Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Vhatever happened to my Transylvania Tvist?"

Your HALLOWEEN novelty pop song "MONSTER MASH" is so catchy I find it stuck in my head during random days throughout the year -- not just today.
"He did the Mash -- he did the Monster Mash!"
The "graveyard smash" grew out of a Boris Karloff shtick Pickett performed as a member of a singing group called The Cordials.
Pickett wrote the song with friend and fellow group member Lenny Capizzi, and Gary Paxton produced the record. Paxton provided the B-movie sound effects that help give the tune its s-p-o-o-k-y charm.
As Fred Bronson explains in "The Billboard Book of Number One Hits:"
"(Paxton) created the sound of a coffin opening by putting a rusty nail in a 2-by-4 and pulling it out slowly with a hammer. The bubbling sounds came from blowing into a straw in a glass of water. The chains were dropped onto plywood planks on the floor."
Sound effects aside, the tune's melody and clever lyrics endure.
The fact that the song has re-entered the pop charts numerous times since its 1962 debut attests to its lasting impression.
I guess I'm not the only one who gets "Monster Mash" stuck in his head from time to time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The beauty in the ugly noise of The Jesus and Mary Chain

Your band must be doing something right when simply playing a gig sparks a riot.
Scotland's THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN accomplished the feat in March 1985, when a gig at the North London Polytechnic descended into fights.
That early in their career, the Mary Chain were already among the most-polarizing bands. A divide exists to this day between fans of the band's unique take on pop convention and those who only hear ear-splitting noise.
I'm in the former camp, and I ruminated about the band's music -- especially the early singles and debut album, "PSYCHOCANDY" -- while driving around town this week.
The Jesus and Mary Chain aficionado hears the band produce beautiful pop songs smothered in howling squalls of eye-watering feedback.
What's the attraction?
I think the genius of the Mary Chain was that they realized that one way to accentuate something is to place it in the closest possible proximity to its opposite.
It's a reason why a beautiful flower stands out against the grey backdrop of a crumbling apartment building.
I think it's also a reason why the Mary Chain's songs resonate so strongly in me. They arrive glowing from deep crevices of sinister blackness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Kwaidan' should be seen to be believed

The ghosts in MASAKI KOBAYASHI'S brilliant film, "KWAIDAN," aren't like the ghosts in other movies.
These spirits not only mingle with the living, they inject themselves into lives, marrying, reuniting and commanding those remaining on Earth.
I watched the film again last night.
A great cast -- including Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe and Tatsuya Nakadai -- populates a quartet of unrelated stories adapted from the work of LAFCADIO HEARN/KOIZUMI YAKUMO, a Greek-born Irish writer who took up Japanese residency in the late 19th century.
Hearn's tales frighten because he makes the spirit-human interaction seem so commonplace, as if the veil between the two worlds only exists in name -- and is unable to protect us from the underworld.
"Kwaidan" is also a remarkably beautiful film -- one that needs to be seen to be believed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed expanded rock's scope,influencing so many

ROCK music without LOU REED would have been far less interesting.
The pioneering Reed died yesterday, age 71.
Immediately after hearing the news, I thought about all the bands I loved that were directly influenced by THE VELVET UNDERGROUND leader.
Certainly, DAVID BOWIE used Reed's influence to broaden his musical scope. That influence in turn opened the door to punk and the left-of-center music once called "alternative."
Reed also introduced a sleazy type of subject matter into songs, delving into the urban underbelly and previously unmentioned aspects of sexuality that greatly increased songwriters' palettes.
Music fans have many reasons to praise Reed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Petaluma's Siberian connection explained

IAN FRAZIER'S excellent book, "TRAVELS IN SIBERIA," is full of surprises, and I was surprised to see a mention of PETALUMA, a Sonoma County, Calif., city of which I am closely familiar.
Frazier details a cross-country drive across the remote expanse of Sibera, and one of his stops is the eastern village of VOLOCHAEVKA.
Volochaevka served as the final battle site of the RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR and the last time the Soviets faced a credible, internal opposition to their rule.
The losing general was WHITE RUSSIAN leader VICTORIN MOLCHANOV.
Frazier relates Molchanov's exploits after losing the decisive battle:
"He withdrew into China, then sought asylum in the United States, and eventually wound up with other White Russian refugees in Petaluma, California, where he became a chicken farmer."
While the battle's victorious general, VASILY BLYUKHER, lost his life to a subsequent Stalin purge, Molchanov lived to the ripe old age of 87.
I have passed through Petaluma -- literally -- hundreds of times. Although I knew it as the egg capital of northern California, I had no idea of its connection to Russian civil strife.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Casting helps make 'The Lady Eve' another classic

Last night was a perfect evening for a fantastic PRESTON STURGES film, so I enjoyed "THE LADY EVE" on DVD.
BARBARA STANWYCK plays a con artist who makes just one mistake -- she falls in love with her intended prey, the similarly lovestruck HENRY FONDA.
When Fonda learns of her deceitful past and breaks off the engagement, Stanwyck uses her con skills to swindle his heart instead of his cash.
Sturges' writing and direction is superb, as usual, as his casting prowess.
Sturges fans learn to appreciate the repertory cast he employed throughout his films -- familiar faces who were given memorable lines despite their relatively minor roles.
"The Lady Eve" includes such familiar faces as William Demarest as Fonda's protective valet, Eric Blore as a conman posing as English nobility and Robert Greig as the Fonda family butler.
The cast helps make "The Lady Eve" a tour de force and yet another Sturges masterpiece.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cold enough to read about Siberia, cold enough for Ded Moroz

It's currently 32 degrees outside and this week's COLD SPELL prompted me to begin reading "TRAVELS IN SIBERIA" by IAN FRAZIER.
I actually purchased the book this past summer, but it seemed sacrilegious to read a book about Siberia in hot weather -- no matter how high we cranked the air conditioning.
Instead, I waited for colder conditions and, well, they have arrived.
I've read about a third of the book. Frazier has already related trips to southern Siberia and the RUSSIAN FAR EAST -- across from Alaska.
Now, I have reached the part of the book where he tells of a cross-Siberian trip he takes with two guides and an unreliable van.
Frazier just wrote about one of the gateways to Siberia, the northern Russian town, VELIKII USTYUG.
Frazier notes the town's well-preserved architecture and suggests its survival could be due to Velikii Ustyug's remoteness -- it was out of sight, out of mind of overzealous Soviet urban planners.
Velikii Ustyug's current fame relies on its claim on the residence of DED MOROZ -- the "Old Man Frost" who serves as the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus.
Ded Moroz traditionally delivers presents to children in person, rather than the more secretive Santa Claus.
His tale is one of many interesting details packed into Frazier's book.
Thanks to our cold weather, I can finally read it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Great sound on a cold day

You've got to love a band who appropriate their name from the name of a fictitious band in the dystopian Anthony Burgess novel, "A CLOCKWORK ORANGE."
That's my take on things.
It helps, of course, if the band made intelligent SYNTH-POP that sounds great on an unseasonably cold day. Then it's really easy to love a band like HEAVEN 17.
MARTYN WARE and IAN CRAIG MARSH who were original members of THE HUMAN LEAGUE.
They formed an electronic music production team called BRITISH ELECTRIC FOUNDATION upon leaving the Human League, then drafted in vocalist GLENN GREGORY to form Heaven 17.
The music they made stood out from a rash of other synth-pop combos of the early 1980s.
Critic Aaron Badgley writes:
"Unlike so many other synth-pop acts, Heaven 17 doesn't rely on the barrage of beats and orchestra hits to conceal poor lyrical content. Gregory is a sensational vocalist and together with Marsh and Ware has written intelligent lyrics that take center stage in the songs."
One of my cherished 12-inch singles back in the day was the Heaven 17 classic, "(WE DON'T NEED THIS) FASCIST GROOVE THANG."
The song had a tougher dance edge than many of its contemporaries, and the political lyrics set the song apart, too.
I'm returning to Heaven 17's music today both because our weather is so cold, and the band's sound was so great.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Revisiting 'Japanese Whispers'

Yesterday's grey skies and unseasonable chill -- we're experiencing mid-November weather in mid-October -- had me listening to THE CURE in the car.
"JAPANESE WHISPERS" provided my soundtrack and as I listened to the 1983 compilation several thoughts emerged.
I considered how this album loomed large during my high-school years. It seemed like everybody had a copy -- almost always on cassette -- and songs such as "Let's Go to Bed" and "The Walk" seemed to be playing in a vast number of cars and bedrooms.
I also considered how the collection of singles and their B-sides provided an introduction to The Cure for many of my friends.
I had been hooked on the earlier, darker version of the band's sound found on "FAITH," a 1981 album whose shadowy, grey cover images perfectly suited the music contained inside.
The Cure that "Japanese Whispers" presented was a band with bouncy pop songs such as "Speak My Language" and "The Love Cats" -- a far cry, I thought, from the dour, earlier tunes such as "The Funeral Party" and "The Drowning Man."
I enjoyed listening to "Japanese Whispers" during my busy day of work. It reminded me of the time when the music was new, and I was so young and impressionable.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Now I know where to buy some canned pony

I'm really enjoying reading the IAN FRAZIER book, "TRAVELS in SIBERIA."
The subject matter interests me -- it's an area of the world that's become synonymous with remoteness -- and Frazier packs interesting information onto every page.
Early in the book, Frazier relates his experiences in ULAN-UDE, the capital of the eastern Russian REPUBLIC OF BURYATIA.
This passage helps sum up the cultural differences Frazier encounters:
"He said that Buryats became ill if they did not eat enough horse meat, and that some families in Ulan-Ude kept a side of horse frozen on the balconies of their apartments in the winter. He added that you could buy canned pony year-round in Ulan-Ude."
I like the way Frazier reveals the facets of life he encountered in Siberia. It provides a perfect form of armchair travel for the reader.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The more he sees, the less he understands

"You've got fake biology, fake religion... Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?"
Christianity collides with Paganism in Robin Hardy's 1973 British thriller "THE WICKER MAN," which I watched today.
A mainland Scottish police sergeant (Edward Woodward) visits a remote island to investigate the report of a missing girl. As his investigation deepens, he finds himself immersed in a community bound by strange rituals and beliefs that horrify him.
A visit to the island's chieftain, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), merely confirms his worst fears: The island's inhabitants have shed their Christian beliefs and turned to the power of human sacrifice instead.
"The Wicker Man" is a supremely creepy movie whose reputation was harmed somewhat because it was poorly remade in the 2000s.
I like the original because of its inherent contradiction -- the more Woodward's character investigates, the less he understands about the insular world of the island and its inhabitants.
It's an absorbing film.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

It's actually from the Eighties

"Let me show you my new Christmas CD. We always passed over it in the car, because we thought it was gospel or some weird African thing you found. Then, I turned over the back (saw the tracks) and said: Why haven't we been listening to this every day?"

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mapping America's beer

A map making its way around the Internet from BUSINESS INSIDER turns each state into the beer brand of choice.
The Blowfish for Hangover map shows each state's most popular beer, from SAMUEL ADAMS in Maine to CORONA in California.
It indicates BLUE MOON eroding the hegemony of BUD LIGHT, particularly in the west.
Regional loyalties remain strong as well, according to the map, with Wisconsin continuing to drink MILLER LIGHT and YUENGLING holding its Pennsylvania base, as well as some bordering states.
What the map doesn't show is more local affiliations.
DUBUQUE residents tend to drink BUSCH LIGHT, for example.
My favorite beer of this bunch is Yuengling. Too bad I'm so geographically removed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pixies' song always brings back bad memories -- of Sea Monkeys

I just read about the recording of the 1991 PIXIES album, "TROMPE LE MONDE," in "FOOL THE WORLD: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A BAND CALLED PIXIES" by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz.
"Trompe Le Monde" is the band's final full-length studio album.
I admit: "Trompe Le Monde" is the Pixies album I hear least frequently, despite such songs as "Planet of Sound," "U-Mass" and "Letter to Memphis."
Another of the album's memorable songs, "Palace of the Brine," tells of witnessing brine shrimp -- the "SEA MONKEYS" of comic-book advertising fame -- in the "wild" of a desert lake in Utah.
Whenever I hear the song, I'm forced to remember my own history with the tiny crustaceans. Every time our family tried to keep Sea Monkeys as pets, one of the shrimp would devour his mates -- growing mysteriously larger as his cannibalism took deadly hold.
Maybe that's why I don't listen to "Trompe Le Monde" that often. It brings back too many bad Sea Monkeys memories.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

'Surfer Rosa' and Albini's belated recognition of significance

Everybody else in the house is sleeping, so I am reading about the making of one of my favorite albums, "SURFER ROSA" by the PIXIES.
"FOOL THE WORLD: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A BAND CALLED PIXIES" by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz is an excellent, comprehensive review of the influential band's story, told by the people on the scene.
Highlighted by such tracks as "Bone Machine," "Gigantic," "River Euphrates" and "Where is My Mind," "Surfer Rosa" marked a step forward for the band -- it marked the Pixies' full-length debut on 4AD and featured the imprint of engineer STEVE ALBINI.
The Pixies didn't fit the hardcore-influenced Albini's sensibilities.
"I never really got that level of interest with the Pixies," Albini says in "Fool The World." "I do genuinely like and respect the people in that band. I think Dave Lovering is a great drummer. I think Joey (Santiago) is an innovative guitar player. I think Kim (Deal) is probably the best singer ever, and I think Charlie (Thompson, aka Black Francis) is a talented and unique guy. But, the things that I like about that band, it's not really the music."
Albini appears to be in the minority.
"Surfer Rosa" was critically acclaimed upon its  March 1988 release and it has only grown in stature with each passing year.
The legacy is something now acknowledges, as he tells "Fool The World."
"I don't think that I regarded the band as significantly as I should have."
Coming from the infamously opinionated Albini, that statement merely affirms prevailing admiration for "Surfer Rosa," and the band that created it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Last call for the 'Little Master'

Today is like the days that Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan called it quits.
SACHIN TENDULKAR, who has been more of an idol than a cricketer, announced today that the two matches he plays for INDIA against WEST INDIES next month will be his last.
The 40-year-old retired from one-day internationals last year.
His departure marks the end of an incredible era for the sport.
Bombay-born and nicknamed "Little Master," the 5-foot-5 Tendulkar towered over his contemporaries. He has scored 15,837 runs in his 198 Test matches to date. He holds the records for most hundreds in both Tests and ODIs.
Reaction to Tendulkar's decision has come from all corners of the globe. At home in India, former Test cricketer Kirti Azad told Asian News International:
"(It's) difficult to imagine the Indian cricket team without him, sad day for cricket."

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Philip Chevron brought a new Irish music to the masses

I was stunned and saddened today when I heard PHILIP CHEVRON had lost his cancer battle, and had died age 56.
Chevron brought a new IRISH MUSIC to the masses, first as the guitarist for the influential punk band THE RADIATORS FROM SPACE, then wielding guitar, banjo and mandolin for the influential folk-punk band THE POGUES (for whom he wrote the anthem, "Thousands are Sailing."
I listened to the Radiators en route home, still stunned that one of my favorite musicians was gone.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Hockey on the radio sounds good to me

HOCKEY ON THE RADIO sounds like an indie band name, but it's really what I enjoyed last night.
I listened to the first period on French-language 98.5 FM MONTRÉAL, with commentators Martin McGuire and Dany Dubé.
I heard John Bartlett and Sergio Momesso call the final two periods in English on TSN 690.
My late dad was a huge fan of the Habs, telling me about the exploits of Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer while I was growing up.
This season's Habs don't quite reach the level of greatness of teams in the past, but P.K. Subban, Rene Bourque, Carey Price and the rest continue to give a good showing on the ice.
Or, as was the case for me last night, a good *hearing* on the ice.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Third wave ska lifts the grey gloom

Another day of dark, gloomy GREY SKIES, heavy with rain, threatens to send me into an unwanted Saturday lethargy.
Perhaps some THIRD WAVE SKA will help?
I'm listening to an 18-song playlist featuring three songs each from six American bands that kept the spirit of SKA alive in the 1990s, the musical movement known as "third wave ska."
NO DOUBT, REEL BIG FISH, THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES, SAVE FERRIS, THE TOASTERS and GOLDFINGER enjoyed varying levels of success (with Gwen Stefani the poster girl for leaving "alternative" music behind for the bright lights of the mainstream), but each were launched to pay musical tribute to the Jamaican sounds they loved and they did their part to keep the party jumping and skanking.
The playlist features a mix of big hits ("Just a Girl," "The Impression That I Get"), rather funny covers ("Take on Me," "99 Red Balloons") and some simply killer ska-punk tunes ("Someday I Suppose").
Above all, the playlist provides an upbeat alternative to the outside gloom that makes morning seem like night in our home.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Another big night for hockey, at least locally

Last night was another big night for HOCKEY, at least around here.
The DETROIT RED WINGS beat the BUFFALO SABRES, 2-1, with the Sabres' lone goal coming from a player with local ties.
ZEMGUS GIRGENSONS scored a goal in his NHL debut.
It was big news locally. Girgensons, 19, played two seasons for the DUBUQUE FIGHTING SAINTS, a Tier-I junior team based here.
The Latvian-born player was selected in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
I was able to watch on TV last night as Girgensons debuted for the Sabres, one of the youngest teams in the league.
It will be fun following his progress this season.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Hockey's fighting tradition sparks a debate on Opening Night

Watching a fight last night on TV between players from LES CANADIENS DE MONTRÉAL and the TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS, I joked that CANADA'S national pastime had returned -- Oh, and hockey started back up again, too.
It didn't take long before the seriousness of the NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE'S fighting tradition loomed over other events on the ice.
On Tuesday's Opening Night, Canadiens forward George Parros was scrapping with Leafs tough guy Colton Orr in the third period when the Montréal combatant went to throw a punch, missed, and fell face first onto the ice.
The contact knocked Parros unconscious, and he was eventually stretchered off to be taken to a hospital.
Concussions are a problem in all contact sports. Does hockey's fighting tradition needlessly increase the risks of such injuries? Among the other questions in Canada today is what role does fighting continue to play in hockey.
There is a long tradition of fighting used as a deterrent against hurtful violence perpetrated upon the game's skillful stars. That's why teams employ so-called enforcers -- to maintain, through fighting, protection against the wizards who score goals and draw crowds.
Fighting draws crowds, too, though. So, what can be done, if anything, to remove the risk of serious injury while continuing the tradition of on-ice scraps?
There's bound to be debate on this topic at a rink near you.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Top 5 Honky Tonk essentials

My top five HONKY TONK song essentials:
1. Twin fiddles
2. Pedal steel guitar
3. Lyrics about women/booze/bad times
4. Tinkling piano riffs
5. Nasal, twangy voice