gramophone
01.06.02 | music
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"He knew music was Good, but it didn't sound right."

- George Ade
Fable of the Married Girl Who Ran the Eating Station for the Luminaries
  My main writing gig these days is movie reviewing -- 250 words for fifty bucks, maybe five times a month at best. I'll never get rich, and I'm not sure anyone reads my stuff, but I like the gig anyway. Most movies are crap; the art form itself is probably the most compromised, diddled imaginable, but occasionally I see something that isn't so awfully fucked over by star power, short-fingered producers, witless, tone-deaf screenwriters and directors who should stick to car commercials. I like all three of these films; I probably liked the soundtracks for two of them even more than the films themselves. 

  That's actually where I hear most of my music these days -- not from t.v. or radio or friends, but in the background at screenings. Right now my favorite musician, composer, whatever, is probably Ennio Morricone. I probably listen to the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time In The West at least once a month, which is more than I can say for Tom Waits or Nick Cave or Mark Eitzel or Leonard Cohen or any other of my onetime "idols". 

BEST ALBUMS
 

 
Every year, I used to fill out one of these rock critic's polls for eye weekly. For a few years, they didn't send me one. This year, suddenly, I'm on the list again. I used to love filling this thing out -- it gave me a chance to look over the year and figure out just what I still had some kind of enthusiasm for, what I considered a decent enough reason not to top myself. Anyway, here it is, again -- my reasons to live for 2001.
1. Various/Sexy Beast soundtrack (Beyond)   "Shut up. Cunt. You louse. You got some fucking neck, ain't ya? Retired? Fuck off. You're revolting. Look at your fucking suntan -- like leather. Like a leather man, your skin, you could make a fucking suitcase out of you. Hold-all. You're like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, know what I mean?"

  My favorite film of 2001. Ben Kingsley's Don -- the speaker of the lines above, helpfully included on the soundtrack album -- is a Cockney psycopath thug who won't take no for an answer. He pronounces "leather" as "levvuh" and seethes with a loveless frustration that's sexual in the most unhappy way, like an ugly, mean child at a party with the popular kids. The soundtrack disc is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster -- Henry Mancini, Dean Martin and Stranglers songs (the Soho via Marbella sleaze classic "Peaches" -- a tune I've managed, to my great regret, never to own until now), some hard-edged techno tracks by UNKLE, some moody, romantic stuff by someone (or thing) called Roque Baños, and snippets of movie dialogue like the classic lines above. I'll buy the DVD of Sexy Beast when it's out (even though I don't have a player yet) but until then I love revisiting the film in my mind, all cut up and remixed, thanks to this record. It's nice, at my advanced age, to find a new way to listen to music -- or watch movies. I mean, I've been enjoying food by reading cooking magazines for years now -- why not watch movies with my eyes closed?
 

2. Various/ In The Mood For Love soundtrack (Virgin)   I didn't get this picture when I first saw it, at a private screening just before the 2000 film festival. The review I ended up writing was a bit too lukewarm for the four-star rating I gave it, which I guess gives you some idea of how much it stuck with me, how the various parts of the film resonated even while the whole experience somehow didn't gel. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and when the soundtrack came out, I took it home and started reviewing my memories in my head. Like everything Wong Kar-Wai does, it was beautiful. Beauty, I think, more than love or loss or longing, was the whole point of the film. There certainly aren't many people more beautiful than the leads, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung; in my mind's eye, most of the film happens, not in early 60s Hong Kong, but in the vicinity of Maggie Cheung's long, lovely neck and along the length of her closely-tailored silk cheongsam dresses.

  The soundtrack is simple enough -- vintage Cantonese pop, moody chamber string pieces with faintly "oriental" themes, and Nat King Cole singing in Spanish. My Spanish is pretty lousy, but I know enough to tell you that Nat's pronunciation is technically terrible. No matter -- I love his Spanish tracks more than probably anything else he ever recorded, even if I can't tell you exactly why they were recorded in the first place. A burgeoning Latin market? Nat's happy memories of vacations in Havana or Acapulco or Seville? Who cares. Some snippets of dialogue from the film. A string quartet doing a blues. Old recordings of "traditional" Chinese music that, even after years of collecting old ethnic music, still sounds abidingly strange to my ears.

  I still think of this movie, more than a year after I saw it. I'll buy the DVD -- a Criterion production, so it'll cost a mint -- and try again. Or maybe I just shouldn't try at all, but let it wash over me. Maybe I should watch the film like I listen to the soundtrack, distracted by something in the moment, with no care for how it all turns out. 
 

3. David Bridie/In A Savage Land soundtrack (EMI)   This film went nowhere, and the soundtrack -- an Australian import -- cost me a fortune, even with the bonus disc of music by Trobriand Islanders recorded as source material by the composer. A shame about the film, really -- it had one of my three favorite performances of the year, by an actress named Maya Stange, who looks a bit like Joan Allen, and who I've never seen in anything else. (The other two? Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive and Thora Birch in Ghost World. They keep saying there are no decent roles for women these days, so why do I keep seeing gems like these?) 

  The film was basically the Margaret Mead story turned into a moody romantic melodrama; clueless anthropologists misinterpret native culture on their way to helping destroy it. There's a moody, cynical trader, and the looming threat of Japanese invasion. I'm know I'm making it sound a lot worse than it actually is. The film was basically just dumped into the theatres, and suffered the usual fate. I expect, from the soundtrack at least, that it was a bit of a labour of love. Too bad.

  There's the usual symphonic pastorale, part Vaughan Williams, part Dimitri Tiomkin. There are breathy, atmospheric pieces that use samples of native music, and then there's the field recordings themselves. The Trobriands are one of those musical gray zones -- one minute it sounds like peasant tunes from the Caucasus or the Hindu Kush, the next it's East Africa, a minute later it's Maori war chants or Polynesian missionary school choirs. I love this kind of stuff, love the sense of dislocation.
 

4. Aphex Twin/
drukqs (Warp)
  It's hard to love this record. Almost as hard as imagining anyone actually dancing to it. No matter -- we've had rock music that doesn't rock for decades now -- it's about time there was some undanceable "dance" music. I think it's fascinating.
 
5. Pernice Brothers/The World Won't End (Ashmont)
6. Joe Pernice/Big Tobacco (Ashmont)
  "I hate my life..." No, actually, I don't, not anymore. I got married this year, and finally realized that, while I'm making less money than I ever have, while my career as a writer and photographer seems utterly stalled, while I'm undeniably getting older and more isolated from the world, I'm probably happier than I've been in years. I love the way Joe Pernice captures the kind of benign self-pity and dismay that once pretty much dominated my life. I used to love the Scud Mountain Boys, but I probably wouldn't have heard these records if my friend Alan hadn't burned a Pernice mix CD for me. It's all so longing and sad but I feel like a spectator now, where before I felt like the star of the movie, with this playing on the soundtrack as I walked the streets, under an overcast sky drained of colour. No more, my friends, no more.
 
7. Groove Armada/The Remixes (Zomba)   The copyright says 2000 but I didn't hear it till this year. I listen to a lot of techno stuff. No, I don't go out to clubs. No, I don't dance.
 
8. Tindersticks/
Can Our Love... (Beggars Banquet)
9. Mark Eitzel/The Invisible Man (Matador)
  See entries #5 and #6.

  I used to love these guys. Somehow I just can't make the connection anymore. Eitzel, as far as I can tell, is as compelling as he's ever been, even if his lyrics are becoming increasingly abstract. The Tindersticks, while gratefully past that unfortunate phase where they needed someone like Isabella Rosellini to make a cameo on their records, somehow seem diminished, even claustrophobic, compared to their first two records. These are just sentimental votes, really.
 

10. Various/ Avantgardism (Unitone)   My wife got it for free at her job. I play it at dinner parties or while I'm building web pages. You can find a hundred techno compilations just about this good -- it's what I love about techno.

BEST SINGLES
 

1. City/"Your Life" (Pork)   Technically, this was released in 2000, and I'm not sure if it was ever available as a single, proper -- I found it on a Mixmag compilation CD of chill-out tracks. I think it was probably the most beautiful thing I heard all year, and that's just enough reason for me to put it on my list. Beautiful is such a tragic word; it's so overused, so critically devalued, that it has no resonance when you use it either on the page or in conversation. As a word, it's about as diminished as the active verb form of "love". Everything's beautiful and we love it all, except when it isn't, and we don't.

  This is the last track on the compilation, and for a moment I thought the sampled voice was Peter Gabriel from some very early Genesis record: it's Nina Simone, though, singing something melancholy. This is hardly cutting edge stuff like Aphex Twin or Ritchie Hawtin. The sampled choral track is tame and sweet, the beat lazy and simple. But it's beautiful nonetheless; longing and sad. I guess this is meant to send you home from a club with more than buzzing ears, sweat-soaked clothes and minor dehydration that'll give you a headache all the next day.
 

2. Sloan/"If It Feels Good, Do It" (Murderecords)   I love the video for this song, probably more than the song -- slick as hell, with this smart, hilarious "commentary" filmed like a Gap commercial; various "fans" of the band supposedly extemporizing about the meaning of rock and roll, as if anyone knows what that might be anymore. No matter, since their "opinions" are about as hackneyed or as cynical as anything your average rock critic comes up with; in the context of this video, they're actually a lot more profound. 

  "If it feels good, do it/even though you shouldn't/don't let people mess you 'round." 

  Original sentiments, indeed; a band this smart, though, can be given credit for singing them with an implied tongue in cheek that defies critical explication. Sloan make me feel good about being Canadian; they manufacture so much context around their work that their career -- early success, burned by the major, unconvincing break-up and well-crafted return, concept album, live album, loyal fan base accrued carefully and intimately -- feels like its own box set. If you know what I mean. 
 

3. Raspberries/"Go All The Way" (Capitol 45)   From the follow-up soundtrack album to Almost Famous -- "More Almost Famous" -- that, stupidly, neither Cameron Crowe or anyone else from the studio had the wit to release. "Go All The Way" was more prominent in the trailers for the movie than in the actual film itself, where it was played for a few bars by Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs while he tries to talk the kid out of the rock critic thing. For that brief moment, my spine ran with a charge that I didn't feel again for the rest of the film. A shame -- I wanted to like Almost Famous more than I did. I doubt that I'll ever see someone play Lester Bangs in another movie again.

  I got married a few months ago, and my buddy Tim Powis made a couple of great mix tapes for my stag. He was sitting next to me at Almost Famous, and remembered that I didn't stop talking about the Raspberries song for the rest of the night. So there I am, a week of single life left, standing there talking to Shawn Parker and his brother Jeff, old pals from the neighbourhood where I grew up. In the background, Tim's tape starts playing "Go All The Way". I stop for a second, and say to Shawn and Jeff, "This is a great song.

  Shawn agrees. "Yeah, it is."

  "Go All The Way" was in the background thirty years ago, back in Mt. Dennis, on the radio, while Shawn and Rock and Roll Dave and I chafed in the worst clothing in history, in the dreariest decade ever, through the awful evolution from child to teenage boy. Standing there, I had the most overwhelming fondness for these guys, for that bleak decade, for Eric Carmen and badly-stitched corduroys and earth shoes and fake-fur boots that always leaked in the rain and snow despite the big, messy patches you made with your dad's silicone sealant. 

  A couple of weeks later, I finally found a copy of the single at Kops and played it over and over.
 

4. Arling & Cameron/"We Love Dancing" (Emperor Norton)   "We love dancing! Yaaaaaay!" This just makes my wife so happy. 

  I think it's about two years old. I really, really don't care about that kind of thing. I guess you can tell that by now.
 

5. Stone Temple Pilots/"Days of the Week" (Atlantic)   Once upon a time, I couldn't start my summer -- or at least, I couldn't being to enjoy it, couldn't bring myself to feel that summer was really, truly underway -- until I'd picked my "summer song". Past summer songs have included The Jam's "Beat Surrender", Hüsker Dü's "Love Is All Around" (the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme), "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and Matthew Sweet's "Sick of Myself". This would have been my summer song for 2001. Thankfully, these days, all it takes is a few cold beers and some grilled sardines and calamari for summer to begin.

REISSUES
 

1. Various/Canto Morricone Vol. 1 (Bear Family)   I'm stretching this a bit. This disc is three years old, but I didn't hear it till this year, and I think there should be some wiggle room for hard-to-find imports. Their shelf life, after all, is much longer overall, and we can't hear -- or find -- everything the moment it's released anyway. So here it is -- probably my favorite record of the year, really; a collection of pop tunes written, arranged and produced by Ennio Morricone for Italian and French singers in the Sixties. The biggest hit here -- Mina's "Se Telefonando" -- is the Petula Clark "Downtown" of Italian pop, all crescendos and dramatic key changes with Morricone's version of Hal Blaine drums and carefully cribbed Phil Spector/Wrecking Crew wall of sound. 

  I'm so tired of my own history, or at least my own, shared, pop history. I don't care if I ever hear a Beatles song again, and most of the soul, Motown and 60s garage stuff I used to have to hunt down is canonical these days, pop nostalgia available on t.v. compilations or in cheap box sets. So I've become a pop tourist, spending time with other people's pop history. I already loved Morricone, so it was a treat to discover that he'd been applying his rusty, twanging guitars and weird vocalese to pop singles and movie themes. Most of this stuff is from the long, imperceptibly slow decline of Cinecitta and "La Dolce Vita", as Italy and Europe prepared the ground for their sour Seventies, the '68 generation as a prelude for the Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof gang and europorn like the Emmanuelle films. 
 

2. Fela Kuti/
Underground System (Barclay)
  This year, for some inexplicable reason, somebody decided to remaster and re-package all these great old Fela records with Africa 80. I've seen three really, truly great concerts in my life: The P-Funk All-Stars tour from a year or two before Eddie Hazel died; Tackhead with Mark Stewart and Adrian Sherwood mixing; Fela Kuti, two nights at a half-filled Masonic Temple. I hung out with Fela for at least two hours before one of the shows. He smoked about a dozen of these amazingly huge spliffs and acted like an imperious asshole -- condescending isn't a strong enough word. Then he got on stage and did a three and a half hour show with about forty musicians and dancers onstage. I haven't really wanted to go to another concert since.
3. Artie Shaw/Self Portrait (BMG)   I don't own this 5-disc box set. I want to, but nobody sends me anything to review anymore and I can't afford to buy it. Look -- I know almost every tune on this thing, and I know I like it, and I think Shaw is one of the most fascinating people in jazz, so that's why it's on the list. Who am I kidding -- I don't have the patience to listen to a five disc box set anymore. Still, if anyone would like to make me a happy guy, for at least six hours...

BEST VIDEO:
 

Dave Matthews Band/"Everyday"   Probably the best post-9/11 video I can think of. Actually, the only one I can think of, I guess. The setup is simple enough: This Yank version of a hoser -- lumpenbody, shit posture, mullet and honkin' sideburns, big ugly eyeglass frames, untucked fluorescent orange t-shirt and stars and stripes baseball cap -- hits the streets of NYC looking for hugs from passersby. The usual wave of big city hostility renders Yank hoser hugless and despondent (oh my God! have the terrorists won?!) until, suddenly, a good-natured, touristy-looking older lady relents, to the obvious embarassment of her stolid, hug-averse hubby. From thence, the floodgates open, and hoser dude is awash in hugs, including some from newsanchors at Dateline NBC, Conan O'Brien and one of the mooks from The Sopranos. It's actually pretty sweet -- this decade's version of the "No Rain" video, I suppose. I'm sure it was all posed -- the camerawork is just too clean, too professional to have been done on the fly, not to mention the cameos; look, I shot a video last year so I know about these things -- but it feels nice. It cheered me up one sleepless night last week, flipping the channels, no longer giving a damn if they caught Omar or bin Laden or anyone anymore.

  I hate Dave Matthews, though. Really. I'm sorry, but why you need a bunch of crack session guys, sixing fretless basses with active pickups and sevening guitars with Brazilian cocobolo freboards, a drum kit the size of the Punjab with about as many percussion devices, all rack-mounted gleaming and polished -- to play this dreary, tuneless campfire singalong is utterly beyond me. I've never gotten this post-Dead, muso Hootie kind of shit anyway.

WORST ALBUM:
 

  Like I told Scott Woods the other day, I would have put the Michael Jackson record here if I actually cared, but I don't. Poor old Michael just makes me sad these days, and I can't imagine his worst can be nearly as bad as anything I hear on Top 40 radio. I guess I should include a "Nü Metal" album, Linkin Park or Slipknot or any of that kind of thing since I really hate that shit, but I can't remember the name of a single record or track and don't care to know, to be honest. 

WORST SINGLE:
 

Nellie Furtado/ "I'm Like a Bird"(Dreamworks)   It's either this one or her other big single -- I can't remember the title of that one, mostly because it actually irritates me even more and I'm trying to block the memory from my mind. ("Turn out the Light". That's it. shudder.) That's the key to this one, I guess -- sheer, ear-smacking irritation. I know she's the fucking Mary Martin meets Bjork of West Coast club pop or whatever but her voice sends me into batshit conniptions.

  Somehow, Vancouver has managed to produce a singer that makes musical that annoying, airhead uptalk vocal mannerism that's decimated the communication skills of a generation of young women (and men, not just the gay ones, it seems, if what I overhear in shops is any indication). Well, if it had to come from anywhere, then the Wet Coast would be the place. 

  There's something about her music that makes me feel like I'm trapped in Bar Italia on a Friday night, mute and paralysed, between four tables of twentysomethings prattling on about this guy and that girl, all "likes" and "you knows" and copped scraps of drag queen and ghetto slang pouring from the mouths of Marias and Heathers and Ians from Woodbridge and Etobicoke and the Bridal Path. My eyes roll back in my head; I try to drown myself in overpriced Montepulciano; the room spins and I'm kissing terrazzo, the prattle shooting sparks as it careens around my eardrums: "I said no like no way am i going there you know it's like totally TMI like too much information you know whumsaying I mean I have no choice it's all about what I want right now whadda bitch like you know?" Fade to black.

CAN'T BELIEVE THE HYPE! (The most over-exposed and over-inflated of 2001):
 

1. Madonna.    An annual tradition for me, hating this person. Here I go, again.

  The tedious, poisonous woman manages another year in the spotlight. She's like a boulder now, all unstoppable force, movement with no energy, fated to defeat entropy through ceaseless, rapacious, sharklike ambition. Never mind that her latest iteration of herself is a humourless martinet mommy with a cringeworthy accent, griping about intrusive publicity while living in a country with the world's most relentless tabloid culture. Sinew and sharp corners. Hard-faced. Predator's eyes. Hateful crone. 

   Amazing, though, that in a year where English pop culture has subsided into smirking, inbred irrelevance, they should be have to absorb dubious new immigrants like Madonna, the blustering, pootish Lord Black of Crossharbour, and his viper of a wife, Barbara Amiel. Good riddance is all I can say. And people still pay a king's ransom to live in London. Amazing.
 

2. Nellie Furtado.   See above.

  Well, one more thing. I guess we're happy to see Canadian artists do well in the States. Overall, I suppose the tax benefits from a Nellie Furtado or a Barenaked Ladies ends up a plus in the balance sheet of our national psyche. And at my age, I should give up any fantasy that we'll end up exporting anything I can really get behind, pop-music wise. I should be happy, though -- Rohinton Mistry will sell thousands of copies of A Fine Balance thank to Oprah. That's a good thing, any way you look at it, isn't it? Yeah, it is. Isn't it? Come on, help me out here. Ah, hell.

MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED IN 2002:
 

1. Whatever Generation Z needs to get it through the last, bitter dregs of its teens   We've been riding a demographic waterslide for a few years now, and the result has been everything from Titanic and  the rise and fall of Leonardio Dicaprio to the oeuvre of Kirsten Dunst, Britney, NSync, Backstreet -- I hope I'm not being too obvious, here. The baby lamb is making its way through the python, though, and turning from soft and wooly to greasy gristle and bone. Even without 9/11 we'd be looking forward to the last shuddering phase of latter day teen culture. I suppose Nü Metal is the zit eruption phase of the gestation, for boys at least. Coming up -- the college years; the first real job; sex gets less fun, more anxious -- something you want less than you'll admit to your friends. Whoever provides the soundtrack for this terrible chrysalis will walk away with all the chips -- not only the promise of a living wage, but a shot at real critical approval, perhaps even a career that might span more than a few semesters. Don't forget -- past alumni of this club includes Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carole King, Elvis Costello and R.E.M.
2. The utter collapse of the commercial record industry.   Just wishful thinking, I'm sure, but the signs are promising.
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