Back In The Cheap Seats (January 2020)

I was surprised that “Jojo Rabbit” made it to our local multiplex, in the school holidays too. OK there was just the one showing a day but movies that are right at the top of my “must see” list often necessitate a minimum 50 mile round trip to a larger cinema with a less narrow view of their audience’s taste. I’m not complaining, there’s some very nice countryside around here & we always take the bucolic way home. Not a fan of the word “multiplex”, I’m aware it’s nostalgic but I preferred the time when every town had a neglected old cinema which could accurately be referred to as a “fleapit”.

 

Related imageWriter/Director Taika Waititi’s successful run has been going on for quite some time now. “Eagle vs Shark” (2007) & “Boy” (2010) caught our attention through his connection with Flight of the Conchords who were not only the funniest thing in New Zealand but also the funniest thing anywhere. “What We Did in the Shadows” (2014) is a brilliant, original documentary on everyday life as a vampire & “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016), an effortlessly charming & funny coming-of-age adventure. Taika got the gig for “Thor: Ragnorok” (2017), huge budget, even bigger box office. I don’t usually do superhero movies but his name on the credits (& my companion’s enthusiasm for that Hemsworth fellow) got me to the cinema. I’m no authority on Marvel Cinematic Universe lore but he didn’t screw up & they are letting him write as well as direct the Viking god & Mjolnir’s next saga.

 

 

Related imageSo “Jojo Rabbit” is a break between the blockbusters, a return to the indie aesthetic only this time Hollywood is putting up bigger bucks. Set in the closing months of World War II, 11 year-old Jojo, helped by his Fuhrer friend Adolf, wants to be the best Nazi around. Events, particularly those at home, test his commitment to Fascism & you will have to ask someone else who has seen the film for the rest of the plot. The humour is broad, exuberant & irreverent, as close to Mel Brooks as I’ve seen since the Master himself. Roman Griffin Davies is adorable as the enthusiastic boy, Scarlett Johansson is his mum,  Thomasin McKenzie continues the good work she started in “Leave No Trace” & Sam Rockwell does his thing that adds value to every film he appears in. At the heart of Taika Waititi’s satire is a warmth & a humanity that is touching & appealing. It’s a good time to be pointing out how wrong-headed Fascism is & ridicule is an appropriate weapon. I loved the movie. Watch the clip & you will laugh out loud, hear the Beatles sing in German & be intrigued enough to want to see “Jojo Rabbit” for yourself.

 

It was a pleasant to note that in the following week the local picture house had upgraded the film to three performances a day. “Jojo Rabbit” deserves better than straight-to-streaming &  while comedies never win the big awards, this week’s nomination for a Best Picture Oscar will surely bring wider exposure. Next up for Waikiti, before “Thor: Love & Thunder”, there’s an adaptation of “Next Goal Wins” the inspirational documentary about American Samoa’s football team. His update, for something called Apple TV, of Terry Gilliam’s enduring classic “Time Bandits” sounds like a perfect match. I’ll be in the queue for all of them.

 

 

I’m not too familiar with the current standing of director Rian Johnson. When George Lucas made “Star Wars” in 1977 I was 24, a grown-up who was not really interested in seeing a children’s film. I know just enough about the series to get the references in “Spaceballs” but y’know, I’m not that bothered. A younger associate tells me that Johnson’s efforts on “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (2017) disappointed & enraged millions of fans & that an announced trilogy of spin-off films now seems unlikely to make the screen. Johnson’s films are smart, stylish & entertaining. His debut “Brick” (2005) transposed a Dashiell Hammett Noir to a Southern California high school. “The Brothers Blooom” (2008), a story of international con artists, is a little busy but the mark is Rachel Weisz so you’ll happily stick with it. The time travelling “Looper” (2012) is Hollywood sci-fi, not too high concept, plenty of action, Bruce Willis & very accomplished it is too.

 

Image result for kni8ves outAgatha Christie pretty much perfected the “whodunnit” & while “Knives Out” is an update on the genre there are rules & traditions which Johnson respects & adheres to.  The bereaved family, all with motive enough for murder, are observed by an idiosyncratic detective who we know will finally gather them together & ingeniously expose the guilty party on the final page. The film has the director’s characteristic snappy dialogue & visual flamboyance  & he assuredly keeps the clues & red herrings in the air at the same time. The fine, starry ensemble cast brings to mind those Poirot movies on the Orient Express & the Nile. It’s good to see Ana de Armas being more than just a wife (“War Dogs”) or holographic girlfriend (“Blade Runner 2049”). Daniel Craig’s detective, Benoit Blanc, favours Columbo more than Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple or, my favourite, Alistair Sims’ Inspector Poole. “Knives Out” is a very capable, modern entertainment. I’m not sure that Blanc is a strong or interesting enough character to sustain a projected sequel though I am sure that Craig doesn’t need a TV series just yet.

 

 

 

Image result for uncut gems safdie brothersFinally a film starring Adam Sandler a comedian whose continued popularity is beyond me. It’s over 20 years now since “The Wedding Singer” & “The Waterboy” established him as America’s funny guy. There have been parts that have stretched him a little further but there has been plenty of dross like “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” & “Jack & Jill”, it’s a list, a long one. His role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” is cited so often as an example of Sandler’s acting talent that it has become a cliche. Can I refer you to “The Cobbler” (2014) one of those great small-scale movies directed by Tom McCarthy before “Spotlight” made the big time & a Best Picture Oscar. Now, at 53 years old, his performance in “Uncut Gems” is one he will be remembered for.

 

Image result for uncut gems posterHoward Ratner’s (Sandler) life can’t always have been chaotic. He has a family, a mistress, a jewellery business in Manhattan’s Diamond District, a gambling addiction & things are getting complicated. There’s an Ethiopian opal that he can sell for the kind of money to make his problems go away but this is a Safdie Brothers’ film so things are not that easy. Josh & Benny Safdie make uncompromising, grimy, anxious movies. “Heaven Knows What” (2014) is a love story between two homeless street junkies, “Good Time” (2017), starring the excellent Robert Pattinson, concerns two inept criminal brothers, like “Uncut Gems” neither are the easiest, most relaxing viewing bringing to mind Abel Ferrara’s classic “Bad Lieutenant”. The frantic, exhausting pace is reinforced by fine editing & an outstanding soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never. Former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett & Eric Bogosian (now there was a comedian) are among the support but, never off-screen this is Adam Sandler’s show & he steals it.

New Music For January 2020

A new year & there’s always an intent (never a resolution though) to listen to more new music. I can easily fill my day with the tried & tested, records made by my generation that I have known & loved for so long now. People like us are surprised that stuff we consider “new” is now 20 years old! It may not last, this week’s discovery is “A Look Inside”, an LP that I hadn’t heard before, recorded by the late, great Joe South way back  in 1972. Anyway 2020 is off to a good start with a new, much-anticipated release from one of my favourite new American groups.

 

 

Back in 2016 there was no other music that seized my instant attention more than Pinegrove’s. Within 30 minutes of hearing tracks from “Cardinal” I was over at their Bandcamp site naming my price, handing over the going rate to support new talent. The quality evident in the band’s Audiotree session confirmed that this was no mere impulse buy &  from the opener “Old Friends” to the closing “New Friends” (geddit?) it became my favourite record of that year. The introspective, literate, concerned lyrics of Evan Stephens Hall matched to an attractive lo-fi melodicism, the punch of Indie-Rock with a folky, even Country tinge, sounded pretty modern to me at a time when older favourites seemed to be relying on familiar formulae. So far so good  then.

 

A second release,”Skylight”, was recorded & ready to go in late-2017 when a charge of sexual coercion was made against Hall by a former girlfriend. Hall, a thoughtful man, addressed this in a lengthy well-intentioned Facebook post which, considerate of the privacy of others, reluctant to be specific & including an admittance that he had previously objectified his female fans, didn’t really help matters. Dropped by their label the album was self-released, a tour was cancelled & Pinegrove began a year’s hiatus while Evan received counselling to address his issues. There are those on the Internet, talking loud & saying not very much, who claim to know things but really added nothing to the understanding of what happened.

 

Image result for pinegrove 2020The band is now signed to Rough Trade, touring again to promote “Marigold” which will be released on the 17th of January. Produced by Evan & guitarist Sam Skinner, two preview tracks are around on the Y-tube. The short, sharp, dynamic & very good “Phase” has a video which, in my opinion, distracts from the song. Of course my decision to listen to & support Pinegrove is a judgement call but it is a considered one. It’s not just that I like what I hear, the behaviour of Ryan Adams, whose records I have, means that he is cancelled around here. I do believe that Hall has reacted appropriately & with good intent since this all started & will end with a comment from a thread about Pinegrove’s new music, “Hopefully everyone involved in the shitty situation that derailed them for a bit has made some level of peace and their music can be the focus again – because it’s really good”.

 

 

 

Image result for drive by truckers new albumPhew…It’s been three & a half years since the last Drive-By Truckers record, the longest break since their debut back in the last century. “The Unravelling” appears on 31st of January & while the band may never emulate the run of albums before 2010, establishing themselves at the forefront of current US Rock, there was more than enough about 2016’s “American Band” to keep me listening. There was a time when I came for the songs of Jason Isbell & Patterson Hood & now I’m sticking around for Patterson & Mike Cooley who either improved as a writer or I’m listening more closely. With such a strong back catalogue the D-B Ts put on a great rocking show & I spend a good deal of enjoyable time over at archive.org listening to their recent gigs.

 

Image result for drive by truckers new album“Armageddon’s Back in Town” is the only finished track from “The Unravelling” around the Webs & it gets the motor running. The more familiar I become with it the better it gets. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to find versions of other tracks. Closer “Awaiting Resurrection” is 10 minutes long in the live set, “Thoughts & Prayers” concerns high school shootings & the inadequacy of official responses, “Babies In Cages” is self-explanatory. These are troubling times, Drive-By Truckers have always examined the dualities of the personal & the political. Now Hood & Cooley are mature artists in their fifties, I guess hard-living days are fewer & further between. They are obviously going to write about the things they see happening around them. “Compelled, but not defeated. Surrender under protest if you must”. Well now, what can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?

 

 

Image result for andy shaufI first heard about Andy Shauf when his name was dropped by Nicholas Braun, the actor who plays Cousin Greg, the only barely sympathetic character (& he’s not to be trusted) in “Succession”, the best TV series of 2019. 2016’s “The Party”, on which Canadian singer/songwriter/multi- instrumentalist Andy does everything but play the strings, is a connected series of closely observed vignettes about a gathering at someone’s house. There’s a touch of Elliott Smith in Andy’s voice & melancholic perspective but the assured, accurate, sometimes anxious Folk Pop story-songs benefit from a crisp, clear, fresh production which brings to mind an early-1970’s acolyte of Paul McCartney. “The Party” is quite a treat.

 

Apparently “The Neon Skyline” repeats the trick of linked songs on the theme of a night out in the city. Over the new year I’ve needed a daily shot of “Try Again”,  another wry commentary on social interaction, short, sweet & absolutely addictive. I’m new to Andy Shauf, there are 4 solo LP’s before “The Party” & one from 2019 with his band Foxwarren. I’m a busy man & there’s all these old records that must be listened to. I’ll still be waiting for January 24th when “The Neon Skyline” is released.

 

Everyday People Sing A Simple Song (Soul January 1970)

A new decade & a new sensation was at the top spot of the Cash Box R&B chart. With both their roster & audience maturing Tamla Motown invested talent & expertise to launch their youthful latest signings, that family group from Gary, Indiana. “I Want You Back” was the Jackson 5’s debut on the label, it sounded refreshing & lively then (the Sound of Even Younger America) & it still does now. The boys would have 3 more #1 R&B songs before the end of 1970, they will definitely feature as one of my main selections in a future post.

 

Back then , in the olden days, it could take up to two months after release for a record to sell enough copies to reach its optimum chart position. In a rare event the Jacksons , Michael, Jermaine, Tito & the other two, were replaced at the top by a song rising in one giant step from #35. It takes a special record to entice so many people across the country to hand over their $1 & this was one of them.

 

 

Image result for sly and the family stone 1970Sly & the Family Stone, I’ll try not to keep you too long. Has there ever been another group that broke barriers, setting new standards while making the most popular records of the day & all the time looking damn fine? On the 1969 LP “Stand” things came together for this racially & gender integrated group. The exuberant interplay & positivity of their music, enhanced by psychedelic guitars, deep Funk grooves & an increase in social awareness was met with great public approval. “Everyday People” became the group’s first #1 single & a charged, dynamic 3 a.m. appearance at Woodstock, “I Want to Take You Higher” featuring in the festival film, established them as the hottest band around & put them on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

 

Image result for sly stone thank you“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. After Larry Graham’s slapped, popping bass guitar the instrument was never the same again but his was no virtuoso display, he & the whole band, Brother Freddie, Sister Rose, the brass section, Cynthia & Jerry & drummer Greg all make their contributions to a sum that is greater than its’ parts. Presiding over this insidious, insistent fabulousness Sly Stone, writer/producer/bandleader, confident that he has the perfect ingredients for his Funk recipe. “Thank You…” was immediately influential & continued to be so, in Minneapolis 11 year old Prince Rogers Nelson was not only listening closely but checking that spelling as well. Such success brought tensions within the band while Sly became increasingly unreliable & paranoid. There was a 20 month delay before any new music was released before “Family Affair” & the narcotic, more uncomfortable “There’s A Riot Goin On” LP topped all the charts again. Right now I just want to watch this clip of an outstanding band in their best threads promoting one of the greatest singles ever made.

 

 

Stalled at #8 on the chart of January 17th was a singer enjoying the biggest success of a varied & interesting career.  Through his friendship with a fellow boxer Major Lance Otis Leavill was introduced into the talented group assembled at Okeh Records in Chicago by producer/A&R man Carl Davis. He made himself useful to the boss, handling the studio session logistics, introducing new acts & making the occasional record. In 1964 he accompanied Lance on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour & found himself on the jam-packed bill performing his own Top 40 hit “Let Me Love Her”, written, it says here, by Billy Butler though it sounds to me as if Curtis Mayfield did a little more than provide backing vocals with his group the Impressions.

 

Image result for otis leavill promoIn 1967 Davis started his own label Dakar & Otis was appointed Vice-President & given shares. Within a year they had found a fresh sound & singer Tyrone Davis, no relation, was the new star of Chicago Soul. Leavill took a song written by his boss & Eugene Record whose own group, the Chi-Lites were soon to have their own time in the spotlight, employed the in-house expertise & found himself another hit. “I Love You” features Otis’ sweet falsetto, Chicago’s trademark punchy mix of brass & strings, demanding that you get yourself up & out on the dance floor, it’s a winner. His follow-up, the swinging “Love Uprising” made the chart’s lower reaches, there were other 45’s but no LP. Anyway there were always things to do for Otis around the office & when the music was less involving he coached high school football & worked as a Chicago cop. Good man Otis Leavill.

 

Just one more selection, so many good, interesting records on the chart. The highest new entry of the week was “Psychedelic Shack” by the Tempations, I’m just guessing here but it possibly rose higher than its initial showing at #29. Here are some Blues records, Little Milton, B.B. King. Over there are the Jazz ones, Brother Jack McDuff, the combustible “Compared to What” by Les McCann & Eddie Harris. It’s the quality of this clip, an appearance on the Hy Lit show from Philadelphia (Mr Lit was a DJ there) & a rare opportunity to see a significant Soul singer that swings it for me.

 

 

Image result for mary wells beatlesIn 1962 the R&B hits recorded by Mary Wells began to crossover to the higher reaches of the Pop charts. Working with producer/writer Smokey Robinson she was the premier female singer at Tamla Motown. In 1964 an LP of duets with Marvin Gaye was followed by “My Guy” (you know it) which sold a bazillion all over the world. Endorsed by the Beatles who asked Mary to tour the UK with them, “My Guy” was the first time my young self understood how distinct & irresistible the Motown sound was. The smooth, sensual voiced Mary Wells celebrated her 21st birthday as an international superstar & then it all went off the rails.

 

 

 

Image result for mary wells 1964On reaching her seniority Mary met with the label to renegotiate a contract that she had signed when she was just 17 (you know what I mean). Over-estimating her position, ill-advised by her husband & others & tempted by a great deal of money from 20th Century Fox she walked away from Tamla Motown. A follow up to “My Guy”, a nailed-on hit, the superb “When I’m Gone” was cancelled & the song given to Brenda Holloway. It’s been said that her former employer influenced R&B radio stations to limit airplay of Mary’s subsequent records but a 5 month break in releases affected her popularity & while her fine work with Fox & Atlantic were R&B hits she never was able to crossover into the Pop charts again. What if Mary Wells had stayed with Motown? Could she have been as successful as Aretha Franklin & Dionne Warwick ? There’s a good chance. Would the rise of the Supremes as Motown’s top female act have been delayed? No, probably not.

 

By 1970, still only 26 years old, Mary was signed to the Jubilee label, writing & recording with her second husband Cecil Womack. “Dig the Way I Feel”, at #26, is not as immediate as the earlier hits but the individual slow groove that later Cecil worked so successfully is OK by me & it’s great to be able to see Mary sounding & looking so fine. She was close to the Womack brothers, Bobby produced some tracks with her & Curtis became her next husband. The public’s goodwill towards Mary Wells never faded, she was always able to work & later, when diagnosed with throat cancer & struggling with medical bills, many of her contemporaries came around to help.