Category Archives: On Music

Celestial seasonings: A total eclipse mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2024)

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Depending on your worldview, this coming Monday’s super-hyped solar eclipse may be interpreted as: a). A sign of the impending apocalypse, b). A sign that once in a blue moon, the moon blows in and obscures the sun, giving humanity the impression (for a few heart stopping moments) that the apocalypse has, in fact, arrived, or c). A dollar sign for event promoters, hoteliers, tow truck drivers, and people who sell cheap cardboard sunglasses.

I know. I’m a cynical bastard.

If the “Great North American Eclipse” forces people to tear themselves away from their 5 inch iPhone screen to gaze up at The Big Sky, and ponder the awesomeness and vastness of the cosmos (and most importantly, humankind’s relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things)…then I’m for it (I Googled “can you view the eclipse with a…” and right after “mirror”, “sunglasses” and “welding mask”, there it was- friggin’ “iPhone”).

Do me a favor. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the horrendous traffic and wriggle through the madding crowd to snag a perfect observation point in one of the areas that will experience totality…don’t view it through a 5-inch screen…LOOK at it! Utilize some form of eye protection, of course, but experience the ACTUAL PHENOMENON! Thanks.

After all, as Carl Sagan observed:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

BTW, here’s evolutionary perspective on why we sophisticated, technically-advanced humanoids still get the tiniest little lizard brain-fueled twitch when Big Light Go Away:

With that in mind, please enjoy this special mixtape that I have assembled to accompany the solar system’s ultimate laserium show (don’t worry-I didn’t forget the Floyd, man!).

The Rolling Stones- “2000 Light Years from Home”

Paul Weller- “Andromeda”

Tommy Keene- “Astronomy”

The Orb- “Backside of the Moon”

Kate Bush- “The Big Sky”

Soundgarden- “Black Hole Sun”

Pink Floyd- “Brain Damage/Eclipse”

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- “Dark Star”

The Ian Gillian Band- “Five Moons”

Moxy- “Moon Rider”

King Crimson- “Moonchild”

Nick Drake- “Pink Moon”

Elton John- “Rocket Man”

David Bowie- “Space Oddity”

Liz Phair- “Stars and Planets”

Yes- “Starship Trooper”

Bonnie Hayes- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The Church- “Under the Milky Way”

Paul McCartney & Wings- “Venus + Mars”

Gamma- “Voyager”

Fab Faux: The 25 Best Songs the Beatles Never Wrote

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2024)

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Warning: This post is fake news. But it’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it. [Ed Sullivan voice] “Ladies and gentlemen, NOT The Beatles…”

THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: “10538 Overture” – ELO’s eponymous 1971 debut album is my favorite in the band’s catalog, due to the presence of Roy Wood. I suspect that Wood (who split during the early sessions for the band’s sophomore effort) tempered his fellow Move alum Jeff Lynne’s tendency to overproduce everything he touches. At any rate, this cut (which sounds like a mashup of “Dear Prudence” and “I Am the Walrus”) is the album’s highlight-setting the mold for ELO’s signature Baroque rock vibe.

BADFINGER: “Baby Blue” – Considering the band’s history, it’s a no-brainer to include a Badfinger song. Originally calling themselves the Iveys, they were “discovered” by Beatles inner circle stalwart Mal Evans, who persuaded the Fabs to sign the band to their then-fledgling Apple Records label in 1968 (Paul McCartney penned their first Top 10 hit “Come and Get It”). This Top 20 hit (very much in the vein of of “And Your Bird Can Sing”)  is  on the 1971 album Straight Up (it was co-produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren).

KLAATU:  “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” – We’ve been observing your Earth! I’m old enough to remember the breathless speculation that surrounded this moderately successful Canadian pop-prog outfit back in the mid-70s…were they really The Beatles, recording under a pseudonym? Of course they weren’t; but they undeniably wore The Beatles’ influence on their sleeves, particularly on their biggest  hit (later covered by The Carpenters).

20/20: “Cheri” – Straight outta Tulsa. Band founders Steve Allen and Ron Flynt relocated from Oklahoma to Hollywood in the late 70s and became key movers in the burgeoning L.A. power-pop scene (I had the pleasure of seeing them perform twice in the early 80s; once  at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and when they opened for The Vapors at The Warfield in San Francisco). Beatlesque harmonies abound in this memorable cut from their debut album.

NICK HEYWARD: “Closer” – In the early 80s, Nick Heyward was best-known as chief songwriter and lead vocalist for the poppy UK band Haircut 100 (he left shortly after their debut album was released to pursue a solo career).  Throughout the 90s, he came to embrace the Britpop sound; infusing a heavier guitar tone into the mix while retaining his McCartney-like gift for melody. This cut is one of the highlights from his excellent 1998 album The Apple Bed.

XTC: “Earn Enough For Us” – Tough choice here, as there are any number of tunes by this prolific UK New Wave/Power Pop band that reflect a heavy Beatles influence. If hard-pressed, this cut from their 1986 album Skylarking (produced by Todd Rundgren) would be my fave faux-Fab XTC song-which has strong Revolver-era vibes. In fact, the entire album has a 60s psychedelia/Revolver vibe…which was allegedly a major point of contention between band and producer. Whatever went on behind the scenes, the end product is top-shelf.

CAPTAIN SENSIBLE: “Exploding Heads and Teapots (Past Their Prime)” – Prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist Raymond Ian Burns (aka Captain Sensible) has taken the odd time out from his longtime tenure as  a premiere member of The Damned to build a pretty decent catalogue of his own. This catchy, psychedelia-tinged selection is from his third solo effort,  Revolution Now (1989).

KEN SHARP: “Floating on a Corn Flake” – Ken Sharp is a sort of power pop Renaissance man; in addition to releasing a number of singles and albums, he has authored/co-authored 18 music books-including tomes on Cheap Trick, The Raspberries, The Small Faces, and Rick Springfield. No mistaking the Lennon influence on this cut!

NICK NICELY: “Hilly Fields” – I was hooked on this haunting, enigmatic song from the first time I heard it on a Bay area alt-rock station in 1982. It sounded like the Beatles’ Revolver album, compressed into three and a half minutes. The artist was Nick Nicely, an English singer-songwriter who released this and one other song, then vanished in the mists of time until reemerging with a full album in 2004 (which was basically a compilation of material he had accumulated over the previous 25 years). He’s since put out several albums of new material, which I have been happily snapping up.

CHRIS BELL: “I Am the Cosmos” – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatlesque Big Star was a seminal power pop band. Released as a single, this beautiful, wistful song (recalling “Across the Universe”)  is featured on Bell’s solo album, which was issued posthumously in 1992 (tragically, he died at age 27 in a 1978 automobile accident).

THE TIMES: “I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape” – UK power pop genius Ed Ball was the man behind several bands: Television Personalities, ‘O’ Level, Teenage Filmstars, and The Times (settling on the latter from 1981 through the late 90s, vacillating with a number of self-billed albums along the way). This song is a sly pastiche of 1960s pop culture references, including musical quotes from The Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep on Running”,  The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, references in the lyrics to “The Prisoner” TV series and something about “…plans to kidnap Paul McCartney”.

THE RAIN PARADE: “I Look Around” – The Rain Parade was part of L.A.’s  “Paisley Underground” scene in the early 80s. This hypnotic, psychedelia-drenched song (in the vein of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said”) is from their 1983 debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip.

AIRWAVES: “Keep Away the Blues” – I discovered this UK band when I espied their album New Day in a cut-out bin circa 1978. I knew nothing about them, but in those days it was worth the 99-cent gamble (old-school vinyl junkies know what I’m talking about). Truth be told, I still don’t know much about the band (a Google search reveals little) but the album was full of melodic pop rock numbers, including this cut with its George Harrison-worthy riff.

EMITT RHODES: “Fresh as a Daisy” – Emitt Rhodes sounds like both Lennon and McCartney rolled into one on this piano-driven number from his self-titled 1970 debut album. In addition to vocals, Rhodes plays all instruments (he recorded it on a 4-track in his home studio). The multi-talented artist passed away in 2020, after a spotty career.

THE DIVINE COMEDY: “Perfect Love Song” – The Divine Comedy is essentially a pseudonym for Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon. Blessed with a rich baritone voice, Hannon is a gifted musical composer with a penchant for penning wry, tongue-in-cheek lyrics:

Give me your love
And I’ll give you the perfect lovesong
With a divine Beatles bassline
And a big old Beach Boys sound
I’ll match you pound for pound
Like heavy-weights in the final round
We’ll hold on to each other
So we don’t fall down

THE SPONGETONES: “She Goes Out With Everybody” – From their formation in 1979 until they stopped recording in 2009, North Carolina-based power poppers The Spongetones made no secret as to who inspired them: Beatles, Kinks, Hollies, Gerry & the Pacemakers, et. al. Essentially, they really dug that fab and gear British Invasion sound, apparent on this obvious nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. Still, they manage to put their own stamp on it.

THE KORGIS: “Something About the Beatles” – This selection pretty much speaks for itself. It’s quite a lovely tribute, actually.

Why did the apple fall to the ground…

THE THREE O’CLOCK: “Stupid Einstein” – The Three O’Clock is one of my favorite bands from the L.A. Paisley Underground scene (see The Rain Parade above). They actually lean more toward power pop than psychedelia, but I won’t split hairs. This breezy song (taken from their 1983 album Sixteen Tambourines) is chockablock with the band’s signature Beatlesque guitar riffs and gorgeous harmonies.

THE KNACK: “Sweet Dreams” – Love ’em or hate ’em, this was the band that brought power pop into the mainstream (well, for a minute…until the unfortunate “Nuke the Knack” backlash). Taken from Round Trip, this cut is an unabashed nod to “I’m Only Sleeping”.

CHEAP TRICK: “Taxman, Mr. Thief” – Another track that requires minimal explanation for its inclusion. It’s right there in the lyrics!

He hates you, he loves money
And he’ll steal your shit and think that it’s funny
Like the Beatles he ain’t human
Now the taxman is out to get you

THE BROTHERHOOD OF LIZARDS: “The World Strikes One” – Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatlesque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (who has also recorded and performed as The Cleaners From Venus and The Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cultish admirers (guilty!). This selection (reminiscent of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) is taken from the 1989 album, Lizardland.

THE JAM: “Tonight at Noon” – I never gleaned Beatles influence in the Jam’s music (The Who and The Kinks, maybe), but they are definitely in full Fabs mode here (from 1977’s This is the Modern World).

THE RECORDS: “Up All Night” – One of of the finest power pop bands to emerge from the UK in the late 70s. Chiming guitars, catchy melodies and harmonies to die for. This is from their self-titled 1979 debut album (issued as Shades in Bed in the UK).

THE JETSET: “You Should Know By Now” – Led by vocalist/songwriter Paul Bevoir, this UK band put out 5 great power pop albums in the 1980s. This selection is taken from their 1986 album Go Bananas!.

THE FLAMIN’ GROOVIES: “You Tore Me Down” – While they started out as a proto-punk garage band, this San Francisco outfit made a profound transformation after they traveled across the pond to Wales in 1976 to work with producer Dave Edmunds. The result was an album power pop aficionados consider the gold standard: Shake Some Action. Nary a weak cut on there; but this one is a standout.

Bonus track!

Longtime Seattle radio personality Bob Rivers and his “Twisted Tunes” cohorts produced this short but hilarious spoof of Tears for Fears’ early 90s hit “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (a song that was so self-consciously derivative I didn’t bother to include it in my list).

Arousal, Valence, and Depth: 10 Essential Albums of 1974

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2024)

“They” say that your taste in music is imprinted in your high school years. Why do you suppose this is? Is it biological? Is it hormonal? Or Is it purely nostalgia? According to a 2021 study, it may have something to do with “arousal, valence, and depth”. Say what?

Have you wondered why you love a particular song or genre of music? The answer may lie in your personality, although other factors also play a role, researchers say.

Many people tend to form their musical identity in adolescence, around the same time that they explore their social identity. Preferences may change over time, but research shows that people tend to be especially fond of music from their adolescent years and recall music from a specific age period — 10 to 30 years with a peak at 14 — more easily.

Musical taste is often identified by preferred genres, but a more accurate way of understanding preferences is by musical attributes, researchers say. One model outlines three dimensions of musical attributes: arousal, valence and depth.

“Arousal is linked to the amount of energy and intensity in the music,” says David M. Greenberg, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Cambridge. Punk and heavy metal songs such as “White Knuckles” by Five Finger Death Punch were high on arousal, a study conducted by Greenberg and other researchers found.

“Valence is a spectrum,” from negative to positive emotions, he says. Lively rock and pop songs such as “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley & His Comets were high on valence.

Depth indicates “both a level of emotional and intellectual complexity,” Greenberg says. “We found that rapper Pitbull’s music would be low on depth, [and] classical and jazz music could be high on depth.”

Also, musical attributes have interesting relationships with one another. “High depth is often correlated with lower valence, so sadness in music is also evoking a depth in it,” he says.

“They” may be right…I graduated in 1974, and the lion’s share of my CD collection/media player library is comprised of  (wait for it) albums and/or songs originally released between 1967-1982.

The music of 1974 in particular looms large in my memory; not only because that is the year I graduated, but that was also the year I landed my first steady radio gig, hosting the midnight-6am shift on KFAR-AM in Fairbanks (it’s one of the oldest stations in Alaska).

At the time, KFAR’s  format was Top 40. When I came on board in July of 1974, I was spinning then-current hits like “Rock Your Baby” by George McRae, “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot, “On and On” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers, “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies, and so on.

While mid-70s Top 40 fare was nothing if not eclectic, there was a demarcation between music I was being paid to play (and feign enthusiasm for), and what I preferred listening to during off-hours.

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Off-hours, 1974.

That said, on occasion the twain would meet; after a few months on the job I began to sneak in a deep cut here and there from my personal LP collection. That was all hi-ho pip and dandy until the night the PD happened to be monitoring at 3am when I played “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground. I wasn’t fired, but he made it quite clear that I was never to play that cut again (several years later at another Fairbanks AM station I worked at, the music director admonished me for playing “Marakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash; he cited “…blowing through the smoke rings of my mind”…oy.)

Arousal, valance, and depth…oh my!

Anyway, here are my top 10  LPs of 1974 (note “the next 10” below).

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Autobahn – Kraftwerk

HAL 9000’s cruisin’ jams. While they already had three albums under their gürtels, Autobahn marked the debut of Kraftwerk’s now-signature “sound” (i.e. drum machines, synths, and robotic vocalizing). The album’s centerpiece is the hypnotic title cut, which eats up Side 1.Profoundly influential on a broad spectrum of artists, from Bowie (it informed his “Berlin period”) to seminal hip-hop acts.

Choice cuts: “Autobahn”, “Morgenspaziergang”, “Kometenmelodie 1”.

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Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell

In 1976, a friend and I caught the L.A. Express at The Troubadour. I remember being disappointed to learn that the group’s founder, legendary sax player Tom Scott, was no longer with them (ditto ace guitarist Robben Ford). Not that the musicians who replaced them were slouches (David Luell and Peter Maunu, respectively). Still, it was a tight set (all the members were top echelon session players).

Near the end of the evening, Luell took the mic and said, “Hey-we’d like to invite a couple friends up to sit in on a number or two.” I nearly had a heart attack when Robben Ford and (wait for it) Joni Mitchell casually sauntered onto the stage. I was so in thrall that I can’t even remember what songs they did (I’m not a New Age kinda cat, but believe me when I tell you Joni Mitchell had an aura. Wow).

Singling out the “best” Joni Mitchell album is a fool’s errand, but her 1974 release Court and Spark (backed by most of the original L.A. Express personnel) is damn near a perfect “10” in my book.

Choice cuts: “Court and Spark”, “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “People’s Parties”, “Car on a Hill”, “Just Like This Train”.

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Feel – George Duke

Like many other rock fans, I was introduced to jazz player/vocalist George Duke via his affiliation with Frank Zappa from the early to mid-70s.  But when I heard this album (his fourth), I realized he was no mere side player; Duke was a tremendously gifted artist in his own right. A strong set of funk, hard fusion and smooth jazz, fueled by Duke’s distinctive keys and bass synthesizer. Duke enlists some heavyweights: Brazilian musicians Flora Purim (vocals) and Airto Moreira (percussionist), and a guitarist credited as “Obdewl’l X”- aka Frank Zappa (“Love” features one of his best-ever solos).

Choice cuts: “Love”, “Feel”, “Cora Jobege”, “Yana Aminah”, “Rashid”.

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Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

Like  fellow German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (see above), 1974 was the year that Tangerine Dream found their “voice”. The magic number for them was album #5, Phaedra. The (figurative and literal) key was sequencers; a then-emergent technology Pink Floyd had  flirted with on Dark Side of the Moon (and not really popularized until Donna Summer’s sequencer-heavy 1977  hit “I Feel Love” ). Tangerine Dream opted for a more ambient, textural approach than Kraftwerk. With its mesmerizing, cinematic soundscapes Phaedra has held up well as a “headphone album”.

Choice cuts: “Phaedra”, “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares”, “Movements of a Visionary”.

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Pretzel Logic – Steely Dan

I still marvel at how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were able to find such massive commercial and critical success without compromising their willfully enigmatic and ever-droll worldview.  While the duo were famously fastidious and nit-picky from the get-go, this was (to my ears) their last album with an organic “band” feel; successive efforts, while all top-shelf product, had a more clinical vibe (as the saying goes on my favorite coffee mug: “The race for quality has no finish line, so technically it’s more like a death march.”)

Choice cuts: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Night by Night”, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”, “Pretzel Logic”, “With a Gun”, “Charlie Freak”.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s “stadium rock” album. Sporting only 5 cuts (4 Velvet Underground classics and one cut from Berlin), its a pure slab of heavy metal thunder, largely propelled by the dynamic guitar duo of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (the arrangement of “Sweet Jane” approaches prog). Lou sounds like he’s having…fun? Regrettably, I never caught Reed in concert, but I did see Hunter and Wagner in 1975, backing Alice Cooper on his Welcome to My Nightmare tour.

Choice cuts: “Intro/Sweet Jane”, “Heroin”, “Lady Day”.

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Sheer Heart Attack – Queen

It was a bit of a tough choice here, considering that Queen released not just one, but two fine albums in 1974 (the other was Queen II). What I like about Sheer Heart Attack is how it strikes the perfect balance between the band’s hard rock foundation and its harmony-driven pop sensibilities (the latter of which would dominate in subsequent releases, and not always for the best, I’m afraid).

Choice cuts: “Brighton Rock”, “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Misfire”, “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettoes)”.

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Sweet Fanny Adams – The Sweet

Dismissed by many at the time as a novelty bubblegum act (not completely unfounded, considering early U.K. hits like “Funny Funny”, “Co-co”, “Poppa Joe”, “Little Willy”, and “Wig Wam Bam”), this 1974 U.K. release (featuring some tracks that would appear later that year on the U.S. version of Desolation Boulevard) proved that lurking beneath all the glitz, glamour, and shag haircuts was a ballsy, hard-rocking quartet of superb musicians. Years later, bands like Def Leppard would cite this fine album as a major influence.

Choice cuts: “Set Me Free”, “Heartbreak Today”, “No You Don’t”, “Rebel Rouser”, “Sweet F.A.”, “Restless”, “Into the Night”.

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Todd – Todd Rundgren

In a post I did back in 2020 regarding that year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, I made my case for Todd Rundgren’s induction:

It’s shocking to me that the Hall waited until last year to nominate Todd; he had my vote (it didn’t take…they never listen to me). After all, he’s been in the biz for over 50 years, and is still going strong.  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer.

Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Todd finally did get inducted in 2021; but true to form, he crankily refused to accept it in person (he is a long time critic of the Hall). This 2-LP set is one of the highlights of his substantial catalog.

Choice cuts: “I Think You Know”, “A Dream Goes on Forever”, “The Last Ride”, “Useless Begging”, “Heavy Metal Kids”, “Don’t You Ever Learn?”.

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Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison

Speaking of cranky geniuses, 1974 saw the release of two of the finest albums of Van Morrison’s career: the superb live album Too Late to Stop Now, and this equally superb studio effort (another coin toss decision). While I have to hold my nose regarding his anti-vaxxer shenanigans of recent years, I still get lost in this beautiful, soulful and pastoral set of songs. The muse was strong here.

Choice cuts: “Fair Play”, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”, “Streets of Arklow”,  “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River”, “Cul de Sac”.

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more gems from 1974 worth a spin:

Bad Co – Bad Company
Crime of the Century – Supertramp
Fullfillingness’ First Finale – Stevie Wonder
Here Come the Warm Jets – Brian Eno
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-Genesis
Mysterious Traveller– Weather Report
Odds ‘n’ Sods – The Who
On the Beach– Neil Young
This is Augustus Pablo – Augustus Pablo

Blood at the root: an MLK Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 13, 2024)

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I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 2 months later on June 5th, 1968 – my parents’ wedding anniversary…cue the Twilight Zone theme). But this holiday weekend is about celebrating Dr. King’s birthday; so I have curated 10 songs to honor his legacy:

“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young

“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.

“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).

“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.

“Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – The inclusion of U2’s most stirring anthem feels mandatory.

“Shed a Little Light” – James Taylor’s uplifting, gospel-flavored paean to MLK is featured on his 1991 album New Moon Shine.

“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s performance of this song (written by Abel Meeropol) was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.

“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.

Getting better all the time (can’t get no worse): A New Year’s Eve mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2023)

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All is quiet, on New Year’s Day. Except for this mixtape (you may adjust your volume per hangover conditions Monday morning). Cheers!

“This Will Be Our Year” – The Zombies – Starting on a positive note. Lovely Beatle-esque number from the Odyssey and Oracle album.

You don’t have to worry
All your worried days are gone
This will be our year
Took a long time to come

At least…we can always hope, right?

“Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

“1921” – The WhoGot a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year. OK, back to the drawing board …let’s make ’24 a better one.

“Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

“New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Edgy pick, Captain Obvious!” But it’s still a great song.

 “Year of the Cat” – Al StewartOld Grey Whistle Test clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

“Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer solo by Elliot Randall.

“New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Ace Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Speaking of which… check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

Bonus track!

Not a “New Year’s song” per se, but an evergreen new year’s wish.

Green Christmas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2023)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace Too much informers and too much beast Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy Holidays! How about some good news? Via USA Today:

President Joe Biden announced Friday he’s issuing a federal pardon to every American who has used marijuana in the past, including those who were never arrested or prosecuted.

The sweeping pardon applies to all U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in possession of marijuana for their personal use and those convicted of similar federal crimes. It also forgives pot users in the District of Columbia. It does not apply to individuals who have been jailed for selling the drug, which is illegal under federal law, or other marijuana offenses such as driving under the influence of an illegal substance.

The implication of Biden’s pardon promises to have significant implications, as criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. However, the pardons do not apply to people who violated state law, and anyone who wants to receive proof of a pardon will have to apply through the Department of Justice.

Biden issued a similar pardon last year and promised future reforms. This year’s proclamation went further in that it forgave all instances of simple marijuana use or possession under federal law, including for individuals who have never been charged. It also expands Biden’s previous directive to include minor marijuana offenses committed on federal property. […]

The Biden administration recommended that the DEA reschedule marijuana use to a lower offense earlier this year.

A record 70% of Americans said in an October survey conducted by Gallup that marijuana use should be legalized. It is favored by a majority of Republicans. And it is highly popular among the liberals, Democrats and young Americans whom Biden hopes to inspire to vote for his reelection.

Recreational marijuana use is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is now widely allowed in the U.S. It is legal in 38 states.

Nice to see more and more forward-thinking states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. So I thought I would welcome the newbies to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby:      

Such a clatter: A holiday mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2023)

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I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have curated 15 selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts (and a few novelty items) for your Xmas creel.

Happy Crimble, and a Very New Year!

All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs

The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! This is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.

Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder

There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.

Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet

The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”

Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe

Wry and tuneful as ever at 74, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is overdue.

Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus

Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatlesque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cultish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome).

Christmas Wish – NRBQ

NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This is from their eponymous 2007 album.

I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson

I first heard this tune about the “joys” of holiday gatherings on “The Dr. Demento Show” . It always puts me in hysterics, especially: “My mouth tastes like a pickle.”

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke

In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above. In the 50+ years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists, introducing the world to a gifted player with a unique and expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.

River – Joni Mitchell

Not a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and the lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. Oft-covered, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.

Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins

Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.

Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.

My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.

Sleigh Ride– The Ventures

I’ve never personally seen anyone “hang ten” in Puget Sound; nonetheless, one of the greatest surf bands ever hails from Tacoma. This jaunty mashup of a Christmas classic with “Walk, Don’t Run” sports tasty fretwork by Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson (sadly, co-founder and rhythm guitarist Wilson passed away last year at the age of 88).

Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger

Ho-ho-ho, here’s your %&#!@ change. We’ve all been there at one time or another. I have a soft spot for this music video (It’s a Wonderful Life meets Clerks) because it features one of my favorite neighborhood theaters here in Seattle-The Grand Illusion.

Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite

“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/DJ Binky Griptite (formerly of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s  “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.

A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior

Not a Christmas song per se, but it certainly evokes a cozy holiday scenario:

Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.

A beautiful track from an underappreciated UK prog-rock band.

‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong

The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.

Bonus track!

What begins as a performance of “Everlong” turns into a rousing Christmas medley in this 2017 performance by the Foo Fighters on Saturday Night Live. Good grief!

I like movies. Here are 10 I liked this year.

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 2, 2023)

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Yes, I know. That’s an oddly generic (some might even say silly) title for a post by someone who has been scribbling about film here for 17 years. Obviously, I like movies. That said, I am about to make a shameful confession (and please withhold your angry cards and letters until you’ve heard me out). Are you sitting down? Here goes:

I haven’t stepped foot in a movie theater since January of 2020.

There. I’ve said it, in front of God and all 7 of my regular readers.

*sigh* I can still remember it, as if it were yesterday:

It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!

February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.

In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.

That excerpt is from my review of Weathering With You, published February 9, 2020. If I had only known of the more insidious tempest about to make landfall, I would have savored that “…marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January” (and every kernel of my ridiculously overpriced popcorn) even more.

Of course, I’m referring to the COVID pandemic, which would soon put the kibosh on venturing to movie theaters (much less any public brick-and-mortar space in general) for quite a spell. Keep in mind, I live in Seattle, which is where the first reported outbreak of note in the continental U.S. occurred; I think it’s fair to say that the fear and paranoia became ingrained here much earlier on than in other parts of the country (and justifiably so).

Well, that’s all fine and dandy (you’re thinking)…but hasn’t the fear and paranoia abated since everything “opened up” again in (2022? 2021? I’ve lost track of the time-space continuum)? Here’s the thing-even before the pandemic, I had been going to theaters less and less frequently due to physical issues. I won’t bore you with details, suffice it to say I had both knees replaced (the first in 2014, the second in 2016)…but it didn’t quite “take”. And admittedly, I still mask up whenever I go to any public venue (including the grocery store). Perhaps that all adds up to “functional agoraphobia” (maybe one of you psych majors can help me out here?).

And you know what? I’m also tired of dealing with traffic, parking hassles, fellow theater patrons who are oblivious to people with disabilities, and astronomical ticket prices (add the $7 box of Junior Mints, and it’s cheaper to wait several months and just buy the Blu-ray).

And get off my lawn, goddammit.

Anyhoo, I haven’t been dashing out on opening weekend to see many first-run films in recent years; at least not the major studio releases that are playing on a bazillion screens. But thanks to “virtual” film festival accreditation, I am still able to screen and review a number of “new” movies (albeit many that have yet to find wider distribution).

So that is my long-winded way of explaining why I have decided not to entitle this (obligatory) end-of-year roundup as “the best” 10 films of 2023. Rather, out of the new films I reviewed on Hullabaloo this year, here are the 10 standouts (no Barbies, no nukes, no capes). I’ve noted the titles that are now streaming …hopefully the rest are coming soon to a theater near you!

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Adolfo – Strangers in the night, exchanging…cactus? Long story. Short story, actually, as writer-director Sofia Auza’s dramedy breezes by at 70 minutes. It’s a “night in the life of” tale concerning two twenty-somethings who meet at a bus stop. He: reserved and dressed for a funeral. She: effervescent and dressed for a party (the Something Wild scenario). With its tight screenplay, snappy repartee, and marvelous performances, it’s hard not to fall in love with this film.

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Downtown Owl – It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this quirky comedy-drama, which begins with a nod to Savage Steve Holland (palpable Better Off Dead energy) then pivots into a more angsty realm (as in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm). Adapted from Chuck Klosterman’s eponymous novel by writer-director Hamish Linklater (no relation to Richard), the story is set during the winter of 1983-1984 in a North Dakota burg (where everybody is up in everyone else’s business).

Julia (Lily Rabe) is a 40-ish, recently engaged, self-described “restless” soul who has just moved to Owl to take a teaching position at a high school. Episodic; we observe Julia over a period of several months as she acclimates to her new environs. She strikes up a friendship with a melancholy neighbor (Ed Harris) and pursues a crush on a laconic buffalo rancher (I told you it was quirky). There’s a sullen high school quarterback, and a pregnant teen (it’s a rule). All threads converge when a record-breaking blizzard descends on the sleepy hamlet. A bit uneven, but it grew on me. (Streaming on Plex)

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Hey, Viktor! – In 1998, a low-budget indie dramedy called Smoke Signals became a hit with critics and festival audiences. It was also groundbreaking, in the sense of being the first film to be written (Sherman Alexie), directed (Chris Eyre) and co-produced by Native Americans. The film was a career booster for several Native-American actors like Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal and Adam Beach. For other cast members, not so much …like 11-year-old Cody Lightning, who played Adam Beach’s character “Victor” as a youngster.

Fast-forward 25 years. Cody Lightning plays (wait for it) Cody Lightning in his heightened reality dramedy (co-written with Samuel Miller), which reveals Cody has hit the bottom (and the bottle). Divorced and chronically depressed, his portfolio has dwindled to adult film gigs and half-finished screenplays about zombie priests. When his best friend and creative partner Kate (Hannah Cheesman) organizes an intervention, Cody has an epiphany…not to stop drinking, but to make a Smoke Signals sequel. All he needs now is a script, some of the original cast, and (most importantly) financial backing.

Reminiscent of Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup, Hey, Viktor! is an alternately hilarious and brutally honest dive into the trenches of D.I.Y. film-making (I was also reminded of Robert Townshend’s Hollywood Shuffle, in the way Lightning weaves issues like ethnic stereotyping and reclamation of cultural identity into the narrative). The cast includes Smoke Signals alums Simon Baker, Adam Beach, Gary Farmer, and Irene Bedard.

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I Like Movies – To call Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), the 17-year-old hero of writer-director Chandler Levack’s coming of age dramedy a “film freak” is an understatement. When his best bud ribs him by exclaiming in mock horror, “I can’t believe you never masturbate!” Lawrence’s responds with a shrug, “I’ve tried to, but…I’d rather watch Goodfellas or something.” Levack’s film (set in the early aughts) abounds with such cringe-inducing honesty; eliciting the kind of nervous chuckles you get from watching, say, Todd Solondz’s Happiness (a film that Lawrence enthusiastically champions to a hapless couple in a video store who can’t decide on what they want to see).

Lawrence, who dresses (and pontificates) like a Canadian version of Ignatius J. Reilly, is obsessed with two things: Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre, and the goal of getting into NYU film school in the fall (despite not even having been accepted yet, and that he’s not likely to save up the $90,000 tuition working as a minimum wage video store clerk over the summer). Wry, observant, and emotionally resonant, with wonderful performances by the entire cast,

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L’immensità – Emanuele Crialese’s semi-autobiographical drama about a dysfunctional family (set in 1970s Rome) combines the raw emotion of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence with the sense memory of Fellini’s Amarcord. Penélope Cruz portrays a woman in a faltering marriage struggling to hold it together for the sake of her three children, to whom she is fiercely and unconditionally devoted. Her teenage daughter Edri identifies as a boy named “Andrea” (much to the chagrin of her abusive father). Buoyed by naturalistic performances, beautiful cinematography (by Gergely Pohárnok) and a unique 70s Italian pop soundtrack. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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The Mojo Manifesto – How do I describe Mojo Nixon to the uninitiated? Psychobilly anarchist? Novelty act? Social satirist? Performance artist? Brain-damaged? Smarter than he looks? The correct answer is “all of the above.” “Mojo Nixon” is also, of course, a stage persona; an alter ego created by Neill Kirby McMillan Jr., as we learn in Matt Eskey’s documentary. The film traces how McMillan came up with his “Mojo Nixon” alter-ego, which provided a perfect foil to embody his divergent inspirations Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, 50s rockabilly, and The Clash. Not unlike Nixon himself, Eskey’s portrait may be manic at times, but it’s honest, engaging, and consistently entertaining. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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Next Sohee – Writer-director July Jung’s outstanding film is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low, not just in the sense that it is equal parts police procedural and social drama, but that it contains a meticulously layered narrative that has (to paraphrase something Stanley Kubrick once said of his own work) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

The first half of the film tells the story of a high school student who is placed into a mandatory “externship” at a call center by one of her teachers. Suffice it to say her workplace is a prime example as to why labor laws exist (they do have them in South Korea-but exploitative companies always find loopholes).

When the outgoing and headstrong young woman commits suicide, a female police detective is assigned to the case. The trajectory of her investigation takes up the second half of the film. The deeper she digs, the more insidious the implications…and this begins to step on lot of toes, including her superiors in the department. Jung draws parallels between the stories of the student and the detective investigating her death; both are assertive, principled women with the odds stacked against them. Ultimately, they’re  tilting at windmills in a society driven by systemic corruption, predatory capitalism, and a patriarchal hierarchy.

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Once Within a Time – Billed as “a bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one”, this visually arresting 58-minute feature (co-directed by Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane) represents an 8-year labor of love for Reggio (now 83), who is primarily known for his “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi). He re-enlisted his Qatsi trilogy collaborator Philip Glass to score the project. Glass’ score is quite lovely (and restrained-I know he has his detractors) with wonderful vocalizing provided by Sussan Deyhim.

Ostensibly aimed at a young audience, the film (a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Tron, 2001, and Princess Mononoke) utilizes a collage of visual techniques (stop-motion, puppetry, shadow play, etc.) with echoes of George Melies, Lotte Reiniger, Karel Zeman , Rene Laloux, George Pal, Luis Buñuel, The Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.

A small group of children are spirited away to a multiverse that vacillates (at times uneasily) between the lush green world, future visions of a bleak and barren landscape, and the rabbit hole of cyberspace; surreal vignettes abound. Unique and mesmerizing. (Full review) (Currently playing in select theaters)

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One Night With Adela – Volatile, coked to the gills and seething with resentment, Adela (Laura Galán) is wrapping up another dreary late-night shift tooling around Madrid in her street sweeper. However, the young woman’s after-work plans for this evening are anything but typical. She has decided that it’s time to get even…for every wrong (real or perceived) that she’s suffered in her entire life. Galán delivers a fearless and mesmerizing performance. Shot in one take (no editor is credited), writer-director Hugo Ruiz’s debut is the most unsettling portrayal of alienation, rage, and madness I have seen since Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone. Definitely not for the squeamish.

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Ride On -It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday, because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.

That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman.

While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving. (Full review) (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play)

13 songs the lord never taught us: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2023)

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I know what you’re thinking. Halloween is 2 weeks off, and Friday the 13th was yesterday…but ’tis the season. Besides, “Halloween” is practically a 4th-quarter long celebration, counting all associated holidays…All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallows’ Eve, El Dia de los Muertos, Ghost Festival, Guy Fawkes Night, Mischief/Devil’s/Hell’s Night and Samhain. In that spirit, I offer a few frightening picks for your party playlist.

ALICE COOPER: The Ballad of Dwight Frye – “I’ve gotta get OUTTA here!” A theatrical paean to the screen actor who played a bevy of loony tune characters, most notably  “Renfield” in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Just remember…”sleepin’ don’t come very easy, in a straight white vest.”

BAUHAUS: Bela Lugosi’s Dead – The Goth anthem. “Undead, undead, undead …” We get it.

BLACK SABBATH: Black Sabbath– Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tri-tone power chord riff you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!“Talk about a mission statement.

PINK FLOYD: Careful With That Axe, Eugene – The Floyd’s most ominous dirge is basically an instrumental mood piece, but Roger Waters’ eerie shrieking  is the stuff of nightmares.

ATOMIC ROOSTER: Death Walks Behind You– “Lock the door, switch the light…you’ll be so afraid tonight.” A truly unnerving track from one of my favorite 70s British prog-rock bands.  Keyboardist Vincent Crane pulls double duty on this list; he had previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (below).

THE DAMNED: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– You know what they say: You’re never alone with a schizophrenic! Choice cut from the U.K. pop-punk band’s finest LP, The Black Album.

THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN: Fire- Yes, that Arthur Brown…heir to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the forefather of Alice Cooper, and most importantly, the god of hell fire!

THE CRAMPS: Goo Goo Muck–It would be sacrilege not to include the kings of Psychobilly.

I Put a Spell on You– This cat must have scared the living shit out of middle America, smack dab in the middle of the drab Eisenhower era. “Moohoohaha!

THE DOORS: Riders on the Storm – The first time I heard this song was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

VANILLA FUDGE: Season of the Witch– Donovan’s original version doesn’t hold a candle to this marvelously histrionic psychedelic train wreck.  Eat your heart out, Bill Shatner!

THE ROLLING STONES: Sympathy for the Devil- “Something always happens when we play this song.” Famous last words there from Mick Jagger in the 1970 rock doc Gimme Shelter, moments before the cameras (unknowingly, at time of filming) capture the fatal stabbing of an audience member.  Now that’s scary.

KING CRIMSON: 21st Century Schizoid Man– “Cat’s foot, iron claw, neurosurgeons scream for more…at paranoia’s poison door...”  And that’s  the most optimistic part of this song!

Bonus track!

LED ZEPPELIN: (backwards) Stairway to Heaven– Rumor has it there is a painting of Jimmy Page  going all to hell. If you believe in that sort of thing (there are two paths you can go by).

Pleasant dreams!

Star-making machinery: Milli Vanilli (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2023)

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“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – Johnny Rotten

In my 2015 review of Danny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew, I wrote:

“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons. […]

 Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with seemingly any other popular artist of the era you could name (The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, etc.).  […]

Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, they have got some great stories to tell). […]

One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the earliest recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.

That said, The Monkees were a “manufactured” pop act from the get-go; it was certainly no big secret that all four members were actors, hired to portray a fictional band in a TV series (fans couldn’t exactly claim that they were duped). And to their credit, band members did (eventually) write a few of their own songs, did all their own singing, and for live performances they played their own instruments as well.

Not surprisingly, the success of The Monkees spawned a number of TV musical sitcoms built around fictional bands, like The Archie Show (animated), Josie and the Pussycats (animated), and The Partridge Family. The Archies “band” scored the number one Billboard hit of 1969 with “Sugar Sugar”, selling 6 million copies (Ron Dante and Toni Wine were the studio vocalists). The Partridge Family (with vocals by actors Shirley Jones and David Cassidy, backed by members of The Wrecking Crew on the studio recordings) released  5 albums, even scoring a #1 hit in 1970 with “I Think I Love You”.

So it would appear that the majority of music consumers didn’t  feel compelled to investigate “who” wrote, sang, played on, or (for that matter) produced the record; they liked something  they heard on the radio, bought a copy, and didn’t give it much more thought.

Of course, there have always been music snobs:

“I just wanna hear the music…that’s all.”

Keep in mind, this was all pre-MTV. To be sure, music acts had been performing on variety shows from television’s inception (sometimes live, sometimes lip-syncing). Even pre-dating television, there were the “soundies” – short films containing single performances (filmed in 35mm and printed in 16mm for easier distribution to clubs, bars, eateries and other businesses outfitted with “movie jukeboxes”).

But once MTV signed on in 1981,  there was a paradigm shift in record company marketing strategies. To MTV execs, the music videos were  “content”, but to the record company execs, the videos were “free ads” to push product sales. As for viewers, it became more about the artist’s image and/or the clip’s entertainment value; one could argue that the music was secondary (I could name a lot of MTV “hits” from the 80s wherein, had I heard the song before seeing the video play on a continuous loop, I might have thought “meh”).

Hence, the artists who most quickly ascended to the top of the music video heap tended to be those who knew how to “make love to the camera”, (as opposed to the ability to hit a high ‘C’ or display mastery of an instrument). As a result, ripped physiques, fashion and choreography ruled the day…stagecraft over song craft. But hey…as long as it moved units and kept shareholders happy-[*chef’s kiss*]

Thus it was, in this milieu, that the curious case of Milli Vanilli unfolded…as recounted in Luke Korem’s documentary, simply entitled Milli Vanilli (streaming on Paramount+  October 24th).

If any act was tailor-made for the MTV fast track in the late 80s, it was Milli Vanilli. Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (who hailed from Munich, Germany) were impossibly good-looking dancers and singers* (*I’ll get to that in a moment) with undeniably charismatic stage presence. The duo seemingly zoomed in out of nowhere in 1989 with a debut album (Girl You Know It’s True) that went platinum 6 times and sold over 30 million singles. Heavy MTV rotation of their songs certainly contributed to their meteoric rise.

But alas, what the lords of MTV giveth…in July 1989, Milli Vanilli was performing at a Connecticut theme park, when something went horribly awry. In the midst of performing “Girl You Know It’s True”,  a disconcerting hard drive glitch left no doubt in the minds of concert attendees and viewers watching the live MTV broadcast that Pilatus and Moryan were lip-syncing. Embarrassed and flustered, Pilatus fled the stage in a panic, leaving Moryan and the band to vamp until he was coaxed back by emcee “Downtown” Julie Brown.

Weirdly, while the incident undoubtedly raised questions regarding the act’s artistic integrity, the show resumed and the crowd stuck with them, cheering and having a grand old time. And the duo still snagged a Grammy in 1990 for “Best New Artist”. Go figure.

Although public sentiment gradually turned against them (they became the butt of jokes, one of the vocalists on the records exposed them, and at one point the duo offered to give back their Grammys to quell the backlash), it wasn’t until late 1990 that the “mastermind” behind the act, manager/producer Frank Farian publicly admitted the con-and then promptly fired Pilatus and Moryan. While he appears in archival clips, Farian-who comes off as a cross between Phil Spector and Colonel Tom Parker-declined to appear in the documentary.

One of the declared aims of the film is to “pull back the curtain on the story that we thought we knew, but didn’t”. I’m not sure Korem quite achieves that goal (after all, this is an oft-told tale). The film works best in its moments of  emotional resonance, largely provided by Morvan, particularly when he  speaks of his challenging friendship with Pilatus (who sadly died in 1998 of a suspected accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose at age 32).

Were they victims of Farian’s Svengali-like sway, easily preyed upon and exploited…or were they willing participants in a con, seduced by the trappings of fame and success? Also worth contemplation-as someone in the film offers, “nobody involved in this committed a crime”.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room (briefly touched on in the film)-a story as old as rock ‘n’ roll-the exploitation of artists of color. I once had the privilege of interviewing the great Bo Diddley. He spoke at length about how white artists brazenly co-opted the Black artists’ innovations in the 1950s.  I’ll never forget how he framed it-he said “Elvis and those other guys took everything I did, threw it on the rock ‘n’ roll truck and drove it through town.” He also pointed out that he performed his signature tune “Bo Diddley” on The Ed Sullivan Show several months before Elvis’s first appearance on same. But historically, which appearance gets lauded as seminal?

While the Milli Vanilli story isn’t exactly that same scenario-you could say it’s “Elvis in reverse”. Producer Sam Phillips famously (or infamously) once  said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” Then one day, Elvis Presley walked into his Memphis studio (and the rest is history-although it was Colonel Parker who made the lettuce).  At any rate, Farian saw two charismatic black performers (and dollar signs), and the rest is…well, you be the judge.

One of the most fascinating revelations in the film is that on the original 1989 European pressing of Milli Vanilli’s debut album (titled  All or Nothing), Pilatus and Moryan’s names do not appear in the musician credits; whereas they are (falsely) credited in the subsequent U.S. release (re-titled Girl You Know It’s True). As I pointed out earlier, there are those who bother to read all the liner notes…and there are those who just want to hear the music. Caveat emptor.