Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dark Side Of The Moon by The Flaming Lips

I paid a visit to iTunes this morning to see if there were any bar-goons to be had in the Bach Oratorio department (I know, I know). When I glanced to my right at the daily charts I was surprised to see the number 10 spot taken up with Dark Side Of The Moon, by The Flaming Lips.

Ex-squeeze me?

It is what it says. At first glance it looked like too slight a project for me to drop a ten-spot on. But after reading all the hate-mail in the customer reviews I reached for my wallet. If an album by the Lips is this loathed, they must be doing something right. But what?

Most of the angry reviews stem from the fact that anyone would have the nerve to cover the entire classic Floyd album. After that we have comments from people who seem to think the covers should sound exactly like the originals. Then there are the moderately happy, in whose camp I reside.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. First of all, for $10 (Cdn: I understand Yankees only have to pay $8) it's a sweet deal. Wayne Coyne and Co. take the project seriously and produce a 40 minute set that entertains from beginning to end. And the music mostly works, often impressively. I was caught pleasantly off-guard by Coyne's version of “Time.” When the original, with a grumpy stridency, pronounces: “The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death” — the final exclamation mark is so obvious it usually gets me giggling. Coyne's approach is softer-footed, and delightfully compassionate — a revelation, in fact.

In a project as Quixotic as this, there are the inevitable other moments. A completely digital makeover of "Money" is thematically appropriate but won't get me hitting "replay" too often. While listening to "Us And Them" I simply could not shake the image of a sweetly emotional Kermit The Frog in “It's Not Easy Being Green” mode. And Henry Rollins(!) sits in for Floyd's collection of barking nutters, acquitting himself quite well at times, but occasionally sounding a little too jolly in his Nietzschean pronouncements to be convincing as an ac-tor.

There are the usual fans crying out for a plasticized copy of this project, but that strikes me as overkill. I expect to play the album a half-dozen times or so, before moving on to other, more lasting fare. But for now the Lips' Dark Side Of The Moon is a welcome and appropriate addition/interruption to the holiday playlist.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Of Church Ruins And Abandoned Malls

Our county has lost another of its historic churches — Whitby's All Saints' Anglican — likely to arson. Speaking from experience it is quite dispiriting to watch a gorgeous old church go up in flames. Equally dispiriting, I find, is the sort of pulpit-pounding that occurs in its wake: “If only people stopped/started believing in God, the world would be a better place.” The usual comments can be read here.

Turning, for the moment, from disputing the merits and evils of religion, here is a gallery of abandoned shopping malls and outlet stores. The photos were taken by Brian Ulrich.

Paul Bowman
linked to the pictures, without comment; Boing-Boing linked as well, but saw fit to include this snippet from TMN's interview with Ulrich: “How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail.”

Perhaps my gaze hasn't turned so far after all.

What surprises me about the photos is their inability to provoke emotion in me. Much of my adolescence and adult life has been spent inside malls; I dream quite regularly of dimly lit corridors and forgotten cul-de-sacs, where I find all the weird stores. Then there is the business of being a close witness to the closing of an old established bookstore — another frequent dream motif. Yet for all the potential power within these photos, I find them little more compelling than I would shots of trash in the ditch.

I believe that the current strain of North American church architecture has more in common with the shopping mall than it does with previously established religious aesthetics. A photo like the above gives us a very good idea of what the local mega-church will probably look like within 30 years or so. If nothing else, you have to hand it to the religious architects of old for giving us buildings that looked beautiful, even in ruination.

Now, when I give the mega-church buildings a life expectancy of 30 years, I'm being generous. I say this not because I think Christianity is in danger of dying out, but because I believe the last fifty years of public architecture will shortly be untenable, financially. Consider the cost of heating these structures. Now consider the fact that Saudi Arabia is investing in offshore drilling. Now reconsider what the monthly energy bill is likely to come to when OPEC finally slows its exports out of necessity.

But even if I and all my peak-oil nut-job buddies are wrong wrong DEAD wrong, I'd still argue the reasonable approach to building a church ought to be, “This building is good for 25 years. And then it's coming down.” If you are a church goer wondering at my folly, I urge you to pick up your yellow pages. Now find the church segment and run your finger down the list. How many of those congregations have been vibrant for as long as 40 years? If yours is one of them, ask yourself how you're going to beat the odds of a schism for another 40?

Take another look at that picture, if you like.

Another ruin that looms in my dreams is the St. Boniface Cathedral of Winnipeg. When my mother toured the grounds in the '70s, she struck up a conversation with a nun, and said what a shame the fire had been. The nun nodded silently. After a bit of a pause, the sister said, “But that was really a very expensive building to maintain.”

I've thought a lot about that exchange, especially as I've revisited the ruins. St. Boniface is a go-to destination for tourists and residents alike. It hosts weddings, memorials, concerts and performances of Shakespeare. I would argue that people interact with the ruins more frequently and with greater vibrancy than they would with the structure, were it still standing.

If that is the best fate of our most cherished buildings, perhaps it is time for another sea-change in North American church architecture. Perhaps now is the time for forward-thinking congregations and their architects to ask (1) what would a church with a small footprint and the capacity for easy dismantlement look like? And (2) how can we make our building as publicly inviting as a ruin — right now, before the fire?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Additions To Prajer's Aught-Nine Christmas Playlist

This year I have acquired only one Christmas CD I care to play from beginning to end, but several others that add zip to the season's musical broth, so long as the iPod is set on “shuffle.” Here, then, is my list of suggested new(ish) ingredients for a tasty Christmas playlist.

Eban Schletter's A Cosmic Christmas (e, A): I recently heard William Shatner defend his early performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as an intentional joke. When the interviewer suggested that Shatner's performance sounded a little too earnest for this explanation to be convincing, Shatner protested. “It's one of the first rules of acting: if an actor plays it like he knows it's funny, the joke falls flat — it's not funny to anyone.”

I think Shatner is bluffing late in the game, but his larger point is absolutely right. And man oh man, did it ever haunt me through my first few spins of A Cosmic Christmas by Eban Schletter. Even now I can't declare whether the man who scores Spongebob Squarepants is playing it straight or if he's really buying the entire Universal Santa Package. No matter: whether the final effect is intentional or not, what you'll hear is by turns eccentric, weird and/or hilarious. There is an undercurrent of bizarre charm to the orchestration, but nothing that's likely to elevate your mood as you search in vain for a parking spot. Please trust me on this: I am convinced Schletter's manipulation of the Theremin during “Christmastime Is Here” hones in on the exact note that sent Brian Wilson spiraling into his 19th Nervous Breakdown. You'll probably want to weed out the spoken word tracks that tie together the album's theme, but otherwise this electronic noodling is just the thing for those of us whose friends no longer arch their eyebrows whenever Esquivel comes on.

The Good Lovelies' Under The Mistletoe (h): my mother-in-law loves these gals. “That's real old-time music,” she said when she first heard them. Indeed it is: these ladies have the tight harmonies — and skirts — that brought the boys home from Europe in '46. Their sassy approach to a once-musty tradition has made me a fan, too. Although I'm not always up for a straight hour of their recorded material, their addition to the Christmas playlist generates endless goodwill, and I hope to see them perform soon.

Sam Phillips' Cold Dark Night (e, A) — I can't imagine what an entire album's worth of Christmas material might sound like as rendered by Sam Phillips, but this year's single is a very welcome anchor to a playlist that frequently threatens to spin into the ether. But you knew that already.

Finally, my wife can't get enough of Over The Rhine's Snow Angels (e, A), a 2007 recording that finds the duo in a slightly more rambunctious mood than 1996's The Darkest Night Of The Year (which I really dug last year). When she isn't playing her seasonal standards, she alternates between this disc and the Verve Remixed Christmas (wp), both of which rest pleasantly on my ears as well.

So that's what's spicing up the Christmas Musical Broth in our house this year. If I'm missing anything, alert me now for next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Withering, Take 2

Kirkus Reviews is shutting down. I can recall tuning in to quoted reviews on the inside of paperbacks when I was about 15 or so. After a little unscientific tabulating (in my efforts to read Books That Mattered) it seemed to me that NYTBR was significant, but Kirkus was King. According to this link (via ALD) Ron Charles says, "For me, they were the last reliable source of negative reviews." Yes: and positive, too.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Whither The Withering Book Review?

As I ponder the growing pile of books fated to remain half-read by yours truly, I sometimes consider enumerating a few "reader's rules," say, or a list of tropes that, when encountered, will immediately move me to abandon a writer's work. I'd rather avoid such self-indulgence, and here is just one reason why: writers who encounter these rippers actually suffer, sometimes terribly. And where's the good in that?

I am also noticing that I'm growing less interested in the opinions of critics on a broadsheet payroll, even one that's as auspicious as the NYTBR. There is a sweaty, begrudging whiff of "I'm doing the trenchwork, here" that applies especially to fiction reviewing (witness the review in question), and makes the entire enterprise suspect.

It's been a few years since a newspaper persuaded me to buy a book, but magazines* are another story. One example: Sam Anderson's praise for The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz sent me straight to Amazon, for a book I would otherwise have given a pass.

If disinterest takes over said Brief Wondrous Life, I won't admit it here -- but I will over at goodreads. There is something about being a solo voice among the mob that frees up a little of my critical phlegm. Goodreads is also where I give my raves their first draft. If you're curious, look me up (I'm "whiskyprajer" -- natch) or drop me an e-mail.

*Although Paste's list is enough to induce the hangover of the decade.

Post-Script: oops! Forgot the link to Anderson's intriguing survey of Lit-Fic in the Aughts.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Dancing About Architecture

"Bob Dylan has been making records for 48 years, and deeply disappointing people for the last 44 of them" -- Chris Willman. Prajer's is the place to confess: did you buy Bob Dylan's Christmas album? I have not -- yet. What did you think? I have to admit, Willman is the first pundit to pique my curiosity. Stay tuned.

Am I listing yet? Ye cats! It's the end of the decade that began the third millennium. Surely I have a top ten list of . . . something, if only of moments that persuaded me the zeitgeist was blowing in a direction alien to my comprehension -- no? We shall see. In the meantime, everyone else has a top ten list of movies and albums, including, especially, the beleaguered Paste magazine. Pick it up at the newsstand, then hurry home and pour yourself a healthy dram. Take a sip every time you utter an expletive. If you refill your glass after reading the table of contents, alternate with water.

Could we designate 2010 as the year we stopped using Tom Waits as the final comparison? 2009 was the year the bastard sons of Greil Marcus universally abandoned "Dylanesque" as an adjective. (See what happens when you cut a Christmas album?) Now Tom Waits is the be-all and end-all. Here is just one peeving example, courtesy of Nate Chinen via the NYT: "Mr. [Joe] Henry wants to suggest a less phlegmatic Tom Waits." And who does Mr. Waits want to suggest? Speaking as a listener who enjoys Waits as much as he enjoys Dylan (and neither so much as he enjoys Henry) let me be the first to say, "Knock it off." Lift your head a little higher, and see if you can't find a few additional stars to steer by, why don't you?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

La Cocina de Mama, St. Catharines

Last year when our family attended a ringette tournament in St. Catherines, we resolved to try what we thought might be an independent Mexican restaurant: La Cocina de Mama. It turned out to be Colombian -- different, but still very delicious, cuisine.

More than that, however, we were made to feel like welcome guests. The owner asked us our preferences, and explained the nature of the Colombian kitchen. We sampled all sorts of food before settling on our chosen menu. And the conversation was as nourishing as the meal.

I don't know what percentage of St. Catharine's population comes from Colombia, but they all seem to frequent La Cocina. As we sat there on a Saturday morning, the door never stayed closed for long. "Everyone who walks in here has a smile on their face," I said to my wife.

She agreed. "They come in with open faces," she said.

One year later my daughters still talk about La Cocina de Mama. Strangers in a strange town couldn't do any better than spending an hour or two in "Mama's Kitchen."

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Would-Be Lego Gate-Crasher

My condolences to those U.S. American readers who must endure Black Friday. Although I've occasionally queued up on opening night for a movie, gate-crashing a Wal-Mart — or Apple store — has never appealed to me. Being mildly agoraphobic has its advantages.

Mind you, if your local Lego outlet is putting these beauties on a Black Friday sale, I could see why the irrationality of the crowd might take hold:

Does Lego's Falling Water have a better insulation rating than the real thing?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"A Man's Work"

Yesterday was a banner day for finishing crucial jobs around the house. I saved the biggest job — the seasonal tire swap — for the last, not realizing just how big a job this was going to be. I'm not a gear-head; I don't have much by way of tools, and what I do have is a cheap hodge-podge scattered around the house. But so long as the tires are mounted on rims, the business of swapping and/or rotating them isn't complicated. A fitting job for a man of my abilities.

I retrieved the car jack and the lug-wrench from the trunk (the spare tire kit is one item that remains exactly where it's supposed to be), and started at the front-right side of the car. I'd chalked the tires in spring, when I'd last swapped them, so once I removed the summer tire I mounted the rear-left winter tire in its place. I was surprised by just how low the pressure in the winter tires had become over the last eight months, but no problem: I figured my trusty bicycle pump would work just as well on a car tire.

It works, alright. But it takes much, much longer to fill a car tire to 35 PSI than it takes to fill a bicycle tire to 75 PSI. After the first tire I was huffing and puffing so hard I wondered if I couldn't inflate it faster with my lungs. Remembering my grandfathers' stories of WWII deprivation and improvisation, I figured the least I could do was finish the job, so after a short rest I soldiered on.

I've pulled this mule-headed sort of stunt before. Some years ago when our largest maple split, I asked the tree removal guys to leave the wood behind for our wood-stove. They shrugged and obliged, and I had a heap of wood spread over our front yard. I moved most of the smaller stuff to the back, but left the enormous pieces where they were. It cured through the winter, then when the snow melted I considered the job ahead and took stock of my options. I figured I could rent a chainsaw and a wood-splitter for a weekend of very hard work. Or I could buy a bow saw, a sledge-hammer and a maul, and finish the job at my own rate. One quick purchase at the local hardware store, and I was ready to go.

It took me the better part of four months to get the wood cut, split and stacked. And although this tree seemed to have been designed for my personal frustration (no neat rings inside this maple: it had twisted so much over the years that splitting the wood was a fibrous struggle, with no end of “hinges”) my biggest motivation-killer was stage-fright. I was a local spectacle, apparently. Cars would slow so their occupants could watch; pedestrians stopped and asked why I didn't just get me a chainsaw.

The modern agrarian mindset is “Get 'er done”: use the most work-efficient means to finish a given job so you can move to the next task at hand. Since this approach almost always requires an internal combustion engine, my sawing and hammering didn't just look quaint or eccentric: it smelled a bit of self-indulgence. Ah, but when has anything I've done ever been free of that particular taint?

With the thought of my male forebears in mind, I picked up my tools and went to work. And I have to admit, where self-indulgence is concerned, this particular expression of it worked out quite well. We had nearly two winters' worth of fuel for our stove. And after wasting my youth in the pursuit of a muscular physique, I discovered that nothing packs it on like swinging an eight-pound sledge for 20-to-40 minutes at a time, four days a week.

So too with my ridiculous tire pump. Four tires later, my arms and chest and shoulders were similarly inflated. As for the rest of my bod, my back had developed an unfortunate spasm — or “crick” as my grandfathers would say. If there's anything sexy about the spectacle of a wheezing 45-year-old man stooped-over and limping back to his kitchen, I'm ready to hear it.

He spent the afternoon in an old pair of army pants and a torn shirt, working on his stone path. The idea was to lay a long curving walk from the front door to the road, to divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen. It had seemed simple enough last weekend, when he'd started it, but now as the ground sloped off more sharply he found that flat stones wouldn't work. He had to make steps, of stones nearly as thick as they were wide, stones that had to be dislodged from the steep woods behind the house and carried on tottering legs around to the front lawn. And he had to dig a pit for each step, in ground so rocky that it took ten minutes to get a foot below the surface. It was turning into mindless, unrewarding work, the kind of work that makes you clumsy with fatigue and petulant with lack of progress, and it looked as if it would take all summer.

Even so, once the first puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sweat of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was a man's work.

That's from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and it came quite naturally to my mind. It's one of so many passages that gets me chortling. Frank Wheeler is such a tool. He's constantly fussing over his masculinity: his stated goal is to “divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen” — the woman's place in the house. To achieve this he literally needs “stones” — a metaphor which Yates, as a former army man, is at the very least unconsciously using for its value as a pun. Stones are Frank's burden and his greatest obstacle to overcome, but in the short term he is pleased to be doing “a man's work” for a change. As this passages emphasizes, the guy has stones everywhere but where it counts.

Like I say: funny. Right?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

James Wood On The Novels Of Paul Auster

Uh-oh. For what it's worth, I think Wood is just about right on the money. However, for some readers (including, at one point, me) Auster's plain-faced sincerity (which Wood finds banal with clichés) is quite charming.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Led Zeppelin IV, A 33 1/3 Book By Erik Davis (With Just A Dash Of Star Trek Thrown In)

Back at the Wilshire Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3,” he says, “I hope I can disappear . . .”
— Lou Reed, "Dirty Boulevard"

“Rock and roll owes its life to the power of the commodity fetish”
— Erik Davis

When I was 12 or 13 it wasn’t uncommon for me to pick up a magazine devoted to Star Trek and spend the better part of an evening simply staring at the pictures. I also bought the comic books, and pored over the newsprint until the books fell apart at the staples. Once, I even saved up money for a model kit that featured the tricorder, communicator and phaser. When I finally got it home, it proved to be far and away the crappiest model kit I’d ever purchased. I’d had snap-together kits that were more challenging — and better looking.

The dodgy comics and models could have served as a wake-up call. Instead, as I grew older the market provided ever more sophisticated items for me and my similarly smitten friends to purchase and ponder. I had a buddy who favored the blueprints and technical manuals. I preferred the photonovels — cut-and-paste comic books made from prints of actual episodes. Someone’s kid brother bought the wonky action figures, similar enough to the execution of my models that we held up them up to braying ridicule.

We gave the entire pantheon our critical consideration. When all was said and done, these items all served as a means to the same impossible end: to get us closer to The Thing Itself. Like the kid who opens Goodnight Moon to his favorite page, then sets it on the floor and stands on it, that wacky juror who walks into court in her Starfleet uniform just wants to be inside Star Trek. *Sigh*: c’est moi, mes amis. C’est moi.

Until I read Erik Davis’s inspired 33 1/3 meditation (A) on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (IV, ZOSO, what-have-you) it had never occurred to me to dub this sort of longing as “spiritual.” It certainly wasn’t sexual. Although, mind you, Uhura or Yeoman Rand in a red mini and black leather boots were admittedly stirring figures. As was Yvonne Craig, painted green and dancing sinuously in a few scraps of fabric. Then there was that robot girl with the bright, uh, eyes . . .

Alright, so it was sexual. But that wasn’t the whole of it, not by a long shot. There was the technology, the exotic environment, the bonhomie, the adventures and their physicality, the cogent possibility of experiencing genuine fulfillment at the end of a given challenge — a large, engulfing sensibility that was akin to true life, and yet Something Other than actual experience.

So too with Zep’s fourth album. As Davis makes abundantly clear, you can click over to iTunes and download the songs, but listening to those music files through a pair of earbuds doesn’t even begin to evoke the experience of that album’s power in its particular time and place. The music is about noise and sex, sure. But there was a time when the gatefold art, the mysterious symbols, the off-puttingly ambiguous lyrics — even the vinyl itself — combined to conjure an experience that wasn’t just provocative, or even evocative. To paraphrase Coppola’s early enthusiasm for Apocalypse Now, this album wasn't a rock 'n' roll album. This album was rock 'n' roll.

I find Davis’s treatment of the subject matter delightfully adept. He’s quick to identify and brush away the manifold silliness that accompanied (and was frequently generated by) the band and the album. But he’s also fundamentally serious about the group and the musing (and muses) that produced this deeply appealing and inescapable monument of Rock. He performs a fabulous balancing act between critical thought — that post-spiritual apple that finally removed me from my Trekkie Eden — and a suitable receptivity to the possible.

Now that I've finished the book, I want more. I want the LP, I want to read Davis' other work, I want to re-read this book, I want Davis to write a sequel, I want . . . I want!

Wait a sec: how'd I wind up back in the Garden?

Post-script: if this is a little too much
Trek for you, blame it on Joel.

Another Family "Star Trek" Discussion

Me: Girls, we've gone and seen the movie four times. Surely we don't need the DVD?

Daughter 1: Dad. Wait: are you kidding?

Daughter 2:
Bonus material, Dad. Bonus material.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

The “novel of ideas” is highly feted by the smarty-pants set, but I’ve usually had trouble finishing one. Those few that I’ve read to completion fall considerably short of my “desert island” list. Paul Auster, whose Moon Palace still resides near the top of said list, failed to impress me with his New York Trilogy (A) — City Of Glass was, I thought, especially tedious and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, since I was still young and passionate enough to collect the complete works of a beloved author, I picked up David Mazzucchelli's adaptation of City (A).

This seemed a curious pairing of talents: prior to this I only knew Mazzucchelli as the artist who fleshed out Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (A).

In retrospect, the pairing of Miller to Mazzucchelli was no less unusual. Miller’s aesthetic, while certainly the product of a virtuoso, remains resolutely moored to muscular guys/curvaceous babes. Where Miller habitually defies gravity, Mazzucchelli brought a sagging realism. Batman might be a superhero, but his outfit was a little baggy in spots; Commissioner Gordon had posture troubles, and Gotham seemed choked with grit and litter.

With City Of Glass, Mazzucchelli was relieved of industry parameters and the generic expectations of an adolescent, predominantly male, readership. This proved to provide a very a fertile canvas for Mazzucchelli. To my delight, the characters that had read as aloof abstractions in Auster’s hands were now transformed into emotionally compelling people.

Surprise, surprise: comic book artists can breathe life into the arid Novel Of Ideas.

This preamble is just about as much as I care to say about Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp (A). There are any number of dazzling abstractions set off with pyrotechnic flair in the course of this story — consider the panel below, where Asterios meets Hana, the love of his life:

The setting is a gallery party, populated by various fledgling artists. As Hana sits in solitude, feeling self-conscious and inferior, the others, including Asterios, mill about in their perfectly realized modalities. Once he starts talking to her, however, their own modalities merge to the point of nearly fleshing out — a gorgeous evocation of falling in love.

The rest of the novel's abundant pleasures should remain unspoiled for the new reader. It is fun, it is moving, and it begs to be read again and again: Asterios Polyp is a profound, emotionally resonant graphic novel — of ideas — that has landed on my desert island list.

this person is especially fond of what Mazzucchelli did with Batman.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feasting On Bonbons: Katherine Penfold, Jesse Palter & The Alter Ego

Katherine Penfold's Journals came recommended to me by her guitarist, a guy I've known for almost 30 years. I don't often hear from him, but when I do I make a point of listening. His ear is attuned not just to the “wow” factor, but to depth as well. And Katherine Penfold has both, in spades.

Penfold's métier is pop, as the CD cover for “Journals” evinces: she's pictured leafing through milk-crates of vinyl, while the sleeves of unnamed crooners lie on the floor beside her. She smiles, and seems ready to stand up and move. This is her aural moment, and she grasps it with confidence and aplomb.

Journals pointedly hearkens back to modes that are familiar and easy on the ear, and although its production isn't credited* I was wowed not just by its surface sheen but by the manifold layers beneath it. But it is Penfold's voice that takes command: she shifts easily from the misted-asphalt stylings of Avril Lavigne to the deep R&B of Lisa Stansfield, using emotional heft, vulnerability and a sense of play to hook and hold the listener from beginning to end. This album doesn't just go down easily, it stirs corners of the heart I thought were the exclusive province of a younger man.

The curious are encouraged to start with “Ain't No Good” and “What A Heart” (married tracks on the disc), then follow that up with the sassy “Please Forgive Me.” But really, if you're already at iTunes it's worth your nickel to hit “Download Album,” just to give the girl some incentive to get her next collection together. If Journals is any indication, Penfold's considerable range as a singer has only begun to be explored. Available at Katherine's website, and iTunes.

*Juno Award winner Jordan Jackiew engineered, produced, mixed and mastered — and played the keys for — Journals, I am told.

And since I'm already dishing on pop confections: be sure to check out Jesse Palter & The Alter Ego's “Limited Edition EP” (at their website or iTunes). Palter is a remarked-upon performer in the Detroit/NYC/Chicago jazz scene, shifting gears (for the moment?) to ride Sam Barsh's sensibility of what pop ought to sound like. Jim DeRogatis says, “Lady Gaga, watch out!” but I'm reminded of a younger Mary Margaret O'Hare — which (if you don't know it) is very high praise.

Monday, November 09, 2009

"Wall? What Wall?"

As my wife and I pointedly reminisce about the events of 20 years ago, our children look at us with expressions of dim comprehension. My 12-year-old can no more envision a modern city divided by a wall than I, as a 12-year-old, could envision that wall ever coming down. The temptation is to impart all sorts of "lessons" during this moment, but where does one even begin?

So far the only summary we can muster is, the world is in a constant state of flux, often moving in ways we can't even begin to predict. So many changes are violent and lamentable, but there are also momentous changes that are welcome, and to be celebrated. Here's hoping our children live to see -- and generate -- more of the latter.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed By Stephen Brunt

For Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed (A) Stephen Brunt takes a wide brush and paints the personalities that cooked up the NHL's most momentous (and expensive) trade deal. Subtlety isn't necessary: most of these guys were loud-mouthed fat-heads who kept an eye out for the biggest cash cow on the horizon, with a complete disregard for the health of the corporation, never mind the sport. The only quiet ones who kept their cards close to their chests were Wayne and Walter Gretzky, who, in Brunt's account, come to embody the best and the worst of Canadian enterprise. Brunt doesn't just argue that Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles paved the way for Gary Bettman's disastrous expansion of the league, he suggests that Wayne Gretzky's best interests (and no-one guards those interests like father and son) have lead to inevitable catastrophe for the league.

Although I've followed Brunt as a columnist, I hadn't yet read any of his books. As a columnist his prose is measured and to the point; as a book writer, he likes to turn up the heat, and not always to good effect. Also, the concluding chapter outlining the forehead-smacking deal Phoenix made to hire "The Great One" as coach is clearly rushed. The recent Bettman vs. Balsillie dust-up is only touched upon (in interviews Brunt admits he could have devoted an entire book to this), but we don't need a book to tell us who the obvious losers are: the Phoenix tax-payers, the National Hockey League, and the fans. As for Bettman, he may regard the Balsillie shut-out as a personal victory, but with the southern franchises hemorrhaging money faster than the Fed, Bettman's day of reckoning is most certainly coming down the pike.

So, are there any winners? Only one: Wayne Gretzky, by an enormous bank account.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dogtown & Z-Boys

The familiar whack and clatter of kids on skateboards is a racket I make every effort to ignore. I figure he (not too many girls on boards — although that is changing, thank God) is out-of-doors, engaging in physical activity, possibly testing a few personal limits. If it's a choice between slouching in front of the family television immersed in the latest military industrial virtual reality or spending an hour skateboarding, well . . . let 'im skate.

My patience, however, is severely tested whenever I rouse myself to actually witness the proceedings. So much work, so much clattering failure (“WHACK!! Bah-TACK-a-tah!”), all in pursuit of such a paltry and banal skill-set. And when the hell did boards get so damn noisy?! When I was a kid skateboards were quiet. Everything was made of polyurethane. The wheels were fat — I'm talking three, four inches wide — and absorbed road hum into near silence. If you wiped out, the only sound you heard was the cracking of your clavicle, followed by snippets of your mother's tirade as she drove you to emergency.

Whatever happened to fat wheels and poly-boards? I remember them as being perilously fast. Is “fast” no longer a desirable quality in skateboards? Perhaps wooden boards with tiny wheels are faster, but I couldn't say. I've done a little internet searching and have yet to turn up a satisfactory answer to any of my questions.

I have, however, watched Dogtown & Z-Boys (A) the skateboarding documentary by Stacy Peralta. It's an engaging look backward at the scene that generated the current scene: a surprisingly decrepit portion of California coastline that stretched from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier. As dangerous as the wreckage-strewn shoreline was, the punks who surfed there were still game to beat up any noob foolish enough to venture into the water. When the water calmed down for the afternoon, the punks moved inland and applied surfing skills to their skateboards.

The movie was a full-immersion flashback for me. The mid-70s water drought that emptied pools in California extended to Colorado as well. In '77 there was a small fountain gone dry behind the Iliff School of Theology. A group of skateboarders laid claim to it. These guys could spend the day rolling up and down its walls, adroitly flipping their boards at the rim. It never occurred to me, even after I'd witnessed surfing first-hand, that these moves were imported directly from a point break west of the Santa Monica Pier.

The Denver skaters were ten-cent imitators of the Z-Boys, whose style really is breathtaking to behold. Peralta charts the development of this style, the athleticism and the adolescent transgressive urge integral to its thrill. When the Z-Boys finally emerged from the ruined swimming pools of Del Mar to compete in public events, their élan (as photographed by Craig Stecyk) took hold of the public imagination. Suddenly the fringe skateboarding scene exploded, then morphed into the “sk8ter culture” which surrounds us today.

There was one aspect of the Z-Boys that the Denver skaters had down: they were narcissistic jerks. They craved an audience, if only to enlarge their enfilade of contempt. My purple dress socks and discount sneakers were ripe for their derision, but they saved their choicest torments for the Texan kid who lived down the hall from us. The poor guy was too young to shake the accent or control his temper; the bruises and bloody noses were inevitable. No doubt these middle-class pugilists, with their uniformly innocuous accent, pricey decks, Vans and knee-high tube socks, felt, as did the Z-Boys, like “outsiders” but there were beat-up kids on the periphery of their spectacular clique who would have begged to differ.

The footage of this 90-minute movie is worth about 60 minutes, but is sensational enough to entertain and provoke further thought. I was reminded of another California fringe that erupted into a near-global scene that finally bore only traces of its origins: the Beats. Then it occurred to me that this cycle of self-aware-poverty-turned-style-turned-global-commercial-product is a uniquely American trajectory. You can lament it, or you can celebrate it — anyone over 17 certainly ought to deconstruct it.

Or, if you're like me, you can also take a deep breath and simply make a mental note of it, while the kid beneath your office window dogs on with his artless racket.

Post-script: D&ZB has a terrific soundtrack. You won't find it for sale, but any white North American male in his mid-40s already has most of the music in his library. If you want a dandy two-hour playlist for your next trip into the city, go here. Hook up your portable player and arrange these songs in any order you choose, or just hit “random.” Then sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Turning The Page"

Noah Richler, via The Walrus, does a tidy job of measuring the sea change occurring among publishers, book stores and readers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you live in this neck of the woods you owe it to yourself to check out A Midsummer Night's Dream, as presented by the Borelians at Port Perry's Town Hall Theatre. I've attended twice, with children, and we all burst out in belly laughs in the course of the play.

The play has been tautly edited and the cast directed to deliver a punchy two hours' worth of entertainment. Watching this cast at work I was reminded of just what a revelation Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and later Hamlet, had been. Making plain sense of Shakespeare's language and resurrecting it for a modern audience is a gift that keeps on giving, soul food that sticks to the ribs -- and the Borelians deliver the whole delicious dish with lusty panache. This is ribald entertainment first and foremost, formed by a penetrating intelligence that one can savor on the ride home.

A Midsummer Night's Dream will be performed for the next three nights, as well as a matinee on Saturday afternoon. Go. And don't be shy about whistling when Titania (my lovely wife) takes a bow. Links: Borelians Community Theatre.

The Flaming Lips Embryonic

If you like The Flaming Lips you already own Embryonic. And if you luuuuuuuuuv The Flaming Lips, then you already own the Deluxe Limited Edition, a reprise of an older Lips' stunt that requires the listener to coordinate and play multiple discs simultaneously on two different systems, to dig the full trippiness of the music. If you don't like the Lips, nothing on this new album is going to change your mind.

I, for one, like the Lips, and am baffled by the kvetchers in this group. Some are noting a return to "experimentation," which brings to mind John Gardner's quip that a work is only called "experimental" when it fails. I don't see that here -- or rather, "I don't hear that, see." Very early Lips is experimental, while Embryonic falls solidly into their later "The Punks Have Taken Over The Decrepit Planetarium" phase. If you must call Embryonic "experimental" I must protest that it's been tightly controlled to produce a desired effect: an aural consideration of how we collectively attempt to get a grip on how/why our species can be so incredibly evil.

Finally, if somehow you are new to The Flaming Lips, Embryonic is as good a place to start as Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. And if, like me, you are late and catching up to their crazy scene, you should check out this back issue of Stop Smiling for Jim DeRogatis' entertaining history of The Flaming Lips.

Post-Script: Oy, my aging brain. I couldn't recall why DeRogatis' name seemed so familiar, until I checked his website. Of course! DeRogatis wrote the definitive biography of Lester Bangs. Not only is it a very good book about Bangs, it is also an exceptional account of the 60s and 70s rock 'n' roll scene. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I was frequently bummed that the generation before mine got to have the most fun the first. Let It Blurt was the first book to leave me with the distinct impression that I was lucky I showed up later.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Night Before I Bought Hockey Gloves

We conclude our ringette practices with a fifteen minute scrimmage, usually with me — the hapless assistant coach — standing in net and blocking shots with my unprotected body. I don't have a goalie stick, so I'm often trying to spear the ring and fire it out of my crease. The other night a girl smacked my right hand with her stick, smartly hitting the top knuckle of my thumb. I howled.

She stopped and looked up at me. "It's your fault, you know."

I stared at her, blearily focusing through her helmet cage on a pair of blue eyes and an unmistakable smirk. She spun away and returned to the game. As I tried to massage life back into my wounded hand, I thought, I do believe I see a future paved with the broken hearts of idiot boys.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Groening = Disney?

Something I gleaned early from this experience is that Hollywood publicists are so used to journalists kowtowing to their every request that they no longer understand what journalism actually is. We’re talking about cartoon characters here, not Watergate -- John Ortved on the challenges of compiling an unauthorized history of The Simpsons: here, via bookforum.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Little Prog On The DVP

Somehow, the geniuses responsible for Toronto's Don Valley Parkway engineered it with an appreciation for night drivers and their car stereos. In the 80s my Bible School buddies would wax rhapsodic, recounting late night drives beneath the yellow bar-lights of the DVP while listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. Fifteen years later when I finally had a car of my own, I had to agree: no matter what was in the tape-deck, a midnight cruise on the DVP made it, in every sense of the word, a transporting experience.

It seems particularly well suited for prog rock, or anything with a spacey album concept. I haven't yet taken the new Flaming Lips album for a DVP spin, but I can certainly vouch for Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. I listened to the new Sunset Rubdown on an afternoon drive up the DVP, and liked it well enough, but I might have been completely blown away if I'd only waited a few more hours. In contrast The Resistance by Muse (A) has sunk pleasantly into my DNA thanks to the hypnotic effect of passing beneath those lights in a state of mild sleep deprivation at 120 kph.

Even without the ride, The Resistance is a great concept album. Proggy, but not esoteric, Muse muses in a Queen-Meets-Depeche-Mode manner, wholly adopting the “We Take Our Fun Seriously” approach that worked so well for their heroes. After a summer of scratching my head over the critical lauds for Sunn O))) and Dirty Projectors, I couldn't help but be blown away by the common appeal to Muse's infectious tunesmithing.

Of course, my own resistance was somewhat vulnerable after my daughters discovered Styx. When the younger asked me to add Styx to her DSi, I had to stifle a snicker. Then I remembered how Styx became, in fact, “the greatest band ever” after I heard “Renegade.” I had just turned 13.

Styx retained much of their appeal through most of my teens, but by the time they released Kilroy Was Here (A) even I was wincing. At some point in my adulthood Styx's greatest hits must have presented itself at a price I couldn't refuse, because the girls found Come Sail Away (A) in my CD stacks.

As I pored through the tracks with my daughter, I realized my ears were no longer quite so Styx-averse. I thought the early material had ambition and drive, even as it often lacked focus. In fact the titular song seemed to embody both the best and the worst of Styx: “Come Sail Away” is passionate, lush and earnest nonsense.

The tracks my daughter wanted, however, were from the Paradise Theater segment. Paradise was an album I initially admired for its grandiose packaging. Portrayed on the front of the jacket is Chicago's Paradise Theater in its original glory; its later crumbling facade is on the rear. The songs were purportedly written with a unifying theme of glorious promise and inevitable decay. The vinyl itself was laser-etched with the Paradise marquee, which could only be seen when you held the record to the light. Throw in some nefarious backmasking and this was clearly the pop music equivalent of an anarchist's bomb.

Or not. My daughter requested “Rockin' the Paradise,” but even she is prone to mocking its flourishes (the over-heated piano glissando, the “whatcha doin', whatcha doin'?” chorus). Many of the songs seem forced into the thematic mold, and none moreso than the album's conclusion: “The Best Of Times” (“are when I'm alone with you”). On the other hand, I've yet to hear an ode to cocaine that doesn't induce a “There but for the Grace of God” shiver, which “Snowblind” certainly delivers. And “Too Much Time On My Hands” is just plain solid: the ticking clock motif, the feverish delusions of grandeur, the self-laceration and impotence. Throw in a meaty guitar solo and I have to admit: this song just plain rocks.

Not that I've got Paradise Theater, or any other Styx, cued up for my next late-night ride out to Toronto — that slot is reserved for Embryonic (A). But now I'm wondering: are there routes through other cities with a similarly narcotic effect on the driver? And is there any way a band could reserve this route for their harsher critics?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Generation A by Douglas Coupland: A Reaction, NOT A Review

Generation A mirrors 1991's Generation X.” It says so, right there on the back jacket. I read that and figured if Douglas Coupland was returning, in some measure, to the book that inflated him into what he is now, I was keen to read the by-product (A).

I don't usually mark up my books, but three pages into Generation A I felt compelled to take the lid off my Roller-Ball and write, neatly, in the margin: “How can a guy who is almost 50 years old write a book populated by characters so fastidiously stuck in their single 20s?”

I was off to a bad start, but for the first time in years I forced myself to keep going with a book I wasn't enjoying. Unfortunately my mood only got worse.

The proper thing to do is review the book that was written, and not the book I wish was written. But man-oh-man: do I ever wish this was a different book. I picked up Gen A wondering what had happened to those characters I related so strongly to in 1992. Did they finally plug in? Were any of them in a family way? Were they maybe not quite so nervous, smart and medicated? How had they (or characters similar to them) navigated the last 18 years? Now that they, in all likelihood, had the mortgages (etc.) that eluded them in '91, what did they think of their prospects? Let's call this fictional exercise "Coupland channels Updike" — wouldn't that be cool?

That's not the book I've got. And I'm realizing, as I finally put this novel to rest, that I'm at a point where I very much prefer Coupland's interviews and non-fiction to his fiction. He's a clever guy, frequently witty and prescient. But his fiction just ain't working for me anymore.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Humbert Humbert. Now More Than Ever

It has been years since I last re-read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in its entirety. It became a task, and a difficult one, after my first daughter was born. But sometimes there are good reasons to undertake difficult reading, and here D.G. Meyers presents the most compelling argument on behalf of Nabokov and Lolita I've encountered to date.

I came to it via OGIC, who links to DGM's "Meet Humbert Polanski".

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Monty Python's Flying Circus: What Happened To The Love?

McNally-Robinson in Winnipeg was selling the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus box o' DVDs for a criminally low price, so I went ahead and passed them the plastic (here's the Amazon listing, for a great deal more than I paid). Once we arrived home we unpacked the box and started watching.

I've had some second thoughts about the purchase. First of all, it's not as funny as I remembered. It's not like I'm stone-faced while watching: I'm usually smiling, and every once in a while something catches me off-guard and gets me giggling. But there are plenty of sketches which, frankly, are complete duds. I'd forgotten those, and for good reason.

Then there are all those sketches I hadn't forgotten, because for the past three decades I couldn't join a movie queue that didn't contain at least one person who felt obliged to mount a solo Spamalot performance. Words cannot describe my relief when The Kids In The Hall finally gained the higher hipster cred ("Lopez!").

Finally, there's the issue of the effect these jokers have on my daughters -- specifically, on their accents. Even a doting daddy-o gets weary when his girls insist on calling, "Faaw-thaah?" Of course, it could be so much worse: it could be, like, those two hosers with the toques, eh?

We Pause For Blogular Identification

Where, in the instructions, does it say parenting is actually gets busier as the children get older and increasingly self-directed? That seems to be the chapter I glossed over.

I believe it was Sloan Wilson who talked about "the tired 30s," but it's Whisky Prajer who's talking about the verge-of-exhaustion 40s. There are shifts in perspective that occur during this particular decade, and I have every good intention of exploring a few of them. Just one example: guess who agreed to being assistant coach of his daughter's ringette team? That's right: this guy.

I just need a few minutes of alone-time with my keyboard. Until that happens, things could remain a little "lite" around here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lit-Links, & Other Distractions

I am currently reading Douglas Coupland's latest novel: Generation A. For the last 10 years or so I've made it a policy to hold off on buying Coupland's novels until they hit the remainder bin. Unfortunately, the effect of reading a Coupland novel two years after it's been published is somewhat akin to feasting on a Jif & Welch's sandwich made from week-old Wonder Bread: it's just a little off. Last week I was perusing the stacks at Book City. Since I was in a beloved independent, and since Coupland's title was fresh off the press, I figured the right thing to do was drop the money and take home the book. But now The Guardian Book Club has me wondering if I shouldn't be (re)reading his first novel. Ah, the irony!


I could be wrong, but it sounds to me like P.J. O'Rourke is still bitter he missed out on all that muddy fun.


Oooooh, brother: not this -- again.


This, on the other hand, merits further discussion. My parents, who now rank among David's most devoted fans, seem to have completely forgotten their originally peeved reaction to his acerbic comedic stylings back in 1987. Ah, the irony.


Late addition: "Non-traumatizing Canadian fiction does exist. No, really, it does. And we want to prove it to you" -- Introducing The Workhorsery.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reconvening With The Monks Of Fall

I'm 24 hours away from enjoying another two-and-a-half days of this:

Depending who you talk to, this is either our 21st or 22nd gathering. There was at least one year when I called in sick, so I consider this #20. As for the others, my memory of it all has mashed-up and reassembled itself like a large plate of particularly runny scrambled eggs -- washed down with a tumbler of single-malt scotch, of course. I'm bringing a bottle of 15-year-old Oban. I had a wee slurp of it the other night, and now I'm wishing I'd reached for the Talisker next to it, instead. Oh well: it's sure to grow on someone, if not me.

For the last three years I've lobbied with increasing insistence for a change of locale, with an emphasis on Montreal as an attractive possibility (one of our members has his own table at a particularly fine restaurant). The group e-mails go back and forth, and gradually the chorus for change begins to gel. Then someone mentions this damn bridge, and all bets are completely off.

This year the cabin is up for sale. Since no-one in our company has, as of this posting, offered to buy, we might very well be re-locating next year. After 20 years I refuse to believe it until I finally sink my teeth into that "tic-tac" steak (avec frites, of course).

I've finished bitching about it. The truth is I'm eagerly anticipating the weekend. The bridge is a marvelous place to sit and talk. It's a marvelous place to just sit. And, weather permitting, it's not a bad place to sleep, either.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lego Conquers All

Further proof, as if any were needed, that there isn't a video game engine/concept that can't be improved by LEGO.

Yes, that's Iggy Pop you're looking at. I very much doubt we'll hear his wife or band-mates whining about his appearance. In fact, I'd like Lego to have a go at my appearance!

Not only that, I'd like Lego to have a go at every other successful video franchise. Halo, Bio-Shock and Fallout* -- they could all stand the Lego treatment in a big, big way.

*Grand Theft Auto was not included in this list because there's no improving on it after The Simpsons Hit & Run (wp).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Addition To My Double's Playlist

If we all must have a doppelgänger, then I hope mine is 17 years old. I hope he’s pedaling his bicycle through the maze of suburbia to get to his local library, where he wants to live like some nerdy kind of orphan. And I hope he’s listening to Dragonslayer, by Sunset Rubdown (e). The bombastic three-penny-opera posing, the art-haus ambition that wavers somewhere between Ziggy Stardust and Men Without Hats, and — good lord! — the noise. My 17-year-old double would eat it up.

As for my 44-year-old self, he’s having more fun discovering the early jazz recordings of Andre Previn. Like Previn! (e) and Duet (A) with Doris Day are a delicious introduction to this man’s incomparable piano chops. I think it’s remarkable he segued from the jazz scene into the world of classical music and became an unmistakable entity in both. If he ever took a stab at public explication (a la Yo-Yo Ma), I’d sit down for it without hesitation. (Thanks for the intro, Che!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Backpacker Classics

Bookride compiles a list of "Backpacker Classics": those books which find their way to the top of the pack, where they can be quickly retrieved for the purposes of edification, staving off boredom and impressing that cute blond wearing glasses and woolen socks (which are almost certainly hiding the fact that she left her razor stateside).

My backpack is over 20 years old, and nearly as good as new because I didn't use it all that often. However, at one time or another it did provide shelter for Gravity's Rainbow, Perfume and Lonesome Dove. That's about it, really.

My wife, on the other hand, continues to load her backpack for exotic locales. The works of Tony Parsons have kept her pleasant company, and for backpackers heading out to Africa she recommends Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo (A).

And your backpack?

Via Boing-Boing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Whisky Prajer's Musical Round-Up: End Of Summer '09

So here we are, one year later, and the consensus (aka, “Conventional Wisdom”) among us casual observers is not only are we still in a mess of trouble, but we’re probably on the brink of something a whole lot worse. Since there aren’t many sources of comfort to be had in an environment such as this, the value of good music should not be undersold. And this has been a summer of very remarkable music.

First up is The Excitement Plan by Todd Snider (e), which quickly usurped my predicted “summer disc.” Snider’s charm lies in his wry and whimsical delivery. As he tallies up several lifetimes worth of regret, his tone is enough to suggest some way forward out of the mess he’s made for himself. It might not be much — in fact, that “tone” might be all he has — but it might also be just enough for today. Speaking as a listener who preferred the younger Lyle Lovett to what's currently available, I found a great deal to enjoy in Snider’s new disc.

Snider is also devoted to lyrical craftsmanship, which, it seems to me, is a discipline sorely missing in the current download deluge. I'm also finding that the older I get, the less patience I have for shite lyrics. Readers with a seasoned ear will notice my silence on some of the splashier acts of the day. This summer the act to tune in to was Dirty Projectors, a favorite of David Byrne. Wow, do I ever not get that band. Even Byrne can't put his finger on what he likes about them, but like them he does. His involvement was enough to commit me to Bitte Orca (A).

Bitte Orca might just be the most important disc you’ll hear this year — or not. As for me, I’ve yet to manage sitting through it a second time. The songs all sound like they’re on the verge of meaning something, but I couldn’t hazard a guess just what that something might be. Besides, I get the feeling if I tried, I’d be the butt of some scrawny hipster’s derisive laughter. No thanks.

I’ve got nothing but love, however, for the latest David Byrne & Brian Eno project, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (A). Given Byrne’s typically stream-of-subconscious lyric writin’, I’d say the songs are on the verge of dissolving into nonsense. The tonal delivery, of course, is there to sell the project. Since these two jokers reached me back when I was still young and impressionable, they had little trouble persuading me of their ability to strike the necessary balance between mischief and sincerity. Everything quickly became the sing-along disc of the summer.

Not that I was in much of a mood for singing. Most of what I listened to was jazz, which is usually a form that keeps me silent and gets me meditating. The most pleasantly arcane album was probably last year’s Moonshine by Dave Douglas & Keystone (e). It swings from straight-ahead Cool, to trippy Mushroom beats, to . . . well, I do believe that “Kitten” could actually qualify as Metal. I liked all of it, and as soon as I’ve got some spare change, I’ll be looking into Douglas’ more recent Spirit Moves (A).

Kind of Brown by Christian McBride & Inside Straight (e) continues to get play in the house. I’m not sure why McBride chose to invite comparison to Miles Davis’s monumental work, unless it was to play with expectations or gently tweak the easily offended pieties of the jazz collector. Brown isn’t bringing any sort of colossal change to the jazz landscape, but it is delivering unalloyed joy in the established forms. This is an easy disc to reach for and play again and again.

It’s also worth mentioning For All I Care by The Bad Plus (e) who continue exploring the sonic possibilities in music that’s slid from “astonishing breakthrough” to Staid Entry In The Rock Songbook. I’m as prone as the next schlub to thinking there’s no point in messing with “greats” like “Lithium” or “Comfortably Numb.” So I am increasingly grateful to The Bad Plus for doing exactly that. Their combined reverence and daring-do achieve remarkable results.

Finally, Blood From Stars, by Joe Henry (A). Wow. I’m not sure I’ll be able to step around this one, even though there are days when I would very much like to. The first time I played it I thought, “Sheesh, what a downer.” The second spin proved to be considerably easier — so much so, in fact, that my response was, “What heady stuff this is!” Henry continues his Weillean march on the tightrope, defying the abyss as he explores the ambiguities that tie our giddiest thrills to our deepest regrets. For some of us, Henry is providing the definitive soundtrack to the era. I daresay we’re all united in wishing it weren’t necessarily so.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rescued From The Dollar Store: Breaking Away and Prime Cut

During one of my recent visits to the local dollar store I was surprised to discover a copy of Breaking Away in the DVD bin. In fact there were plenty of other fine titles to be had for a buck and I quickly loaded up my arms. I guess Blu Ray is making its mark (to say nothing of pay-per-view, iTunes and other less savory options).

Gathering the family and cueing up an old and very personal favorite is always a bit of a risk (Buckeroo Banzai (wp) earned me some eye-rolling and a universal, “Boy, was that ever a Dad Movie!”), but I needn’t have worried about Breaking Away. The story of four misfits who don’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve graduated from their small town high school still has appeal. It helps that the characters are holding onto traits that are essentially childish: bicycle racer Dave’s loopy insistence on speaking with an Italian accent, Moocher’s “Oh, hi! You just caught me in the middle of a bench-press set” posturing, Mike’s idolizing of the Marlboro Man (“That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.”) and Cyril’s adolescent wise-cracking (“Don’t forget your toothbrush. You’re still in your cavity-prone years.”) blend together to keep the mood pleasantly sweet.*

The movie places Dave at the center of the narrative, and takes pains to frame his particular lostness via spirited exchanges between his Mom (Barbara Barrie) and Dad (Paul Dooley). It’s an amusing set-up — most of the movie’s memorable lines come from the Dad’s Archie Bunker-like bluster (“I know I-tey food when I hear it! All them ‘eeny’ foods. Zucchini. Linguine. Fettuccini. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”). I mentally dog-eared this as stagey, if charmingly so, but didn’t register just how subtly it worked until midway through the movie, when it hit me that the parents — he with the bum ticker, and she with the looming empty nest — were just as lost as their boy and his buddies.

I had very strong memories of the climactic bicycle race, of course, but hadn’t realized that the entire final lap was a single, unbroken, immaculately choreographed shot. It’s a fitting metaphor for the entire film. This is one of those flicks where every movie-making ingredient you can name falls magically into place and conspires to make the viewer fall in love, not just with what’s on screen, but with movies, period.

*Played by Dennis Christopher, Jack Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern, respectively — all of 'em very young.


A Chicago mob boss opens a brown paper package. He shows the contents — a pile of raw wieners — to Lee Marvin. “We’ll need some boys,” says Marvin.

The wieners, as the preceding minutes have made plain, are what remains of the last collector the mob sent to Kansas City. A Cadillac limo picks up the requested boys, one of whom has to kiss his mother on the cheek before he leaves. The set-up in Prime Cut is rather bald, to say the least: these big city mobsters are taking a trip to America’s Heartland to discover just how hideously cancerous it really is.

It’s worse than I imagined. There are babes wearing nothing but hairspray and false eyelashes, arrayed fetchingly in pens bedded with fresh straw. There is an International Harvester combine that consumes a car and excretes gears and tires. And there is Gene Hackman literally feasting on the scenery while Marvin watches with convincing disbelief.

Prime Cut caromes so wildly off anything credible that it has to be viewed as violent cartoon comedy, a primitive precursor to the sorts of movies the Coen Brothers now excel at. Unfortunately its sincerity is its undoing, deflating all attempted tension even as it delivers bales of ironic pleasure. The presentation of nudity alone is worth the price of admission. It’s completely female (young, of course), completely gratuitous and completely drenched in late-60s counter-cultural attitude.

Considered within the movie’s aesthetic cultural-historical framework, it could be persuasively argued that these girls’ naked bods are used to convey any combination of the following messages: (1) “I’m naked. Get over it.”; (2) “Check it out: gorgeous naked chicks just sitting in the straw!”; (3) “Your prurient interest in these unclothed wymyn is proof that you’re every bit the male chauvinist pig that Gene Hackman is!” While I’ve always been an (admittedly distant) admirer of the first attitude, the latter two remain entwined in a way that seemingly requires Joe Francis to help our society sort out.

Plus ça change, I suppose. As a trip down memory lane to ideological carnivals of old, Prime Cut is certainly worth the spin, if not necessarily the purchase — even from a dollar store.

Amazon: Breaking Away, Prime Cut. And here is a Whisky Prajer rewind where I consider what mature sexuality might look like in the cinema. I recently re-watched Rob Roy, and I think it still holds up.