Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Way They Were: Patti Smith's Just Kids

In a burst of youthful enthusiasm during the late 1970s, Rickie Lee Jones once famously  proclaimed the sensibility she shared with boyfriend and fellow musician Tom Waits: ”We’re living on the jazz side of life.” A decade earlier, another couple in their 20s had a similarly bohemian, improvisational relationship that was devoted as much to art as to romance. If not more so. Singer Patti Smith has now chronicled the years she spent with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids (HarperCollins, 2010), a riveting memoir that recently won America’s National Book Award.

Based in Los Angeles, Jones and Waits may have been the West Coast counterparts of Smith and Mapplethorpe, who called New York home. Smith describes the dynamic metropolis and extraordinary times in stunning detail: “Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island. with its gritty innocence. It was our kind of place: the fading arcades, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick...” The focus for all four of them was on the demimondes of their respective cities, along with almost everywhere they visited in between. It’s an aesthetic that’s edgy and suffused with pain.

A Smith melody addresses the philosophy of scraping by that she and Mapplethorpe adhered to: “Every night before I rest my head, / see those dollar bills go swirling 'round my bed./ I know they're stolen, but I don't feel bad./ I take that money, buy you things you never had.” Jones composed these lyrics: “Zero quit school/ and she lost her job again/ and then her boyfriend beat her up/ and now he won't let her in.” A snippet from a tango-flavored Waits song: “I like my town with a little drop of poison.” 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spellbinding: Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 (RLPO conducted by Vasily Petrenko)

Shostakovich's Symphony No.10 is a jewel in the composer's life. Considered his most autobiographical work, this recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko (Naxos, 2011), is a tour de force. Led by Petrenko since 2005, the RLPO (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) has now set a new standard in the performance of Russian music.

The RLPO are no strangers to Shostakovich having recorded his Symphonies No.5, No.9, No.8, and No.11 already. But this experience has truly challenged the musicians and the audience in ways they couldn't possibly have imagined. Featuring an introspective opening movement that’s followed by a buoyant second, a reflective third and a fourth that opens with an andante tempo (followed by a spirited allegro), No. 10 avoids the accessible approach most orchestras would take for commercial success. The Naxos label, which continues to release as many different types of music as possible, has given Petrenko, a young, unproven Russian conducting a British orchestra, a daring opportunity. And we, as listeners, are truly rewarded for it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lust at First Sound: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals: III/IV

The first time I heard Ryan Adams it was lust at first sound. I remember arriving to meet a beau one crisp autumn evening when a flood of warmth and the refrain of “Firecracker, from the 2001 Gold album, embraced me at the door. “Who is this?” I insisted. “Ryan Adams,” I was told. Thinking I must have misheard, “Bryan Adams,” I politely concealed my eye rolling. “No. R-R-Ryan Adams,” he said. So it began: my affair with the tortured genius of alternative country. The Americana meets 70s pop/rock sound, artfully accompanied with poignant lyrics became a solid favorite.

Last year it was announced that Ryan Adams and his former backing band, the Cardinals, were releasing a two-disc album of shelved sessions from their 2007 Easy Tiger recording in December. The fact that Adams had been in a state of “retirement” since 2008, added another layer of expectancy to the 2-disc collection. Perhaps I held my bated breath a bit too long, for upon listening to III/IV I was sorely disappointed. It sounded nothing like Easy Tiger. This so-called “rock-opera” blended together into almost inaudible noise. There were so many electric guitars, so few acoustics; so many pointless instrumental solos, no harmonicas to be heard of. A little perturbed, and having nobody to blame (it was recorded before meeting Mandy Moore); I saw that my knee jerk reaction was shared online amongst music critics. Then I did something that usually causes me regret: I gave it a second chance.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Getting It Right #2: Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit

My issue over the years with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen is that they hate people. Not in a misanthropic or curmudgeonly manner (I have always found misanthropes fascinating and curmudgeons amusing), but in a smug 'people are idiots' mindset. Look at pictures such as the reprehensible Fargo where every character, including the supposed heroine Marge (Frances McDormand), is treated with complete contempt because of their 'funny accent' or their 'stupid' actions (Marge doesn't even solve the crime, she stumbles across the solution by accident). The Coens are the worst sort of people-haters because, based on the evidence in several of their films, they think they're better than everybody else.

And yet, when they get it right, they have created, if not great pictures, ones where I've come away feeling amused/entertained/satisfied. Pictures like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and Miller's Crossing fall into this category for me. Most of the others are either 'god, I hate this movie' or 'yawn'. Even their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men is a bit pointless when you get right down to it. This brings me to their biggest hit in their careers: the remake of True Grit, now in theatres and this past weekend’s number one at the box office. I'd heard very good things about True Grit, so I was interested in seeing it. But people had also said wonderful things about Fargo, Barton Fink, and The Ladykillers. The picture seemed right up the 'aren't people stupid' alley that the Coens have mined over the years. It's a western, so lots of chances for: funny accents, ill-bred idiots, numb-nutted gunslingers and dumb-as-dirt cowpokes. So imagine my surprise when I came out of the theatre, well, moved (an emotion I'd never felt in any of the Coen brothers' movies).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Getting it Right #1: Unstoppable

Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington
As Hollywood movies become more expensive to make and promote – with many films, shockingly, costing upwards of $100 million – Tinseltown continues to retreat into ‘safe’ projects, either sequels or remakes, such as Little Fockers or True Grit, or large event movies like Inception that garner buzz because of the massive hype attached to them. That doesn’t leave much room for so-called B movies, films with lesser known actors or directors or unusual subject matter, which simply aren’t being made much anymore and thus often fly under the media's radar when they're finally released. The Tony Scott thriller Unstoppable isn’t exactly a B movie (neither Scott (Top Gun, The Taking of Pelham 123) nor the film’s star, Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, American Gangster) are unknowns), but by any other measure, the film is a comparatively low budget, modest enterprise that stands out by virtue of what it isn’t: overblown, loud and empty headed. It’s also the rare Hollywood movie that does what it sets out to do very well, indeed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Righteous Reconfiguration: Emilie-Claire Barlow's The Beat Goes On

In December 2008, my wife and I saw Canadian jazz singer, Emilie-Claire Barlow, perform a Christmas-centric concert at Markham Theatre north of Toronto. Markham Theatre is a wonderful place to see concerts because the acoustics are great and the space is relatively intimate. Barlow on that night was in a fine fettle. She sang wonderfully (in English and French) and had a great deal of off-the-cuff fun with the audience. As befits a concert in Markham, afterwards Barlow spent another hour in the lobby signing CDs for audience members. When we got to the front of the line my wife, who is trilingual (English, French and Spanish), asked Barlow if she spoke French. Barlow admitted she did not and that she always sang the songs phonetically.

Talking afterwards, my wife and I were astonished how near perfect her phrasing was, not just in her English-language songs, but her French ones too. This near-perfect phrasing is evident all over her new CD, The Beat Goes On. The CD is Barlow's jazz tribute to the pop songs of the 1960s. She's not the first jazz singer to do this, but this might be the best. Ranging from Burt Bacharach to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Sonny Bono to Bob Dylan, Barlow's choices are frequently inspired. She has taken many very recognizable tunes and, with skilful rearrangements, crafted songs I may have liked at one time, but since have grown tired of (Bacharach's “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”), or songs I never liked to begin with (Neil Sedaka's “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”) and given them a spin that makes them fresh and rejuvenated.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

No Direction Home: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Somewhere
In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) either spends his days and nights in L.A.'s famous Chateau Marmont just going through the motions (or driving his Ferrari – literally – in circles). As Coppola documents Marco's redundant daily routines of parties and strippers, the picture appears to be going through the motions as well. With Somewhere seemingly going nowhere, I was tempted to bail. Luckily, I didn't. For when Marco's ex-wife suddenly unloads their 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), on his doorstep, Marco awakens from his stupor and so does the movie. Somewhere turns into an affecting story of a father and daughter in the process of discovering each other and it has a bittersweet fragrance that lingers long after you leave the theatre.