Sunday, February 18, 2018

Blank Panther

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It's advisable to not read film reviews beyond the headlines, if even that, prior to buying a ticket and waiting for the lights to dim; being delighted or disappointed with a film after walking into the theater with merely reasonable expectations--rather than desires jacked up and exceeding sanity with big media hype. Like a film, hate it, or give a slight, impassive shrug. the experience doesn't feel like you've been manipulated, pavlov'd so to speak, into craving a sweet and worthless piece of pop culture hype. And if you loathe the thing you've viewed, you are at least allowed to walk away from the theater feeling only disappointed and not betrayed by a noxious cabal of scheming film critics. And so, let me say that Black Panther, a new Marvel release presently annihilating competing films at the box office and the recipient of ludicrous amounts of praiseworthy hyperbole, gets a shrug of the shoulders, a rock solid "meh", a half-nod, a quick exit to the dust bin of memory. So much is read into this film being a harbinger of a new social movement, a religious event, an event signaling the movement of history's tectonic plates that it would seem apparent that what we have, among other undisclosed symptoms, is the jargon-ated babble of movie critics desiring to effective social agents and diagnosticians of the dialectic. They don't want to be movie critics, they want to be public intellectuals, they want to be taken seriously. A couple of things at work here, the first being that I, comic reader and super hero movie fan among many other high and low culture obsessions, have become a bit bored with the formula Marvel is putting forth. While the movie, as with all their product, is a technical marvel and moves along gracefully, the narrative, the emotional connections, the dramatized philosophies argued herein, do not rise above what's come before in Marvel's increasingly crowded gallery. Yes, they do try to address matters of race and privilege, but the context here is too ridiculous and "safe" for any urgency to get across besides obvious points for the plot to turn. DCEU got it right in Man of Steel in which the unleashing of unchecked super power destroys the city where the combat took place, all in the name of two causes that had well-articulated rationales. The cardboard patriotism of Captain America, in the MCU, is transferred to the amazingly un-charismatic nationalism of Prince T'Challa /Black Panther. And so, it goes.

Quite despite the claims that BP is a game changer or brings things to the next level so far as their connected universe goes, I found it a bit tedious, albeit a bright, shiny, noisy kind of tedium. For whatever reason, there is a herd mentality among film critics when it comes to certain motion pictures, and what has been written and said about Black Panther so far regarding judging its value as a distinct, different and arguably inspired bit of film making loses intellectual rigor and floats too easily to the helium heights of hyperbole. It begins to resemble Resurrection theology more than anything else; that its being argued that a fantasy epic re-frames, redirects and clarifies the discussion of and policy decisions about what seems intractable evils in our society underscores how pathetic we've become. A Marvel motion fantasy gets credit for clarifying and grounding our discussion of racial injustice and violence while Kathy Bigelow’s fact-based Detroit, an unflinching recreation of the the causes and conditions behind the worst race riot in American history, is given a brief flurry of positive reviews and then quickly shuffled out of the spotlight. That ought to have been the movie, of all movies, that would have sparked a brutally frank discussion of the pathetic state of race relations in this country. But it wasn't.  This is pathetic, grimly pathetic. We cannot even pretend that we're going to talk about race in this country unless it's framed by a glitzy and shallow fantasy. With appropriate respect to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who ably moves the movie through a script that suffers from attention deficit--the story hop scotches around locations in real- time parallel developments and an over reliance on flashbacks, this project waddles when it should run, races at times when it needs to resonate, over stays in expository scenes that cry out for more efficient writing. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

TRUE BUS RIDE (a sketch)

This a goddamned fact, Jack: 

This fellow was on the bus every morning when I was working five days a week, morning rush hour when the vehicle was a sardine can of the unbathed and over perfumed , a combination of cell phone yammers and psychotic silences. 

This fellow's shtick was to find someone who was new on the daily journey, may be a visitor, and he would start talking about himself and what a cool door prize he happens to be.

 The stupidest thing he uttered was that he could sing opera in 5 languages, Italian, French, Russian,et al. His victim looked at him and asked, naturally if he could actually speak those languages. He said,but he could sing opera roles in the alien tongues. 

So you sing phonetically, the visitor asserted.
 No, he said, I sing opera in five languages. 
Do you understand the dialogue you're singinG? was the passenger's next question. 

This fellow's jaunty cap suddenly resembled a brick that had been thrown at him and was wedged by a dent in his thick skull. No, he said, and I don't have to . So you sing phonetically without knowing what you're singing about, the passenger summarized. No, that is not at all , said the fellow, annoyed and flustered, it's something else all together. 

For you,perhaps, said the passenger, but no matter, this is my stop. Bye bye. 

The fellow looked off into the distance , as far he could through the bus windshield. Nothing but dark clouds, power lines and traffic lights greeted his vision,

Saturday, February 10, 2018

HOW TO GLOW , a poem by Dean Young

"How to Glow",a poem by Dean Young, seems willfully chaotic  at first reading, but it does have a rhythm and vibrant sense of starting off with one proposition and concluding with an end , a result, that one did not expect. The chaos were are getting  are an overload of the senses, some quirky half sleep where the unfiltered merging of audiol, visual and tactile sensations bark at one another for the attention of the affected consciousness; it makes for for ugly music and crude ,loud theater.  Each of the concrete things that poet Dean Young mentions seem find a connection with death ; all things lead to demise here, peaceful, painful, glorious, infamous, mundane. That which we busy ourselves with in order to adhere to a convenient existentialist tenet that our lives have meaning drawn from only the decisions we make and our commitment to live by the results of our projects has , as well, a parallel function, to distract us from obsessing from that which we know is inevitable. 

Young, who I understand was once in need of a heart transplant and was fortunate enough to receive one, is fatalistic in this poem, but not without being playful as he inspects the dead ends of the propositions and ideas that are initially championed. One might despair and declare that the poem means to tell us that what we do and dream and build is all for nought  Each endeavor results in a metaphorical dustbin ; I sense something else, hinted at in the title; if you want to glow, to seem holy and spiritual, shine at what you do, aspire and achieve. Go forth and do good works. Appreciate the abyss, step away from it and return to the business of being alive, in this moment.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A fine harmonica solo from John Popper

The velocity of Jon Popper's quicksilver harmonica bluster remains, for me, just that , harmonica bluster, an machine gun's impression of someone trying to spit up a hairball. This is not to say that Popper and his   band Blues Traveller haven't distracted and surprised me with energy and innovation in their capacity as a "jam band". Or that Popper himself hasn't been able to control his conspicuous ability to step on the gas at will on that small instrument and performed turns in the spotlight that made me envious of his moment and how well he used it. But sum total, Popper is not my favorite harmonica player, and he isn't likely to ascend in my estimation. Often , quite  often, too often, is harmonica improvisations resemble not so much extensions of what you can do with diatonic instruments than it does someone revving their engine after midnight to get a charge in their battery. You would swear some city noise abatement ordinances were being violated.Jon Popper is a unique harmonica player with impressive speed and verve, but he is not a good blues player. He garbles the low end, sounding more asthmatic than bracing. Predictably, he only sounds comfortable on the high notes, where his accuracy and intonation improves dramatically. 
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Even there, he does really bring the low, middle and high registers together; these are some sorry transitions. He is, on the other band, a very fine blues singer, based on this sample. To be fair, though, this video is some years old and it seems that Popper has learned something about blues phrasing, as in his recording of "Last Night" with Johnny Winter. He allows space to sculpt his solo. His fleet runs on the high end are not as frantic; they are shot, sharp bursts, and dead on target. It is a wonderfully chilling sound. Popper's low end execution is not the best - when he plays blues, he often sounds like he's not sure where the second, third or fourth notes are. He doesn't come to them with the intuitive ease he shows with his high register riffing. Even so, his high end escapades don't connect with anything going around him, or just barely, if at all. The solo is a mess. But he does superb stuff on the Johnny Winter track--there are years between the recordings and what Popper does throughout the improvisation is show us that he figured out how to play blues in his own style, with his signature runs, and still have it be blues. Toward the end of the solo, he gives us a masterful flurry of notes that speed by and yet maintain a blues cadence. He knows what he has to do. So there is hope for this man to get his share of blues credibility.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The withering rascal

Image resultElvis Costello did some fine work after  the tour de force of  Imperial Bedroom,  most notably with  Spike and especially with When I was Cruel.  The songwriter was nearly as strong as anything he’s done before ,although it wouldn’t be a long wait for what we could call the decline of Costello’s quality,  both in his craft and his conviction toward the material. but it warrants saying that Costello's best writing spell came early on in that marvelous string of albums he had, an extended , multi-part set of rants of genuine anger, rage, self-pity. Murderous self-centeredness was his main concern, and he had a peculiar genius for making it profound, or at least evocative, vaguely, of one's own set of unmentionable quantities of explosive self regard. He was pretty close to how we understand the world punk to mean as a personality type, not musical style one dons as if it were an overcoat or comfy pajamas. Rather, he was a punk in bang never satisfied, feeling continually and universally betrayed. What made him seductive to an audience, seemingly equal parts men and women, was his ability to manage and modulate the degrees of bile he'd wish to spill; clever with craft, he could switch up points of view, confuse gender for more complex readings, be scathingly satiric , become lyrical and soft hearted. This element, this mastery of many pop music styles, from rockabilly right up to punk rock itself, made his foul cosmology attractive, artful. And he could convey feeling, genuine emotion, or at least seem as if he was doing so. Costello could sell it. Trust, however, was pretty much unredeemable--after a good run, the songs sounded second string, discards, unmemorable B sides. Worse, his vaunted lyric writing lapsed into the incoherent. Imaginative associative leaps--succeeding stanzas that seem to address things and places unrelated to the verse before it but still provide a poetic sense of something only slightly obscured by simile and allusion--became references so private, images and codes so private that seemed not the testament of a poet bringing the senses together for an enlarged perception of things gone sideways than it did a species of private jokes that made their way from the notebook to the printed lyric sheet. And melodically, little on this disc is memorable. Trust was an album by rote construction, a listless, unconvincing make work project. EC did, of course, make two additional albums after Imperial Bedroom that rank, in my view, with this best work, Spike and When I Was Cruel. But the writing was on the wall, as the more styles EC took on, from New Orleans jazz and funk, country and western, classical, and various assortments of avant gard noise construction and Bachrach inspired pop, the less convincing, which is to say less compelling he became. Even Painted from Memory, his collaboration with Bert Bacharach, which should have been super charged with EC's adroitness as a lyricist and BBs' demonstrated genius for sprite pop with sophisticated turns and fresh, oddball hooks, was mostly studies in mid tempo amorphousness, broad, off center piano chords, achingly swallowed word salad, and Costello continually hitting for that thin, adenoidal high note that wears out its formerly effective existence. Both men seemingly forgot, or at least stayed away from the very strengths that might have made that record compelling; these two gents, but Costello especially, set out to make art music, serious stuff. Costello is the artist who has changed over his career, a man who has expanded his range of expression. Said another way, Costello has expanded , not grown, added to his musical palette without seeming to understand or display a feel for the styles he has assumed album to album.

Slam your head against the skyline, why dontcha

Thick, enjambed, a clustering of obscure terms and slangular dissonances that reflect and echo the languages that have taken turns being the lingua franca of the neighborhood, Spencer Short offers up a poem that reminds one of     
a home video , rickety and nervously caffeinated, shown against a dingy white wall, narrated by several voices ; farewell, says our narrator, farewell til we meet again at the end of the day,this building, this block, this neighborhood that is only valued as highly as the amount of money it might yield to interested and transient developers. What works here, really, is the noisy bustle and toe=stomping pace of the poem, similiar in pacing to crossing downtown street against a horde of angry taxis and delivery trucks with drivers resentful they have to pause for pedestrians to make their way. 

The language is combative yet friendly, an elbow in the ribs, chop busting kind of stuff, this is the language of someone for whom familiarity has bred contempt and yet there is nothing but affection underneath the vocal affectations of elegant phrasing and sarcasm. The word play we have here is not dissimilar from the evolution of New York neighborhoods themselves, the mind puns and new meanings are suggested, built upon, a new development comes in , designs resembling the smaller constructions that were erected decades before, but the new formations are larger, taller, accomplishing more , the advertising says, by being more.  This chase through low, mid and high vernaculars, where different bits of short hand, slang and coded signifiers make for a spectacular 12-tone impression of a neighborhood as it transforms almost imperceptibly . This has the wobbling, woozy verbal gyrations that gave Whitman, Lindsay and O'Hara their power as city poets, that slippery genius of a drunk who talks long enough and deep enough to find all his resources of experience and reading coalescing into extended lucidity. It's not as if the speaker will recall the particular word stream he created nor be enlightened by it; it is likely that he would forget the verbal tangle he worked his way through. But it is a marvel for those who hear it, who listen, who catch a texture and nuance of place in the way the words morph much like the buildings being described.
The warm stalk-sweet smell from the hooded crews  
who keep us failsafe for commerce; men of stature,  
or near enough, their gauzy, smoke-strung copse  
dissolves, lets me pass, nods assent. I mouth  
"morning," eye the candied, cardamom gloss of my shoes,  
shrug against the cold. Everything, as the nomenclature  
goes, 4 Sale: this Smithean forge this Stereoscope—  
by which I mean, of course, the wan illusion of depth  
we milk from nil; the pinch-penny nickel They lose  
for Us to find. As if—as if red-toothed nature  
begot benevolence begot itself this hands-free trope  
of clasp & claw, of gross & price, of precipice.  
8am. The day spreads before me like, what?  

This is a neighborhood in chronic flux and there is a suggestion in the racing associations of the narrators mind that he had better say farewell to the grind of this place, its very material abrasiveness , while it exists because it will be changed and much of what he has come to know will eventually be cleared like some forest .

The Guitar Snarl of Tweed Deluxe

A confession, an admission, a sliver of honesty, whatever you want to call it: I am a blues harmonica, 50 years in the practice. Some think what I do is hip, slick, and cool. What I’d say is that I’m not bad at all, and that my love is inspired by Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, and others who pushed the diatonic harmonica to unexplored terrains. The confession is that I play along to records while they play, and especially albums I’m supposed to review. It's a compliment, though that does sound like saying you love and appreciate the information someone is giving to you  as you continually interrupt them . But it is, as I like to think that my  fingers twitch and my lips pucker to blow some riffs when the music provokes it, motivates it, inspires both muse and nerve endings to fire synaptic rhythms and compel me to engage in the audiol commotion, making all the sour notes hit the sweet spots.

This is the case with Tweed Deluxe’s debut album, Itty Bitty King. Formed in 2010 the trio has been playing blues and blues-rock style material in San Diego for seven years and now come forward with a disc of original and surprisingly diverse songs, all written by lead guitarist and singer Michael Oleata. This man, you may gather, is a live-wire guitarist, alternately loose and snappy in his phrases, insistent but relaxed, teasing with half phrases and short runs, making superb use of space to create anticipation for the next blitz. And blitz Oleata does, stepping up the pace and letting loose with achingly sweet cascades of notes. With the steady and able assist of Lyle Koonts on bass and Robert Sheehan on drums and percussion, Oleata works out, digging deep into the E string for an earthy, grunge straight from the Delta blues tradition, switches his tone and integrates gold-toned country inflections, and makes unusually elegant and tasty use of the wah-wah pedal. 
This the kind of playing you hear walking past a club on a Friday night, near last call, when the musicians leave the chord progressions they’ve rehearsed and express a soulful elegance you don’t get during prime time. Something grabs you by the shoulder and makes you poke your head through the door, take a seat, order a drink, and soak in the flow from the bandstand. Oleata is a developing songwriter, making use of different styles with confidence, particularly in the title song, a skipping swing tune that gives tribute to a love interest that has knocked the narrator off his feet. There is strong promise in his vocals as well, which are expressive and expansive, although missing a pitch point. He sings widely, sometimes too wide. But there are times he relies on his the grit of his lower register and makes one think of the husky talk-sing of the late Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Oleata’s singing has verve and experience, but he’s on track to honing his voice to a sharp instrument of expression no less commanding than his guitar playing. Tweed Deluxe is a strong band, extending what one can do with a song-based guitar trio. Itty Bitty King intrigues and thrills with confident guitar improvisations against a sure footed rhythm section. The songwriting is under construction,but there are ideas here that jive, jolt and catch you off guard often enough to warrant further attention. Wouldn't it be a grand thing if there were  another blues-inspired album  as exceedingly brilliant as Johnny Winter And's self-titled debut album from 1979?  Oletta, Koonts and Sheehan are a crew that could bring that   off.
(This appeared in slightly different form in THE SAN DIEGO TROUBADOUR. Used with kind permission).