Saturday, July 19, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VIII

A couple of years ago, I started included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with various critics, performers, writers and 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 sometimes others have posted and that I've commented on:

I know this is going to sound sacrilegious in some circles, but I was never that wild about The Ramones (Hackamore Brick's 1970 One Kiss Leads to Another had more imagination for me than Rocket to Russia). But, having said that, there are a couple of Ramones tracks that found their way onto my playlist. One was "She Talks to Rainbows" from their 1995 album, ¡Adios Amigos!. This number seems to harken back to the psychedelic period of the Sixties, except for its punk attitude. If this song had been sung in the Sixties, the lady who talks to trees rather than her lover would have been celebrated for having a higher consciousness. The Ramones, to their eternal credit, are left baffled and blue.

When Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood abandoned Jeff Beck for the Small Faces, they brought a tougher sound to a group which had in previous years been tied to psychedelic pop ("Itchycoo Park," "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake") with vocalist Steve Marriott at the helm. Their debut album with Stewart and Wood, First Step (1970), was also their best. They brought an explosive passion to Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," resurrected the spirit of Sam Cooke in "Devotion," Ronnie Lane's whimsical spiritualism also found a perfect home in the British folk roots of "Stone," and Ron Wood demonstrated just how imaginative a guitarist he was revisiting "Plynth (Water Down the Drain)," a song he and Stewart recorded on their last outing with Jeff Beck (Beck-Ola).

Called "Around the Plynth (Water Down the Drain)" here, Wood's slide guitar panning from right to left like a bat scooting across a belfry, makes Beck's work on the original sound pedestrian. Stewart also improves on his performance from the original, riding the streaking guitar lines like a surfer steadying a wave, and turning this sea shanty into a breathless exercise in fear and trembling. If Ron Wood's guitar playing with the Stones seems only to compliment Keith Richards' style, "Around the Plynth" serves to remind you that there are more tools in Ron Wood's tool bag than he now cares to reveal. As for Stewart, this voice and its urgency vacated the building a long time ago.

Paul Mazursky (photo by Petr Nov├ík)
It's rare to find an artist who uses satire to actually strengthen his affection for the people he's poking fun of. But Paul Mazursky did it almost consistently. Whether it was delving into the anxieties of free love in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), where he understood that sexuality isn't just about the act of sex; delving into the middle-class hang-ups that can tear apart a marriage in Blume in Love (1973); creating an intimate portrait of an old man and his cat in their twilight years in Harry & Tonto (1974); directing a memoir of his early years (Next Stop, Greenwich Village in 1976) that isn't self-serving, but insightful about the family drama instead, evoking the lingering homesickness that afflicts those who try to find freedom in a new land as in Moscow on the Hudson (1984); turn Isaac Bashevis Singer's carnal comedy, Enemies, A Love Story (1989), about survival after the Holocaust, into an erotic farce; or create a comedy of morals without turning moralistic in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). Mazursky was a comic director whose humour brought you inside the skin of his characters rather than keeping you laughing safely from the outside.

On their 1991 debut album, Neopolitan, the Vancouver band The Odds gave us an enduringly haunting song about losing your virginity that isn't tender and treacly, but tinged instead with mystery and anticipation. Beginning quietly out of the mix, lead singer Steven Drake tells the tale of an older woman who seduces him the night he hears on television that Elvis Presley dies. While the two events may not seem remotely related, the idea of a middle-aged woman on this night invoking early yearnings of her sexual awakening, perhaps dating back to Elvis's ascent, while introducing a young man to his own, must have made the King smile.

                                                                    The Body Politic.

The extraordinary cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot Hal Ashby's The Landlord (1970), Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971), Francis Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974), Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Herbert Ross's Pennies From Heaven (1981), recently passed away. Often called the Prince of Darkness for his love of deep, rich Rembrandt colours, he should be remembered more as the prince who didn't fear casting colour into darkness.

                                                                    Poe Boy Blues.

Never one lazy about trying new ways of recording and performing, Neil Young has put together a new album of old songs, A Letter Home, produced in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth. With lo-fi production by Jack White, Young creates his own Time Out of Mind experience by going back to the music that was part of his formative years. Here he faithfully and reverently performs Bert Jansch's 1965 "Needle of Death," an anti-drug song that contains of the same topical blatancy of Young's own later "The Needle and the Damage Done." But if you listen closely to the melody, you'll hear the skeleton key to his 1974 epic "Ambulance Blues" (from On the Beach), a song whose topicality – the folk era, the music haunts of Toronto, Nixon, Watergate and Patty Hearst – is transcended by Young collapsing the seductive allure of nostalgia into the simple phrase: "There's nothing like a friend who tells you that you're just pissing in the wind."

With some of the eclecticism of Al Kooper, Steve Winwood over his long career has embraced R&B with The Spencer Davis Group ("Gimme Some Lovin,' I'm a Man"), psychedelia and jazz fusion with Traffic ("Paper Sun," "Glad"), synth pop in the Eighties ("Higher Love"), without ever losing the rich soul in his sound. In this delicate and recent rendering of the traditional folk song, "John Barleycorn Must Die," the title track of a 1970 Traffic album, Winwood brings a beautifully wistful contemplation to its ancient sound. But as he crisply picks the guitar notes between the verses, his face seems to be also contemplating the absence of his late bandmates Chris Wood (flute) and Jim Capaldi (percussion and supporting vocal) as he fills the space they've left in the room.

With the build and verbal staccato of Edward G. Robinson, Bob Hoskins was a formidable actor who could shift gears with the efficiency of a sports car. He could be alternately brutal and tender in Mona Lisa (1986), or simply brutal and witty as the gangster in The Long Good Friday (1980), but he could also turn that character armour into the kind of pure glass that lets you perceive what that armour sought to hide. That was never more true than in one of his best, little seen roles in Last Orders (2001), a film about fulfilling a dead friend's last request while putting the past to rest.

When Muddy Waters, at the urging of Chess Records, went into trendy psychedelia in 1968 with Electric Mud, I can fully understand why he hated it. That said, despite the acid drenched pedigree, Waters knocks all the sonic drapery out of the way with the sheer power and drive of his voice. You can hear this especially on "Tom Cat" where Gene Barge's snaking tenor sax voodoo walks all around Waters' fiercely sexy phrasing.

                                                               For Akira Kurosawa.

Like his pal and colleague, Charles Ives, the early 20th Century composer Carl Ruggles heard the American spirit not as something harmonious, but as a rugged and discordant state of mind. However, in his last composition, "Exaltation," in 1958, this gorgeous tribute to his late wife took him into a quieter and contemplative dissonance.

                                                         Dedicated to Bernard Heidsieck.

While my introduction to the blues came through many of the British bands I heard as a boy, it wasn't long before I sought out the sources and happily gorged on Robert Johnson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor and Sonny Boy Williamson. I was introduced to my favourite blues performer, however, from stumbling one night onto the late Les Blank's documentary The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins (1970) on television when I was a teenager. Besides being spellbound by the rhythmic cadences in Hopkins' talking style of performing, the phrases picked out in his guitar playing were as beautifully expressive as his speech. Here he sings "Mister Charlie," backed up on harp by Sonny Terry, in an outtake from Blank's documentary where Hopkins keeps the oral tradition in the music both alive and vital with humour and poignancy.

                                                             Hear my Mail a Comin'.

When poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1847 poem, "The Sphinx," stated: "Thou art the unanswered question," composer Charles Ives posed his own musical equivalent. This companion to the ethereal dissonance of "Central Park in the Dark" is a magisterial collage of contrasting melodies. While the lone trumpet poses the question, the flutes vainly attempt to answer. Film composer Jerry Goldsmith was likely influenced by its stark beauty when he was contemplating the infinity of space in his opening credit music for Alien (1979).

                                                          Winter 2014 (for Edvard Munch).

Former McCoy's guitarist Rick Derringer and Texas bluesman Johnny Winter (who died on July 16th at the age of 70) teamed up in 1970 to create one of the most driving and soulful rock records of the Seventies (Johnny Winter And) – one that critic Robert Christgau compared favourably to Clapton's LP Layla. And he isn't wrong. Like Layla, Johnny Winter And mixes metal blues hybrids ("Guess I'll Go Away"), choice ballads like the cover of Traffic's "No Time to Live," and fine R&B soul like "Let the Music Play." While the album was more noted for its cheeky hit "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," it's "Let the Music Play" with the song's faint echo of Johnny Ace, that is most affecting.

                                                                      When I'm 64.

– 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.    


  1. this is such a great idea kevin..most folk` facebook pages are pretty much the same and you have figured out how to expand upon it and create something viable.cheers!

  2. I can imagine why Muddy Waters hated the record at the time, though maybe he just hated that he had to play with these guy in order to sell records, but I think it's a lot of fun to listen to now. Psychedelic blues. Did you ever hear his tune about how Muddy Waters "put the 'unk into the Funk? It's not exactly straight blues, almost a novelty but I love it myself. Anyway I'm listening to the whole record now and it's a hoot. What about the other similar records of the time? Didn't Howlin Wolf also do one? I have Hooker n Heat and I think it basically works because Canned Heat was a good choice for Hooker. What say you?

  3. Kevin responds: It never surprised me that Chuck D of Public Enemy cited Electric Mud as one of his formative albums given its pure funkiness. I think when Muddy, Hooker and Wolf had to hook up with these white psychedelic blues groups, it worked better when those records were a fusion of pop and blues styles because both sides kept their true identities. The tension between their radically different styles also made for fascinating listening even when the records tanked. But when The Yardbirds tried to do the straight blues alongside Sonny Boy Williamson, the British band (which became much better when they later embraced pop) never sounded more fake.