Monday, May 31, 2010
The trio of Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rourke, and Keiji Haino amounts to something of an experimental music supergroup. These guys will never be mistaken for Blind Faith, of course, but all three have developed substantial followings among fans of the avant-garde.
Western audiences are probably most familiar with pianist Jim O’Rourke, who spent five years as a member of Sonic Youth. He also has a number of impressive production credits, which include Wilco, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, and John Fahey, among many others. Oren Ambarchi (guitar) has been heavily involved in the drone metal scene, especially in his collaborations with the group Sunn O))).
For the Japanese audience who attended this concert, vocalist Keiji Haino is undoubtedly the most well known of the trio. Haino’s first band was an improvisational psychedelic outfit called Lost Aaraaf, formed in 1970. He has been at the leading edge of Japanese music ever since.
The three tracks that comprise Tima Formosa were recorded in January of 2009, and total about an hour of music. Like Miles Davis’ legendary mid-seventies Japanese recordings, Agharta and Pangaea, this is basically one long improvisation. Where Davis utilized as broad a palette as possible, though, this trio seems to revel in the minimalism of the drone.
“Timo Formosa 1,” which clocks in at just under 25 minutes, is pretty polite for the most part. Especially so as the three are each considered mavericks in their fields. The drone is omnipresent, and gives the piece a dark, even sinister ambient feel. Haino’s otherworldly vocals add to the effect, which is also punctuated by random noise outbursts along with what sounds like chimes.
“Timo Formosa 2” is nearly a pop song in comparison to the previous track. The drone is still there, but this tune adds a chant from Haino right off, and features some very tinkly-sounding piano work from O’Rourke. At only four minutes, it links the two prolonged sections that bookend the disc.
The payoff is the 31-minute “Timo Formosa 3.” The musicians seem to have hit their stride by this point, and the music is much more intriguing as a result. The drone is ever present, but there is now a beat behind it, a rhythmic chugging that recalls the building cadences of a train leaving the station. Various percussion and electronics are introduced, as well as some searing feedback from Ambarchi’s guitar. The piece steadily gains momentum, and Haino’s vocals scream like a banshee. This type of intensity is what I had expected all along from these men, and thankfully they come through.
The music Ambarchi/O’Rourke/Haino created that night is a mixed bag, to be sure. But that is one of the key elements of improvised, experimental music. I think that there is a lot of merit to such uncompromising adventurousness, and for those who feel the same way, Tima Formosa is worth looking into.
Article first published as Music Review: Ambarchi/O'Rourke/Haino - Tima Formosa on Blogcritics.
Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was one of the premier experimental filmmakers in the United States of the past 50 years. He worked in an abstract style, with no literal storylines, no dialogue, and generally no music. His films are often surreal, as if you are watching a rapid succession of individual paintings — held together with various unifying themes.
Brakhage’s work was previously only shown in art houses and museums. Criterion is now making it available to the home viewing audience with their By Brakhage Anthology series. The first Anthology came out in 2003. Volume Two has just been released, and is an excellent three-DVD overview of material spanning the years 1955-2003.
The structure of the set makes it very user-friendly. The 30 Brakhage films included range in length from two to 63 minutes. Criterion have organized the films into six roughly chronological programs. Each program runs between an hour and an hour and a half. By breaking up the material, the editors have made his vast pool of work a little less daunting than it could have been. Still, seven hours of Stan Brakhage’s best is a somewhat demanding, if highly rewarding proposition.
Even with the logical construction of the Anthology, and the extremely informative booklet, this can still be a bit of an overwhelming viewing experience. The images are often rapid-fire explosions, followed by a lull — exemplified by Brakhage with frames of pure color. Later in his career, Brakhage began hand-painting his frames, which represents an entirely new visual medium.
The most arresting piece on By Brakhage Volume Two for me is “23rd Psalm Branch.” At 63 minutes, this is the longest film of the set. It was made in 1967, and was very obviously influenced by the Vietnam War. Rather than taking a direct stance about the conflict in Southeast Asia though, Brakhage allows the viewer to make their own connections through the images he presents. Footage of atomic tests, underwater explosions, Nazi rallies, tanks, concentration camps, and other World War II and Cold War iconography are shown. Towards the end, children play with sparklers, suggesting the fleeting nature of victory.
In 1980, Brakhage revisited the subject of violence with “Murder Psalm.” As in "23rd Psalm Branch," he uses quite a bit of found footage including a pretty graphic old cartoon, and educational films. These are interspersed with the spinning spokes of a wagon wheel, which suggest the brutality of the Manifest Destiny credo of 19th century America. All of this is neatly put into context toward the end with heartbreaking scenes of how cruel children can act towards each other. A group of kindergartners silently humiliate an innocent little girl, laughing as they reduce her to tears.
Besides these weighty statements, there is another side to Brakhage. He adored nature, and shot of number of “travelogue” films. Program Four of the Anthology is devoted to his “Visions In Meditation” series, (1989-90). The four parts were filmed on driving trips through the US and Canada. Each one tells a visual story, and are broken up with hand-painted framework, which Brakhage was using more and more.
The films in the last section of the set cover the years 1995-2003, and reflect an even deeper immersion into the world of abstract colors and shapes. His final short was released posthumously and titled “Chinese Series.” With this one, Brakhage was exploring yet another avenue of filmic expression, this time by literally scratching the emulsion off of the frame to form his version of Chinese characters.
Each of the three DVDs includes a bonus section titled “Encounter.” These include a generous selection of interviews, excerpts from salons he held at the University Of Colorado, and audio-only lectures.
Stan Brakhage’s contribution to the world of experimental film cannot be overstated. Every one of the 30 pieces included here represent an aesthetic vision that will never be duplicated. Those interested in the development of alternative cinematic expressions would be well advised to look into the By Brakhage Anthologies.
Article first published as DVD Review: By Brakhage: An Anthology Volume Two on Blogcritics.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
The cover of Brian Posehn's second CD sees him heroically rising out of a comedy graveyard. The "dead" comics he stands over include Andrew Dice Clay, Jeff Foxworthy, and Carrot Top (who has been impaled by a barbell). Thankfully, Posehn had the good taste not to include Sam Kinison here, but he does pay tribute to the legend in an oblique way.
Besides Cheech And Chong, Kinison was the only comdian I know of who added some rock to his comedy albums. Sam did a gawd-awful version of "Wild Thing," with an all-star guest list including Slash, Tommy Lee, and Steven Tyler. Posehn has a serious metal jones also, and has roped in Scott Ian (Anthrax), Joey Vera (Fates Warning), and John Tempesta (White Zombie) among others to help him out. The boys tackle Posehn's "More Metal Than You," which is pretty funny, then they demolish the Kenny Rogers chestnut "The Gambler."
Stand-up is what Posehn does best though, and this recording of him in front of a Nashville audience is hilarious. Riffing off of i-Tunes, metal fans, Slayer, and rockstar partying tips, Posehn integrates his love of metal into the act. The best stuff is when he talks about his dysfunctional life. He calls himself Sasquatch when talking about having sex with his wife. Then he tells us "I look like I'm made of farts."
I love the title, Fart And Weiner Jokes, because that is pretty much what you get. It is pretty damned funny to hear a 45 year old man constantly referring to his dick as a "weiner." It just makes you feel like you are back in the first grade or something.
Even though Posehn is married, he still likes to masturbate (like all married men). Towards the end of the set, he begins referring to his member as Obi Wan, which is as good a nickname as any I guess. He also talks about other manly topics such as strip clubs and bachelor parties. With a title like Fart And Weiner Jokes, you pretty much know what you are in for. I don't think anybody can accuse Posehn of misleading his audience with this one.
If you are an immature slob like me who still laughs at the word "weiner," then by all means, snap this one up. And if not...as Posehn might say, "Tough titty!"
Article first published as Comedy/Music Review: Brian Posehn - Fart And Weiner Jokes on Blogcritics
Words Of Advice is a fascinating mix of material chronicling the later years of writer William S. Burroughs. The catalyst for the film was the discovery of some previously unknown footage documenting a reading Burroughs did in Copenhagen in 1983. Filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen then added interviews and other footage to tell the story. What emerges is a compelling portrait of a man who lived life on his own terms, all the way to the end.
The film begins outside of the house Burroughs shared with longtime companion James Grauerholz in Lawrence, Kansas. This little red home certainly does not look like the domicile of such a celebrated literary outlaw. It is about as bucolic a setting as one could imagine. This was probably part of its perverse charm for Burroughs, who had lived all over the world.
We are then taken to Copenhagen, and the reading. Only excerpts are shown; the full half-hour appearance is in the extras section. But what we do see is vintage Burroughs. His vocal modulations were one of a kind, and just listening to him read his work is mesmerizing. He was there specifically to promote the just-published Cities Of The Red Night, part two of what has become known as The Last Trilogy. The accompanying titles are The Place Of Dead Roads (1981) and The Western Lands (1987).
The bulk of Words Of Advice consists of recent interviews with friends and scholars. In addition to Grauerholz, there are recollections from John Giorno, Hal Willner, Jennie Skerl, Ann Douglas and others.
John Giorno takes us inside "The Bunker," which was Burroughs' New York City residence from the mid-'70s on. This former YMCA room seems perfect for the author. The film includes some tantalizing home movies of parties held there, featuring guests such as Steve Buscemi and Patti Smith milling about.
Speaking of home movies, Wayne Propst has some great stuff of Burroughs' legendary weapons collection. Propst was a Kansas friend, and shows some of the writer's cannons, flame-throwers, and knives. The knife Kurt Cobain gave him is outstanding, a dangerously beautiful weapon.
The DVD extras include the aforementioned full reading in Copenhagen, plus a separate interview with Ann Douglas and two short tribute films titled "One Shot I" and "II."
Words Of Advice is a solid overview of the last 20 years of William Burroughs' life, and as such is recommended.
Article first published as DVD Review: Words Of Advice: William S. Burroughs On The Road on Blogcritics.
The year 1939 was one of the greatest in film history. In addition to such enduring classics as Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, it also saw the appearance of the first modern western, John Ford's Stagecoach. The film is a masterpiece, featuring a flawlessly structured storyline and some of the most visually stunning images ever.
Stagecoach was the first, and some would say best, collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne. It was the film that turned Wayne into a superstar, as well as being the first the director would make in Monument Valley. The imposing, nearly Biblical rock formations that distinguish the Northern Arizona landscape of the Valley have become famous in their own right as the archetypal representation of the look of the Old West.
Stagecoach tells the story of nine very different strangers who take a perilous trip through hostile Apache territory. While the picture contains a fair amount of action, especially during the running battle with the Apaches, the focus is primarily psychological.
The diverse group of passengers includes the easygoing driver (Andy Devine), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a doomed gambler (John Carradine), a crooked banker (Berton Church), and the Doc's new best friend, a mild-mannered whiskey salesman (Donald Meek). There are also two women aboard. Louise Pratt plays a very prim and very pregnant lady whole husband is in the Cavalry. The biggest name (at the time) and nominal star of the film is Claire Trevor, who plays the typical "hooker with a heart of gold."
They are led by a sheriff (George Bancroft) who is escorting escaped convict Ringo Kid (John Wayne) to prison in Lordsburg. Ringo's interest in going to Lordsburg is vengeance — he plans to confront the three men who killed his father and brother there.
At every stop the coach makes, ominous warnings about Geronimo and the Apaches are voiced. The promised military escort never arrives, and the group are forced to fend for themselves.
They also begin to grow and change as their circumstances get more and more dangerous. The first big test comes when young Lucy Mallory goes into labor. Doc Boone must sober up quickly to help her deliver the baby, while Dallas, who she had previously shunned, is called upon to act as nurse. Meanwhile, Dallas and Ringo have fallen for each other, a romance that seems to be doomed based on what lies in store for him in Lordsburg.
Criterion has done an outstanding job of presenting Stagecoach here. Although the original negative has been considered lost for years, they were able to track down an excellent print. This has been meticulously cleaned up for transfer to DVD.
Additionally, there is a wealth of material contained on the supplemental DVD. The first is Ford's silent western from 1917, Bucking Broadway. The original 54-minute film has been restored and looks terrific.
There is also a 72-minute interview with John Ford, conducted in 1968. British television personality Philip Henkinson conducts the interview, and Ford seems to take great delight in provoking him. Ford presents himself as a cantankerous old coot, which was his public image, but he seems to be enjoying himself. His last line to Jenkinson is memorable: "I hope this doesn't set the BBC back 100 years."
Peter Bogdanovich (who was born in 1939) presents a very insightful discussion of his thoughts on Ford and Stagecoach. "Home Movies" is narrated by Dan Ford, grandson of John, and features footage of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gregg Toland relaxing with the director.
The career of legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is discussed, and it is revealed that he is the only stuntman in film history to receive an Academy Award. "True West" is a short feature about 1920s trading post operator Harry Goulding, who first brought Monument Valley to Ford's attention.
"I Dream Of Jeannie" is a primer on Ford's visual style. It contains a pretty revealing quote from producer Daryl F. Zanuck: "Ford was the best director in motion picture history because his placement of the camera made even the best dialogue unnecessary."
Finally, the DVD contains a Screen Director's Playhouse adaptation of Stagecoach, done in 1949 for a radio broadcast. Both Wayne and Trevor reprise their roles. This is downloadable as an MP3 file for computer, in addition to being playable on DVD.
Even the accompanying booklet Criterion has produced merits mention. In addition to a fine essay discussing the impact Stagecoach has had over the years, it also reproduces the original short story used as the basis. The story is titled "Stage To Lordsburg," and was written by Ernest Haycox.
Unlike some films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Stagecoach was recognized as groundbreaking and important upon its release. I can think of no higher compliment than the one that came from Orson Welles. He reportedly screened it 39 times for his cast and crew in preparation for his own work of genius, Citizen Kane (1941).
Article first published as DVD Review: Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.
"From my checkered past I can always bring back the memories we felt in that home by the track," signs Merle Haggard in "Oil Tanker Train." At 73 years young, Merle is entitled to take a look back, as he does often on his new CD, I Am What I Am. The record is something of a family affair, featuring appearances from his wife Theresa, and their son Ben, in addition to his backing band, The Strangers.
I Am What I Am opens up with "I've Seen It Go Away," an instant classic with some great dobro playing from Rob Ikes. On this song, Haggard talks about seeing many things in his lifetime, including Elvis and Bob Wills. The King of Western Swing (Wills) comes in for specific tribute during "The Road To My Heart," which features Hag imitating some of Bob's trademark wisecracks during the solo sections.
"Mexican Bands" is another tribute, sort of — this time to Johnny Cash. When Merle was incarcerated at San Quentin, he saw Cash perform there three times. The exposure galvanized him to quit his life of crime and concentrate on music when he was released. The horns Cash used on "Ring Of Fire" inform the instrumental section of "Mexican Bands."
I Am What I Am features a number of love songs, including ""We're Falling In Love Again," "Pretty When It's New," and "How Did You Find Me Here" (cowritten with Theresa). The most poignant lyric is contained in the title track, which closes out the record.
The first lines of "I Am What I Am" are: "I'm no longer a fugitive," sung with the deeply satisfied voice of a man who no longer has anything left to prove. The song and album speak to the contented life this legendary singer now knows, and that is a very good thing.
Article first published as Music Review: Merle Haggard - I Am What I Am on Blogcritics.
The excellent job Collector’s Choice have done in reissuing the Bing Crosby catalog continues with these two sets of rare material. "Rare” is an understatement in the case of On The Sentimental Side. This is an album that was recorded in 1962, and never released. Opinions vary as to the reasons it sat in Bing’s archives all these years. But one thing is certain, it is one of the most unusual collection of songs in his vast oeuvre.
On The Sentimental Side was a response to the popular Sing Along With Mitch series by Mitch Miller. In 1960, Crosby released the first of his three Join Bing And Sing albums. On The Sentimental Side was originally titled On The Happy Side. It had been abandoned midway through the mixing process, and the tapes have lain dormant all these years. The liner notes detail the fascinating story of the discovery of these sessions, and how everything was finally properly synched and mixed to produce this obscure bit of Crosby history.
As for the music, this one is for the hardcore Bing Crosby fan. The original album was to contain 12 two-song medleys. This Deluxe Edition also includes five bonus cuts. You get the idea of what the project was all about from the very first track, “My Bonnie” / “The Band Played On.” Other combinations include “Tom Dooley” / “The Old Gray Mare,” and “Beautiful Dreamer” / “The Last Rose Of Summer.” Bing’s voice sounds great (as usual), but the arrangements are pretty old-fashioned. Even the normally reverent tone of the booklet lifts on this one, describing the music as “extremely corny.”
Far more interesting to me is Bing On Broadway, a compilation of 19 tunes that were first made famous on the Great White Way. They were all recorded in the years 1954-56. The resulting tracks were originally broadcast on the CBS radio program, The Bing Crosby Show — and are collected here for the very first time.
What makes this anthology so unique is the small band format that was utilized. All but two of the songs were recorded with Buddy Cole and His Trio. Hearing Bing in this context is revelatory. His powerful baritone is given the ultimate showcase in this intimate setting, and sounds incredible.
An early highlight is “Carolina In The Morning,” which swings most convincingly, as does “Ain’t Misbehavin'.” The more traditionally arranged “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” was recorded with John Trotter and His Orchestra — and does contain some strings. It is still a great version though.
“Come Rain Or Come Shine” is heartbreakingly beautiful. It reminds me of Frank Sinatra doing “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road).” Bing Crosby doing what Sinatra called “saloon songs” is just a remarkable way to hear him. I really wish he had fully embraced this direction, at least for a couple of albums.
The collaboration between record label Collector’s Choice, and the Bing Crosby family has once again produced some remarkable results with these CDs. They are a great way to discover, or rediscover this one of a kind vocalist.
Article first published as Music Review: Bing Crosby - Bing On Broadway, On The Sentimental Side (Deluxe Edition) on Blogcritics.
The mix of music on Heaven And's second album is so eclectic as to virtually defy description. Familiar signposts include Miles Davis, Can, and Hawkwind, among tons of others. The all-instrumental disc is divided into six songs, with spiritually evocative titles. This 46-minute album plays like one long suite however, with each track blending into the next.
The album opens with "Babylon," a slowing evolving piece with some startling guitar pyrotechnics towards the end. "Bye And Bye I'm Going To See The King" is next, which begins with a wink towards Pink Floyd's classic "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The track then delves into an ambient groove, punctuated by some Art Ensemble Of Chicago type instrumental commentaries.
"Om" follows, and while it has nothing to do with the famous free jazz "Om" track from John Coltrane, it does share its wild sense of abandon. This is the first instance the trio show of really letting the music fly, and it is pretty powerful stuff. The guitars are all over the place, while sampled radio frequencies blast across the basic tracks.
The martial drums and droning sound that "Blue, Even" begins with suggest a funereal excursion. Some heavy feedback follows, and things begin to get interesting. The drone ends abruptly midway through, to be replaced by a section that reminds me of nothing so much as the opening to "Six Foot Under," by long lost grunge pioneers Blood Circus.
"When The Roll Is Called" seems to be a musical evocation a soul's meeting with Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven. This is a pretty powerful track, and apparently there will be some serious feedback played at the Pearly Gates, along with the traditional horns. The album winds up with "Earth Magic," nine minutes of revelry in terrestrial delights. Uniquely noteworthy are the hypnotic drum patterns, which are occasionally interrupted with some controlled feedback and programmed sounds. The album closes out on a note reminiscent of Miles' classic lament "Concierto de Aranjuez," from Sketches Of Spain.
Although I had not heard of Heaven And before stumbling across this remarkable album, I have been completely sold. Fans of adventurous instrumental music are advised to check this one out.
Article first published as Music Review: Heaven And - Bye And Bye I'm Going To See The King on Blogcritics
Bing Crosby's image as the grandfatherly man who did nothing but smoke a pipe, or play golf when he was not performing is somewhat misleading. As the extensive reissue campaign of his recordings by Collector's Choice shows, Bing was also the world's preeminent Bing Crosby collector. He was decades ahead of his time in the uses of new technology as well. Long before most radio programs were using pretaped material — Bing was, mainly out of necessity. The fact that so much of his early radio material was recorded in a studio, then stored for all these years in controlled conditions combine to make his archives a very special resource.
So Rare: Treasures From The Crosby Archive contains 36 tracks, of which 26 have never been previously released. The two-disc collection spans a period of 45 years, from 1931 to 1976 — and is a fantastic piece of history.
"Just One More Chance" (1931) is the first cut on the chronologically assembled set, and sounds remarkably good for a 79 year-old radio broadcast. "Where The Turf Meets The Surf" (1941) has an interesting history. Bing was one of the original investors in the famous Del Mar racetrack near San Diego, and this was the track's theme song.
Two early highlights stem from The Kraft Music Hall radio show in 1943. Bing does wonders with both "Over The Rainbow" and "As Time Goes By" from January broadcasts of that year. The fact that Bing liked to have his orchestra's arrangements recorded on a transcription machine at the time accounts for the existence of these remarkable performances.
No Bing Crosby collection would be complete without at least one Christmas tune, and the one included here is "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." What makes this take so special is the fact that it was recorded in 1954 exclusively for the patients and staff of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. Bing had been quietly doing this since 1948, as a favor to the chairman, his friend Arthur Chapman.
The strangest item has to be "Anthem Of The Clams" (1960), a private recording heard publicly here for the first time. Sinatra may have had his Rat Pack, but Bing had The Clams, a group of rogues who went fishing on newspaper publisher George Maxwell Bell's yacht. This is their theme, complete with lyrics penned by Crosby himself.
One of the rarest sessions in Bing's long recording history came in 1970, with the heretofore unreleased "The Human Race" b/w "Take A Longer Look." This was from a television adaptation of Goldilocks, but nobody would issue the single as there was no full-length album to supplement it.
The final track is "That's What Life Is All About," recorded live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, March 17, 1976. It is a fitting capper to this great collection of music, and accompaniment is none other than the brilliant Nelson Riddle And His Orchestra.
So Rare may sound like an album designed strictly for completists, but it has a much broader appeal. While most of the tracks themselves are rare, the voice of Bing Crosby remains an amazing instrument, even up to the end. No wonder he was both Frank Sinatra's and Dean Martin's favorite vocalist. His was an incredible talent.
Article first published as Music Review: Bing Crosby - So Rare: Treasures From The Crosby Archive on Blogcritics
Thursday, May 13, 2010
As a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, I have to say that it has been quite a while since I have heard anything as good as Transient Songs coming out of our backyard. Cave Syndrome is the second album from the "group," which is actually a man by the name of John Frum and his occasional guests.
Cave Syndrome reminds me an awful lot of some of the best bands nobody ever heard in the early nineties. Groups such as Sadhappy, Adrian's Childhood, and Paisley Sin never caught a big-time record contract, but they were all great. Frum's music has something in common with each of them, but there is also a NW indie spirit about the disc that is reminiscent. The name of his record label alone is good for a chuckle: Indian Casino Records. His pop sensibilities are spot on too. The liner notes mention The Church and The Chameleons as influences, and the statement is certainly accurate.
The record begins with "In This Darkness Light Seeps Through," which despite the foreboding title is one of the more upbeat tunes. It strikes me as something Wayne Coyne might have come up with after an overdose of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.
The trippiness, reverb and fog get deeper as the album progresses. "Smoking Slows The Healing" builds into a transcendent guitar frenzy that becomes absolutely hypnotizing, as does "Greenwood Backyards." The most fascinating song of all, though, is titled "The Cancer In Our Bloodlines." It is as if both The Church and The Chameleons decided to collaborate on a version of "A Day In The Life." The opening segment is a virtual Steve Kilbey carbon, while the latter portion would not have been out of place on side two of Script Of The Bridge.
John Frum hails from Texas originally, but we won't hold that against him. Especially as he had the good taste to enlist Chris Hanszek to master the disc. Hanszek founded C/Z Records back in 1985, and released the first collection of grunge, Deep Six shortly afterward. Transient Songs belong in such exalted company, and I hope that Cave Syndrome finds an audience. It is a gorgeously nuanced album.
Article first published as Music Review: Transient Songs - Cave Syndrome on Blogcritics.