Life From A Window
My life has been a little strange of late.  The outside world's been looking so damn ugly and I've not had enough ammunition in my daydreams to keep it at bay.  I was sent a request for my best of 2004 list, but beyond some reissues, MF DOOM's amazing collaboration with Madlib (Madvillian) and RA the Rugged Man's long awaited debut (both hip-hop), I drew a blank. So I don't think I'll be able to dream up a response to that request.  It's weird how defensive people get when you admit that you just don't hear much new music that interests you, they seem to take it as a personal affront, like it's anything more than just another person's opinion.  That's all it is of course and I am entitled to it!  I guess if I had to pinpoint what it is, beyond the heard it done better before, the lack of craft in songwriting, overly long boring instrumentals and crap lyrics, it would be the singing on most new music that turns me off the most.  Somewhere along the way whiney histrionic vocals became the accepted norm or what people seem to respond to with the most enthusiasm and it's around that point I checked out.  I think this trend have to do with some amorphous crap called emo and a need to telegraph your feelings and intent in huge bold letters so as to insure that people understand and pay attention.  Or it could be that the kids just don't get subtlety and are cursed with voices that combine the worst elements of Wayne Cohen and that guy from Radio Head.  Anyway yuck.

The last mix I made had, among others; the Jam, Martin Denny, The Cure, Prince, Olivia Newton John, Marianne Faithful, Subway Sect, Joan Baez, Scott Walker, The Fox and The Faces; clearly a testament to something.  The most up to date band on there was Pavement.  So what can I tell you that might interest you?  Let's see, I was reading the other day about Sun Ra being influenced by the arrangements on Exotica records by Les Baxter and Martin Denny, a fact my ears should have told me, but that never really registered, though now it makes perfect sense and seems pretty obvious.  That put something into place for me and forged another interesting connection.  What else is on the radar?

I have mixed feelings about Wes Anderson's Life Aquatic.  Like many I was left a little baffled by the film and feeling that maybe the story didn't quite come together like it ought.  Anderson excels at creating environments, little intricate self-contained worlds and Life Aquatic definitely works well on that level, but sometimes all that enviromental minutia comes at the expense of well fleshed out characters.  As always Anderson has included some great music used to good effect, though I found the juxtaposition of Bowie's 'Queen Bitch' with a triumphant scene featuring Bill Murray's character a little strange and out of place.  And now I wonder if the use of Bowie's 'Life on Mars' with its line about "the film is a saddening bore, cause I wrote it 10 times or more" is supposed to be a wry comment on what is beginning to feel like a bit too much repetition in Anderson's films, probably not.  But with the exception of Rushmore, which connected with me immediately, I've found that Anderson's other films need time to connect and tend to grow richer with repeated viewings, so I am reserving judgment for the time being until I get see it another time or two.   There's no doubt though that the film's Portuguese versions of some early Bowie songs sung by Seu Jorge are very nice and the use of Baez's 'Here's to You' is inspired. 
I find myself pulling out early Prince records a lot lately, particularly Dirty Mind and 1999.  Half of what Prince does is just undeniably great and the other half is usually, at the very least, funny and odd.  His penchant for whispering corny come-ons at the beginning and end of his songs, that are designed to get the ladies hot but usually sound to me more like bizarre nonsequiturs, rarely fails to bring a smile to my face.  I can't recall the exact lines off the top of my head but there's one, for example, where he states in a matter of fact manner that he has great legs.  On the other hand Prince's tendency to get a little overly patriotic and trot out some trite tune about America can grate, because if America is choking on anything at the moment it's ham fisted patriotism.  We drive a lot over here in the states and the national discourse has basically descended to talk radio and bumper stickers.  I make a point to not listen to talk radio but I can't seem to help myself from reading those inane bumper stickers especially as its always the people with the 'the Power of Pride!'  and '10 out of 10 Terrorists Prefer Anyone But Bush' stickers that seem to be engaging in the worst driving.  Guess they're too busy loving Bush's corporate run America to pay attention to their driving.  

Here's another digression, one of a series.  I've been digging the Olivia Newton John song 'Magic' from the film Xanadu.  This song was THE rolling skating rink jam back in the day and still sounds pretty fresh in the present tense.  The intro is ripe for sampling and would sound great looped up for two MC's to get loose over.  If I had two turntables- and one day I will- I would definitely be working up some two-copy action of that one.  On the downside I could hear Puffy Combs doing something awful with the chorus. 
Another song getting a lot of play in my neck of the woods is 'S s s Single Bed' by the Fox about whom I know very little.  I think they were a female fronted glam band in the 70's.  No matter, the song is great fun.  And speaking of Glam, in the booklet for the long overdue reissue of A Trip To Marineville (Secretly Canadian) there's a snapshot of the Swell Maps that captures perfectly the wild variations of that album.  In the photo the Swell Maps are laughing and goofing around with photos of Gary Glitter and Slade and if one looks to the lower right on a table by their side is Pere Ubu's Datapanik in the Year Zero LP.  Glam rock and art damaged punk from Ohio could very well be the twin pillars on which A Trip To Marineville was conceived and built.  After all Glam had a much greater influence on English punk than most are willing to admit.  And much of A Trip to Marineville does sound like top notch English punk circa 1977 (an embryonic Maps had actually been around since 72, releasing their first single in 77) except with loud handclaps, toy instruments, vacuum cleaners and demented bargain basement piano on top, not to mention a better sense of humor and sharper lyrics.   All of which makes for one hell of a great sound!  

And when they weren't doing clever kitchen sink dub mixes of their take on punk, the Swell Maps were constructing abstract sound pieces with titles like  'Don't Throw Ashtrays at Me' consisting of ambient piano, dissonant harmonica and semi-buried voices taking the piss on seemingly sacrosanct counterculture figures, "John Peel, he's old and sweaty."  Yep, its hard to figure where exactly the Swell Maps fit in when this record was first released in 1979, and its even harder to say where they fit now, though this stuff sounds better than ever.  And this is actually a large part of the Swell Maps charm; they don't fit in, never did and never will.   They remained eccentric iconoclasts to the end, but never po-faced.  This was not a Factory Records group.  You can hear the fun the Maps had while making this record.   A Trip to Marineville peaks with the manic transition from the amped up 'Full Moon in My Pocket' directly into the even more unhinged and swinging 'Blam!!' and then back into an instrumental reprise of 'Full Moon'; without a doubt one of the most exhilarating song sequences of this period.

Another probable precursor to English punk that has been occupying my mind of late is J.G. Ballard's mid 70's novels Highrise, Concrete Island and Crash.  I would argue that Ballard's detailed vision of the influence of urban landscapes and technology on the human psyche as being a much more pronounced and important strain in the early English punk movement than the more often touted Situationism, though admittedly some similar terrain is covered in both. But what kind of Englishman would defer to the French anyway?  I just finished reading Highrise, which is unfortunately out of print here in the U.S., and it had me pulling out The Clash's first album and the Sex Pistols demos as well as the debuts from Wire, the Damned, The Jam, X-Ray Spex, The Stranglers, singles by Subway Sect and the Slits Peel sessions. But it's the Clash's first one, along with those early interviews (contrived though they may be) where they talk about life in Mick Jones' high rise building and their sound capturing "the speed of the Westway" that really echoes Ballard's mid 70's work. It doesn't hurt that Concrete Island was written with the Westway in mind. 
Of the early Pistols stuff their 7 minute cover of 'No Fun' never ceases to amaze me in the way it takes a bored suburban adolescent anthem, albeit a great one, and makes it so much more immediate and razor edge existential, particularly with its screamed repetition of the lines "I'm alive, I'm alone."   Along these same early punk lines I've been watching my old VHS dub of Don Lett's Punk Rock Movie repeatedly.  This great film desperately needs a DVD release, for the early footage of the Subway Sect, the Slits and X-Ray Spex alone, not to mention ATV, the Heartbreakers, the Pistols and the Clash .  The DVD would make it easier to skip over Eater, Slaughter and the Dogs and the tasteless shots of shooting up.  And speaking of tasteless I've been enjoying the Stranglers and the way they remained the surly incorrect misfits of the emerging punk hegemony.  They had the wrong influences (the Doors for one), they were the wrong age - I guess mid to late 20's but they look even older- and were probably rightfully accused of hopping the punk bandwagon, and being misogynistic and politically incorrect.  Fascinatingly obnoxious, I still remember how exciting and unexpected it was to hear 'Peaches' used in the opening segment of Sexy Beast, after not having thought about the Stranglers for a long long time. 

The British's pedagogical passion for categorizing, creating often tenuous or downright arbitrary genres then furiously investing themselves in championing said genre to the exclusion of all others, can be awful tiring.  But it's hard to complain when this distinctly British form of anal retentiveness results in impeccable compilations like the fourth volume of Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures on the Kent Soul label.  The most well known cuts on this compilation are the Miracles 'Tracks Of My Tears' and Irma Thomas's 'Time Is On My Side' but beyond these there are twenty-three tracks of absolutely beautiful Soul by lesser known, but just as powerful, singers like Chuck Edwards, Garnet Mimms and Doris Duke, as well as obscure songs by well known artists like Gladys Knight and the Pips.  There's not a track here you'll want to skip but of particular note is Jackie Lee's 'I Love You', Bob & Earl's 'Don't Ever Leave Me' and Doris Duke's 'I Don't Care Anymore.'

Maybe because we barely get a winter in Texas or maybe because its easier to feel emotionally cold and remote these days, the Cure's Seventeen Seconds has been getting a lot of play in my house.  Listening to this album is sort of like walking around on ice at twilight in the dead of winter wrapped up in 4 layers of clothes, with headphones and a head full of acid.  It's truly a Record Album, as it holds together wonderfully as a thematic whole.  And its b-movie horror soundscapes have aged well; its obvious but it still works, in the same way a sci-fi or horror flick sometimes is all the more effective or at least likeable for its willingness to stay strictly within the lines of its established framework.  Like good genre fiction it works within its own limitations.  Seventeen Seconds is the sound of a cold bleak isolated place but it retains just enough pop sensibility to not become bogged down in its own inertia.

Lastly I've also been enjoying a couple of soundtracks by Henry Mancini.  The Pink Panther, with its classic theme song and 'It Had Better Be Tonight', is an obvious favorite and there's a nice c.d. reissue that includes a couple of choice bonus tracks from the later sequels.  But more obscure and even better is the soundtrack to Experiment in Terror.  Another Blake Edward's film, this one I haven't seen, but apparently it's a thriller from the early 60's starring Lee Remick, so how bad could it be?  The soundtrack, which I have on vinyl but which appears to be available on c.d. as well, is dark and eerie sounding, as you might expect given the title.  A bit different from Mancini's usual fair, less kitschy and in many ways superior, it's very worthy of investigation.  

© 2005 William Crain