Weekend Music Break: The Perfect English Weather, “Spirited Away”

The Perfect English Weather: cover of 'Isobar Blues' albumThe Perfect English Weather” may be a perfect English band name. Of course it makes reference to allegedly common knowledge about the English climate. But it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, opting for wryness over depression — especially when combined with the title and cover of their first album, Isobar Blues. (On this side of the Atlantic, you might achieve similar effects by naming your new band “The Uneventful American Presidential Election.”)

While you may not — probably have not — heard of TPEW specifically, if you’ve been following English pop music for a while you might recognize the name of the “real” band which shares the same two group members, Simon and Molly Pickles: The Popguns. Specifically, says the capsule bio on TPEW’s Facebook page:

The Perfect English Weather are Wendy & Simon Pickles, a duo from Brighton taking time out from The Popguns to tell the usual tales of soggy café chess games, conversations with cats and weekend trips to cancelled Morrissey shows.

Of the Popguns themselves, Wikipedia says, they “played a part in the British jangle pop scene.” And if you, like I, furrowed your brow quizzically at the term “jangle pop,” the ‘pedia will help you out there, too:

Jangle pop is a subgenre of rock music with its origins in the 1960s which features trebly, arpeggiated picking (typically on chiming electric twelve-string guitars or 6 string guitars, often employing a capo and chord inversions), together with straightforward song structures. The Beatles and The Byrds are commonly credited with launching the popularity of the “jangly” sound that defined the genre.

The term “jangle pop” itself emerged as part of the genre’s resurgence the early to mid-1980s that “marked a return to the chiming or jangly guitars and pop melodies of the ’60s”, and was epitomised by bands such as The Smiths. Between 1983 and 1987, the description “jangle pop” was, in the US, used to describe bands like R.E.M., Let’s Active and Tom Petty as well as a subgenre called “Paisley Underground”, which incorporated psychedelic influences.

(The article later references The Who, The Beach Boys, The Hollies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Simon and Garfunkel. The common sound of such bands, reportedly, comes from their use of Rickenbacker twelve-string guitars. I don’t know enough about music to say whether that’s true. But in general, seeing them all lumped together like that does help me grasp the notion of something that might conceivably be called “jangle pop.”)

So what of this specific track from TPEW’s debut album? Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Linear Tracking Live!:

LTL: …We have lost a great many artists this year. Is this about a specific musician or the collective loss of so many talented people?

Simon: During the year which this album was written I was working next to a beautiful big park in Brighton where I’d spend lunchtimes listening to music on my ‘phones whilst sitting on park benches and drifting off to those places that music takes you. It was more the fact that music and ideas live on long beyond their moment of creation that inspired the “spirited away” theme, but obviously the death of Bowie was such a big event around that time, and it’s easy to imagine him as the song’s subject. Having said that, my own bizarre fantasy for the song was around the possible passing of Steven Patrick [i.e., Morrissey] and how that could feel for those of us for whom he loomed so large. Then the actual title probably came from my son’s Studio Ghibli film collection. But I usually say that songs are often not about things, they are inspired by them and become something else. Then the meaning is in the listening, not the writing.

Sounds like the perfect way to close off 2016’s unholy catalogue of pop-culture deaths*, eh? Here’s “Spirited Away,” then, from Isobar Blues.

from 'Isobar Blues'

[Lyrics]

_______________

* Nope: apparently not just an urban legend.

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Midweek Music Break: Tracy Chapman

[Video: “Give Me One Reason,” by Tracy Chapman, with choreography by Chris Martin and Larkin Poynton. That’s Martin and Poynton dancing, too — and only Martin and Poynton. I’d already watched this a few times before that fact hit me, and then I had to watch it a few times more.]

When Tracy Chapman’s single “Fast Car” broke in 1988, it seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly was everywhere. (I could swear I remember a Muzak version.) Even so, thanks to a personal life full of complications, I paid less attention to music — including Chapman — for the next few years. By the time I started listening to stuff again, I learned that her career had zoomed (on the strength of “Fast Car” and her biggest single, “Give Me One Reason”) and then subsided in the meantime. It finally seems to have settled into something of a sui generis long-term marathon, punctuated by public appearances and likewise out-of-nowhere cover versions of her work.

Her Greatest Hits compilation came out a few months ago. It includes remastered versions of both “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason,” naturally, and a live version of “Stand By Me”; the latter was recorded during Chapman’s appearance during the last week of David Letterman’s Late Show, in May 2015. (The video of that performance quickly went viral all on its own.)

The album reminds me that there’s nothing flashy about Chapman’s songs. They’re just straight-ahead good music, highly personal and/or deeply political as the case may be. Like Chapman herself, they give and they give, rewarding repeated listenings and reworkings, in various forms, by other performers.

The dance routine in the above video, choreographed and performed by Chris Martin and Larkin Poynton, has nothing to do with the lyrics of “Give Me One Reason.” (When Chapman sings “Squeeze me,” for instance, the dancers don’t hug themselves or each other.) It simply celebrates the song’s music, as the vehicle — a fast car — on the roof of which the footwork, the elbow jabs, the sheer virtuosity of the performances are zipping up a highway.

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Mother’s Day Music Break: Sinatra – All or Nothing at All

Sinatra, 1970s -- maybe even the farewell concert

Something a little different for me for a Sunday… I’d like to open it by welcoming the lady herself, should she find her way here. Happy Mother’s Day (again), my iPadding and supposedly [N]-year-old Mom!

This playlist consists of twenty-one Sinatra recordings. I’ll explain my reasons for their selection and sequence later in this post. For now, let’s just set the music going, shall we?

Per usual with these RAMH mixes, the little audio-player thingamabob follows the playlist itself, below.

Here we go:

sinatra: all or nothing at all / mother’s day 2015 edition
— 1971 “farewell” concert set list —
# Title Album Time
1 All or Nothing at All The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 3:45
2 I’ve Got You Under My Skin The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 3:33
3 I’ll Never Smile Again The Best of Tommy Dorsey 3:12
4 Ol’ Man River The Concert Sinatra (Expanded Edition) 4:25
5 That’s Life The Very Best of Frank Sinatra
6 Try a Little Tenderness Romance: Songs from the Heart 3:21
7 Fly Me to the Moon The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:30
8 Nancy (With the Laughing Face) The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 3:40
9 My Way The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 4:38
10 The Lady Is a Tramp Classic Sinatra: Great Performances 1953-1960 3:16
11 Angel Eyes Romance: Songs from the Heart 3:44
— bonus tracks —
12 Put Your Dreams Away Greatest Hits 3:14
13 (Love Is) The Tender Trap The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:35
14 A Foggy Day The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:17
15 In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:47
16 It Was a Very Good Year The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 4:27
17 Love and Marriage The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:13
18 One For My Baby Classic Sinatra: Great Performances 1953-1960 4:27
19 Strangers in the Night The Very Best of Frank Sinatra
20 The Way You Look Tonight The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 3:22
21 Young at Heart The Very Best of Frank Sinatra 2:54

[Below, click Play button to begin this All or Nothing at All playlist. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. Total playing time for the whole list is about 70 minutes.

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To fast-forward to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter — and a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter. The volume control is a little row of vertical bars visible at the left, while the music plays.)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Sometimes, It’s Just Bliss. Sometimes, It’s the Whole Point.

[Video: Lindsey Stirling and The Piano Guys, “Theme from Mission Impossible.”
See the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Sometimes, When the Light

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

and:

It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.

(Robert Penn Warren [source])

and:

I believe that it is bracing and vital to live in a world in which we do not know all the answers. I believe that we are inspired and goaded on by what we don’t understand. And I hope that there will always be an edge between the known and the unknown, beyond which lies strangeness and unpredictability and life.

(Alan Lightman [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 2 (Pérez Prado’s “Patricia,” and the Mambo in General)

Perez Prado, per Mexican cartoonist Saul Herrera, a/k/a 'Qucho'

[Image: Pérez Prado, in the imaginative eyes of the Mexican cartoonist (Saul Herrera) calling himself “Qucho.” I found the image on the Web right away; Qucho, only with some hunting. And I’m not sure this image appears even there, on his blog.]

It’s been a few months now since I posted the first of these Midweek Music Breaks on Latin-music earwigs from the 1950s. That post dealt with “Blue Tango,” by decidedly non-Hispanic classical composer Leroy Anderson. This week, we take a look at one of this genre’s hits penned by the self-styled “Mambo King,” bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado.

First, an (apologetically pedantic) aside about that name: Dámaso was his given name; Pérez, his paternal surname; Prado, his maternal surname. Thus you’ll find many references to him as simply “Pérez Prado” — which “feels,” at least to a native English speaker, like a first/last name combination. For all I know, this was common during his lifetime. Maybe he even got used to it: when someone shouted out “Pérez!” on a street corner, maybe he turned his head more readily than when they called for Dámaso. But really, it’s never quite correct to refer to him as plain-old Prado — like the Spanish national art museum. Speaking from experience, this is harder than it sounds. Nevertheless “Pérez Prado” is right — just like the dark-and-stormy-night author is never called simply Lytton but always Bulwer-Lytton.

Pérez Prado cut something of an exotic figure on the mid-20th century American musical landscape. Born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1916, he started out studying classical piano. By the 1940s, he had moved entirely into popular Cuban genres, specializing in the rhythm called the mambo.

What exactly is mambo, anyhow? Unfortunately, most of the descriptions of it are cast in terms of other styles which — presumably — you already do know enough about to discuss intelligently. One Joseph Levy, about whom I can report pretty much nothing at all, seems to have taken a special interest in Pérez Prado. At his site, he says of the mambo:

Prado’s conception of the mambo began to develop in 1943. He later said that four, five, and sometimes six musicians would often play after hours jam sessions on the tres (a small Cuban guitar) and the resultant cross rhythms and syncopation give him the idea. Jazz writer and critic Ralph J. Gleason reported that “Prez” talked to him about the mambo as being an Afro-Cuban rhythm with a dash of American swing. According to Prado, the mambo is “more musical and swingier than the rhumba. It has more beat.” He also explained, “I am a collector of cries and noises, elemental ones like seagulls on the shore, winds through the trees, men at work in a foundry. Mambo is a movement back to nature, by means of rhythms based on such cries and noises, and on simple joys.”

…The mambo as we know it today is actually a rhythm whose tempo may be slow or fast, and almost any standard tune can be set to its tempo. The saxophone usually sets the rhythm pattern and the brass carries the melody.

That reference to “cries and noises” and the squawks of seagulls may allude to Pérez Prado’s own style of band leadership. Often, you can hear him grunting aloud as though to punctuate the rhythm; sometimes these grunts are actually exultant variations of the imperative “Dilo!” (“Say it!”) and sometimes they seem — at least to me — just, well, grunts.*

Pérez Prado’s departure from Cuba is sometimes described as though he’d been ridden out of town on a rail, for tainting the purer strains of local music with foreign jazz elements. Well, maybe. Maybe the musical establishment of mid-twentieth-century Cuba was fiery, conservative, nativist; maybe people really did (still do) work themselves up into a frenzy of distaste over such matters, and not just in Cuba. What seems more likely, given what we could later tell of Pérez Prado’s ambitions: he just felt too constrained by a narrow — oh, say, island-sized — popularity, and left on his own. Whatever the case may be, when he left, he left for Mexico. And except for his big but fairly brief success in the US, from then on he seemed to present himself as a citizen of Mexico rather than Cuba.

His first introduction to US audiences came via across-the-border radio broadcasts from Mexico. He had a big hit there with a number called “Que Rico del Mambo,” which was repackaged and -recorded by American bandleader Sonny Burke as “Mambo Jambo.” That song’s success first brought Pérez Prado to the US.

“Patricia,” in 1958, was the last of Pérez Prado’s releases to reach #1 on US charts. To characterize it as infectious (as I, at least, am tempted to do) is to gloss over the recording’s supreme oddness. The orchestra’s swing is punctuated not so much by its leader’s vocal cries — it doesn’t seem to feature any of them — as by weird little bursts of horns and percussion which almost suggest to me a burp, or the compressed-lips Pppppbbbfffflllt! of a raspberry/”Bronx cheer.” But the tune itself seems to pinpoint a moment in time, in pop culture, captured by Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita:

In [1960], even the composer Nino Rota would turn to mambo, reworking “Patricia” (Perez Prado) for the La Dolce Vita soundtrack. The song is used on several occasions, including in the “orgy” scene… As [the character of Nadia] prepares to take it all off, an inebriated guest calls for some “Middle Eastern music.” But in a truly exotica moment, the hi-fi needle falls into the groove of “Patricia.”

[source]

If you’re not familiar with that scene in the film, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

To celebrate her recent divorce from Riccardo, Nadia performs a striptease to Pérez Prado’s cha-cha [JES: ???] “Patricia.” The drunken Marcello attempts to provoke the other partygoers into an orgy. Due to their inebriated states, however, the party descends into mayhem with Marcello throwing pillow feathers around the room as he rides a young woman crawling on her hands and knees.

(Ah, the early Sixties…) Of course, you can see this scene on YouTube, starting at around 3:55 into that seven-plus-minute clip.

Anyhow, here’s “Patricia,” as recorded by Pérez Prado’s own orchestra in 1958:

[Below, click Play button to begin Patricia. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:05 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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A Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon

'Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon' bannerI don’t know Aubyn Eli and am not sure how I got to her blog, The Girl with the White Parasol, as I did for the first time back in May or June. But I know what attracted me there: her planned week-long celebration of Barbara Stanwyck’s 106th birthday. Later today I’ll add my own contribution to the blogathon: a review of Crime of Passion, from 1956.

Interested in “golden era” Hollywood films or, of course, in Stanwyck herself? You could do far worse this weekend than to set aside some time to browse Aubyn’s schedule of what’s already been posted by the forty-plus bloggers contributing — and to mark your calendars for what’s coming. Not all of Stanwyck’s eighty-plus films are covered (hmm: a foreshadowing of a 107th-birthday celebration in 2014?), but it’s a pretty impressive list nonetheless. And it covers not just her films, either. You’ll find essays on her TV work, her career, the blonde wig she donned for Double Indemnity, Publicity still: Barbara Stanwyck in 'Ball of Fire'the gown (pictured at right) which inflamed Gary Cooper (and not a few male moviegoers) in Ball of Fire

(Wikipedia says of that film’s wardrobe: “In World War II, a total of 12 servicemen were pen-pals with Stanwyck; two of them asked for a poster of her in the Ball of Fire outfit for their mess hall.”)

As for Aubyn herself, as I said, I know her only (and only very recently) through her blog, which focuses on “Classic Cinema, 1930-1965.” (Her Twitter profile identifies her as a “Full-time fantasist.” I want that job!)

But I do know what the blog’s title alludes to: an anecdote related by Everett Sloane’s character, named Bernstein, in Citizen Kane. He’s being interviewed by a reporter, Thompson, about his memories of Charles Foster Kane (Bernstein having been Kane’s long-time assistant). Thompson asks for Bernstein’s guess about the famous last word, “Rosebud,” and Bernstein suggests maybe it was a girl. Thompson scoffs — anyone so powerful could hardly have had just a girl on his mind at the very end — but Bernstein cuts him off with this story:

It’s one of my favorite moments in the film, actually in any film — one of the favorites of a lot of people, indeed. Of course Aubyn Eli isn’t suggesting a connection specifically with Stanwyck in her blog title, and I never saw a film in which Stanwyck was costumed in exactly this way. But I can confidently say that if I’d ever seen her as a young woman in a white dress with a white parasol over her shoulder, in any setting at all, yeah: I’d remember the moment at least once a month, too.

Anyway, I’ll be back later today with my writeup on Crime of Passion. [Edit to add: the review is here.]

________________

About the blogathon banner image: Wikipedia says of it only, “Barbara Stanwyck as a Ziegfeld girl (c. 1924).”

Aside: I’m so sorry that the video’s uploader didn’t get the memo about properly sizing a clip’s aspect ratio on YouTube. This squashed look drives me crazy.

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Story Up My Sleeve #22 / Midweek Music Break: “Stan,” by Eminem

[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background post. It’s also the third weekly Midweek Music Break featuring a “story song,” in keeping with the “May is National Short Story Month” theme.]

I admit it: I know almost nothing about rap. So much of the content seems to be about issues I can’t connect to, for one reason or another, and I’ve possibly just spent too much time listening to melody to care that much about rhythm exclusively. (After a moment’s pause, I realize that you can lump these two “reasons” together as the Geezer Defense.)

Anyhow, as little as I know about rap in general, so much less do I know about any given rap performer. Eminem has certainly made himself hard to ignore, though. And as I worked through various online lists of story songs (it’s a popular blog and Q-and-A forum topic), I kept coming across references to this number. The title character is not just a fan of the narrator, Eminem, but a fan ultimately obsessed to the point of danger: to himself, to his girlfriend, to his baby she’s carrying. From his room, wallpapered with Eminem’s concert and publicity photos, he keeps composing rambling bipolar letters to his idol, growing ever more frustrated that he never gets a reply. The tale ends (as story songs tend to) in tragedy and irony, as Eminem finally sits down to write a return letter — only to realize that the guy he’s writing to is the very fan who’d recently driven off a bridge (with his pregnant girlfriend locked screaming in the trunk of the car), leaving behind for Eminem a melodramatic, delusional taped message.

Omitting some of the more violent imagery and language, this sanitized version of the song and video clocks in at around 25% shorter than the full eight-minute epic. (That version is also on YouTube; I haven’t watched it, but apparently — judging from the comments there — the audio in the longer one, too, is bleeped no less heavy-handedly than this one.) The lyrics I’ve linked to below, though, are as far as I know the full and unedited ones. Favorite moment: when Stan, speaking into the tape recorder while he drives, suddenly realizes that if he dies in a crash he won’t be able to mail the thing to Eminem. (To me, this hints that he doesn’t really mean to kill himself and his girlfriend, and maybe just drives off the bridge in panicky indecision rather than deliberation.)

The video takes the tell-the-story-literally approach, with some artful touches in photography, lighting, and effects, but nothing very much like moody symbolism or implication. Actor Devon Sawa plays the Stan character; British singer-songwriter Dido, whose song “Thank You” is sampled for the chorus, takes the role of Stan’s girlfriend.

[Lyrics] (explicit)

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Cut the Now, and Dance

[Video from the PBS Blank on Blank series of animated “vintage [and previously unheard] interviews” with various celebrities. Others currently include, e.g., Jim Morrison on “Why Fat is Beautiful” (1969) and Dave Brubeck on “Fighting Communism with Jazz” (2008)]

From whiskey river:

Ours is a planet sown in beings. Our generations overlap like shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and:

But it is never over; nothing ends until we want it to.
Look, in shattered midnights,
On black ice under silver trees, we are still dancing, dancing.

(Gwendolyn MacEwen [source])

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Intersecting Panes

A reader where you'd expect a book

From whiskey river:

Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means that you don’t know where you are. How can it be otherwise, say the Buddhist teachings, since you have no fixed or inherent identity and are ceaselessly in process? Life is filled with uncertainty. Chance events happen to all of us. Each of us must take responsibility and make decisions. None of us should be imposing our ego image on others.

There’s another way to live. Accept indeterminacy as a principle, and you see your life in a new light, as a series of seemingly unrelated jewel-like stories within a dazzling setting of change and transformation. Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet. That’s when the path appears.

(Kay Larson, on John Cage [source])

…and (from whiskey river’s commonplace book — not counting the lovely epigraph, which walks a line between mysterious and profound):

Nothing is too wonderful to be true.
— Michael Faraday

There is a hole in the universe.

It is not like a hole in a wall where a mouse slips through, solid and crisp and leading from somewhere to someplace. It is rather like a hole in the heart, an amorphous and edgeless void. It is a heartfelt absence, a blank space where something is missing, a large and obvious blind spot in our understanding of the universe.

That missing something, strange to say, is a grasp of nothing itself. Understanding nothing matters, because nothing is the all-important background upon which everything else happens.

(K. C. Cole [source])

and:

To the Reader

As you read, a white bear leisurely
pees, dyeing the snow
saffron,

and as you read, many gods
lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian
are watching the generations of leaves,

and as you read
the sea is turning its dark pages,
turning
its dark pages.

(Denise Levertov)

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J.K. Rowling Visits ‘The Daily Show’

Like other Potter groupies, I think, I loved this. In most interviews I’ve seen or read, she’s been very reserved and formal. She (somewhat literally) lets her hair down here.

Part I:

Part II:

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