August 28, 2009
ART OF SONG
“Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)”
Inglourious Basterds (Soundtrack)
2009 | MCA
Few auteurs can claim mastery of both the art of filmmaking and the art of filmmaking scores as categorically as Quentin Tarantino. Starting with his spot-on use of a harmonically gleeful “Stuck in the Middle with You” smack dab in the middle of the violence of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has gone on to engrave a series of unforgettable song-scene associations on the celluloid consciousness. This tradition continues with his latest achievement, Inglourious Basterds, a film that does its own fair share of engraving—not only through the auspices of music, but through the machete-skilled hands of Brad Pitt’s backwoods brigadier, Aldo Raine (whose canvas consists of the foreheads of captured and defected Nazis).
The scene which sonically steals the show comes toward the film’s incendiary finale, courtesy of David Bowie’s “Cat People [Putting Out Fire].” Originally made with producer Giorgio Morodor for inclusion in Paul Shrader’s 1982 film Cat People (a remake of the 1942 horror film of the same name), Bowie re-recorded the song for his 1983 album Let’s Dance. Tarantino snatches the original soundtrack version from the shallow depths of the ’80s and places it in the vengeful hands of fantasy WWII heroine Shoshanna Dreyfus. Shoshanna is a French Jew who escapes from the countryside to Paris after witnessing the horrific murder of her family at the hands of SD officer (and Shoshanna’s main target), Hans Landa, and conveniently lands a job as a cinema proprietor after her theatre-owning relatives pass away.
More on David Bowie | “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)”
July 31, 2009
ART OF SONG
“Rocket Man” (as performed by William Shatner)
Originally by Elton John
1972 | MCA
On a recent Tonight Show appearance, William Shatner delivered a stirring reinterpretation of the naturalist-poet / relatively indecipherable portion of Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial farewell speech. Probably only Shatner, whose career in television and spoken-word music spans close to six decades — including Star Trek and its various iterations, the 1968 album The Transformed Man, two guest-villain spots on Columbo, the “Priceline Negotiator” commercials, and a film that used universal language attempt, Esperanto, as its primary language (1965’s Incubus) — could give Mrs. Palin the bizarre sendoff she deserves. First, the chosen speech excerpt then the link to this riveting performance:
…soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.
Check out Shatner’s interpretation of Palin’s speech here.
Yet long before his latest pop-culture collision, Shatner orchestrated one that may never be topped. This performance star dates back to 1978, the year he both hosted and performed at the Science Fiction Film Awards (which, thanks to Star Wars’s popularity, used to air on television). As a performer, he reinterpreted Elton John’s 1972 hit, “Rocket Man.” Not only does Shatner Captain Kirk-speak and Sinatra-smoke his way through his synthesizer-backed rendition, he gets none other than a dryly “truly proud” Bernie Taupin (who co-wrote the song with Elton John) to introduce him. The song, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Rocket Man,” never knew it would so boldly and kitschily go where it did. Thanks to Shatner’s bizarre instincts, the song will remain a classic for singer-songwriter and sci-fi fans, no matter the life form. Video after the jump.
More on William Shatner | “Rocket Man”
June 26, 2009
ART OF SONG
“Going Down Slow”
1962 | Chess
A blues staple with an obscenely legendary series of interpreters (The Animals, Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, etc.), “Going Down Slow” casts aside good times, having had its fill of debaucheries unknown to the likes of even “kings and queens.” The song comes off the 1962 album Howlin’ Wolf, also known as The Rocking Chair Album for its cover art depicting a lonely acoustic guitar leaning against an empty rocker. Written by fellow bluesman St. Louis Jimmy Oden, it also features spoken sections by all-around genre talent Willie Dixon – penman of other such seminal blues songs, or blues variations, as “The Red Rooster,” “Spoonful,” and “Back Door Man” (which also appear on Howlin’ Wolf). Dixon’s parts are delivered with a laidback sense of confidence in the knowledge and pleasures gained from a life of roadside excess. (“I did not say I was a millionaire/ But I said I have spent more money than a millionaire.”) Wolf’s signature interruptions conjure an anxious figure, seeking hasty peace at the end of a long, crooked line. (“Please write my mama/ Tell her the shape I’m in/ Tell her pray for me/ Forgive me for my sins.”) These alternating personalities share center stage with an irresistible pairing of blues guitar and piano – the prayer for the dying sinner comes through in the latter, the to-hell-with-it-and-me attitude in the former. As two halves of the same whole, these conflicting feelings about mortality make up the classic blues dichotomy of faith in the midst of falling from it.
by Meghan Roe
May 29, 2009
ART OF SONG
“You’re Humbuggin’ Me”
Look What Thoughts Will Do
1997 | Sony
From its starting bell of a sax intro as anxious-sounding as the bracing snort of a racehorse, Lefty Frizzell’s (1928-1975) rendition of “You’re Humbuggin’ Me” breaks to run roughshod over an undutiful, deceptive wife with a weather radar for a heart (“Last week you wrote me a letter, ‘I’ll see ya if it don’t rain”) and a sadistic approach to home-cooking (“You promised me chicken and pork roast/You give me sour milk and burnt toast”).
More on Lefty Frizzell | “You’re Humbuggin’ Me”
May 1, 2009
ART OF SONG
“Why’d Ya Do It”
1979 | Island Records
A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times asked whether it is possible to part from a myth once it has taken hold. Discussing the potential discovery of the final resting place of Cleopatra VII, one of the original authorities, though not by her own authority, on the art of female seduction – and perhaps of Marc Antony, Cleopatra’s second political lover – Stacy Schiff writes: “What good can be said of a woman who sleeps with two of the most powerful men of her age, however?…Cleopatra has gone down in history as a wanton seductress. She is the original bad girl…And all because she turns up at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power. She presides eternally over the chasm between promiscuity and virility…”
Whether or not Cleopatra actually lived up to her reputation “as a wanton seductress” in reality (she didn’t), is of little consequence as long as her myth of licentiousness persists. The uncovering of her tomb and its findings may alter the facts – but our image of her as a petite glamour queen unwrapped from a Persian rug may prove too iconic to roll up again.
Another powerful, potent woman with a legendary rug and a few leading men in her past, whose life would have been told by others, but for her excellent co-written autobiography Faithfull and a second volume, Memories, Dreams and Reflections: Marianne Faithfull. She began as a supporting chanteuse in a male-dominated music scene of the ’60s, but has long since come into her own as a first-rate performer, collaborator, interpreter, and actor. With her well-documented, drawn-out heroin addiction, she also almost fit, like Cleopatra, into one of the few gendered “formulas” Schiff sees for female legend-making: “delusion…disability…” or “death…”
More on Marianne Faithfull | “Why’d Ya Do It”
April 3, 2009
ART OF SONG
“Red River Shore”
Tell Tale Signs
2008 | Sony BMG
Now that the Red River has gone down – and, barring any too-strong wind gusts or too-heavy snowfall, will stay down – immediate concerns give way to a tangential thought left in its wake; namely, the role music plays in mapping and conjuring the geography of America.
News of the Red River flooding sparked a vague connection in my mind between the river itself and a song that memorializes a Red River: Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore,” one of a collection of outtakes and previously unreleased recordings included on 2008’s Tell Tale Signs (double-album version). This connection was vague, mainly for one reason: prior to its most recent bout of flooding, I’d had no knowledge of the Red River – of its existence, let alone its location. This lack of hydro-knowledge left me with a sense of having missed some part of our musical heritage, intimately linked with the American landscape (e.g., “This Land is Your Land,” the Delta Blues, Appalachian folk).
More on Bob Dylan | “Red River Shore”
March 19, 2009
2009 | Astralwerks
A fetching picture of a feline-masked Kate Moss on the cover of a stray issue of Interview – one of those dusty, months-old volumes that resurfaces at the top of a pile for no apparent reason – reminded me of Pete Doherty. During his own personal troubles (throughout most of the 21st century), Doherty has been very publicly at war with himself, the occupier and the occupied in a time and place of heavy Moss-petting, drug use, brief imprisonment, creepy YouTube clips, and career suicide attempts. For most of the past decade, it has been impossible not to hear tell of Pete(-er, as he now prefers)’s romanticized battles with the trappings of fame. It has, however, been possible to ignore the core reason for his fame – his musical talent and his (un-junked) charismatic potential.
So it came as something of a surprise when the news popped up on my screen – the product of one of those stray press links that appear in a sidebar for no apparent reason – that Peter released a new album this week, Grace/Wastelands. Maybe I just haven’t been following the movements of the pop culture operation the way I should be, or maybe things have gotten to the point where Doherty’s music isn’t, in itself, newsworthy. Maybe we prefer the story of his embattled life better than his actual life’s work – which is the thing that mends what the other thing eventually seeks to destroy.
More on Peter Doherty | Grace/Wastelands
March 6, 2009
ART OF SONG
On Your Sleeve
2008 | One Little Indian
The Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” off their 1971 album Sticky Fingers – a production wrought with post-’60s doldrums, paranoia, and addiction (unzip with caution) – receives a contemporary reading on Jesse Malin’s On Your Sleeve, an entire album’s worth of cover songs, iPod-shuffle style (other artists mined include Jim Croce, The Flaming Lips, Elton John, and Tom Waits). Though the original version of the song, and the original band who recorded it, very strongly reflect the dark contours of the seventies, it remains relevant today. After all, the country is still at war, the economy is on its knees, and the hope for change, though comparatively drug free, has never been more desperate.
Malin sings “Sway” over a seductive chorus of synthesized, conspiratorial patterns, reminiscent of ex-Stones scenester Marianne Faithfull’s 2002 release, Kissin’ Time – an album also built on the strength of the songwriting talents of others. Without the sonic intrusions of Mick Taylor, in raucous form on his first official outing with the Stones, the lyrics are even more potent on the cover. Malin’s voice, also rippling with effects, delivers “Sway” with a hypnotic slickness befitting the soul drain it describes.
More on Jesse Malin | “Sway”