Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dave Kehr-Great Film Critic

If you like old movies, you need to read Dave Kehr's DVD Review column that appears every Tuesday in The New York Times. Kehr's a very insightful film critic who doesn't try to be arch or funny, he just has a knack for describing films very well. Kehr keeps the focus on the films, not on himself. And Kehr actually likes movies, unlike say, David Denby of The New Yorker, who seems to hate everything he sees. (Carrying on the fine tradition of Pauline Kael, who never met a film she liked.) Well, I do exaggerate, Denby did like Capote. (I almost fell off my chair when I read that review!) Kehr is great on old movies, he wrote a really great column a couple of months ago about a variety of Westerns from the 40's and 50's. It made me want to see all of those movies. His column this week is about a new boxed set of Errol Flynn's Westerns.

Good movie reviews are hard to come by, so check out Dave Kehr's column, and his website at

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jimmy Smith, "Bucket!"

Okay, so I have to be honest, I bought jazz organist Jimmy Smith's CD "Bucket!" in large part because of the title and the cover art. As a fan of Blue Note Records' classic jazz albums and classic album cover designs from the 50's and 60's, I knew I had to have this. The title is so ludicrous, who would call an album "Bucket!" and why? And why the exclamation point and quotation marks? (According to the front cover, the title is actually "Bucket"! The CD itself says Bucket! And the CD spine says Bucket. But I prefer "Bucket!") From the front cover, it looks like Jimmy is exuberantly shouting "Bucket!"
Despite the classic cover and title, "Bucket!" is unfortunately not a very memorable album. I'm not the biggest jazz organ fan ever, but I do really like Jimmy Smith's sessions with the guitarist Wes Montgomery. Now there was some smokin' jazz. To give you some background, Jimmy Smith was the man who brought the organ out of church, (and baseball stadiums) and into the jazz mainstream. He's one of the most important innovators on the organ. His Blue Note albums from the late 50's and early 60's made him a star in the jazz world, and his 60's albums for Verve served to solidify his standing. His most famous song is probably "Walk On the Wild Side." (Not to be confused with Lou Reed's song of the same name.)
"Bucket!" was one of Jimmy Smith's last albums for Blue Note, recorded in 1963, but not released until three or four years later. (That's usually never a good sign.) The only other musicians on "Bucket!" are Quentin Warren on guitar, and Donald Bailey on drums. Both were regulars on Smith's Blue Note sessions of the time. Both are good musicians, but the session is more like a slow, steady groove than an explosive display of virtuosity. Warren and Bailey are not Wes Montgomery and Art Blakey, to name two more propulsive talents on their instruments. Warren isn't given very much room to solo, and Smith's solos are more restrained and laid-back than usual. The song choice is also kind of odd, as Smith leads the group through the old, old songs "Careless Love," and "John Brown's Body." I'm not kidding, a jazz organ version of "John Brown's Body." Smith's solos don't stray too far from the melodies, which gives the feeling that he's playing it safe for some reason. Anyway, it's a good, solid Blue Note session, it makes for enjoyable listening, and worth recommending for serious Jimmy Smith fans, but it's nothing extraordinary.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock, "1974"

Alright, so it's back to music, as I realize I haven't done a music-related post in a long time. Robyn Hitchcock's song "1974" leads off the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme's concert film, "Storefront Hitchcock." (If you haven't seen it, it's great, go out and watch it.) "1974" is on the soundtrack CD, and a different version appears on Robyn's 2000 CD, "A Star For Bram." The soundtrack version is Robyn solo on acoustic guitar (with a soft electric guitar in the background), and the "A Star for Bram" version is a full band version. I much prefer the simplicity of the soundtrack version. Spare, solo settings make you pay attention to Robyn's brilliant, odd lyrics. Sometimes a full band just obscures his lyrics.

"1974," as you might have guessed, is about Robyn's general observations about the year in question. I read somewhere that Robyn said that 1974 was just a crappy year, which I couldn't tell immediately from the song, but if we look deeper, there are some clues. The song starts off with a great first line, "You have two coffees, one of them is one coffee too many for you." I like the little wordplay, "one coffee too," which also sounds like "one coffee two." The time seems to be the present, as the person with two coffees is "trying to lead a middle-aged life." But "it feels like 1974, waiting for the waves to come and crash on the shore. But you're far in land." This sounds to me like a clue to Robyn's state of mind, as he is waiting for something to happen, anything to break the tedium of 1974.

One of the events of 1974 that Robyn mentions is "Syd Barrett's last session, he can't sing anymore, he's gonna have to be Roger now, for the rest of his life." The reference is of course to the band Pink Floyd, and it's founding member, Syd Barrett, a huge influence on Robyn's music. The story goes that Barrett, who had not been a member of the band for some years, showed up at Abbey Road, and witnessed the recording of the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which was, ironically enough, written about Barrett. None of the other band members recognized Barrett at first, as he had shaved off all his hair and become a recluse, and was undergoing severe mental health issues. Needless to say, it was an emotional moment for the band. The lyric, "He's gonna have to be Roger now," I take to mean that Syd will have to live vicariously through Roger Waters, who had taken leadership of the band after Barrett left.

Another reference to the music of the times comes up when Robyn sings, "Rebel rebel was your favorite song," a reference to David Bowie's hit single. Any reference to David Bowie wins points with me, and one of the best things about 1974 was David Bowie's brilliant glam album "Diamond Dogs," the album "Rebel Rebel" appears on. (Bowie fact: David played lead guitar on the "Diamond Dogs" album.)

Robyn then mentions the political events of the year, "And as Nixon left the White House, you could hear people say, 'They'll never rehabilitate that mother, no way.'" This is obviously meant as an ironic comment, because Nixon was rehabilitated, unfortunately. It just goes to show you, if you live long enough, (and get a Presidential pardon) people forget about the bad things you've done. Well, not entirely, of course. But Bill Clinton invited Nixon to the White House for advice! The next lyric is, "Whirry-whirry goes the helicopter, out of my way, I've got a President to dump in the void." In my mind, I always want to change it to, "I've got a President to dump in the bay," because I dislike Richard Nixon, and also because it rhymes.

In the last verse, Robyn sings, "And you say that's where it ended, but I say no, no, no, it just faded away. August was grey, it feels like 1974." There's a naked, highly emotional quality to this lyric when Robyn sings it solo, it almost give me shivers, that is missing in the full band version. The full band version is also marred by dopey and distracting backing vocals, and what sounds like a cowbell. The cowbell is an odd choice, and it would seem to undercut the message of Robyn's song, which is that 1974 sucked. And if 1974 sucked, I don't think the song is supposed to sound like 1974! (Unless the cowbell was meant ironically.)

"1974" is a great Robyn Hitchcock song, and shows his gifts as a songwriter. It has a catchy melody, with lots of twists and turns, and lyrics that are not always easily decipherable, but are full of vivid images that stay with you long after the song has faded away.