, no buxom women in skintight spacesuits. It made an implicit claim to verisimilitude—we all thought this might really be what space travel could be like in the year 2001—and involved issues of morality and philosophy. This film was thought to be the harbinger of a new wave of SF movies. [I’m going to use SF from here on in, as this abbreviation caught on briefly in the 60s when it was thought it could stand for both science fiction and the larger genre of speculative fiction.]
Now, it looks like 2001 (the climax of which is pictured above) was more a dead end than a new route. Though it was popular and commercially successful, most of what came after it seemed to be a reaction against the direction in which it was pointing. To be fair, the dialogue was (intentionally) banal, there wasn't much of a narrative—and what there was presented elliptically with a wildly ambiguous ending—and the pace was slow. And, of course, it was made by a cinematic genius, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe there was nowhere to go from here except backwards, way back to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers B-movie serials of the 1940s, but with bigger budgets (Star Wars, etc.)

I have followed rather casually the flow of SF movies over the years and though few have attempted to follow 2001 (maybe Solaris and Sunshine), many have stuck to the modified space opera formula of Star Wars. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another genre strand emerged: the personal, intimate SF film, leaving behind the monster scares of Them! and Tarantula, and thecosmic philosophies of 2001, to focus on an individual's personal journey. It may still have impressive SF effects but it often comes down to being about the transformation of one person or family. Examples include Blade Runner, Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian, hitting bottom with the execrable Signs, which was about how God sent a huge destructive alien force to Earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father. Of course, no matter how scientific science fiction stories get, they have to be about people to give us a way in. But instead of focusing on the awe of the science, or the scientific mysticism, or the possibilities of the future—all of which Close Encounters did very well, while still being about people and family—most of these recent films put the SF stuff in the background while foregrounding the personal story, instead of, more or less, vice versa. (To clarify, I like some of these movies, most notably Blade Runner, but am not crazy about this being the "winning" genre.)

I thought that Arrival might be different. The film, which feels like an update of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is about the arrival on Earth of large, hovering spaceships piloted by creatures who can't speak our language. It got rave reviews and is up for several Oscars. The lead actors give very good performances. Amy Adams is a linguist who, we come to believe, is divorced and has recently lost her daughter to cancer, and is sort of sleepwalking through life when she is approached by the military to try and figure out the language of the aliens. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who is part of her project team and with whom she develops a close and trusting relationship. At first, their process of learning to communicate with what they call Heptapods (they look a bit like octopi with seven tentacles) moves slowly, and the researchers in all the countries in which the aliens have landed share the knowledge they gain. But soon Russia and China become distrustful of the visitors and cut off communication. Because of the fear that some nations may use force against the Heptapods, Adams and Renner soon have a very tight timetable.

As the demands of the traditional puzzle narrative would insist, Adams has a breakthrough just in the nick of time. But, as in an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, this solution ends up changing our perception of much of what we thought was going on. No spoilers here, though I will say that I rather liked the twist involving the alien language, but was less excited about how that twist affected the rest of the story. The cosmic "awe" that I thought I was headed for here turns into a kind of sloppy "Awwww…" involving the fates of our characters. I'm sure part of my reaction is just me being recalcitrant and looking back fondly on 60s and 70s cinema which will never return, but I felt doubly disappointed in Arrival because it was so highly praised. I'm thinking I'd better lower my expectations for La La Land.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Take the Fifth

The 5th Dimension was basically a 60s sunshine pop vocal group that managed to outlast the "sunshine" trend and kept having hits into the mid-70s. They had 30 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1976, in a wide variety of styles, but their biggest hit was something of a fluke: a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The lyrics and to some degree the music was on the hippie-trippy side of 60s pop and they never really did anything else like it, even though it was their biggest hit.

I’ve always loved the group, and I own not only the CD reissues of their 60s album but also the 2-disc Up, Up and Away: Definitive Collection from 1997. But I am pleased to add this new 3-disc set, The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles, 1966-1975, to my collection, if for no other reason than it contains the single edit of "The Declaration" by itself as a 4-minute song and not as part of a 10-minute medley. But this set also gave me a clearer look at the career of the group from their non-hit beginnings in 1966 to the end of their chart hits in 1975.

In their first phase as The Versatiles (four songs included here), they were a generic Motown-type R&B vocal group, not bad but nothing special. When Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon signed them to Soul City Records and changed their name to The 5th Dimension, the two men also changed their musical direction to what is often referred to as sunshine pop, not jangly enough for bubblegum but not lush enough for easy listening. They began having mid-chart top 40 hits, most notably with what became their signature song, "Up, Up and Away." Their arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, became more complex, and they recorded songs by two of the most well-regarded songwriters of the era, Jimmy Webb ("Up, Up") and Laura Nyro ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues"). Sometime after the huge success of "Aquarius" in 1969, perhaps because sunshine pop was falling out of fashion, they transitioned to a third phase, easy listening, with strings and slow tempos and saccharine romantic lyrics ("One Less Bell to Answer").

What I noticed listening to the singles (A-sides and B-sides) in order was how their vocal style changed. As The Versatiles, Billy Davis Jr. took the lead part, but through most of their sunshine phase, there weren't really traditional lead vocals; either singers took turns or sang in unison or, often, did both in one song ("Carpet Man," "Sweet Blindness"). There were exceptions—Davis on "Aquarius," Marilyn McCoo on "Wedding Bell Blues"—but it wasn't until the group's third phase, easy listening, that McCoo pretty much took over lead vocals ("One Less Bell," "Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes," "Never My Love") and the arrangements reduced the others to just backing singers. Those above songs are fine, and "Angles" is one of my very favorite 5th songs, but this was a definite move away from the 60s rhythmic sound to a lush orchestral feel, from interesting arrangements involving sitars and tack pianos, and sometimes a political message ("The Declaration," "Save the Country") to a more conventional sound.

The later songs also reveal clearly what a great singer McCoo is. Her creamy voice is on a par with Karen Carpenter's, and with different handling, she might have had a strong solo career, but that never happened. After his Versatiles songs, Davis never again felt as confident as an R&B singer, though his voice remained distinctive. The B-sides allow the other three (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore) to handle some leads and they're fine, but McCoo had the strongest voice, and strongest visual appeal, in the group. None of the B-sides are lost gems but a couple are of interest: "I Just Wanta Be Your Friend" has a loose War feel to it, and "Skinny Man" and their cover of "Feelin' Alright" are as good as any of the hit sides. I still think it's a shame that one of their strongest songs, Jimmy Webb's "The Girl's Song," wound up wasted as a burn-off single released by Soul City to draw attention away from their newer work on Bell Records. Generally, even their most cringe-worthy hits (like "Living Together, Growing Together") are worth hearing, though two of their last songs, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Flashback," are ones I'd skip next time around. Still, 2-1/2 discs worth of great music is a solid legacy for the group.
I would say that this is now the definitive collection of 5th Dimension music, but it's missing two strong songs from the earlier collection, "Orange Air" and "Time and Love." Plus, these are single mixes so most of them sound like mono, and a couple sound a bit muddy compared the album versions. So go ahead and splurge for this and for Up, Up and Away (which has since been reissued as The Essential Fifth Dimension.

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.