26 April 2007

Those Who Sneer Will Fade and Die

One summer day 20+ odd years ago, I bought Ultravox’s 1981 LP Rage in Eden at the Book Broker for $2. I was just barely cognizant of Ultravox because I had seen portions of their “Vienna” video on USA’s Night Flight, and the reason I remembered them at all was more because I thought their name was cool rather than “Vienna” making much of an impact on me. But when I glimpsed Rage in Eden’s elegant Peter Saville-designed sleeve* and I put it together that this was indeed that Ultravox, I knew I had to purchase it. So I did.

And best of all, I wasn’t disappointed after I pedaled home, fired up the stereo and put on the headphones. Rage in Eden showed that synthesizer-driven new wave music needn’t necessarily be synonymous with shitty bands and singing haircuts (e.g., A Flock of Seagulls, the Human League, Modern English). And even though I can understand why some people might find Midge Ure’s vocal stylings a tad bombastic and overblown, I really like the way he sings on this album. He belts it out like nobody’s business (“We Stand Alone,” “The Thin Wall”), but he can also dial it down a notch for more subtle shadings (e.g., “Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again),” the title tune). My favorite cut from Rage in Eden is easily “The Thin Wall,” a bouncy little number with vaguely sardonic lyrics (“They shuffle with a bovine grace and glide in syncopation”) and mountains of symphonic synthesizers.

So from that day on, I was heavily into Ultravox. About a year later, I got my first job (at Hardee’s (shut up)) and with my very first paycheck, I purchased brand-new copies of Vienna and Lament at the Disc Jockey in Eastland Mall. Vienna came out before Rage in Eden and was Ure’s first with the band, while 1984’s Lament would prove to be the “classic” line-ups final release, as drummer Warren Cann split after its release (the remaining three members – Ure, Chris Cross and Billy Currie – released an album called U-Vox in 1986 but I have never heard it).

Both Vienna and Lament are great records. The former features the epic “Vienna,” of course, as well as more straightforward, rocking numbers like “Passing Strangers” and “New Europeans,” plus stylistic holdovers from their previous incarnation as a more glam/Krautrock outfit with the spoken-word character study “Mr. X” and the sweeping, soaring, cinematic instrumental “Astradyne.”

Lament is a slightly different kettle of fish. The best songs are all frontloaded on Side 1, making Side 2 seem a little underserved, so I took the liberty of rearranging the album’s running order and dubbing a cassette version for myself. Purists will be aghast that I tampered with an artist’s original vision, but I really think my version flows better than the official sequence.

Side 1
"White China"
"One Small Day"
"Dancing with Tears in My Eyes"
Side 2
"Man of Two Worlds"
"Heart of the Country"
"When the Time Comes"
"A Friend I Call Desire"

DMBYSC Special Mix:
Side 1
"White China"
"Man of Two Worlds"
"Dancing with Tears in My Eyes"
"When the Time Comes"
Side 2
"One Small Day"
"Heart of the Country"
"A Friend I Call Desire"

Of course, the CD version of Lament features numerous extended remixes, two b-sides and two instrumental versions, but I didn't have those on vinyl. Feel free to dig out your own copies of Lament and listen to both running orders and let me know what you think.

*In a recent Q/Mojo special edition, Peter Saville rather unprofessionally mentioned that the work he did for Ultravox (and there was quite a bit of it) was phoned in, but I’ll be damned if they’re still not cool-looking album sleeves.

13 April 2007

Hail Hydra, Immortal Hydra

Way back in 1979-80 – can’t remember the exact year -- my dad had a WGBF bumper sticker on his car. He was driving home from work one night when the “WGBF Prize Fan” spotted the sticker pulled him over.

(How a radio station vehicle effects such a traffic stop is unknown to me, but that’s irrelevant to this anecdote.)

The prize van’s pilot dumped a few t-shirts, a Frisbee and a few more bumper stickers on Vitamin J Sr., but best of all, they gave him a “six-pack” of vinyl LPs. So dad came home that night with an armload of promo stuff. I was already heavily into the music by that point, so I was most intrigued to see what records the old man had scored.

Half of them were so memorable that I cannot for the life of me recall what they were, although I do remember that I was dismayed that they all had little notches and holes punched in the sleeves – as I would later discover, this is the mark of the promotional release.

The three that I do remember included some band called Oak, Permanent Waves by Rush and Hydra by Toto. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized that all of the records were by artists that weren’t exactly in heavy rotation on WGBF’s airwaves, and that the station’s largesse wasn’t motivated so much by spreading the wealth as it was getting rid of records they weren’t going to play and were therefore just cluttering up the offices.

Regardless of motives, I was pretty impressed by the fact that a little bumper sticker had enabled someone to score six albums at one pop. I was a little less impressed when dad announced that he already knew a few people at work who would give him a few bucks for the records, as I kind of had assumed he’d let me keep them all. Worst of all, Permanent Waves went out the door the next day, so I eventually had to buy my own copy after I got heavily into Rush in the eighth grade.

But there apparently weren’t any Toto fans where my dad worked, and I was able to hang on to Hydra. The album was the follow-up to their epononymous debut record, which contained the hit “Hold the Line,” so I knew who Toto were, vaguely, and better still, Hydra’s first single, “99,” was in the Top 40, so I had heard it a few times. “99” is a slow, introspective ballad with lots of keyboards. I used to think that it was semi-orchestrated as well, but what I originally thought was a horn section turned out to be synthesizers meant to sound like horns.

Anyhow, “99” excepted, I didn’t know what to expect when I first listened to Hydra, but I dropped the needle and let the magic unfold.

I almost always read the liner notes before I listen to any album, and although the lyrics were included in Hydra’s packaging, mysteriously, only the opening phrase from each of “Hydra’s” verses are presented in brackets for some reason, i.e., [[There was a man]]; [There was a lady]]; [[There was a dragon lord]]. I’ve always wondered why the full lyrics weren’t incorporated, but it made the song seem more enigmatic than its companions.

The song fades in on an ominous orghan chord and then just as quickly fades out on a heavy sound that always reminded me of some big sea creature plopping down out in the depths of the ocean – Davy Jones’s locker made audible. There’s some barely audible humming and other assorted studio tomfoolery before the song properly gets underway...

“Hydra” the song tells a story that any middle school-aged geek would find tantalizing, something about the abovementioned dragon lord, throats getting cut, freedom versus love, all the important stuff. Better yet, its music kicks ass. Although the tune is credited as a group compositin, it’s quite obviously maing songwriter David Paich’s baby. Paich plays keyboards, so the song has tons of ‘em – organ, piano, synthesizers – and they’re all used to great effect.

Next track is “St. George and the Dragon,” and at this point, it seems as if Toto has some kind of mythological creature-themed concept album going here. “St. George” is definitely a companion pice to “Hydra,” although it’s much more upbeat.

Next is “99,” which is a good piece of solid adult contemporary pop craftsmanship with faux-jazz flourishes during its extended outro. The wisdom of addressing a lover as “99” gioves the song a vaguely SF aura, and it turns out Paich was inspired by the movie THX-119. It would have been cooler if he had written it in tribute to Agent 99 from Get Smart. Barbara Feldon was pretty cute back in the day.

Back to Hydra. Side 1 concludes with “Lorraine,” which uses the soft verse, loud chorus dynamic that would be later used to great effect by such acts as Husker Du, the Pixies and Nirvana, none of whom would be caught dead listening to a Toto record. This is not to say that “Lorraine” sounds like Nirvana – far from it. They just share a basic structural similarity, especially if Nirvana had used lots of piano and synthesizers and fretless bass.

Side 2 is the less accessible half of Hydra but it’s still pretty enjoyable. “All Us Boys” is yet another entry in that canon of songs about male bonding, and as a seventh grader, I assumed that as soon as I got my driver’s license, I too would find a posse of rowdy hooligans with which to drink, smoke and carouse. The song is not quite as balls-out as it perhaps it should be, given the subject matter, but as with all the tracks on the album, it is impeccably crafted.

Now, impeccable craftsmanship goes against everything that rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to stand for, but this is Toto, which, it should be noted, was comprised of six seasoned veterans of the Los Angeles studio musician circuit. For example, most of the band played on Boz Scaggs’s big hit records from the ‘70s, and nothing defines MOR slick lite rock like Boz Scaggs. Hell, Paich co wrote “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” two tracks for which I have more of these warm fuzzy childhood memories. Regardless, the band’s pedigree amply illustrates the fact that they could play the living shit out of their instruments, particularly Lukather and bassist David Hungate.

So anyway, after “All Us Boys” comes “Mama,” which serves as a showcase for singer Bobby Kimball’s vocal chops. Although Kimball was ostensibly Toto’s lead vocalist, three other band members take turns at the microphone: Guitarist Steve Lukather sings “99,” keyboardist Steve Porcaro sings “A Secret Love,” and Paich sings “Hydra,” “Lorraine” and “All Us Boys.” Regrettably, it kind of proves Toto’s critics right by saying that I assumed all of the above-listed tunes were sung by Paich because the three Toto guys who aren’t Kimball all have similar phrasing and vocal tones, i.e., they sound alike, which is probably why Toto was always denigrated as being bland and nondescript.

Next is “White Sister,” which is sort of a companion piece to “Mama” – more woman-done-me wrong brought to life by Kimball’s over-the-top wailing (“over-the-top” is not used pejoratively here). The album wraps up with “A Secret Love,” which serves almost as an aural after-dinner mint or something; it’s slight and airy, but deliberately so.

For somebody who has railed against the evils of Chuck Klosterman and the pointless self-referential anecdote, I realize that this entry could have been a whole lot more succinct had I eliminated the whole prize van build-up and written a straight album review, but I felt the need to couch my appreciation for this slice of classic rock heaven with a qualifying preface, i.e., “I was in grade school so I didn’t know that Toto were terminally uncool.” And even though I like to think that I never apologize or make excuses for my tastes, I couldn’t help myself for some reason. Because, well, it’s Toto.

But still. There’s something beautiful and magical about that time in your life before your critical facilities are fully formed, before your adult sensibilities are in place, when your tastes are at their purest, most unfiltered and you’re not too cool to like something.

I’ve written before about my teen years and how I rejected most of the music I liked pre-high school because I thought I was above the pleasures of classic rock and heavy metal, in some sort of adolescent attempt to “put away childish things.” This was before I realized that replacing Cheap Trick and KISS with the Buzzcocks and Husker Du only makes you look cooler to your fellow rock snobs (which is not to say that I never really liked the Buzzcocks or Husker Du -- I'm just using them as examples). In the real world, almost nobody cares what kind of music you listen to. And besides, just as one can appreciate and enjoy both White Castle and filet mignon, so too can one enjoy both the Cars and Van der Graaf Generator.

If you like it, it’s good. That’s really all that matters. And by that definition, Hydra is a great record.

Um, yeah, sorry that wasn’t exactly earth-shattering in its profundity…

12 April 2007

Moment of Silence (Wide Open Beavers Edition)

Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84.

I read Cat's Cradle when I was 14. I stayed home sick from school one day when I was a sophomore and read Mother Night all the way through. Saw him dedicate a library at University of Evansville in 1987 (or was it 1986?). Heck, on this here very blog I list Breakfast of Champions in my "Favorite Books" section. In other words, Vonnegut's books made a big impact on me (and about 12 million other people).

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

So it goes.

10 April 2007

House of Grind

Saw Grindhouse this weekend. I’ve seen more movies in a movie theater in the past six months than I did in the past three years. Earplugs help tremendously – since most movies are shown with the sound pretty loud, you can hear all the dialogue and ‘splosions yet all the inbreds chatting with their companions and eating popcorn with their mouths wide open seem to vanish. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of using them sooner.

Well, anyway, I saw Grindhouse Saturday night and I’ve been processing it ever since. No, it’s not a deep movie by any stretch of the imagination. The only thing deep about it is the dent your ass will leave in your seat thanks to the flick’s 191-minute running time. But the most fascinating thing I found about the whole experience was that I really enjoyed one segment, hated the second, but I can’t stop sulking about the one that sucked.

But actually, the best parts of the whole shebang were the much-ballyhooed trailers inserted before the main features. The trailers worked so well because they all played into the grindhouse aesthetic without having to, you know, construct actual movies around their concepts. My guess is that were, say, Rob Zombie to actually film Werewolf Women of the SS, complete with Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu, it would be a piece of shit. (Speaking of Rob Zombie: If he ever divorces Sherry Moon Zombie, she’ll never work in movies again – she was in the Werewolf Women trailer for about 17 seconds and she was still outperformed by the props, the costumes and the titles.)

As for the main events…

Planet Terror: A success. The story: Chemical weapons are unleashed on a town in Texas. Most people become mutant zombies; those who are immune band together to battle for humanity’s salvation, or something like that. Lots of shit blows up, and Rose McGowan gets a prosthetic leg.

Robert Rodriguez’s liabilities as a filmmaker became assets in this case. The disjointed narrative was still coherent enough, the violence was suitably over-the-top, the dialogue was the perfect blend of knowing satire and pure Velveeta, the casting was damn near flawless, and of course, the whole machine gun leg thing was pretty cool. The sight of badass El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) leading the survivors of a mutant attack down the road while riding a child’s toy motorbike was memorable, to say the least, as was Quentin Tarantino’s melting penis. And Fergie gets killed!

Is it stupid? Deliberately so, but it’s fun, too. Every movie can’t be Children of Men, you know.

Rodriguez also made Machete, a fake trailer starring Danny Trejo as a Mexican hired for an assassination who is double-crossed by his employers. Tagline: “They fucked with the wrong Mexican!” Machete was shown at the top of Grindhouse and serves as the perfect introduction. Sadly, Rodriguez doesn’t quite get the joke – apparently he’s making Machete as a straight-to-DVD feature. Why can’t people leave well enough alone?

Which leads us to Planet Tarantino, a.k.a. Death Proof. Quentin Tarantino’s shotgun wedding of road movies and slasher films comes off as My Dinner with Andre clumsily interspersed with bits and pieces of Death Race 2000. If you haven’t already guessed, this is the one that sucked.

Here’s the nutshell narrative: A trio of sexy, sassy women drive to a bar to celebrate a birthday or something, they encounter a mysterious fellow named Stuntman Mike, who ends up driving his death-proof car into theirs, killing them. Then a second gang of sexy, sassy women drive around talking before Stuntman Mike rears his ugly head, ramming their car before the women turn the tables on Mike, eventually tracking him down, running him off the road and beating him up. The End. Oh yeah, spoiler alert!

Seemingly unaware that movies are a visual medium, the mighty QT fills Death Proof with multiple interminable scenes of various hot chicks talking: driving and talking, standing around and talking, sitting around and talking. What are they talking about? Nothing much at all, of course – viewers are supposed to be so dazzled by Tarantino’s flair for scripting naturalistic dialogue and witty banter that the actual content is irrelevant. Tarantino writes dialog like a jazz cat lays down a heavy groove, motherfucker, and if you can’t hang with QT’s scene, then just shut your motherfucking pie hole and go watch The Queen or else I’ll break my motherfucking foot off in your vajay-jay, bitch.

Or so he thinks. The repartee is actually so clunky and artificial that descriptors like “ham-fisted” and “leaden” don’t even begin to scratch the surface. And there is SO FUCKING MUCH of it. These broads never shut up. Again, it’s a movie: show, don’t tell. Everything else is padding, plain and simple.

Furthermore, numerous plot threads are introduced, built up with extensive dialogue, and then dropped, e.g., Jungle Julia text messaging the dude, the two fratboys trying to get the girls drunk enough to date rape, etc. That's just sloppy writing.

What’s worse is the casting. Sydney Poitier’s Jungle Julia is an unlikable bitch. Jordan Ladd plays… some blonde chick wearing a Tura Satana t-shirt that was put there simply to impress the movie geeks (yeah, I caught it, but I’m omnipotent like that). Stuntwoman Zoë Bell plays… stuntwoman Zoë Bell, and let’s just say that as an actress, she’s a fine stuntwoman.

Worst of all, Tracey Thom as Kim gives a performance that would make Wanda Sykes blush, as it’s full of all the worst stereotypical “sassy black chick” mannerisms and inflections you can think of. It’s like Thom thought she was in an episode of The Parkers, not a Hollywood film, and in fact, it’s actually offensive; it’s such a broad, cartoonish characterization that Tarantino might as well have cast a white woman and put her in blackface.

(Speaking of crap acting, Tarantino himself couldn’t act wet if he fell out of a boat, but naturally, he has “cameos” in both Death Proof and Planet Terror, just like he does in every other damn movie he’s ever made -- remember the meme that was running around that went “He’s an actor, but he really wants to direct?” Tarnatino’s a director, but he really wants to act.)

Elsewhere, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Lee, a vapid actress who is too girly to keep up with the main trio of cool chicks, who drop references to old movies and muscle cars and the difference between Aussies and Kiwis while Lee talks about an ex-boyfriend who liked to watch her urinate (that’s Tarantino being edgy). Lee was obviously written as comic relief, as someone for the audience to zero in on and scorn: “What a stupid bitch! She’s never seen Vanishing Point!” (All the little Tarantino acolytes in the audience have most likely never seen Vanishing Point either, but they wouldn’t dare admit that QT dropped a reference that they weren’t intimately familiar with.) But Lee comes off as perhaps the most sympathetic and certainly the most realistic character in the whole segemnt. Go figure.

Meanwhile, of course, this flick is allegedly about crazy Stuntman Mike and his ultra mega badass death proof car (it’s called Death Proof, after all), so you would think there might be lots of footage of the car speeding down wide open highways, peeling tires and the titular vehicle demonstrating is very death-proofness, but apparently Tarantino thought the gals yammering away about their boyfriends and, of course, Vanishing Point, was way more interesting.

The ultimate punchline is that Grindhouse debuted at a modest #4, well below the expected box office totals it was assumed it would garner. Hopefully this will inspire studios to reign in Tarantino's worst tendencies, which are on ample display in Death Proof.