Sunday, October 13, 2013

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VI

Late last year, I included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that others have posted and that I've commented on:

Despite looking like wax figures from the Revolutionary War wing of Madame Tussaud's Museum, Paul Revere and the Raiders were a pretty solid Top 40 pop band. Besides their famous anti-drug hit "Kicks," which lived up to its title, "Just Like Me" (in its sound) created the template for the early Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and "Hungry" (in spite of its collection of clichés) was sung by Mark Lindsay with a lustful abandon. "Good Thing" has that even more of that bounding optimism, and a try-it-on spirit that made many a hit in 1965-1966 despite riots, wars and assassinations.

My Sweet Ford.

The great bass-baritone Norman Treigle sang sacred songs like an alchemist raising the dead. Therefore it's not surprising that his dramatic specialty was playing characters in torment (it's his voice in a performance of Mefistofele that sends Bruce Wayne and his parents fleeing the theatre in Batman Begins). Not long after his debut in Faust in 1974, Treigle died of an overdoes of sleeping pills. Described as a chronic insomniac, you can hear in his bottomless voice the terror of never finding rest.

Okkervil River's new album, The Silver Gymnasium, is a concept record that looks to back to 1986 and its subject is lead-singer Will Sheff's home-town of Meriden, New Hampshire. But this is no nostalgia trip. The record might be conceived as a tribute to the spirit of pre-adolescence and the title is taken from the Charles Lewis Silver Memorial Gymnasium at Meriden's Kimball Union Academy (which just happens to be the boarding school that Sheff attended), but its observations are as sly as Steely Dan's "My Old School." The opening track, "It Was My Season," gets the album off to the kind of promising start that "Lido Pier Suicide Car" and the catchy and catch-in-the-throat tune "Stay Young" later fulfils.

For Steve Martin.

When an Israeli friend of mine got married a few summers ago, she was trying to think of a unique version of “Hava Nagila” to play after the traditional breaking of the glass. Without hesitation, I told her the most original version I knew was Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ surf-rock arrangement from the mid-'60s.

Although Dale became an amateur surfer in Los Angeles, he was actually born in Massachusetts to a Lebanese father and Polish mother. Although I suspected that there probably wasn't much of a surfing legacy there, another friend (with tongue-in-cheek) asserted otherwise in an e-mail. "On a historical note, regarding Poland and surfers, perhaps you have made a slight oversight here? Have you not heard of the (in)famous Minsker Boys? There is strong historical evidence that they were a Jewish group of surfers from the city of Minsk. Usually part of Poland but slurped up by Russia during The Partition of Poland. According to the cultural lore that I've heard, they surfed the Black Sea in the earlier part of the 20th century in home-made (by their mothers of course) water-proof clothing with layers of chicken fat for warmth. The image that the Minsker Boys evokes certainly flies in the face of traditional Eastern European Jewish stereotypes." Who would have guessed?

In any case, Dale developed an interest once his family relocated to Orange County, California (where there are more Republicans than surfers). Dale's musical influences were Middle Eastern which he would integrate into what became his frenzied guitar style. (His uncle was apparently a virtuoso oud player.) Most contemporary audiences became familiar with his work when Quentin Tarantino used Dale’s cover of “Misirlou” in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction (1994). His playing style with its quick machine gun attack was far removed from the twanging reverb developed by contemporary Duane Eddy. The liner notes from one of his collections explains his approach quite eloquently:

“While he is primarily known for introducing the use of guitar reverb that would give the guitar a ‘wet’ sound, which has since become a staple of surf music, it was Dale's tremolo picking that was his trademark. Since Dale was left-handed he was initially forced to play a right-handed model, much like Jimi Hendrix would do a few years later. However, he did so without restringing the guitar, leading him to effectively play the guitar upside-down (while Hendrix would restring his guitar) and often plays by reaching over the fretboard rather than wrap his fingers up from underneath. Even after he acquired a proper left-handed guitar, Dale continued to use his reverse stringing. Dale is also noted for playing his percussive, heavy bending style while using what are, for most guitarists, extremely heavy gauge string sets.” That percussive rhythm also set him apart from other surf rockers and guitar driven instrumentalists like The Ventures. After playing Dick Dale to my friend, she excitedly found her “masterpiece” for the wedding. "The Bubbies will jump up and take notice," she remarked. Apparently, they did.

Deborah Harry co-wrote with Nigel Harrison this playfully menacing song after one of her ex-boyfriends began stalking her. He likely thought twice after hearing it. Nobody could make a growl sound both seductive and foreboding as Harry does here. Riding a sound that many great Sixties girl groups rode to convey their heartaches, Blondie playfully (like a cat with a mouse) turns the tables on the victim of love scenario.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial 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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