Sunday, November 30, 2008

iPod Archives: "Holy Man," or the perils of interpretation

In the fall of 1970, when I was 14, one of my favorite records was "Holy Man" by a singer named Diane Kolby. This is her only record to make the national charts, getting to #67 on Billboard. She was signed to Columbia Records as something of a new Janis Joplin (big, bluesy voice), but as far as I can tell, after one album, she vanished from the music scene. According to Internet ephemera, she is currently living in Texas. I have always loved this song; I played the 45 to death, and I have never seen it crop on a CD, though I got a copy off of Napster way back when, so it has remained an active part of my musical life.

The lyrics are interesting: A woman singing softly but dramatically to a man:
"You know you/You're the one/Who said 'I can fly'
I know you/You're the one/Who knows when I will die."

The chorus, fast and raucous, says,
"Let me run down your fingers/Til I melt in your hands
Then lead me into your wisdom/Teach me.... holy man"

I assumed the song was about a woman obsessed with a preacher, and even when I was 14, I assumed a certain ironic distance about the lyrics, as though Kolby the singer was not necessarily Kolby the character, and she was not necessarily "endorsing," if you will, this obsession. (Wow, was I thinking too hard back then? Maybe that's one reason why I never really had a date until college.)

But now I find a homemade video on YouTube for the song, and it's all about Jesus. I find that just a bit creepy, as the song seems to have a certain physical lust at its core. If it is someone singing to Jesus, then it feels like a showtune for a Southen Gothic musical melodrama. Of course, my interpretation is probably just as creepy, like a darker "Son of a Preacher Man." I can think of no interpretation of this song that wouldn't be at least a little weird. But I still love the song, and sing it in the shower on occasion. (I guess that's a little creepy, too.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

iPod Archives: Beach Boys go disco!!

One of the coolest things about listening to the iPod on random (technically, I've got it on alphabetical-by-title play, but with over 2500 songs, it serves the same function as random shuffle) is being surprised occasionally by a song I forgot I had, or hadn't heard in years. That happened this morning with "Here Comes the Night," the notorious disco song by The Beach Boys. They first recorded the song in 1967, and again in a discofied version in 1979 for their album L.A (Light Album). But the recording I heard this morning is the spectacular 10 minute 12-inch-single remix version of the 1979 song. The song was roundly derided when it came out and was not a hit, but I always liked it.

At the peak of the disco era, I was in my late-college and post-college days and I liked the music but never really went dancing (my discobunny days, when I discovered the gay bar scene, were in the mid-80's), so I experienced disco music second-hand, so to speak, in the privacy of my own room, dancing with myself (thanks, Billy Idol) or just tapping my foot. Most of the 12-inch singles I owned were just artificially extended versions of songs with long sections of thumping percussion inserted before the final verse or chorus.

But "Here Comes the Night," while it may have been constructed in the same fashion, seemed different. There were swirling strings, disco whistles, and old-fashioned Beach Boys harmonies in the mix (sounding like space-age 50's doo-wop), and the entire 10 minutes felt like it was recorded as a complete work, not just a 3-minute song that was given an extra few minutes in the middle by a staff of re-mixers. And in fact, if you can read the credits on the single label above, there are names listed for production, arrangement, stings, and synthesizers, but not for re-mixing. I'm not crazy about the gruff lead vocal by Carl Wilson, but everything else about the song just screams creamy disco ultra-pop production. It's the perfect heterosexual disco record, which begs the question of whether it's really disco or not, I guess. But it's fun.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I've had the occasion recently to see a number of current film comedies and I planned on writing a long 2- or 3-part post about the state of the Hollywood comedy in the early 21st century, but then I realized I'd just come off as a cranky old curmudgeon, and that happens enough without me making a multi-part affair of it. Frankly, I know Hollywood is not making movies for me anymore, and for the most part, I've quit taking chances on films I'm pretty sure I won't like. So instead I'll just give a few quick opinions about what I've seen lately.

Just as Jaws and Star Wars are often noted as turning points (for better or worse) in the history of movie blockbusters, so There's Something About Mary was a turning point for me and comedy. I'm over 50 and I still chuckle (who am I kidding, sometimes I laugh hysterically) at bathroom humor--just mention the 90's rock band the Ass Ponys to me and see what happens. But I couldn't finish watching that movie. Not because I'm squeamish (the idea of semen as hair gel makes me smile), but because I just didn't find much in it to be very funny. I want to like Ben Stiller--he seems like a nice guy and I respect his parents--but I have yet to see him in a movie I like. To be fair, I've skipped most of his hits, like the Fockers series, because they just don't sound funny to me. But recently I've seen Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder (pic at right) based on the recommendation of friends, and both left me rather cold.

In both films, Stiller is an cartoonish, egocentric prat (though in Dodgeball, he's also a supporting character and a bad guy) and he's surrounded by similarly cartoonish people. The plots are silly parodies but some of the bite is missing because each film wants, to some degree, to be the thing it's making fun of: for Dodgeball, a heartwarming sports film, for Tropic Thunder, a summertime action movie blockbuster. Yes, I chuckled occasionally in both films. Rip Torn is great fun in Dodgeball, screaming "My sweet dick!!" from a wheelchair when the dodgeball team wins their first game. And Robert Downey Jr. has fun with his role as a white actor who has his skin darkened to play a black character in a film. But both films have cardboard heroes (Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball, Stiller in Tropic Thunder) I never cared about. Blazing Saddles, the granddaddy of movie parodies, is one of my favorite films of all time, but are these slack, bombastic, cynical bores what that film hath wrought?

Other comedies I've seen in the past year: The Simpsons Movie (disappointing), Fred Claus (Oh, Jesus, the pain--see pic at left of Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti, both of whom you'll feel sorry for by the end, if you stick around that long), Hot Fuzz (not bad but too long), and Get Smart (took its action plotline way too seriously). Hell, Iron Man might be the best comedy I've seen lately, and the comedy there is mostly incidental to the action. I still have faith in the Coen Brothers--Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading are all worth seeing, but they're not exactly mainstream laughfests. I also have some mild affection for The Brothers Solomon (photo below), a B-movie comedy with Will Arnett (Gob of Arrested Development) and Will Forte (from SNL), though even there, the dumb humor hit/miss ratio was still too high in the wrong direction.

I am not attracted at all to the recent "genre" of overgrown fratboy films (the domain of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, though surprisingly, I enjoyed The 40-Year Old Virgin) and I haven't even considered the issue of romantic comedies yet, because I haven't seen very many of them lately (I like Sandra Bullock, but haven't seen a film of hers in years). I don't mind "dumb" comedy now and then, but a few "smart" comedies to balance things out would be nice. I'm willing to give some more comedies a chance, but I fear I'm in for mirthless times.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Little Mister Sunshine

I am a little ashamed to report that I am and have always been someone who has a tendency to judge books (and albums) by their covers (and titles--Elton John had a great streak of fabulous albums from 1970's Elton John to 1975's Rock of the Westies, but just because Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is such a great title, I think that's my favorite). Maybe "judge" isn't quite the right word, but a striking or interesting cover is a good way to get my attention. So the other day, I picked up a movie I'd never heard of at the library because of its cover.

Kabluey fits neatly in that "indie films about quirky and/or dysfunctional families" niche which goes back at least as far as 1995's Flirting with Disaster, and hit critical mass a couple of years ago with the success of Little Miss Sunshine. This one concerns a 30-something guy (Scott Prendergast) who would have been called a "slacker" a decade ago--don't know the current lingo. He's schluby, can't hold a job, and isn't the best socializer. In another movie, he might be a serial killer, but here, he winds up being a babysitter for his nasty sister-in-law (Lisa Kudrow) whose husband in stationed in Iraq. She's gotten a job (to keep health benefits for her kids) at a dot-com company which is in the midst of a major downsizing, and she gets Prendergast a part-time job with them, dressing up in the company's mascot costume (on the DVD cover above).

The guy can't make small talk and doesn't get along with Kudrow or her bratty kids, but when he stands by the roadside in his big puffy blue outfit, looking cutely melancholy, like a gigantic kid's teddy bear, he becomes a figure of interest to travelers. Some of the attention is positive, as when Christine Taylor drives by with a carful of kids and asks him to entertain at a birthday party, and some is negative, as when he triggers very amusing conniption fits in Terri Garr, a woman who was shafted by the company he's representing. Prendergast fits in more with people when he's stuck, unable to speak, inside the outfit, and he even starts getting along with Kudrow's kids. A plot develops about an affair Kudrow is having with a slimeball from the company, but the film is at its best when it is simply observing the big blue guy interacting with others.

All the actors are good. Prendergast (at left) nicely underplays his role--you can imagine Ben Stiller or Jim Carrey doing this but with all kinds of overblown tics and unnecessary slapstick--and Kudrow is very good going against the Phoebe grain; the character isn't likeable, but you can feel her pain as she, a bit like Prendergast, feels herself becoming unmoored in her own life. Best of all is Conchata Farrell as Prendergast's irritable boss, prone to yelling obscenities in the empty warehouse that has become her office. Unlike Little Miss Sunshine, this doesn't resolve itself quite so neatly for all concerned; Kudrow gets a happy ending, but Prendergast is left more or less where he was at the beginning. This is one time I made a good choice based on a catchy cover picture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Forever Enya

People who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know that I shrieked in delight like a little girl when I found out that Enya had a new CD coming out, and that it was a Christmas CD. Yes, I know, every Enya album sounds alike; all creamy overdubbed vocals, hushed synthesizers, muffled percussion, and the tolling of ancient bells, all sounding like they were recorded in a huge cosmic cathedral. Each album begins with an instrumental, the second or third song is usually what I refer to a "bippity boppity boo" number (thanks, Tim Lauer), because it's suddenly bouncy and chirpy. Amidst the slow and quiet songs, there will be a song or two in a foreign language (sometimes Gaelic, sometimes Latin, sometimes in a made-up language called Loxian), and some tunes which are rather dark and stormy before the album ends with a long slow angelic fade out.

Her new album, And Winter Came... is not very different from her last, Amarantine, or the one before that, A Day Without Rain, or, for that matter, her first hit album, Watermark, from almost 20 years ago. This one has a theme, winter, or, more commercially speaking, Christmas, though there's only two traditional carols, and one, "Oiche Chiuin," is a choral version of the Gaelic "Silent Night" that she's recycled for years. The title cut, the first song, is an unmemorable instrumental, but things get better from there. Musically, most of the songs are stock Enya, as I've described above, with at least one major surprise, a song called "My! My! Time Flies," which, with a 70's guitar break and a strong vocal, is as close as she's gotten to a rock song. Most of the songs contain winter imagery, and more than half actually mention Christmas.

My favorite, in addition to "My! My! Time Flies," is "White Is In the Winter Night," with its catalog of traditional Christmas colors and images. This could stand an outside chance at becoming a seasonal radio standard--the catchy rhythm and melody put me in mind of George Harrison's "Piggies": "Have you seen the mistletoe" vs. "Have you seen the little piggies." I also like the childlike "One Toy Soldier," the romantic "Stars and Midnight Blue," and her take on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," partly in Latin. I admit I would have liked another 2 or 3 carols; "Coventry Carol" particularly seems tailor-made for Enyaization. I suspect that Enya won't make a lot of new fans with this; those buying it just because it's being sold as a holiday album will probably be disappointed. Though the ratio of peppy songs to somber songs is maybe a little higher than usual, this is just another Enya album, but that's what we fans want.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Christmas at the iPod corral

Exactly one year ago today, I posted the first of several holiday season posts that continued through December 25th. In that post, I laid out my thoughts on the season and on starting to think about it so soon, so I won't belabor the points except to quote myself thusly: "Christmas is really a secular holiday, or more precisely a pagan holiday in Christian clothing. Sorry, but Jesus is not the reason for the season: the reason is cold and snow and darkness and agrarian seasonal cycles, and the need for a little magic and partying and kindness and reassurance in the middle of the darkest and coldest days of the year."

So on to my iPod Christmas playlist. Again, I babbled quite a bit about the kind of Christmas music I like last year; this year, I'll just mention some of the the stuff that's on the iPod. My preference is for three kinds of Christmas music. First, traditional carols in a classical-style, usually a choir accompanied by some orchestration. Oddly the Morman Tabernacle recordings have a bit too much bursting orchestral color for me. I like a better balance, with the voices outweighing the background by at least a bit (Robert Shaw Chorale, Royal College Choir). Second, songs by the old-fashioned crooners. I've got a lot of Bing Crosby, though not "White Christmas," which I don't mind hearing on the radio but I don't need to have as part of my regular rotation. Also Perry Como, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Andrews Sisters, and The Carpenters. Third, new agey instrumental music, with pianos and synthesizers and chimey bells and occasionally creamy layers of background vocals.

The carols I have multiple versions of on the iPod include those I grew up with, like "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "We Three Kings," and carols I grew to like later, such as "Carol of the Bells," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming." As for seasonal pop tunes, I've got Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (the only Mariah Carey song I can stand to listen to), a couple of "Sleigh Ride"s, a couple of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"es, several "Silver Bells," two or three versions of Joni Mitchell's "River," and some music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. I also have the theme from The Bishop's Wife and a little-known carol featured in that film, "O Sing to God." For novelty's sake, I have k.d. lang's raucous "Jingle Bell Rock" from the Pee-Wee Herman Christmas special, a Coca-Cola holiday ad, and a Gap ad from a few years ago that melded "Ice Ice Baby" with "Sleigh Ride" (genius).

I'm not just any old Christmas goober; I won't be listening to my Christmas playlist 24/7 all season long. My holiday moods tend to ebb and flow over the next several weeks; sometime right after Thanksgiving, I get a little tired of it all, but then a week or so later, I'm back in the swing of things. But right now, I'm listening to Bing Crosby sing "Adeste Fideles," even though it's only one day after Veteran's Day and 50 degrees outside. I'll enjoy it while I'm in the mood.

Friday, November 7, 2008

John Lennon, Barack Obama, and Rumplestiltskin

I'm killing two birds with one stone here:

1) When I started this blog, I wanted to spend a fair amount of time writing about music, but I've found that I can't really express myself well about why I like the music I like, especially if it's music that I've known and loved for years. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, REM, The Temptations; damnit, they're just great artists, what more can I say.

2) Yes, I'm happy about the election, but like another blogger I know, I'm not really into the high-fiving. It's a wonderful moment in history, but now I feel like I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping he can really can lead us to the promised land. Still, the last couple of days have been good.

So anyway, my iPod currently has about 2500 songs on it, and I'm playing them all in alphabetical title order. This morning, I heard John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and, for the first time, I actually felt a little teary (in a happy way, like so many folks were on the evening of Nov. 4th) about the election, as though John was singing, "Happy Election! Bush is Over!" Next came the fabulous opening riff of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," and my little driving-to-work high continued.

Then came Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." It's an OK little pop ditty--I have it on the iPod for the double-speed closing section--but I realized I knew every single word of that dumb song, while simultaneously remembering that I almost forgot my bank card PIN the other day at the ATM, and I got pissed off at myself. I had what one of my friends calls my "Rumplestiltskin" moment where I curse loudly and stomp and spin about in anger and/or frustration. Since I was driving, I didn't actually stomp and spin, but I cursed loudly and made a face and wondered if I'll still know every word of this damn song as I lie on my deathbed, recognizing no one around me.

All of which led me to decide to try and post more here about the music I hear on my iPod. I already post each day's playlist on Facebook (much to the boredom of my followers, who are legion), so I won't go that far, but I will try to remember to post about some of the more interesting things that pop up, songs I forgot were on the iPod or songs that mean a lot to me, or songs that are just f**kin' cool. This is a promise and a threat, I suspect.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My favorite political movies: a null set?

While almost any movie can be read as having a political agenda or subtext or aura, movies which take the world of politics as a primary focus are relatively few and far between, and good ones are even rarer. In an obligatory nod to the day, I tried to come up with a list of my favorite political films, but failed to come up with much of anything.

Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is usually mentioned in lists such as these, but as much as I like Capra and James Stewart, I can't warm up to this overdone bucket of sweat and sentiment. I guess I admire Stewart's gutsy filibuster turn, but I don't quite buy it. This feels like a dry run for Capra's later Meet John Doe, a better film though still not one for a top 10 list. All the President's Men is another one that everyone likes, and I guess I do, too, but I haven't seen it since its theatrical run 120 years ago, so I don't remember enough specifics (except that Redford, above, was dashing, of course) to talk meaningfully about it.

Some people pick films like The Manchurian Candidate or Being There as political films, and while they both have explicit political content, to me they're both "fantasies" with political undertones. Feel free to disabuse me of this idea, because I like both films (I love Being There) and would put them on a Top 10 Political Films list if I felt more solid about the "political" part.

There are some "good" movies that could be put on a "political" list, such as JFK, Advise and Consent, The Best Man, All the King's Men, The Conformist, and Bob Roberts, and there are many by non-American filmmakers (Costa-Gravas' Z and Missing, Bertolucci's The Conformist and The Spider's Stratagem, Visconti's Senso and The Leopard). But most of those (especially Advise and Consent and All the King's Men--the original; haven't seen the remake) aren't exhilirating or entertaining enough to watch more than once.

That leaves, for me, three satires, two sharp and cutting and one soft and sweet. Dr. Strangelove is one of the best satires ever, mocking Cold War thinking and the "mutual destruction" military mindset of the time. Some satires are funny and make good points, but aren't necessarily good "art," but every aspect of this one, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is primo, from the various photographic styles to the superb acting all around, especially from Peter Sellers (above) and George C. Scott. Wag the Dog is very funny, if lesser art; we happened to see this tale of a government that conjures up a fake war to divert the public's attention from a Presidential sex scandal right around the time that the Clinton administration was conjuring up an international incident to divert attention from the Lewinsky unpleasantness, so the effect of the movie was startling. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances here.

The last movie is Dave, the cute Capraesque film in which Kevin Kline, a look-alike for the President, is pressed into service as, well, a look-alike when the real President is felled by a stroke. The President is a jerk, but Dave is a sweet guy, and the President's wife (Sigourney Weaver) falls in love with him. It's no more realistic than any 30's screwball comedy, so the satire is not especially effective, but it's a sweet movie with several good performers, including Laura Linney in a small, early role. Now that I look back, the best political entertainment of all, aside from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is probably the TV series The West Wing. Martin Sheen is undoubtedly the best president we never had.