Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Shining

The opening scene is a small car driving on a curvy mountain road as seen from a helicopter. This match-cuts to long shots of characters moving through the cavernous rooms of a hotel as seen from a steadi-cam that is moving at the approximate relative speed as the helicopter. The effect is dwarfing; the character we're following is a small man in big world he can't control. He's there to interview for a job as a caretaker for a hotel that's closed and isolated from civilization over the harsh winters. He's a writer that plans to spend the winter there with his wife and son and use the isolation to focus on his writing.

While there, he goes a little crazy from the isolation (and perhaps the ghosts).

Director Stanley Kubrick maintains unnerving balances between sanity and madness, and between the real and the supernatural. The writer, Jack (played by Jack Nicholson) seems a little off even at his most sane, making it difficult to tell exactly when he becomes unhinged. Although there are definitely supernatural elements - the son, Danny, and the hotel cook (played by Scatman Cruthers) can communicate telepathically, and Danny has visions of the hotel's violent history - it's not entirely clear whether there are actually ghosts, or if these ghosts can physically harm anyone. Somebody does rip Danny's sweater, and somebody does unlock a door or two, but we never actually see these things happen. Every time Jack holds a conversation with a ghost, there's a mirror or reflective surface in front of him - might he actually be talking to himself?

Unlike other horror movies, the characters actually behave in a ways that real people might if they were in a similar situation - they make smart, well-reasoned decisions in their attempts to escape from harm. Also unlike other horror movies, the tension ratchets up higher than the body count. The Shining is a rare horror movie that stays with you for days after you've seen it, and is as frightening today as was 30 years ago.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday the 13th

It's easy to understand why a formula would start to get stale after a dozen sequels, but how did they manage to make it seem so tired the first time out? The trailer tells you what to expect: 8 teenagers are isolated alone in the woods while an unknown psycho murders them one by one. The movie meets that expectation, and nothing more.

Perhaps if the characters had been interesting, I would have cared about whatever it was they were doing before they got killed, but they are all amiable-but-bland samey-looking stiffly-acted teenagers. Only one is given a personality - Ned, the goofy prankster - but it's such an annoying personality that I found myself hoping he would be the first one offed. I assumed the pranks were introduced to set up some misdirection and I waited for an actual death to be laughed off as a prank or a faked death to be mistaken for a real one, but nothing ever came of it. There're no interesting characters, no misdirection, just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more.

I also hoped that there would be some mystery. Who was this killer? Was it someone we met? It seemed like they wanted to throw in some red herrings: The camp boss leaves the camp just before the teenagers start to die, maybe it's him? No, the very next scene establishes that the killer is driving a jeep different from the one the boss drove out on. The town crazy shows up at camp shouting that they are all doomed, maybe it's him? No, we see him in the very next scene getting away on a bicycle, not a jeep. Maybe one of the kids is actually the killer? No, the very first kill happens far away from any of them establishing all their alibis. There's no mystery to figure out, just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more.

Strangely, nobody even realizes there's a psycho killer on the loose until moments before they're killed. The last two alive are the first to suspect something's happening when they can't find their friends, but nobody ever witnessed a murder or found a body until there was only one left alive. It wasn't 8 kids trying to outwit a psycho killer in the wilderness, it was just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more (well, maybe the last one was trying to outwit a psycho killer).

The movie even fails at being just a shameless excuse to show nudity and gore. Only one couple has a very tame sex scene were very little is exposed. The others engage in a very PG game of strip Monopoly that ends before they get very far. There are two or three gruesome images, but half the murders take place off-screen.

There was only one scene that gave me a genuine fright. It was a tacked on bit at the end, and even though I'd seen the movie before and knew what was about to happen, it still got me. But one well-executed scene doesn't justify the rest of the surprisingly boring, mostly un-scary movie. It certainly doesn't justify its dozen sequels.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

1. Van Morrison - Moondance

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Van Morrison - Moondance

Van Morrison must have been in a fantastic mood when he produced this album - it's the most comfortable album ever recorded.

Stylistically, the songs on this album have a wide range of moods and genres (blues, jazz, country, folk, rock), but thematically, they all address the warmest, most natural, most universal human experiences: nostalgia for carefree youth ('And It Stoned Me'), the buzz of good times with good friends ('Moondance'), the giddiness of a new infatuation ('Crazy Love'), the sense of security and validation that comes with camaraderie ('Caravan'), the rapture you feel in the awesomeness of nature and your place in it ('Into the Mystic'), etc.

The Moondance vs. Astral Weeks debate divides Van Morrison fans. The critical concensus is that Astral Weeks is Van Morrison's best album; Acclaimed Music ranks Astral Weeks as the #15 album of all time with Moondance at #95. I'm in the Moondance camp. My defense is that the emotions this album evokes are so primal, so visceral, that it doesn't pose much challenge to the listener - it's simply not humanly possible to dislike this album. I suspect this makes the album seem slight or vapid, but this is deceptive; It's not as easy as it looks to make it look this easy.

Friday, July 30, 2010

2. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Déjà Vu

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Déjà Vu

This album, their first (with Young), was highly anticipated and was a commercial and critical success. Each of the four contributed two songs each plus an additional Stills/Young collaboration (the closer 'Everybody I Love You'), and the Joni Mitchell cover 'Woodstock'.

They provide the vocal harmonies and signature sound their fans expect on the opening track 'Carry On', but they also expand their sound and appeal with the country-influenced 'Teach Your Children' and the Beatlesque pop of 'Our House'. By the end of the album, they give an indication of the direction they're heading; Stephen Stills' '4 + 20' sounds like the mellow blues songs he would explore on his first solo album later in the year, and Neil Young's 'Country Girl' suite would fit right in with the rest of his moody minor-key ballads on his After the Goldrush album.

1970 was definitely CSN&Y's year. A few months after the release of this album, they would record and release the classic song 'Ohio' inspired by and released a few weeks after the Kent State shootings. A few months after that, the concert film for the Woodstock Festival and the soundtrack on which they are prominently featured would be released. By the end of the year, both Stephen Stills and Neil Young would release excellent solo albums.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

3. Santana - Abraxas

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Santana - Abraxas

It's hard to imagine another era in the history of popular music where the prog-rock experimentation of Pink Floyd, the electric guitar idolatry of Eric Clapton, the world-beat exoticism of Ravi Shankar, and the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis could co-exist so comfortably in someone's LP collection. It's particularly hard to imagine another era when all these influences would co-exist on a single album.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

4. John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon had released personal songs before before ('The Ballad of John and Yoko' and 'Cold Turkey' for example), but this album goes further; it's a therapeutic exercise where he lays bare all his neuroses and insecurities for examination and exorcism. It's almost as if he never intended an audience to listen to it; he doesn't seem to be trying to make any of it commercially appealing, or to conceal anything that might be embarrassing or reveal his vulnerabilities.

Because of it's unique nature, most of the tracks really don't stand alone out of context ('Working Class Hero' is an exception), but there's not one track on the album that shouldn't be there. The album as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

5. Nick Drake - Bryter Layter

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Nick Drake - Bryter Layter

This album was a late bloomer. It started turning up on critics top ten lists and movie soundtracks in the 90's, but seems to have been more or less ignored when it was released in 1970 (basically the opposite of what happened with The Pretty Things' Parachute).

The album doesn't sound much like it's contemporaries. Richard Thompson and John Cale show up on the album, and their influence is recognizable, but the folk elements are more polished than the ramshackle style of Fairport Convention, and the art rock is more mannered and classical-leaning than the rougher sound of Velvet Underground. There's is also a distinct jazz influence - most notably on the fantastic 'Poor Boy'. I'm also a fan of the string arrangements on several of the tracks and the brass arrangement on 'Hazey Jane II', all arranged by Robert Kirby (I'm making a note to check out other albums he's worked on).

Monday, July 26, 2010

6. The Pretty Things - Parachute

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Pretty Things - Parachute

This album is made up of hard rockers with a bitter edge ('Cries From The Midnight Circus' and 'Sickle Clowns') tempered with sweet ballads featuring lovely three part harmonies ('The Good Mr. Square'). The result is a multi-textured, but cohesive collection of great songs that ends up sounding like a hard rock Abbey Road.

The album was well-regarded by critics at the time; Rolling Stone named it the best album of the year. It's a mystery to me why it has faded into relative obscurity since. Perhaps it's because the album didn't produce any tracks that have become staples of classic rock radio, or because The Pretty Things subsequent work didn't live up to the promise of this album.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

7. Dave Mason - Alone Together

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Dave Mason - Alone Together

Along with George Harrison and Sandy Denny, Dave Mason contributed to a trend of under-appreciated sidemen that made striking solo debuts in 1970. This album, his first post-Traffic effort, is a model of economy: 8 tracks, 34 minutes, no filler, no throw-away tracks, no overlong solos. Each track is a solid original pop song that could stand alone as a single. He has an almost McCartney-esque knack for making pop songwriting look easy, whether it's a rocker like or 'Only You Know and I Know' or a sentimental ballad like 'Sad and Deep As You'.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

8. Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman

The exploration of spiritual topics wasn't uncommon or unpopular at the time this album was released, but I can't think of any other artist that made his personal spiritual journey so central to his artistic identity. His spirituality is not the primary appeal to me, but I do appreciate that his lyrics are intellectually inquisitive, and not pedantic or trite. If there's one song with a whiff of sanctimony, it's 'On The Road To Find Out', but the song is so rockin' that it's easy to overlook the preachiness. That's what really makes the album great; every song is catchy and interesting. Stevens never forgets that he's a pop star not a priest.

Friday, July 23, 2010

9. The Beatles - Let It Be

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

The Beatles - Let It Be

This album is much better than it has a right to be. Its troubled history is well documented: In early 1969, The Beatles decided to 'Get Back' to their roots and make an album in the style of their early albums, and to have film cameras document whatever happens - unfortunately, not much did. By the time the sessions dissolved, there were hours of film footage and audio tape of the Beatles tuning guitars, warming up with classic rock covers, and getting testy with each other. The project was abandoned, and only two singles 'Get Back' and 'Don't Let Me Down' were salvaged from it.

In 1970, Phil Specter was hired to make an album out of the mess. It would be the first Beatles' album not produced by George Martin, and Specter's 'wall of sound' production style didn't seem like a natural fit for the album's back-to-basics concept. Anyone who had heard the widely circulated 'Get Back' bootleg album that was generated from these sessions (which was also not produced by George Martin) would not have high expectations of this Specter-ized version.

Incredibly, the album is fantastic. Even the criticism of Phil Specter's overblown production on 'Long and Winding Road' seems unfair - could the song really be less sappy even without the choir of angels? The in-between-songs banter, and the loose and joyful mood really show through as originally intended; this is particularly remarkable considering the actual mood of the sessions (if the footage in the film is any indication) was often tense and joyless.

A particular highlight for me is the song 'I've Got a Feeling'. My favorite Beatles' songs are the ones where an unfinished McCartney song is mashed up with a complementary unfinished Lennon song (The earliest example being the appropriately titled 'We Can Work It Out' in 1965; Sgt. Pepper's 'A Day in the Life' is another memorable example). McCartney's 'I've Got A Feeling' shifts into Lennon's 'Everybody Had a Hard Year' and back again.

This is not the first or only time that Phil Specter was involved with the Beatles in 1970. He first produced the single 'Instant Karma' for John Lennon (easily my favorite song of 1970), and he also produced George Harrison's excellent solo album All Things Must Pass.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

10. Joni Mitchell - Ladies of the Canyon

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Joni Mitchell - Ladies of the Canyon

This one is a grower. On first listen, it's a pleasant and pretty folk album with the tone set on the folksy opening track, 'Morning Morgantown', with the fun 'Big Yellow Taxi' standing out near the end. After listening to it several times, I found the other tracks beginning to sink in. I was really hooked by the complex arrangements with a variety of instruments (the flutes in 'For Free', and the piano in several tracks) and her expressive vocals that tap into some authentic emotions not typically expressed in pop songs (the sympathetic jealousy in 'The Conversation' stands out to me).

It's 'Woodstock' that really gets me, though; the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's cover was louder, more muscular, and more popular - and a fantastic interpretation to be sure - but Mitchell's own version of her song is intimate and soulful with effective non-lyric vocal sections and instrumental sections that highlight the song's haunting piano arrangement.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

11. James Taylor - Sweet Baby James

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James

I was familiar with the song 'Fire and Rain' before I ever listened to this album, so I had an idea of what to expect - smart, mellow, minor-key folk rock with enough of a melancholy edge to not be sappy. The album provides exactly that ('Sunny Skies' is an apt example), but this is not a follow-your-formula kind of album; it's more of a jazz-like riffing on a theme.

Without straying too far from his comfort zone, Taylor explores a variety of genres: the country waltz lullabye of 'Sweet Baby James', the bluesy 'Steamroller', the gospel 'Lo and Behold', and the vocal improvisation in 'Oh Susanna'. The final track, 'Suite for 20G', is a multi-textured combination of several of these elements, and it's a perfect, if disjointed, culmination of the tracks that precede it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

12. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo's Factory

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo's Factory

This is CCR's 42 minute clinic on rock and roll music - it's history, and it's influence on the then current incarnation of the genre. For comparison sake, they provide two covers of classic rock songs ('Ooby Dooby' and 'My Baby Left Me') faithfully interpreted in the style favored in the last half of the fifties by the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. They also provide two originals performed the same way ('Travelin' Band' and 'Lookin' Out My Back Door'), to show that the genre is durable. To prove the genre is flexible as well, they perform two additional covers in styles popular with their contemporaries: a rocking cover of a blues standard ('Before You Accuse Me'), and an epic length meandering rock jam ('I Heard it Through the Grapevine').

If there's one track that best exemplifies the band's authority on rock and roll, it's 'Ramble Tamble', the first song on the album. One critic (Steven Hyden from The Onion's AV Club) makes a convincing case for this song being the 'Most Rockin' Song of All Time'.

The album does have a few notable departures from its prevailing roots rock theme: the socially conscious folk rock song 'Who'll Stop the Rain', the menacing bayou blues of 'Run Through the Jungle', and the soulful "Long As I Can See the Light".

Monday, July 19, 2010

13. Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water

I find this a very difficult album to rate. It's one of the first albums I ever owned, and the first album I ever memorized all the lyrics to. It's probably the one non-Beatles album I've listened to most frequently, and I haven't grown tired of it yet.

This familiarity makes it difficult for me to be objective. On one hand, it's easy to overrate songs like "Baby Driver" and "Why Don't You Write Me" simply because I know them so well. On the other hand, the sheer repetition makes it easy to forget that songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Boxer" were once fresh.

In its cultural context, it was a phenomenally successful record: It's one of the best selling albums of the year, it spawned four hit singles, and it won the Grammy for best album. The fact that this album appealed to so many different people during such a culturally divisive era is an incredible feat. This broad appeal is, I think, attributable to it's timelessness; both thematically (no questions about what war is good for or references to Woodstock or tin soldiers and Nixon), and musically (no long jammy electric guitar solos or sitars). Ultimately, This album may sound "old" due to its constant radio airplay, but it doesn't sound "dated".

Sunday, July 18, 2010

14. The Kinks - Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

The Kinks - Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

I seems that every third song on this album is a Ray Davies' satire about the treachery of the music industry. If his lyrics weren't so clever and his music so catchy, it would sound pitiful. Fortunately, these songs are endearing enough not to distract from the rest of the album - which rocks. Some of my favorites: the crunchy "Rats", the sweet "This Time Tomorrow", the fun "Ape Man", and the acoustic-but-hard "Lola".

Saturday, July 17, 2010

15. Fotheringay - Fotheringay

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Fotheringay - Fotheringay

Sandy Denny's first project after leaving Fairport Convention consists mostly of her singing original ballads that sound like they could be traditional folk songs, plus a handful of actual traditional folk songs sung by guitarist Trevor Lucas. The album is at its best when it features Denny's ethereal vocals over a rolling cadence of syncopated bass-heavy guitars. Still, the hypnotizing Gordon Lightfoot cover "The Way I Feel" featuring Lucas on vocals has ended up on many of my playlists.

It's a wonder that this album wasn't more popular. Perhaps fans were expecting the looser, more ragged sound of Fairport Convention and found the classical perfectionism to be stifling. Maybe if the album had been directed to Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley fans, it would have found a more appreciative audience.

Friday, July 16, 2010

16. James Gang - Rides Again

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

James Gang - Rides Again

This album can loosely be separated into the heavy-funk Jim Fox side and the country-fried Joe Walsh side. But it's really Walsh's guitar and songwriting that lead the entire album. One thing I really like about Joe Walsh is that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Sure, he's a creative genius and a talented musician, and he'll throw a little Ravel's Bolero into "The Bomber", but he's not too snooty to hoot like a monkey in "Funk #49".

Thursday, July 15, 2010

17. Elton John - Elton John

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Elton John - Elton John

Elton John's second LP, but the first to become widely popular, features his first hit "Your Song".

One of the most distinctive traits of this album is the bold string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster that could overwhelm a meeker performer; fortunately, subtlety isn't one of Elton's faults. Another distinctive trait is Bernie Taupin's obtuse lyrics that only Elton has that audacity to sing as if they mean something. Listen to "Take Me To The Pilot" for the best example of all these traits - Elton John belts Taupin's absurd lyrics with conviction and out-duels Buckmaster's bombastic arrangement.

Not every track works out this well. "No Shoe Strings On Louise" is one of those mean songs the pairs a ridiculous lyric with a catchy riff intended to get stuck in your head and drive you nuts. The album would be better off without this track (but even Revolver had its "Yellow Submarine"); it's a bouncy country waltz that would be a better fit on John's other 1970 album, the country-themed Tumbleweed Connection.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

18. Grateful Dead - American Beauty

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Grateful Dead - American Beauty

The Grateful Dead released two albums in 1970; this one, and Workingman's Dead. I usually listen to them back-to-back, or put them both in the playlist and shuffle them. But American Beauty, is easily the Grateful Dead's most essential album. It starts strong with three classics: "Box of Rain", "Friend of the Devil", and "Sugar Magnolia". The album is a group effort; each of the first 5 tracks (i.e. Side A) features a different band member. The next five (i.e. Side B) reverts back to the Garcia/Hunter formula with the exception of the great final track "Truckin'" which is credited to the entire band and has become their signature tune.

This album also has my all-time favorite Grateful Dead song, "Ripple".

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

19. Stephen Stills - Stephen Stills

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Stephen Stills - Stephen Stills

This album is just packed with great songs representing a wide range of styles and genres. Stills not only provides the rock, pop, and ballad he's known for ("Old Times Good Times", "Love the One You're With", and "Do for the Others" respectively), but proves he's capable at gospel ("Church (Part of Someone)"), Clapton-style blues-rock ("Go Back Home" - with Clapton himself contributing on the track, naturally), and old style acoustic blues ("Black Queen").

The song "Cherokee" is worth singling out as a personal favorite of mine. Three intruments that I don't think get utilized enough in rock music: the flute, the jazz organ, and brass; all appear in this one song - and an electric sitar, too! The only minor quibble I have with the track is that even though Booker T. himself plays the organ, he doesn't get a solo.

NOTE: I couldn't find any tracks from this album on YouTube, but you can check the album out on Amazon and listen to the previews.

Monday, July 12, 2010

20. Badfinger - No Dice

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Badfinger - No Dice

The song "No Matter What" with it's crunchy guitar riff, sweet "ooh girl" harmonies, and catchy hand-clap percussion, sounds positively Beatlesque; Pete Ham's vocals could easily be mistaken for McCartney himself. The album is a diverse mix of straight-forward rockers, catchy pop tunes, and sweet ballads, each handled with surprising facility. In the year that The Beatles broke up, Badfinger stepped in looking like their heir apparent.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

21. George Harrison - All Things Must Pass

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

George Harrison - All Things Must Pass

As a big fan of George Harrison, it's hard for me to be objective in rating his music. When I first started listening to this album over 20 years ago, I would even defend the third record of this three record box set - a set of jam sessions that I now acknowledge is completely disposable. I'll even admit that the second version of "Isn't It A Pity" is unnecessary. But every other track on the album is indispensable, including the hits "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life", as well as the lesser known "Art of Dying" and "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)".

Saturday, July 10, 2010

22. Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Spirit is an inspired band at the peak of their creativity on this album. Although they have some fun experimenting on this album, they never wander into pretentious prog-rock territory. The most popular track on this album is the environmental ballad "Nature's Way", a sweet folk-rock melody that's atypical of the trippy psychedelia that makes up most of the other tracks, but since the album explores so many different styles and genres, it's impossible to define any one of them as typical.

Friday, July 9, 2010

23. Argent - Argent

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Argent - Argent

I've always been mystified that The Zombies weren't more popular; their music was consistently good - literate, adventurous, but always accessible and pop-friendly.

Rod Argent's first post-Zombies album not only gives him a chance to show off his top-notch organ and piano skills, but also showcases his under-appreciated pop instincts; well timed riff changes, organ solos, breakdowns, and other stylistic flourishes keep the songs constantly interesting. The tracks "Free Fall" and "Lonely High Road" are particularly good examples of his Brian Wilson caliber popcraft.

With a few notable exceptions (particularly "Liar" which Three Dog Night would famously cover), the album's songwriting isn't on par with its music, but even then, the lyrics are merely unobtrusive, and allow the groovy jazz-influenced music to speak for itself.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

24. Derek and the Dominos - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Derek and the Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Three months before releasing this album, Eric Clapton released his first solo album. The self-titled album would set the standard for his subsequent 70s studio albums - mannered, mature, pop-friendly songs performed with impeccable technique. This makes the raw emotion with which he tears through the songs on this album all the more exciting by comparison. His vocals have never been this passionate, his guitar playing never this searing. He bares his soul on every track of this album, which includes two bona fide classics: Layla, and Bell Bottom Blues.

Critical consensus (according to Acclaimed Music) rates this album in the top 5 of 1970, and if I was making this list 20 years ago, I would doubtlessly agree. Back then I couldn't get enough of Clapton's long jammy versions of blues standards, and the three such songs on this album (Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Key to the Highway, and Have You Ever Loved a Woman) are longer, jammier, and bluesier than usual. Listening to the album now though, I'm finding that these tracks, as great as they are, put an unwelcome damper on the intensity of the rest of the album.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

25. Neil Young - After the Goldrush

Counting down my favorite 25 albums of 1970:

Neil Young - After the Goldrush

The plaintive vocals and deliberate tempo sets a tone that's a little weary, a fitting allegory to the Woodstock generation that a few years prior believed they could change the world overnight, only to have the luster of their idealism fade as the Vietnam war continued its downward spiral, and the culture war escalated into bloody confrontations at Kent State and Jackson State. Yet Young's lyrics have a tendency to become stridently hopeful at unexpected times, as if to reiterate that it's not naive to believe you can change the world, it's only naive to think it would be easy.

This is exemplified by the albums best track and thematic core, Don't Let it Bring You Down, where Young starts by setting a squalid scene of an "old man lying by the side of the road", ignored by passersby and left to the elements, he ends up dead by morning. The initial refrain of "Don't Let it Bring You Down" at this point could be interpreted as cynical apathy, but later versus, when he sings "Blind man walking by the river at night with an answer in his hand. Come on down to the river of sight where you can really understand." reveal what (I think) is the intended interpretation: Don't lose faith, things will "turn around". He uses this formula throughout the album alternating the "bring downs" (Southern Man, Tell Me Why) with the "uplifts" (Till the Morning Comes, I Believe in You).

The consensus among rock critics (according to Acclaimed music, which compiles reviews from numerous sources and combines them) is that this is the best album of 1970. While that validates it's inclusion on my list, I think I need to explain why I don't rate it higher...

Not every track on the album works for me. The tone of the album is consistent throughout and the lesser songs don't interrupt the flow, but they certainly don't stand on their own, either. Particularly the album's highest charting single, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. I find the lyrics a little trite, and when the piano thunks out a dirge-tempo waltz with easy rhymes on the downbeat, I can't help but think of Sesame Street's Prairie Dawn playing the song for a muppet pageant. Another miss for me is another of the album's most popular songs, Southern Man. Even though I sympathize with the sentiment (the history of racial intolerance in the South is an easy target), I find the tongue clucking a tad sanctimonious.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Deck for 1960

Movies in my NetFlix queue this month:

Spartacus - This is one of those classics that I somehow never got around to seeing. It's directed by Stanley Kubrick and features Kirk Douglas.

The Apartment - The year's best picture winner is a Billy Wilder comedy featuring Shirley MacLaine. It's another classic I hadn't gotten around to seeing yet.

Inherit the Wind - I saw this movie years ago, and I don't remember it very well. If anything, I remember it being talky and pedantic (that it is to say, directed by Stanley Kramer). But this impression doesn't reconcile with it's popularity and high rating on IMDb, so I think it deserves a refresher viewing.

The Time Machine - I'm a sucker for science fiction. I'm also a fan of the special effects of George Pal.

Purple Noon - I'm particularly looking forward to seeing this one. I've never read the Patricia Highsmith novel from which this is adapted (The Talented Mr. Ripley), but I loved the Anthony Minghella version.

Virgin Spring - I always like Ingmar Bergman films. I'm also intrigued by the fact that this is the inspiration for Wes Craven's shock/gore film The Last House on the Left.

Testament of Orpheus - The third film in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus trilogy (conveniently spaced in ten or twenty year increments so I could watch them in the same calendar year). I never get tired of Cocteau's distinctive otherworldly mood.

Never on Sunday - I was really impressed with Night and the City last month. Director Jules Dassin was on quite a streak with his fourth fantastic movie in four consecutive years (1947 - Brute Force, 1948 - The Naked City, 1949 - Thieves' Highway, 1950 - Night and the City). This film is a departure from those noir films and might not have caught my attention if it wasn't for my recent Dassin obsession.

Can-Can - I always try to put a musical on my queue each month. This one has several things going for it: it was the second highest grossing film of 1960 after Ben Hur; it features songs written by Cole Porter; it features Frank Sinatra singing those songs; and it stars Shirley MacLaine so it would make a good double feature with The Apartment.

Jazz on a Summer's Day - I always try to put a documentary on my queue each month, too. This month, I couldn't narrow it down to just one. Primary is a political documentary following John F. Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic nomination for President in 1960. Jazz on a Summer's Day is a concert film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival featuring Louis Armstrong. Both films are in the National Film Registry.

If time permits:

Psycho is definitely the most famous movie from 1960, but I've already seen it several times, and there are several other horror films from 1960 that appeal to me, including:

Peeping Tom - I've only seen two other movies by Michael Powell, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, both had impressive color cinematography. The trailer for this one promises more of the same.

Village of the Damned - I've seen so many spoofs and other references to this movie, I feel like I've already seen it. There must be good reasons why this film has endured.

TV Shows in my NetFlix queue this month:

The Flintstones - This animated classic debuted in 1960.

Danger Man - Secret agent drama starring Patrick McGoohan who would follow this show up with his iconic role in The Prisoner.

Although I couldn't find a way to squeeze it into my schedule this month, The Andy Griffith Show was another notable TV debut this year.

Novels I loaded onto my Kindle:

Eight Keys to Eden - A science fiction novel by Mark Clifton. From the reviews I read, I expect it to be somewhat philosophical with a libertarian slant.

Deathworld - Another science fiction novel. This one promises to be more action oriented than cerebral. It's the first of Harry Harrison's Deathworld trilogy.

There's no Kindle edition of To Kill a Mockingbird - what's up with that?

Radio Programs I downloaded:

The Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney Show - By 1960, the Golden Age of Radio was well into it's twilight, but Bing Crosby, who had had a series of radio shows continuously since 1931 was determined to be the last to leave the party. This 20 minute weekday morning program with Rosemary Clooney would be his last. It began in February 1960 and ended in 1962.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

1930 Playlist

I put together this playlist for 1930. If I figure out how to upload the audio, I'll do so.

01 - Ring Dem Bells - Duke Ellington

02 - Happy Days Are Here Again - Ben Selvin Orchestra
This song was first recorded by Leo Reisman weeks after the 1929 stockmarket crash. This recording would be the biggest hit of 1930 and would become a hopeful anthem for recovery from the Great Depression. It would be used as a campaign song for FDR in 1932.

03 - Three Little Words - The Rhythm Boys with the Duke Ellington Orchestra
This is nice. The Rhythm Boys were the vocalists from Paul Whiteman's orchestra and included a not-yet-famous Bing Crosby. Here they are singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the earliest recorded Ellington/Crosby collaboration. Considering how prolific and prone to collaboration these two were I was surprised that I can only find a couple other recordings of them together (St. Louis Blues in 1932, and several tracks from a radio show broadcast May 29, 1941).

04 - China Boy - Red Nichols

05 - Georgia On My Mind - Hoagy Carmichael
06 - Stardust - Isham Jones
Both of these songs were written by Hoagy Carmichael. This is the first hit version of Stardust which would become a jazz standard.

07 - Oh, Lady Be Good - Red Nichols
A nice dixieland rendition of the Gershwin classic.

08 - Puttin' on the Ritz - Jan Garber
I like to think this is what the Mos Eisley Cantina Band's version of this Irving Berlin classic would sound like.

09 - Exactly Like You - Louis Armstrong

10 - The Count - Bennie Moten
I don't actually know if this song's title is a reference to the band's piano player, William James Basie.

11 - Happy Feet - Paul Whiteman with The Rhythm Boys

12 - I Got Rhythm - Red Nichols

13 - What Is This Thing Called Love - Leo Reisman

14 - Jungle Nights in Harlem - Ellington, Duke

15 - Tiger Rag - Louis Armstrong
16 - Bessie Couldn't Help It - Louis Armstrong

17 - After You've Gone - Red Nichols
Red Nighols' orchestra again. This time with a different vocalist - Wingy Manone I think.

18 - Mood Indigo - Duke Ellington


Monday, March 1, 2010

On Deck for 1930

These are the movies in my queue this month:

All Quiet on the Western Front - It's a consensus "film of the year". It won the Best Picture Oscar. It's the highest rated and the most popular film from 1930 on IMDb and the only film from that year in the IMDb 250. It was also the first film from 1930 to be inducted into the National Film Registry, and the only film from that year to be listed on the original AFI 100 years, 100 movies list.

Hell's Angels - This was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. The many trials of it's production were well documented in The Aviator. Another WWI fighter pilot movie from 1930 that I would like to see is The Dawn Patrol, but it is not available on DVD.

City Girl - I have never been disappointed by a Murnau movie.

Blue Angel
Morocco - I couldn't decide between these two von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations. Blue Angel is a classic and is more highly-rated and popular, but Morocco is in the National Film Registry, and it's, well, gayer.

Blood of a Poet - I've already seen this Jean Cocteau movie (loved it), but I need a refresher since I'll be seeing the other two films in his Orphic trilogy - Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960) - later this year (in May and June respectively).

Monte Carlo - I'm a sucker for musicals, even though I wasn't exactly blown away by any of the early talkie musicals I saw last year (Applause, Broadway Melody, or Hallelujah!). Maybe the Lubitsch touch will help.

Animal Crackers - The Marx Brothers' classic.

and if time permits:

L'âge d'or - Before I saw Un chien andalou last year, I had never seen a Luis Buñuel film. I thought the 1928 adaptation, Fall of the House of Usher, where he was the writer and assistant director to Jean Epstein, was fantastic, but I was ultimately disappoint by Un chien andalou. I want to give Buñuel another look, but my expectations are lower this time.

Earth - I've enjoyed a lot of Soviet cinema from this era; Man With a Movie Camera rates as one of my all-time favorite films. The only reason why this film is so low on the list is that I've seen Dovzhenko's Arsenal two years ago and was underwhelmed by it. But this one is considered his best, so I'm curious.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Douglas Fairbanks Does Parkour

This is awesome:

This is my favorite movie scene from 1920, It's from The Mark of Zorro. Douglas Fairbanks does parkour.


Monday, February 1, 2010

On Deck for 1920

The movies I've added to my Netflix queue this month:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - 1920 was the first great year for horror films. I've seen all three (this one and the next two on the list), they're all excellent, and I'm looking forward to rewatching them. This one is easily the most popular (and my personal favorite) film of 1920.

The Golem - James Whale credits this film as an influence on his classic 1931 version of Frankenstein. The stylistic similarities are undeniable.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - I originally saw this in Boulder at Chautauqua's great silent film series. John Barrymore's hamminess is way over the top in this one, but it's still a fun film worth re-watching.

The Mark of Zorro - I've already seen this one once before, too. It's one of Fairbanks' best films. Doug buckles with more swash than usual in this film.

The Last of the Mohicans - This film is in the National Film Registry, and I try to watch as many NFR films as I can.

One Week
Neighbors - Two shorts from Buster Keaton, my favorite silent comedy actor. One Week is also in the NFR.

High and Dizzy - Harold Lloyd also made the excellent comedy short Number, Please? this year which I've seen several times. I haven't seen this one yet.

The Parson's Widow - I was impressed with Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer when I watched his Passion of Joan of Arc a couple of years ago. So I'm interested in seeing this, his earliest film available on Netflix.

Anna Boleyn - Last year's The Doll was unexpectedly good, so I decided to see this early Ernst Lubitsch film as well.

The Penalty - I was also pleasantly surprised by last year's Lon Chaney thriller Victory, so I decided to add this film to the list.

These are the films I will definitely see this month, but I always add a few additional titles to the list just in case I have time to watch more. These two films are on the cusp:

Way Down East - I added this melodrama directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish to the list because it is popular and highly rated on IMDb, but I was really disappointed by last year's Griffith/Gish film, Broken Blossoms, so I added it to the bottom of the list.

Why Change Your Wife? - I added this morality play directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Gloria Swanson to the list because it is popular and highly rated on IMDb, but I was really disappointed by last year's DeMille/Swanson film, Male and Female, so I added it to the bottom of the list.

Not on DVD

Within Our Gates - I saw this film on a DVD back in 2003 (and wrote a small, negative, review of it here), but that DVD is now out of print. I didn't particularly care for the film when I saw it, but then I noticed it was on the National Film Registry, and I wanted to give it a second viewing.