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Un-movies, Un-music

I partly agree with what Martin Scorsese says in this NYT piece. In case the link doesn't work, here are a couple of excerpts:

I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.

The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Most movies have always been junk; after all, the movie industry is an industry. I don't agree that there's any kind of a definite line between "entertainment" and "cinema." Or for that matter between "entertainment" and art of any kind. 

But the comic-book movies do seem to be something different from others. Not drama, not comedy, not horror, not thriller. Not even action, in a sense, because the action is un-human; a sub-genre of their own, really. I've seen a couple of them, and they are entertaining. But the elevation of spectacle over everything else really does make them closer to theme parks than to memorable art. The endless tie-ins to actual theme parks and all sorts of merchandise reinforce that. 

Come to that, I've never bought into the whole idea that comics of the Marvel-DC sort are some sort of profound pop-mythological art to which we should pay serious attention. Even as a child and a young teenager, I didn't have a huge interest in them. I read and enjoyed them when they came my way, usually at a friend's house, but I don't recall ever putting my very limited spending money into the purchase of one. 

This started me thinking about a similar phenomenon, a similar sort of disjuncture, but to me a more striking and decisive one. I don't hear much of today's popular music that is actually popular, but when I do it often strikes me as not being music at all. I don't mean that it's noise; I sort of like noise. I have not just a tolerance but a liking for an adept infusion of noise into music.I like Sonic Youth. I like Low's Double Negative album. I like Fennesz.

I mean that it seems like some sort of artificial quasi-music. When I hear it, my brain doesn't register it as "music" to be liked or disliked, but only as an aural phenomenon, and a very irritating one. It's the musical equivalent of Cheez-Whiz, which is described on the package label as a "processed cheese food product" or something like that. 

Example: the other day I saw a link to a new song "dropped" by the trio of Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lana del Rey. Just out of curiosity, I played the YouTube video. I didn't get more than about 45 seconds into it. As something in the background in a public place, I guess I could have ignored it. Listened to attentively, I found it almost literally unbearable. I dislike absolutely everything about it. I especially dislike the singing style that's fashionable among a lot of these young women singers. And the pugnacious bragging lyrics, also fashionable. The typical music video sleaze is pretty much to be expected. Listen for yourself, if you like. I tried it again and this time didn't bail out till 1:45. 

It's ok if you scoff at my complaint as those of an old boomer who can't handle the kids these days. It doesn't actually have much to do with age. It has to do with whether Cheez-Whiz should be considered cheese or not.

I considered including a video by a young woman artist whom I actually like, though sometimes against my better judgment, but it's a little disturbing. Look for Myrkur on YouTube if you like (or on Spotify or whatever), but be warned that she' a way that these girls are not.

Chrysta Bell and David Lynch: This Train

Summary for Twin Peaks fans: I'm pretty sure you'll like this album.

I've been meaning to write about this for a while. Chrysta Bell is the singer/actress who played Agent Tammy Preston in the Twin Peaks sequel that appeared a couple of years ago. Twin Peaks: The Return was the official title, I think. As you may or may not recall, I was somewhat disappointed in it. And having read the Mark Frost book which provided a whole lot of backstory as well as a glimpse into the present of our beloved Twin Peaks characters, I was definitely disappointed that Agent Tammy was not given a more prominent role. 

Well, I can forgive that now. This album, a collaboration between Bell and Lynch, is great. 

A significant part of the appeal of the original Twin Peaks was the music, composed mainly by Angelo Badalamenti. The show produced an album, officially credited to the singer Julee Cruise who appeared in several episodes, called Floating Into the Night. It is one of my favorite albums; it was one of those featured in the "52 Albums" series we did here a few years ago, and you can read that appreciation here

So when I say that This Train is almost as good as Floating Into the Night, it's high praise. It's different, not at all an attempt to reprise the artistic success of Floating, definitely its own man, so to speak. It doesn't have the nostalgic quality, but it has something else that's just as strong. How to describe it? Darker, grimier, spookier, less sweet, less romantic, though not unromantic. But more mystical. 

Well, describing music is always difficult. If you like this song, you'll like the album.

Or at least most of the album. One or two songs, mainly "Swing With Me," are sexually focused in a way that doesn't help the album as a whole. And the last song, "The Truth Is," seems pretty out of place, a synth-pop song that's not bad in itself but is a bit disappointing as an album closer. 



Those were not my words, but I used them a week or two ago to describe to a friend my reaction to hearing Das Rheingold again (this making the third time): inwardly squealing like a teenaged girl. And they were even more apropos yesterday, at the end of Die Walküre. It seems I have become a Wagner enthusiast. 

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember that back in 2012 I saw the Metropolitan Opera production of The Ring in a local theater. That was six years after my first attempt to get to know the work; you can read about that here. Also in 2006, I said "...I'm coming to like the music more and more, and Wagner as a visionary artist/prophet less and less. The Ring is clearly a stupendous achievement, but there's something rotten at the core of it."

Here are my 2012 reports: Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and I'll just quote my one-line review of Götterdämmerung: "At just under five hours, it seemed a little too short." These notes don't amount to much, but they are decidedly more positive. I summed up my thoughts at the time in this post: Wagner: The State of the Question. Suffice to say that I was more positive then than I had been in 2006, but still had some major reservations.

This time around I have even fewer reservations. I've completely changed my mind about the "something rotten." Well, maybe not completely. But substantially. There's something rotten in most of 19th century romanticism, and I don't know that Wagner's particular failings were that much worse than those of some others. One of the things that produced the "something rotten" comment was no doubt the incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde. I'm seeing it in a very different light now--not the relationship itself, which of course is as wrong as it ever was--but its significance in the context of the entire drama. I have a good many new thoughts about that (the entire drama) but they're scattered and only half-formed as yet. They may turn into some kind of longer piece in time. Or maybe not. If they do, the title will be something like "Wagner's Unpopular Virtues." I'd need to read some Wagner criticism first, though.

At any rate I'm eager to hear the remaining two operas now, though it's probably going to be a few weeks before I do. Coincidentally, I listened to an audio version of one of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse detective novels a week or so ago. (I had to drive up and down the state of Alabama twice in one week--long story--a total of 1400 or so miles, and listened to two audiobooks in the process.) From it I learned that Siegfried is Morse's least favorite of the Ring. It will be interesting to see whether I agree.

Stereolab: Dots and Loops

I bought a used CD copy of this album at least ten years ago on the strength of something I'd read about it. I think I only played it once, wasn't especially taken with the sound, and never got back to it until recently, when I put it in the CD player of my car and left it there for several weeks. I think I heard it all at least three times, but in fragments, not really listening closely. 

It grew on me. It's an odd record in some ways. I'm calling it ambient pop: it falls basically into the general pop-rock category, but it also fits Brian Eno's definition of ambient music: "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." 

Dots and Loops is fairly static and repetitive, and can easily be put into the background, yet it has enough interesting touches to make listening closely enjoyable. The sound begins with a '60s pop vibe, especially the bossa-nova pop of, for instance, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. And when I say "pop" I mean to distinguish it from rock: it's a soft, melodic, often jazzy but not in the least bluesy sound, with gentle female vocals. It has a nostalgic quality, if you remember that time, or maybe "retro" if you don't. The group released an album called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music in 1993--which is interesting, because the members were at most infants when that sort of thing was new. But there are also a lot of...I was about to say "21st-century," or "contemporary," sounds, but the album was released in 1997, making it over 20 years old. 

Many of the compositions aren't really even songs, exactly, and though the vocals are a major part of the album's appeal, the lyrics are few and not that important. "The Flower Called Nowhere" is maybe the most fully-developed song as such, so not the most typical for the album, but the overall sound is very similar throughout.

It would be nice to hear this album while sitting by a swimming pool sipping some cold drink, maybe something with a little paper umbrella on it.

The Who: Quadrophenia

Another LP From the Closet


I am a Tommy infidel. I don't consider it a great album. I don't even really like it all that much. Or at least these things were true many years ago, when I last heard it. It has a lot of brilliant music, and obviously the Who at their best were among the most accomplished artists in rock. But I never could take its story very seriously, much less the "rock opera" pretensions, though I don't know that the Who were to blame for the term. (It's an oratorio, maybe.) The songs are so closely tied to the story that their individual appeal is lessened for me. 

I guess Tommy fans were probably disappointed by Quadrophenia. I heard it a few times when it came out, and I remember thinking that although it wasn't as immediately appealing as Tommy it might be pretty good if you gave it a close listen. Who knows, it might even be better? But I wasn't interested enough to pursue it. (Also I thought the title was sort of dumb, seeming at the time to be an attempt to capitalize on the fad for quadrophonic sound, which was supposed to be the Next Phase after stereo.) 

And yet I have a copy. I don't have any idea how I came by it. In fact I'd forgotten I had it till I noticed it on my last troll through the closet, the results of which I'm still working my way through. It's pretty beat-up so I can only suppose that I picked it up cheaply on a whim, from a used-record store or possibly from Goodwill. 

Well, my 1973 suspicion was right. This is really quite a good album--a double album, like Tommy, and another "rock opera." But this one is a lot more down to earth, a sort of day in the life of a British teenager right at that point in the '60s where ordinary juvenile rebellion and delinquency were about to turn into the cultural revolution. For me at any rate that's a much more engaging subject than the freaky and largely unbelievable Tommy story. I grant that few of the songs are as musically brilliant as the best of Tommy. But the whole thing hangs together more effectively. And more affectingly. According to Wikipedia, the LP package should include a printed booklet that fills in the narrative links among the songs. It's missing from my copy, and I actually considered getting another used copy just to get the booklet. But I resisted. If not a story, the songs do form a coherent picture.

And one song merits a paragraph to itself. I think "Love Reign O'er Me" is as good as anything the Who ever did. It's one of those songs-worth-the-whole-album, which is saying a lot for a double LP.

It occurred to me to wonder: "quadrophenia" is meant to be a play on "schizophrenia." So why isn't it "quadrophrenia"?

Some Dad-Rock for Father's Day

The existence of the term "dad-rock" has only recently come to my attention, although I think it's been around for several years. It seems to be a mostly pejorative label for some of the rock of the '60s and '70s that old guys like, overlapping "classic rock" to a great degree, as far as I can tell. And more or less synonymous with "boring"--dull and predictable and conventional, at least from the vantage point of today, when there is so much brilliant innovation in popular music. Since I'm a "dad" of that generation (although all my children are, as of this year, past 30), I thought it would be appropriate to present some of my favorites from those old days. On the mellow and sentimental side for contemporary tastes, perhaps, but, you know, we were young and idealistic back then.



(Take that, whippersnappers.)


Mark Sirett: Veni Sancte Spiritus

I went looking for a musical setting of the Pentecost sequence and found this rather wonderful one. I did not recognize Mark Sirett's name but apparently he is a well-regarded choral composer. He incorporates the text in both Latin and English, which must have been pretty tricky. And the person who made this video shows them both, which makes this rather a treasure.


When You See Ralph Vaughn Williams's Name On a Hymn...

...treat it as a sort of caution. The man made few concessions to congregations. You can always count on his tunes to veer off from the predictable. We sang, or tried to sing, "Hail Thee, Festival Day" at Mass this morning (I know, it's really an Easter hymn, but it's reasonably appropriate for Pentecost, too). I can handle the chorus well enough, but I get completely lost in the verses. As seemed to be the case for almost everyone else in our little congregation.

As a legatee of "the Anglican patrimony," which is about the only context in which we are supposed to use the word "Anglican" in discussing the Ordinariate(s), I'm entitled to refer to use Whitsun, Whitsunday, and Whitsuntide to refer to Pentecost Sunday and the week following it. This does not however come naturally to me. We did not use those terms in the Methodist church where I grew up, or even in the Episcopal church where I landed for a few years on my way to Rome. So the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Whitsun" is Phillip Larkin's poem, one of his best: "The Whitsun Weddings." It's very much a post-Christian poem, a fact only emphasized by the presence of the word.


In the Ordinariate, we observe the Octave of Pentecost, which was apparently abolished after Vatican II. I'm going to be praying the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer every day this week. God knows we need for wind and fire to sweep through the Church now. 

For Me, This Is Dr. John

I think I bought the Babylon album on the basis of a review when it was released in 1969. He was known as Dr. John the Night Tripper at the time and was a somewhat mysterious figure. This was his second album, and now that I think about it I may have bought this one because I couldn't find his first, Gris-gris. I didn't know what to make of it and I never listened to it all that much, but it has stuck with me. And it's this sound and vibe that I most associate with his name, not the later more straightforward R&B stuff. I think "Babylon" is meant to represent Los Angeles. It worked then and it works now.

RIP Mack Rebennack aka Dr. John.

And now I want to hear that first album.


Nan Vernon: Manta Ray

Maybe you remember that a few months ago I got excited about a track by Nan Vernon on a compilation album (see this post). It was a Cruise-Lynch-Badalamenti-sounding arrangement of an old Bobby Fuller Four song. I had never heard of her, but quickly discovered that she had released one album, Manta Ray, in the mid-1990s. It's out of print but used copies can be found on Amazon, and I immediately bought it. I see now that it can also be found, and really cheap, on Discogs

What with one thing and another, including having been off pop music for Lent, I only recently gave it several serious listens. I can now report that while it isn't the Lynchian masterpiece I was hoping for (though not expecting), it is extremely good. Moreover, it has the seeds of greatness, and I wonder why she never made another. Manta Ray is 25 years old now. I'd like to think that she's been off doing other things, raising a family or something, becoming more wise and mature, and is going to come back with an album that fulfills the promise of this one. Not likely, I guess, but that's ok: one brilliant work is enough. 


Don't think I'm being unduly swayed by the fact that the jacket photos show her as very attractive in a way that happens to push my buttons. Remember, when I was enchanted by that first track I didn't even know who was singing, much less what she looked like. She could have looked like Rumplestiltskin for all I knew. Or cared. 

The first track on Manta Ray, "Motorcycle," is sort of a female Springsteen thing, a rocker with somewhat obscure road-and-romance lyrics. The more characteristic songs are slower ones like "No More Lullabies," which really make the most of her lush and powerful voice. I could swear I've heard this song somewhere else:

My impression after one hearing was that this is a very good, very well-produced mainstream sort of record. That's pretty faint praise, especially as "mainstream" coming from me is at best a neutral term, and at worst dismissive. But it kept getting better and I changed "very good" to "brilliant."

The arrangements and production are part of the appeal: there are all sorts of interesting and unconventional little touches, as you can hear in "No More Lullabies." Maybe best of all from my point of view is that as it goes on the album takes a turn toward the strange. There's a very Brecht-Weillian song in German, "Johnny's Birthday," credited only to "hollander," and with no translation of the lyric. And the last song, which is also the title song, is a surrealistic vision that puts me in mind of Kate Bush. I'm not the only one who's had that thought. In looking around for information about Nan Vernon on the web (there's not a whole lot), I ran across this comment:

If she had gone the direction of the song "Manta Ray" I think she'd be up there among the goddesses*. As it is, she's an extrememly worthy apostle.


* (my personal musical goddesses being Kate Bush, Happy Rhodes, and Jane Siberry)

I don't know Happy Rhodes but other than that, yes indeed.

Her recorded work since this album seems to consist entirely of one-off covers, like the one I first heard. You can find some of them on YouTube. She should do a whole album of those, maybe more than one. I would, as the kids say, totally buy that. I've always thought it one of the weaknesses of post-1965 pop music that artists generally want to write all their own material. I understand there are financial reasons for that, but too many of them aren't that good at that part of it.