Thursday, May 31, 2012

“You gotta problem, America?!” This summer's roll-up-the-windows soundtrack

Andre Williams' most recent outing with The Sadies, Night & Day, is largely a table-clearing bellow. The press release indicates that Williams was pretty much ripped-to-the-tits recording the first portion of the album. When this bender began is open to speculation, but its conclusion unequivocally took place the day he was incarcerated. He returned to the studio a few years later, clean and sober and ready to finish.

There is certainly some buoyancy in the latter tracks that was nowhere to be found on the earlier ones. But if the uninitiated listener steers clear of the liner notes, it's anybody's guess where the turning point between belligerent rummy and wised-up 12-stepper actually takes place.

Nor does it matter. Williams is about getting the feeling right, and the words are guttural cyphers suggesting a reptilian menace lurking just beneath the placid surface of the swamp, while the glory we amphibians occasionally reach for does little more than shine a refracted light over the whole scene.

Williams stint as an early R&B man is storied. He seems to have been one of those original viewers of Superfly who rolled his eyes at what he saw, then stomped over to the record studio to lay down exactly what was what. That was a good deal more than what audiences in the 60s and 70s were asking for, but Williams survived long enough for things to come around his way. The ears of both the young and the old have grown weary of artists being pretenders to the pantheon.

Of course the flip side of bitter survival is wonderment, which Williams also gives expression to, albeit with the accompanying shadow of self-awareness. “I thank God, and a Higher Power, that I lived to see this hour,” is a pleasant sort of leaven — until it tilts deliciously back to toxic fermentation, as Williams concludes with a shrug: “I could shoot a man in five minutes.”

The Sadies and a wide assortment of R&B stalwarts take over the studio to give Williams the trippy boost his battered vocal chords and psyche need to carry the message. The YouTube samples don't have quite the same mix as what you'll hear over your speakers in the car, but go ahead and give 'em a click. Just take my word for it: the final mix was dragged through an alley full of trash, making Night & Day this year's roll-up-the-windows soundtrack.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Father(s) And Daughter, Gone “Haywire”

Steven Soderbergh's Haywire garnered early attention by putting mixed-martial-artist and fitness über-model Gina Carano in the lead, then digitally tweaking her voice so she sounded more “masculine.” It seems an odd choice to masculinize Carano, particularly in a movie which frames her entirely with men. I'm not sure I'm in alignment with this choice of Soderbergh's, but Carano herself quickly pulled me from that minor distraction. She commands attention from beginning to end.

Which is good, because Haywire's plot is another potential distraction. It's standard-issue: a special agent gets caught in a double-cross, and spends the rest of the movie tracking down and eliminating the ones responsible. This pretty much sums up the entire Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible franchise.

But Soderbergh is a canny manipulator of the tropes we've come to expect, as is his co-conspirator, writer Lem Dobbs (who also gave us The Limey). Flashbacks build a counter-story to the immediate narrative, but where clumsier fingers on the keyboard might grope for the Big Reveal, Dobbs takes the time to lightly tease out subtle and disturbing motivations beneath the reigning stereotypes.

The film's style hearkens back to the early 70s, recalling Don Siegel and William Friedkin. Back alleys, kitchens, the roadside Mom-n-Pop Diner, the dry-cleaner's — our assassin moves fluidly through these nearly-anonymous set-pieces. This is not Special Ops as high-tech glamour profession.

Speaking of fluid movement, if one of the tropes we've come to expect from the M:I movies is the Tom Cruise Sprint, here, too, Soderbergh is happy to oblige with a tweak. Carano's sprinting is natural, unfeigned athleticism. And unlike the M:I movies, here the viewer can see she's holding something back — because she has to. She doesn't want just to catch up to her prey, but to conquer him. To emphasize this point Soderbergh, in contrast to the very-much-in-vogue M:I technique of herky-jerky split-second edits, uses long tracking shots to give the viewer a sense of the natural fatigue that sets in.

Carano's fighting skills are also put to good use. She is the anti-Chan: rather than continually defying gravity, she pointedly leverages it to her advantage. Here she braces her feet against the wall to subdue a larger, male opponent.

As for emotional content, the Double-Crossed Agent plot works best when the protagonist is invested in an innocent. In Haywire the agent's emotional centre is dear old dad, played by Bill Paxton, who brings just a touch of the effeminacy that comes late in life to men of action. Pop is also former military, and he takes a quiet pride in the girl being a chip off the old block. He understands she is in mortal peril, and he reminds her to be careful, but he is finally confident in his daughter's professional judgement and competency.

As in The Limey, Dobbs artfully explores and exploits the bond between father and daughter, as she flirts with, and dispatches, a legion of lesser louts. Things naturally come to a head back at dad's house. During a scene where we might expect protagonist catharsis — a moment of moral clarity that brings the climax to a self-righteous boil — we get clarity of a different sort. The girl is, surprisingly, not the one we most closely identify with. She doles out her form of justice the way she has done throughout the film, with a cool dynamism. After all his level-headed entreaties for caution, dad watches his little girl curb-stomp her opponent, and we catch, in a flash, a father's devastating realization that his daughter has moved to an existential reality worlds away from his own.

He hugs her, attempting to console her, to console himself. But she is beyond his reach.

The rest of the movie is a tidying up of loose ends. We see now that the older men behind the botched contract had each, in their own self-deluded way, attempted to pose as a father figure for our assassin. But she is beyond their reach as well, and they will pay for this oversight with their lives.

In the movie's larger schema, theirs is the lesser toll.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Death, and the epic fantasy series

A friend, appealing to the bookseller within me, asked me if I'd recommend George R.R. Martin's Game Of Thrones series over Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time. Having read neither, my recommendation would be based on cover art — advantage: George R.R. Martin.

My friend said he asked because he was keen to read something absurdly epic, something that would take him a year or more to complete, something that would hold his attention and reward him for the effort. “Well,” I said, “Jordan's series is slated for completion this summer. Martin apparently has two more books to go. They're likely to be over 1,000 pages each, and he is a notoriously slow writer, getting slower with age. At 63 it's anybody's guess if this thing will reach a satisfactory conclusion.” Advantage: Robert Jordan.

That last advantage is critical, I think. I have no appetite for epic fantasy, but if I did, nothing would peeve me more than reading 4,197 pages of sword and sorcery, only to be denied the closure the author kinda-sorta had fixed in his mind, but couldn't get down on paper because, well, he reached an age when plans and grand literary trajectories get scuttled by the fella in the bright nightgown.

The posthumous completion of The Wheel Of Time is an interesting story, by the way. Jordan took the epic's closure very seriously — which you'd have to, if you were going to hammer out 12 phone-book sized tomes, with the intention of adding at least two more to bring the story to its end. When it became obvious his declining health would not permit him the honour, Jordan wrote the concluding paragraph and worked backwards from there. When he was too weak to write, he narrated his plans to his family, who recorded him. And when he finally died, his wife sifted through the best candidates for the work ahead, and settled on a 31-year-old Mormon missionary, who was a fan. You can read how that happened, here.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Martin shrugs off that scenario. He's 63, in apparent good health — expects to be around for two more decades, in fact — and he intends to write those damn books himself. So how far along is he?

“Not as far as I'd like. It's going to be another 1,500-page book, and I have about 200 pages done.”

Here's hoping his fans have a more religiously jaded, sexually obsessed version of Brandon Sanderson ready to fill his shoes.
George, starting at the beginning.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Country Club & Quonset Hut

“Have you heard this one?” asked my friend. We were flicking through the selections in plastic troughs, celebrating Record Store Day some days prior to the actual event. I squinted at the CD cover. John Doe & The Sadies, Country Club. “No,” I admitted. I like The Sadies, I like X — how had I missed this?

“Allow me,” said my friend.

When I finally got it up and running on the home stereo, I wished I'd reciprocated and given my friend the new Chuck Mead disc, Back At The Quonset Hut, with his Grassy Knoll Boys. Both discs capture veteran acts nailing down an Old-Timey Country set.

As Country Club played on, however, I began to wonder how Chuck Mead's material would have been received. Mead, the former front-man for BR5-49, has an ear for the foot-stompin', hand-clappin' songs that appealed to the straw hat and hankie-wearin' Friday Night crowd of the Dirty Thirties and Post-War Forties. The Quonset Hut in the title is probably a reference to one of Music Row's old studios, many of which were set up in these decommissioned military structures, but it could just as easily evoke the bedside pow-wow singalongs that off-duty WWII grunts resorted to in their barracks. Either way, Quonset Hut ably houses the cheer-inducing music that fed the spirits of blue-collar nation builders from days gone by. One hopes the music might still offer some much-needed uplift for a nation whose anxieties and social conflicts are not so far removed from the past.

So, yes: lots of Old-Timey uplift, slowed down a bit by a couple of hurtin' songs. What you won't find much of in the Quonset Hut is regret, dismay, irony or introspection — qualities more readily at hand in John Doe & The Sadies' Country Club. These bulk of these songs are also pulled from the past, albeit one not quite so distant: Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard — an era of singer-songwriters more closely associated with Khe Sanh and Nixon than to Normandy and Roosevelt.

The subjects in these songs all seem to be nursing hangovers and waking up beside people they're not married to — perfect material for the nicotine-cured voice of John Doe, in other words. It probably won't shock anyone if I admit this sort of thing has an easier time getting past my defences and resting close to my heart.

Any way you look at it, neither Chuck nor John fit the current “Country” mode (people dressed up like rock stars pretending to be country singers). And nobody's putting me in the ridiculous position of choosing between these two discs, so I am happily playing them both — a great deal.

There's a post-Record Store Day follow-up pencilled in on my calendar: I think I'll be making that gift in kind after all.

Links: John Doe And The Sadies - Stop The World And Let Me Off - Live At Sonic Boom Records In Toronto from Graeme Phillips on Vimeo. Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys - On The Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor, Back At The Quonset Hut.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Hitman's Guide To Housecleaning

The Hitman's Guide to HousecleaningThe Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The witless naif who wanders around a foreign environment and calls it as he sees it, unintentionally bringing the oppositional truth to light, is a literary trope that has been around since the beginning of story-telling. Just consider Adam's initial exclamation when he first encounters Eve: “Flesh of my flesh!” surely rates as the most original and mythical naif “boner” of all time.

It's hard to improve on that, but the literary impulse is relentless, giving readers a rich heritage of unforgettable naif progeny, including Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin and Howard The Duck. And now we have Hallgrimur Helgason's Turn-of-the-Millennium naif: Tomislav Boksic, AKA “Toxic,” a hit man for the Croatian mafia who finds himself on the lam, posing as an American televangelist in contemporary Iceland — very much “trapped in a world he did not make.”

Toxic navigates this bizarre world in a manner common to oafish thugs everywhere: improvising a constant stream of imbecilic lies, while exuding equal parts menace and brute sexual charm. All the while he observes and processes and alters the environment he's in, developing a perspective that becomes uncomfortably familiar. Here he follows his new lover into a furniture store, after hours:

We make our way through the office and out into the store. In back there are three king size beds on display, all made in India by twelve-year-old carpenter whiz-kids. We've tried them all, but the one behind the Kama Sutra room divider is the safest. It can't be seen from the screaming bright window out front. So after all, we manage to find a semi-dark corner in the bright and shining land. And by making the Hindu handiwork squeak, I can honor the memory of my lost [read: “murdered”] love. Still the bed holds up to all our freaky gymnastics. Those Indian kids really know their craft.

The real gymnastics are Toxic's moral equivocations, involving a body-count that begins with, but is not limited to, the 66 hits he carried out on American soil. But of course taking the life of another is just the one extreme of the moral spectrum. There's also this business of honouring the memory of his “lost” lover, to say nothing of benefiting from household items made by children in other countries . . . .

Is Toxic — are we — even capable of acquiring moral perspective in this environment? Astute readers know there is a more pressing concern on Toxic's horizon, thanks to the botched hit-job that began the novel: will he live long enough for any of this to matter?

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Awaiting Lethem's Fear of Music

Jonathan Lethem's contribution to the 33 1/3 library, a meditation on Talking Heads' Fear of Music, is already garnering mucho amor. I've reined in my 33 1/3 purchases — the bulk of the series only rates a "fair-to-middlin'" — but went ahead and placed this on pre-order with, figuring they'd get it before I had a chance to visit any of my favourite indie bookstores.

My mistake, alas; I'm still waiting. But I'm fairly assured that Lethem's book will join the few exemplary volumes in the series.