Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Another OK comic book movie

I've already prattled on about the surprising fact that, though I loved comic books when I was young, I don't like comic book movies--the exceptions being the X-Men and Fantastic Four movies which are mostly blessedly angst-free. I didn't expect much out of the new Iron Man movie, low expectations being the way to go with Hollywood films these days, and though it's not great, it was more fun than I was expecting it to be. Robert Downey Jr. is not aging as well as he was a few years ago, though the fact that he doesn't yet look like Keith Richards bodes well for him, but he is more than serviceable in the title role as a rich, snarky arms dealer who has a major change of heart when he is almost killed by his own weapons. He is saved when a scientist implants some kind of McGuffin gizmo thing in his chest to keep him alive. Later, he builds an impenetrable suit stuffed with more fancy gizmos to fight the bad guys. Gwyneth Paltrow is her usual unbearable self as the quasi-love interest, Pepper Potts. Jeff Bridges is made to look older and unhealthier than I thought he could ever look--I didn't even recognize him until about 10 minutes after he appeared. No other actors get much chance to shine, though Clark Gregg, one of my favorite bland supporting men, has a decent-sized role. Unlike the Silver Surfer movie, this one gets points taken away for being too long (at 2 hours, it could have a better movie with about 20 minutes trimmed), but you could do worse for mindless summer moviegoing.

Friday, May 23, 2008

3 quick reads in a week

What I've buzzed through in the last week:

Eight Miles High by Richie Unterberger is a history of the folk-rock movement from the mid-60's to 1970. The author repeats himself quite a bit, but the subject is interesting and he has done some good research in presenting this portrait of a musical movement in full flower. He defines "folk-rock" quite loosely, so that practically any pop-rock musician of repute, including Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, can be at least mentioned here. The best chapters are on the mellow singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Donovan, Tim Buckley) and the British folk groups like Fairport Convention. There is a lot of Dylan here but surprisingly nothing about Joan Baez, who was certainly performing and recording during the era. This is a sequel to an earlier book, Turn Turn Turn, which covered the first half of the 60's, and I liked this enough that I'll be checking the first book out of the library soon.

Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles is subtitled "The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes," but the text doesn't quite live up to that nice title or fun cover art of a superhero Last Supper. Given that it's published by Weiser, a leading occult/New Age press, it's not surprising that this is a decidedly occultish take on super heroes. Knowles starts with the Greek and Norse gods, then delves into the eras of Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and pulp fiction before making his sometimes tenuous ties to comic books. There are interesting tidbits here and there, but the book is more like a checklist or a collection of trivia, with most subjects getting little more a couple of pages each. The accompanying illustrations by Joseph Michael Linsner are great, but unfortunately they are of generic superhero figures; maybe it cost too much to get the rights to picture the actual heroes? A fun breezy read but very disappointing if you want more than that, as the subtitle leads you to expect.

The Myth Hunters by Christopher Golden is a fantasy novel, the first in a series. The fact that practically every fantasy novel published these days is part of a series is one of the reasons I read so little in the genre these days. On the eve of his wedding, Oliver Bascombe winds up snatched out of our world and plunked down behind The Veil in the middle of an multi-dimensional battle between mythical creatures (like Jack Frost and a were-fox named Kitsune) and the Hunters who want to destroy them. The exposition is a bit rushed and perfunctory, and the rules and conventions of the Veil world are rather weak in conception. But I do like the atmosphere (set at Christmas in a snow-blanketed Maine), the characters, and the fact that we get two solid story lines: Oliver's adventures mostly on the other side, and the consequences to his family and townsfolk when the battles spill over into Maine. I haven't quite finished it yet, and I can't imagine I'll be interested enough to read the sequel, but it's an enjoyable way to dip my toes back in the fantasy stream for a bit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Words in the way

My recent rediscovery of Marvin Gaye's classic album What's Going On has led me to the excavation of another 70's soul music classic, There's a Riot Goin' On by Sly & the Family Stone. Sly Stone's reputation as a musical genius is safe, but is based on a meager output: five albums from 1967 's A Whole New Thing to 1971's Riot. He made a few more records, but for all intents and purposes, this album was his last gasp, commercially and critically.

I had the vinyl album when it came out; I was 15 and couldn't make heads or tails out of it, so the only things I played on it were the hit singles "Runnin' Away" and "Family Affair," and the seven minute finale, "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa," which is an incredibly slowed-down version of the earlier hit "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." The word at the time was that this was a junkie masterpiece. When I listen to it now, that seems true, but it also obviously became a very influential album for 70's funksters and today's hip-hop artists. Many of the cuts, like the opener "Luv N' Haight," are barely songs at all, just bass-heavy riffs with some stabbing keyboard and/or horn coloring and lyrics that trail off before they're over. Most of the vocals are distorted, and the whole thing sounds like it's being played through an AM transistor radio running out of batteries.

All the peppy joy of earlier Sly songs ("Dance to the Music," Everyday People," "Stand!") is gone, and whether that's because Sly was indeed a nodding junkie through most of the sessions or because he was reacting to the tumultuous times doesn't really matter. This is a dark album, even if you don't pay attention to the lyrics (when you can actually figure them out), but it does indeed sound like a lot of the minimal backing tracks used today in hip-hop music. My opinion about the individual songs hasn't changed much, though I think the slowed-down "Thank You" is truly a funk masterpiece. I chuckled at Sly's yodeling in "Spaced Cowboy," the most upbeat he sounds on the whole album, and I still don't care much for the other individual cuts, but I find the album as a whole quite listenable, and not really dated at all. But be warned that it will not take you to a happy place.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The death of the album

In response to my post on Marvin Gaye's album What's Going On, Tom wrote:

"[I]f everyone buys music on iTunes (etc), will the equivalent of a Sgt Pepper or a Tommy be possible? The album- (or double-album-) length work that shakes up how people think about the connections between songs, as well as songs as individual items?"

My immediate answer is no; the album as we (baby-boomers) knew it--an experience different from just listening to a bunch of songs in one sitting-- is dying and will probably be dead in a few years. But the album as a collection will probably survive in one form or another.

For most of the 20th century, the individual song was the primary format through which music was consumed, first through sheet music, then through singles (78 rpm, then 45 rpm). The album form that we know was introduced in the late 40's by Columbia Records as a collection of songs by a singer or band. Right through to the early 60's, however, the single remained the most important way to get music to the mass audience, and to get songs played on the radio. Most early rock albums were recorded hastily as a way to capitalize on a hit, and often consisted of a couple familiar songs and a lot of filler.

But the Beatles (particularly with Sgt. Pepper) helped change that, and soon albums were often crafted as a whole, and a record company would then try to make hits out of a couple of the songs. Interestingly, Sgt. Pepper, one of the most successful and influential albums of the rock era, had no singles released from it, though songs like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "With a Little Help from My Friends" would become universally known. Since then, there have been many, many albums that work both as a collection of songs and as a whole work, not just "concept" albums like Pepper or Tommy or The Wall, but even less ambitious works in which the ebb and flow of the songs, sequenced in a particular order, adds to the experience of listening to the music. For me, this category would include Joni Mitchell's Blue, Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection, Paul Simon's Graceland, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.

As anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes about the state of music today will know, I blame much of the music industry's problems on its attempt to kill off the single. Back in the 90's, with the advent of the CD, sales of singles had fallen off and labels started releasing "radio-only" promo singles to get songs played, but refused to release them commercially, forcing consumers to buy albums. Now the massive popularity of the mp3 has made the idea (if not the physical artifact) of the single hot again, and is threatening to make the album unnecessary and even unpalatable--why pay for "filler," especially when you can essentially make your own single (choose which songs you like and want to hear over and over again and not rely on a record label to choose for you).

Tom's point, however, is important. For the generation that grew up with vinyl records, listening to an album can be a very different experience from just listening to songs. When I listen to my iPod or to songs on my computer, I never choose the "album" option, partly because I have ripped very few entire albums to mp3. Instead, I like reproducing the experience of listening to 60's era radio, but a radio station that plays all songs I like. When I want to hear an album, I put on a CD. I think artists are still making "albums" which they want to be listened to as a whole (The Decemberists's The Crane Wife, for one), but it's much easier for the consumer to say, no, I don't want to listen the long draggy social commentary song, I just wanna dance, so I'll just buy the dance song and leave the rest of your album alone.

I have to say, it feels kinda fun to be able to subvert the artist despite his/her/their best effort to make me have a full album experience (I love What's Going On, but honestly, I usually skip "Save the Children," because when Gaye howls, "Save the babies," I laugh, which is certainly not the intended reaction--I have nothing against babies, but the cry comes off as a little silly). But I suspect that, when the music industry tried to subvert the singles business, they got more than they bargained for, and now, ironically, it's the album (at least as an art form) which is dying, and in a few years it will come full circle--albums will just be collections of song which were already hits on mp3. And that is kind of sad.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Everything's everything

I've got Marvin Gaye on my mind since watching the PBS American Masters documentary on him earlier in the week. The hour-long show had some good interviews with people like Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson (who, as my partner pointed out, is looking more and more like Lena Horne as he ages), and author Nelson George. Gaye's personal problems, primarily his lifelong inability to please his father, a cross-dressing preacher, were covered in detail, and a lot of concert footage was shown, but missing was any deep examination of his music, what made it different and great.

Gaye is mostly identified with make-out music (the opening few notes of "Let's Get It On" seem to have penetrated the DNA of modern Western humankind as shorthand for seduction, almost to the point where the song is funnier than it is sexy), and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" has been selected by at least one critic as the greatest pop song ever--and even constant overplaying on oldies radio hasn't blunted that song's dark, paranoid power. But for me, Gaye's classic work is the album What's Going On. Released in 1971, it was seen as a collection of protest songs, and Motown's chief, Berry Gordy, thought it would be a bomb, but it was a huge hit which produced three top-10 singles.

Listening to the album now, I don't hear it so much as protest music but as an album of soulful laments about a wide range of troubles and concerns: not just war but crime, pollution, poverty, drugs, race relations, religion, and family. Few solutions are offered, except turning to God and loving one another, but the sorrow and despair expressed in the music and vocals are truly cathartic. Individual songs such as "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" are real classics, but the album should be listened to as a whole, as most of the songs segue together to create a whole experience. Some songs, like "Save the Children" and the seven-minute jam "Right On," even have segues within them, as a driving funky beat will suddenly slow down into a section dominated by lush strings--much of the album has the "song cycle" feel of side 2 of Abbey Road. Mention must be made of the great work of the backing musicians, Motown's Funk Brothers, who veer from funky to jazzy at the drop of a hat, and the fine work of the unknown arranger who made the orchestral sections so intense and effective.

The album climaxes with the brilliant "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," which is basically a recital of problems mentioned in previous songs : "Inflation, no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die." But the hopeful inflections of both voice and music which sweeten the album aren't to be found here until the very end when, after a guttural scream, the song shifts into a brief reprise of "What's Going On" and Gaye finishes with a beautiful, shivery howl of despair. That moment, so beautiful and so sad at the same time, always brings tears to my eyes. I'm glad to have seen the PBS special if only because it sent me back to this album, which I hadn't listened to in its entirety in years. Now I may check out "Here My Dear," his divorce/revenge album from late in his career which was a flop but which some critics now claim is a masterpiece.

Oh, yeah, the title of my post is kind of a dedication to my old grad-school friend Tom McLean who pointed out to me the repetition of the line "Everything's everything!" in amongst the party-atmosphere chatter that runs through the title song; now I can't hear that line without smiling and thinking of Tom.

Monday, May 5, 2008


The new REM album arrived with lots of buzz about how it was their hardest-rocking work in years, going back in inspiration to the early days of Murmur and Life's Rich Pageant. As I've stated before, I like REM in all their stages; my favorite album of theirs is Automatic for the People, but unlike many fans, I've stuck with them through the recent quieter, artsier albums, and I quite liked the last one, Beyond the Sun, which all the critics hated and seems to have sold about 12 copies.

Accelerate is a return to form, of sorts; the sonic atmosphere is like that of the earlier albums, but the melodies are stronger and the recording is sharp and clear, not as murky as Murmur. It's certainly their "hardest" album since Monster in 1994, and I like listening to it in the car, but so far nothing has jumped off of it as a great REM moment for me. The single "Supernatural Superstitious" opens with a hell of a riff, but the lyrics make the song yet another whiny ode to teenage-angst; it's about time Stipe got over the "humiliation" he felt in his "teenage station." As usual, the lyrics are weak, but I'm mostly used to that; the best songs lyrically are the dreamy "Sing for the Submarine" with its references to older REM songs, "Houston," which takes an oblique approach to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and "Hollow Man," in which the singer believes he's turned into the kind of person he hates ("Believe in me, believe in nothing/Have I become the hollow man I see?'). Almost all the songs are catchy, especially "Supernatural" and "Mr. Richards." The album has done well on the charts, but it's not quite the miraculous re-invention it was reported to be.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Favorite summer song of the century, so far

I'd never heard a single song by Panic at the Disco before last month, but when I read reviews of their new album "Pretty. Odd." which all used the Beatles and Sgt Pepper as jumping-off reference points, I thought, I will like this album, and I bought it completely unheard (whatever the aural equivalent of "sight unseen" is). And I do like it, though overall the album sounds less like the Beatles and more like an '00 band influenced by the Fab Four as filtered through ELO, Cheap Trick, Oasis, The Posies, and on through The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, etc.

The problem: the lyrics, which are more ridiculous than average for the 21st century. Musically, the choruses are catchy but the words you have to sing along with are a little embarrassing, like, "I know it's sad that I never gave a damn about the weather / but it never gave a damn about me" from "Do You Know What I'm Seeing?" Even worse, "You remind me of a few of my famous friends / Well, that all depends on what you qualify as friends" from "I Have Friends in Holy Spaces." And the titles of many of the songs have little or nothing to do with the lyrics. But I'm carping about things that no one cares much about these days. There's also a throwaway folk song parody appropriately called "Folkin' Around" that I could have done without.

The good things: most everything else. There are a number of direct Beatles references, such as the Sgt. Pepperish opening, horn riffs used as coloring, and a "Day in the Life" cacophony. But really the band sounds more like a less drugged-out, more high-energy Oasis (though some of the songs, like the wonderful "Nine in the Afternoon," are in fact about being high). And as far as the title of this post, there's a great summer song called "When the Day Met the Night" which I haven't been able to get out of my head for days: "In the middle of summer / All was golden when the day met the night." Unlike a lot of recent pop, this one will probably stay in heavy rotation in my car for the rest of the year.