Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Western Promises

My friend Abby (with whom I had an absolutely wonderful dance-music performance tonight) says I've been musically flogging myself too much on this blog, so I will now recount my experience with the new Coen Brothers movie. But more flogging is always possible!

These brothers confuse me. I found "Fargo" depressing, "The Man Who Wasn't There" irritating and "Raising Arizona" delightful. I'll enjoy one of their films for awhile and then a new character, plot twist or set piece will be thrown in that clashes with everything else. They also often venture into emotionally twisted, dark corners that I don't necessarily want to explore for two hours. So I wasn't sure about seeing "No Country For Old Men," but figured I'd give it a shot, since I'm a sucker for contemporary westerns (Extreme Prejudice, El Mariachi, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) and their revisionist cousins (El Topo, Unforgiven, Dead Man.)

Surprisingly, I liked the film right away. There was no typical Coen quirkiness that I sometimes find distracting. The film, which basically outlines the trajectory of a desert drug deal gone wrong, took its time with each scene, but kept the characters and plot developing steadily. I could see with it's stark landscape and deliberate, yet unhuried pace,

"No Country For Old Men" had placed its dusty feet in the slow-paced, rural crime narratives and morally-ambiguous westerns established by films like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Electra Glide in Blue, and The Wild Bunch. From the very first frame, the Coens were clearly and successfully continuing the genre play of these earlier films. In addition, the script and actors had just enough personality in the characters to give them all different shades of humanity and moral intention. And there was no musical score, which I actually thought was a great choice by the Coens. Without music, I was more interested in the minutae of character movement, body language and cinematography. So for most of the film, I was truly engaged in the experience of this quietly detailed, unfolding narrative.

But at the end, the Coen Brothers decided they needed to inject some greater "meaning" into their story. Which is something they often seem to unwisely do in their films. Without giving away any detail (don't worry, no spoilers,) it finishes with a rumination on the affects of choosing work on both ends of the law. A quick series of character scenes verbally and physically express ideas of duty, vocation, luck and violence that were better implied by the actions of the characters. To me, this ending not only broke the "show don't tell" rule of storytelling, but also disrupted the film's natural pace. The actions of the characters took me on a visual meditation from sand-drenched to beautifully benign scenery while encouraging a reflection on the ways in which the violence of men is dealt with by different generations. Those ideas did not need explicit explanation or further symbolic association. So while I enjoyed the slow and bloody burn of "No Country For Old Men," the Coens ultimately opted for a density of ideas over a clarity of vision.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pre-Holiday Shred

Red Lights played last weekend at this weird bar in Tribeca. It was a decent size, but didn't seem to have regular customers and the sound was (as usual) crappy. Luckily Jared (the promoter and guitar player in Shrine of the Black Madonna) brought in some peeps. We played ok, definitely better than the Halloween show. But this line-up could use a few more gigs to really gel. I just wish we could hone our chops somewhere besides the bottom-feeder, NYC rock club circuit.

There was one nice moment of guitar wankery at the show, captured by my pal Alan Roth:

Right now I'm knee-deep in the world of recorded material. The Red Lights to Rio tunes should be mastered soon and I'm finishing up a solo ep of my Evan Patrick stuff. I'm also editing sound and performing live (along with cornetist and fellow blogger Taylor Ho Bynum) for a dance piece by my friends Abby and Pei Pei, which will be performed this Monday at Judson Church. And it's FREE!

Have a good Thanksgiving/stick it to the red man/nice family time/long weekend!!!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The....Will Not Be Televised

I was just skimming the blogosphere (ick) and hit upon this hip hop/culture page that managed to irk me in less than a minute by connecting the world "texture" of MIA to the fourth season of The Wire. Ok, kinda of a neat idea, but...

Liberal Sheep "BAAAAA BAAAAA" ENOUGH of MIA and THE WIRE already!!!!!

Fake culture music and a lefty tv show on a major cable network do not make a revolution.

You know what's revolutionary...

Fugazi charging $5.00/ticket for every show they ever played, whether it was a basement or a 2,000 seat venue.

Not having a tv

None of which is to imply that I'm leading a revolutionary lifestyle. "Nip/Tuck" and "Prison Break" are staples in our household. But I will say there is a no MIA clause in the apartment.

Sorry, just ranting off again.

Day Off

So I was back to daylight today, and decided to take Vera to the movies (a night owl's twisted logic.) There are a bunch of crime flicks out right now that I've been jonesing to see, and Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" was at the top of my list.

I'm a big 1970's/early 1980's film fan and Lumet pretty much owned crime/political procedurals with classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network and The Verdict. His films always featured nuanced performances and complex spins on morality. So I was pretty excited about him doing a caper picture with the interesting cast of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei. But it didn't work.

In Lumet's defense, this was largely due to the script, which structured the action in the already overused formula of the fractured narrative. You know, films like "Resevoir Dogs," "Memento," "Amores Perros" that jump back and forth through time to accent different character motivations and plot twists. The film used this structure and crashed a bad 90's heist film into a daddy-issue melodrama. It wasn't just the narrative that was split, it was the whole movie.

Lumet's strength has always been executing a straightforward narrative at a slow burn, throwing in some moral curveballs and filling it out with strong performances. He got the performances (especially Hoffman, who does a frightening quiet rage) but they're wasted on a pedestrian storyline that doesn't quite work as a caper or a family drama.

Lumet's 83, so I don't know how many more films he has left to make. But hopefully he can return to the hushed, wood-paneled courtrooms and skittish NYC streets of his finer work.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In the trenches....

I'm here on the last evening of mixing tracks for the upcoming Red Lights to Rio album. Everything's sounding really lush and that's pretty much all due to the great engineering of Scott Harding. Scott has worked with a diverse range of artists, from Wu Tang Clan to The Dears. He has not only made my sonic ideas happen, but has thrown in some new ones that have totally enhanced the tunes. Hopefully a label, manager or booking agent will also find it interesting. Fingers crossed.

We've been working 10-12 hour days since Thursday, a lot of which for me has been spent sitting on the couch and just listening. During that time, I've been crafting a response to the New Yorker article by Sasha Frere-Jones called "A Whiter Shade of Pale." The article is basically a theory to explain why most contemporary indie rock (and rock in general) often lacks any real elements “blackness.” I figured I should chime in before the article completely fades from public memory. So here goes...

In the article, Mr. Frere-Jones outlines the well-traveled history of entangled cultural influence between black and white musicians. The usual suspects are mentioned (spirituals, folk music, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin,) and he marks 1990’s west coast hip hop as a turning point in this tradition of musical dialogue. According to Mr. Frere-Jones, the inclusion of live instruments played with a murky slink on “The Chronic” ignited regional competition that led to a splintering of the hip hop, which then spilled over into splintering rock. This new regionalism (also spurred by a decrease in the use of samples,) combined with the growing trend in academic discourse of examining how culture and systems of power are created, made it harder for white people to imitate or interpret black music, unless done with irony (The Beastie Boys) or total mastery (Eminem.) While this is an interesting idea, the turning point in my opinion actually came at the end of the 1970’s. Up until that time, rock and roll had always been intimately tied to the blues. But two things happened at that time which broke with this tradition – punk and heavy metal.

Now I know people always say that bands like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer were heavy metal. But those early heavy bands were “riffing” on the blues (Black Sabbath included) and heavy metal is not about the blues. It’s about theatrical bombast, explicit sexuality (not double entendres) and chord progressions that do not rely upon repetition or call-and-response structures. Metal really took off at the end of the 1970s, when the arena rock torch was passed from blues-based acts like Zeppelin and Aerosmith to more aggressive bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC. Unlike their blues forbearers, these new bands were not going down to the electric crossroads looking for redemption. They were perfectly happy to remain in sin. And this decadent party of virtuosity had no time for soul-searching. In the 1980’s, the outrageous onslaught continued with arrival of hair metal. The preeminent guitarist of that genre, Eddie Van Halen, has been quoted as saying that Jimi Hendrix was not a major influence to him. And while that’s an incendiary comment for any guitarist to make, Mr. Van Halen’s style backs the claim. The clean precision in his phrasing is antithetical to the muddied, deep string bends of the blues. This isn’t to say that the blues is inherently sloppy, but it certainly allows for a sloppiness in execution and emotion that is not found in heavy metal, which strives for perfection.

As heavy metal grew in the arenas, punk rock started gritting its teeth in the gutter as a response to the meticulous pomp of the various arena rock styles (heavy metal, prog, pop rock.) By emphasizing simple and raw emotion coupled with an attitude of playing for the moment, punk shunned (at least in image) any concessions to professionalism or the audience. While one could argue that this element of rawness shares a certain spirit with the blues, the difference is that punk’s adamant amateurism limited the ability of its musicians to be traditionally expressive on their instruments. And technical expertise (oral and/or notated) used for personal expression is a critical component to all of Black music. But punk musicians developed their own, non-traditional techniques of instrumental expression, which were eventually incorporated into the process of songwriting and became the foundation of post-punk. Interestingly, post-punk initially embraced the black rhythms of reggae, hip-hop and funk. But the genres that followed in its wake (new romantic, noise rock, math rock) kept post-punk’s urban malaise and sonic exploration while eschewing its rhythmic sensibility and emotional tone. So unlike Mr. Frere-Jones’s assertion, rock music had been splintering since the 1980’s. It was simply in the next decade that this splintering cut to the surface of public awareness.

In the 1990’s, exchanges between “black" and "white” music in the field of rock had been replaced by an intricate tapestry of subgenre. There was hardcore and straight-edge hardcore, indie rock and indie pop, hair metal and death metal, etc. People were constantly cutting and pasting different styles and sounds together, burrowing into established genres to make new ones. In his article, Mr. Frere-Jones describes these phenomena as a unique development in hip hop. In reality, lines were being drawn all over the musical and cultural map. The music market became a series of interlocking niches. And these niches did not necessarily have to be (or want to be) associated with black music in order to establish credibility, an identity or an agenda.

In addition, the ease of mass-producing cds (independently and thru labels,) the growing market of music downloading and the developments in digital recording had begun to make it easier to own, create and distribute music. Having this kind of access diminished the role of the fetish-like music object (record, tape or cd.) There was no longer much of a demand to browse through liner notes, read lyrics or examine cover art. So the rarified nature of owning black music on vinyl that drew rock bands (especially in England) in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s to dialogue with its form became a vestige of an earlier age. An overall emphasis shifted from using a knowledge of black music as a guide for creating rock to having an erudite knowledge of all music and choosing which strands to use as a direct influence. Which why indie artists (as Mr. Frere-Jones noted with Devendra Barnhart) will often cite an appreciation of black music, but not necessarily use its forms.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Image is Everything

Last night my band attempted to dress up as Thomas Magnum (aka Magnum PI) for our Halloween show at Trash.

But the fake moustaches didn't have adhesive on the back, so we ended up looking more like the house band on a cruise ship. The costume malfunction was a sign of things to come, as our show was far less than stellar and the "crowd" (as usual) was mostly my small but wonderfully loyal group of friends (big up to Jake, Tony, Amani, Ali, Pei Pei, Rachel, Lauren and Ms. Tang.) I left the stage pissy, looking to pimp out two gin and tonics from my one drink ticket. My friends have tried to assure me it was a decent performance. Agghhh.

Anyways...in a different intersection of image and music, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

have a new video for the song, "100 Days, 100 Nights." Now before I get to the video, let me just say that Ms. Jones is a great singer. She has one those classic soul voices whose tone and delivery imply experiences with profound love, gut-punching heartbreak, tearful tragedy and epic redemption. But Ms. Jones's popularity seems partially derived by the inversion of the typical formula of a "soulful" white singer fronting a black band. In her case, Ms. Jones has some "hep" (as in jazz/funk/hip-hop heads with goatees, see Soulive) and mostly white dudes in vintage suits doing an admirable impression of the Funk Brothers (i.e. the in-house musicians for Motown Records in the 60's and 70’s.) Despite these contrived circumstances, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have generally shown an aptitude for strong songwriting and delivering legit-sounding 60's soul. But this clever video is an uninspired product of that aesthetic.

By the first shaky frame of the digitally "handmade" titles, I knew what was unfolding: the re-creation of a 1960's variety show musical number. The acts from shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and Shindig! often performed in front of a blank wall accented by a few set pieces. The video for "100 Days, 100 Nights" really captures not only this design style, but the look of the actual film/video stock and corresponding use of sloppy dissolves in the editing. But after the first minute or so, I got the joke. And to a certain extent, the video takes away from the music because the antiquated format reinforces the artifice of the band. The suspension of disbelief required to enjoy Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings is maintained through the quality of the songwriting and Ms. Jones's voice. By overly emphasizing the "retro" element of their sound, Ms. Jones and the Dap Kings reduce themselves to a novelty act, like those jump swing bands from the 90's. They are better than that and could have at least done something with a theme, like this video for Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By."

Perhaps I'm being too critical of a group whose purpose is to play inside a genre, which extends to all aspects of its image. The semblance of authenticity is their objective. But neither the song nor the act is given any more layers of meaning or association by this video. And besides the obvious purpose of commerce, isn't that what a video is supposed to do?