Monday, October 27, 2014

News, Reviews

Jack Bruce, R.I.P. 
Bruce died last Saturday at the age of 71. One of the great rock bass players, an accomplished songwriter and vocalist, known particularly for his work with the supergroup Cream in the late '60's, he brought great musical talent and an eccentric nature to his work.

Fame and success in the '60's were not good elements in combination with Bruce's mercurial personality.  He became addicted to drugs--needed a liver transplant some 10-15 years ago--and I am sure he was the proximate cause of Cream's breakup.  Still, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker thought enough of him to reunite the band in 2005 for a memorable series of concerts in London and New York, mostly to benefit him for his medical expenses.  He had a long career, both before and after Cream, playing with a variety of musicians, particularly in hard rock, blues, and jazz.  I'm no expert on the bass, but his lines were clean, powerful, inventive, and he had good improvisational skills.  His singing was unusually good for rock, musical and emotive; he was a tenor but could also perform well with falsetto.

My three favorite songs by Bruce:
"Theme for an Imaginary Western" (w/Pete Brown for the lyrics) - Bruce recorded it first, for his solo album "Songs for a Tailor" released after the Cream breakup;  Mountain (with Felix Pappalardi, Leslie West) made it famous at Woodstock.  Supposedly there is a hidden meaning about some of Bruce's pre-Cream band partners, but it works on the literal level, referring to the pioneers crossing the Plains to the Old West ("the sun was in their eyes"), the bravery of going out into the unknown. Bruce's version has some beautiful keyboards (not sure who), both piano and organ.   I'm still waiting for the music video, let alone the film with this as the track over the opening credits.

"We're Going Wrong" - Bruce didn't need Brown for this one; there are only about 10 short lines of lyrics, but their meaning, and Bruce's passionate delivery of the song, are crystal clear.  The music is hard to describe--extremely simple, slow-paced, with a biting Clapton solo which builds to a dramatic climax.  It's one of the lesser-known songs on Cream's greatest album, "Disraeli Gears", in the miraculous year for rock which was 1967.  All of the songs are excellent, but this one rarely fails to get my heart pounding.

"White Room" -  Number two of Cream's all-time hits (after "Sunshine of Your Love", of course, which Bruce also co-wrote with Brown); it came out a couple of years after Disraeli, by which time I was actually aware of the band (thanks to my cousin John, the most socially attuned of our little group of pre-teen intellectuals--he also gets "credit" for my discovering Firesign Theatre).  I had always thought it was about a guy in a prison cell;  now, with the benefit of lyrics posted online, I see that it was about a guy returning to his lonely hotel room after seeing off his love at the station.  But still, metaphorically, the prison room.   The Clapton solo on this one--to which Bruce played wild counterpoint runs--is a classic in the early use of the wah-wah pedal.

I bought, and still have, the 45 rpm record for "White Room"--the B-side was a song, not a great one, called "Those Were the Days".   Indeed.

A Couple Movies You May Have Missed (I caught these on a long plane trip recently)--CAUTION: some Spoilers!
The last movie released with Robin Williams in it before his suicide was "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn", and I would say it deserves to be seen.  It's your basic story of a guy told he has terminal illness, no treatment, and only hours to live, and how he chooses to spend them.

It came out in May and didn't do well; it was criticized (justly) for a fairly obvious plot dynamic, and I have to point out one completely ridiculous part of the story:  a cop stops the Williams character and his partner in misdemeanor, Mila Kunis' doctor character.  They are in a stolen taxicab; they convince the cop that they need to go to the hospital immediately (which they do need), the cop agrees to provide them an escort, then they go the other way.  And the cop isn't going to go after them?

Anyway,  three excellent elements to note:  Williams' performance as a typical angry New Yorker at the beginning of the movie, before he gets his terminal diagnosis (his litany of the things he hates in the City at the beginning is great stuff); Kunis' role as the harried young doctor, covering for her abusive lover colleague who dumped the case on her, who makes the mistake of telling Williams too much, and then her guilt drives her to track him down and help him; and a cameo with the great James Earl Jones, playing a pawn shop owner with a stutter, as he and Williams go through a variation of a classic shaggy-dog story.

I have to think this movie--shot in 2012, according to the imdb notes, to be fair--with its images of a suicidal Williams character (he jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, but survives it), may have weighed on Williams' mind (it ends with a tombstone of the character, with the correct years--1951-2014--of Williams' own lifespan) in those last days.  That gives it some extra weight for viewing it in the context of Williams' career and tragic ending.

In my fall movie preview, I suggested that The Book of Life, del Toro's fabulous film about zozobra (a Mexican celebration of the pagan holiday, the Day of the Dead) might be the favorite for the year's Oscar for Animated Film.  It might be, but I take back the casual guess and instead put forward "The Lego Movie", which is one great piece of work.  Which piece, exactly, I couldn't say, but it is a hand-crafted one that combines some great writing and production values (check out the voice credits) with millions of ordinary tiles assembled with the tedium required of stop-action.

If you have not seen it, I recommend it, for you and all members of your family.  It is great humor, witty and satiric, but without the scatology, fascination with excrement, or politically incorrect crudeness of "South Park" or "Family Guy".   The basic story is a take-off on "The Matrix" but goes in all kinds of unexpected directions.  And it has a great Will Farrell cameo and a wonderful, catchy theme song.

Turn Blue
It has been a long, strange journey for the Black Keys.  They do keep trying to change, while keeping unchanged a couple of basic elements--the pounding drums, the soulful vocals.  They have come a long way from punks playing blues with a garage sound.  Now they have the current king of record producers, Danger Mouse, providing production atmospherics and a lot more keyboards.  I like the sound, but it will hardly please the purists who fell in love with them in their raw early days.  It's an old story, the "decline" from simplicity toward artistic complexity and sonic beauty.  Or, as some would have it, the sell out.

The turning point was "Brothers",  which will probably prove to be a peak that they will never be able to rise above.  Its inventive rhythms, extremely danceable but with plenty of edge and surprising twists, catapulted them into the mass market.  "El Camino" provided some big hits and kept the momentum going forward.

This newest album is a bit of departure, as the style of Danger Mouse, the current king of leading edge record production, comes close to taking over the sound.  He was also the producer for El Camino, but here we have an album that is a studio production in the extreme.  When I saw they were coming to town for a big arena concert, I had to see how it would play.

The first tune I had heard from this album on the radio is "The Weight of Love", which is also the first cut on the album, and the first song they played in the encore in their recent concert.  It allows guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach room to roam, with extended solos (a second guitar was a necessary concession they made live).  To me it suggested old Allman Brothers, a song that meanders, with its dynamics rising and falling.  It's a great piece, one of their best ever, and well-placed in the concert setlist.

There are a couple of the new songs--I would name "Bullet to the Brain" and "Its Up to You Now"--reminiscent of the steady rocking we associate with the band, but too many fall in the category of ballads, ones which suffer a bit live; even with the sounds reproduced by the concert group, they sound a bit too canned, with a bit too much concession to pop.  Less falsetto from Dan, more gutbusting bellowing, please.  I'm referring specifically to "10 Lovers", here, and I'm not a fan of their closing piece, "Gotta Get Away", with that awful line "I went from San Berdoo/to Kalamazoo/Just to get away form you".  Kalamazoo is not really far enough--it should be "to Timbucktu" to make the cliche more impressive. Their hit from the album, "Fever" is a 60's pop song, complete with Farfisa.  The theme of love as being a malady, with the specific reference to that condition characterized by elevated body temperature, had been explored fairly thoroughly, by name, a couple of other times in that period they recall.

Their concert did not disappoint the crowd--the big hits from "Brothers" and "El Camino" drew good reaction--though I think it might have disappointed the band.  Dan kept calling out "Chicago" to get more audience participation, but we are talking about 20,000 people now, and the sense of intimacy is gone, perhaps forever.

Lastly, I will mention "In Our Prime", the next to last cut on the album, and one that I don't think was played live.  It is an interesting piece, somewhat like one of the Beatles' later ones, starting with soft piano, whimsical lyrics in the midtempo middle section, and a hard guitar sound toward the end.  I have to interpret it as a comment on their own history; already they can look back and see the road they have traveled.

David Mitchell's writing skill shines above all else in this modern fantasy/horror story. I find this one more "cinema-ready" than "Cloud Atlas" (credit to those who defied the odds and commercial necessity and made that film anyway). In this novel, I saw that he is just as adept in building the story around a multi-faceted female main character (Holly Sykes) as he has proven in the past with his masculine heroes.

The sophistication of his references, both historical and fictional (Mitchell fans will find tie-ins to both "Cloud Atlas" and to "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet") gives the reader a good chance to learn something, while paging through a long story that is rarely dull. I found the subject matter--basically, demons and angels with superpowers--a lot less convincing than his previous novels. He does go on a bit long: Halfway through, I was comparing it to an Umberto Eco novel (specifically, "Foucault's Pendulum"), told better. It is confusing at times, but Mitchell successfully brings the strands together for an exciting climax. 

The denouement, though, is depressing: Mitchell shows himself once again to be a pessimist on the future of the great adventure that is human civilization. He leaves a bit of didactic possibility for us--"if only we could....", but I don't find him to be a believer in the promise of our collective future.

Apart from the basic subject matter--in which he draws on the literature of esoteric groups, gnostics, vampire legends and the like, not my favorite topics--Mitchell takes us on a whirlwind tour around the globe to a lot of very interesting locales (cinematic candy). We hear sometimes about an author "finding his voice": Mitchell is way beyond that, finding voices of people very unlike him and presenting their thoughts and dialogue convincingly. His strong points remain depiction of character, and placing them properly in place and time (past, present, and future).+

The book is an obvious must for Mitchell fans (they don't need me to tell them that, though); for those who are new to Mitchell and would like an upscale version of "Angels and Demons" or "Da Vinci Code", I recommend it: Mitchell is much more subtle than Dan Brown about signalling his future plot twists. For those new to Mitchell, I would still recommend Cloud Atlas above all others, though. 

A recurring theme (also present in Cloud Atlas) is the social tribulation and commercial challenges of being a bestselling novelist--he presents them humorously, through a character (hopefully) quite unlike himself. This one isn't Mitchell's Desiccated Embryos*:  that's a reference to the most famous book of the writer character (Crispin Hershey), which in the critical and popular view put all the others in the shade; one might guess Mitchell is laboring under the spell of some such fear.   As for myself, I have no fear that Mitchell will get in a rut of repeating himself, his range seems nearly endless; though I would hope, for his sake and that of his readers, that he is not in a contract that requires him to deliver product on a short schedule.  His kind of writing takes time. 

+One minor beef, though: two references to "stoner", as a word, pre-date the words's entrance into common dialogue without the shock quotation marks. I should know!
*-"Desiccated Embryos"--I looked it up. It may be a reference to "Powdered Eggs", by Charles Simmons, from 1964. A great first novel (as deemed by some, won awards as such), with later follow-ups deemed not so great. Definitely some parallels to the Hershey's arc of publication history.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

An additional note on "True Blue"--upon some additional listening, I notice that "Bullet to the Brain" and "Weight of Love" feature the same chord sequence.
I am guessing that these two were originally supposed to be linked, in one long song (with "Weight of Love" coming before the "Bullet to the Brain"), but it didn't quite work right, so there is the awkward wind-down on "Weight of Love". I figure they will eventually work it out and have one long, well-fitted piece to feature, either in their encores or in the main body of their concerts.