Sunday, August 29, 2010

1970 Redux

I lost track of Marc Cohn after his hit debut single "Walking in Memphis" which was, holy cow!, almost 20 years ago now. But he has sustained a choppy career over time and being the baby-boomer I am, I was interested in the concept of his album Listening Booth: 1970 in which he's covered several songs from that year. It's an interesting choice of material: some very big pop hits (Cat Stevens' "Wild World," Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed"), some lesser known songs (Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York," Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie") and one of my favorite Motown hits of all time, Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown."

Cohn doesn't stretch much past his scruffy, modern-folky ways here, and many of the songs wind up being pleasant but uninteresting copies of the originals: "Wild World," the opener, is completely bland, perhaps because others have done more interesting versions, and Eric Clapton's "After Midnight" and CCR's "Long as I Can See the Light" are OK. The best of this batch is "Only Living Boy," which uses the same basic Paul Simon arrangement but the vocal is more laid-back than Simon's more emotional take.

Better are the songs with a bit of a spin to them. Badfinger's "No Matter What" is nicely done in a twangy country style as a duet with Aimee Mann; Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" is relaxed but seems heartfelt; the only song on here with which I am unfamiliar is the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," on which Cohn does a nice job.

The two best songs on here are duets. He sings Bread's "Make It With You," practically the definition of mainstream easy listening music, with India.Arie in a way that makes it sound almost like an current indie song. But my favorite is his take on Smokey Robinson's classic "The Tears of a Clown." That happens to be one of my favorite all-time pop songs, a noisy, chugging, upbeat R&B tune; Cohn slows it down a bit, takes away the horn arrangement, gives the chorus a bit of a delayed spin, and sings it like Elvis Costello--with some backing vocals from jazzyish Kristina Train. Overall, this might have made a better EP with 6 or 7 songs instead of the 12 here, but it's an interesting project, and one aimed right at the hearts and wallets of us baby boomers.

Below is a clip of Cohn performing "The Letter" from Listening Booth:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: A into B

AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME: Yes, I'm a little surprised and embarrassed that an Austin Powers movie is on my favorites shelf. The first one was clever in places, but seemed to be crammed with every joke that Mike Myers and company thought of, with no editing or crafting. The third one, Goldmember, felt tired. But this second Powers film, like the 3 Bears' porridges, is just right. You can tell they still left in lots of stuff that maybe should have been edited for a sprightlier pace--my single favorite joke in the movie, when Dr. Evil, spinning around in a chair, chants, "The power of Christ compels you" (an Exorcist reference), seems improvised. Some gags go on too long (like the shadows in the tent when Powers is bending over and it looks like Felicity is yanking all manner of things out of his ass). And now that I’ve seen it several times, I can sense a kind of slapdash feel to the production and editing.

But damned if the 12-year-old boy inside me still doesn't raise a ruckus when Fat Bastard comes on the scene with his shit jokes ("I got a turtlehead pokin' out" never gets old) and gross appearance and his unwarranted ego ("I'm dead sexy!"). Normally a character like this would make me tune out, but it's become a classic bit in my head, maybe because Meyers seems to get such joy out of doing the part. I also like Seth Green, the Alan Parsons Project joke, the swingin' 60s bachelor pad, and the perfect casting of Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner as the young and older Number Two--and the crowning joke might well be the deleted scene (present on the DVD) of Lowe and Wagner in bed together. In this case, the everything but the kitchen sink approach to humor actually works--the 2001 shot, the movie stopping dead for Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello to sing, the Jerry Springer opening. Myers may never make another movie I'll want to see, but I do have a soft spot for this one.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Like most academics, ex-academics, and would-be academics who actually enjoy overthinking their consumption of books and movies, I have a love/hate relationship with Walt Disney. The Disney studio is perhaps the most obvious pop-culture propaganda machine in the world, in terms of setting the bar for children’s behavior, gender roles, and middle-class family patterns. (I rush to note that Hollywood does this all the time, but for a long time, from the 50s through the 90s, Disney was best--and most obvious--at it because all of their product was aimed at two specific audiences: kids and their parents.) I like the craft of Disney movies, but am not always so happy with their content; though I have fond memories of Disney films from my youth, the only other one likely to be on the favorites shelf is Fantasia.

But this film, made at the peak of their 90s comeback, is sheer delight all the way through. It certainly helps that the propaganda messages are less retro than in earlier films. Belle, the Beauty of the title, is a relatively strong female figure who likes books, doesn't like the macho bullshit of her would-be suitor Gaston, and takes it upon herself (without even the help of mothers, fairies, or guardian angels) to save her father, who has been imprisoned by the Beast in his lonely castle. Instead of cute forest animals, the castle scenes are peopled by animate objects (a candlestick, a teacup, a dresser) whom we discover are people trapped as objects, put under the same spell as their master who was turned into a Beast for his unkindness to a witch.

But it's not the plot or characters so much as the musical score that makes this movie special. The music and lyrics, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, feel as if they were written for a Broadway musical, not a kiddie matinee (and indeed the film has become a hit stage musical), with memorable melodies, clever lyrics, and songs that explicate character or move the action forward, which didn't happen much in the earlier animated Disney musicals. The "Gaston" number is especially witty: "No one hits like Gaston/Matches wits like Gaston/In a spitting match, nobody spits like Gaston (I'm especially good at expectorating!)" "Be Our Guest," the song that the castle’s furniture and objects sing to Belle, has become a sort of unofficial Disney theme, and the title song actually became a top 40 hit, but my favorite song from the movie is the opener, "Belle," which introduces the everyday life of the town and the character of Belle as a smart but frustrated person (among the mostly happy and funny lyrics, Belle repeats, "There must be more than this provincial life"). This was the first Disney film to incorporate some CGI in with the hand-drawn animation, but I must say on the big HD TV screen, it was a delight to see traditional animation style bursting with color and style. A charming movie that leaves me humming its songs for days afterward.

Monday, August 2, 2010


In the space of just a few days recently, I discovered the work of two rock singers who sounded alike to me, definitely not in style or genre, but in the pitch of their voices. My partner pointed out to me that both men sang in the baritone range, which is somewhat unusual for rock singers, who tend toward the tenor platform (even though, according to the Internet, most pop singers actually are baritones who sing higher than they should).

One is Ian Curtis of Joy Division, an influential punk band from the late 70s. Curtis and the band recorded two albums and an EP before he killed himself in 1980. The remaining members went on, in a different musical direction, to become the influential techno dance band New Order. Based on the studio recordings, Curtis couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket, but that’s not necessarily a prerequisite in the pop music world, let alone in the punk world. He had a deep, heavy, gloomy voice with shades of Jim Morrison which sounded just right for the (generally) gloomy music of the band--which went on to influence not just post-punk but goth, industrial, and techno music. Even in a relatively upbeat song ("Transmission") whose chorus goes "Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio," you had lines like "Eyes, dark gray lenses, frightened of the sun/... Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight." His monotone baritone had the effect of flattening out all emotions to their sparsest, so dancing to the radio sounded like it would have the same effect as sitting in the dark, waiting for the apocalypse.

The other singer is Scott Walker, who had his biggest success in England as a member of the 60’s pop band The Walker Brothers. [Sidebar: his real name is Scott Engel, he was born in Ohio, the band members weren’t brothers, and no one in the band was actually named Walker.] Their best known hit here is probably "The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore," which has a strong Righteous Brothers vibe. In the late 60s, Walker, fed up with the fame game, became something of a recluse and produced a series of albums of increasing ... I was going to say "eccentricity," but that’s not quite right--he just went his own way, into what I might flippantly describe as "avant-garde easy listening" music, with heavily orchestrated background arrangements not too far from loung music, but lyrics that Sinatra wouldn’t have sung for all the wine and women in Las Vegas: gloomy ("In the unbroken darkness where emptiness empties alone"), abstract ("Play it cool and Saran Wrap all you can/like a 30 century man") and literary (on the almost legendary album Scott 4, a five-minute song which recaps the Bergman movie The Seventh Seal). His voice makes it sound less fey than someone like Marc Bolan would, or less icy than David Bowie would. He sounds like a lounge singer from Mars.

The musical styles of Curtis and Walker are completely opposite, as are their vocal qualities--Curtis' voice is jagged and shallow, Walker's is smooth and deep--but they both conjure up dark worlds of emotional upheaval, and it's not just the lyrics or the backing bands, but the rich shadings of their baritone voices.

Not directly related but interesting nevertheless is the story of how I happened upon these two singers. Both were recommended to me by work colleagues within a one-week period. The colleagues also recommended movies which I saw within the same week: the fictionalized biopic Control about Curtis and the documentary 30 Century Man about Walker, who continues making music further and further removed from the mainstream.