Monday, March 31, 2003

Thinking about why I like Western movies.

I still feel like a dabbler. Never read a McMurtry novel, f'rinstance, although I liked McCarthy's Blood Meridian enough to name a song for it. I tend to like the visual iconography of Western movies better than novels (and that cinematic feel in Blood Meridian was the reason I liked it & haven't much cared for any other McCarthy books). I've never seen a lot of the early Westerns, but it is interesting to me that the quintessential Western situation (man vs. man vs. nature) can be used to create works that are politically deliberate in both liberal and conservative veins (or maybe Lockean and Hobbesian might be a better split, casting the honor-among-men motif of The Wild Bunch as the former, and the strength-through-distrust motif of The Man With No Name trilogy in the latter) or as politically ambiguous as McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Jesus Christ, I'm sorry for the convolution of that last sentence. Anyway, when they're good, Westerns ask the hard questions and undermine their own answers, with plots easily cast as "men conflicted in difficult situations over their philosophical differences". I dig that kind of primordial storytelling.

So, I've seen Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, The Mag 7, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Deadly Companions, The Man With No Name Trilogy, Unforgiven, the other (less good) Eastwood westerns, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and probably some others besides.

I'd put Dead Man into my top tier. It does what Westerns should do by subsuming the action into a sprawling meditation on the meaning of life. I also quite enjoyed the hallucinatory picaresque allegory of the "plot," and the conceit of Gary Farmer's character has always rang true to me as a mostly unexplored Western archetype (I mean, he's basically the Noble Savage, but instead of being naive like so many NSs, he's a sharp guy with nothing left looking for meaning).

I've read about a half-dozen Cormac McCarthy books, but only loved Blood Meridian. McCarthy has a tendency to wax poetic in what reads to me like an attempt to honor both Faulkner and Burroughs at once, but, like with Dead Man, I like the hallucinatory approach to the West. It brings home the madness that characters would feel from the hardships of living & surviving in the desert with nothing much in the way of possessions, not to mention the unreality that would creep into people's heads when living with the constant threat of violence. In short: heat, dehydration, solitude, and murder make people crazy. Good Westerns, to me, consider what those conditions do to people's souls.

Also, for the record, I dig Morricone & Calexico.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Quick note: I spent Sunday to Thursday of this week in Big Bend National Park. This is an incredible experience, akin to suddenly finding yourself touring The American West writ large. Though I looked ridiculous hiking in my cowboy hat with shorts, a goofy Euro backpack filled with water, & hiking boots, I felt like Bill Holden in the The Wild Bunch. "When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal. You're finished."

So, I just watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time. Some of y'all (I realize that the group of people who read this log includes myself and no one else) know about the love in my heart for Peckinpah films, which are far more iconographic than Altman's. I've grappled with Altman in the past, to various results, but this one blew me away. I love how fully-rounded the people were, from the title characters to all of the supporting cast, and how Altman caught the human impulse to ignore tragedy (as in the phenomenal fight at the end & the shooting of the Carradine kid) and to miss significance of actions (as in the way that the town popped up while the church for which the town was named went unfinished). The color was just stunning, too, as was the use of Cohen's music (usually, I have no use for him). Anyway, sorry to rant on like this, but as I think about this movie, it colors my opinion of every Western I've ever seen. That's about as high a praise as I can assess, and similar to how I felt when I first saw The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country. My movie hound friends steered me right on this.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

A few more album review pitches.

Camper Van Beethoven, s/t
When listening to this, possibly the most psychedelic album of all time, I feel high, although it may be just motion-sickness. Camper jerks the listener all over the music map, one genre-busting song after another, climaxing in a raucous 12-minute cover of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive". Dude. Seriously.

Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane
This is pop for grown-ups. Bitter, worn lyrics. Lush, symphonic song arrangement. Listening to this album is like taking a drag on the first cigarette you've had for years, while thinking about how your ex-wife hated smoking so damn much.

Rank & File, Sundown
Say what you will about the Kinman brothers, but they managed to turn out exactly one decent country-punk album, and this is it.

Richard Buckner, Devotion + Doubt
Buckner's love letters from hell sound like the muffled screams of a man drowning in his own emotion. His pain is unrelenting, but also beautiful and true. Some people think that country music is about the sound and attitude. Buckner knows that regret is the bitter heart of country songcraft.

Friday, March 14, 2003

I'm working on some album review proposals for an editor friend. Here's what I have thus far.

Tonebenders, s/t
Like Pavement covering Booker T. & the MG’s, the Tonebenders slung a fistful of indie cool at the classic R&B palette and, unlike, say, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, managed to avoid embarrassing themselves.

Sparklehorse, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot
Let me whisper creepy little non-sequitors into your ear, little girl, for I have a guitar and a Casio. Listen to my howls in the heart of the hurricane. Fuck Greil Marcus. I’m twice as weird and scary as anything that Dylan could dream up in his kaleidoscope nightmares.

The Silos, s/t
With introspective roots-rock that could have come out of any town with a half a music scene (and where only posers and pussies wear shades after dark), the Silos distinguish themselves by their monk-like adherence to simple arrangement and simple belief in the redemptive and delicate craft of songwriting.

Jandek, Blue Corpse
By the third song, Jandek has made it clear that he’s in no mood for women, sunlight, or a second chord. Some cite Blood on the Tracks as the most harrowing break-up album, but even a happy Jandek could redefine the word “harrowing”. This, my friends, is not the work of a happy Jandek.

fIREHOSE, Live Totem Pole EP
Goddammit, but those boys tear up “The Red and the Black”! About twice as good as the best fIREHOSE album, this documents Watt & company at their most exultant and care-free.

Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
I don’t speak a word of French. OK, I know “merde”, which appears at least once on this album. My point is that one doesn’t need to be fluent in French to know that this is the most decadent, smutty, perverted sex-funk album ever released (think about that: it pre-dates the recording career of Isaac Hayes). In fact, like when old horror movies would cut away the second before the violence, it probably helps that I speak no French.

The Feelies, The Good Earth
God, I love this album. I think that a lot of critics tend to downplay the Feelies' later albums in favor of their jittery first, Crazy Rhythms, but this one in particular is a masterpiece. The songs are all simple three-chord folk songs centered around multilayered acoustic guitars with third-album VU-inspired lead guitar. The vocals are low to the point of occasional inaudibility, which is fine because the lyrics are never too intelligent. But what kills me is the sound: carefully arranged without being fussy, complex without losing that off-the-cuff relaxed folky feel, simultaneously urban and earthy. With the structure of a jam band (two drummers!), some reviews have called the Feelies the Grateful Dead of 80's indie pop. These reviewers are missing the focus of each song, as only two break the five-minute mark, and only one of those is stretched out by a guitar solo. "Guitar solo" isn't really the right word for the fifteen-odd lead guitar tracks that overtake that song, "Slipping (into something)", pushing it from a dark pastorale into a maelstrom of noise. None of the other tracks work up such a head of steam, but nevertheless manage to bounce and push, as well. "The Last Roundup" is underpinned by a snare-heavy drum track that never drops into backbeat, sounding like both drummers are simply flailing away at the beat, but the song strangely remains the most country-influenced track on the album. "On the Roof", "Let's Go", and "The Good Earth" have the indie-pop feel of a less futzy Let's Active, whereas "The High Road" and "When Company Comes" are pure folk-punk goofiness. It's a delicate line that the Feelies walk, but they never waver. Would that more artists were capable of their craft.

I went a bit overboard with the last one, but I'm not kidding about loving the hell out of this album.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

This started out as an explanation of the context for some songs on a Mekons mix, but it became an album-by-album critique of the Mekons, so here it is.

"Dan Dare" is from The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen, 1979. You should look up the album on to see the cover.

"Never Been in a Riot" is a single from the Fast Product label. I think it came out in 1978, but the compiled collection is mostly from 1979.

There is nothing from Devils, Rats, and Piggies, which I find to be mostly unlistenable crap.

"The Building" and "He Beat Up His Boyfriend" are from It Falleth Like a Gentle Rain From Heaven: The Mekons Story, another collection of singles from 1979-1982.

"Trouble Down South", "Hard to Be Human Again", and "Last Dance" are from Fear and Whiskey, 1985. This is when the Mekons suddenly decided to quit playing semi-competant dance-punk and went for an arty version of American country music. I'm sure that Misha might have recommended different songs from this album, but, y'know, what are you going to do when every single song is a keeper?

"Hello Cruel World", "Shanty", and "Big Zombie" are from Edge of the World, 1986. The country-punk continues. This is the first album with Sally Timms, but, sadly, I left off the song "Oblivion", which, by all rights, should have been here. Something to look for, if you choose to continue buying Mekons albums.

No songs from the live New York album, which is an interesting document of where the Mekons were at that time, but not as interesting as the studio material itself.

"The Prince of Darkness" and "Sympathy for the Mekons" are from Honky Tonkin', 1987. The former song is about the lead singer of the Sisters of Mercy and features Michelle Shocked singing back-up vocals. The second song is sheer goofiness.

"Ghosts of American Astronauts" and "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian" are from So Good It Hurts, 1988. Shimmery, shimmery reggae-influenced pop. This album was a weird left turn in a career of weird left turns.

"Memphis, Egypt", "Club Mekon", and "Heaven and Back" are from Mekons Rock & Roll, 1989. Good god, y'all, if you've ever found smarter and more-rocking songs than these, I'll eat someone's hat. Every time I hear this album, I pick up something new. The lyrics manage to be commentary on the music industry, the commodification of music as an experience, the state of capitalism in the late 80s, and the indifference of the West to the plight of the Third World without sounding forced or strident. In fact, many of the metaphors are cleverly couched in throwaway phrases and misdirection. It works as a kick-ass rock album, a master's thesis, or the rock-opera version of The Baffler.

"The Curse", "Blue Arse", and "Wild and Blue" are from The Curse of the Mekons, 1991. Having languished in major-label hell for two years following Rock & Roll, the Mekons put out their most produced album yet and manage to lose none of the punk-rock kick. The lyrics are more direct and despairing than on Rock & Roll, but just as cutting. The cover of "Wild and Blue" may be Sally's most beautiful vocal, as well.

"I (heart) Apple" is from I (heart) Mekons, 1993, one of my least-favorite of their listenable albums. Some of the songs are first-rate material and really shine at live shows, but I find the production absolutely turgid. This track and "Millionaire" generally make it onto my Mekons comps, but I don't think I've ever put anything else onto a mix. This was the first Mekons albums I bought, and it took me years to buy another.

Nothing from Retreat from Memphis, 1994, another unlistenable affair. There's only one song on this album that I could stand to hear again.

I don't have Mekons United, 1995, but the song "Orpheus" is also on the first Hen's Teeth collection, and is the first song on both compilations and truly one of the finest songs the Mekons have ever recorded. This is the story of Orpheus told from the first-person perspective with the Mekons serving as the Dionysian women and the Fates. It's also a metaphor (with ongoing significance) for insanity and loss. Bonechilling, fist-pounding stuff. I understand that the rest of the album is mostly unlistenable, though, which is why I haven't made the effort to get it yet.

Nothing from Pussy, King of the Pirates, 1996, a disappointingly synth-oriented collaboration with Kathy Acker.

Nothing from ME, 1998, which has some stellar songs on it, but is basically an also-ran. The Mekons shouldn't get credit for C work, even if they mostly turned out D- work throughout the mid 90s.

"Powers & Horror" and "Neglect" are from Journey to the End of the Night, 2000. Now THIS is what we want from the Mekons. The album is a sadcore-reggae-folk-pop lament, sounding as angry as ever, but also sad and resigned. The Mekons are loose and having fun, though, and it makes all the difference in the world.

"Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" and "Bob Hope & Charity" are from OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), 2002. Journey to the End was a warm-up for this, the finest Mekons album since Rock & Roll, and their third finest overall. The music is near-impossible to categorize at this point: elements of punk, country, folk, reggae, pop, and choral singing run through every tune. Lyrically, this is THE answer album to September 11th, although the event is never mentioned, as the theme of losing one's head (from Orpheus onward) takes on the extra significance in the mass hysteria and loss prevalent in the US these days. The songs range from a discussion of E.P. Thompson's History of the English Working Class to nuclear winter to renouncing one's faith to regicide to the beautiful dirge "Hate Is The New Love". Not that the dire subject matter keeps the music from rocking harder than the now-middle-age Mekons have rocked in ages. It topped many a critic's Best Of 2002 list, and with good cause.

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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