VOD Review: A Band Called Death

Article first published as Music DVD Review: A Band Called Death on Blogcritics.

We live in the middle of a golden age of documentaries. For the past few years, music documentaries have featured prominently in my top ten lists. Paul Williams: Still Alive and Searching for Sugar Man were among my favorite movies last year, and this year Beware of Mr. Baker will probably sit beside sit title on my year-end list.

What this cross-section of music docs has in common is at least the perception that the subject documented has fallen out of the public eye. The story behind Death goes further than that. The all-black power trio from Detroit played a fierce and fast rock and roll that, like fellow Detroit bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, anticipated punk. Until a few years ago, hardly anyone had heard them.

Death only released one 45 in their lifetime, and as the story goes, were almost signed by Clive Davis. The Arista records impresario was ready to snap up their debut album, recorded at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Recording Studio, on one condition: they change their name. David Hackney, one of three brothers who made up the band, had developed a fairly positive symbolism around the band’s name, and refused to change, leaving the demo tape to smolder in obscurity for decades.

The band may have been ahead of their time but they were not influential. By the time the 45s got into the hands of hipsters, their music was quaint and their name an asset. The movie’s strength is that it doesn’t depend on the music for its dramatic weight. This is a movie about family: three brothers trying to make it as musicians in a Detroit whose black music scene was generally more favorable to R&B acts (the P-Funk Diaspora aside), a mother who supported her sons’ creative ventures even if the din drove her crazy, and supportive siblings with great personality and affection for each other.

A third-act sidebar brings in the outside world. When Death’s sole 45, “Politicians in my eyes,” got into the hands of record collector/former Dead Kennedy’s front man Jello Biafra, word began to spread, and reached critical mass around the time of a New York Times article in 2009, the same year their   1974 album ...For The Whole World To See was finally released on Drag City.

The band’s discovery could have made for an annoying aside – the always self-righteous Henry Rollins is the most prominent of the hipster talking heads assembled. These celebrity appearances are thankfully kept to a minimum, and the next generation of the family rises to the occasion to make this music come to life again. Even if you don’t think Death is the second coming of rock and roll, as a movie, A Band Called Death rocks hard.

A Band Called Death will be available for digital download and VOD on Friday, May 24. Pre-order on iTunes here.

Music Review: George Jones, The Complete United Artists Solo Singles

Article first published as Music Review: George Jones – The Complete United Artists Solo Singles on Blogcritics.

Hard living and harder drinking are the time worn clichés of the old school country singer, and one of the hardest drinking lights in the country music firmament is George Jones. His nicknames have been variations on self-loathing: the diminutive Possum, the self-fulfilling No-Show Jones, the persona of Deedoodle Duck. Jones channeled self-hatred in his moniker, on the surface a cuddly mascot, but one holding depths of pain and remorse.

The opening chapter of Bob Allen’s biography of the country singer reads like a Jim Thompson novel, a spiraling rage that turns inward until even the bottle fails him. Jones’ signature anthem, 1979’s “He stopped loving her today,” is more popular on the funeral circuit than on country music radio. Its story of a man whose love ended only because he died was selected for the National Recorded Sound Registry, and while it’s countrypolitan strings, courtesy of producer Billy Sherrill, threaten to overwhelm the song in syrup, Jones’s relies not on pyrotechnics but phrasing to sing his sad song to heaven.

Jones’ stature as a singer is complicated by the label-jumping he’s made throughout his career. Omnivore does justice to one of the formative stages of Jones’ output with The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. The material, spanning from 1962 to 1966 is not consistent. For every classic like the opening, “She thinks I still care,” and “The race is on,” there’s an uninspired gospel number like “He’s so good to me.”

A handful of tracks are more curiosities than classics. The set includes several Christmas novelties like “My Mom and Santa Claus,” a variation on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus that replaces a peck with the twist. Even more unusual is the B-side “Geronimo,” a tie-in to a Chuck Connors movie. Songwriter Johnny Western wrote the song in a couple of days after Jones’s manager-producer Pappy Daily mentioned that the singer loved the TV show “Have Gun Will Travel.”

But then the chaff falls away and the wheat sustains in a ballad like “I saw me.” When you hear Jones’s mature phrasing convey deep founts of pain and self-doubt, you remember that this is one of the great vocal interpreters. If you throw some Billy Sherrill strings on “Lonely Christmas call, from 1966, you could be listening to something from the classic 1970s era.

The Jones catalog can still be a hit and miss adventure for the uninitiated, and even an essential survey like Anniversary: 10 Years of Hits passes over great album tracks like One Woman Man’s “The King is Gone.” Complete UA Singles is less definitive than that Columbia era collection, but any fan of the singer will have to own both.

Don Byron goes to the Movies

From my deep files, mildly edited notes on a  program at the Mary Pickford Theatre in May 2001. The clips I’ve linked to aren’t necessarily the ones Byron played.

The Library of Congress commissioned a new piece from jazz composer/clarinetist Don Byron to be premiered at a friday night concert, much of which I missed. But I didn’t miss the Thursday night program at the Mary Pickford Theatre, the small (it officially seats 64) venue where we [USED TO – ed.] run film series . The Music Division also asked Byron to program an evening at the Pickford, taken from the Jazz on Film guide.  Armed with a stack of tapes and DVDs, many from his own collection, Byron took the opportunity to show a wide range of his tastes in film music.

He began with a series of musical performances on film. Some jazz, some not: dancer Freddi Washington shaking to “Black and tan fantasy”; Morris Day and the Time from Purple Rain; Monk performing “Just a gigolo” from the documentary Straight No Chaser .

Then he opened up. Byron cued a clip from Spike Jones’s tv show: a stout balding gentleman seriously croons “Cocktails for two.” When he gets to the end of the line “that overlooks the avenue”, two gas-guzzling sedans appear from stage wings and crash in front of him, sending a ball of fire briefly into the kinescoped ether.   The square-jawed Jones, dressed in a loud suit criss-crossed with bold comic-book lines, chases a brunette around the stage. Later, the brunette chases Spike’s pants, wandering around the stage disarmingly torso-less.  This isn’t the clip Byron showed (I can’t find it on YouTube), but it has some of the same elements and gives you an idea of the Jones aesthetic:

Next, a tribute to some of his favorite film music composers, including Henry Mancini.  Byron respects the way Mancini played with jazz and dissonance. Clips: the percussive intro and other selections from Charade, and the famous opening shot of Touch of Evil, where Mancini uses the ticking of a time bomb (the first thing you see onscreen) for the rhythm of his quasi-Latin (they’re crossing borders) theme.  In the restored Touch of Evil, the are credits removed from this sequence — not a bad thing — but the Mancini theme is taken out as well, though parts of it can be heard playing from a nightclub that Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk past. Here’s the version with credits:

Other clips:

Bernard Hermann’s music in Vertigo: the shot where Kim Novak and James Stewart go around on the lazy susan; and the climax.

Takemitsu’s score for the great battle scene in Ran; the sounds of battle are muted, so all you can hear is the beautifully mournful music.

Appropriated Orientalism:

Lalo Schifrin for Enter the Dragon.

Carl Stalling for”Operation Snafu,” one of a series of Looney Toons produced (by a company led by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel”) as WWII propaganda.

John Corigiliano’s score for Altered States, which Byron offered as an example of really intrusive film music (the clip was of William Hurt’s peyote trip). As Byron said, really killing stuff.

The Heiress, a Montgomery Clift/Olivia DeHaviland melodrama with score by Aaron Copland.

A brief audience exchange:

BYRON, talking about Olivia DeHaviland in THE HEIRESS: She was bad.
SEPTUAGENARIAN PICKFORD REGULAR, incredulously: You’re saying she was bad?
BYRON: In a good way. In my community, bad means something
different from what it means in your community. And I respect

Under “adapatations,” Byron ran an Ernie Kovacs clip set to Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Another adapation: the prison riot scene from Natural Born Killers set to music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Byron noted the complete disconnect between music that was likely about God, and the horrific scene of carnage.  Yet somehow it worked — why?

Byron ended with a clip of Ernie Kovacs “Nairobi trio” routine. Three actors in monkey masks; one handed a second blocks; a third played vibes to “Solfeggio”. A diverse and illuminating program.

DVD Review: Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4

I tried not to cannibalize the Lawrence Welk piece I wrote for The Man too much. In a slightly different form, this article was first published as DVD Review: Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 on Blogcritics.

The commercials for your typical Lawrence Welk program give the viewer a clear idea of the intended demographic. Anybody watching Film Chest’s four disc set Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 may or may not have the sudden urge to build up or renew their supply of Polident and Geritol. But does Welk have anything to offer today’s viewers?

The life of the bandleader-accordionist spanned nearly a century. Born in North Dakota in 1903, Welk’s early career was in 1920s radio. He was already a seasoned veteran when he landed his first television show in 1951. The Lawrence Welk Show ran until 1982 and featured Welk’s band along with featured singers like the Lennon Sisters and Guy and Raina; instrumentalists like accordionist Myron Floren; and featured dancers like Bobby Burgess.

These hour-long programs seem the antithesis of so much contemporary entertainment. But time can play funny tricks on cultural markers. YouTube is loaded with candy-colored clips of Lawrence Welk’s show, featuring dance and musical numbers that can be so square they’re surreal. The Welk image was used in Darren Hacker’s underground film “Velvet Welk”, which marries footage of the North Dakota native and his illustrious charges to the pulsating drive of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”

Welk’s music as well as his visual image is certainly a throwback to a time Before Irony. It’s easy for 21st Century consumers to approach Welk with a camp aesthetic but the musicianship and the spectacle can be appreciated without irony – JoAnn Castle’s ragtime piano walks the edge of cloying but can also verge on avant-garde as she fingers the keys ever more furiously. Lyrics to forgotten songs like “Frankfurter sandwiches” shock modern audiences who assume our parents and grandparents listened to such words in complete innocence.

FilmChest and Synergy have assembled 720 minutes of Welk episodes, transferred from kinescopes that were made before the era of videotape by filming off a broadcast monitor. It’s too bad some of the collected programs from the 1960s, well into the color television era, survive here only in black and white. But the crude shading that the kinescope process often leaves on dark portions of the screen give the monochrome image a familiar patina of age that doubles as a metaphor for shadow selves and mortality. The spell is somewhat broken by a persistent “SYNERGY” watermark on the screen, but unlike other releases from the Inception family of distributors, it took me a couple of episodes to even notice it here.

There are no DVD extras on this set, and the transfers will not have the clarity that consumers would expect from a major studio product. But the music and visuals of the champagne music man will send fans of all ages into a reverie of time travel from which they may not want to return.

Wish You Were Here: Emperor X, Western Teleport

Loved this album so much I turned down a comp and special-ordered  a vinyl copy (thanks Melody Records!) . Article first published as CD Review: Emperor X – Western Teleport on Blogcritics.

A glance at the lyric sheet for Western Teleport, the new album from Chad Matheny, aka Emperor X, reads like the dystopic rantings of a technophile making obsessive notes to himself: “Don’t think of her swimming sideways/Don’t think of her kicking at the topsoil/Don’t think of her fists in the facemask.” It’s a stark and somewhat obscure poetry; but these are songs, and the music Matheny makes transforms his laboratory sensibility (he’s a former high school science teacher) into romantic, dystopic, technophile love songs that are scientifically proven to be hummable.

Matheny’s dual nature reminds me of Dave Eggers, whose staggering genius tempered his heartbreaking tale, and whose heartbreaking narrative tempered the staggering genius. Matheny’s art and science, heart and mind complete each other. A tender melodic vignette about living by a landfill and finding mysterious language tapes reminds the singer of his beloved’s human fragility; this tender observation is packaged in the forbidding title, “The magnetic media storage practices of rural Pakistan.” This interesction of technology and tenderness plays out through the whole album: “Compressor repair” sings of BTUs and wishes that you’d be cool. “Sincerely HG Pregerson” appears to be a desperate missive sent from the front lines of a deadly post-apocalyptic epidemic. Did I mention the melodies? In every song, the melody makes the ideas soar even if the plot is unclear without a lyric sheet.

Matheny’s technological fascination has led him to more noise-heavy recordings in the past, and he’s lost none of that here: electronic sounds are prevalent, but these are warmed by plenty of acoustic guitar and those gorgeous melodies. Live, in various youtube clips, you can hear Matheny unencumbered by blips and beeps, and his voice seems warmer, more open. But the man knows how to make a record — and a framework:  the songwriter buries master tapes of the album’s songs in locations across the country. It’s a marketing ploy both 21st century (he posts GPS coordinates to fans and tweets the results) and old-fashioned (master tape!) but finally it’s part and parcel of a basic human condition: to share and connect. The title Western Teleport sounds like an impersonal telecomm, but at heart it sums up the artist’s major theme: wishing you were here.

pizzicato five mon amour

I was in a pretty bad place even before world news took a tragic turn, from horrifying tour bus accidents to the seemingly immeasurable toll in Japan – a crisis that is just beginning.  I’d like to send good thoughts over there and anywhere in need but do these really help? Japanese culture has come through for me in the past, so maybe it does. So in this time of sadness I won’t dwell on the beautifully melancholy oeuvre of Yasujiro Ozo or the epic struggles of Akira Kurosawa (though the bleak final reels of his late masterpiece Ran strike an appropriate tone about now), but on Japanese pop.

I don’t remember how I learned about Pizzicato Five, but I do remember that I sent a handful of blank tapes to somebody on the jpop listserv (thank you Ben List, wherever you are) and in return got some of what would become and still is my favorite music. I must have first heard Pizzicato Five around the time my mother died in 1994, and I’ve always credited them with helping me get through that time. This music has always confounded some of my friends, who see in it nothing but style and pastiche. And on paper, a track that combines soul horns, Lou-Reed inspired background girl singers and direct quotes from at least two Sly and the Family Stone records sounds like an exercise in post-modern mimicry. But unlike, say, the post-modern exercises of Jean-Luc Godard (whose visual style found it’s way into a number of P5 videos), producer Keigo Oyamada lovingly forged out of Western pop influences a distinct aural magic – “A Supersonic Sound Spectacular,” as they like to say. Sure, you can dance to it, and you will. I probably learned the English translation of the lyrics at some point but it doesn’t matter – Nomiya Maki’s vocals sell it completely, not just because her pipes deliver a credible Japanese soul, but because her soul has nothing to do with trying to sound like an American soul singer. The borrowed “baby”‘s and “whoah-whoah”‘s  seem not so much ridiculous as impossibly touching, a torch passed on from someone who has discovered their onomotapoeoic magic from afar and wants to preach the good word to a new land. Even now, almost twenty years after I first heard it, I find this song so beautiful it can move me to tears.

Addendum: um, while I love “Happy sad” too (part of its chorus gives me a chill), this is the song I was talking about above. I meant to end this post with it:

More addenda: Pizzicato Five broke up in 2001; Nomiya Maki and Yasuharu Konishi made solo records, and Konishi went on to produce other Japanese pop artists, but it was never the same. The producer of this record, Keigo Oyamada, made wonderful records of his own under the name Cornelius, in homage to Planet of the Apes. In fact, Oyamada is so dedicated to American culture that he and his wife, singer Takako Minekawa, named their son Milo, after Cornelius’ son in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

I, Hoarder: 180 gram vinyl edition

ahd bae tha' fr'a dollah

I have three different vinyl pressings of Love’s desert-island-disc Forever Changes. I have two Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s lps – most don’t realize there was more than one, but it predated “Come on Eileen” and is more informed by Northern Soul than the Celtic whatever of their second album. I have no fewer than four Sheena Easton albums (at least three of which were purchased in the last twelve months, none for more than a dollar), and this afternoon discovered I still had the promotional album card – a thin slab of cardboard with the cover art on one side and promotional text on the other – for her Strut album. Does anybody out there like jazz tumpeter Woody Shaw? I have several of his 1970’s lps for Columbia, the entire run of which was collected on a box set by Mosaic Records, but I’ve never listened to them and can’t remember where I bought them – maybe one or two came from a trip to Amoeba Records in Berkeley in the ’90s. Man I bought a lotta records there.

In short, I hoard vinyl – I have hoarded it since the 80’s, and have memories of the dollar used bins at Kemp Mill Records in Georgetown where you could have picked up a mono pressing of St. Pepper for less than $10 (sadly, I didn’t). I remember when Zodiac records, a Latin music specialist on Columbia Road, mysteriously acquired an incredible record collection full of punk/new wave lps that they were selling for $1.50 a pop. I picked up early Roxy Music, Todd Rundgren, John Cale solo records; I passed up a first pressing of  X-Ray Spex’ Germfree Adolescents because I already had a copy. Too bad, because a few years later I saw them selling for three figures.

In the early oughts I lost a few boxes of records to mold damage owing to a flooded furnace room, but besides that I’ve never made a concerted effort to shave off the collection’s unruly beard which is now several ear-splitting decibels beyond ZZ Top.  In the ensuing years, there has been a resurgence of record stores (and I mean record stores) in this town, with three excellent sources of used vinyl within walking distance; the dollar-bins at one of those shops is the bane and boon of my existence, full of strange records of all lands with jaw-dropping covers that – well, like this:

Or this:

you too can help prevent national mp3 download day

There are thousands of lps in my basement, and I weeded a boxful this week. Some were easy decisions: did I ever need the Blow Monkeys lp? I’d always thought their hit, “Diggin’ your scene,” had an unresolved chorus that should have gone on for another bar. I don’t think I ever listened to Difford and Tilbrook’s post-Squeeze album more than once – for that matter, I can say the same of Squeeze’s last album, and do I really need any besides Argybargy? If that? They were a band I used to eat up like corn flakes but they no longer stay crispy in my milk. I never listened to my Guided by Voices double-lp bootlegs, but I’ll probably give those to my brother if he wants them. And I always thought Pussy Galore was trying too hard.

Of course, I went for a walk this evening and bought a new lp, Excavated Shellac, a collection of old string-centric 78s from foreign lands compiled by the curator of the blog of the same name, and issued by Dust-to-Digital, producers of the fantastic Goodbye Babylon set of old gospel. I bought it at Melody Records, the best new record/CD  store left in Washington, DC. I remember buying a picture-sleeve 45 of “(Just like) Starting Over” at Melody Records, when they were still at the corner of Connecticut and Q, the week before John Lennon was killed. Over the years their stock shifted from vinyl to CDs and now they again have a healthy selection of new vinyl. When I bought a Big Star 45 at Melody several months ago, it was the first time I’d bought a 7″ single from Melody in more than a decade.

The thing is – I could have bought a whole stack of records from the dollar bins I could have bought twenty one-dollar records for what I paid for Excavated Shellac.

My apologies to those not infected by vinyl geekery. I feel I’ve gone on ad nauseum like a friend goes on about where he’s seen what movies and how he saw  that movie at the Jerry Lewis Cinema in 1971 and how an appallingly expurgated version of it ran on the CBS Late Movie in 1975. I have waxed more than was my intention, and could wax some more. I have a problem. I am a recordaholic.

I’ll post updates on this continuing crisis, as developments occur.

RIP Sandro

This piece first appeared in a slightly different form on blogcritics.org.

A year ago this week, near the end of a whirlwind holiday trip to South America, I walked into the magnificent El Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires. I looked through the Argentine DVDs for something to remember the country by. On a whim led by cover art that spoke some strange yet familiar sentiment to me, I picked up a movie starring Roberto Sanchez, aka Sandro. This is the trailer for that movie:

My homie and I watched it that night, and were immediately transfixed by his infectious gyrations, now rhythmic, now melodramatic. On our last night in Argentina we went back to El Ateneo for more Sandro for her and for friends back home, but nobody else really seemed to recognize his swarthy awesomeness.

English-language obituaries call him the Elvis of Argentina, though Sandro’s musical hips are attached to a dramatic ham that Elvis never showed in his movies. Sandro’s entertainment was no less than an alchemical explosion of equal parts Tom Jones and Richard Burton.
Sandro died on January 4th, from complications arising from a lung and heart transplant. He was 64. In an interview with Mitre Radio, excerpted in the Star Tribune, Sandro curses his fate:

I am debilitated because I cannot move. My life is my bed, my spot in the dining room where I read the newspaper, and from there I do not move, I am to blame for the condition that I am in. I deserve it; I sought it out. I picked up this damn cigarette.

May flights of angels hip-shake thee to your rest, Senor.

American Masters: Rick Dees

Over the transom from lapinfille comes Rick Dees’s companion piece to “Bigfoot” and “Disco duck.” Any single one of these records may seem like no more than cheap novelty with a driving beat, but the cumulative effect of these dismissed if not forgotten lipstick traces of the nineteen-seventies is more troubling than bell bottoms. Dees is clearly fascinated with modern man’s increasing distance from nature, meaning not only natural environment but his own animal instincts. These treatises on bodily transformation are mined in the rich vein of his contemporaries Davids Johansen, Cronenberg, and Bowie. Today, Dees lords over America’s Top 40, and while Lady Gaga may traffic in personal identity a la Bowie, and Mariah Carey has shed her secret life as Chewbacca, we can only hope that as Taylor Swift grows into adulthood she throws her remarkable poise and skills into her own cryptozoological project. I think I’ll tweet this at her.