Occasionally, mainstream pop/rock albums succeed. The odds are against them, but Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual beats the odds to succeed. This is really a great summary of a lot of things happening in pop and rock music at the beginning of the 1980s. There are, of course, the huge hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” But most of side one of the LP is all great. There is a cover of Prince‘s “When You Were Mine” that is filler. Yet if you must have filler, why not a good Prince song? The opener “Money Changes Everything” is one of the album’s best, with somewhat of a Springsteen flavor and featuring a melodica solo in the style of The The. Side two is even more eclectic. “All Through the Night” was a minor hit (also somewhat in the style of The The). It is followed by a second-wave ska number “Witness,” then a new wave rocker similar to “She Bop” from side one. There is a skit, “He’s So Unusual,” that kind of references Betty Boop. The album wraps up with “Yeah Yeah,” a zany rock song with synth horns and punchy keyboards, done in the style of Oingo Boingo and carrying over the Betty Boop vocal affectations from the skit. So, everything here has clear precedents and influences, worn on their sleeve. She’s So Unusual works partly because Lauper is actually a great singer, with a heavy New York accent but also ample range. The other secret to the album’s success is how convincingly each of the styles is reproduced. There isn’t a misstep to be found anywhere. Even decades later this album is a blast and hasn’t hardly aged. This album was a huge commercial success, as was the follow-up True Colors, though Lauper was less of a commercial force in later years. Yet she evolved. Just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, she appeared on a John Lennon tribute show “Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music” performing “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Central Park. It was probably the most impressive performance on the program, and a good example of how Lauper stayed relevant beyond being just a camp icon.
The Red Crayola – Malefactor, Ade Glass GLALP 035 (1989)
Malefactor, Ade is a bit of an odd album even in the catalog of a band that was strange from the very beginning. On the one hand, parts of this bear resemblances to the “performance art” music of Laurie Anderson, the open-minded ambitions of the so-called “Rock in Opposition” bands, and there are still remnants of the funky no-wave punk that The Red Crayola had pursued (often in collaboration with the art collective Art & Language) over the prior decade, now more minimalist in delivery. But on the other hand, this is music that is built up from surprisingly non-musical elements. Often these songs are just a bunch of bloops, bleeps and banging, with sing-speak vocals on top, a single guitar and some drums or cheap synthesizer keyboards that point towards melody, or the semblance of melody. The lyrics draw on non-sequitur humor. This points towards an effort to place the musical and the non-musical on equal footing — a nod towards a universalist political philosophy. These sorts of elements also point toward the music made by the re-formed group (back under the spelling Red Krayola) in the United States in the mid-1990s, which was more surrealist and linked to the “post-rock” scene. There are some “jazzier” instrumental bits too. So, this should be viewed as a transitional album. This is one more for the converted than newcomers, but it is a solid little album and one that is much better than its reputation suggests.
This lithographic poster was likely inspired by Nikolai Kolli‘s plywood street sculpture erected in Revolution Square in Moscow in 1918, which depicted a white block fractured by a vertical red wedge.
James Chance‘s band The Contortions weren’t the only group melding funk, punk rock and free jazz at the end of the 1970s and early 80s — there was also Public Image Ltd., Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Essential Logic, and others. But The Contortions offered one of the most succinct and brash statements, grounding their dissonant, atonal squawks and noise against heavy, grooving static funk rhythms. The key to this music is that rhythm ties together in a nominally pop music way avant-garde building blocks that normally are mutually exclusive of “pop” music as such. Granted, this is still eccentric stuff. But there is always a strong beat to carry each song. This “no-wave” music draws a distinction from earlier free-jazz-meets-rock hybrids from the likes of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (at least prior to Doc at the Radar Station). James Chance plays alto saxophone Ornette Coleman style. He is actually quite good at it. He adopted a kind of Buster Poindexter persona (before Poindexter of course), with the attitude of a slick, arrogant proto-80s materialistic consumer, always in a suit. I may turn to James White & The Blacks‘ Sax Maniac (1982) more often, but Buy is still probably the most innovative and polished offering by this band (and all its related offshoots).
After Cody ChesnuTT gained some modest success based on his lo-fi “bedroom” recordings on The Headphone Masterpiece, he succumbed to some of the vices of (semi) celebrity. It took almost a decade for this next recordings to appear, the EP Black Skin No Value, followed by Landing on a Hundred a full decade after his debut. His second full-length album is a hi-fi collection of studio-recorded retro soul tunes. The influences are obvious — Marvin Gaye, especially, but also Curtis Mayfield and others. The opener, “‘Till I Meet Thee,” for instance, sounds like a successful meeting of the light soul of Marvin Gaye and the pop reggae of Peter Tosh. Unfortunately, the songwriting flags a bit as the album wears on. There is some decedent stuff here in the first part of the album, but overall things are a bit middling.
But how long with it take to disqualify Chris Froome and revoke his titles for doping? Too long, it seems.
Red Star Over Russia is one of the best English-language overviews of the birth and early decades of the Soviet Union. This is primarily a collection of visual materials, presented in large format with high-quality printing/reproduction. There are extensive annotations to contextualize the images, which increases the value of the book tremendously. This is really an essential collection. It is a very nearly necessary supplement to written histories and biographies of the era in question. For instance, the war photographs from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) are quite indescribable, and are, alone, the sorts of things every human being should be exposed to as part of a historical education.
There are, however, a few things to note about this book. King is a Trotskyist. So there is a disproportionate amount of material on Lev (Leon) Trotsky, and essentially no criticisms of Trotsky (such as of his well-documented arrogance). There is also a staunchly anti-Stalinist perspective. While documenting Stalin’s crimes is necessary, readers should be aware that the book is tilted against Stalin (and others) in a typical Troskyist way — without, say, the acknowledgment that many Troskytists have made in recent years that elements of Stalinism were inevitable in the USSR. Anyway, as a book that focuses on visual art, with tangential discussions of the text on propaganda posters and such, readers will have to look elsewhere to lean more about the music and writing over the early Soviet era — like the great writers Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov. Moreover, there are a few misleading comments in the book. Take for instance an indication on page 308 that TASS window posters were “an-painted”. As detailed in Windows on the War, the TASS news agency did release a few window paintings that were free-hand painted on easel, in the manner King implies, but there were very limited. More common were (small-scale) reproduced stenciled posters with painterly effects (what today might be called “artisinal” in the West). although maquettes may have been initially hand-painted, these stencil posters were not free-hand painted. The images pages 308 and 309 of King’s book are stenciled reproductions (evident by the individual sheets glued together to form the overall image).
The criticisms of this book are all ultimately minor. King’s Trotskyist slant should, however, be noted by readers. Yet King certainly does not hide his outlook, which is commendable. Everyone has an outlook — there is no such thing as “objectivity” in these matters.
An interesting book reproducing poster art from the Soviet Union from 1917 to the 1980s. All of the reproduced posters come from the private collection of Sergo Grigorian. While many are rare posters — the Soviet government did not value preservation of posters as “art” — this is a somewhat arbitrary and partial representation of what Soviet poster art encompassed. It specifically leans toward posters mass-produced using lithographic techniques. Fortunately, there are numerous other books (in English) on Soviet art that can be consulted to gain a wider perspective, including catalogs of individual artists like Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Gustav Klutsis, Viktor Koretsky — not to mention in-depth treatments of photography, photomontage, constructivism and socialist realism in general. David King‘s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History Of The Soviet Union From 1917 To The Death Of Stalin Posters Photographs And Graphics From The David King Collection is also a more comprehensive multi-media collection of Soviet historical and artistic materials, with explanatory text that greatly aids in contextualizing the materials. While Soviet Posters may be a very second-tier book on Soviet art, it is reasonably-priced, widely available, and still full of interesting images.
There are a few particular things worth noting about this book, pro and con. The book has a short introduction, which is highly general and rather short, but deserves to be commended for avoiding the anti-communist editorializing that is endemic to so many English-language books about the Soviet Union — by way of comparison, Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 has much more detailed text but contains many irrelevant anti-communist editorial comments. On the negative side, the lack of text makes contextualizing these posters more difficult, and the identifications of the titles and other background information is printed sideways and partially in a back index, which increases the difficulty in finding and reading such information. The editor does not translate all of the posters’ text to English, usually only the titles. Only a select few posters have additional explanatory text. That added text is helpful, and one wishes there was (much) more of it. Then again, better to have no text and let the posters stand on their own than to have merely anti-communist exhortations.
The book is organized chronologically, which presents a fascinating look at some of the changes in the poster art form across Soviet history. The early years feature interesting innovations. The Stalin years, and during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the posters start to lack ingenuity and become drab and bleak — that holds for those posters selected for this book, but not for all Soviet art of the era. But then during the Khrushchev era there are again more interesting posters presented.
It is common to identify these as “propaganda” posters. While that is fair, the excessive emphasis on “propaganda” content by commentators is usually hypocritical. These Soviet posters were explicitly and overtly political and ideological. Look to any capitalist (or monarchist) country, by way of comparison, and the art is just as propagandistic. Take, for instance, the film The Pursuit of Happyness, which is conservative, neoliberal capitalist propaganda. So often, that other art simply denies its ideological content — it is ideology masquerading as post-ideological neutrality, much akin to “end of history” theory of the conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama. It is refreshing to see artworks that openly admit their propagandistic content.
I visited the Art Institute of Chicago recently and was struck by how the entire collection on display focused on artwork from capitalist, feudal, and related cultures. There was an almost complete lack of any artwork from communist/socialist/anarchist/etc. societies. The museum had featured temporary exhibitions on such art in the past, and their gift shops had commemorative books on the subject. But it is good that this sort of art is being widely published, though there is still a ways to go to overcome anti-communist biases that still suppress it and relegate it to an inferior status. This sort of artwork deserves, at a minimum, a place in the permanent collections of major museums and to be placed on regular display.