If you were down and out by the Great Depression, 1933’s Footlight Parade had much to perk up for—intricate dance sequences, elaborate costuming, and sexual symbols so in your face it would make anyone forget their troubles for a mid-afternoon light up. By a Waterfall is the film’s standout performance—choreographed by Warner-acclaimed Busby Berkeley. The sequence details two vaudevillians, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, in love’s sweet embrace—singing softly of the simplicity of a love nature-side. “I appreciate the simple things,” Powell sings. “I’m awful fond of getting love in a natural setting.” Natural, we find, as Powell drifts to sleep, is love with a veritable orgy of interlocking, bedazzled, sea-nymphs floundering erotically, and uncomfortably, not by a waterfall, but far from—likely a water-logged soundstage in Burbank. Keeler, bathhouse queen, and her drenched colleagues ebb and flow through Busby’s geometric shapes—the most complex illustration of a wet dream if I’ve ever seen one. As Powell wakes, dew fresh, he and Keeler rejoin in love’s refrain: “Mother Nature sings to me.” I bet she does.
Top five lists are fun to make: top five desert island books, top five favorite albums, top five celebrity crushes. But Don McKellar’s latest disaster flick, Last Night, asks: what are the top five things you would do if you knew you were going to die?
Set in Toronto, this end of the world joco-tragedy follows the lives of seven characters as they come to grips with their mortality. Each represent a macabre solution to the ‘death problem’ set by McKellar, also the film’s writer; and each intersect with the main character, Patrick Wheeler (McKellar), on his journey in overcoming the inevitable. The film adroitly and compassionately explores our capacity to feel at the brink of the infinite. And through humor, instills hope that, even in the end, we are absurdly human.
Much of the film’s focus is on Patrick’s relationship with Sandra (Sandra Oh), a married, pregnant woman he meets in front of his building after she bouts with car trouble. Sandra is desperate to make her way across town where her husband resides, in order to fulfill their suicide pact. Patrick is enlisted to help and the two navigate the revelry and fevered mayhem of a town entrenched in calamity. Crime and selfishness stand in their way, as their world goes through the nascent stages of dealing with the awesome concept of ‘end.’ Some celebrate, some consummate, and some hide in a world of denial- the last day on earth spent doing what most people do on a daily basis. Yet, McKellar’s attention and tenderness to characters who frantically seek a sense of normalcy and sensation draws on the strength of the human condition: even in our weakest, fearful moments, we are driven to feel alive.
Too, the audience is left with the tingling rush of having lived through something life altering. Better than an adrenaline high, Last Night gives renewed sense in person and significance. Through common conventions and daily headaches, like car trouble, family obligation, top 40 stations, and screened phone calls, McKellar shoves us down the rabbit hole and makes us thankful for what we find on the other side of the looking glass. And though Patrick and Sandra can’t escape a ticking clock, we’re graced with a lifetime of possibility.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/the1secondfilm/ / CC BY 2.0
Here are some helpful sites for today’s tsunami warning:
Live Feed: http://www.ustream.tv/cbsnews
Reviewed by Jessica Hilo
Three years ago, Vampire Weekend embraced a self-ascribed ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ sound that helped to gentrify the hipster movement as much as American Apparel. Their latest album, Contra, available for free streaming on the band’s website, moves us beyond- providing a soundtrack for our youthful Diaspora as we age into the second decade of the 21st century. Not as radio friendly as their eponymous first album, Contra takes the best of Paul Simon’s Graceland period and mind melds it with the calypso sounds we’re used to hearing in hits like “APunk” and “Oxford Comma.” The result is a peppered Casio keyboard demo of abandon and introspection. It wants to be influenced by the 80’s Clash if only it were up to snuff. Wonders on deck include “Taxi Cab,” “I Think UR a Contra,” and single “Horchata.” Contra is a delightful, subdued, and ultimately underwhelming second that will serve to stand nicely in this band’s long career. The album hits stores January 12, 2010.
Winter: a sea of grey waits outside my window like an overlooked friend in for the weekend- familiar and comforting. As I stare into its bleak abyss, I hear life hustling floors below: screeching brakes, police sirens, the crashing wave of moving tires, moving feet, and moving minds. Then, ringing. A high pitched, tinkling, electronic toy noise from a device that adulthood justifies owning. Yes, I can hear you now- and so can others. For it is this pocket sized apparatus that is swift becoming the world’s most popular musical instrument. In New Zealand, for example, Jol Muholland and the staff at Vodafone orchestrated a song and light show to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture through text alert sounds in 1000 cell phones. American composers Jim Stephenson (Cell Phone Concerto) and Golan Levin (Dialtones Telesymphony) have both composed large-scale concert performances spotlighting the range and depth of the cell phone as an instrument of art. In Michigan, Professor Georg Essel gathers an ensemble of iPhone users to “make weird, interesting, new, and unusual things” through loops and manipulations of sound. Hell, even T-Pain has an application for the everyman auto-tune fanatic. But electronic art is not new and sounds manipulated by machine certainly not at the forefront of innovation. If countless runs of Jimmy Stewart bumbling down Bedford Falls have taught me anything, it’s that this is the time of year for reflection. In a cataclysm of old and new, for the electro-audiophile, one name rises as the ghost of Christmas past, present, and yet to come: Delia Derbyshire.
Born in Coventry, Delia Derbyshire was an English composer best known for her contributions to the BBC. A gifted student, she attended Cambridge to study mathematics, but changed her degree for study in music. After college she had applied to work at Decca Records, but was inevitably turned down because the label did not employ women. She worked a stint for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes, before joining the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The Workshop was “born out of the desire to create new sounds” with high production value for programs with small budgets. Composers, sound engineers, and technicians took natural sounds and treated them electronically through a handful of devices in the studio. This included 12 oscillators, a stripped out piano, floor standing tape recorders, and machines created by Radiophonic’s own Dave Young; most notable of which was the Wobbulator (made piecemeal from found objects like a Dictaphone, tins, and a Perspex box.) It was here that Delia cut her teeth writing incidental and theme music for BBC radio and television. She used “anything she could get her hands on – a colander, a set of house keys, broken guitar strings, even her own voice – [anything] could become an instrument in one of [her] soundscapes. One of her favorite objects to use was an old, green, metal lampshade, which she loved because of the clear, ringing sound it made when hit.”
Delia was a meticulous composer and found getting her ideas out problematic. “She worked very hard to achieve the effect that she wanted,” explains former partner Clive Blackburn, “she was a perfectionist and it was very hard to get her to stop work on a piece when she thought that it could still be improved, even though it sounded absolutely fine to other people.” Brian Hodgson, a frequent collaborator, said that he “often had to copy tapes or hide them before Delia attempted to wipe them and start over again.” Once she had worked through her precision, Delia “used the analyses to build [her pieces] from the ground up.” They were a knit quilt of spacey, comic orchestration and radical new ideas- beautifully innocent yet stark and terrifying at the same time. It is this quality of Delia’s composition that lends her work its sense of timelessness and longevity.
The piece in which Delia is most commonly associated is her theme to the longest running sci-fi show in television history, Doctor Who. The original theme was composed by Ron Grainer in 1963, but it was Delia’s developments that brought it to fruition. In this theme, Delia employs reverse tape effects, oscillators, and filters to create an unearthly and eerie sound for space travel- one of the first themes to be produced entirely by electronic means. The theme was “constructed by recording individual notes [of a piano string] from electronic sources one by one onto magnetic tape, cutting the tape with a razor blade to get individual notes on little pieces of tape a few centimeters long, and sticking all the pieces back together one by one to make the melody. This was a laborious process which took weeks.” After all, this piece was composed in the days before the Moog synthesizer and sampling. Her theme to Doctor Who has remained a hallmark of the show through the years and a national treasure. Its driving rhythm and simple melody are standouts in the art of electronic collage.
The Radiophonic Workshop wasn’t always supportive of Delia’s creations, however. Her work was often rejected; and once cast off for being “too lascivious” to youngsters. The advent of the Moog only harkened her frustrations- Delia preferring the nuances of recorded natural sounds to those emulated in synth. She wanted to make soundscapes not tunes. Disillusioned, Delia set up a number of studios in the late 60s; including Unit Delta Plus, an organization with fellow composers Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff. Unit Delta Plus created electronic work for film, theatre, and advertising. There, Delia produced a score for Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth. She also worked with rock stars Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Yoko Ono, and Pink Floyd. It was during this period that Delia orchestrated sonic happenings- pairings of music and electronic art performances. Here, she describes one such festival:
“We had an evening of electronic music and light effects. The music was indoors, in a theatre setting, with a screen on which were projected light shows done by lecturers from the Hornsey College of Art. It was billed as the first concert of British electronic music; that was a bit presumptuous! John Betjeman was there… he sat in the front row and went to sleep… it was quite a social occasion.”
For all her effort in venturing into uncharted musical terrain, the work she produced was never exalted. She built worlds as a tinkering technician, but was thought anachronistic in an era scheming for the six million dollar man. Delia left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1973 and took a series of bizarre jobs soon after- including one as a radio operator laying a national gas main.
Delia never cared much for the synthesized iterations of her famed Doctor Who theme. Towards the end of her life, however, synthesizers had made progress to the point “at which she thought that she might be able to do some work with them.” Says Delia, “working with people like Sonic Boom [Peter Kember] has reinvigorated me…now without the constraints of doing ‘applied music,’ my mind can fly free and pick-up where I left off.” Unfortunately, Delia died in 2001 at the age of 64 from renal failure while recovering from breast cancer. Still, her vision continues. Delia’s unique use of sound layering, rhythmic loops, and chaotic melody inspired bands like Portishead, Aphex Twin, Orbital, and the Chemical Brothers. Her part in establishing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has led to a rich history of electroacoustic music in England and abroad- especially her work in its performance. Aside from influencing popular artists, Derbyshire has influenced breakthrough methods of electronic arts production. The Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST) is “one of the leading international systems for the presentation of electroacoustic music. Relatively unique as a large-scale touring loudspeaker orchestra, BEAST is now capable of mounting systems within excess of 100 discrete channels,” and serves as a leading system in its field for over 25 years. This past September, Coventry hosted A Thing About Machines, an arts festival dedicated to Delia which showcases work that uses, reinterprets, reviews, or renews technology of the past 100 years. Sharing its name with the popular Twilight Zone episode, the event featured turntablists, composers, visual artists, and filmmakers. In 2008, 267 tapes of Delia’s recordings were discovered in her attic. Her website has recently announced that it is offering eight mp3s of this rare and unreleased material for free.
“Nothing becomes as old as quickly as a new sound” says BBC Radiophonic composer Milton Babbitt. True; the new sounds of today’s fast moving age are quaint, but old fashioned- after all, BBC sound engineer Dick Mills composed his Adagio with phone ringing years before this hoopla of cell phone orchestration began. Much like Doctor Whos’ TARDIS flying through time and space, Delia’s work spans the ages, in part due to what Peter Kember calls, “her ultimate resource- a limitless imagination.” With the wealth of tech applications that allow the everyday phone owner to compose electronic music, paint, or film, the sky’s the limit for those with artistic temperaments and daring to be Derbyshire. There is limitless potential in the winter of one year and promise in the next. With the reinvigoration of BBC’s Doctor Who in 2010, starring Matt Smith as its eleventh iteration of the doctor, the memory of Delia Derbyshire is not lost. She leaves behind a grand artistic legacy that has inspired us to be tolerant and understanding of our otherness. Much is promised in the wake of Delia’s noise as it echoes through the darkness.
Not to be outdone by Black Friday, Thanksgiving, or the month of November, Christmas ekes its way into our lives earlier and earlier each year. With Christmas comes an inevitable bevy of gospel and soul hits buttoning itself into yuletide Gap commercials or Starbucks playlists- must be connected with the weather. Still, hailing from the great, white north comes another type of groove, soul, and gospel to ring in the season and out our scroogenesq cynicism: Newworldson.
Taking cues from luminaries like Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, and Aretha Franklin, this group of, let it be known, Christian rockers have been making waves since 2007. The release of Roots Revolution garnered the band a Best New Artist and Roots/Folk Album of the Year at the Gospel Music Awards in Canada and later nomination for a 2008 Juno Best Christian/Gospel Album of the Year. The band, singer Joel Parisien, guitarist Josh Toal, bassist Rich Moore, and drummer Mark Rogers, started out by playing in bars. “We weren’t playing for predominantly Christians in Christian settings, we were performing for regular people…whether they were believers or not made no difference” says Parisien. It wasn’t long before their mix of religious inspired tunes attracted calls from the Christian music industry; and Newworldson joined label, In Pop. Though they were still playing the same mix of gospel and secular songs live, after signing with a predominantly Christian label, the band was accused of using their music for religious outreach, “because we were sort of getting clothed, or painted with a Christian veneer, it turned off some of our non-Christian fans” says Parisien.
Newworldson makes no fuss about their ties to Christianity, however. “I have to read the lyrics three or four times before I get what the singer is trying to say” says Parisien on the lyrics of other Christian artists, “we make our message extremely clear.” But the band doesn’t proselytize in their songs, most references to God, spirituality, or Christianity is of a self-reflexive manner. “I am a working man, I get things done, work for the Holy Ghost, work for the son” sings Parisien in hit “Working Man” from their latest album.
“As I matured as a musician, this was the language I spoke the most fluently,” Parisien says of gospel music, “there are things that bring us joy, and things that bring us pain, and events in our life that make us question…you never know when inspiration’s gonna hit.” Inspiration has taken form in the band’s latest album Salvation Station. Recorded live off the floor, and without the use of click tracks, metronomes, or headphones, the band captures the spontaneity, essence, and energy of good fashioned funk- regardless of creed. They plan to tour come February 2010. “We are on a Christian label and we are Christians. [But] we sound nothing like any contemporary Christian music.” With the season of religious holidays making its way with full force upon us, how do you reconcile the religious with the secular in a PC friendly manner? “I like the effect gospel music has on people…[it] speaks a lot of truth in people’s lives…makes people feel better” says Parisien. God bless us, everyone.
I don’t follow Adam Lambert. But while brushing up on the latest in what journalism calls music news, I found this video:
Okay, I thought. This is a male archetype that’s been absent for awhile. Let’s see where this goes. But then I saw this video.
Look, Lambert, your foot size might be the same as Bowie, Freddie, or Warhol; but that doesn’t give you right to parade yourself as the second coming of gay, artistic pretention- you aren’t filling anyone’s shoes. You’re making a mockery of yourself and them by proxy. Provocation and sex is not a serviceable replacement for talent, lyrics, or melody. Stop, please, for all of us.
Windmills of Your Mind
Russian Circles/Young Widows/Helms Alee at the Echoplex
A dreamy symphony scope of bearded hipsters, thick rimmed glasses, and skinny jeans permeated the Echoplex Saturday November 14. “I’m over music that just screams in the mic” wanes my friend Vicky, “I’m not 15 anymore.” But who was? Certainly not the troubadourian talent that had coagulated from Pasadena basements and studio apartments to see the Russian Circles. On the whole, the concert going experience touched on the jarring side, the flat beer seediness of a rock concert venue meshed imperviously with the self-determined smudgyness of openers Helms Alee and Young Widows- bands sawing away at the acoustical threshold of the house speakers. Patience is a virtue, especially for those dye-in-the-wool audiophiles too old to know that hip does not mean marinating in a stew of blown out noises until the wee hours of the morning. Still, the raw energy displayed at the Echoplex that night, improving sonorously as we neared the headliner, was a hedonistic intoxication. It’s hard to screw up live electronic music; so, on the whole, all three bands managed to captivate their audiences despite certain electronic improvisations easily forgiven. The Young Widows, with chant-like incantations and sounds bleeding metal over blues and jazz, much to the chagrin of the band I’m sure, were an all too loud precursor, and thus perfect opener for subdued Circles. The Circles, whose sounds ranged from pulsating to bleak, orchestral to animalistic, was certainly the most crowd-friendly, let alone musically and beautifully unconventional. Still their display was a fashion show of lights, glitter, and effects prompting the question: without their festooned glamour, what would these bands be? Though they are forward moving, I wonder if live performance was an apt turn for the band (just because you can, doesn’t mean you should); and not a gimmick sold cheaply to their furry audience following for increased revenue.
As if in a hellish dream, women in rock, of a certain age, have somehow dug themselves into one of three niches: the lustful cougar, the flouncy Susan Boyle, or the pious mother-widow diva. In this haze of reality we find Yoko Ono: yes, widow of John Lennon, mother of Sean, and the butt of too many clichés that you might as well stop thinking of one lest you be considered out of touch. Ono’s latest, Between My Head and the Sky, is an album that demands much. To multitask in its presence does you no good, as her trademark moan-gasms and hypnotic ululations litter the listen. Favoring the stolen morsel of time, what you hear in Sky is a cacophonous and brilliant mess of multi-genred and undulating joy. Ono is a quick as ever: cynical, quirky, meditative, and vulnerable. Her album oscillates from night to day and moves its listener to different places and different perceptions. Gathering elements of her musical past- from her flash-fried Asiatic pop punk in “Waiting for the D Train” to dark Mint Royale-esq throbs in “Calling” to sexy electrovibe dance and promising sound with “The Sun is Down”- doesn’t equate for much in the end. There is nothing new, fierce, reflexive, or forward moving in this album that we haven’t heard from Ono or her son in previous records (though, the complexity and ornamentation of Lennon’s composition is, by far, his best yet.) What makes this album the cocaine of its kind, a luxury drug for the meandering temperament, is the prescribed method for its listen: take this the way music is supposed to be enjoyed and you’ll feel better. Her defiance of convention or link to an ennobled spouse is no longer the pathway to reaching her esoteric few. Between My Head and the Sky shakes a fist to anyone for want of a listen: take it as you will; I am alive.
Photo by Charlotte Muhl & Sean Lennon (C) YOKO ONO 2009
With the amount of 80s synth pop creeping back into daily downloads and popular television programming, I get the impression that while the world was moving onto grunge rock and hip hop in the late 80s and early 90s, Europe was halted abruptly by its fall. Finding new steam in return to a Pax Reagana, neon spandex and fight against socialism included, I wonder if what we’re listening to now are throwbacks and reinventions or old tunes in new, shoulder padded dressing.
“This is It,” hit from the late Michael Jackson, gained much media attention before the release of his movie of the same name. Unveiled to fans as a new track, what we found was a song repurposed from 1983. But the hit helped the soundtrack album reach #1 here and abroad; a good marketing ploy for Sony Epic and a handy environmental tip for the lot of us- don’t throw out your trash just yet; recycle, reduce, reuse.
This isn’t a new phenomenon to the music industry- what with the Beatles Anthologies and Past Master Volumes burning a hole into my wallet- but it certainly prompts the question: In an era of instant, global communication, where a person can be a child of any era, regardless of chronology or geographical accommodation, is a rise and fall in trends luxury or laziness?
Here’s a happy tune from Wolf Gang:
with remix here.