Wednesday, July 23, 2008

DVD of the week: The Velvet Underground Under Review

We're going to try as much as possible to make this a regular feature. We spend enough of our time talking about the latest thing we got from Netflix that we figure we might as well blog about them, so here goes...

This is the third movie in this series we've seen (the previous two being the Syd Barrett and Patti Smith volumes), and like the others, it's a quick glide through a career through the eyes and ears of a fairly random sample of witnesses and critics. This one had the distinct advantage of having a couple of actual band members involved, said members being the humbly awesome (as always) Maureen Tucker and a rather dazed and bemused Doug Yule, who still seems to be reeling from being thrown into the deep end some 40 years ago.

Other talking heads include Billy Name, who comes off as a likeable, bearded old sage explaining how various album covers came into being (mostly through happy accidents), recording engineer Norman Dolph who sheds some light on the recording of that first album, and a slew of critics: the incredibly snotty yet sometimes insightful Robert Christgau, the well-informed but sometimes questionable Clinton Heylin (Heylin has written several very useful books, but often when he sets out to State His Big Case, I end up going "huh?"; for instance when he asserts that, unlike any other band of their time, the Velvets were completely unprecedented and there was no way to trace their influences on first hearing, my own critic-brain started thinking of the first album's near-direct allusions to everything from the Stones, Byrds, and Dylan to Marlene Dietrich and Ornette Coleman. Now if their first album had been White Light, White Heat, Heylin might've had a case, but anyway...this is the sort of overreaching "definitive statement" that bugs me to no end about rock critics in general. Moving right along...), and lesser known characters like Malcolm Dome, who seems to show up in every one of these things and never has much to say, but is such an thoroughly entertaining maniac it doesn't matter.

There's also a series of segments featuring a guitarist who explains the mechanics of several songs by playing them, which is actually more enlightening than that might sound. And we get to meet the former owner of the Boston Tea Party, who seems like the coolest club owner ever as he reminisces about his role in giving the band a home base away from home when they left Andy Warhol and stopped playing New York.

What you don't get: any input from Lou Reed (probably a good thing, considering his ego and controlling nature) or John Cale (would have been nice, but you can't have everything, and for his side of the story, What's Welsh For Zen will do fine), or much in the way of live footage, as the VU, especially considering their immersion in a wildly creative and self-documenting art scene, barely seem to have been captured at all other than a few scraps of out-of-sync or silent film. But Mo Tucker is always a delight, dead cool without trying to be, with a sweet twinkle in her eye and great pride in her voice when she talks about the band. The fleeting moments where we can watch her drumming inspired me a lot when I laid down a drum overdub for a Meri St. Mary track we're working on. (More on that later.) It's such a crazy idea, yet so effective: don't bother with the kick drum pedal, just lay it down on its side and pound it with mallets! (I remember seeing Bobby Gillespie copy this style in the early Jesus & Mary Chain.) And I enjoyed seeing her state emphatically that she hated it when drummers would stop playing the drum because they were busy with the cymbal, and that drummers should be hitting the drums all the time. (Mo's style was not a cute, primitive accident, it was an artistic decision, and she wants you to know that!)

It's interesting to see the Doug Yule footage. He doesn't get a lot of respect, and he seems to know it, which is sad. I used to be one of those VU fanatics who had a glib attitude regarding Yule too. These days I think I was unfair; after all, he had a hand in that deep, lovely third album as well as the incredible 1969 Live recordings, and the immortal "What Goes On" shows that he could drone with the best of them. What we are reminded of here is that Yule, the guy who replaced the very influential, strong-willed Cale, was nothing but a kid who clearly had no idea what he was getting into. Now middle-aged, he often becomes sullen, defensive and uncomfortable as he recalls his years with the band. When the subject of "Candy Says" comes up, he bristles at Reed's past mocking statements that Yule had no idea what the song was about, and counters that if he had, he would have refused to sing it. (If so, Reed was smart not to have told him, since his innocent choirboy voice nails that song like nobody else ever has since...including the highly overrated Antony Hegarty, IMNSHO.)

If you're a true VU fan, you probably won't learn too many new things from this movie, but it's a fun ride nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Brain and brain, what is brain?

My youngest brother is a staunch, downright fanatical right-wing Republican. He also has a mildly autistic daughter. Wonder how this grabs him.

Never mind. If we were speaking, I'm sure his response would be something like "well, Michael Moore is no different, so there!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Arthur Lee, part one

One of the reasons we decided to start this blog was to have an outlet to write about our impressions of music, movies, and "culcha" in general, as well as to talk about the activities of our label. I spent a couple decades as a zine writer, for Puncture and other magazines, but called it quits after that magazine finally folded in 2001. At the time, I thought I had spent far too much time in my life writing record reviews when I should have been writing songs. No regrets on that decision---What Is Truth was the result---but sometimes I miss writing down my opinions instead of just spouting them in passing.

Anyway, we'll be musing on the arts from time to time here on the Ear Candle blog. For starters, here is a reposting of my impression of Arthur Lee's incredible show at the Great American Music Hall in 2004. I will be following up with some words about Arthur's strange, touching and sometimes excruciating performance at the Cafe Du Nord the following year. (One of his last live shows ever.) But for now, let's remember Mr. Lee at the peak of his twilight glory once more:

Last night's Arthur Lee gig at the Great American Music Hall was inspirational. Good to see the old eccentric genius in such fine form. This time out the regular present-day lineup of Love (formerly Baby Lemonade) was augmented by two male trumpet players (one of whom doubled on flute for "She Comes In Colors") and an all-female string quartet: different musicians than the Swedish mini-orchestra on the DVD from two years ago, probably some L.A. people they hired. After a blasting rendition of "Your Mind And We Belong Together", they gave the people what they wanted and played Forever Changes from start to finish. It was something else, seeing these songs come alive.

Lee himself was in fine spirits, flashing wry grins, flailing maracas and tambourines, occasionally picking at a third guitar, and dancing with peculiar grace like a man half his age. He's got himself a cracking little ensemble of supporting players who know his music inside out (and help him with the occasional missed lyric...hey, some of these songs are nearly 40 years old; cut the man a little slack!).

There was one moment where it looked like it was all going to go to hell in a handbasket, when a wag from the audience (a guy I vaguely know from Hotel Utah open mikes past who plays old-timey music with a group called the Motherfolkers) started teasing Lee about hiding behind his shades and singing some of the lyrics (particularly the Bryan McLean-written "Old Man") from a music stand. After the first remark ("make some eye contact", I think), there was a flash of the man's notorious temper and he angrily flung his Calistoga bottle (the soft plastic kind, luckily) at him. In a split-second I could see Lee collecting himself and remembering what he was there for, how much trouble he'd had in the past and how now, older and wiser, he was determined to rise above reacting to what were really good-natured jibes as though they were insults, and yet, retain his command of the stage. He broke into a wide smile and muttered "sorry about that, man", in the most disarmingly sweet way imaginable. The Motherfolker persisted, taunting Lee about the lyric sheet that had just been brought out for "Old Man", when suddenly Lee shouted, "Who said that??" and leaped into the audience, still holding the mike. I fully expected an ugly scuffle to ensue, and so did many of the others around, immediately clearing a wide berth around him. (Arthur Lee is not a small man, and definitely looks like someone who could do some damage if he chose to go that way.) I couldn't quite catch what was being said, but Lee said something like, "I'll show you", and signalled the band to start the song. Lee brought up his microphone, put his arm around the Motherfolker, and started singing McLean's lyrics flawlessly, putting himself fully into the slightly-mawkish-but-oh-so-moving song about receiving guidance from a wise old man, then weaving through the crowd, focusing on various graying middle-aged record-collector-fanatic guys in the audience (and there were a lot), seemingly dedicating the song to all the "old men" who'd come out to support one of their old favorite obscure cult heroes. It was alternately sweet and side-splittingly hilarious, and from that moment on the whole crowd was in the palm of Arthur Lee's hand. Bloody brilliant, it was.

The rest of the show was equally great; a wide selection of songs from various stages of Lee's career followed the Forever Changes reading, from essential oldies like "7 And 7 Is", "My Little Red Book", and a wrenching "Signed D.C.", to an OK new song, to some numbers from the Four Sail album including a great one called "Singing Cowboy", that ended as a wild sing-along rave-up, with the string players sawing away ferociously. (Sadly, Steve Abbate says the original version doesn't have that was a spontaneous bit of brilliance that night. Still, I will have to give Four Sail another chance. When I first heard it, it was just too late-60s proggy hard rock for my ears. But now that my wife and I have become full-on Arthur Lee fanatics, it's overdue for a reassessment.) After a long generous encore including gems like "My Flash On You", "A Message To Pretty" and "She Comes In Colours" as well as the above-mentioned numbers and much more, Lee's final remarks went something like "If you take one last thing with you from me tonight, I want it to what's that all about? Laughing when I'm trying to say something here...come on. Now what I was saying was, if you take one thing with you tonight, I want it to be this: Love each other. Good night." Could have been trite as hell in another context, but from someone who's had the ups and downs this guy has, it was pretty damn deep and meaningful. Thanks Arthur.

Waiting for the Bunnies

We apologize for the delay in the release of our first Experimental Bunnies album, Music For The Integrity Tone Scale. We are presently working out an upload problem with Tunecore, our digital distributor, who have been slow to answer their e-mails lately. We hope that the technical difficulties will be resolved soon and this first of many mindblowing, already-recorded Bunnies releases, will be available for your enjoyment as swiftly as possible.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Get Out!

The newest Blame track, "Get Out", can be heard here.