Friday, December 31, 2010
JG Thirlwell is best known by the general public for his work on The Venture Bros. Like many of the animated features on Adult Swim, it is marvelously subversive - much like Thirlwell’s music. From the very beginning, the producers understood this.
When I spoke to JG Thirlwell recently, I asked how the association came about. JG replied that he had been approached to score the pilot, but had declined - to concentrate on other projects. This did not deter program creator Jackson Publick, who simply used previously recorded material for the episode. When the artist saw how well the music and action complimented each other, he signed on.
The Venture Bros may have brought a whole new audience to JG Thirlwell, but his career stretches back to 1978. He started out in a London post-punk outfit who called themselves pragVEC. When that group ended, Thirlwell released the first recording using the Foetus moniker - the single “OKFM” b/w “Spite Your Face.” (1981), credited to Foetus Under Glass.
He has recorded in so many variations under the Foetus brand since, the man may hold a Guinness World Record. They include: Foetus Art Terrorism; Foetus Über Frisco; Foetus Corruptus; Foetus In Excelsis Corruptus Deluxe; Foetus Inc.; Foetus Interruptus; Foetus Over Frisco; Philip and His Foetus Vibrations; Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel; The Foetus All-Nude Revue; The Foetus Of Excellence; The Foetus Symphony Orchestra; and You've Got Foetus On Your Breath.
Thirlwell has been nothing if not prolific, and has collaborated with a multitude of artists - each with their own designations. A few examples: Wiseblood - with Roli Mosimann (Swans); Flesh Volcano - with Marc Almond (Soft Cell); Baby Zizanie - with Jim Coleman (Cop Shoot Cop).
He has also appeared on, or remixed recordings with such a wide variety of artists, a full listing would likely fill this page. Here are a few: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Orange Juice, Voivod, EMF, Sonic Youth, The The, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Coil, and Nurse With Wound.
It is with Nurse With Wound that much of the JG Thirlwell legend begins. At the tender age of 18, after briefly studying fine art at the University Of Melbourne, JG emigrated to London. This was in 1978, as the post-punk genre began.
He got a job in a record store, and had a customer who would come in every now and again to inquire about the sales of a record titled Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella, by Nurse With Wound. When Thirlwell mentioned that the consignment item had not sold many copies, but how much he personally liked the LP, the gentleman introduced himself.
The customer turned out to be Steven Stapleton, who basically is NWW. The two became friends, and (later) musical associates, after Stapleton encouraged the young clerk to begin recording himself. Shortly afterward, JG joined the local post-punk outfit who called themselves pragVEC. Stapleton’s and Thirlwell’s musical association remains active to this day.
In 1983, JG relocated to Brooklyn - where he has resided ever since. Having listened to a great deal of his music over the past thirty years, I think New York City itself informs a great deal of it. His early forays into the No Wave scene remain extremely powerful, even dangerous - much like the city itself did in the early eighties. There is no better example of his early works than Limb (2009) - credited simply to Foetus. This CD/DVD plus 48-page book is a remarkable set.
The twelve tracks contained on the CD are excellent examples of what he calls “minimal compositions, instrumentals and experiments.” In the book, Thirlwell explains the origins of each piece in detail. The information is appreciated, but what makes it so striking is his artwork. He is an incredibly gifted artist, and his distinctive designs adorn his album covers. JG’s graphic style is very much of a piece, and he has a simple yet extremely effective palette of red, white, grey, and black.
NYC: Foetus (2005) is a 75 minute documentary DVD I found to be enormously revealing. The quotes from associates such as Alex Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten), Lydia Lunch, and Michael Gira (Swans) are insightful, show a high degree of respect, and are often flat-out hilarious. I loved Gira’s line when asked to describe his friend, “He’s a good entertainer, a combination of Tom Jones and Attila The Hun.“ The DVD contains an additional 45 minutes of excerpted live performances from Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) as bonus material.
Director Richard Kern made a number of Super 8 films in the eighties with Lydia Lunch, Thirlwell’s girlfriend at the time. His comment is telling, “I look back on it now, and he would form the movie. I would give him this silent film that had some sort of rhythm maybe, but he would make the rhythm with his music.“ These efforts were an obvious precursor to The Venture Bros., although the process is much different these days. The Limb set is exclusively available at the Foetus website.
In the post-Nirvana music business of the early nineties, Foetus was signed to Columbia Records for two records - Gash and Null (both 1995). It is hard to imagine the company expecting platinum sales out of an artist this uncompromising, but apparently they did. When the discs did not light up the Billboard charts, Foetus was unceremoniously dropped.
Thirlwell may have been back on his own, but his music was continuing to evolve at a rapid pace. He was incorporating large percentages of purely instrumental pieces on Foetus albums - and decided to diversify. Steroid Maximus became the outlet for his instrumental activity, and Foetus would be devoted to songs with lead vocals. The multi-textured Quilombo (1991) was the first Steroid Maximus effort. Gondwanaland (1992) followed, and their third was titled Ectopia (2002).
The composer was also bringing a more pronounced classical influence into play. Branching out again, he chose the moniker Manorexia for his solo instrumentals, to differentiate from the group framework of Steroid Maximus. Volvox Turbo (2001) was the first Manorexia recording. The Radiolarion Ooze (2002) is so far the only other. Both of these titles are exclusive to the Foetus site.
One of the more interesting releases of 2010 was credited to JG Thirlwell - yet was titled Manorexia: The Mesopelagic Waters. The disc contains selected tracks from the two Manorexia albums, performed by a six-piece chamber ensemble, plus JG himself. The eight tracks are all remarkable reinterpretations of the originals, and sound glorious with the acoustic chamber instrumentation. The recording was issued on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
The years 2000 - 2010 have been incredibly prolific for Thirlwell. Besides the Manorexia and Steroid Maximus projects, his soundtrack work with The Venture Bros. continues. Add to these the six albums delivered by the flagship Foetus, and you find one busy man. Three of the Foetus discs are full-length studio recordings: Flow (2001), Love (2005), and Hide (2010). Two of these have received the full remix treatment, with Blow (2001) for Flow, and Vein (2007) reworking the songs on Love.
The sixth, titled Damp (2006), contains previously unreleased material, all written since 2003 - mostly by Thirlwell. There is one track on it, co-written by JG and Buzz Osborn of The Melvins titled “Mine Is No Disgrace,“ which is 8:23 of pure anarchic fun. Damp is exclusive to the Foetus site.
Speaking of the website, it is one of the more impressive and thorough ones I have seen. Among the highlights are an incredibly detailed discography, archived press and interviews dating back to 1982, an images section with examples of his artwork and various photos, and (of course) a one-stop shop filled with all things Thirlwell on CD, and/or downloads. There are also some very cool T-shirts.
A great deal of tribute has been paid to JG Thirlwell over the years - from a variety of sources. In 2000, station WHRB FM broadcast 33 consecutive hours of Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and recordings he has appeared and collaborated on.
There is also his involvement as one of 12 performers of the freq-out sound installations which began in 2003. Twelve different frequency ranges are assigned to the individual artists, and they utilize them at will. The resulting overall sound becomes the piece. Very John and Yoko.
There have been commissions for Bang On A Can, and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, or LEMUR. The LEMUR material on Limb is particularly fascinating, as the instruments performing Thirlwell’s composition are robots.
The world-renowned Kronos Quartet have commissioned two pieces from the composer. The first was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2006. There was a JG Thirlwell Composer Spotlight concert at Whitney Museum NYC in 2007. A month of concerts at The Stone in New York were curated by him in 2008. Most recently, JG was awarded 2010 fellowship by the New York Foundation for the Arts, in the music & sound category.
We asked JG what we could look forward to in the near future, and here is what he told us:
“I have just about finished the third Manorexia album, fourth if you include the Tzadik album. It's entitled Dinoflagellate Blooms. It will be released as a stereo CD and a 5:1 surround sound album (the surround version will be on a DVD that comes with the album). It's cinematic and quite dark, monstrous at times. It leans perhaps more than ever to the contemporary classical side of my work. I didn't make it in time for my projected 2010 release date - it should be out in the first part of 2011," Thirlwell explains.
"After that I will be scoring a feature in January called The Blue Eyes, directed by Eva Aridjis, which is a psychological thriller," he continues. "Another installment of freq_out will happen in Moscow in April. In 2011. I'll also be working on my third Kronos Quartet commission and the companion album to HIDE, as well as other things I cannot yet disclose!”
So there you have it, from possibly the busiest man in music today, and still one of the most mysterious. A major talent with such a wide body of work it is difficult to describe.
Except perhaps, as endlessly fascinating.
Article first published as JG Thirlwell: From Foetus To The Venture Brothers on Blogcritics.
Friday, December 24, 2010
DVD Review: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Selected On Demand DVDs
The CreateSpace Company has come up with an interesting twist on selling DVDs. As part of the Amazon.com corporation, they offer DVDs created on demand for the consumer. This allows them to make literally hundreds of classic television episodes available to the customer, without the expense of manufacturing them until actually purchased.
The launch of the platform is with two iconic television shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The initial batch of Mister Rogers episodes features 100 of them, covering four decades of the series.
The one I received is the very first, which aired February 19, 1968. For the first three years the program was in black and white. It was also titled Misterogers’ Neighborhood. Nearly all of the famous elements of the series were in place right from the start. Fred Rogers comes in and changes into his sweater and tennis shoes, Mr. McFeely pops in with a “speedy delivery” letter, Trolly takes us into the land of make-believe, and Fred sings “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
Fred Rogers wrote the theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” among a reported 200 others for the program. An element of the show that rarely gets mentioned is the wonderful jazz-influenced music that accompanies each episode. The main driver of this was Fred Roger’s brother-in-law, Johnny Costa. His wonderfully understated piano was played live as the show was filmed - and adds a charming, and calming element.
The first wave of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is 56 episodes, from 1965-1990. The DVD I received is from April 9, 1974. This was a pretty good night, and featured guests The Jackson Five and Jerry Van Dyke. The Jackson Five are a wonder, performing two classics: “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Dancing Machine.” Michael does his patented Robot dance during “Dancing Machine” and it is brilliant.
For fans of either of these classic programs, this On Demand technology is something special. Rather than being forced to buy a huge box set, or settle for whatever makes up a “Best Of” collection, one is able to get the full, original episodes of their choice.
CreateSpace has come up with a nice solution to the age-old problem of having to carry a deep inventory in a situation like this, where there are so many individual programs to choose from. Each DVD is very reasonably priced as well. Here’s hoping it works, and other long-running programs can be made available this way also.
Article first published as DVD Review: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Selected On Demand DVDs on Blogcritics.
You get a pretty good idea of William Davis Eaton’s point of view with the title of his latest book — Liberal Betrayal of America and the Tea Party Firestorm. The author, a former professor at UC Berkeley, is definitely not a fan of liberals. The fact that he taught at the ultimate “Commie Pinko” campus is interesting to say the least.
Eaton’s list of un-Americans is a long one. Where to begin? President Obama would be the best place I suppose. The author has even coined a term to describe the administration: Sociofascists.
The usual right-wing bugaboos are present as well: Environmentalists, feminists, gays, scientists, political correctness, and of course sixties-era radicals.
In fact, according to the author, the Tea Party’s roots are in response to those damned pot-smoking anti-war students of Berkeley and the like in the 1960s. True patriots stood up to these crazies, and elected a true American hero — Richard Nixon.
That was just the beginning of the Tea Party firestorm. Eaton traces the actual beginnings of the Tea Party to February 19, 2009 with a speech given by CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli. He spoke of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and said that good, solid Americans should update the idea to protest Obama’s deficit spending. The “official” coming out day is said to be April 15, 2009 or Tax Day.
One’s opinion of the book cannot be divorced from its politics. Eaton is an engaging writer, with an extremely strong point of view. One thing is certain, he pulls no punches in his admiration for the Tea Party, and revulsion at the Left.
I consider myself a moderate, and find some of Eaton’s points a bit extreme. But that is the country we live in today, completely polarized. I have problems with some of Obama’s policies also, so there are elements in this book I can relate to. The “Civil War” as Eaton calls the culture wars between right and left frighten me a bit however. This atmosphere of nearly fanatical hatred on both sides of the aisle cannot be good for the country.
Liberal Betrayal of America and the Tea Party Firestorm is a fascinating book for people of all political persuasions. The Right is going to love it, and the Left should read it to find out what the Tea Party and their ilk really think. In the end, my opinion is that William Davis Eaton is kind of a cranky old fella, but definitely a compelling one.
Article first published as Book Review: Liberal Betrayal of America and the Tea Party Firestorm by William Davis Eaton on Blogcritics.
Don Van Vliet - a.k.a. Captain Beefheart - is no longer with us, and the world is a sadder place for it. He lived to be 69 years old. Born on January 15, 1941 - he passed December 17, 2010 due to complications from multiple sclerosis.
Even though it had been 28 years since his final album of new material, his music remains enormously influential.
Beefheart's most famous recording is Trout Mask Replica (1969). Produced by Frank Zappa, the double-album is a stunning tour de force of blues, rock, jazz, spoken word, psychedelia and more. It is a very difficult record to describe, as it often sounds as if it were recorded as a complete improvisation.
Stories of how the album came together are legendary. First of all, The Magic Band - which is what he called the musicians he played with, all lived together communally. Plenty of anecdotes from the people involved attest to an almost cult-like atmosphere. Drugs, violence — both physical and verbal — and other "brainwashing" techniques over this period have since emerged.
What is undeniable is that the music, which sounds completely spontaneous, was actually fully composed by Beefheart. He would rehearse the group for hours and hours daily in order for them to get it down. This is incredibly complex material that would challenge even the most seasoned player. With all of the rehearsal time they put in, The Magic Band managed to get the nearly 80 minutes of basic tracks recorded in a single six-hour session.
Trout Mask Replica is often considered Beefheart’s debut, although it was actually his third album. The two previous efforts were titled Safe As Milk (1967), and Strictly Personal (1968). Neither had much of an impact commercially. Milk was heavily blues-influenced, a form of music Beefheart loved. It also featured a young Ry Cooder on guitar. John Lennon reportedly liked the record so much, he had its poster displayed prominently in the house he shared with Cynthia and son Julian.
The story behind Strictly Personal is an early example of Beefheart’s many battles with record labels. Briefly, the tapes were “doctored” by producer and Blue Thumb label owner Bob Krasnow to make them more commercially appealing. All of this was done without the good Captain’s assent, which naturally pissed him off to no end.
Trout Mask Replica assured his place as one of the most uncompromising musicians ever, but he released another nine albums before calling it quits. As is often the case with “difficult” artists, they came out on a variety of different record labels, basically because none of them actually sold.
The immediate follow-up to Trout Mask Replica was the appealingly titled Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970). Most of The Magic Band personnel were on hand, and the album is considered by many as superior to Trout. The songs themselves are longer and more fully realized than many of the snippets that appear on the previous LP. Beefheart himself considered it his finest.
A number of other records followed, exploring various styles, for either (attempted) commercial success, or just plain artistic interest. These include Mirror Man (1971), The Spotlight Kid (1972), Clear Spot (1973), Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974), and Bluejeans And Moonbeams (1974). All have their merits, and I am certain that Beef-Heads will argue each of them to their dying days.
For me, it was not until Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) that I thought the Captain was back in top form. Doc At The Radar Station (1980), and the final Ice Cream For Crow (1982) round out this “comeback” period. Oddly enough, they coincide with the rise of punk and (especially) post-punk. All three are highly recommended.
Don Van Vliet left the moniker Captain Beefheart, and the music world behind to concentrate on his often brilliant visual art next. For all of the reputed snobbery in the world of serious art, Van Vliet was warmly accepted, and always said that he had been treated much better as a painter than he had ever been as a musician.
He lived out the rest of his life with wife Janet in the California desert, and was apparently quite happy. The MS was a constant battle however, and he had been wheelchair bound since the early 1990s.
The influence of Captain Beefheart’s music over the years has been immeasurable. Notable artists who have specifically cited him include: John Lydon, XTC, Sonic Youth, The Fall, The White Stripes, and Kurt Cobain - just to mention a few.
R.I.P. Captain Beefheart. Your music was decades ahead of its time, and you will be missed.
Article first published as Captain Beefheart: 1941 - 2010 on Blogcritics.C
The Teardrop Explodes were one of the most undeservedly overlooked bands of the early eighties. Their remarkable debut, Kilimanjaro (1980), has been reissued in a deluxe triple-disc set and is a wonderful reminder of just how great the group was.
Led by songwriter, vocalist, author and LSD advocate Julian Cope, The Teardrop Explodes came out of the same late-seventies Liverpool scene that spawned Echo And The Bunnymen, among others. In fact, the two groups were so closely related at that point that a song written by Cope and Echo vocalist Ian McCullough was released on both artists' debuts. On Kilimanjaro the song is simply titled “Books,“ while on The Bunnymen’s debut, Crocodiles, it is called “Read It In Books.”
As interesting as that little factoid is, however, “Books” is actually one of the lesser tracks on Kilimanjaro. The album is so front loaded with superior material, is it really hard to believe they did not garner the type of attention they warranted. “Ha Ha I’m Drowning (In Your Love)” opens the record up with some great horn work and marvelously creative lyrics.
“Sleeping Gas” finds Cope repeating the line, “I just wander around, I just wander around,” and there is little doubt he was telling the truth. The brilliant U.K. hit single, “Treason” is next, and is one I just cannot say enough about. It is one of those songs that you can just listen to over and over, and never tire of.
Cope has never been shy about his enjoyment of drugs, although I think he has probably mellowed a bit by now. In any case, “Poppies In The Field” is sort of ambiguous lyrically about the subject: “The poppies are in the field, don’t ask me what that means.” It really doesn’t matter because the bass carries this tune so well while the pathos in Cope’s voice are intoxicating in their own right.
The only quoted lyrics on the package are from “Went Crazy”: “They told my friends it was a secret but it’s rumored that some of us went crazy.” Make of it what you will, but the eleven songs that make up this album are uniformly excellent. Kilimanjaro is absolutely one of my favorite eighties records.
This expanded edition is as full of extra goodies as one would imagine. Disc Two — Bates Motel consists of rare B-sides and early versions of Kilimanjaro tunes. There is some fascinating material including “Strange House In The Snow,” and a French version of “Treason” (“Traison”). The final of the thirteen tracks contained on this disc is a great live version of “Sleeping Gas.”
Disc Three — BBC Sessions is as described — live cuts recorded in the BBC studios. Highlights of the eleven cuts recorded 1979-1980 include versions of “Went Crazy,” “Poppies In The Field,” and “Ha Ha I’m Drowing.” The disc finishes with a nice obscurity from the era, “The Great Dominions.”
For fans like myself, all of these extras are a lot of fun. There are also some great commentaries from the principles in the accompanying booklet. But none of it tops Kilimanjaro itself. This is simply a brilliant record, and no fan of post-punk, neo-psychedelic British music should be without it.
Article first published as Music Review: The Teardrop Explodes — Kilimanjaro: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
What a gorgeous record! Stephen Micus is a composer who specializes in so-called “ancient” instruments. On his latest ECM release Bold As Light, Micus mainly uses the raj nplaim (a free-reed pipe made of bamboo), a nohkan (a bamboo flute), and his own voice - multi-layered for a Gregorian chant effect. It is little wonder that this is his 19th album for the label, the music is uniformly superb, and a soothing tonic for those of us who occasionally need one.
Micus prides himself on being an improviser rather than a composer. “The idea of sitting down at a table and making a composition on paper is totally foreign to me,” he says. “I have to make the sound myself, with the instrument in my hands.”
This idea is spelled out perfectly in the opening track “Rain.“ The song introduces us to the marvelous soft tones of the raj nplaim. Traditionally, the raj nplaim is played solo, but Micus has layered six here for a remarkably brilliant reverberation. “Spring Dance” utilizes two other instruments this renaissance man has designed. The chord zither and the bass zither add a sort of drone sound underlying the melody. Over the top are his wordless chants, which add a glorious Orthodox element to the piece.
“Golden Ginkgo Tree” introduces the stringed kalimba, which sets up something of an African feeling. The Japanese shakuhachi flute he uses to solo over the kalimba basis works extremely well. Another track of note is “The Shrine.” Micus again employs six raj nplaim, and tracks his voice fifteen times. The tune is an elegant illustration of what one man can do with simple instruments and a tape recorder.
“Seven Roses” is the final track, and it again is another marvel. Recalling the best of James Horner in moments, but thoroughly of its composer, this is music to ease the soul unlike any other. Please do not mistake my use of words such as soothing and relaxing to suggest New Age Windham Hill type pandering. Mannfred Eicher’s ECM never panders. If ever one is in the mood for music that calms the soul, yet makes you think — Bold As Light is it.
Article first published as Music Review: Stephen Micus - Bold As Light on Blogcritics.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
French composer Bruno Letort has been recording since the early eighties. He is nothing if not diverse, having played in jazz, rock, and classical groups. His latest release, Lignes combines all of these and more into an intoxicating blend of music. The 11 tracks that comprise Lignes are loosely based on the novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami. Like D.W. Griffith’s classic Intolerance (1916), Murakami’s work deals with mankind’s seemingly endless propensity for self-destruction.
One need not be familiar with to book to enjoy Lignes however. This is a disc that almost defies description, although it does lend itself to comparisons to early works by CAN or Magma at some points. Legendary Magma vocalist Klaus Blasquix even appears on the record, singing the outrageous “Les Autres.”
The disc begins with “Mukai,” which sets up the slowly building theme of dementia quite well. The ethereal voice of Japanese pop singer Kumi Okamoto follows on “Takayama.” Her beautiful vocal instrument is brilliantly offset by the nervous strings of the Musiques Nouvelles chamber orchestra.
The contrast between ghostly magnificence and discordant intimidation is at the heart of Lignes. More notable examples of the twin forces at work include “Yukari,” “Kaoru,” and “Junko.” The CAN influence is most prominent on “Fumi.”
“Yuko,” and “Minako” blend together almost as a single piece. At one point, they sound like a transmission being received from outer space. It is almost as if Kraftwerk’s Radio Activity was sent out into the ozone 35 years ago, and we are just now picking up the alien response.
At 12:19, final cut “Les Autres” is clearly the big “statement” Letort intended. This is also the song Blasquix appears on. Any similarities to Magma begin and end there however. “Autres” is a strange tune, unlike anything else on the record. It is something of a blues, with prominent “protest” lyrics sung in English. The melody is catchy as hell though.
Although Bruno Letort is fairly well known in Europe, especially in his home country, many in the US are unaware of him. Hopefully Lignes will change that, it is one of the most adventurous albums I have heard in quite some time.
Article first published as Music Review: Bruno Letort - Lignes on Blogcritics.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
At 250 pages, John Powell’s new book How Music Works first struck me as a bit slim. The music theory books I have glanced at (and passed over) have generally been thick, 800-word tomes—printed in the tiniest font size imaginable. I really wondered whether there would be much educational value here at all.
Never judge a book by its cover, they say, or in this case size. How Music Works is an exceptionally informative discussion of the hows and whys of music. What’s more, it is written in such a way as to make the concepts and basic facts understandable to just about everyone.
Powell’s writing has a very conversational tone, quite unlike the scholarly one music books typically employ. He also makes his points using the most basic tunes as examples. One of these is the children’s song “Baa Baa Black Sheep;” the other is “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” It is astonishing how much ground he is able to cover using these basic melodies.
One of the more interesting chapters is titled “Harmony And Cacophony,” in which Powell breaks down exactly why we perceive some music as pleasant, while other types induce anxiety. Another favorite of mine was “The Self-Confident Major and the Emotional Minor.” In this section he explains the differences between major and minor notes, and why minor notes seem “sad.”
As someone who listens to a great deal of music, I never really understood why some CDs sound good to me one day, while I need to hear something different the next. How Music Works lays out the emotional “buttons” different combinations of notes and chords push, and it is a fascinating subject.
There is even a CD included, which further illustrates the points the author makes. I found How Music Works to be a most enjoyable read, with a wealth of information written in a most engaging style. The presentation is clear and logical—even for a layman like myself. Yet it is never pandering, or overly simplified. In short, this is just about the best book on the subject I have come across.
Article first published as Book Review: How Music Works by John Powell on Blogcritics
As hard as it is to believe, this is Graham Parker’s first live DVD. I hate to say it was worth the wait, because over the course of a 34-year career, there were most likely a couple of other terrific concerts. But April 23, 2010 at the FTC Stageone in Fairfield, CT was a damn good one.
A great deal of credit must be given to The Figgs, a New York-based band Parker has utilized on and off for years. Guitarist Mike Gent is particularly outstanding on a number of tracks. But it is Graham Parker himself who makes the show sparkle. I would be hard pressed to name a performer who is more charming onstage than Parker is here.
Like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker has mellowed a great deal from his early “angry young man” persona. He is now more like the eccentric uncle who has an endless supply of hilarious stories. And one who just happens to write some amazing songs.
This show was part of Parker’s tour behind Imaginary Television, his 20th album. So it is not surprising that he devotes six of the twenty-one cuts to the current record. What is surprising is how well they stand up against classics such as “White Honey,” or “Blue Highways.”
“It’s My Party (But I Won’t Cry),” and ‘Broken Skin,” are wonderful. He even gets in a rare introductory guitar solo in “Broken Skin.” Another Imaginary Television tune, “Weather Report” features a searing guitar solo from Mike Gent, plus some pretty funny Al Roker observations from Parker.
“Mercury Poisoning” is probably his best known youthful diatribe. It was directed at Mercury Records, Parker’s first label - and is anything but a love song. It appears as one of the encores, and gets the strongest reception of the night. The night ends with “Soul Shoes,” another early favorite from Howlin’ Wind (1976).
This is a great performance, The Figgs are a tight band, and Graham Parker is a riveting onstage presence. But what really makes this DVD so special is the half-hour interview that is included as a bonus. Actually it is not really an interview at all, more like a monologue, and a pretty intimate one at that.
Parker sits on the stage at the venue a few hours prior to showtime, and just talks about his life. His stories are funny, interesting, and revealing. The effect on me was that I wanted the segment to be twice as long. It adds immeasurably to the already charmed impression one gets after watching him perform.
The Graham Parker & The Figgs - Live At The FTC DVD also includes a bonus CD from the concert. It is a nice extra, at least for someone like myself who listens to a lot of music in the car. For space limitations, two tracks from the concert do not appear on the CD, “Life Gets Better,” and “Snowgun.”
This DVD/CD combo is a must for Graham Parker fans. I also recommend it for those who have always been curious about him, but never knew where to start. This is about as good an introduction to the man and his music as one could ask for.
Article first published as Music DVD Review: Graham Parker & The Figgs - Live At The FTC on Blogcritics.
A few years ago I tried to play People In Sorrow (1969) by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago for a musician friend of mine. His comment was priceless, “It sounds like they all are playing different songs.” As funny as I thought the line was, it speaks to a larger truth. The music of that group, and of its individual members is about as uncompromising as anything one will hear.
The AEOC was originally called The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. He agreed to the name change in part to acknowledge the contributions of his fellow players. Be that as it may, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (b. 1940) has lived his entire musical life on the leading edge of the avant-garde wing of jazz.
Far Side is credited to Roscoe Mitchell and The Note Factory, and has just been released by the ECM label. It is a concert recorded at the Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany, 2007. The four lengthy tracks fully realize his original goal for the Note Factory, “The coming together of a dream I had many years ago of putting together an ensemble of improvising musicians with an orchestral range.”
All seven members of the Note Factory are much younger than Mitchell, but his elder statesman status is never overplayed. That is not to imply that Mitchell is coasting here however. It only means that this assemblage of musicians understand the give and take of improvisation perfectly, and all contribute equally.
The best example of this is the thirty-one minute opening suite “Far Side/ Cards/ Far Side.” The introductory segment is a study in slowly building tension. All eight performers weave in and around the subdued main theme for close to thirteen minutes. Then a bit of dissonance is initiated before the piano takes center stage. From here on the music becomes more and more frenzied, until the triumphant moment of Mitchell’s solo. As chaotic as things sound, nobody loses their place. At the 30:56 mark, all stop - leaving a stunned audience gasping at what they had just witnessed.
“Quintet 2007 A For Eight” (9:56) follows. Despite the somewhat cacophonic beginning, the tune settles into a pretty subdued (for Mitchell) series of solos. “Trio Four For Eight” begins very quietly, with no bass or drums until midway. Then the wild drumming of Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis take over, and thoroughly fires things up.
Finally, we come to “Ex Flover Five” (12:24) which is almost a miniature of the “Far Side” suite. Muted, almost tentative lines from each player set up a comfortable tableau, which bursts forth suddenly into a freeform blast of improvisation.
While Roscoe Mitchell’s music may not be for everyone, those into serious free jazz improvisation should check out Far Side. It really does not get much better than this performance.
Article first published as Music Review: Roscoe Mitchell and The Note Factory - Far Side on Blogcritics.
With The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time box set, Sony Music have done a nice job of repackaging five of his classic early sixties albums. They have reproduced the original LP s exactly, albeit from a 12 x 12 inch source down to an impossibly small 5 x 5 inch form. While the notes are basically impossible to read without a magnifying glass, including them is a nice touch, as they have typically been left off of previous reissues.
Brubeck’s Quartet was one of the outstanding jazz groups of its day. Besides Mr. Brubeck playing the piano, there was the great Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello drumming. The “Time” theme stems from the individual album titles, and Brubeck’s interest in utilizing various time signatures in his compositions.
It began in 1959 with Time Out. This album stands with Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, and My Favorite Things from John Coltrane as one of the definitive LPs of the era. “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and “Take Five” are acknowledged jazz classics. Time Out’s remaining four tracks are pretty great too.
The “busy” arrangement of “Blue Rondo” opens the record, and is a song that just about everybody has probably heard at some point, even if they do not recognize the title. The knock on Brubeck, and other white West Coast players of the period was that they were too intellectual. The derogatory term “Cool Jazz,” was used, because supposedly the music did not swing. One listen to this track proves otherwise.
The beautiful “Strange Meadow Lark” follows, and features some gorgeous piano work from Brubeck, not to mention Desmond‘s sax toward the end. Rounding out side one of the original LP is the classic “Take Five.” The aura of mystery, odd time signatures, and excellent instrumentation combine to make this one of the finest jazz cuts ever.
The remaining four are just as strong. Columbia Records executives did not expect much to happen sales-wise from Time Out, and were pleasantly surprised when it took off. Naturally they immediately began pressuring Brubeck for a follow-up.
He responded with Time Further Out (1961), an album far more creative than the title suggests. Subtitled Miro Reflections, the idea was to musically interpret the painting that adorns the cover. Artist Joan Miro called it PAINTING 1925.
Brubeck continues his experiments with modes of time - everything from blues to ragtime, boogie woogie to the waltz are explored. Personal favorites are “Bluette,” and the wild 7/4 “Unsquare Dance.” What the connection these tunes have to the abstract cover art are anyone’s guess, but they all sound fantastic. This reissue adds two bonus cuts, “Slow And Easy,” and a live version of “It’s A Raggy Waltz” from Carnegie Hall.
Countdown: Time In Outer Space (1962) was next. Despite the title, this is anything but Space Age Bachelor Pad music. Brubeck may have been listening to the marketing department in regards to naming his albums, but nobody got in the way of his music. This is one of the most creative records of his career, and also one of the least well known.
It begins with “Countdown.” Listening to the introductory tympani solo was one of the strangest things I have come across in quite a while. Evidently this album made its way to Australia, and into the record collection of the Young family. The Angus Young of AC/DC fame family that is. Subconsciously or otherwise, the famous opening riff of that group’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” was lifted note for note from Brubeck’s “Countdown.” It is bizarre, but there is no mistaking it.
Elsewhere, we find the Quartet covering the classic “Someday My Prince Will Come,” to excellent effect. Incidentally, fellow Columbia Records artist Miles Davis had issued his version of the tune as the title track of an album the previous year.
There are also four pieces on Countdown from Brubeck’s first ballet, A Maiden In The Tower. They are titled “Fast Life,” “Waltz Limp,” “Three’s A Crowd,” and “Danse Duet,” and form a remarkable miniature suite. The bonus track appended is titled "Fatha," presumably a tribute to pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Brubeck took the idea of a suite to heart with his next album Time Changes (1963). The five cuts that make the original LP’s side one are classic Quartet material. Desmond’s sax playing is as great as ever, as is the rest of the group’s playing. The compositions are all top notch as well.
The 16:40 “Elementals” is a different kettle of fish altogether. In essence, the piece is basically a concerto for Quartet and orchestra. The “Elementals” the title refers to are some of those artists whose music has inspired the composer over the years. This is achieved by embedding a number of small musical quotes into the overall piece. The motif is that of “My Favorite Things,” although Rogers and Hammerstein are uncredited.
It’s cute, it’s very Boston Pops - and it is just not my cup of tea. There are plenty of Brubeck fans who do like it however, so I will refrain from any more critiques. “Elementals” is basically one of those love it or hate it type things.
The final album of the five is Time In (1966). The eight tracks that comprise this recording break little new ground, but are classic Brubeck - and still sound fantastic. This set appends three bonus cuts, all sound as if they should have been included on the orginal release. Dave Brubeck was already something of an elder statesman at this point (albeit a reluctant one), but I think that had more to do with what he had already accomplished than anything else.
At the price Sony is offering this set for, I highly recommend it. Whether or not one considers all five of these albums “must-owns” or not, this is an excellent way to get to know some of his music.
As Donald Fagen once sang about Brubeck, just a little over 20 years after the release of Time Out: “He’s an artist, a pioneer, we’ve got to have some music on the New Frontier.”
Article first published as Music Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Box Set on Blogcritics.
“On July 2, 1973 – glam superstar David Bowie announced his retirement from music,” is the statement that begins The Sacred Triangle - Bowie, Iggy & Lou: 1971 - 1973. Narrator Thomas Arnold continues, “Over the course of these years, their careers would coalesce, offering each artist their opportunity to shine.”
It is a great description for this story of the brief, yet incredibly important two-year period for all three of them. Forty years of rock history may make their accomplishments seem inevitable today. At the time, it was anything but.
As leader of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was widely respected – by about ten people in the United States, most of them rock critics. Iggy Pop had even fewer fans. And David Bowie was some weird Brit who wrote songs about Andy Warhol, and wore dresses. They were an unlikely trio from the start, and each used the other for his own benefit. Yet somehow it all made sense, and made for one of the most groundbreaking periods in rock history.
The DVD begins by walking us through the early years – starting out with a discussion and some live shots of Reed’s band The Velvet Underground. The first connection between any of the artists is made when the V.U. play Ann Arbor, MI. Young James Osterberg aka Iggy Pop wound up backstage, being picked up by Nico – who simultaneously broke up with Lou Reed. David Bowie was an English fan of the Velvets, who was biding his time trying to get his career up and running in London.
The crux of the documentary are the groundbreaking albums (all produced by Bowie) that the trio recorded during this time. The three are: Lou Reed’s Transformer, Iggy and The Stooges' Raw Power, and Bowie’s own Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
The Sacred Triangle is an unauthorized DVD, so any commentaries from the principals come via public domain sources, such as interviews that ran on the news. The bulk of the opinions are given by peripheral participants such as author Victor Bockris, former Stooges manager Danny Fields, Warhol associates Billy Name, Lee Black Childers, and Jayne County, and Bowie’s former wife Angie Bowie. Your tolerance for ancient hipsters may be sorely tested during these scenes.
The bonus feature of note is titled “The Nico Connection,” a seven-minute discussion of her interactions with all three. The fact that she first came to the attention of Warhol with a cameo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) was the most interesting tidbit to me.
David Bowie: Rare And Unseen is a pretty self-descriptive new DVD. The Rare And Unseen series collects little-known public domain material from the featured artist, and edits the pieces together. The bulk of this 64-minute program comes from an interview Bowie gave in 1975 to promote The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) on Russell Harty’s British ITV network show.
This is quite possibly the worst interview of Bowie’s career. For one thing, it was done via satellite, with Bowie in Burbank, CA and Harty in England. In 1975, these types of linkups were still very primitive, and the timelag between question and answer is pronounced. Bowie was also drunk, and admits as much on camera.
There is a train-wreck element at play here though, which is interesting. For one thing, Harty is simply the most obnoxious host I have ever seen. Tom Snyder could only dream of being this rude.
Asking Bowie inane questions like “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you pray?” are just ridiculous in this context. As screwed up as David Bowie obviously is (he honestly looks like death warmed over here), it is a wonder he put up with the man’s crap at all. He should have just walked off the set.
Interspersed with the Harty footage are interviews with Bowie from later periods, in which he looks comparatively radiant. There are a number of items having to do with his huge Glass Spider tour of 1987. There are also segments with John Landis and Julien Temple. There are no extras included.
Both of these David Bowie DVDs are clearly meant for the hardcore fan, and as such have their own unique value. With that in mind, they are a worthy addition to the David Bowie visual library.
Article first published as DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou - 1971 - 1973 & David Bowie: Rare And Unseen on Blogcritics.
Among the many things that John Cage is famous for is introducing the “prepared piano” to the world. By attaching objects such as nuts, bolts, and pieces of rubber to the piano strings, the instrument produces a combination of sounds unlike anything else. Ivar Grydeland has taken the idea to a whole new level with his prepared banjo.
I must admit that the thought of a prepared banjo at first sounded ridiculous. Especially in this case, where it is a major component of a European new music classical quartet. A listen to the eponymous Dans les arbres (Dancing Trees) CD set me straight however. Whatever Grydeland used to prepare his banjo is extremely effective in masking the traditional sound of the instrument. The drone it produces makes it sound more like an Indian tambura than anything else.
The other three members of Dans les arbres are: Xavier Charles (clarinet, harmonica), Christian Wallumrod (piano), and Ingar Zach (percussion, bass drum). The dark, nearly all black cover of their latest ECM disc comes pretty close to indicating what the music is like, minus one crucial element: Their sense of humor.
Honestly, what are you to say about a group of serious musicians who title one of the best tracks on their album “The Phlegm?” The combination of the clarinet’s deepest bass notes with the droning sruti box sets up a remarkable template for the most rhythmic track on the disc.
Another outstanding track is “L’Engourdissment” (“The Numbness”). Grydeland’s prepared banjo is used extensively on this cut, as is the drone of the sruti box and percussive instruments. The combinations may sound a little exotic, and definitely electronic. But every note on the album came from an acoustic source.
“La Froideur” (“The Coldness”) is eight minutes of portention, with a very serious drone underneath. The alternately quiet then clanging percussion made me visualize a slow-dancing Quasimodo - somewhere in the dark reaches of the cathedral.
Things brighten a bit on the finale, “La Retenue” (“Restraint”). It is as if the quartet had been showing how dark they could get before finally revealing themselves. Both the piano and clarinet are brought forward a great deal - in comparison to earlier tracks. The drones give off a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor.
Dans les arbres is an audacious piece of new music and one well worth exploring for the intrepid traveler.
Article first published as Music Review: Dans les arbres - Dans les arbres on Blogcritics.
Bing Crosby was known for a lot of things, but nothing more famously than as the voice of “White Christmas.” His association with the song, and the season, began with the film Holiday Inn (1942). It continued with annual Christmas specials, first on radio, and then on television.
With the recent flurry of Bing Crosby release activity, it was only a matter of time before some of his vintage TV Christmas specials appeared. The Television Specials Volume Two – The Christmas Specials have just been issued on DVD for the first time. They are a rare treat for his legions of fans.
Rather than utilising the “variety show” format that was so often used by others in their holiday programs, Bing wisely sticks almost exclusively to the music. There are practically no skits, musical or otherwise, to get in the way – which is one reason everything works so well all these years later.
Bing’s first Christmas special originally aired on December 11, 1961. It was in black and white, and was filmed in London. Setting it in England adds a nice touch, as it allows Crosby the conceit of tracing his family tree. The big guest star is Shirley Bassey, and her medley of “Lucky Day” and “I’m Shooting High” is impressive. Although Miss Bassey is considered a national treasure in her homeland, it is a shame she never caught on in a big way in the United States. She was at a peak in 1961, a beautiful and dynamic singer and dancer.
My only disappointment was that they did not find time for her to duet with Bing himself. Other guests include the dancing Happy Wanderers, Marian Ryan, and Mariam Karlin, plus a cameo from expatriate Bob Hope. As he did on all of his Christmas specials, Bing closed the show with “White Christmas.”
The next special first aired on Christmas Eve, 1962 and is in color. There is such a New Frontier feel to this one it is a little hard to watch at times. Mary Martin and Andre Previn are the guest stars, and Martin sings a wide variety of duets with Bing, as well as some solo spots. Previn gets in a nice jazz number with “But Not For Me,” credited to The Andre Previn Trio. Just prior to Bing’s “White Christmas,” the United Nations children’s choir sings “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” It really is a beautiful moment, all the more poignant when you realize that this was the last Christmas before the assassination of JFK.
The first disc of this two-DVD collection has a great bonus feature in the inclusion of an episode of The Frank Sinatra Show from 1957. It was Frank’s Christmas special, on which Bing Crosby was the sole guest. Watching these two pros together is great, even if the humor is a bit forced. Giving each other their latest Christmas albums as gifts is kind of funny, but the music is what we are here for. Seeing Frank and Bing sing “White Christmas” together is an obvious highlight, and there are many others in this half-hour (color) program.
The second DVD has two more impressive specials, both from the seventies. The first is from 1971, December 14th to be exact. For this one, Bing’s guests are Robert Goulet, and the amazing opera singer Mary Costa. Goulet gets more airtime, but Costa steals the show with her dynamic performance of “Carol Of The Bells” and the “Bells Medley," a lengthy duet with Bing. By now the whole Crosby clan has become involved in the holiday specials, and the closing segments feature them. Except for the traditional solo version of "White Christmas,” that is.
The fourth is titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde England and was filmed just five weeks before his death in 1977. Wife Kathryn Crosby introduces it, and addresses any allegations that the airing of the show posthumously was distasteful. The preface was never really necessary, but thanks to the uncut nature of each program, it appears here.
Whoever had the idea to pair David Bowie with the grandfatherly Bing Crosby must have seemed insane at the time. This pairing should not have worked for any number of reasons. Bowie was deep in the middle of his Berlin Trilogy, and promoting the Heroes album. And Bing, is – well, Bing Crosby.
Yet their duet on “Little Drummer Boy” / ”Peace On Earth” is magical. There is such a respect between the two artists – it just transcends the whole manufactured situation. This pairing lives up to its reputation as one of the great moments in television history.
More typical guest stars are Twiggy, Ron Moody, and The Trinity Boys Choir, who all acquit themselves quite well. As wonderful as the Bowie/Crosby duet is, when an early video for “Heroes” plays it is totally incongruous. It is one of the Thin White Duke's greatest songs, but to see it in this context is bizarre. I wonder how many blue-hairs got into the guitar of Robert Fripp after hearing this song, or picked up Lodger later on?
The bonus material on this second DVD include a commercial from the fifties for Toys For Tots, and a half-hour tourism show Bing did titled “Bing’s Britain.”
All of these specials have a timeless element to them, which is Bing Crosby himself. He was an incredible vocal talent, and his ease on camera is a joy to watch. The duet with David Bowie is likely the biggest selling point of this set, and it is worth the price alone. But it is by no means the only the reason to own these DVDs.
There is a wealth of wonderful music on these DVDs, from some of the greatest vocalists of the twentieth century.
Article first published as Music DVD Review: Bing Crosby - The Television Specials - Volume Two: The Christmas Specials on Blogcritics.
The term “ahead of their time” was never more appropriate than when it was applied to The Ramones. In fact, they seemed almost out of their time. When their first album appeared in 1976, nobody knew what to make of it. And by 1980, it seemed they were already over. In 2010 they are as revered in some circles as The Beatles.
Mitchell Hyman, whose stage name is Mickey Leigh, is the brother of Jeffrey Hyman, aka Joey Ramone. He was with him every step of the way. I Slept With Joey Ramone is the fascinating, and ultimately tragic story of his and everyone else’s favorite Ramone.
The personal insights that only a brother can offer are what make this memoir so special. I have read literally hundreds of accounts of the early days at CBGB‘s. Not until I Slept With Joey Ramone did I understand what was really going on. Joey suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, and was the kid everyone picked on. Gangly and geeky, it looked like he never had a chance. Coming from a broken home, with a dad who thought “tough love” was the answer, certainly didn’t help.
But these four guys who called themselves The Ramones changed the world. The cover of the first Ramones album is as iconic an image as James Dean‘s from Rebel Without A Cause. So what happened? The ridiculous and futile feud between Johnny and Joey is the answer that is proposed here.
The loss that so many people felt when Joey passed from lymphoma in 2001 has never been more fully told than in his brother’s account. It is truly heartbreaking. I Slept With Joey Ramone is the best story of the man’s life I have ever read. The tales of the author’s experience as a member of Lester Bangs’ band Birdland are just gravy.
I tear up every time I listen to Joey Ramone’s final album, Don’t Worry About Me. Especially his version of “It’s A Wonderful World.” I Slept With Joey Ramone had the same effect.
Article first published as Book Review: I Slept With Joey Ramone by Mickey Leigh on Blogcritics.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Dieter Moebius has long been a leading figure in the German avant-garde scene. His career began with Kluster in 1969, which later became Cluster. Moebius then moved on to work with Harmonia and Brian Eno in the seventies, and has pursued a solo career since the early eighties.
His minimalist style, and fondness for unique electronic sounds always made his music well-suited for soundtrack work. It is a little surprising that it took him until 1986 to score a film. Blue Moon (1986) is a little known German thriller from director Karsten Wichniarz. The soundtrack was Moebius’ last release on Sky Records, and is now available on CD for the first time.
The opening cut is titled “Intro 2,” for some reason, and it is most definitely state of the art electronic soundtrack music, circa 1986. The closest comparison I can come up with is the incidental music for the TV show Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Not to be confused with the style of Danny Elfman, who scored the film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), this track is reminiscent of The Residents, who worked on the series.
From there Moebius takes an electro dip into the waters surrounding Australia, and The Church. They had just released one of their finest efforts titled Heyday. The lone instrumental on it was “Happy Hunting Ground.” By accident (most likely) or design, “Falsche Ruhe” recalls the sweeping grandeur of the piece.
The liner notes by Asmus Tietchens point out the fact that as soundtrack music, these eleven tracks were created to serve a function. And that just as some begin to really take off, they end - because the scene they were written for would end. I hear what he is saying particularly on “Im Wedding,” “Kriminelle Energie,” and “Traurige Zita.” All three are way too short, and really do leave the listener hanging at the end.
On the other hand, the abbreviated lengths serve some of the tracks quite well. If you can imagine music that simulates the act of dusting off one’s jacket, you have “Dust Off.” I hear some of what the Pelican Daughters would later do in “Hoffnungsschimmer.” Many years later the French duo Air would record a series of 12 - inch singles, including “Casonova 70.” Moebius’ “Das End” is a definite precursor to their early work.
Blue Moon OST is going to appeal to hardcore Krautrock fans like myself. But there is a lot of interesting music to be heard here. For fans of electronic music and soundtracks in particular, this is an obscurity worth seeking out.
Article first published as Music Review: Moebius - Blue Moon OST on Blogcritics.
In some cases, the first images on a DVD can make or break it for me. Such was the case with Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969. The documentary opens up with the legendary 1967 TV footage of Wilson performing “Surf’s Up” on a CBS special report called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.
That gorgeous song was to be the centerpiece of Smile, supposedly Wilson’s lost masterpiece. “Surf’s Up” always suggested the end of innocence to me, and a bittersweet teaser of what else would be on Smile. Decades later Brian Wilson finally finished Smile, which he should be congratulated for. But as far as it having any cultural impact, the moment had long passed.
Wilson’s time was the sixties, and this new DVD presents an exhaustive study of his music during that turbulent time. At three hours in length, I must admit to a bit of initial apprehension, until the “Surf’s Up” footage rolled that is. The time just flew by for me, for this is the best Brian Wilson documentary I have ever seen.
The title is a little misleading, as they actually begin in 1959 discussing the roots of surf music. It is an important preface, setting the scene of America at the peak of its power. And nobody was more privileged than Los Angeles area teenagers. Guitarist David Marks played with the Beach Boys from 1961-63, and explains that instrumentals by The Ventures, Dick Dale, and Duane Eddy were played as background to homemade surf films shown in high school auditoriums back then.
So many of the Brian Wilson documentaries I have seen pay cursory attention to the early years. There seems to be an assumption that nobody cares until Pet Sounds. Songwriter takes its time and fully explains how and where Wilson’s unique sound came from. When The Four Freshman’s vintage video of “Charmaine” is played you suddenly realize that their style was the template for Wilson masterpieces such as “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl.”
The other major early influence was Phil Spector, especially his production of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Sitting at a piano, Professor Philip Lambert illustrates how Wilson’s “Don’t Worry Baby,” is a sort of follow-up to “Be My Baby.” This attention to detail is what sets Songwriter apart from any other Brian Wilson DVDs out there. The footage of the Ronettes performing “Be My Baby” on TV is brilliant, as is the drag racing scene from American Graffiti that George Lucas scored to “Don’t Worry Baby.”
The first DVD ends with another scene from American Graffiti, the closing one, which is set to “All Summer Long.” Part two begins in 1964, with Brian making the decision to stop performing live and to focus on studio work exclusively.
Brian was attending Phil Spector sessions regularly, and got to know “The Wrecking Crew,” which is what a group L.A.’s top studio musicians called themselves. He basically poached them, and now had a group of players who could handle his increasingly complex arrangements.
An incredibly strange video for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice" introduces the Pet Sounds chapter. Often cited as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, it is Brian Wilson’s acknowledged work of genius. It was his response to The Beatles equally impressive Revolver, although it initially sold only a fraction of what his British label mates did.
Wilson’s “pocket symphony” “Good Vibrations” was next. And from there he was on to Smile. But something went wrong, and Wilson abandoned the project, and pretty much his music career for decades to come. Songwriter details the step by step loss of interest in recording on Brian’s part, and it is depressing to watch. The band petered along with minimal input from him for the rest of the decade, and became increasingly irrelevant. The DVD ends with a brief mention of Wilson’s “recovery” in the early 2000’s with the completion of Smile.
There are two short extra features included. The first is an interview with Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who relates the story of playing an advance copy of Pet Sounds for John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The second is a long-winded account from a former manager who was trying to secure some airplay for the group in the early seventies.
Especially in the case of an unauthorized DVD like this, the people who are interviewed make a huge difference. The folks interviewed for Songwriter all add to the overall excellence of the program. Bruce Johnston is the main contributor, which lends a hint of “authorization” to it. Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis has many salient observations, as does author Dominic Priore. For musical analysis, a couple members of The Wrecking Crew are present, as is the previously mentioned Professor Lambert.
For Brian Wilson fans, I cannot recommend this DVD high enough. They really got it right this time.
Article first published as Music DVD Review: Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 on Blogcritics.