Hey A Movie!

I enjoyed looking at a lifetime’s worth of musical influence, and figured it would be fun to do the same with film.  I haven’t seen nearly as many movies when compared to the thousands and thousands of hours of music I’ve heard, but I thought I could learn something about myself nonetheless.  The rules, for those who may have forgotten:

Fun little exercise – list your favorite movie released in each year in which you have been alive (if you’re dead, or have been dead at some point in your life up to now, you’re allowed to skip the years in which you are/were deceased).

1972: Aguirre: The Wrath of God
1973: The Three Musketeers
1974: The Godfather, Part II
1975: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1976: The Outlaw Josey Wales
1977: The Duellists
1978: Drunken Master
1979: Manhattan
1980: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Escape From New York
1982: Blade Runner
1983: A Christmas Story
1984; This Is Spinal Tap
1985: Brazil
1986: A Better Tomorrow
1987: Wings of Desire
1988: A Fish Called Wanda
1989: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
1990: Miller’s Crossing
1991: Naked Lunch
1992: Porco Rosso
1993: The Bride With White Hair
1994: Hoop Dreams
1995: Cold Comfort Farm
1996: James and the Giant Peach
1997: Happy Together
1998: The Big Lebowski
1999: Fight Club
2000: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
2001: In The Mood For Love
2002: Infernal Affairs
2003: Down With Love
2004: Kung Fu Hustle
2005: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
2006: Army of Shadows
2007: Ratatouille
2008 (mid-year): Wall-E

I’ve gone with domestic releases, as I did with the music; thus Army Of Shadows, a film released in France in 1969, tops my list for 2006.  The only movie that would probably miss my top 100 would be The Outlaw Josey Wales.  Sadly, I’ve not connected with much of anything from the bicentennial year.  1980 was a toss-up; Raging Bull is a better movie, but both my 7 year-old and 35 year-old selfs would rather watch The Empire Strikes Back. The hardest year, as with music, was 1991.  Though not the highpoint of my life, there is something about being 18 that makes the new seem masterful.  Delicatessen and Prospero’s Books fought tooth and nail with Naked Lunch for the lone spot, but the memory of seeing it twice in the theater in back-to-back showings was too strong.  Burroughs, Cronenberg and Ornette Coleman?  It was made for me.  Easy to see Pixar is hitting a nerve, taking last year and leading for this one, with The Incredibles nipping at the heels of Kung Fu Hustle in 2004.

A few creators are on here multiple times: the Coen Brothers with Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski; Wong Kar-Wai with Happy Together and In The Mood For Love; Ridley Scott with The Duellists and Blade Runner.  My younger self would be surprised at only one Woody Allen (no Sleeper or Love and Death), one Peter Greenaway (the afore-mentioned Prospero’s Books or Drowning By Numbers), one Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and one Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise or Dead Man).

Praiseworthy?

I’m tired of hype.  I don’t blame those who are responsible for it; they’re doing their job (a thankless one most days, when tasked with selling Space Chimps or Hannah Montana).  I don’t blame gushing internet writers, or traditional TV or newspaper critics, or heartfelt fans.  I blame myself for swallowing it whole, allowing myself to become part and parcel of that effort to raise superlatives to the rafters.

So what, you may ask, is bringing this to a virulent head?  The last straw was succumbing to the swirling tornado and going, on opening weekend, to The Dark Knight.  I don’t think I need to go into the praise this has received, the hype surrounding both the film and Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, as it has been omnipresent for months.  I will admit to some raised expectations, as I thouught Nolan and company had revitalized Batman as a big screen entity with Batman Begins; that movie was engaging and entertaining, and gave Bruce Wayne and his alter ego a strong back story and interesting nemesis.  But for all that Ras Al-Ghul is Batman’s dark reflection, in both comics and public perception Batman is measured by his conflicts with the Joker.

The Joker, in Heath Ledger’s hands, is hit or miss.  A mass of tics and crutches in place of character, he rarely rises to frightening madness or even merely frightening.  The “magic trick” was nice, but what made it frightening was how underplayed it was; the act was madness, so the acting didn’t need to be.  Two-Face might have got the makeup, but the Joker was a pale (faced) Freddy Krueger, all quips and sadism, quips and sadism.  Speaking of Two-Face, I thought Eckhart’s performance was fine.  He played the same Aaron Eckhart he always does, and to good effect.  The problem I had, far more than the characterization of the villains, was the lack of their counterpoint. What happened to Batman?  He’s the absent heart of this movie, like in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.  Of course the bad guys are more interesting; they’re bad guys, unlike the audience.  People are repulsed and mesmerized by the other.  But The Dark Knight was an absent cipher here, talked about like a dead uncle.

All that aside, problems of focus and performance didn’t disappoint the way director Christopher Nolan did.  This movie is far, far too long, dutifully trudging through its leaden 150 or so minutes.  The Hong Kong sequence was a beautiful piece of action cinema, and well conceived.  However, that whole storyline is superfluous.  If you make the mob money manager a Gothamite you lose no plot, and can cut at least twenty minutes – Chop!  The hackneyed moral dilemma of the two ferryboats has no tension and no believability, but it does pad the flick at the worst time as it is finally building towards a climax.  Of course, the climax is more hackneyed than that boatload of bull, an unnecessary sacrifice that perverts the core of Batman for no good reason.

Despite all my issues with it, ones that loom ever larger upon further reflection, it isn’t horrible.  The Dark Knight is just completely average.  It is wildly entertaining in parts (the Joker’s big/bigger/biggest gun amidst the chase), amusing in a few others (the aforementioned pencil thing; the leaving the hospital sequence).  Hellboy II, another movie I had high hopes for, has all sorts of problems with pacing (it is so amazingly front-loaded that the second half both drags and bores), yet managed to be entertaining without being condescending; Batman smacks and smacks its importance and message over and over with a big rubber mallet.

But both were better than the smugly unfunny nudge-nudge wink-wink of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The first few minutes, when Dr. Horrible was video-blogging, was promising; Joss Whedon didn’t make me laugh, but he got me to smile.  Once the second character was introduced it went downhill into 40 “musical” (there are songs, for no reason or gain) minutes that were like the worst episodes of the live action Tick series.  I’ve never bought the genius of Joss Whedon, and I feel pretty comfortable saying that his career arc is one of constant decline: Buffy >Angel >Firefly >Serenity >his comic books >Dr. Horrible.  I kept trying because many people I respect enjoy his work, but this last piece of tripe will be it for me.

I rambled on and on here, saying, it seems to me, rather little.  Phil did a better job of tackling The Dark Knight, and too greater effect.  Go read it and everything else on his blog.

2008 Is Reissuing Nicely

Compilations and reissues I’ve found worthwhile, in no particular order:

The Replacements – Sorry Ma, I Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, Hootenanny, and Let It Be

I mentioned a few of the new tracks from the reissues back in April, but haven’t really talked about the albums as a whole. First, Stink doesn’t really belong on the list, but I felt weird not putting it up there. It wasn’t particularly good at the time, and nothing added to it redeems it or raises it to the level of the other three.  Hootenanny has long been a favorite, with enough of both the bratty energy of the debut and the emotional resonance of Let It Be to feed whatever my mood may be.  Let It Be is still the classic it has long been hailed, only more so; the mastering here is crisp enough to discern cymbals from the trebly high end of the guitar yet still maintain the propulsion and cohesive, careening style that defined the ‘Mats.  Sorry Ma is better than I remember, with songs like “Customer” and “Shiftless When Idle” being stone cold classic.  I can’t wait for the second four this fall.  I’m one of those few fans that rank Pleased To Meet Me and All Shook Down right below Let It Be and Hootenanny.

Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff: Deluxe Edition

Weird to think Grunge peaked in 1988, isn’t it?  It never got better than this, but with “Touch Me, I’m Sick”, “Burn It Clean” and “You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)” on the bill it shouldn’t be a surprise.  I’ve owned this on tape, vinyl and now two different cds, and I have to say that for all the money I’ve thrown at Mudhoney for just this one album , the rewards have been tenfold.  I’ve yet to tire of it in twenty years, and doubt I ever will. Marc Masters, in the Pitchfork review, summed it up better than I could:

“Touch Me I’m Sick” and Superfuzz Bigmuff are still powerful two decades later: Steve Turner’s guitar bleeding over “Twenty Four”, Mark Arm’s screams pumping the veins of “No One Has”, Dan Peters filling every open drum space in “Burn It Clean”– none of it has been diminished by time. That’s evidenced by Sub Pop’s deluxe 2xCD set, which adds singles, compilation tracks, and demos, plus two fine live sets from winter 1988. Three versions of “Touch Me I’m Sick” all slay, but it was with follow-up single “You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)” that Mudhoney peaked. The tune’s lopsided sway is both urgent and half-awake, like a muttering drunk who blows your mind with off-handed profundity. An all-together-now “Fuck you!” at the end is Mudhoney in a nutshell– they’re laughing cause they really mean it, and vice versa.

Kid Creole –  Going Places: The August Darnell Years

I’m a very casual Kid Creole fan – I like what I’ve heard over the years, but never owned any of it.  I read about this somewhere in the week leading up to its release and figured, “Hey, I should check this out!”  By covering some of Darnell’s pre-Kid Creole work, the evolution is easily followed; also, it means amazing tracks like “Sunshower” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and “Is That All There Is?” by Cristina are now in my collection.  The liner notes are wonderful, really giving a good sense of place and importance.  If more disco sounded like Darnell’s version, I’d like more disco.  As it is, I now can spin “Emile (Night <Rate)” by the Aural Exciters and have myself a party.

West African 70s compilations galore: African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds From Benin & Togo 70s, Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump, Nigeria Disco Funk Special, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-76

I know there is another one in the Nigeria Special series, Nigeria Rock Special, but I haven’t heard it or it would probably make the list.  Lagos Jump is a sequel of sorts to the out-of-print and indispensable Nigeria 70, and is filled with more funky Afrobeat from the former Nigerian capital. “Everybody Likes Something Good” by Ify Jerry Krusade smokes like few blasts of mid-tempo funk ever.  The Disco Funk album may be the most consistent, both in quality and sound; a continuous blast of wicka-whacka funk guitar and blaxplotation-style arrangements, it sounds the least influenced by Afrobeat and Highlife of these sets.  Unsurprisingly, the Nigeria Special set with Highlife and Afro-Sounds in its subtitle bears the strongest connections to those dominant forms.  It is the most varied of these as well, with a broader mix and a focus on sounds from outside the cultural capital of Lagos.  I’m most intrigued, however, by African Scream Contest.  My prior exposure to the sounds of Benin is limited to the T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo disc that came out a few years back; this album adds more to my knowledge base than any of the others.  It is good music as well, a broader funk sound than the Disco Funk Special, with both a look back and 60s soul as well as a different set of African beats and musical traditions to draw on.  My knowledge of African music is both slight and rather narrowly focused, but I’m enjoying the music as I broaden my horizons.

Willie Nelson – One Hell Of A Ride

Willie’s always been a tough artist to wrangle.  For many years, he indescrimanently put out his work in every possible permutation, all with an eye toward making enough to clear up tax problems.  With so many recordings under his belt, multiplied by their various configurations, I assumed I would never find an overview that painted even a partial picture.  One Hell Of A Ride solves that problem.  Spanning his full career while giving full credit to his greatest works, I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who likes Willie even a little bit.  I now know where to go next – live recordings.  As masterful as Willie’s mid 70s output is – I fully plan on trying to track down an inexpensive copy of The Complete Atlantic Sessions as well as pick up the new expanded reissue of Stardust the live stuff on here from the 70s blows my mind.  I’ve always enjoyed Willie’s masterful, jazzy phrasing on the guitar (ably demonstrated on the new album with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With The Blues), but his version of “A Song For You”, taken from Willie and Family Live is magical.

2008 Is Shaping Up Nicely

Past the halfway point, and 2008 seems a solid year for music.  I haven’t found the albums that have changed the way I listen like I did last year (no equivalent to Alcest, Caina or Tinariwen – though Caina’s followup is due out shortly), but there are plenty of highlights.  I mentioned that the new Mugison album is my album of the year so far, and when it finally comes out over here I’ll go into it with some more depth.  Suffice it to say that it has barn burners and delicate acoustic numbers, all with a slightly skewed narrative view.  Good stuff.  I’ll address reissues and compilations in the next few days, as there have been some key ones in both categories.

Things I’ve liked thus far (in no particular order):

Bauahus – Go Away White; The Goslings – Occasion; Sons and Daughters – This Gift; Kaki King – Dreaming Of Revenge

I wrote about these back in March.  Not much to add, except that the Bauhaus has really grown on me, inching toward the top of their catalog.

Seu Jorge – América Brasil o Disco

I just recently got turned onto this and it is what I need to hear right now.  I only know Seu Jorge from the abominable The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (did anyone like this movie?  I actually shut it off before it ended.  What a bunch of rubbish), where he was part of Bill Murray’s crew and played acoustic Portuguese Bowie covers, and the cognoscenti doffed their trucker hats in appreciation.  Here, he channels Jorge Ben for a beautiful mid-70s Brazillian vibe.  Low key but luscious, great for a hot summer day and a cool drink.

Robyn Hitchcock – Shadowcat; The Dresden Dolls – No, Virginia…

Two artists releasing odds-and-sods and outtakes from prior recording sessions.  Unsurprisingly, Robyn’s is one of his best releases, odball but effecting, even the processed vocal acapellas.  The Dresden Dolls release the poppiest stuff they’ve ever doen, much of it recorded during the sessions for their last album, Yes, Virginia… (hence the title).  It showcases a different side, and were anyone paying attention they might have a small amount of mainstream success – “Mouse and the Model” is pretty alt-radio friendly.

The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me

Wrote about it here – a definite grower, really anchoring tendrils in my brain.

Opeth – Watershed

In my re-dedication to metal I somehow missed these guys.  Perhaps their lack of a new album or perhaps their Death Metal roots turned me away.  Regardless, with all the pre-release buzz this album was getting, I felt I needed to hear it.  I didn’t just need to hear it – I needed it.  Unlike anything else I’ve come across recently, with some of the most beautiful and delicate music juxtaposed with pounding and blastbeats.  The transition from the pastoral opener “Coil” to brain pummeler “Heir Apparent” is my favorite one-two punch of the year.  I hope to see these guys in September, so expect more praise if that comes to fruition.

Torche – Meanderthal

I’m a sucker for bad puns and mashed words (is their a term for that?), so a plus one to start.  Where their prior work showed promise, these Florida boys step it up with the catchiest, most beautiful pop metal of the year.  It isn’t pop metal in the way it came to be defined in the 80s (they don’t sound like Poison or Ratt.  That’s not fair, I like Ratt.  They don’t sound like Winger, Posion, Skid Row, White Lion or the like); but there are melodic hooks and catchy riffs, understandable and mostly well sung lyrics, but they still pound you into the ground like John Henry with a sledgehammer.  Another one that gets better with more spins.

Made Out Of Babies – The Ruiner

I just wrote this up a week or so ago.  Go find it.

Earth – The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull

Great album title, great cover, great album.  I’ve always appreciated Earth more than I’ve really cared for them; they paved the way for slow heavy drones 15+ years ago, and I love much of what has been done with their template, but I found them a tad boring.  The ressurrected band has opened up their sound, and now play a glacial Americana, whose physical property is now less Earh and more winter wind.  This album is majestic and harsh, like a Yellowstone winter.

Ufomammut – Idolum

It was one of my most anticipated releases for the year and does not disappoint.  If Yob was the music of Lovecraft’s blind, mad, cosmically-scaled Outer Gods, Ufommamut is the sound of his Great Old Ones.  Still mammoth, still inscrutable and unapproachable, the Great Old Ones are aliens trapped in the earthly sphere.  In “the Call of Cthulhu”, they are described in this way:

“They were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape…but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them.”

This actually could be used, with minor changes, to describe Ufomammut:

“The sound is not composed altogether of flesh and blood. It has shape…but that shape is not made of matter. When the stars are right, Ufomammut plunges from world to world through the sky; but when the stars are wrong, they collapse inward, flight denied. But despite the collapse, the sound never really dies. Carved in stone, as if under a spell of ancient power, Ufomammut swirls, whirls, pines and pulses, yearning for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for them.”

Man Man – Rabbit Habits

It’s not Six Demon Bag, but still quite good.  They recently played in Amsterdam, and the show can be seen on FabChannel.

Witch – Paralyzed

I haven’t played this as much as I expected to, though nothing quite fills the same niche.  Worth a listen if my write-up intruges you.

No Kiss (No Kiss) Is On My List

Fun little exercise – list your favorite album released in each year in which you have been alive (if you’re dead, or have been dead at some point in your life up to now, you’re allowed to skip the years in which you are/were deceased).

1972: Slade – Slade Alive!
1973: Dave Holland – Conference Of The Birds
1974: Frank Zappa – Roxy & Elsewhere
1975: Tom Waits – Nighthawks At The Diner
1976: David Bowie – Station To Station
1977: David Bowie – Low
1978: Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model
1979: The B-52’s – The B-52’s
1980: The Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight
1981: The Clash – Sandinista!
1982: The Time – What Time Is It?
1983: The Replacements – Hootenanny
1984: Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream Of Trains
1985: Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
1986: Camper Van Beethoven – II & III
1987: Butthole Surfers – Locust Abortion Technician
1988: The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace With God
1989: Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
1990: The Carl Stalling Project – Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958
1991: My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
1992: John Cale – Fragments Of A Rainy Season
1993: Henry Threadgill – Too Much Sugar For A Dime
1994: Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom
1995: Björk – Post
1996: DJ Shadow – Endtroducing…..
1997: Madredeus – O Paraíso
1998: Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
1999: The Olivia Tremor Control – Black Foliage
2000: Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
2001: Fugazi – The Argument
2002: Lamb – What Sound
2003: The Notwist – Neon Golden
2004: Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner
2005: Mono/World’s End Girlfriend – Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain
2006: Man Man – Six Demon Bag
2007: Alcest – Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde
2008 (mid-year): Mugison – Mugiboogie

A few quick comments: For this list, wherever possible, I’ve chosen domestic US release; this primarilly affects the run from 2002-2004, as all were initially released the prior year overseas (the only one I heard the year of its initial release was Lamb’s What Sound, which I imported from the UK via Amazon).  Some years are much better than others.  My two favorite albums from the 90s were both released in 1991 – the cited Loveless and Julian Cope’s Peggy Suicide. 1989 has a huge gap between the Beasties and everything else, though that may just me being tired of the music I played to death at 16/17 (plus, those damn gated drums are flatly thwacking all over the place.  Micheal Penn, I’m talking to you).  1976 was surprisingly difficult; for all the mythologizing about punk kicking a moribund music scene in the ass in 1977, I would rank some of that years also-rans ahead of much of the rest of the decade ( AC/DC’s international version of High Voltage, Bob Dylan’s Desire, Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny, Ramones self-titled debut, Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, and Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, to name a few).  Some of my most listened to albums at the time of release didn’t make the list these many years later; for example, two Yo La Tengo albums – 1993’s Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.

Made Out Of Babies

Instead of trying to come up with some wonderful riff on their name or album title, I’m just going with their name above the post.  It sounds like I’m pulling your leg as it is.

Brooklyn band Made Out Of Babies released their third album, The Ruiner, a couple of weeks ago.  This is a band I’d heard of but not heard; their last album, Coward, got a fair amount of positive press (though, to be honest, everyone who records with Steve Albini gets a fair amount of press for that connection alone), but didn’t really sound like my thing.  This time around, a number of writers I trust implicitly were gushing over it; Adrien Begrand touted it first on his blog in late May and than Popmatters published his interview with lead singer Julie Christmas, while over on I Love Music, Scott Seward started a thread positing The Ruiner as album of the year.  At roughly the same time, Christopher R. Weingarten sat down with Christmas and guitarist Brendan Tobin to discuss the album, track-by-track, for Paper Thin Walls (at the time it was posted, they were streaming the album as well.  My procrastination means you won’t get to hear it there).

On their MySpace page, the band lists the following artists as inspriations: Barkmarket, Jesus Lizard, Melvins, Led Zeppelin, Players Club, Kyuss, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fugazi, Cop Shoot Cop, Hank Williams, Mozart, Mookie, Salty, Joel, Viva, Caitlin, Moms, Neurosis, Today is the Day, Black Sabbath, Big Black.  Except for the run from Mookie to Moms, I can understand how most of the others fit in.  What these seemingly disparate artists have is a fine sense of rhythm.  Post-hardcore (man do I hate genre classifications, even when they’re helpful) bands like Fugazi, Cop Shoot Cop and Jesus Lizard had rhythm sections that could swing, regardless of tempo.  They didn’t play flat out (though they could) as much as coordinate the pummeling, like the finest of boxers.  Zeppelin and Sabbath surely did the same in a different style.  Basie and Fitzgerald changed the phrasing of swing, musically and vocally; Hank Williams’ delivery is as idiosyncratic, as swinging, as any country two-step.  Neurosis similarly changed metal’s parameters by incorporating a full range of rhythmic influences from industrial to tribal to ambient (and may be considered responsible for the mostly dreadful post-metal genre).  So what happens when you combine post-rock and post-metal, with a unique and far-ranging vocal style?  Faith No More.

It may seem like I kid, but I hear a great deal of Mike Patton and his cohorts in The Ruiner.  This is a good thing; I’ve waited a long time to hear something that reminds me of Angel Dust or King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime.  But it is reminiscent, not a copy or emulator of those albums. “Invisible Ink” (probably the strongest track) and “Bunny Boots” would fit both Patton’s voice and Faith No More’s butterfly-inducing genre-jumps, but Made Out Of Babies is heavier than they were, at least on record (my memory of them live is much more intense).  Also, without an equivalent to Roddy Bottum’s keyboard washes and runs, the space in the songs function as an intake, not a bridge; each moment an inflation of the lungs before the next release.

If I must quibble (and I must – it is part of my idiom), the damn thing is mastered way too hot.  I complain about it all the time, but the aural fatigue – particulalry with loud, aggressive and intense music such as this – limits how I can listen.  The Ruiner isn’t too long at 42 minutes, but I have to pretend I have the vinyl and not the disc; after “Buffalo” I shut it off.  The next listen I start off with the aforementioned “Bunny Boots” and run it through the end.  For an album as consistently strong as this, red-lining it is a disservice.