Monday, January 31, 2011
When I was a kid I didn’t see too many movies in the theater. I still don’t, but at least we have Netflix now, so I’ve been catching up when I can. One of the classic lo-fi sci-fi gems that I sorely regret not seeing on the big screen is Flash Gordon from 1980. I’ve rectified that somewhat by watching this movie about a billion times over the past 20 or 25 years, and I’m all about its campy, over the top, comic book kitsch. Seriously, who couldn’t love Max von Sydow’s deliciously wicked Ming the Merciless? He was perfect from head to toe and in everything he said.
But I’m not here to review a movie…
What I want to do is talk about the soundtrack, which in this case is integral to the overall fun of this flick because it enhances all the flamboyant qualities that make it such a cult classic. And who better to provide that soundtrack than Queen?
Though this is billed as a proper Queen album, it’s not really a Queen album. That is to say it’s not a rock album or a pop album or an adult contemporary album or whatever phase of Queen you come up with when you think of them. Most anyone has heard the radio staple Flash’s Theme. Even my son can pull off the call and response of FLASH! AH-AAH… and he’s never heard the song before. But if you’re looking for more of this, you’re going to be really disappointed. After all, at the end of the day this is a soundtrack for a movie, and Queen treats it as such.
Flash’s Theme, and this is a different mix than what you’d find on a greatest hits collection, is one of those unique but timeless songs; catchy and invasive, toe tappingly infectious, and yet so brilliantly simple. Just one chord with a couple of changes ups and you’re done. But what a majestic song, how triumphant! I mean this is a theme for a super hero, stirring every bit of the emotional pot as a more “serious” number like the one for Superman or anything from Star Wars…with the added bonus that you can bounce to it, sing along and shout FLASH, AH-AAH!!! Plus, and especially when I’ve not heard it in awhile, the breakdown of, “Just a man, with a man’s courage…,” gets me in the gut every time. And then fades off.
Check it out here.
After that it’s mainly incidental music and snippets of dialogue that literally take you through the entire movie. A musical montage if you will. And I think that’s just brilliant. Whereas with many soundtracks you may recognize a melody or a refrain and recall some important scene, with Queen’s Flash Gordon you are carried from blast off to saving Earth in just over half an hour (which is, btw, about a third of the movie’s length). The music is often sparse and atmospheric, with plucked guitar chords, thundering drums and plenty of eerie synthesizers. There is very little as far as standard rock tunes go, with a notable exception being the brief but exciting instrumental, Football Fight. Other standouts include In the Space Capsule (that jarring chord right after Flash’s Theme is a great mood setter), The Kiss (those icy keys plus Freddie’s high strains just bring it), Vultan’s Theme/Battle Theme (another rock set, just getting to hear Brian Blessed saying “Diiiive” is worth purchasing this album), The Wedding March (classic Brian May guitar sound) and everything closing off with The Hero, another “proper” rock song that, while no Flash’s Theme, encapsulates the excitement of the entire soundtrack (and movie).
All of that aside, one thing this album did for me was open up my ears to experimental and more ambient forms of music. From here I took a step into folks like Brian Eno and Cluster and pretty much haven’t looked back. And while Queen were hardly pioneers of “post rock” or whatever, they knew how to create a musical setting. This is evident not only with the tunes they’re most known for, but also here on Flash Gordon where they’re breaking things down to their various parts and letting them play out. That’s why this soundtrack, nay album, is not only effective while watching the movie, but an enjoyable experience on its own, because it maintains the same mood and aesthetic by being atmospheric but accessible, and most of all, fun.
So why did I stop listening to it? Well, it wasn't a conscious decision. Again, this is a soundtrack, it’s got this one great tune at the beginning and then it’s mostly just background strum and dialogue, and no Bohemian Rhapsodies or Somebody to Loves to sing along with. So it was nothing personal, just not perennial. I can remember driving around town a few years back and my then girlfriend/now wife flat out asking me if I’d just recorded the movie onto a cassette tape. I had to laugh, ‘cos in a lot of ways that’s what this soundtrack is. And while I think that’s totally awesome, it’s not something you’re going to pick whenever you’re in a mood for Queen, and certainly not where you’d point a would be convert. Flash Gordon is a novelty for sure, even more so than the soundtrack they later did for The Highlander. But it’s a wonderful and well done novelty, and something to reach for when you’re in the mood for something fun, unobtrusive and worthwhile.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Down Colorful Hill
I borrowed Down Colorful Hill, their 1992 debut, from my friend Kelda around 1997 or so and L-O-V-E-D it. From there I bought everything by Red House Painters I could find, signed a petition ranting about the major label fiasco/non-release of their last album, Old Ramon, and spent a lot of time listening to, or at least attempting to listen to, these albums.
The problem with the latter was twofold – 1) None of them gripped me quite like Down Colorful Hill because 2) they’re so stinkin’ long. I say the latter not as a criticism but merely a fact. The average Red House Painters song is well over five minutes long and more than a few easily surpass the ten minute mark without even stopping for directions. The guiltiest collection of these is their second album, which is their first self-titled album, which is normally referred to as Rollercoaster. (Got that?) Having said that, the longer songs are some of their most compelling offerings, especially on the last couple albums. Yet at other times it’s easy to get lost in some of the similarish murk, with all the chiming, swirling noise and downcast vocal misery making it rather difficult to distinguish one song from another. I can distinctly remember driving somewhere and listening to their third album, which is their second self-titled, which is normally referred to as Bridge (still following?) and thinking, “Ok, I’m done with this…it’s either change the CD or run the car off the road.” (That last bit is edited for the kids out there reading.) So with that, and with the exception of Down Colorful Hill, I’ve not listened to any Red House Painters since then…and that was around 2002. (Subsequently, I’ve also ignored post-RHP band Sun Kil Moon and all related solo efforts.)
And yet in my head, in my heart, a lot of these songs have never left me. In more recent years I have seen or read or experienced something that would bring a line or a melody back to mind and then find myself humming that tune for the rest of the afternoon. However, that fact never made me want to listen to Red House Painters. So much was my dismay that as recently as a couple of months ago I considered unloading everything but Down Colorful Hill at a used CD store, freeing up the shelf space and cutting my losses.
Part of the problem was/is that these albums/songs remind(ed) me of a time when I was still actively attempting to pursue a “music career” and lamenting the fact that I could/would never write a song so beautifully believable and significant as Mistress, Summer Dress or Blindfold. That’s just part of the bitterness of this self-perceived failed artist, which is something I attempt to overcome, or at least ignore, daily.
And I feel rather guilty about this snubbing. Why? Well, from a fiscal standpoint I’d dropped quite a bit of coin on these guys back when I didn’t always have the funds to legitimately do so. But, more importantly, from an I should be listening to this because it’s good standpoint, I kick myself for not taking/making the time to give these albums the attention they deserve. And yet now in my 30s, with a busy job, a growing family and much on the schedule at all times, it’s hard to find ample space for 14 songs and 76 minutes worth of music (Rollercoaster, I’m talking to you). So as part of my “five years” endeavor I was eager to make this stack of albums a priority in the listening cycle.
Songs for a Blue Guitar
In short, I’ve found the experience highly rewarding as a nostalgic romp, but also as one of fresh wonder and discovery. This essentially proves the timeless ambition and scope of Red House Painters’ leader Mark Kozelek, the heart, voice and vision of the band. Kozelek is an undisputed master at weaving tales of loss, regret and longing (all the things we love about a good mope), and encasing these vignettes in a bittersweet, almost menacing shell that makes them painfully pleasant and even dangerous listening. This is bare bones, open soul and confessional rock n roll, speaking to and for the folks out there whose outlook monitor is set to bleak. If you’ve got the time, repeat spins will reveal layer upon layer of moments that absolutely define a musically well-written song and a lyrically well-broken heart. I’ll continue to argue that the best, most concise collection is Down Colorful Hill, so delicate in its shy fury that it’s hard to surpass. But every album has at least one number that’s worth the price of admission, with the remainder an exceptional set that’s, usually, well worth the wading, with some of the best bits sneaking up and revealing themselves when you’d least expect them.
· Down Colorful Hill – Really all of them, but Japanese to English has that extra push.
· Red House Painters (Rollercoaster) – Katy Song will make you weep. I’m serious.
· Red House Painters (Bridge) – Uncle Joe combines a plaintive lyric/melody with some highly expressive playing and rips your heart out in the process.
· Ocean Beach – San Geronimo reminds me that these guys could really rock it when they wanted to, yet retain a signature, sentimental grace throughout.
· Songs for a Blue Guitar – Have You Forgotten goes straight to the heart of the matter, with no ambiguity or guessing, just the truth.
· Old Ramon – Between Days deserves a second listen. With a steady rock chug, some fantastic guitar play and a persistently cryptic lyric, it’s well worth the 17 minutes.
Re-listening to these albums I find I have very distinct memories of my pre-marriage duplex (the walls, the floors, the layout and decorations), folks I knew (or thought I knew), things I did (and didn’t), feelings I had (and often still do), etc. Also, I’m sorta shocked at how well I remember these songs, which means they made more of an impact than I’d initially given them credit. What this means now and today is that I plan on keeping these albums in a regular rotation as much as possible, creating new memories for the next decade.
On a somewhat side note, Kozelek is also known for being a pretty avid fan of classic rock, covering everything from Simon and Garfunkel to AC/DC to the Star Spangled Banner on his various releases. Shock Me, a classic era Kiss track, has always been a favorite.
Friday, January 14, 2011
I don’t even know how to approach this one. Last night Pitchfork reported that Trish Keenan, singer for electro-experimental group Broadcast, had been hospitalized with pneumonia due to complications from H1 N1. Today Rolling Stone reports that she has passed.
This is a definite blow to the indie community and to me personally. I’ve talked a bit about Broadcast in the past but probably understated how much I really love this band. They were first introduced to me by MSP in the early 00s and I was instantly taken in by their mysterious, atmospheric and beautiful brand of pop. They graced our town with a show around that time, which remains one of the greatest live music experiences of my life. Sometime after, the bulk of the band left and Trish continued on with guitarist James Cargill. The duo scaled down their sound accordingly, delivering a blend of both what was and what still could be in music.
Trish’s distinct, low-key presence was the centerpiece at all times, the pattern bringing these musical fibers together. Melancholy without being depressed or bitter, mysterious without trite ambiguity, her voice provided form out of chaos, a believable melody from the atonal, even dissonant music she created with her band mates. Without her, Broadcast would have been interesting but not intriguing, enjoyable but not essential.
I can’t listen to certain Broadcast songs, especially the entire Noise Made by People album, without being carted back in time to dark, chilly nights, dusty hardwood floors and moths throwing shadows on the walls as I first listened to this band. That nostalgia is now bittersweet, but ever worth the ache.
Thank you, Trish. You will be missed!!
Enjoy Echo's Answer from The Noise Made by People.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
This isn’t a singular plight. My good pal MSP is dealing with the same situation and is attempting to do something about it. You can follow his saga here.
What I’m doing isn’t quite as cold turkey. In short, I’ve decided to run through my collection of CDs and pull the albums I’ve not listened to in five or more years, give them a spin and determine if they should remain on the shelf. Now whether they should or should not really has nothing to do with where they’ll be in six months, but it’s a reason to listen to some possibly/probably good music that I’ve been neglecting for awhile.
So without further ado, let us begin…
Album: Marquee Moon
Television was one of the first bands to take the punk movement, the movement that took popular music and spun it over on its ear, and spin it back the way it came – only to land it on a completely different side. Something like that. That was story at least. As a kid they were one of those bands I’d heard of but never heard ‘cos I never knew anyone who owned their records, so exposure level was nil.
My first encounter with them came around 2000 or so. I lived in a duplex and my next-door neighbor was the aforementioned MSP’s then girlfriend/now wife. She wasn’t home but he was there along with a couple of other guys and we were hanging out one night. I noticed Marquee Moon sitting at the top of a short stack, so I asked if we could put it on. Of course we could.
I remember we had the music set at conversation level, but wishing the chatter would lull to nothing so that I could better hear what was going on. It was one of those situations where you're familiar with many of the artists influenced by said group (in this case REM, Sonic Youth, The Feelies, etc), can trace back and think, "Yeah, I hear where they got that...," but it was still like nothing you’d ever heard before. At least that’s how it was for me.
Within the week I had my own copy of Marquee Moon and listened to it a lot. A whole lot. For weeks and weeks. I remember going to Atlanta one Labor Day weekend, stuck in traffic outside Chattanooga, and being totally lost in the swirling guitar work, especially on the title track; the keystone and emotional/artistic climax of the album. It was a realization moment – the punk DIY credo was not 100%. Not just anyone can do certain types of music. Some folks just have the gift or the spirit or the mojo necessary to make a certain groove be exactly what it is, and anyone attempting to do the same is an obvious sham. So I continued to listen, taking it in, happy to be a bystander.
And then one day I stopped. I have no idea why, though certainly not because I was tired of the music, but because a butterfly had twittered by and I was off in another direction. La, la, la… Also, I know I’ve listened to Marquee Moon since that initial bender, but not as frequently or for as long and, for some reason, not recently. So it goes…
Now there is A LOT of hype surrounding Television and especially Marquee Moon. So much so that when I pulled the case off the shelf a couple of weeks ago I was afraid my 30 something jaded self was going to puke all over it. Thankfully this was not the case, not by a long shot. This album holds up easily. It sounds as fresh and inventive as I know it must have 30+ years ago and there really is no other group or album (i.e. their 1978 follow up Adventure or their 1992 s/t reunion effort) that sounds quite like Marquee Moon.
These nine songs are abstract, eccentric, so far out in left field they spin back around and make an odd, comforting sort of sense. There are some common rock thoughts here, hints of love, soiled relations, very delicate moments, but a brooding darkness throughout. The room is never fully lit, the faces never clearly seen, all thoughts and intentions cryptically safe but with a distinctly sinister undertone.
Basically, this is a smart album. At the core these are pop songs, verse-chorus-verse, etc. But they're approached from a jam perspective. And yet even then it’s not a free for all. These tunes are calculated and executed with precision. Minimal is the key, but there is still quite a bit going on, with each separate instrument providing and then placing its own unique piece to a very well planned puzzle. Nowhere else will you hear guitar interplay quite like this, two virtuosos not attempting to outdo one another, but compliment one another, enhancing the integrity of the song and the overall listening experience. This is jazz put through the rock filter. Essentially Marquee Moon is the genesis of math rock, but with way more melody, heart and overall accessibility. Remember that these guys were part of the punk movement, playing with Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, yet defying the then-established standard of rock n roll not by scaling it down to its basic parts, but by totaling deconstructing it and reassembling it as something different and yet, if you really listen, not completely foreign.
Lyrically Tom Verlaine is giving poetry a melody. There’s a certain amount of sensitivity, of self-awareness, but handled with an adept aloofness and a sneering nonchalance that implies, “Yes, I’m saying something, but do you know what it means?” And with lines like I was listening to the rain…I was hearing something else, my answer is, “Er, no, not really, but I like it.” There are references to other cultural and artistic mediums, such as proverbs (See No Evil), fine art (Venus…as in de Milo, pronounced “mee-lo”) and film (Prove It…inspired by The Long Goodbye). You could spend several listens just deciphering the lyrics, what they are, what they mean, can you apply them - because you want to. Something this good, this inspired, you want to somehow find a way to insert into your own life, the way you walk and breathe and look at things. But really, it’s just as simple as listening and letting the music do the rest.
But ultimately, what it all boils down to, is Verlaine and Lloyd, these two guitarists, these two eagles that wind and soar and dive straight through your ears and down into your heart. If you like guitar rock you'll love Marquee Moon. It's just a fact.
So what happened when I’d not heard this album for five years? Well, I played it over and over for a week and it’s still out in the “on deck” section of the listening area. Now when it goes back to the shelf will it sit moping for another five years? Maybe, but I hope not.
Sadly, I can find no vintage footage of Television live, but here's Elevation, my favorite song from the album.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Lately I feel like I’m only posting with bad news. This time we’ve lost Mick Karn, slink-sexy bassist for New Romantic gods, Japan. Never well known in the States, these guys were a big splash in Europe, etc, bringing the glitter noise in the late 70s and early 80s that paved the way for like glam-minded (and States-friendly) acts such as ABC, Human League and Duran Duran. Karn’s funky, melodic playing was a huge part of Japan’s tight and sophisticated sound, providing a sense of cohesion amongst the more atmospheric posturing from the rest of the group.
Everyone dust off your copies of Adolescent Sex or Tin Drum and give them a spin.
Check out Visions of China.
Or for some more Mick Karn action, check out his short-lived project with Peter Murphy, Dali’s Car.