Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Critic's Notes & Frames, Part IV

Despite the fractious relations within The Byrds in 1968, where co-founder David Crosby was given the hook, The Notorious Byrd Brothers still remains one of more beautifully poignant of their records. There is a faint sense of loss all over this album, but without the group ever once expressing regret for having borne such aching desire. From Carole King's "Goin' Back" to "Wasn't Born to Follow" (used in Easy Rider), The Notorious Byrd Brothers affectionately waves goodbye to hippie utopianism, but not without first claiming the romanticism they once embraced. You can hear the full weight of that romanticism, too, in the shimmering harmonies of "Get to You."

We all know how surly Lou Reed often gets with the press. But on his 1978 live double-album, Take No Prisoners, he enters into open war with his audience. But it doesn't stop there. Recorded at The Bottom Line, the track list of songs, which include "Sweet Jane," "Street Hassle" and "Walk on the Wild Side," might suggest a jukebox of career highlights except that Reed (in the spirit of Dylan) makes each familiar song so unrecognisable that he doesn't give the listener the comfort of familiarity. The Velvet Underground's gorgeous "Pale Blue Eyes," for instance, becomes a pale imitation of its former self. Sometimes Reed even digresses into raps, asides, and attacks on critics (in particular Robert Christgau). There are no overdubs to clean up wrong notes, either, creating the impression of a bootleg. But the cover art tells the true story. If Reed took out the trash on Rock 'n' Roll Animal, he puts it all back on stage in Take No Prisoners. Lenny Bruce once told the audience that he was going to piss on them and Frank Zappa later asked, "Didja get any onya?" Lou doesn't ask.

Silent Night.

An astonishing record - still - 43 years later. As Donald Brackett said in his book Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos: "Recorded between April and July 1969, this breathtaking roller coaster of human feelings manages to maintain an uncanny stillness and calm at the center of its maniacally beating acidic heart." That 'acidic heart' processed the blues that were then Mac's foundation into a rejection of the spoils the music brought the group. Songs are splintered into fragments and breathtaking jams drift into doomed textures. Then Play On ultimately plays itself out.

While the songs are shared among the band, from Danny Kirwan's spirited "Coming Your Way" to Mick Fleetwood's "Fighting for Madge," Then Play On is recalled most for co-founder Peter Green, about to abandon his band, on the beautifully schizoid, "Oh Well," which begins as a hard, cutting blues and then morphs into a delicately wistful madrigal's ballad. In the early section of the song, Green prepares the ground for Kurt Cobain who would return the negation years later ("Oh well...nevermind") in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." While Green would find comfort in the madrigal's flute, Cobain tragically chose the gun.

While many are familiar with Crazy Horse as Neil Young's Band of Brothers when he tours, many are not familiar with the band's 1971 eponymous solo record. Led by the late songwriter Danny Whitten, who would soon after die from a heroin overdose, Crazy Horse doesn't have a weak track on it. Backed by Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums, the group had an all-star cast featuring Ry Cooder, Nils Lofgren and Jack Nitzsche. Whether singing about premature ejaculation (Nitzsche's "Gone Dead Train" which was first sung with unheard power by Randy Newman in the film Performance), the pursuit of dope ("Downtown"), or the desolation of romantic rejection ("I Don't Want to Talk About It"), Crazy Horse leaves a residue of lost possibility even as it delivers the unapologetic pleasures of pure pop. "Look at all the Things," no doubt a warning sign, is the best example of both.

On "Wicked Game," Chris Isaak could just as easily be Roy Orbison after his dreams don't come true on Blue Bayou.

Although Texan Johnny Winter came out of the blues, his second Columbia album (originally a 3-sided double-LP) ends up paying full dues to a wide range of pop styles. Perhaps due to this eclecticism, Second Winter got largely overlooked despite being his best album.

Along with a cutting and soulful cover of Percy Mayfield's "Memory Pain," he ignites Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode" and rips it up with Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Miss Ann." While stretching out on some original and familiar material like the lustful "I Love Everybody," he also (with considerable help from his brother Edgar) provides some pretty convincing Big Band swing with "I Hate Everybody."

Although Winter's guitar gets a full workout on "The Good Love" and "Fast Life Rider," he saves his fullest playing for Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." This wild, surreal moral parable (which paved the way for "All Along the Watchtower") was always a rousing blues number. But Winter and company turn up the octane as if trying to outrun the ghosts Dylan has put in their path. He can barely contain the thrill of the ride and turns the white lines of the road into his pulpit. The late critic Lester Bangs got it right: "Bill Haley preaching Armageddon."

Despite the clashing egos brought on by teaming the remnants of Cream (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker) and Traffic (Steve Winwood), Blind Faith wasn't a bad band. And their one and only album boasted some pretty good songs, including the wistful ballad "Can't Find My Way Home," the rousing Buddy Holly cover, "Well All Right," and Clapton's modest confessional "Presence of the Lord." With the exception of Ginger Baker's endless "Do What You Like" (do you have to?), Blind Faith suffered the collapse of their expectations rather than the weight of a bad effort. "Sea of Joy" might indeed speak for both those failed expectations and the desire to live up to them. Winwood's singing was never more forceful and more passionate than it is here in their concert in Hyde Park. "Sea of Joy" is a song that speaks of setting sail and beating all odds. While the ship could just as easily be the Titanic, Steve Winwood never sounded more proud as he goes down with the ship.

John Huston's film, Freud (1962) was a fascinating failure and featured a miscast Montgomery Clift as the pioneering psychoanalyst. (Only Gregory Peck as Ahab in Huston's Moby Dick could be considered more inappropriate and ridiculous.) But Jerry Goldsmith's score is a whole other matter. Drawing from the 20th Century serialist school of atonal music (with a key nod to Bartok), he deftly applies it to the Romantic period of 19th Century Vienna. All the while, demonstrating that it was the modern period of music that mirrored the psychological turmoil that Freud was uncovering and not the music of the period of his life. Goldsmith's eerie and riveting score proves that film music isn't just about capturing the outer world. The inner world is just as essential. (For those with very keen ears, you might spot a section here that was lifted and used in Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien. And not to the amusement of Goldsmith who was the composer of both films.)

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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