Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Video Vault: 999, Homicide

I love old pre-MTV videos shot on plain white photography studio sets; see also Pop Muzik by M, Play For Today by the Cure, Radio Radio by Elvis Costello, I Know What Boys Like by the Waitresses, and about a million others.

Posted on 9-9-09 (ha!).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Kill Yr CD: The Cars, Candy-O

*See Kill Yr CD: Intro

I really, really liked the first Cars album. It came out when I was about 12. I played it until it started to skip from the scratches in the vinyl, and then I played it until the needle wore the scratches down and it didn't skip anymore.

That album, along with the first Police album, was the first "new" music that I listened to. We were all, then, into the rock gods of the 1960s, the heroes of our (figurative) older brothers. The Who. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. The Beatles. Bands that were either dead, broken up, or -- worse -- still limping along.

The first Cars album was new. Not just New Wave, which it was, sort of, but new. It had synthesizers. It had some nerdy guy yelping about nuclear boots and drip dry gloves. It was -- just a little bit, and in a good way -- weird.

It was also familiar. With its songs about letting good times roll and moving in stereo and bye bye love, it had a stoner vibe that the long-haired dazed and confused crowd could nod along to. There were guitar solos. All in all, it wasn't a million miles distant from Foreigner or even Boston, who were the hot new rock acts of the day.

Candy-O, their next album, took a sharp left turn away from all that. [Note obligatory "cars" reference to describe the musical direction of "The Cars." Clever, huh?] It wasn't mellow at all, like some of the first album was. There wasn't any stoner vibe. It buzzed. It clicked.

The Cars always made a virtue of being shallow, or at least ironically appearing to be, so it's appropriate that the big change between their first and second albums should be perfectly reflected in something seemingly insignificant and insubstantial. On the sleeve of the first album, Greg Hawkes, the keyboard player, has standard issue rocker guy long hair and macho man mustache. On the second, his hair is still long, but it's trimmed and stylish, and he's completely clean-shaven.

It's not just the hair, either -- his synths are more prevalent on the second album. It's a lot less rock and a lot more New Wave.

They also brought the drums forward, and sharpened them up. I really like the way David Robinson plays on this album and the next one, Panorama. I liked the drums on the first one, too, but they sounded a little muffled and conventional. Here, they're bright and banging. Candy-O came out a few months before the first Joy Division album, which is famous for its inventive use of drums, but the Cars and their producer, Roy Thomas Baker, rarely get the kind of raves for their innovative drum sound that Martin Hannett did for Joy Division.

Another thing I loved about Candy-O was how soon after the first album it came out. I was still wearing through the scratches on the first album when the second one came out, and it was cool to have them to play off each other.

I had the vinyl, which I later replaced with CD, which I've subsequently ripped to mp3. At one point I also had the 8-track version. This album is best as a CD. The iconic cover art, and design, are a little much in an LP-sized package. In a CD case, it's much more discreet and tasteful. It's so clean! All that white, and the perfect straight lines. It's all shiny surfaces and sharp, straight edges. Just like the music.

The 8 track actually had a slightly different running sequence, which wasn't unusual for 8 tracks back in the day. The particular order of the songs didn't matter as much as the overall feeling. There are three important moments, and they are all there no matter what the format.

The first is the opening song, "Let's Go," an anthem written sideways. It opens with a climactic crash and then tears off with the matching guitar and synthesizer lines that was the signature sound of these guys at their best.

The next is the bubbling, gurgling, weird, "Shoo Be Doo," building a tension that resolves in the perfectly-timed segue into the dark, dangerous title track, "Candy-O," one of the best things they've ever done.

The third is the extended intro to "Nightspots," a blurping synthesizer workout that sounds like some sort of logical arcade. The juxtaposition of fun and danger clears the decks for the remaining songs, most of which sound like the soundtrack to a morning after a night on the town where the singer isn't quite sure whether he had a good time.

The rest of the album is full of little pop gems and calculated Top 40 fare. What makes it work so well is the production. It's so clean, like they were playing under glass, like in one of those laboratories where the workers stick their arms in vacuum-sealed sleeves and reach into a box to do their work.

The songwriting and production on the early Cars albums, especially this one, built bridges to more adventurous contemporary fare like Roxy Music, Kraftwerk and even Joy Division. Even if many listeners, myself included, did not venture across those particular bridges for many more years, just having them there made all kinds of other music so much more accessible than if there had been nothing but wide chasms to leap across.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Kill Yr CD: Intro

I'm thinking about getting rid of all my compact discs.

It should be simple enough. I have about eight or nine hundred of them, and I almost literally never listen to any of them anymore. There are a few scattered around the kitchen and in our cars, but those are the only places we even have a CD player anymore. I ripped everything to iTunes years ago, and the whole collection is safely digitized and backed up on multiple hard drives.

They're really not worth much. There are a few places that will give you pennies on the dollar, or some shiny trinkets. I don't mind the poor exchange rate.

It would clear out some space in the house. We have a big shelf in the computer room stuffed full of CDs, plus a few hundred laying hither and yon.

It all makes good sense. But I can't pull the trigger on it.

I am old enough to have once had a sizable collection of vinyl. I cashed it all in years ago, except for a few collector's items and stuff that can't be easily replaced. I didn't hesitate; I just sold it all for credit, and bought more CDs.

I think I am in the sweet spot of the compact disc market. They came out just about when I started college, and when I moved to Philadelphia, there were a lot of good places to buy rare and beautiful things. I spent mucho time and money doing so.

I stand second to no one in my love of the iPod and iTunes. I bought my first iPod about six or seven years ago, and I still have it, along with a few others. I have one playing probably ten or twelve hours a day. I am listening to one now.

As much as the iPod is an objet d'art, the compact disc is too, in its own way. A long time ago, the standard issue CD came in a cardboard sleeve that unfolded like a gatefold LP. Then the industry ditched that model and started jamming them into those familiar little clear plastic cases. Perfection! Square, solid, substantial, big enough to hold, but small enough to fit in your pocket. Just like an iPod. I love how it has edges, and how they feel pressed against your fingers.

But it is time to get rid of them. If I am really going to do it, I am going to have to hold a wake for a few dozen that mean the most to me. Even with that, I know there will be a few I just can't get rid of. Unknown Pleasures. Psychocandy. Loveless. Plus all the live bootlegs, remixes and CD singles I've accumulated -- real fanboy stuff. But the ordinary, run of the mill digital versions of albums have got to go. Starting now. I'm going to say goodbye to a few first, though.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Are The World, We Are The Children

Dad: Hey, 10 year old daughter -- do ya know who Michael Jackson is?

10YOD [snidely]: Yah-ah.

Dad: OK. Well, he died.

10YOD [dismissively]: I know.

Dad: Oh. How do you know that?

10YOD [airily]: There's these boys in my Sunday school class who are always talking about Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson. They like, love him or something.

Dad: ... But ... when did they tell you that? I mean, when did you see them? Because he just died today, so...

10YOD [energetically]: Oh! He did?

Dad: Yeah.

10YOD [morosely]: Oh.

Dad: But you know who he is, right? Or was, I guess.

10YOD [haughtily]: Yah-ah. Duh!

Dad: OK.

10YOD [warily]: How old was he?

Dad: Hmmm... I don't know, about my age, maybe a little older.

10YOD [nervously]: Really?

Dad: Yeah, I don't know, I guess he was a few years older than me. When I was a little kid he was a big star. You know, for as sad, twisted and bizarre as his life became, when he was a kid, he was really something. What a talent! He was just electric, you couldn't believe a little kid like that could do the things he did.

10YOD [impertinently]: Yeah, whatever.

Dad: Listen, by the time he was your age, he and his brothers were big stars with hit records, they were on TV all the time, and they bought a huge house in L.A. for their parents and all their brothers and sisters, and they all lived liked kings. What have you been doing these last 10 years?

10YOD [angrily]: Dad!

Dad: And by the way, when was the last time you practiced piano?

10YOD [testily]: ... Dad, I know who Michael Jackson is. You don't have to tell me these things. I know things, OK?

Dad: All right, all right. Did you ever see him perform? Wanna check out some YouTube?

10YOD [brightly]: Yeah!

Dad: OK, searching Jackson 5... Here's one.

Video begins. Dick Clark smoothly introduces a group of fresh-faced youngsters, led by an impossibly cute and charismatic munchkin with a stylin' vest and a foot-high Afro. They begin lip-synching "ABC."

Dad: Huh, huh? What'd I tell you?

10YOD [confusedly]: Wait a minute...!

Dad: What?

10YOD [earnestly]: Was Michael Jackson black?

Dad: ...

Dad: Umm....

Dad: Mmm...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Listening To: No Line On The Horizon

OK, I've listened to this four or five times now, and here's what I think.

First, my biases:

I was a big U2 fan up through The Unforgettable Fire -- really, as big a fan as you could be. I didn't like their "Irish Cowboy" phase (The Joshua Tree to Rattle and Hum). I started paying attention again during the Zoo years. Achtung Baby was a better concept than an album, but it got them back on track. My favorite U2 album is Zooropa. I like some the Passengers album and some of Pop, probably more than most people. The last two albums were good if a bit safe.

No Line On The Horizon is being pushed as a more experimental album. I say, bring it on.

U2's biggest challenge has always been that they have no groove. In the second half of their career, they've usually approached this problem by dressing up the production on their records rather than revamping their songwriting. On the last two albums, they tried to pass themselves off as a blue-eyed soul group on a couple of songs, and it mostly worked. But most of the other tracks never really got off the ground, at least not until they played them live a couple of dozen times.

The new single, Get On Your Boots, starts off like Vertigo, Jr. and is full of promise, like they're going to keep pushing their boundaries. But it bogs down in the bridge part and veers off into weirdness for the sake of weirdness.

Get On Your Boots sits right in the middle of the album. The album actually opens and closes with two different versions of the title track. So far, I can't tell them apart, but I like the gimmick. It's a good song too, a simple riff and rhythm that they've revisited several times since at least Achtung Baby. The chorus and middle section seem a bit like an attempt to sound like Talking Heads circa Remain In Light -- another trick U2 has tried several times over the years. It is not the last attempt on this album, either.

One thing about U2 the last few years is they haven't been shy about trying to correct their mistakes, or at least improve their near-misses. For example, Vertigo was basically an improvement on Elevation, which itself was maybe an attempt to salvage Last Night On Earth. On the last album, City Of Blinding Lights swung for the fences, trying to be a big classic arena rock anthem, and came up empty. Here, they to back to the well for Magnificent, and it works a lot better. You'll be raising your cell phone high above your head to this one in a stadium near you later this year.

In the same way, Moment Of Surrender is another stab at the duo of Stuck In A Moment and Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own. I think they got it right last time, but this is pretty good too, with a little bit of a reggae lilt.

Unknown Caller is their most explicit rip-off of homage to Remain In Light since at least Lemon. I like it.

OK, seeing a song title like I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight raises all kinds of warning flags. Then there's the lyrics. On the last album, there was one line that was so bizarre that it overwhelmed everything around it: "Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby's head." In this song, Bono sings, "Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot." Plus, the bass rips off the 20-year-old Jesus Jones hit Right Here, Right Now. Hmmm.

Stand Up Comedy also recycles an old riff from somewhere (maybe Neil Young), and features the line, "Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady."

In fact, this album continues and magnifies the trend that Bono has taken with his lyrics and delivery over the last decade, perhaps first demonstrated on the song New York on All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's a sort of casual, playful, irreverent Beat poet for the 21st century, (too) obviously influenced by rap. When it works, it's an inventive end run around the dead end that faces any rock band in its Xth year. When it doesn't, it produces an entertaining car crash.

Fez: Being Born is more Remain In Light, with the hip-hop trick of throwing in elements from other songs on the album. And here's an interesting thing: Is this album really all that experimental? No, not really. Most of it is pretty conventional, with fairly tame production. The obvious exceptions are this song and Get On Your Boots. This album also marks the return of the Eno-Lanois production team as full partners. Their first collaboration with U2, 25 years ago, was on The Unforgettable Fire, which was also billed as U2's (first) experimental album. Listening to it over the years, it's become obvious that it was pretty straightforward, except for one or two novelty tracks that tilted the whole thing ever-so-slightly toward the avant-garde. Same thing here -- none of which is meant to diminish the finished product, but merely to judge it against its own stated ambitions.

White As Snow, much like a bunch of tracks late in the running order of the last two albums (Peace On Earth, Grace, One Step Closer) is simple, slow and direct. Under the right circumstances, it could be a fan favorite, but it'll probably be overlooked. The granddaddy of this type of U2 song is The First Time, from Zooropa.

Breathe is the tough kid that hangs around with Get On Your Boots, the muscle next to the flash and trash leader of the gang. This one works, and contains perhaps the best example yet of Bono's recent lyrical and vocal style.

Cedars Of Lebanon is back to the vibe of White As Snow, with a more direct and specific lyric about the Middle East. Not too sure about this one. More Remain In Light, together with a vaguely Asian feel that most people will assume is Eno's influence.

One thing I liked about the last two albums was how Bono made a virtue of the limitations of his voice, pushing up against his range on pseudo-soul numbers like In A Little While and Original Of The Species. He seems to have given up on that here, opting instead for a unique mix of Dylan's talking blues and Sinatra's weary lounge act. At least he's not repeating himself.

Overall, I like this album. It's ambitious, a lot less experimental than advertised, with a few major potholes and three or four tracks that will eventually rise above the rest as they become more familiar. The biggest surprise is the almost total absence of anything that has the Edge's fingerprints on it. For better or worse, this is Bono's album.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Watching: The Day of the Jackal

It took me a while to warm up to this movie. The biggest problem is that it begins with the least competent attempted homicide since Double Indemnity. Some disaffected French army guys, pissed off about Charles de Gaulle's capitulation in Algiers, stand along a wide boulevard in Paris and open fire as his motorcade whizzes by at 50 miles 80 kilometres an hour. Of course, they miss. Then the narrator says, "As if by a miracle, neither [de Gaulle] nor anyone else was hurt."

Wha? A miracle? Did these beauzeaus really think they were likely to hit de Gaulle with any of their shots, let alone kill him? Why didn't they roll something out into the road to stop, or at least slow down, his car? Then again, it's just like French soldiers to fail to stop an enemy from advancing past their defenses without even noticing they were there.

Well, guess what? It turns out to be less a dramatic failure of the movie than yet another tactical error by French forces. The whole scene was, basically, historically accurate:

While the OAS did exist as described in the novel, and the film opens with a remarkably accurate re-enactment of the Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry-led attempt on President De Gaulle's life, the remaining plot is fiction.
The group set themselves up in the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962. De Gaulle's car, an unarmored Citroën DS, and nearby shops were raked with machine gun fire, but de Gaulle, along with his wife and entourage, were able to escape without injury. After the attempt, some fourteen bullet holes were found in the president's vehicle, with another twenty striking the nearby Café Trianon, and an additional one-hundred-eighty-seven found on the pavement. This event was fictionalized in the 1971 book and 1973 film The Day of the Jackal.
With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Here it is, more or less: