The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen

Gentlemen

The Afghan WhigsGentlemen Elektra 9 61501-2 (1993)


Back in the early 1990s heyday of “grunge” and “alternative rock” that cracked into mainstream airplay, The Afghan Whigs were in the cadre of the most well-known rock bands.  Gentlemen was ubiquitous.  I must admit to having known about it, but never bothering with it until a full two decades later.  Looking back at it, I can’t really say this is my thing.  The subject matter inhabits a place that seems a little too juvenile for me to relate to today, but I can still respect what the group achieves here.  Greg Dulli’s vocals achieve a kind of burning torment that encapsulates much of what they were about.  Yet the group’s real strength was how they blended together so much of what was in the air at the time.  The iconoclastic jazz musician and composer Anthony Braxton has theorized that there are three types of musicians: restructuralists (who come up with new ways of thinking), stylists (who expand upon the restructuralists’ new ways of thinking), and traditionalists (who operate within a defined space).  By that account The Afghan Whigs were stylists.  Frankly, they weren’t the most proficient musicians by this evidence.  But bits of this recall everything from alternative hard rock (Smashing Pumpkins), to Seattle grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), to lo-fi rock (Pavement, Dinosaur Jr.), to funky party rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers), to britpop (Pulp, Suede, Blur).  They even occasionally adopt the kind of off-key vocals that would come to dominate “indie rock” a decade later.  The result comes across like more than the sum of its parts, just because it seems to carry on from beginning to end without ever running out of new bits and pieces to assimilate.  This may be a period piece of sorts, but it’s one that perhaps endures because of a slight sense that its hardly more than a garage rock experiment that worked out in spite of the odds. 

In Time

In Time (2011)

20th Century Fox

Director: Andrew Niccol

Main Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy

Yeah, so the name Justin Timberlake may be more synonymous with a “dick in a box” than cinematic acting prowess, but he proves an adequate choice for the lead in Andrew Niccol’s dystopian sci-fi thriller In Time.  Will Salas (Timberlake) is a lowly nobody working in some factory in a futuristic ghetto.  There is no “money” as such, but “time” instead.  People have a “clock” in their arm that counts backward.  When it reaches zero, they die.  But so long as they have time, they stay the same age indefinitely.  All adults are about 25 years old.  Buying coffee or taking the bus?  Time is taken away.  Payment for a day’s work?  Time is added.  You simply hold your arm to an electronic reader, or grip another person’s arm in what appears like a slightly aggressive secret handshake.  Residents of the ghetto in which Salas lives seem to all have no more than a few days or hours of time, always in a state of desperation.  And this is definitely a ghetto.  Well, a “time zone” the characters call it.  Increasingly steep tolls are required to pass from the ghetto into other time zones.

It isn’t much of a plot spoiler to say that the movie hinges on Salas’ personal awakening, after coming into possession a large amount of time, in which he realizes that there is nothing “wrong” with the economy that has nothing for the residents of the ghettos.  Rather, the rich have devised a system to separate themselves from the others based on the unequal distribution of time.  Police called “timekeepers,” among them Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), are the hard-boiled enforcers of the order.  Yes, there has to be a romantic sub-plot, so Salas meets up with Sylvia Weiss (Amanda Seyfried), whose father runs the largest “time lending” chain–an outfit much like a payday loan business making loans at extortionate rates.  One then wonders if there will be a happy ending or not.

The plot captures bits of the German childrens’ book Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte (1973) by Michael Ende (better known to American audiences as the author of Die Unendliche Geschichte [The Never-Ending Story] (1981)), which dealt with Men in Grey from a Timesaving Bank, and the short film The Price of Life (1987), in which characters die when a time account runs to zero and the rich are practically immortal.  The modern telling, though, also takes cues from the sort of high-finance intrigue that propelled The International (2009) and anticipates the grim and heartless social class conflict central to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013).  The central conceit of using “time” in place of “money” serves a useful role in highlighting how money is really a representation of social power, a unit of measure that expresses the holder’s claim on social wealth, or, society’s quasi-moral indebtedness to its holder.  This is normally the sort of stuff that one gets from reading rather dry, academic non-fiction books–and there indeed are quite a few that provide copious theoretical support for the film’s conceit.

Niccol made a name for himself with Gattaca (1997), another sci-fi thriller with comparable ambitions to portray a quest for justice in a repressive class-based society.  He’s a skilled practitioner, able to manage the pacing of a movie that draws most of its audience in with action sequences while still managing to hold together a coherent plot.  Viewers are asked to suspend disbelief that humans can have their mortality regulated entirely by technology, but not in the small parts of the movie.  You must accept that a person can drop dead if the clock in his or her arm runs out of time, but you are not forced to accept violations of the laws of physics for the sake of “action” when the fists and bullets start to fly nor to accept characters whose behavior shifts erratically.  Like a high school science teacher clamoring to “make science fun” enough that a little learning might happen, the objective is to do the action and romance stuff well enough to find a few moments in which to present the moral and economic premise of the film .  Quite unlike, say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Batman movie, which delivers a reactionary and anti-democratic message that “the system” must be preserved despite its flaws (necessary or simply inevitable and unavoidable), In Time suggests that piecemeal tokens don’t work (like when Salas gifts an alcoholic friend too much time) but that large scale mass mobilization of the poor can correct the inequities of a system established by the rich for their differential advantage.  It’s an old message.  Leo Tolstoy makes the same argument in the final chapter of his The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life (1894), for instance, and Gandhi put the idea into practice.  But if you miss the final moments of this film you might miss that message somewhat, and think instead that a kind of James Bond figure can dash in and make the difference by himself.

Matt Damon has made something of a career making movies like this.  Timberlake and Seyfried less so.  Cillian Murphy makes a good choice for his role as the anguished and vaguely morally troubled cop.  One can’t forget the casting difficulties for a script that calls for a society of people who appear to be about 25-30 years old but have lived decades (or more) longer!

This one is a good bit of entertainment.  It has a more solid sense of purpose than most hollywood sci-fi.  But in the mold with so much current cinema, the dystopian element predominates over the utopian.  Audiences are mostly in a mood today to relate to a story about recognizing a corrupt system and bringing it down.  It might take more time before the happy stories of what comes next can be told effectively.

The Discerning Listener’s Guide to Sly & The Family Stone

A guide to the recorded music of Sly & The Family Stone. Enjoy!

Danny Stewart

“A Long Time Away” (1961)

Sly Stone — born Sylvester Stewart — first made a name for himself as a jive-talking radio DJ.  He also worked as a record producer in the early 1960s, and released a few singles under various aliases and with groups such as The Stewart Four, The Stewart Brothers, and The Viscaynes.

Laugh, Laugh

The Beau Brummels

“Laugh, Laugh” / “Still in Love With You Baby” (1964)

“Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little” were each produced by Sly Stone.  These Beau Brummels tracks are some of the best evidence that Sly knew how to produce a record even before Sly & The Family Stone was formed.

A Whole New Thing

Sly & The Family Stone

A Whole New Thing (1967)

A decent, if uneven, debut.  This is what launched one of pop music’s brightest groups.  Sly Stone was still working out the details of his musical vision, but tagging along is a fun ride.  Even if they don’t quite fully achieve a “whole new thing” here, they at least established that they were gonna try.  “Underdog” is a classic.

Dance to the Music

Sly & The Family Stone

Dance to the Music (1968)

The debut jumped around a bit trying to find precisely what Sly & The Family Stone were going to be about.  Dance to the Music locked in to exactly everything that the “whole new thing” title of their debut promised.  The songs are all catchy, upbeat, bright, and the lyrics deliver smart wordplay with some social commentary thrown on top.  What might be difficult to appreciate in retrospect is that the group was interracial, and included both men and women, at a time when that was not happening elsewhere.  They also had a horn section within the group, whereas most soul acts didn’t consider the horn section part of the group proper — like The Memphis Horns who played for just about every Stax Records singer.  Most of the songs on Dance to the Music revolve around very similar material.  But the group really proves their mettle by making each one sound fresh.  Sly gave Miles Davis a copy, and Miles later had to ask for another because the first was worn out from so much use.  While that might just seem like a mildly amusing anecdote, it does help explain an underlying strength of the album: the improvisational flair built around irresistible rhythms.

 Danse a la musique

The French Fries

“Danse a la musique” / “Small Fries” (1968)

 

Life

Sly & The Family Stone

Life (1968)

This is like a continuation of Dance to the Music.  “M’Lady” is quite similar to “Dance to the Music,” for instance.  But when you find a good thing, go with it.  While not as essential as some of the group’s other albums, if you like their 1960s stuff this is worth seeking out.

 Live at the Fillmore East

Sly & The Family Stone

Live at the Fillmore East (2015)

An archival live collection recorded shortly after the release of Life.  This was initially released as a 2-LP limited edition album, then as an expanded 4-CD set.

Stand!

Sly & The Family Stone

Stand! (1969)

Generally considered one of the group’s best albums.  With “Everyday People” Sly reached the pinnacle of the unbridled optimism of the 1960s, in the process coining the phrase “different strokes for different folks.”  The depth and feeling he fit into the space of a short pop song was a spectacular achievement.  Stand! established the group as one of the most important pop acts of their time.  This is not a bad place to start in their catalog.

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly & The Family Stone

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” / “Fun” (1969)

If ever one of Sly’s songs demonstrated both his absolution mastery of record producing and his witty, self-awareness in the world of soul music, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” was it.  It kind of pokes fun at other soul groups.  It also is a masterclass in how to make a record tailored to the talents of individual performers without losing sight of the overall effect of the group effort.  This is my personal favorite.

Woodstock
Woodstock (1970)

“Woodstock” has since become etched on the collective consciousness as a symbol of 1960s counterculture.  Sly & The Family Stone were right there for it.  The first album of material from the festival features a medley excerpted from the group’s performance.  Additional recordings from Woodstock came out on Woodstock Diary, but it was not until 2009 that the full performance was available on an album.  The original Woodstock album might help put the music in some kind of context though.

The Woodstock Experience

Sly & The Family Stone

The Woodstock Experience (2009)

Disc two of this collection features the complete performance of Sly & The Family Stone at Woodstock.  Proof that the band put on a fierce live show in their prime is here in abundance (despite a few sound equipment problems).

Life and Death in G & A

Abaco Dream

“Life and Death in G & A” / “Cat Woman” (1969)

The group released two throwaway singles (this and “Another Night of Love”) under the pseudonym “Abaco Dream”.  “Life and Death in G&A” is a straight funk number, with the largely instrumental “Cat Woman” featuring lingering, psychedelic synthesizer — both oddities unlike anything in the proper Sly & The Family Stone discography.  “Cat Woman” is the more intriguing side because it’s quite weird, for a major pop group or otherwise, while the A-side is driving but kind of simple.

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Sly & The Family Stone

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” / “Everybody Is a Star” (1969)

The group’s all-around best non-album single.  The A-side is a hard, funky number lead by the slap bass of Larry Graham that foreshadows Sly’s next moves.  The B-side is an uplifting, motivational song rooted in what the group did throughout the Sixties (especially “You Can Make It if You Try”).

The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies: Isle of Wight / Atlanta Pop Festival
The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies: Isle of Wight / Atlanta Pop Festival (1971)

Woodstock was only one of many large rock and pop festivals held in that era.  The group appeared at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England.

Somebody's Watching You

Little Sister

“Somebody’s Watching You” / “Stanga” (1970)

Little Sister was, yes, Sly’s little sister Vet’s group.  This single is historically noteworthy as being the first major (non-underground) release to feature a drum machine.  Little Sister would provide backing vocals for numerous Sly & The Family Stone releases in the coming years.

There's a Riot Goin' on

Sly & The Family Stone

There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

The defining Sly & The Family Stone album is without question There’s a Riot Goin’ on.  For a more complete overview of the album, read jlg4ever‘s review on RateYourMusic.  Whole books have been written about and around this album, so I will only sketch the key details.  It represented an abrupt shift from the last album.  Now dark, murky sounds dominated.  Original band members were departing.  Sly was using a drum machine, performing a lot of the music all by himself, and Bobby Womack appears somewhere in the mix.  There really isn’t another album like this.  Suffice it to say, it’s one of the all-time great rock/pop/soul albums.  An absolute essential.

Fresh

Sly & The Family Stone

Fresh (1973)

Not nearly as militant and obtuse as There’s a Riot Goin’ on, Fresh had a crisper funk sound.  It’s yet another classic.  Few groups have ever produced a series of albums as good as Sly had from the late 1960s through (at least) Fresh.  This is one of the essential Sly & The Family Stone discs.

Small Talk

Sly & The Family Stone

Small Talk (1974)

Sly took another turn with Small Talk.  It had a much quieter, mellower sound than any of the group’s previous albums.  The band was different, with a number of new members added and some old ones departed, and even boasted a violinist.  This album really is neglected.  The mature sound and lyrics dealing with raising a family and other domestic interests offer a new perspective on Sly’s music.  Despite having a few weaker moments (like “Mother Beautiful” and “Wishful Thinkin'”), this has held up pretty well.  People used to tell author Joseph Heller that his later books weren’t as good as Catch-22, to which he would respond, but what is?  To say Small Talk isn’t as good as something like There’s a Riot Goin’ on, or even Fresh, is kind of unfair.  No matter what, Sly had to go downhill at least a little as long as he kept releasing material following such magnificent previous achievements.  As long as you don’t come to this looking for more of the same, it should be a rewarding listen.  Small Talk deserves to be considered among the group’s better albums, even if it’s on a tier slightly below the all-time classics.

High on You

Sly Stone

High on You (1975)

High on You was not credited to “& The Family Stone”, which was perhaps a moot point with the original members of the band already disappearing in previous years.  This is a respectable funk/soul outing, though it’s nothing spectacular.  Sly’s popularity would decline from this point forward.  He was not really pushing himself anymore and that was starting to show.

Heard You Missed Me, Well I'm Back

Sly & The Family Stone

Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back (1976)

Perhaps due to the critical panning that Small Talk unfairly received, Sly’s next few albums tended to be merely attempts to recreate his “old” sound.  Each one was billed as his big comeback.  Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back is probably the worst album in the catalog.  It’s really embarrassing. Only bother with this if you have a morbid curiosity to hear how bad it really is — like smelling sour milk to verify the obvious consensus.

Back on the Right Track

Sly & The Family Stone

Back on the Right Track (1979)

Another lackluster “comeback” album that tries to recapture something lost.  It is a marked improvement over Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back.  Worth it for “Remember Who You Are”, a real gem from Sly’s late period.  The rest won’t win any new converts.

Ten Years Too Soon

Sly

Ten Years Too Soon (1979)

Well, for better or worse, this is one of the earliest remix albums.  It’s a bunch of old Sly & The Family Stone hits recast for disco-era dancefloors.  Profoundly unessential.

Ain't But the One Way

Sly & The Family Stone

Ain’t But the One Way (1982)

Sly all but disappeared for a while, though he briefly surfaced with Funkadelic for The Electric Spanking of War Babies.  Then along came Ain’t but the One Way in 1982.  In many ways, it marks the first time Sly actually presented a new sound since Small Talk.  Unfortunately, the performances are generally lackluster.  If the album could muster the intensity of “Underdog” in the horn section, things might have been different.  Aficionados will probably want to seek this out, particularly for “L.O.V.I.N.U.” and “Sylvester,” but it’s not essential.

 Eek-Ah-Bo Static Automatic

Sly Stone

“Eek-Ah-Bo Static Automatic” / “Love and Affection” (1986)

 

I'm Back! Family and Friends

Sly Stone

I’m Back! Family & Friends (2011)

After a very long period of inactivity, and a few brief reappearances touring, Sly released his first album under his name in decades in 2011.  What we have are mostly his old hits re-recorded, plus a few new songs.  The old songs are all performed with guest artists.  The hits are still great, and Sly has updated and modernized things in a way that needs no handicap.  Yet, the guest spots add nothing and these re-recordings are somewhat redundant.  Fans who love everything else may get a small kick out of this, but it’s nothing essential.  It is worth mentioning that due to an ongoing dispute with his (former) manager involving allegations of fraud regarding his royalty payments, Sly was living in a van in a rougher part of Los Angeles since 2009.  He has indicated that he’s now too paranoid to trust record companies to release any new material.

Recorded in San Francisco: 1964-67

Sly Stone

Recorded in San Francisco: 1964-67

Oddities collection.

Precious Stone: In the Studio With Sly Stone 1963-1965

Sly Stone

Precious Stone: In the Studio With Sly Stone 1963-1965 (1994)

A collection of early material Sly recorded for Autumn Records.

Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70
Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70 (2010)

A collection of tracks produced by Sly Stone, including those for his label Stone Flower.

The Essential Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone

The Essential Sly & The Family Stone (2003)

If you want a compilation of Sly & The Family Stone material, this is the one to get.  It supplanted Anthology, which had already supplanted Greatest Hits as the best one available.  Any collection will be good, but the two-CD Essential one is best because it’s longer and you will probably want the additional material.

Additional compilations that might be of interest are The Collection, which is a boxed set of the most essential albums (but is not a complete discography), and Higher!, which collects singles and oddities.

Work

A recent advertorial, “Why You Hate Work,” by some consultants published by the New York Times (NYT) makes a number of false distinctions — just the kind NYT loves.  Basically, the idea is that corporate management should implement certain policies to make employees more “engaged”, “productive”, “satisfied”, etc.  Not discussed is whether employers should be forced to do these things, or whether structural changes should be implemented on a national (or international) scale that render the decisions of such managers obsolete.  The authors state, “Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met . . . ”  Curiously, Simon Patten, the former economics chair of the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, advocated something quite similar (yet more practical) in the 19th century.  “Patten recognized that rising productivity, public investment, and wage levels went together. That is what enabled well-fed, well-trained, and well-housed American labor to undersell ‘pauper labor.'” (See “Simon Patten on Public Infrastructure and Economic Rent Capture”).  The NYT authors presume employee productivity as a desired objective.  Undiscussed is the degree to which productivity gains flow to employees vs. employers.  Patten knew better.  He avoided circular normative logic that underlies the NYT op-ed (that is, employers undermine employees, then must find a way to “motivate” said employees to accept the prior undermining).  The NYT piece is advocating that the capital strike that began around 2007, which today requires efforts by corporate management to convince employees that there is no alternative (TINA) and they should support and assist with the erosion of their own rights and powers that the capital strike represents.  Obviously, this does require skill.  How do you convince people to act against their own interests?  Clearly, such a challenge requires consultants.  Most likely, many consultants.

Anyway, a better point has been argued by anthropologist David Graeber.  In a recent interview with Thomas Frank, Graeber expounded further on the themes in his essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”  The NYT op-ed authors fall into the basic pattern of worthless glad-handing of corporate executives (ahem, the client base of these consultants), which the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu dismissed as essentially self-justifying drivel created by business for business in his excellent book The Social Structures of the Economy.  Graeber goes considerably further than the consultants advertising/opinion in the NYT by suggesting that workers, as citizens, have the right to control what kind of social and economic circumstances they live in.  The NYT authors instead focus on how selling ways management can trick employees into accepting a system they have no control over.  None of this should come as much of a surprise.  The authors freely admit (in public!) that they partnered with The Harvard Business Review, which might be labeled a terrorist organization in a more just world (because they promote fear among “noncombatant” workers to advance a marketplace war between business entities).

 

The Soul Stirrers – He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul StirrersHe’s My Rock: Their Early Sides P-Vine PCD-5594/5 (2003)


R.H. Harris of The Soul Stirrers was the Louis Armstrong of gospel music.  He is credited by many as being the first significant singer in gospel “quartet” music to break away from the “flatfooted” jubilee style and provide lead vocals that could roam over the top of the backing vocals, simultaneously adding rhythmic syncopation and melodic flourishes.  In other words, he helped create space in gospel music for dynamic soloists just like Armstrong did for jazz.  He, like Armstrong, wasn’t the only person doing his kind of thing, but he did it more effectively and consistently than anyone else.  His style of lead singing opened the door for gospel “quartets” to include more than four singers, with multiple lead vocalists switching back and forth.  And Harris was a force to be reckoned with.  His twangy, slightly nasal voice leaps out and commands attention.  He employed melisma to add an emotional kick to each and every song, but unlike the scores of perhaps unwitting imitators you hear all over the place decades later on American Idol or whatever, there is substance and disciplined restraint when that effect is used here.  It sounds fantastic, and it gets better with each repeated listen.

He’s My Rock may be the most extensive collection of pre-Sam Cooke Soul Stirrers recordings yet assembled.  The material here comes from around 1939 or 1940 through 1948.  The sound is pretty good for transfers from old 78s, and the liner notes are as good as you’ll find, with recording dates and personnel actually listed for everything along with songwriting attribution for most of the selections.  The group sounds great here, and song after song features exquisitely crafted vocal harmonies.  Their attention to detail is extraordinary.  This may be due in part to how late in the Soul Stirrers’ existence these “early” recordings were made.  The Soul Stirrers had been around since the 1920s.  Apart from some Library of Congress recordings, they didn’t really record much until the 1940s.  So don’t be surprised if you hear earlier recordings by other groups–like the Ink Spots–and mistakenly think The Soul Stirrers took influence from them instead of the other way around.  The Soul Stirrers placed so little emphasis on recording for such a long time, that their musical innovations had become well known in some circles long before they waxed any songs reflecting those innovations.  When they finally did make recordings, the material was quite polished and refined.  So it all sounds great.

Even with their many innovations, the early Soul Stirrers were still tied to the long-popular “jubilee” style, and they featured a decidedly slow-paced approach that you could link back to Victorian-era folk music.  Probably due to that fact, listening to a lot of these early recordings together it becomes clear that The Soul Stirrers rarely strayed from demure, homophonic stylings in constructing the backing harmonies.  If you aren’t prepared for that, and expect a more modern sound, like the slightly harder gospel the group recorded later with Sam Cooke, this disc might sound a bit monotonous after a while.  But that shouldn’t detract from the historical importance of these recordings.  It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the fine lead vocals of R.H. Harris.  Despite this collection representing perhaps the most influential vocal group gospel music, it probably isn’t the place to gain an introduction to gospel “quartet” music.  But if you want to understand the development of gospel music, or just enjoy some great vocals, this set is invaluable.

Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Film Victoria

Director: P.J. Hogan

Main Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter


Although billed as the story of small town girl Muriel’s (Toni Collette’s) attempts to “make her own way” in the world, what is most striking about this Australian comedy is that it is catalogues the typically conflicting attempts by various characters to advance their social status.  It is also well cast, well acted and well written.  Oh, and, unlike so many Aussie comedies, it’s actually funny.  Muriel is the daughter of an aging, insignificant local politician (Bill Hunter) with desperate, pathetic and cliched delusions of grandeur.  He considers all of his family members failures, more or less, holding him back from his ambitions.  Muriel leaves for the big city, Sydney, and her path there triggers events that put her family in a downward spiral.  Initially desperate for the approval of the popular girls from her high school, she meets another former classmate (Rachel Griffiths) on a holiday.  The two become fast friends, and share an apartment in Sydney.  Muriel feigns having a fiancee, and dreams of getting married.  These are the external validations she sees as crucial to her standing in the eyes of those around her.  She does achieve marriage eventually, in the most demeaning way possible.  Toni Collette is perfect in the title role–her big breakthrough.  Her performance at the big wedding (for a change, not the end of the movie) is wonderful, and just the expression on her face walking down the aisle–giddy, silly, unjustified, embarrassingly inappropriate, gloating, uncontained joy–encapsulates much of the movie.  The film always lands on its feet portraying the more-juvenile-than-they-realize aspirations of young adults in the 1990s.  There is no shortage of smaller gags, and the dramatic elements are well paced, seamlessly integrated with the humorous content, and and asset to the overall work.  All of the main characters seek social status, and many commit injustices against those around them to do so.  The “heart-warming” ending finds at least Muriel (she changes her name at one point to Mariel–to be a different person) changing her outlook on life.  Rather than seek a mild form of greatness (success in the big things of life–her version of the larger social stage) she chooses happiness (success in the small things in life–for her, friendship).  What makes this treatment so successful is that the ending makes no explicit statement as to whether Muriel’s “mature” choice of the path of “happiness” is borne of her own free will or merely through a zen-like acceptance of her social position.  Her father explicitly concedes to something like the latter.  Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) makes a tragic, but altruistic choice of neither.  Of all the characters in the film, the most selfless acts are by Muriel’s mother.  Muriel, despite her supposed growth as a person, has merely evolved from pure self-interest to a kind of ambivalent “two against the world” friend pairing that has the feel of a willing compromise among those closest to her.  This is the moral center of the film.  It holds that you should not harm others.  But in relegating the mother to a peripheral role, it puts little emphasis on selfless altruism.

Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton

The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton

Anthony BraxtonThe Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton Mosaic MD8-242 (2008)


Anthony Braxton has been a major figure in late 20th Century music and beyond.  It’s fitting that his work for Arista Records has finally been comprehensively issued on CD.  Although he recorded for a variety of other labels before, during and since that tenure (notably Leo Records in later years, but even including Windham Hill Records‘ subsidiary Magenta Records), it was his releases for that fledgling major label that earned him international renown.  It has been a minor tragedy that so much of Anthony Braxton’s Arista material has taken so long to see re-release on CD, though it may still be some time before individual releases are available on CD aside from this pricey box set.

Describing Braxton is a difficult task, as his musical interests cover broad territory.  Ostensibly he is and was a “jazz” musician.  But his output on Arista showed early on that he was interested in modern composition wholly separate from the realm of the jazz tradition.  Looking back, his biggest successes from this era were his efforts to cross different styles, chief among them traditional jazz, free jazz, and modern composition.  Yet he stood for something more than just the man behind the curtain churning out the music on his records.  It was “Braxton’s chosen arena of the independent and marginal,” as Michael Heffley’s liner notes to this box put it, that set him apart.  He found ways to make his eclectic interests in smaller pleasures and out-of-the-way innovations work.  And in doing so he helped set a precedent for others to keep alive music that was always something accepted only on the fringes, but was finding noticeably fewer and fewer outlets from the mid-1970s onward.  He managed to redefine the terms for success for a musician in his position without compromising the integrity of his musical ideas.

While it might not be for everyone, given the generally dense and formal nature of much of the music, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton should provide enjoyment and rewards to anyone with at least some interest in modern jazz.  Whatever a potential listener has heard of Braxton’s reputation can be ignored.  In part that’s because these recordings largely pre-date his reputation.  Yet it’s also because things like bright horn charts and marches on Creative Orchestra Music 1976, traditional material like “Maple Leaf Rag” on Duets 1976, the ferocity of improvisation and skill of the players throughout The Montreux / Berlin Concerts, and the boldness of For Two Pianos are all immediately recognizable and enjoyable regardless of a listener’s frame of reference.  There is also a sense that Braxton had a genuine and heartfelt interest in this material, however unusual by mainstream standards, which is at least a little contagious.

This Mosaic Records set does a great job with remastering the music for CD.  If it does have a fault, it’s that it indulges familiar jazz snob peculiarities in the liner notes, which focus on recording information to the general exclusion of release information.  The original liner notes and cover artwork from the albums compiled here are not reproduced, and it is only with considerable effort can tracks on these CDs be matched up with the names of the LPs on which they were originally released.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent set, making a fairly good entry point to Anthony Braxton’s extensive catalog, and should hopefully help preserve this vital music for the future.

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan – Death and Transfiguration

Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome)

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan (Vienna Philharmonic)Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome) London CS 6211 (196?)


I’ve never had any particular affinity for Richard Strauss, but these are decent performances.  “Death and Transfiguration” is my favorite here, the rest can be a bit too melodramatic for my tastes.

Louie – In the Woods

Louie FX Networks (2010- )


Louis C.K.’s current show Louie may well be one of the best things on TV right now.  There are plenty of other worthy  shows today–Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn & Jake merits a nod, as do the likes of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang and Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, for starters.  But Louie makes its mark by trying to go a little deeper than the standard sitcom fare.  Take the 9 June 2014, Season 4 episode “In the Woods.”  Like much of season 4, the episode, stretching to a full 90 minute timeslot, meanders and jumps unexpectedly to flashbacks.  But like some earlier episodes, Louis C.K., not only the lead actor (playing a fictional version of himself) but also the writer and director, explores the significance of cross-generational social ills.  In this case, it is teen entry-level drug use.  But supporting that general theme there are cycles of physical abuse manifested through burnouts and bullies, and adolescent angst reflected upon by an aging, middle-aged man.  What clicks is the sensitivity of looking back upon school teachers and administrators who seem to really want kids to have opportunities, parents who care, or don’t, the kids, making angry stands against a parent, not because they know they are right but because they don’t and can’t see anyone else who seems right either.  But regardless of intent, there’s an attempt to look back and analyze what was done, what failed, and make stupid best-intention attempts at something that might work better.  The most basic and fundamental quality of the show, particularly across season 4, is a pervasive sense of trying to do better, of breaking out of negative cycles and downward spirals and not taking the “old ways” as a given.  There is a strangely “scientific” quality to it.  But of course, this is still Louie C.K.  So the show makes a funny spectacle of failure.  There is a Whitmanesque celebration of mistakes, which is deftly played off as a crumbling aspect of American society when it appears most strongly in flashbacks.  Thankfully, the weakest aspect of his comedy, the Catholic guilt sex jokes, are kept to a relative minimum this season.  Instead, one of the strongest aspects of his comedy, that of kids and trying to comprehend being a parent, has occupied center stage.  Occasionally that makes the show feel like a present-day counterpart to The Cosby Show.  Louie remains Louie, though.  There is still a fair amount of sentimental flotsam and jetsam.  But a desire for lone individuals to desperately pull off the little things in life in a society where greatness isn’t anything great gives the show some heart that puts Louie ahead of most TV shows with a dramatic element.  No, the show doesn’t tackle big issues.  But at least it deals with interpersonal and family relationships in a way that emphasizes a constant struggle to attempt, err and correct that seems a lot like a precursor to tackling bigger issues.

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Bish Bosch

Scott WalkerBish Bosch 4AD CAD3220CD (2012)


The most amazing feat of Scott Walker’s later career has been to have the most unlikely popular audiences receive it so well.  Since Tilt in 1995 his music has adopted experimental, operatic elements that lack the syncopation that is foundational to pop music of the rock era.  The Drift added an increasingly ominous and dark tone to what already was frighteningly unique music.  With Bish Bosch, Walker is flirting again with syncopation, fitfully at times, but with its programmed drum beats and proto-metal electric guitar it provides a more direct link with (fairly) contemporary pop music than anything he’s released in nearly 30 years.  On top of that he’s able to pull together the resources to have orchestration on an album this “out”.  Yet, he still manages to have his sense of humor felt quite directly.  His previous album The Drift had surreal, absurdist lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” (“Jolson and Jones”) but Bish Bosch goes for a more heady mix of lowbrow phrasings with lyrics like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face” (“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”).  To pull all these elements together in a way that holds together and finds more than scattered audiences at the fringes is no mean feat, and it’s the mark of a master that Walker has done it, again.  There is definitely a brutality in the world of 2012 and Scott Walker seems to have his finger on that pulse in a way that is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the times themselves.  What Bish Bosch reveals, though, is a sense of hidden value in the grotesque, an affirming quality that with a lot of effort–and with the enormous cast of players here, that’s an understatement–people have the power to reclaim the very foundation of the grotesque and create from it a new context.  It’s quite telling that Walker’s approach means an engagement of the highbrow with the lowbrow, and that a gap between those audiences music be bridged.  Granted, he has not won over all listeners, but in a philosophical sense, he’s re-imagining the meaning and possibilities of the path he sets out upon.  It’s not just a different arrangement of the same old elements, but a bold new system of determining what is real and what is illusion.  That is to say that listening to this sort of music can change how to listen to other things, and change your perception of what you have already heard.  It seems the role of philosopher king suits Scott Walker well in his advancing years.