Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Critic's Notes & Frames, Part II

Joni Mitchell draws on the intimacy of Nina Simone's version of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue" (which also begins on piano with a Christmas tune) to tell a tale of independence that doesn't so much have a destination in mind, but rather a sense of place that's only uncovered in the journey. While her feet would indeed learn to fly, the ground was never certain beneath her. Don Quixote had his windmills while Mitchell had the road in which to tilt forward. Those fascinating elliptical tales of romantic entanglement and creative struggles that followed Blue (1971) might just have started right here on that "River."

In the early Sixties, Miles Davis replied to the gauntlet thrown down by the free jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman by putting together what was arguably his finest group. And they produced what many believe (including myself) to be Miles Davis's best music. The Guardian jazz critic John Fordham also agrees. Here's why: “Their solos were fresh and original, and their individual styles fused with a spontaneous fluency that was simply astonishing,” Fordham wrote in 2010. “The quintet’s method came to be dubbed ‘time, no changes’ because of their emphasis on strong rhythmic grooves without the dictatorial patterns of song-form chords. At times they veered close to free-improvisation, but the pieces were as thrilling and hypnotically sensuous as anything the band’s open-minded leader had recorded before.”

The quintet featured Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. In the years between 1964 and 1968, with the exciting and startling albums, E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer and Miles in the Sky (which pointed the way to In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew), they tore through the fabric of the music at the same speed Jean-Luc Godard shredded traditional film narrative. Here they perform "'Round Midnight" from a 1967 concert in Stockholm.

Where Crossfire meets Siskel & Ebert.

Most of us came to the sitar (if we responded at all) through George Harrison on The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" from Rubber Soul. But the real master of the instrument was Ravi Shankar, who would later teach and befriend Harrison. Shankar sadly died today at 92.

It was perhaps enough that I drove my parents crazy with all the rock and roll I played when I was a teenager. But when I also started listening to Indian classical music, I was immediately banished to a crawl space in the basement with a set of headphones. If I were to pick a highlight from his astonishing career, where his music was experienced as a breathing language, or a communion with forces beyond comprehension, it was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 where he performed "Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)." Even Jimi Hendrix couldn't top this. 

The Master is cinephilia at its most solipsistic with no relation to dramatic logic. Like P.T. Anderson's previous films (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), the rigorously stylized and obsessive approach creates its own desert island where film technique becomes a fetish at the expense of sense and sensibility.

In honour of Randy Newman who is about to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, here's the song that kicked off his underrated Born Again (1979) album. "It's Money That I Love" sets the table for the junk-bond ethics in the Reagan years to follow. Performed as a boogie-woogie shuffle, in full tribute to Fats Domino (who, no doubt, would have killed for the opportunity to sing it), "It's Money That I Love" gleefully sinks its teeth into Yuppie entitlement. But rather than spell out his outrage at the acquisitiveness of the American middle-class, Newman personifies the role of the liberal who renounces his compassionate past and is born again into the religion of commerce. "It's Money That I Love" is musical satire that's both infectious and sexy. And it has that rare and special daring: a triumphant song about the most dubious of triumphs.

Son of the legendary band leader Johnny Otis ("Willie and the Hand Jive"), Shuggie Otis had already proved himself a great blues guitar prodigy. (He began playing guitar when he was all but two years old and performed professionally with his father's band at the age of twelve, often in disguise so he could play after hours clubs.) But when he turned to the R&B pop flavour of "Strawberry Letter 23," from his 1971 Freedom Flight album, Otis never got the audience that he deserved. While the Brothers Johnson would have a huge hit with this song in 1977, Otis's original seems to come out of a sunny daydream with just a hint of cloud on the horizon.

Moonrise Kingdom is a picture of human behaviour - adult and child alike - as one might have perceived it at the age of ten. Anderson's idea of whimsy is to continually enshrine the kind of adolescent narcissism that most of us learn to outgrow. His films (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) aren't about confronting the pains of moving into adulthood. They are about protecting the tender preciousness of staying young. In other words, it's another of his ongoing tributes to arrested development.

The long awaited Velvets' Christmas album? Can't wait to hear "Rudolph in Furs."

While some have a taste for Love Potion #9 (not bad, not bad), I head right for The Four Deuces' "WPLJ" (White Port Lemon Juice). The Four Deuces were an American R&B vocal quartet, formed by Luther McDaniel in the mid-1950s in Salinas, California. The band was made up of a group of army friends originally schooled in gospel music. But they very quickly turned to rhythm and blues.

This catchy 1956 record, with its sexually elusive suggestions of just what White Port Lemon Juice will do for you, received deserved wide radio airplay and later even became the jingle for the renowned wine producer, Italian Swiss Colony. But few turned the record over to hear one of the spookiest murder songs about sexual jealousy ever written, "Here Lies My Love," performed by "Mr. Undertaker." With a melody as foreboding as "St. James Infirmary," Luther seems to be preparing his own grave as he sings about the one his former loved is now lying in. ("Here lies love/In a grave caused by jealousy/Hate was a pall bearer/And on the tombstone was written misery"). I don't hear any wine producers calling for this one.

This book ain't done yet. (Thanks to Brian Gable of The Globe and Mail for the cartoon.)

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is finishing production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney to be broadcast on December 30th.

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