Friday, March 27, 2009

Psychically Stoned--The Art of Enjoying Knowing

Maybe it was the curiously strong chai, maybe it was the guilty pleasure of seeing a movie at 4:30 in the afternoon on a weekday, but whatever the case may have been, I thoroughly enjoyed Knowing. To be fair, you might not want to trust me on this one, because not only did I like Knowing, but I also loved all the trailers that preceded it...and I usually hate trailers. Inglorious Basterds, Public Enemies, Star Trek, Sorority Row, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3--based on the trailers I want to see them all. And that makes no sense. Was I stoned? No I wasn’t. But it sure felt like I was. I’ve had it with Nazis and WWII movies, but damn it, Brad Pitt was chewing the scenery in the Inglorious Basterds trailer and it’s a new Tarntino movie. I’m there. I’ve also had it with new gangster movies, yet the lush period scenery and Johnny Depp disappearing into the role of John Dillinger in the dubiously titled Public Enemies seemed pretty enticing. I’m in. I also hate it when they remake great movies like Pelham One Two Three. Can’t they leave well enough alone? Plus it looks like Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, Mr. Green and Mr. Grey have been morphed into one character played by John Travolta. Whatever, I’m along for the ride. And finally, Sorority Girls toss a dead body down a well and then a hooded figure starts tracking them down and killing them on Sorority Row—Looks fantastic. Can’t wait.

As for Knowing, I should say I had no desire to see it, expected it to be terrible but went anyway when a friend put out the offer. I think the key to enjoying these bombastic Hollywood offerings is to have no expectations. If you expect the worse, can you really be disappointed? As for the film, it has a pretty great premise. It opens in 1959 with a group of 2nd graders putting items in a time capsule. A freaky girl--think a tripped out Wednesday Adams--furiously scribbles down a series of numbers, urged on by the demonic voices in her head. That missive is unearthed 50 years later by Nick Cage’s son. After a bout of drinking bourbon, Cage starts recognizing a pattern to the numbers. They seem to be a code that has predicted the dates, locations and death counts of every major disaster in the last 50 years. A handful of the numbers suggest disasters to imminently unfold in the coming weeks. The film has a pervasive creepiness to it. Reminiscent of the creep factor of some 70s horror films like Audrey Rose. Factor in the cloaked men that are stalking Cage’s son and the specter of 70s Satanist films comes to the fore. Incubus, The Devil’s Rain, and even Coven come to mind. Sure there is some wretched overacting and some convenient and incomprehensible plot developments, but I was enjoying the apocalyptic fanfare. Interestingly, the end of the film turns creepy in a religious way. All of a sudden we seem to get transported to a Mormon educational film or a Unarius video and you realize that perhaps you’ve been watching a multi-million dollar religious propaganda film. Spoiler alert forthcoming: As the apocalypse bears down on planet earth, keep this in mind. There are chosen ones who will be spirited away to the heavens, their earthly bodies intact. As for everyone else, as long as you believe and have faith, you will find comfort, and perhaps, salvation. This message should have enraged me? Didn't I hate Forrest Gump for a similar faith-based world view? But like I say, perhaps, I was psychically stoned, cause yesterday at the movies, it was all good.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Quick Thoughts About Crime

Been reading a lot of crime novels as of late. It seems to be my “go-to” genre when I’m at a loss for what to read, when I need a page-turner to kick start my reading jones, or when I want respite from writers getting all post-modern and collegiate on my ass. Here are some quick reviews of what I’ve read in recent months.

My Gun Is Quick by Mickey Spillane
I do love Mickey Spillane. Maybe it has something to do with the Colt 45 ads from my youth, who knows? But he has now taken the place of Steinbeck as a go to guy when I need to be re-energized. It used to be that after having read a couple of clunkers, I'd pick up a Steinbeck novel because they were always engaging, always entertaining, and an easy read. Guaranteed to get me back in the reading groove. Now I go for the Mick. My Gun is Quick is a goodie. It seems foolish doing an in depth review, because in a way, they're all kind of the same. But the writing is so good, it doesn't matter. It's a fun ride, down back alleys, into seedy bars, into ritzy bars, Mike Hammer rushing headlong into the fray. The alleys are always a little different, the frays a little different, the drinks always strong, and the women always curvy. I will say that the final "tragedy" in this one was painfully predictable, but there's always a moment or two of cheeseball, predictability in these affairs. What are you going to do?

Cropper’s Cabin by Jim Thompson
I had been mired in some "arty" books (Savage Detectives, Blood Meridian) that spent a lot of time meandering around the story. I decide a little Jim Thompson might be the antidote. To be fair, I’m not the huge Thompson fan that others are. I’ve read a handful and always like, but with the exception of After Dark, My Sweet, I never love. Cropper’s Cabin seems par for the course between Mr. Thompson and me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d recommend to someone. Certainly served as the antidote I was looking for though. Sharp as nails writing, with action and dialogue always on point. And given that the story centers around a dirt-poor sharecropping family and the Indian family whose land they live on, the book dovetailed nicely with all the Native American literature I’ve been reading this year. All told, a goodie, though I kind of felt that the lead character's heart turns dark and desperate in a way that didn't jive with his character as established early in the novel. Still, I dug it.

Whoreson by Donald Goines
Knowing my fondness for Iceberg Slim novels, my buddy Kit has been on me to sample some Donald Goines’ novels. Goines was a Detroiter who, while doing a stint at Jackson St. Penitentiary, discovered Slim and started writing gritty, ghetto-centric novels in the 1970s. Whoreson was his first book and it doesn't get anymore cold-blooded than this. Ruthless and unrepentant. Much like Iceberg Slim, but even darker and without Slim’s humor. The book’s hero, Whoreson, is the son of a prostitute who enters the pimping game at the young age of 16. He’s heartless. The blurb on the dust jacket promises "bitter humor." There was certainly lots of bitter, but not so much humor. I’ll be honest, it’s a tough read, but compelling in its way. I’m sure to read some more, especially since all his books seem to be on remainder for $2.98 these days.

Lush Life by Richard Price
I love vintage crime (Chandler, Hammett, Spillane), but really haven't read any modern crime writing. This was great. Totally sucked me in. Lush Life takes place in New York’s Lower East Side where the lives of the kids from the projects intersect with the boho types gentrifying the neighborhood. The main boho character, Eric Cash, is an awesome character. He’s the artist who never made it, who’s still waiting tables. He’s getting older, his dream is passing him by and he’s getting increasingly irritated by the young hipsters whose lives seem to have a greater upside than his. He gets embroiled in a late night con gone wrong and the book takes off from there. The book weighs about 10 pounds, so you’ll want to read it quickly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

25 Records That Shaped My Life

It’s been a pretty busy couple weeks, so I haven’t had much time to generate any new posts, so expect a couple of re-prints from other places in the coming weeks. Here’s my take on that 25 Records That Shaped My Life meme that was running around Facebook.

In picking 25 records, I tended to go with records that opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about music and records that really served as portals to new genres and new sounds. In other words, these aren’t necessarily my favorite records or my favorite records by the artists I’ve listed. And in some cases, they may even be records I haven’t listened to in years. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I listened to Blow Your Face Out by J. Geils. And obviously it’s hard to encapsulate these type of things into such a small list. As I look back over this list, which I created a couple of weeks ago, I’m surprised by certain omissions. I imagine Horses by Patti Smith should be on here. I’m shocked that no Mott The Hoople or Ian Hunter is on here. And honestly, The Temptations Greatest Hits Volume II should probably take the place of the Stax box. Oh well, it’s not perfect, but here ya go.

Sweet Desolation Boulevard
Hey it’s the first record I ever bought. I’ve got thousands of them now, but this is where it started. Bought it at Korvettes for 3.99. And I still love this record. Ballroom Blitz (a karaoke staple of mine) and Fox on the Run were huge radio hits but I loved it all. I remember calling up the radio station and requesting A.C.D.C from this record. I remember the dj telling me that it was too progressive and he wouldn’t play it. I had no idea what that meant.

Cheap Trick Live at Budokan
Perhaps the first record I was really obsessed with. I used to quote lyrics from this in conversation in the hallways in middle school. Dad would later drive us to the “Joe” on the Dream Police Tour.

J Geils Band Live-We’re Gonna Blow Your Face Out
Being from Detroit you had to pretty much love J. Geils and I did. Their live show was amazing, better than the records. Once I got to college and started getting into alternative music, the concept of being blown away by a band in a small club was unbelievable. The greatest bands in the world, in a teeny club, and you were standing at the foot of the stage. Tremendous. But love of the live show really started with J. Geils.

Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps
Neil’s my favorite. And this was the first record of his I ever bought. I think I was in 8th grade. The riff on Hey Hey, My My may be the greatest riff ever. Powderfinger is one of his best songs. I once dated a Welfare Mother and I was excited (because she was hot and because I loved this song). Thrasher is my fave acoustic song of his. And the backing vocals on Sail Away are fantastic. I need say no more.

The Clash Sandinista/Joe Jackson Beat Crazy/Talking Heads Remain In Light
These are probably the 3 most important records in my life in a weird way. And they’re three records that are inextricably linked. All of their previous records (London Calling, I’m The Man, Fear of Music) got a lot of play on rock radio in Detroit. Songs from those records were nestled right up against Van Halen, Aldo Nova and .38 Special. At the time, in my mind, there were really only 3 kinds of music—Disco, Oldies and Rock. I was not really aware of any other subtle subdivisions of genre. When these bands new records came out, I couldn’t wait to hear them. I was a cheapskate, so I always waited to hear stuff on the radio before I’d go out and buy them. But lo and behold, the radio wasn’t playing any tracks from any of these records. What was up? I had no idea, but something seemed pretty rotten in Denmark. But this opened me up to the concept that the radio didn’t necessarily have my best interests in mind. That their play lists weren’t necessarily based on what the people wanted to hear. That if you wanted to hear certain kinds of music you would have to search elsewhere. That you’d have to go underground or left of the dial. Trying to hear tracks from these records led me to alternative music shows on Public Radio, college stations and by ferreting out information from record store clerks. Once I found those alternatives I never looked back and said goodbye to rock radio.

Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks
I think I read about this in Time Magazine and bought it on a trip to visit my sister who was at College in Ann Arbor. Bought it at Discount records on State Street. I think the fact that I bought it on a college visit added to its mystique for me. And you know what. I still like this record.

Ramones End of The Century
Maybe this is an odd Ramones record to have on the list, but it’s the first one I bought. And I love the Spector production. It channels their love of the 50s in a great way and changes up the delivery in a great way. I remember my dad taking me to buy this one on a snow day from school. Any record that gets purchased in a snowstorm on a snow day deserves to make the list.

X Los Angeles
A friend read about this in the LA Times. I overheard her talking about it on a field trip and decided I had to own it. At the time I owned records by the Ramones, The Sex Pistols and the Clash so I thought I understood “punk rock”, but this one blew the doors off. This was an entirely different beast. Snarlier, dirtier, more discordant. Nauseau was like nothing I ever heard before. This was a real gateway record.

Leadbelly Midnight Special
Did South Quad, my dorm at college, have a library? If it did, that’s where I checked out this record. After discovering the alternative radio show on Detroit’s public radio station, WDET, I would occasionally come across a show called “Blues From the Lowlands.” I was interested. So I picked up this Leadbelly record. And was blown away. This was my gateway record to the Delta Blues.

Velvet Underground & Nico
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this?

Rain Parade Third Rail Emergency Power Trip
Not sure if the Paisley Underground lead me to the Velvets or the other way around, but I loved the Paisley Underground in a huge way. Rain Parade, The Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate, Green On Red. Early on in the college years I saw all these bands at a tiny bar in Ann Arbor, Joe’s Star Lounge. At the front of the stage for all the shows. They all blew me away, I bought all the records and all those bands lead me back to the 60s to unearth a lot of brilliant music that I knew very little about at the time.

Replacements Hootenanny
The shambolic glory of seeing this band live was something else. Saw amazing shows, saw disastrous shows, but they were always good. Saw them 3 times in the same week once. That was a highlight. In Ann Arbor, they even inspired a knock-off band called the Substitutes. I still like Hootenany more than Let It Be. I might be in the minority here, but I’m sure I’m right.

Hank Williams Moanin’ The Blues
Patsy Cline The Patsy Cline Story

Fueled by my interest in the Blues, Green On Red’s country turn and the Knitters record, I started getting interested in country music. These are the first two records I picked up. And they are awesome. I got to say I love Hank William’s lyrics. So simple, but so good.

Mekons Edge of the World
A 14.99 import if memory serves me right. Purchased right at the time I was discovering country music. So it was the perfect fit. I still think this is their best record. So gloriously all over the map. At times their songwriting doesn’t live up to their ideas and concepts, but it sure does on this record.

Big Black Atomizer
For years I loved Touch & Go records. More than Homestead, more than SST. Maybe it was a Midwest thing. Maybe it was because I saw all the bands on a regular basis. But I loved that nasty, scuzzy, confrontational sound. Was there a band better at this than Big Black? Not for my money. If memory serves, the release of this record was delayed and delayed or if not delayed, hotly anticipated. And it delivered. Does it hold up? Not sure. But I loved it at the time.

Sonic Youth Evol
Had heard the hype, but hadn’t heard the band until I caught the Richard Kern directed Death Valley 69 video on a late night cable show. I was hooked and went out and bought Evol the next day. Spooky, sexy, sultry, weird sounding and it had a locked groove! I think I thought it was scratched and took it back to the record store only to be mocked by the clerk. “It’s a locked groove, moron.”

Butthole Surfers Locust Abortion Technician
The best live band since J. Geils? Just maybe. Was there a mightier band than the Buttholes in this era? Not so likely. And the live shows. If you were there, you know of what I speak.

Dinosaur You’re Living All Over Me
I was obsessed with Cheap Trick. I was obsessed with the Replacements. Then I was obsessed with Dinosaur.

Soundgaden Badmotorfinger
I loved me the grunge. I thought FOPP was amazing when it came out. I still love this record. Whenever it comes up on shuffle, I am very very happy.

The Stooges Raw Power
I’m from Detroit. Perhaps it’s in my DNA to love the Stooges. I know it’s James Williamson on guitar and not Ron Asheton, but it was the first one I bought, so it has a special place in my heart.

Funkadelic Maggot Brain
Parliament was on the radio growing up. Flashlight and all. So when I heard this, I was blown away. Did not expect something so heavy from a funk band. Some of the best guitar playing ever…in a funk band. Did not compute. But so good.

Elvis The Sun Sessions
Obviously you couldn’t escape Elvis on the radio growing up. And I loved oldies radio. But hearing this record in its entirety in college was something else. So rockin’ and so delicate at the same time. And that voice. I stopped to listen and I was hooked.

Can Cannibalism
My tastes in recent years have moved toward the outré, psychedelic, experimental zone. And Can would be ground zero for me on that front. And this is the first Can record I heard. Not the best and all the long songs are edited down, but hey, this was the wellspring for me.

Stax Box Set, volume 1.
OK, it’s 9 cds, so that’s not fair. But this stuff is amazing. And I love the soul and r&b template laid down here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Helvetica: Did Someone Really Make A Feature-Length Movie About A Font?!

My wife fell asleep 15 minutes into watching Helvetica. When she woke up the next morning she turned to me and said, “A 90 minute movie featuring a bunch of Dutch guys talking about typography? Was that the worst movie ever?!” Absolutely not, I loved it. To be fair, I’m a bit obsessed with design these days, but I loved this movie. Helvetica is ostensibly a brief history of design from post-WWII to the present, looking at how design infiltrates every day life. Art movements, culture movements, advertising movements and corporate culture get viewed through the lens of design, particularly typography. The movie is beautifully shot, with lots of poetic urban landscapes, featuring the ubiquitous Helvetica appearing on signs, busses, subway maps, billboards, backpacks, etc. Helvetica, a font designed by the Swiss (not the Dutch, honey) shortly after World War II, became the torch bearing font of the modernist design movement. The movie explores the appeal of Helvetica from a design, cultural and corporate perspective. It also becomes the fulcrum with which the film explores subsequent movements in design. I loved most of the interviews. Obsessive wingnuts, waxing rhapsodically about type faces. Is this any different than all the obsessives I’ve heard talk about comics and record collecting over the years? Not really, except they were all really clean cut, metrosexual and they had really nice apartments and workspaces with clean lines. But ultimately just as weird. I liked it.