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Jack: 2014

Tonight I offer my year-end lists.  Starting next month, I go into self-imposed exile (blogotistically speaking) due to some important things I have to take care of personally and professionally.  Favorites are marked in bold:

Albums

vannier

A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (Sparks)
Alpha Centauri (Tangerine Dream)
Brain Capers (Mott the Hoople)
Even in the Quietest Moments… (Supertramp)
Outrageous (Kim Fowley)
Slow Dazzle (John Cale)
The Charm of the Highway Strip (The Magnetic Fields)
The Child Killer of Flies (Jean-Claude Vannier)
Tom Verlaine
Touch of Evil (Henry Mancini)

 

I streamed 116 albums, only three of which were released this year.  (I have the new U2 on iTunes but can’t be bothered to listen to it.)  So, yeah.  Most of these picks are old as f*ck.

Movies

boyhood

At Long Last Love
Boyhood
Castello Calvanti
Dawn of the Planet of Apes
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Milius
Passion (dir. Brian De Palma)
The Italian Job (1969) 
The Rocketeer
The Unknown (dir. Tod Browning)

 

Novels / Novellas

HHhH

Black Hole (Charles Burns)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Hannibal (Thomas Harris)
HHhH (Laurent Binet)
Ozma of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
Saga (Brian K. Vaughan)
The Events at Poroth Farm (T.E.D. Klein)
The Stand (Stephen King)
The White People (Arthur Machen)
The Willows (Algernon Blackwood)

 

I read 36 books (fiction, non-fiction, even screenplays).  Of the non-fiction I read, Fritz Lang in America (Peter Bogdanovich) and You Never Give Me Your Money (Peter Doggett) impressed me the most.

Short Stories

pathobby

“Black Canaan” (Robert E. Howard)
“Cool Air” (H.P. Lovecraft; also see the Creepy comic version by Bernie Wrightson)
“Pigeons From Hell” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Fires of Asshurbanipal” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Graveyard Rats” (Henry Kuttner)
“The Man Who Collected Poe” (Robert Bloch)
“The People of the Dark” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Trick” (Ramsey Campbell)
“Worms of the Earth” (Robert E. Howard)
The Pat Hobby Stories (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

 

Songs

bubblepuppy2

Angel Baby (John Lennon)
Far From Any Road (The Handsome Family)
Florida (STRFKR)
Green Manalishi (Fleetwood Mac)
Hot Smoke and Sassafras (Bubble Puppy)
Inspector Norse (Todd Terje)
My Sex (Ultravox)
Simple Sister (Procol Harum)
Sour Milk Sea (Jackie Lomax)
Tropic of Night Frost (Michael Bundt)

 

TV

twilight-zone-season-2-9-the-trouble-with-templeton

“Split Second” (Tales From the Crypt, season 3, episode 11, HBO)
“The Trouble With Templeton” (The Twilight Zone, season 2, episode 9, CBS)
Silicon Valley (season 1, HBO)
True Detective (season 1, HBO)

 

I don’t know that we are in the golden age of TV.  I just don’t watch that much of it.  While I made it through the second seasons of Hannibal and House of Cards, their over-the-top M.O. is beginning to grate on me.  HBO programming has greater riches:  Beside the first seasons of Silicon Valley and True Detective, I enjoyed the little I saw of Looking, and of Game of Thrones (I’m sure I will binge on it; I like that it’s waiting for me).  In 2014 I found myself drawn more to the episodic series format than the two-hour movie format.  I didn’t expect that to happen.

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Near Dark

neardarkNear Dark is a vampire Western.  The first hour shows a farmhand’s seduction by, and ‘nitiation into, a roving, nocturnal gang of shit-kickers who happen to be bloodsuckers.  In the movie’s last third he escapes from the group. Full of gore and fiery explosions, the movie succeeds as an atmospheric mash-up but leaves you feeling a bit cheated. 

Effective horror films plunge you into darkness and keep you there.  Just because they end satisfactorily does not necessarily mean the evil you see is contained.  Near Dark is modern.  It dispenses with almost all the old-fashioned trappings of vampire lore.  There aren’t any capes, castles, or coffins; no counts, countesses, crucifixes, or cloves of garlic.  No sex, either.  The romanticism is gone.  Here, vampirism as rich metaphor is de-fanged.  The monstrosity of the bloodsucker’s death-life is all you get.  Where Near Dark begins to stumble is in its treatment of the farmhand, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar).  We like him but his transformation into (and from being) a vampire doesn’t really change him.   

Caleb is much too sweet, and stays that way after he falls in with the pitiless, surrogate family of vamps (memorably played by Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, and Joshua Miller).  Once bitten, he remains averse to feeding off of innocent people and stays true to the girl who turned him.  (They couple when he sucks her wrist.)  Basically, he never lets himself become a vampire-by-definition (i.e., a creature of the night who dispassionately kills in order to survive), and gets off the hook easily (SPOILER: his dad gives him a blood transfusion, which is dumb because the blood would be food, not an antidote).  Throughout the movie, which de-romanticizes the vampire (as much as any film I’ve seen), Caleb is virtually incorruptible.  That is the film’s first big flaw.  

The second big fail is the last act.  After Caleb saves the vampires in a shootout and finds his real family again, the vampires get back at him for…what?  Leaving them?  Knowing who they are?  Reunited with Caleb, his real family doesn’t care to sic the authorities on the vampires, much less hunt them down on their own.  Still, the movie plants a false motive for Caleb to have a showdown with the vampires when they kidnap his younger sister (one of the boy vamps wants her as his eternal companion) but spare Caleb and his dad.  From this plot point on, Near Dark undermines itself.  By baiting Caleb and being generally careless, the vampires cease to pose a serious threat.  They take chances that feel out of character for them.  As night-runners who’ve been night-running for YEARS, always careful to avoid sunlight and detection, they would not put themselves in jeopardy the way they do in the last act.  They just wouldn’t.  But Near Dark makes good triumph over evil, anyway.  It’s a convenient finish.      

If you have not seen Near Dark, you should.  Adam Greenberg’s cinematography and Stephen (son of Robert) Altman’s set designs create a stark Edward Hopper vibe.  You believe you’re in the wasteland of the American Midwest:  The wide open plains that dim into the horizon are sometimes bombed with light, and by night the squat roadside establishments and small main streets cluster with shadow.  The makeup is wonderful.  Even if it’s not particularly fun or thrilling, Tangerine Dream’s electronic score is appropriately moody.  The scene in the bar is a small masterpiece of tension, Kathryn Bigelow’s best bit of directing to date.  All of these elements make the movie something.  What that something is is…not a classic (the storytelling flags), but a cross-genre exercise that any scholar of horror should check out.

Rating: B+

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Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep-Mountain High

spectortinaLeonard Cohen said producer Phil Spector’s music was post-Wagner.  Robert Christgau said it was vulgar.  Reflecting on his Spector collaboration from the mid-70s, Dion said it was funeral music.  To me, Spector’s music fits all of these descriptions.

There is something obvious, almost hubristic, about Spector’s infamous Wall of Sound approach.  Its goal is to move mountains.  It seeks to sound like the biggest thing around.  In short, and I’m not being entirely flippant when I say this, it is God’s music.  (I think Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said something similar.)  And, plied to sweet/sad teenage love songs sung sweetly/sadly, the Wall of Sound becomes more than just a big soup1.  Within it is the sound, the feeling, of young love, of heartbreak so bad it could crush the world.  In this way, the Wall of Sound feels right.  God’s music should, anyway.

Note, however, what Dion said.  He called the music funeral music.  Sure, he was opining about the record he’d made with the man; but you can extrapolate the comment to apply virtually to all of Spector’s productions from 1970 on.  At the turn of the 70s recording technology had changed a lot.  Monophonic reproduction, Spector’s preferred format, was passe.  Already a notorious eccentric, Spector became a wigged and shaded, paranoid recluse, occasionally leaving his Hollywood cave to produce platters for folks who by and large had, like him, been fab in the 60s and were now in serious heat for a hit.  When these records surfaced, they sounded Wall of Sound-lite, as though everyone had imbibed and indulged in nasal stimulants at the recording sessions–and Spector, coasting on the fumes of his legend, had just made the engineer twiddle slap-back onto every piece of tape—when, that is, Spector wasn’t carelessly waving a gun around the studio.  I’m painting a scene here, yes; and not all of these records are bad (some, like Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, are very good indeed.  Dion’s “Born to Be With You,” in particular, weaves a shag-carpeted spell).  But all too often the ache, the verve, of the previous decade is absent.  Spector’s 70s work sounds a bit too clean, a bit sluggish and slack.

Contrast “Born to Be With You” with Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” (1966)—arguably the Wall of Sound’s peak.  At no other time did Spector’s muddy mélange of orchestrated sessioners sound quite as thunderous as it does on “River.”  At no other time did the Wall of Sound have a singer who could stand up to it.  Here Tina is in charge of her instrument.  Her voice is pure emotion, but it’s gritty—controlled.  The Wall of Sound has met its match; both backdrop and vocalist slug it out.  It’s a duel.  They convey an overwhelmed sensation, but neither one breaks.  They hang in there.  The result is a magnificent tension, a sense of frisson (as the French would have it) that builds and builds.  It earns the title of Elemental.

1 The Wall of Sound was, you could say, pretty simply defined; but, like nearly all the best things in life, it was alchemical.  As such, it’s impossible to replicate today.  Why?  Well…  In the 60s at least, Spector’s touch was multi-pronged.  He didn’t just ladle heavy dollops of echo.  He arranged the songs.  Sometimes he co-wrote the songs.  He hired the backing musicians (many of whom have gone down in history as members of the Wrecking Crew).  He booked great studios—rooms with solid acoustics.  He often recorded the musicians together, take after painstaking take.  Then, having polished the master backing track, he directed his singers to give the performance of their lives (sometimes, or so I’ve heard, in far fewer takes than what the musicians endured).  To top it off, Spector worked in mono (which on records remained the norm until about 1969), allowing the finished product to sound like it might burst at the seams—like that thin strip of vinyl was really ore from some monolithic wave of cosmic cream.

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Elvis Presley – I John

ijohnelvis“I John” is Elvis gospel at its most propulsive.  The feel is sweaty, churchy—body music animated with the spirit of the Lord.  “Baby, Let’s Play House” may be the Hillbilly Cat’s most lasciviously fun moment.  “I John” is surely the holiest—if by “holy” we mean gospel that omits the softly prayerful, hymnal touch.  I like that.  I like how the King reaches into the upper and lower registers of His voice, almost side by side.  I like the reverb, which sounds far less clunky and canned than it does on any of His other gospel recordings.  I like that He sings excitedly, perhaps even desperately, of a man cornered by angels.  I like that “I John” rocks.

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LCD Soundsystem – All I Want

lcdwantYou come home to someone who had waited.  You guys aren’t close now.  You’re strangers.

You go outside for a walk.  It’s good to be home, but you can’t shake the discomfort.  The two of you will have to start over — and you know you’re not up to the challenge.  All you want is the other person’s pity.  The bitter tears.

So you put your buds on and you play Bowie’s “Heroes”; and you would like to be like the duo in that song, who are dying to get over — to feel good, rise above — to do something, be something.  To escape.  Forever.  But that’s just a dream.  You can’t afford it.  After all, “Heroes” is just a song.  Bowie himself kicks and screams at it, enraged at the fantasy that means so much.

Bowie is trapped and so are you.  But you’re worse, friend.  You don’t even ask for that which you can’t have.  You cling to the shell of what once was.  And you admit it.  You want the emptiness.  It’s easy to want it.

At least it would be a feeling.