Friday, September 28, 2007

11 Best Harmonies on Record

A lost art! Or an ignored one. I was hoping the boy bands might bring some of it back, but their harmonies ended up being big boring blocks of monotone sound. Strangely enough, most of the best modern harmonies don't even come from groups -- they come from the same singer tracking different vocals over each other. Sadly, this strategy mainly communicates a sense of internal division and alienation instead of the old joy of singing together.

1. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ooh Baby Baby

(What comment is possible? It's on YouTube, unfortunately along with a bunch of someone's semi-erotic comic book art.)

2. The Everly Brothers, Cathy's Clown

(Pretty mind blowing. Apparently served as an inspiration to the both the Beatles and Elliott Smith, who are included below.)

3. Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, That's Heaven to Me

(Just picking one out of dozens of really beautiful performances.)

4. The Beatles, Baby's in Black

(What astonishes me about this song is that the harmonies sound like they're completely improvised, unlike, say, another classic like Because, where they are clearly planned out.)

5. The Beach Boys, In My Room

(Ach, touched by God! Or whatever the modern secular equivalent might be.)

6. The Marvelettes, Please Mr. Postman

(There should probably be more girl groups on this list, but my knowledge is very limited.)

7. Curtis Mayfield and the Attractions, I'm So Proud

(Curtis Mayfield is amazing. I love his doo-woppy period better than the more well-known funk one.)

8. Radiohead, I Will

(The "I keep falling over" harmonies on Black Star are also wonderful, but they're also pretty much the only ones in the song.)

9. Neil Young, Through My Sails

(Who knew that high nasal voice could harmonize so beautifully?)

10. Ron Sexsmith, Raindrops in my Coffee

(A gorgeous song. I recommend Sexsmith to anyone I can get to listen. Dylan just played this song on his radio show, which I was very pleased about.)

11. Elliott Smith, Say Yes

(Low on the list only because the harmonies occur during a very small part of the song - "crooked spin can't come to rest." But they always give me a bit of a chill.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Favorite Shows at Austin City Limits Festival 2007

Going to ACL means braving a crowd of 65,000, porta-potties, and oppressive Texas heat. I didn't see a lot of the 130 bands and of the ones I did there were some disappointments (The National and Peter, Bjorn, and John were two of the major ones).

Here are some that made it worthwhile.

1. Gotan Project
2. Ryan Shaw
3. DeVotchKa
4. James Hunter
5. Raul Malo
6. Pete Yorn
7. LCD Soundsystem
8. Lucinda Williams
9. MIA

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Music Documentaries

The posts about the best/worst use of music in film made me think about movies about music. Since there are a lot of music documentaries I haven't seen that are supposed to be very good I won't call this list the best but rather just a few really good ones.

1. Buena Vista Social Club

It is amazing how many of these musicians hadn't played in years, even decades, before putting this band together. This is a great movie.

2. Gimme Shelter

My favorite parts of this movie are watching the reactions of the Stones as they are watching the footage of Altamont.

3. You're Gonna Miss Me / The Devil and Daniel Johnston

I grouped these together since they are both stories of mentally ill but very talented Austin musicians. I think the contrast between how the two of them handle their illnesses is really interesting. Daniel is obsessed with being famous and is willing to exploit his illness to become famous (for example, when he says he draws ducks in his artwork because they help him fight the devil you wonder if he really thinks that or if he knows saying that will increase the value of the drawing) while Roky seems like he would be more than happy to be just left alone.

4. Standing in the Shadows of Motown

This is a great unsung heroes story but it loses some points for overstating the importance of the musicians ("anyone could have been singing those songs" - I mean, really?) and for featuring live performances by Ben Harper and Montell Jordan.

5. New York Doll

Arthur Killer Kane is so, so likeable in this movie, and so are the women he works with at the Mormon library who are all atwitter when they find out they work with a rock star. Even knowing before starting it how the movie would end (I don't want to ruin it if someone doesn't know and wants to watch it) it still made me cry.

6. Don't Look Back

I'm sure I would like this movie more if I had been born in the 50s. But, it is good. The best scene is the opening which makes it kind of anti-climatic.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, RIP

Along with my fondness for the King of Rock 'n' Roll, I have a soft spot for the King of High C's, who died this morning of pancreatic cancer. (Also fits into my admiration of powerful fat men.) While I couldn't find any footage of old Lucky singing to basset hounds, it was easy to compile some fine moments. You'll notice I don't include any bullshit duets with Michael Bolton (assclown!) or Andrea Bocelli (faker!), or Christmas specials, or anything that isn't an aria. All that was beneath the big man, and the point of today is honoring him:

Pavarotti as Pagliacci, the sad clown singing "Vesti la giubba." The gist is: "the show must go one despite the fact that my wife's a cheating whore who is making an ass of me." Surely this temporary suppression of jealous rage will work--who ever heard of an opera with a tragic ending?

Pavarotti as Calàf,
the suitor of the mysterious (i.e., Asian) Turandot, anticipating his victory in his quest to win her hand. "Nessun dorma" ("No man shall sleep") has become a popera smash in recent years with numerous covers appearing in films and commercials, but the several high c's make this the signature Pavarotti aria. Accept no imitations.

Pavarotti as Mario, comparing his love Tosca to a portrait he is painting--the title, "Recondita Armonia" come from the line Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse ("Concealed harmonies of contrasting beauties"). Transcendent from the first note to the last.

Pavarotti as the Duke of Mantua, singing "La donna è mobile" ("Bitches are sneaky") from Rigoletto. This particular video is a demonstration of why canned opera seldom works--the dubbing is off (partially YouTube's fault, but I've seen this version on tape, and it's not much better in the original), the space feels too small to hold the magnificent aria, and Pavarotti's acting is, to put it politely, more suited to stage than screen. But that last high C--unbelievable.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Nationality titles

I’m a sucker for titles with nationalities. Even if the movies and books don’t always satisfy, the use of the words themselves are often excellent shorthand for “exotic,” “powerful,” or “naïve.” For the purpose of narrowing my subject, I’ve avoided all uses of the word “American,” but even that had some fine uses: “An American Tragedy,” “The Quiet American,” “American Pie,” “American Beauty,” (my personal favorite title if not movie) and “American” (the original title of “Citizen Kane”).

1. The English Patient – The irony, as those of you have seen the movie or read the book, is that the patient isn’t actually English. He’s Hungarian, burnt beyond recognition. But there’s a certain poetry in a man who has lost everything grasping onto an innocuous national identity.

2. The Spanish Prisoner – The trick, in its most modern incarnation, is attempted by every Nigerian who ever sends you an email requesting a transfer of 80,000 dollars to save a minor noble brought down by revolutionary violence with the promise of 10,000,000 later on. David Mamet could use it as a title only because the story it refers to was not too well-known. “Spanish Prisoner” might remind the average viewer of something closer to the Spanish Civil War or modern Basque violence than to a tale from the 16th century.

3. The Italian Job – I haven’t seen either version. But apparently it deals with a heist in Turin. And the title sounds lot more intriguing than The Turin Project.

4. The Argentine – It hasn’t even come out yet. But this is the most inspired title I could imagine for a Che Guevara biopic. So ambiguous. Is he an evil Argentine or a good one? Just where will Stephen Soderbergh lay his political beliefs?

5. The Mexican – The title refers to a gun. You can't name a gun after the Canadians.

6. Burmese Days – I guess I’ve lived in enough places that I can write my own books: Vietnamese Days, Bulgarian Days, Latvian Days and, maybe soon, Hungarian Days…But the lilting two-syllable/one-syllable bit only seems to work with Burmese Days, which recall the awful colonial experience so well. (No, I don’t know any film version of the Orwell book.)

7. The Good German – Was there any such thing in post-World War II Berlin? Soderbergh again.

8. My Big Fat Greek Wedding – Awful title. The fine thing about the use of nationalities in titles is that you can make them short. You don’t have to say much more than “Spanish Prisoner” (strange thriller) “The Mexican” (violence), or “Good German” (drama about moral ambiguity) for audiences to get the idea. If Nia Vardalos needed to say “whacky” she only had to say “Greek Wedding.”