Friday, February 25, 2011

a Heavenly light

February 24, 2011 at 4:53 EST marked the last of the Discovery space shuttle launches and the first of the last three shuttle launches. It was the STS-133. Watching the launch live on NASA's site immediately brought to mind one of my favorite films: The Right Stuff.

The 80's, according to Mike Nelson of MST3K, consisted of two things: doing alot of coke and voting for Ronald Regan. But before people got busy powdering their noses, Jimmy Carter was in office. At that point in American history, the confidence of the American people was low. The U.S. had just dealt with recession, inflation, unemployment (which should sound familiar living in this era), & the Iran hostage crisis. In the reaction to these depressing events, The Right Stuff sent out an uplifting message of jubilation. It showed that Americans experienced similar dissatisfactions and anxieties in the late 50's & early 60's.

Americans started to look at their country as second rate. The Russians were putting monkeys into space while we had rockets exploding on launch pads. Slowly but surely, America started to pull out of its decline and into a nation of technical superiority. Thus, the Mercury program was created. It's goal: to put a man in orbit around earth.

Few movies do as good a job on referring to the topic of heroism and courage. Mercury 7's astronauts embody just that. They set out to do a mission many of us wouldn't even think of attempting. Mercury 7 acted as a crucial turning point in American history. Paving the way for the small steps for man and giant leaps for mankind.

The first section of the film is devoted to the story of Chuck Yeagar. One of the greatest of all test pilots. Yeager pushed the envelope further than any test pilot had up to that time. With this added element, the film becomes more than just a docudrama about the Mercury 7 but about human progress in manned flight. In the wake of Yeager's triumph, the age of the lone explorer seemingly had ended and the age of the team of explorers had begun. A transitional point that smoothed into the space program and has led to the teams of astronauts being sent into space presently. Ebert puts its better than I ever could in his review: "Seen now in the shadow of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, "The Right Stuff" is a grim reminder of the cost of sending humans into space. It is also the story of two kinds of courage, both rare, and of the way the "race for space" was transformed from a secret military program into a public relations triumph."

The film has the rare ability to be so much: an adventure, social/political commentary, comedy, docudrama & above all else a historical epic. It has a little something for everybody. Philip Kaufman was able to perfect that mixture by showing the truth through a satirical lens so subtle that it works without the device of manipulation. While several other Hollywood attempts at this cannot even get off the launch pad, this one takes to the skies in full force. For those brave souls that chose to enter the program , it took courage & determination. Those 7 astronauts had it. So did Yeager.

A heavenly light indeed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

5 from 100

5 randomly selected albums from my Top 100. I don't really feel like devoting 6 paragraphs each to these albums so I'll just go with the thoughts off the top of my head.

19. Kevin Gilbert- The Shaming of the True (2000)
The best kept secret in music. It's a felony how unknown this musical artist is. Having died at the young age of 29, he left a body of work that remains a testament to a remarkable artist. Shaming is currently my favorite of his works but the best jumping off point is his work with Toy Matinee.

58. John Coltrane- A Love Supreme (1964)
Jazz reaches its apex here. Danny Glover, you should be honored that Gene Hackman called you Coltrane.

81. Spacemen 3- Perfect Prescription (1987)
A band that created some of the prime psychadelic work of the 80's before breaking up and forming Spiritualized in the 90's.

41. Peter Hammill- Over (1977)
Recorded in 1976 following the breakup of his marriage, and released in 1977 to an unsuspecting public, Over proved to be Hammill's most unusual album to date and likely one of his most unusual of his career. If I've ever heard an album that I can actually say is drenched in sorrow, this is it. Reflecting on themes such as betrayal, resentment, hopelessness, anger, bitterness and flat-out feeling-sorry-for-oneself, the album is a harrowing journey through the storm of emotions that take place when a long-term relationship ends. Hammill is to vocals as Hendrix is to the guitar- wide ranging and soul consuming.

30. Jellyfish- Spilt Milk (1993)
OK. You spent some time in the bar with Hammill's Over. Now go out, sleep it off & get ready to start with a clean slate. What awaits? A power pop extravaganza.

The word derivative gets thrown around almost as haphazardly as dated. This album proves to be neither. The problem with Jellyfish is that they came in at a time when grunge was dominating the music scene. People didn't want to hear Queen/ELO influences power pop harmonies. Fans of the aforementioned bands as well as Beach Boys & The Beatles, you'll find alot to sink your teeth into here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

jammin' in Joe's garage

Pojama people. Brain police. Suzy Creamcheese. Weasels ripped my flesh. The central scrutinizer. Words & terms you'll come to embrace once you dive head first into the fiery works of genius produced from that mustached conductor of organized insanity. While mainstream artists hug the safe music coastline of mediocrity and conformity-- Frank Zappa headed out alone to sail strange unchartered waters.

The catalog is massive. You can throw a dart at it and end up with a variety of eclectic selections, just as he loves to throw darts at a wide ranging vocabulary of music: blues, classical, doowop, funk and prog rock lathered up with jazz & filtered through some of the best musicians around. The man with the mustache knew how to pick 'em. Be it percussive (Bozzio, Colauita, Wackerman), guitar (Steve Vai, Adrian Belew), keys (Tommy Mars), saxophone (Napoleon Murphy Brock), xylophone, etc.. The list goes on. As does the several lineup changes. But for Zappa one thing was undeniable: one size fits all. Whether they sang backup vocals to Cosmik Debris or donning a mask for one of his unpredictable improvs, all were integral to the whole-- with Frank as the mad genius conductor. Whose own guitar licks can make most players today weep.

His musical vocabulary doesn't just end there.

Try spinning Apostrophe or Zappa In New York & try not to cackle with howling laughter. His song titles alone are worth the price of admission on this carousel of carefully orchestrated anarchy.

Picking just one was hard enough. You go to ten Zappa fans and ask them what Zappa album to start with, you'll get ten different answers.

Roxy & Elsewhere is my favorite live album. The lineup is superb.
-Napoleon Murphy Brock – flute, tenor saxophone, vocals
-George Duke – synthesizer, keyboards, vocals
-Bruce Fowler – trombone, dancer
-Tom Fowler – bass guitar
-Walt Fowler – trumpet, bass trumpet
-Ralph Humphrey – drums
-Don Preston – synthesizer
-Jeff Simmons – rhythm guitar, vocals
-Chester Thompson – drums
-Ruth Underwood – percussion (ladies & gentlemen, watch Ruth!)

It's a good live album to start with. A perfect mix between his insane avant-garde classical/jazz-fusion stuff and his demented pop stylings.

Regarding studio output, the majority would point to Over-nite Sensation & Apostrophe because it's a compression of everything Frank represented in 2 discs. A starter kit if you will.

Then you have some of his heavier offerings. Heavy in terms of content and presentation. Joe's Garage to me is a giant 2- disc smorgasboard where the Central Scrutinizer himself takes aim at the government, sex toys, groupies & Catholic girls. It certainly amounts to the musician's view on the creative freedom of music.

I haven't even touched upon his 60's work with the Mothers of Invention. Nor his 80's & 90's output, but you get the point.

I'm always finding myself returning to Joe's garage to discover old tools useful for expanding a musical vocabulary. As Frank himself would say: without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wall of Heroes: Alfred Hitchcock

(a response to Nillum Naes Movies that started out as a very brief comment about Rope which led to a comment about Rear Window which inevitably snowballed into this post.)

Hitchcock was the first director that I became aware of. The one where I started tracking down his films. This all stemming from a trip to Universal Studios Florida as a kid and going to a Hitchcock exhibit. The one thing that struck me the most was this giant reel of film that stretched across the entire room with each one of his films in a frame. With great vigor, I began to binge on all things Hitch. From the films to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Intoxicating cinema.

First film of his that I ended up seeing was Rear Window. There was nothing quite like it. The murder mystery was intriguing to say the least. But what fascinated me the most was the subjective view that L.B. Jeffries had on everyone else in their respective apartments. Ms. Torso. Mrs. Lonelyhearts. The piano player. The fact that we never leave the Greenwich Village apartment along with the protagonist. Even in long shot. & don't get me started on the relationship between Kelly & Stewart. That scene where Grace Kelly climbs through Thurwold's window for the wedding ring softens my heart up every time. Without fail. It was at that point that I realized just how artistic the form can be. The film is also the one that ties together everything what the director was about: technique, intrigue and mystery. David Lynch said it best "I love getting lost in that world."

The thing that always struck me about the aesthetic of Hitchcock was just how much he held back. Take for example, the scene in Psycho where Norman Bates decides to dump the body in the swamp and as the car goes down, it stops. Manipulation of the audience is something that has been misused nowadays time and time again. Back then, Hitchcock used it efortlessly and in a way that integrates itself into the story. We're scared Norman will get caught if that car doesn't fully sink. The same way we're scared when the infamous shower scene occurs. It's pure cinema. Communication through visual images and editing.

This director surrounded himself with the best talent out there. From music by Bernard Hermann to costumes from Edith Head. Even the title cards were done with great craft and care by Saul Bass. The striking uses of sound in The Birds, to the long stretches of silence in several of his films. Most noteworthy from the sound era being Psycho. A key to all of this was his storyboarding process. So when he got to the editing stage, the cuts were all pre-existing in his head. Much like the Coen Brothers shoot their films.

The filmography of Hitchcock is substantially large. Starting in 1925 with The Pleasure Garden and ending in 1976 with Family Plot. There's a whole lotta gold to mine within. As expected, there are a few gems that have overlooked. Rope is one such gem. Saboteur is another. As is The Wrong Man, a key influence on Scorsese's Taxi Driver. You get the point.

It's fairly obvious how far Hitchcock's influence has reached.

MY TOP 10:

Rear Window

Modern horror starts here.

What more can be said?

Strangers On A Train
The "wrongfully accused" story arc hits full potential here. As with his best films, it's a masterclass in staging and editing.

Shadow of A Doubt
Everyone's favorite baloon popping uncle.

The beauty of this film is seeing how the master of montage is not utilizing any montage.

The Birds
I think you're evil! EVIL! Still the greatest bitchslap in cinematic history.

Utilizing the single set approach, the director creates an engaging world through unique characters & interactions.

The director goes back to London to deliver the most brutal and violent of all his films. Some say The Birds was his last masterpiece. To me, this was his last.

The Trouble With Harry
Hitchcock always had a dark sense of humor. Here is a film that is created as an outlet for that. If the Coen Brothers were making films in 1955, this is the type of film they would probably put out.

brewed in Piedmont, Georgia