Monday, March 11, 2013

Now Hear This!

I just looked at my calendar this morning and realized that we're almost halfway through March already! Jeez, where does the time go? It's been awhile since the last round-up of good music you ought to be listening to. Figured it's time to catch you up with what's been blaring from the speakers around Ruttville lately.

It's a big wide Internet out there, and it's full of tunes.  Some are good, some are bad; some you can acquire legitimately, some...well, not so much.  It's enough to make your head spin! Friend, I'm here to help.  I've done the hard part - I've separated the wheat from the chaff and come up with a list of 10 excellent musical curios for your musical curio, iPod.  These aural treats are not presented in any particular order, and I am receiving no compensation of any kind from the artists, other than the sheer enjoyment of listening to their creations. Almost all of these are very recent, but some are not. That's just the way it is. Let's dig in!

Grumpy Old Punks
Punk's not dead; it's just old and grumpy.  Also, wickedly funny when served up by LouB, KRoy, Brian, and Guzda, collectively the Grumpy Old Punks. A grand old party perhaps (with the emphasis on old!), but this GOP seriously rocks.  They don't take the easy Weird Al-style parody route; their songs are original and quite solid on their own merits.  These would be killer tracks even if they weren't snarling about their adjustable rate mortgages or wondering where their glasses are.  Two EP's are available, 2011's self-titled debut and last year's Anarchy in the Prostate.  And you must head to their website to catch their as yet unreleased cover of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Yes, you read that right. Now get the hell off my lawn!

I am utterly embarrassed to admit that I completely missed these guys in 1999 when their simply astounding Leave Stockholm album was issued, but I am definitely playing catch-up now! The so-obvious-it's-oblivious crossbreeding of ABBA and The Ramones works more often than it flops, although the points at which it doesn't quite gel can be enormously disappointing (hopes were so much higher for their take on "S.O.S." than the results produced.) Still when Bjöey and Anneky harmonize on "Waterloo," you wonder why no one else ever thought of this. Genius!

The machines have taken over, and as it turns out, they just wanna rock.  Stickboy, Fingers, and Bones form "the world's heaviest metal band," the all-robotic Compressorhead. Whipping through head-thunking covers of AC/DC, Motorhead, and The Ramones, these precision machines are programmed to rock and roll all night and party every day.  Listen up, meatbags!

Regular readers of this li'l ol' blog are likely quite familiar with both halves of this husband-and-wife duo who have released their first official collaboration this year (what took them so long?!?).  If you don't know Jules Shear or Pal Shazar, get thee to Google!  Get yerself some Polar Bears and Slow Children records and get yerself schooled, kiddo! Or, better yet, join me in bopping along to some incredibly literate, deeply touching music that manages to be yearning without being unhappy, and manages to be crunchily hippie-ish without reeking of patchouli and weed.  It's folksy, folk-y, and funky, just like the artists who created it.  Outstanding!

Scott Walker
I discovered the music of the enigmatic and fascinating Scott Walker by happening across the excellent documentary 30 Century Man (find it and watch it!). Walker's story is compelling: he achieved and utterly rejected pop stardom in the early '60s UK, became a troubadour in the tradition of Jacques Brel, cultivated a rather purposeful obscurity, and began creating recordings of highly experimental and personal musical expression. His stunning and unmistakeable baritone may be the only continuity in his career's twisting, turning journey, but his works have inspired and influenced many: Brian Eno, David Bowie, Gavin Friday, and Marc Almond, among others, all show up to praise him in the film. Walker has a new album out, his first in six years, Bish Bosch.  The first single from it, "Epizootics!," is jaw-droppingly good:

Palmyra Delran
In the 1990s, Palmyra Delran headed up all-girl punk band The Friggs. These days, she's a solo act; a girl with a guitar and an attitude and, as of last week, a brand new album, You Are What You Absorb.  The first single from it, "Shut Out," has been being played often and loudly around here lately.  Delran bears more than just a passing sonic and vocal resemblance to the late Paula Pierce of The Pandoras, so you know exactly what you're in for. Delran delivers on this cut; can't wait to hear the rest of the LP!

The Electric Mess
With a psychedelic paisley-punk farfisa snarl that brings to mind a chance meeting of The Fuzztones and The Three O'Clock on board a yellow submarine, The Electric Mess burst out of NYC a few years back with the in all ways wonderful "You've Become A Witch." This year, they've damn near topped it with the single "The Girl With The Exploding Dress," from their sophomore album Falling Off The Face Of The Earth.  Awesomely good stuff, sez me!

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Also on the list of bands with new albums out - or, in this case, soon to be out - is this pleasant surprise: OMD! Always one of my favorites back in the day, OMD's brand of synthpop was a bit more erudite and sophisticated to my ear than the run-of-the-mill stuff of the early '80s.  Songs like "Electricity," "Joan Of Arc," "Souvenir," and "Telegraph" were constantly on my high-school-era playlist, and even when they moved into the more commercial sound of "Tesla Girls," "If You Leave," and "So In Love," they were always a class act.  And now they're back! Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries, just like the old days! (Yes, yes, I know, the comeback album was actually three years ago when History Of Modern was released. Jeez, do you hafta spoil all my fun?!?) The first sounds from the forthcoming album, English Electric, could have been happily ensconced in the grooves of 1983's majestic Dazzle Ships, which is a good thing - a damn good thing! Behold:

Freezepop's The Other Sean T. Drinkwater's other band, Lifestyle, has a couple of new releases out via At the end of last year the synthpoppers issued a crisp new seven-song set, Artificial, and in January they gave a properly restored and remastered reissue release to 2005's Adventure. Both are excellent, and will carry you back to 1985 on the backs of glistening synth washes and memories of Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, and later-era Roxy Music.  But, as with Drinkwater's other other band, Lifestyle isn't a nostalgia act.  Their work is solid and enjoyable pop music - and that's not a crime, right?

The Popdogs
If you don't find yourself smiling and tapping your feet along with The Popdogs' debut Cool Cats For Pop Dogs, you probably want to have your fun meter readjusted.  If there isn't already a genre called Sunshine Power Pop, there needs to be, and The Popdogs need to be filed under it.  They jangle like R.E.M. but wear much brighter colors; their songs are catchy and hummable bits of ephemeral ear candy that seem to evaporate upon arrival yet leave joyful echoes bouncing around your head.  Check out the lead track, "Honest Guy," for proof: 

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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Happy 80th Birthday, Kong!

Today, my favorite movie of all time turns 80 years old.  Seems hard to believe that it has been eight decades since King Kong made his fateful climb up the side of the Empire State Building with the beautiful Ann Darrow in his hand, only to meet his demise at the hands of a squadron of biplanes.  What is not hard to believe is that the movie has endured, finding new audiences with each successive generation.  It is an incredible film, both in story and in production, and despite the limitations of the era in which it was made, it remains far superior in every way to the attempts to remake it in 1976 and 2005.

King Kong was released on March 2, 1933, in the thick of the Great Depression, and still made over $1.8 million in its initial release (adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of over $300 million today).  In 1938, King Kong became the first movie in history to be re-released; it earned another half million the second time around.

Although often lumped in with the monster movies of its day (Frankenstein and Dracula were only two years old at the time of Kong's release), this is no horror movie.  More than anything, Kong is a story of unrequited love; it just happens that the rejected suitor here is a 24-foot tall gorilla.  If Kong is a monster, it is only because he was forced to be one when kidnapped from his home to be put on display in a world he neither knew nor was capable of understanding.  Had Carl Denham and his crew not been constantly in search of the almighty dollar, Kong would have lived out his days in that prehistoric world hidden behind a giant fence on Skull Island without bothering a soul save the occasional triceratops or an unfortunately wandering native.

The acting is most definitely of the style of the era: stage-heavy, but not stilted. Keep in mind, movies had been silent just six years before; subtlety in delivering lines was not yet well developed among the acting community.  Yet Robert Armstrong nearly steals the movie in the role of Carl Denham.  Yes, he is the heavy who steals Kong away from his paradise, but he is also father figure to Fay Wray's Ann Darrow and narrator for the viewing audience.  Armstrong gives the Denham character a depth that makes him hard to truly dislike.  While he is certainly a money-hungry promoter, he truly cares about his crew, about the young actress he pulled into this adventure, and even about the beast he has inadvertently unleashed in New York City.

It would be easy to dismiss Fay Wray's performance as Ann Darrow as a one-dimensional damsel in distress, but she is a surprisingly strong character when she isn't enfolded in a giant ape's paw.  Yes, she is well-known for her screams throughout the picture (many of which were recorded and added in post-production), but watch the subtleties in her reaction shots, and pay attention to her interaction with the crew of Denham's ship, and especially with her less tall suitor, Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot.

Driscoll, it turns out, is the one-dimensional character here: he is the stereotypical 1930's guy-who-gets-the-girl. He's got the football team captain looks and spouts the right lines at the right times, but possesses not an ounce of either personality or insight.  Whether it was Cabot's intent to play Driscoll that way or inability to do better, the flatness of our wanna-be hero's presence actually works far better in the film than a charismatic, engaging presence would have.  Nothing should (nor, in truth, could) distract from the true star here.

So much has been written about Willis O'Brien's absolutely astounding special effects given the era in which the film was made that space need not be wasted parroting all of that well-deserved praise here.  All one needs to do is compare the 1933 Kong with the robotic 1976 version and the CGI'd 2005 version to see that a tiny miniature and a stop-motion camera many moons before brought more life and emotion out of Kong than more modern and supposedly more sophisticated technologies did decades later.  Through his facial expressions and body language, you know what Kong is thinking and feeling at every moment.  And if you do not find yourself shedding a tear for Kong at the end, when Denham delivers the film's classic closing line, "It wasn't the planes. It was Beauty killed the beast," you may want to check to see if you actually have a soul.  Of all the characters, it is the wild giant ape who is the most human.

If you have never seen the original King Kong, it is simply a glaring omission from your life experience list that you must correct.  If you can, find the 2005 DVD issue which presents the most complete version of the film available, at a running time of 104 minutes.

Happy 80th birthday, Kong!