One for Friday: Robyn Hitchcock, “Sinister But She Was Happy”

I remember finding it bizarre when the first Robyn Hitchcock album on Warner Bros. Records arrived in 1996. He had been on a major label before, having released four albums on A&M through the late eighties and early nineties. Still, there was something about seeing that iconic WB logo–about as major as a label could get at the time–affixed to a record by college radio’s resident warped genius. It was hard to conceive of their promotions department having any idea whatsoever as to how to market this thing, and Hitchcock’s relatively brief stay with the label seemed to confirm that. He made some fine music on their dime, though, especially that label debut, Moss Elixir.

It had been around three years since the last Hitchcock studio album, and he had been in heavy archival mode, working with Rhino Records on a big batch of reissues and a suitably bizarre odds and ends compilation. It almost seemed like he was winding down. Instead, there were more artistic peaks to come, even if significant commercial success–which almost felt like a real possibility a few years earlier–was unquestionably out of reach. Now it was only the coolest of the cool kids who’d know about him, including the proprietors of B-Side Records in Madison, Wisconsin, who had Moss Elixir hanging proudly in their front window for weeks, a hand-written sticker on the front, jubilantly proclaiming simply, “ROBYN!”

That sticker expressed my feelings perfectly, and I actually still think about it every time I get my hands on something new from Hitchcock. As it was when I played Moss Elixir‘s opening track, “Sinister But She Was Happy,” it’s always a joy when the new album starts.

Listen or download –> Robyn Hitchcock, “Sinister But She Was Happy”

(Disclaimer: As far as I can tell, Moss Elixir is out of print as a physical object. It is available for digital purchase, but I’m sure the crack accountants at Warner Bros. have figured out all sorts of ways to prevent anything but the most meager of compensation making it to Hitchcock for any of that commerce. Regardless, there’s no way to go into your favorite local, independently-owned record store and buy this release in such a way that both the record store proprietor and the artist are duly compensated. The song is shared here with that understanding, but I will absolutely remove it if I get a request to do so from any person or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

My Writers: William Greider

I reserve a significant amount of my personal allotment of scorn for Rolling Stone magazine, mostly due to the misguided impressions it gave me about which portions of classic rock history merited veneration (they sure did like creaky British dudes swiping shamelessly from classic American blues), as well as which then-current albums were worthy of attention when I was a subscriber. I can almost forgive all those infractions against sensible music taste, however, because that publication is also responsible for my introduction to the insightful writing of William Greider.

When I started reading Rolling Stone regularly, in the mid nineteen-eighties, Greider was officially listed (I believe) as the “National Editor.” I’m not entirely sure what level of input he may have had into the other newsier articles included in the magazine, but he regularly had a lengthy column that appeared towards the front. I read Rolling Stone from cover to cover back then, and my political viewpoints were shimmering into sharp clarity concurrently with my interest in music. Greider was aligned with my burgeoning sensibility (as opposed to the reactionary buffoonery of P.J O’Rourke, the other person given extensive column inches to expound of his view of the political wilds), but it wasn’t just the codification of my left-leaning inclinations that I appreciated. It was that Greider approached the dilemmas of the day with a gratifying intellectual honesty, a desire to apply logic and hard facts to ongoing debates to see what conclusions should be drawn. He addressed issues passionately but with respect to the fact that a variety of approaches existed. His job was to test the soundness of his views, not to cherry-pick anecdotal outrage until he wound up with an overwhelming manifesto of angsty, agitated fulminations, a distinction that current Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi, he of the sophomoric name-calling and slippery evidence, could stand to learn.

As I’ve mentioned before, I became something of a fiend for new books when I successfully completed my undergraduate experience and was freed from the tyranny of assigned text. One of the first books I snatched up in my first weeks of cognitive liberation was Greider’s Who Will Tell the People?, compellingly subtitled The Betrayal of American Democracy. It was an energizing read, exactly what I needed when moving from campus life, with its constant infusions of civic mindfulness, to the so-called real world, where the burden of political attentiveness was entirely on me. Greider’s book may have been about the appalling erosion of the democratic process as an apparatus for responding to the needs of the citizenry (a lament grown sadly more pertinent in the twenty years since publication), but in detailing what was going awry there is hope that no matter how much water swamped in, the ship could be righted again. Years later, in the face of more contrary evidence than I care to catalog, I still believe that, and I have Greider to thank. Or blame. Your pick.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirty-Two

#32 — In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)
The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas were murdered in their farmhouse home in November, 1959. Author Truman Capote, with his childhood friend Harper Lee in tow, journey to the Midwestern state to write about the crime. Following extensive reporting, including interviews with the two men arrested for the murders, Capote produced a series of articles for The New Yorker that were subsequently pulled together to become the book In Cold Blood, first published in 1966. It was enough of a sensation that a film version was ready by the following year, written and directed by Richard Brooks, whose previous cinematic experiences with religious hucksterism, noirish crime films and Tennessee Williams adaptations made him uniquely equipped to demonstrate how a single violent assault could offer up a broader commentary on pervasive American rot.

In a quest for authenticity, Brooks chose to shoot in locations directly connected to the true crime story: the courtroom where the assailants were tried, the jail where they were imprisoned, even the crime scene itself. Perhaps in part because of this, the film has a resolutely clamped down style that refutes all conventions of Hollywood. That isn’t to imply it isn’t cinematic. Quite the opposite is true: images are framed with great care, and the black-and-white cinematography of the great Conrad L. Hall gives the whole thing a striking beauty, even when the film is at its bleakest. Instead, Brooks emphasizes the plainness of these lives, making it more chilling when the planned robbery goes wrong and rapidly escalates to something far more dire. The harshest acts can happen in an instant, the decision to end someone’s very existence taking no time at all, considering the extreme gravity of the choice. Consequences don’t hang over the perpetrators. They are as distant as the clouds.

As played by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, the murderers Perry and Dick are starkly human, achingly troubled as much as they themselves are clearly capable of causing horrible calamity for others. It is fallibility rather than lurking evil that drives them to their heinous acts, which is especially key when Brooks turns his attention to the punishment for their crimes. Dick and Perry were sentenced to death, and In Cold Blood follows them all the way to the gallows, ticking out the trip there with the same excruciating patience afforded the murder of the Clutters. Punishment or not, Brooks seems to be making the point about the parallels between what was done by two brutal men and what was handed down by the apparatus of the state justice system. Maybe the title of the film can apply to both sets of actions, and death becomes a cycle rather than a tragedy. It’s to the credit of Brooks that his unflinching depiction of Perry and Dick’s murderous actions doesn’t make their own end any less wrenching. Where the social strictures have trained everyone to believe in the hangman’s noose as the ripcord to catharsis, Brooks suggests–subtly and without pointed commentary–that is just one more example of man’s inhumanity to man.


I was so nervous I shook my head, 
it was a struggle but there was pleasure at the end

trekinto

The 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, directed by J.J. Abrams, was better than any such pillaging of pop culture’s past has a right to be. Ingeniously drawing on the exact time travel tropes that contributed to some of the more mortifying moments in the long history of Gene Roddenberry sci-fi creation, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman recreated the story with an updated sensibility while keeping all previously existing continuity firmly and faithfully intact. It was a sterling piece of entertainment that was also a respectable tribute to what had come before. Unfortunately, its success and the dictates of modern filmmaking meant that Abrams and his team were basically beholden to pull it off again, which leads to the arrival of Star Trek Into Darkness. While still vivid fun, it also suggests that diminishing returns is a nearly inescapable phenomenon.

The crew of the starship Enterprise, familiar to audiences since 1966, remains intact, not quite committed to lengthy half-decade missions yet, but still dispatched to different portions of the universe to do a little exploring. The film begins as the crew is in the process of violating the Prime Directive of the Federation, which insists that Starfleet officers must not interfere in the lives and development of the alien races they encounter. Orci and Kurtzman are again credited screenwriters, this time alongside Damon Lindelof (one of the many producers with his name on the new iteration of the series) and their purpose with the early sequence is clear: setting up some of the philosophical conflicts between the characters, while also trying to unsettle the characters’ placement within the confines of the story. It’s fine, but it’s also transparent, moving pieces around to keep the audience guessing as to when things will lock into place. As foreshadowing to the ways in which the film will invert Trek history later, it’s a little more intriguing.

If there’s any quality that Abrams has brought to both of these Trek films, it’s an engaging playfulness, a sense of the invention that can come from looking at tried and true material anew, as if rummaging through a trunk of colorful Vaudevillian costumes. Abrams and company don’t inspire with originality, even within the confines of this single film, in which multiple sequences build to the image of someone jumping from a high point into the midair of a lengthy plummet. It’s less of a recurring motif than a willful miring in redundancy. That also arises in the staging of the story, which often comes across as an extended series of set pieces. They may hang together well and ultimately add up to an enjoyable whole, but there’s also the somewhat flattened sensation of watching a amusement park ride get bolted together rather than watching a satisfying story formulate and build.

Fine as Star Trek Into Darkness is, it may be for the best that Abrams is moving on to Star Wars, presumably taking most of his creative cohorts with him. He’s successfully toyed with the most iconographic elements of Trek, and it’s difficult to conceive of the series holding his interest much further. And by the evidence of the current film, he’s pulled together a set of actors capable of carrying this franchise further than the able but limited journeymen who occupied the roles before. Chris Pine still has a whiff of William Shatner’s over-emotive bravado, but with a tempering of humility that the original Kirk could never pull off. And Zachary Quinto absolutely owns the role of Spock now, drawing on Leonard Nimoy’s wonderful work but giving the half-Vulcan a nicely splintered inner life. The rest of the cast is admirable if necessarily limited in their opportunities, but special commendations should go out to Benedict Cumberbatch for his roaring work as the antagonist who will remain unnamed here. Even if Abrams completely disembarks for a galaxy far, far away, he is leaving this franchise with a crew properly equipped to go boldly, presumably for a long time to come.

Beers I Have Known: ABA Hoppy Saison

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

My place of residence may have recently ceded the title of Beer City in the very poll that first conferred it, but that hasn’t exactly erased the clear sense of identity that winning (or co-winning) four years in row established. And the community is currently in the midst of the second annual Asheville Beer Week celebration, which brings a ridiculous number of special events to various locales around town. As upstanding local citizens, the residents of my household are trying to do our part, including a trip to Green Man Brewery (which I will forever refer to as Dirty Jack’s) for a couple pints of ABA Hoppy Saison, billed as a collaboration between twenty-two different area breweries, including a couple that are still working their way towards establishing new East Coast outposts. As for the Hoppy Saison, I can confirm that it lives up to it’s name: clearly a brisk, bright saison, but with a unique blast of unexpected hoppy goodness giving it an especially flavorful quality. Others can probably detect added subtleties–identifying oddball flavors that slip gently across the tongue with every sip–but I simply know that it was refreshing and delicious, absolutely perfect for a warm day at the cusp of summer.

Previously…
Point Special
21st Amendment Bitter American
Abita Restoration Pale Ale
Rolling Rock
Skull Splitter
Foster’s
Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter
Red Stripe
Rhinelander Bock
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
New Glarus Brewing Company Wisconsin Belgian Red

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, 70 and 69


70. Jonny Polonsky, Hi My Name is Jonny

Besides looking like he was about fifteen years too early to snare a role in the supporting cast of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Jonny Polonsky was notable as a discovery of one Black Francis, when the former Pixies frontman still had some wider influence (I assume he’s mostly seen as part of nostalgia act these days, a seminal nostalgia act, but still a nostalgia act). Polonsky had sent around demo tapes to anyone he could think of, encouraging rigorous trading, one eventually finding its way to Black. Liking what he heard, Black helped Polonsky produce a slicker tape and connected him with a manager, instrumental help in bringing him to the attention of Rick Rubin, head of American Recordings. Polonsky was signed, and his introductory debut album was released in early 1996, just in time to catch the attention of student programmers returning from Winter Break and desperate for new music catchy enough to wipe away the memory of whatever painful selections they’d had to endure at home because of the taste of their family and old high school friends. Polonsky’s time as a fledgling rock star was notably short-lived, in part because the American Recordings label parted way with helpful distribution partner Warner Bros the year after Hi My Name is Jonny, leading to an understandable culling of the roster. Best as I can tell, there was one more album. Polonsky also turned up as a touring partner with Lisa Loeb earlier this year.


69. Brendan Benson, One Mississippi

There’s a reason a strong contingent emerged at the release of the first single from the Raconteurs, insisting that Jack White may indeed be the bee’s knees, but the contributions of the other chief songwriter for the band shouldn’t be discounted. That reason begins with fellow Michigander Brendan Benson’s own debut release, One Mississippi. Benson may not have gotten the same traction as White and his drumming ex in the White Stripes, but he had his adherents from the very beginning, even if those adherents didn’t include very many people at his original label, Virgin Records. The label reportedly rejected an early version of the album, produced by and largely co-written with Jason Falkner of the band Jellyfish, instead pairing him with relatively new producer Ethan John in an attempt, it would seem, to tamp down the psychedelic wonderment. The reworked tracks, while quite good, still weren’t what Virgin wanted and Benson was dropped. The performer eventually worked his way back, including a 2005 album, The Alternative to Love, released on V2, the label Richard Branson formed after selling off Virgin Records in the early nineties.

Previously…
An Introduction
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm
–88 and 87: No Code and Unplugged
–86 and 85: Greatest Hits Live and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts
–84 and 83: To the Faithful Departed and God’s Good Urges
–82 and 81: Billy Breathes and Sweet F.A.
–80 and 79: The Process and Test for Echo
–78 and 77: Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds and Breathe
–76 and 75: Bob Mould and Walking Wounded
–74 and 73: It’s Martini Time and Trainspotting soundtrack
–72 and 71: Aloha Via Satellite and Fever In Fever Out

Spectrum Check

My writing week with Spectrum Culture started with a look backward. Our Revisit series cycles through all the music writers, and my turn came up. I always have an extremely difficult time figuring out what to write on for this feature, usually defaulting to an album I know inside out. This time, that meant a few words on my favorite Billy Bragg album.

For the film reviews, I wrote on new horror movie, directed by Katie Asleton and written by her husband, Mark Duplass. I thought it was solid, though I should note that the person in our household with far more expertise on such material extends it a rave. Given the involvement of one-half of the filmmaking Duplass brothers, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have the deconstructionist verve of their earlier Baghead, but I’m quick to concede that it’s important to primarily consider films in the context of what they are rather than what I might want them to be.