Saturday, March 30, 2013

Eric Burdon: Still Standing High by the Mountain Tops

Eric Burdon, former lead singer of The Animals, in 2013 (Photo courtesy of  ABKCO Records)

Some time in the summer of 1964, I came home from a friend’s house to hear strange music coming from the living room.  My mother and my brother were together by the stereo, playing a 45.  Organ music dominated and then a powerful voice began to sing: “There is… a house... in New Orleen... they cawwlllll the Rising Sun.. n’it’s bin the ruin of many a poor boy… an’ God… I know… I’m one…”  I had never heard this song before.  My brother said, “Oh, Dave’s home!”  My Mom tried to cover it up but finally had to say, “It’s a new record from England. I got it for your birthday but now that you’ve heard it you might as well have it.”  It was my first introduction to the music of Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals.  The second time I heard them was when I turned the record over and played an even better song, “Talkin’ ‘bout You”.  That one’s a killer! 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Shot Through with Greatness: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate

A scene from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate

Reading the various comments on my Critic at Large’s colleague David Churchill’s evisceration of Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic western Heaven’s Gate proves one thing. Filmgoers are not indifferent to the film, either hating it with a passion or loving it equally intensely. My own view has always been somewhere in the middle, but having now seen the officially approved (by Cimino) 216-minute director’s cut of the movie, stunningly transferred to DVD on the Criterion label, I find my view has shifted somewhat from when I first saw the shortened version of the film more than 30 years ago. (The studio brass forced the director to cut it by more than an hour, destroying it entirely.) Then, I felt the movie was quite impressive but I was most disturbed by all the dramatic licenses it took with history (the lead characters from the movie, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) were killed before the main events of Heaven’s Gate ever took place and didn’t even practice the professions the film had them doing). I had only been reviewing movies for a few years then and still perhaps had something of a naive belief in the ‘truth’ of films based on facts. (I know better now, of course.) But even then, for all my doubts and concerns, I could tell there was something more to the film than the infamous disaster it was supposed to be – and that was even before seeing the (then pre-restoration) full version (219 minutes) of the movie. (Unlike David Churchill, I’ve only ever seen the movie on video or DVD or TV because the one time it played in Toronto on the big screen after its initial disastrous opening, I was not able to go. My loss.) What I sensed and later came to believe and still do, is that Cimino’s epic, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (which came out a year earlier and had similar issues concerning length and hubris and controversy), was that it was not at all a great movie but a movie with greatness within it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lamb to the Slaughter: Beyond the Hills

Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills

The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is best known for his international success 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a tight, compelling study of a young woman and the friend who accompanies her on a mission to have an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu era. In America, the issue of abortion is all tied up with religion, but religion doesn’t play any role in Mungiu’s film: while the film presents the abortion itself as a difficult experience made all the more harrowing by the fact that the two friends are breaking the law, the law itselfwhich was put in place because Ceausescu wanted to expand his country’s population is just one more impersonal, bureaucratic dictum limiting their freedom, even over control of their own bodies.

Mungiu’s new film, Beyond the Hills, is about a young girl, Alina (Cristina Flutur), who dies in the course of an “exorcism,” and it finds room to condemn, or at least look askance at, both the religious believers who have taken the girl in, only to destroy her, and the secular world that might have done better for her but could find no place for her. (The doctor who prescribes antipsychotic meds for Alina is sympathetic and intelligenttrying to describe her condition to the uncomprehending nuns at the convent where she lives, he says that she has an illness that “doesn’t kill you, but doesn’t let you live” but has to turn her out of his hospital because he simply doesn’t have enough beds.)

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."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

New Roots: LeE HARVeY OsMOND's The Folk Singer & Field Recording by Kevin Breit & the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra


Tom Wilson is one third of Canada’s best alt-country bands, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings. But when he’s not recording or performing with them, he hooks up with Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) and Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) called, with intentional humor, LeE HARVeY OsMOND. Established in 2009, they consider themselves creators of psychedelic folk, a definition that says everything and nothing about the music they write. (NPR has called their music “acid folk.”) Their latest release is called, The Folk Sinner (Latent).

An intentionally moody record, it's a blend of country-goth with good helping of Mississippi mud to sound “psychedelic.” This is particularly true for "Easy Living" with its steady beat and space-age guitar solo. Tom Wilson's vocals can either frighten or seduce. He has a remarkable capacity to keep you guessing on several tracks, especially "Honey Runnin." But the opening track, written by Gordon Lightfoot, sets the tone for the entire record. “Oh Linda” by Lightfoot is a straightforward cover version of the original: just Wilson and Double Bass accompaniment by Sean Dean. "Oh gal don't ya do me wrong or I'm gonna sing you a goodbye song." Lightfoot offers the threat; Wilson makes good on it.

Wilson offers a sad lament on "Break Your Body" that sounds like a James Brown ballad with its steady pulse on piano and his use of falsetto vocal. It's one of the strongest cuts on the record, nicely paced and nicely mixed. “Deep Water”, written by Josh Finlayson closes the album and it's an inspired choice featuring the second of two duets with Margo Timmins from Cowboy Junkies. It's subtle colours featuring steel guitar, makes it a less-menacing song, unlike the other tracks whose atmosphere is dark and heavy. But the weight of the music is often lifted on some of the up-tempo tracks such as “Devil's Load” which is a great blues number with vibes, no less. Considering that this is only the band’s second album, LeE HARVeY OsMOND is one group deserving wider recognition in spite of the fact that they aren’t a working band.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Missouri Waltz: Talley’s Folly

Matt Friedman, the narrator of Talley’s Folly, explains to the audience at the top of the show that what we’re about to witness between him and Sally Tally in the dilapidated, once-extravagant boathouse on her family’s property in Lebanon, Missouri will be a waltz, as he coaxes his year-long courtship of her (which he has conducted mostly from his home in St. Louis, by letter) to a proposal of marriage. And by the end of ninety-seven intermissionless minutes he does indeed get her to say yes, but the journey turns out to be considerably rockier than he’d anticipated. Lanford Wilson’s 1979 play, set in 1944, is the tale of two people with secrets that have wounded them so ferociously that Sally, and for many years Matt (until he met Sally, on vacation, at a Lebanon dance), have preferred to stave off any hope of romance rather than reveal them and risk further heartbreak. Matt is a European-Jewish émigré in his forties who works as an accountant; his secret concerns the tragic story of his family. Sally, a nurse who tends to the war casualties at the local hospital, is a left-wing intellectual in a family of conservative family-owning bigots (they think of Matt as “the Jew” and find his politics even more dangerous than FDR’s). She hold so tight to her secret that we don’t learn it until moments before the finale, when the play turns at last into the love waltz Matt promised us it would be.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Dreams & British Nightmares: Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988)

Thanks to The Beatles, Liverpool has become something of a tourist haven, apparently second only to the Tower of London for sightseers in England. Ironically, the city's history is hardly a cause for celebration. For while Liverpool spawned The Beatles, The Beatles ultimately wished to break free of this seaport locale. Even so, one could always hear the character of Liverpool in their songs, the sense that as things could always get worse, they would find ways to make things better. That goal is also a characteristic germane to the city, a quality Alistair Cooke once described as "cheerful pessimism." The cause of that "cheerful pessimism," though, came directly from Liverpool's disparate economic and cultural life which begins in the 18th Century, when the slave trade from Africa became mixed with the cotton market from North America. When abolition became law in 1807, slaves were not allowed to land in England, but since cotton was sent to manufacturing cities like Manchester and Birmingham by railroad, other immigrants made their way to the jobs.

By 1820, the dockyards and the Cotton Exchange attracted close to 160,000 Irish immigrants from across the channel to make the kind of money they couldn't make in Ireland. But the Irish would also become the despised in Liverpool and were the victims of both unrest and hopelessness. During the Depression years, with the merger of the Cunard and White Stripe shipping lines, the luxury liner traffic was being rerouted to Southhampton. This decision changed the industrial base of Liverpool diminishing their economic status. The only way that they could retain their former status was by becoming the anchor of the country's naval operations. But that change inadvertently created an adverse effect when relentless German air raids lead to massive destruction. By 1941, thousands were killed and the city was reduced to rubble. After the war, it took years to relocate over ten thousand persons.

Liverpool in the Forties
During that period, Liverpool became part of a metropolitan area called Merseyside with a population of about a million and a quarter. When the U.S. entered the war, Americans were stationed there – and they were a source of great fascination for Liverpudlians. Given the hardship they'd endured under German bombs, the brash and stylish manner of Yankee soldiers represented something quite hopeful and exotic for locals to look up to and admire. "The people living within these confines saw the seaport as a threshold on the horizon," Beatles biographer Bob Spitz wrote. "Beyond it, an invisible world beckoned. Not a day passed when detachments of tall-masted ships weren't diligently on the move, bound for one of the globe's imagined corners." But during the mid-Forties, through all the devastation, the rationing, and the nightly rain of bombs and casualties, England's dreaming hadn't really grown beyond surviving on the obliterated streets in which they lived. So when the Americans came calling then, they were the objects of derision as much as envy. They were also a reminder of everything that Liverpool didn't have, even if they represented what Liverpudlians might truly want.