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2 Stars Music

Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

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3 Stars Music

MGMT live in Brooklyn, July 1, 2009

The electronic/disco/pop/rock group MGMT has made a huge splash, earning spots on tours with no less than Paul McCartney and Beck. The wildly catchy “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” (the latter featuring a truly deranged music video) are not out of keeping with the rest of their repertoire in terms of style and instrumentation, but the infectious hooks do stand apart from the forgettable rest. At their Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park on July 1, they debuted a few new songs set for their forthcoming sophomore album that didn’t immediately grab me either.

MGMT live in Prospect Park
MGMT live in Prospect Park

For a band called “synth-hippies” by Pitchfork, they all looked rather clean-cut to me (but they evidently have a very young and boozy audience – one kid passed out and literally collapsed on our feet only a few songs into the concert). Their sound may be very electronic and a throwback to disco, but their live instrumentation is very rock guitar oriented. The only exception being “Kids,” for which the band put down their analog instruments and let the synthesizers and sequencers take over, even recreating a live fadeout.

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3 Stars Music

Explosions in the Sky live in Central Park, June 30, 2009

Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental post-rock quartet from Texas. Their characteristic formula of a chiming guitar power trio on top of pulsating drums is a bit more palatable than their extremely loud, menacing Scottish peers Mogwai (read our review of their April show in New York). Personally, I hear a kind of homogeneity to much of Explosions’ music that I don’t hear in other post-rock outfits like Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and Tortoise.

To oversimplify their history, the band is primarily known for two factoids. In an unfortunate coincidence, their album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, released a few days before 9/11, featured a cover illustration of a plane and a caption reading “This plane will crash tomorrow.” Long before I actually heard any of their music, I do recall this story helping to feed the 24-hour-a-day broadcast news hysteria that followed. Better bolstering their repute, they composed the popular score to Peter Berg’s 2004 film Friday Night Lights, and they’ve attracted a significant fan base – selling out outdoor Central Park Rumsey Playfield even in the rain.

The band’s designated spokesman Munaf Rayani began the show by announcing it was their 10-year anniversary as a band. They played for about an hour and half without interruption, blending songs together into a continuous flow. From where I stood, the appreciative audience recognized and cheered many tunes. But Rayani apologized at the end of the show for things having “going off the rails,” and they walked off without an encore despite there still being some time before the Central Park curfew. For all I know, that may be their custom, but it was really surprising, and audibly disappointed everyone around me. Awkward.

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4 Stars Music

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio
California Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men
Tony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.

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4 Stars Music

The Decemberists Live at Radio City Music Hall, June 10, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (including Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Bill Rieflin of Ministry, R.E.M., and The Humans) opened with an enjoyable 30-minute set. I was unfamiliar with Hitchcock, but by total coincidence had just days before seen his appearance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. His quirky non sequiturs between songs (“I had a root canal this morning, which is why I’m wearing a hat” – which he wasn’t) contrasted with his focused, tight songs. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy briefly joined in on tambourine and backing vocals.

I’m a latecomer to The Decemberists, only catching on with their third album The Crane Wife (2006), which features a guest appearance by Laura Veirs, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, on the wonderful track “Yankee Bayonet.” My interest was further piqued by a review (that I now can’t track down) that compared them to early Genesis, of which I am also a longtime fan. It’s a bold comparison, for few would classify The Decemberists’ music as progressive rock. But it is fitting insofar as their compositions are often epic narratives, encompassing styles ranging from pastoral folk to hard rock, all performed with high musicianship that eschews flashy individual soloing. Further bolstering their prog rock cred, the first half of The Decemberists’ set was the entirety of their 2009 concept album, The Hazards of Love.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3 live at Radio City Music Hall
Colin Meloy joins Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 as they warm up the crowd

In retrospect, a concept album was inevitable for a such a band that had already shown a penchant for lengthy story-based songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (on Picaresque, 2005) and “The Crane Wife Parts 1-3.” Compared to Genesis’ grand but slightly inconsistent epics “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Hazards of Love is actually one of the most cohesive concept albums I’ve heard. It rivals The Who’s Quadrophenia for clarity of vision and cohesiveness of its recurring musical themes.

An instrumental organ intro (sorry to keep bringing them up, but possibly an idea borrowed from Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies”) launches the epic fairy tale. The role of a girl that falls in love with a forest creature is sung on record and live by the airy, sweet voice of Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, a pint-sized, multi-instrumentalist powerhouse, blowed everybody’s hair back as the evil forest queen. How does a girl that small have such powerful pipes?

Although a few tracks can stand on their own (especially “The Rake’s Song”), the entire suite deserves to be heard in one piece. It was a very bold move to release a 58-minute song suite at a time when the long-player album is dying, and music is consumed track-by-track and randomly shuffled by iPod algorithms. Personally, I had found the album a little slow to absorb, but now that I’ve witnessed the whole thing live… wow. It’s brilliant, and made to be experienced live, in one piece.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music Hall
Becky Stark & Shara Worden join The Decemberists to cover Heart’s “Crazy On You”

The second set mostly featured songs I didn’t know, so it’s time for me to visit Amazon MP3 to buy up their back catalogue. Peter Buck came back out to join them for a cover of “Begin the Begin” from my favorite R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant (I was unable to shake Michael Stipe’s hook “The insurgency began and you missed it” from my head the entire walk home from the show). Stark and Worden rejoined the band for a full-blooded cover of all things, Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Their rendition was totally faithful, and yet somehow managed to sound both like a Decemberist original as well as something Fleetwood Mac might have done. They ended on a high note for me, with one of my personal favorite Decemberist songs, “Sons & Daughters.”

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4 Stars Music

Nine Inch Nails & Jane’s Addiction live at Jones Beach, June 7, 2009

STREET SWEEPER SOCIAL CLUB

Street Sweeper Social Club, the new band formed by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, opened. Their badass cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” was a highlight.

NINE INCH NAILS

It felt wrong somehow to see a band as moody and dark as Nine Inch Nails play while the sun was still up. But clouds soon moved in, obscuring a sunset that would have been impressive over the water, making everything suitably gloomy and very, very cold as NIN chased summer away. This stripped-down four-piece version of the band played a great cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the best song Nine Inch Nails could have but never wrote, and ended with the overwhelmingly sad “Hurt.” Surprisingly omitted was “Closer,” what I would assume to be a requisite entry in any NIN set list (but the end theme did feature in a short instrumental jam). Speaking of, said jam was one of only two instrumental portions of the set (the other being The Fragile’s ambient interlude “The Frail”). A little disappointing, given that Trent Reznor has been becoming more and more musically experimental and adventurous of late, with whole chunks of The Fragile and the entirety of the massive two-disc Ghosts being instrumental. Personally, when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, the music (not so much the gloomy lyrics) is where the action is for me.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

JANE’S ADDICTION

All thanks to Reznor for playing peacekeeper in reuniting the notoriously fractious and unstable Jane’s Addiction, at least for the length of the NIN/JA tour. Basically a funk/prog/metal power-trio fronted by the antics of Perry Farrell, a… unique individual whose ego (he once re-released a raft of Jane’s Addiction songs under just his own name on a solo greatest hits album) has often created conflict with bassist Eric Avery. The full moon peeking out from the clouds probably only added to Farrell’s lunacy. They opened with their magnum opus “Three Days,” an epic featuring more discrete guitar solos by Dave Navarro than I could count. Honestly, where do you go from there? They kept finding high points to hit, however, including “Ocean Size” and the closer (what else?) “Jane Says.” It only took a few songs for the ageless Navarro’s vest to disappear (he must have one heck of a personal trainer, not to mention a chest hair waxer), and Perry’s shirt followed shortly thereafter.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

THE FUTURE

Reznor has made vague noises about Nine Inch Nails coming to some kind of end following this tour. It remains to be seen whether he means retiring the name in favor of solo work, starting a new band, or simply ceasing to tour for a while. He’s reportedly been clean & sober for some time now, and engaged to be married, so more power to him. If he retreats now, he’d be going out on a high note. I hope the original lineup of Jane’s Addiction manages to keep it together to continue working in some form or another. With only two studio albums to their credit (I’m not counting the awful Strays, written & recorded without Avery’s inimitable bass), the world needs some new songs from them.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

GETTING THERE AND BACK

I had a little unexpected adventure on the long trip from Manhattan all the way out to Jones Beach. Met a few fans on the Long Island Railroad as we debated the various ways of getting there, all of which suck. Thanks to Kim & friend for the impromptu car ride to the venue! But I didn’t have the same luck on the way back, an ordeal that included waiting a full hour for a LIRR train to arrive. Picture dozens of hungry fans, shivering atop an elevated platform in the middle of nowhere.

THE VENUE

Blech. Surrounded on three sides by water, Jones Beach sounds nice in theory, but in person it’s cold. Never mind if you’re going to a show there during the summer; dress warmly. Also, for a music lover used to all kinds of venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water for literally miles. The exorbitant concession prices are, let’s be honest here, graft. Just to keep from dehydrating and getting a migraine from all the second-hand pot smoke, I reluctantly paid $6.50 for a bottled water, which I certainly hope the venue recycled. Also, the sound system is kinda crappy. Jane’s were noticeably louder than NIN, but Farrell’s mike sounded pretty muffled, especially on the first and last songs.

THE AUDIENCE

The audience was a weird mixture of goths, metalheads, and graying thirtysomethings like me. Although NIN has remained extremely relevant for some time now, the original Jane’s lineup has been out of action for more than a decade, and both bands date back to the late 80s / early 1990s, when I was in high school. The black-fingernailed loners didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t really expect so many headbangers. I even saw a middle-aged, bearded, fat dude in a skirt, a look I thought fizzled on arrival in the mid-90s. In retrospect, I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I come at Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction from a different angle. Listening to NIN is an extension of my appreciation for electronic and progressive rock, and Jane’s viscerally filthy, slightly sleazy rock owes more than a little to Led Zeppelin (who were also arguably a bit prog).

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4 Stars Music

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009

The Scottish instrumental rock outfit Mogwai earned their reputation in part for sheer volume, like My Bloody Valentine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for exploring the kinds of extreme dynamics you usually only hear in electronica or progressive rock, wholly unlike the fatiguing constant loudness of most pop, punk, and metal.

My teeth are still resonating. This was far and away the most viscerally physical concert I’ve ever attended. In all seriousness, I believe it would be possible for a deaf person to enjoy a Mogwai show. I don’t mean to be offensive to the deaf community here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.

This concert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.

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2 Stars Movies Music

Orifices in Place of Faces: The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

The Flaming Lips are an odd band to have achieved mainstream success. After years of noncommercial psychedelic art-rock experimentation like the four-disc Zaireeka (1997), they broke through to mass appeal with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). The latter features the finest existential love song to ever become the official rock song of Oklahoma:

Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
     — Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne in Christmas on Mars
The Alien Super-Being gets great reception

The Lips also have more ambition than most of their contemporaries when it comes to the audiovisual aspects of a rock group’s responsibilities. They were inspired by how some of their forebears did more than contract third parties to film them live in concert or to direct hagiographic documentaries. The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine), The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia), and Pink Floyd (The Wall) all made feature films that deserve to be considered among their canonical audio-only discography. As Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told Pitchfork:

we’d always talked about how the Flaming Lips should have a movie, like the Ramones have a movie, or the Beatles. Not in a pretentious way, just like, “Yeah! We should have a movie!” We thought, “Well, why not? We’ll just sort of make one and see what happens.”

They began talking up Christmas of Mars years ago, and the longer the delay, the greater the legend. It was rumored to be either an expensive folly on the scale of Axl Rose’s album Chinese Democracy (in production for 14 years for a budget of $13 million) or an elaborate meta joke. But in fact, the Lips did in all seriousness work on the project off and on for about seven years. They produced the whole thing in their stomping grounds of Oklahoma City, mostly around Coyne’s own home. For better or for worse, it’s entirely their vision, written and co-directed by Coyne, with Bradley Beesley (who directed several of the band’s music videos) and George Salisbury.

Surely Coyne & co. must have been familiar with the infamous b-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (in the public domain and a free download). The spectacularly awful movie was hilariously massacred on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991 and by Cinematic Titanic in 2008. Like this ignoble predecessor, Christmas on Mars is saddled with long sequences of bad dialogue delivered poorly by amateur actors. Even cameos by the Lips’ pals Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg are really awkward.

Partly inspired by the psychedelia of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christmas on Mars actually owes more to the blue-collar atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The humans in Christmas on Mars are ordinary people in an extraordinary locale, struggling to survive. One year prior, humanity has established a dilapidated space station on Mars. Worse, the crew members are slowly going mad and suffering hallucinations. As they conclude, man is not meant to live in space. The sole purpose of the colony, other than constantly repairing its decaying infrastructure, seems to be to support a test-tube baby due on midnight, Christmas Eve. The only woman on the station lives in a bubble, feeding the baby through a tube grafted into her belly.

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd in Christmas on Mars
The Lips discretely invite you to enhance your viewing experience in whatever manner you choose

Major Syrtis (Lips member Steven Drozd) has taken it upon himself to organize a Christmas Pageant to raise morale. He is in fact partially responsible for their current predicament, as he apparently sacrificed storage space to cart some Christmas accoutrements to Mars, a decision that has near-fatal consequences for the colony. The colony’s only source for happiness is very nearly ruined when his chosen Santa commits suicide. The Alien Super-Being (Coyne) lands nearby in a spherical spacecraft, which conveniently shrinks to a size suitable to be swallowed until he needs it again. Even though Coyne wrote the script, and is quite a talker if the DVD’s bonus interviews are to be judged, the role he assigned himself has no dialogue. He fills Santa’s shoes and repairs both Syrtis’s busted snow machine and the colony itself. He saves Christmas and allows the baby to be born.

Far more interesting are the beautiful optical special effects (at least, I assume they’re optical – if they actually are digital, they’re uncommonly beautiful). Some of the abstract psychedelia was so freaky I feared it might burn out my aging television. Most curious is the strange preoccupation with vaginal imagery. The Alien Super-Being passes in and out of his spaceship through a vaginal portal. Syrtis hallucinates a visiting spaceman with a pulsating vagina for a face, and later dreams of an entire marching band with similar orifices in place of faces (say that ten times quickly).

A pre-movie sequence advises viewers to have sex, smoke pot, or just do whatever they like while watching the movie. This boring Dork Reporter dared to disobey these instructions and simply watched it alone at home, stone cold sober. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect Christmas on Mars is one of those things best experienced in an altered state.

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4 Stars Music

David Byrne, Live at Radio City Music Hall, February 28, 2009

David Byrne and Brian Eno, both Dork Report favorites, collaborated extensively between 1978-1980. Many of these classic albums have passed into the musical canon, most especially Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1980) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). I believe there are some lingering rumors of interpersonal friction, certainly within the four Talking Heads, but Byrne and Eno appear to have remained in light, as it were. As Byrne relates the story in the liner notes to their new album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the possibility of his completing several of Eno’s stockpiled instrumental demos arose over dinner. The eventual result is a brilliant new album that is unmistakably the product of these two unique musicians, but is certainly no sequel or retread of past glories.

Touring to support the new material, Byrne challenged himself with the self-imposed restriction to draw from only the five albums on which he worked with Eno: More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Even with this self-imposed limitation of albums that are all, frankly, kind of weird, it’s amazing how many toe-tapping pop songs they contain.

The excellently sequenced set list, mostly alternating between the weird and (relatively) normal, kept the massive Radio City Music Hall audience singing along. Strange Overtones, my favorite song from the new album, came first. Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless proved an early climax, bringing the entire audience to their feet for most of the rest of the show. The only disappointment was that Byrne selected only one single track from the legendary My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: Help Me Somebody. It was imaginatively rearranged with live voices replacing the original’s found vocals (or as Byrne noted that we would call them today, samples). Why not try the same with some of the other great tracks on that album?

David Byrne Live at Radio City Music Hall
The long white splotch in the middle is David Byrne and the Rockettes!

The stage design was perfectly austere, and deceptively simple. I especially liked the stark, monochromatic lighting design. The entire band was clad in white, and three modern dancers accompanied several songs with wittily choreographed routines. The show climaxed with a truly barnstorming version of Burning Down the House, with the entire band dressed in frilly tutus. It could only be completed by the startling appearance by… wait for it… the bloody Rockettes! OMGWTF!? Needless to say, the crowd went bananas.

In short, I had a grand time. Here at The Dork Report, I have fewer qualms about rating movies on a five-star scale than I do concerts. Movies are cheap enough to rent in consume in large gulps. I end up seeing many bad or mediocre movies, but few concerst that sucks. The likely explanation is the expense involved, which often limits the concerts I go to to artists that I already very much like. The only reason I didn’t rate this particular show higher is that I could imagine that if I could time-travel back to the 1980s and see the original Talking Heads (preferably during the period Adrian Belew was in their live band), that would easily by five stars.

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4 Stars Movies Music

Lou Reed, Antony, and Julian Schnabel Dance the Rock Minuet in the Concert Film Berlin

Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits Satellite of Love, Perfect Day, and Walk on the Wild Side. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was recorded for it to be a double-lp, but it was edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.

Lou Reed Berlin
“Caroline says / While biting her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its tone and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.

Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Berlin’s DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”

Something that only people who’ve seem him live would know is that Reed is a great guitar player. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.

Lou Reed Berlin
Antony dances the rock minuet

Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.

So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic heroin addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?

The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of Rock Minuet sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. Rock Minuet was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard Sweet Jane. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably played hundreds if not thousands of times.