Friday, November 26, 2010

Five-sentence Friday

Photobucket1. This is super-duper cool, and it's great to see my father-in-law Sir Peter Siddell's art career anthologised in one huge hefty package, coming in early 2011 -- I've seen the proofs and the book looks fantastic!

2. Keith Richards' autobiography "Life" makes for entertaining reading, although a bit too rambling, it's got a remarkable story to tell and he holds little back; great insights into his relationship with Mick Jagger to be found here though.

3. Some band called U2 is playing just down from the road to us this week on their 360 tour, and I'm just not quite huge enough a U2 fan to spring for tickets -- but it turns out we didn't need to, as the concert, also including opening act Jay-Z, was quite loud and audible from our house 3km away, so we pulled out lawn chairs and blankets and sat on our front lawn last night for a live U2 show, without even having to leave our driveway!

4. The Pike River mining tragedy has obviously dominated New Zealand news for the past week, and while we all feared the worst, we hoped for the best; a distinct sting to the situation was added by the fresh memory of the recent Chilean miner rescue miracle, but unfortunately the NZ mine was a completely different type of mine and situation and such a happy outcome seemed unlikely from the start. My sympathies and good thoughts remain with the families of the Pike River 29.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Concert Review: The New Pornographers, Auckland, November 20

I was an avid fan of pornography last night. The New Pornographers, that is, the Canadian indie-pop collective who played an excellent show at the Kings Arms in Auckland last night.

PhotobucketThat band name is a bit of a joke -- there's not much immoral about this band, who for five albums have been exploring the pleasures of hook-filled, harmony-laden energetic pop. The main players are leader Carl "AC" Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder, all of whom have had considerable success on their own. If you put Squeeze, Big Star, Cheap Trick, ELO and The Beatles in a blender you might get something like this all-star alt-rock grouping.

It was a hot, humid Auckland spring night, with sweat dripping off everyone. The Kings Arms is a right tiny, intimate place so I was less than 10 feet away from Case the entire time. The show had a freewheeling, relaxed vibe. Between the heat and probable jetlag by the seven-member band it took a few songs for the momentum to really get going and the sound was muddy for a few tunes. (The bass player actually missed getting onstage for the first song, which the band only noticed at the end of the song!) There were a couple of false starts, but there was an energetic good cheer despite the hitches. Throughout the night Newman and Case bantered snarkily with the audience. But like a steamroller, the band kept locking into these fantastic harmonic grooves where the combination of voices and their wall of sound approach blew the crowd away.

PhotobucketThe set featured a heaping helping of songs from their most successful album, 2005's near-masterpiece "Twin Cinema". Newman led the show and did a great job crunching on guitar chords and trading off lead vocals with Case. It was a real pleasure for me to finally see siren Case, who's built the most successful solo career of the group. Her voice is justly famed and to hear her wailing out just a few feet away was awesome.

The Pornographers ramped through many of their best tunes such as "Use It," "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Challengers." I've always liked how Newman's songwriting combines pop accessibility with twisting, strange lyrics, and as a live show the songs hit sweet spot after sweet spot. Nothing quite like the harmonies Newman, Case and Calder could conjure together. (And I'd think it's quite hard to reproduce live a note-perfect whistling chorus like they did in "The Crash Years" from their latest album "Together.") Sadly missing from this tour was glam-pop singer Bejar, who crafts some of the band's most addictive songs, but Newman did an excellent job filling in on Bejar's sneery vocals on songs like a crowd-pleasing encore of "Jackie Dressed in Cobras."

Here's one of my favorite of their tunes, "The Bleeding Heart Show."

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Alone: Bad. Friend: Good." The genius of Boris Karloff

PhotobucketIt's a little late for Halloween, but I've been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s -- Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved 'em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What's amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I'd say was the king of monster movies -- the original and best Frankenstein's Monster, Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi's immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr's tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein's Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man's desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.

The very first scene when we see the Monster in "Frankenstein" is remarkable. The Monster simply walks into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second -- then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff's heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It's still chilling 80 years after it was filmed. Karloff's portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans.

PhotobucketThe famous "monster meets the blind hermit" sequence in "Bride of Frankenstein" is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It's an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.

The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we're seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world's cruelty. "Alone: bad. Friend: good." That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he's alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole "monster you feel kind of sorry for" motif we've seen everywhere from "King Kong" to "Twilight."

Karloff's skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who've played the Monster -- in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein's Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nik's Unheralded Albums #3: Colin Hay Band, "Wayfaring Sons."

Colin Hay Band, "Wayfaring Sons." (1990)

PhotobucketIt's hard being perceived as a one-hit wonder. You put out an album, it does a zillion in sales, but you can never quite get that popular mojo back. Witness Men At Work, the Aussie "Down Under" combo who were huge with "Business As Usual" in 1982, but kind of gradually faded away within a couple years. But for those who were fans, lead singer Colin Hay has actually done some pretty interesting work since then. He did two more Men At Work albums, mild hit "Cargo" and the darker and quite underrated flop, now out-of-print "Two Hearts." Then the band broke up and he went solo.

I've enoyed Hay's solo career intermittently -- he's written some beautiful, laid-back tunes, although many of his albums seem to contain an awful lot of filler in between the gentle gems. (Lately he's taken to doing "unplugged" version of many of his old Men At Work songs which are pretty to listen to but lack much in the way of novelty.) The sitcom "Scrubs" used several of his tunes to give him a sort of comeback. But one disc I've always had a soft spot for is a fairly obscure one, 1990's "Wayfaring Sons" by the Colin Hay Band.

I first heard this one in the waning days of my Men At Work fandom, and it always sparked in me a powerful feeling of wanderlust. Loosely it's a concept album about traveling the world, voyaging the seven seas, with several songs about leaving home and coming back again. It relies heavily on Celtic and folk sounds, giving it an almost Chieftains feel in spots. The instrumentation is lush and varied, not quite as monotonous as the more acoustic style Hay uses these days, and his husky voice is in fine form throughout.

"Wayfaring Sons" is definitely Hay's strongest collection of songs, with barely a duff move in the bunch. Lyrics of harsh oceans and stormy weather dot the tunes. The title song kicks off with a down-home violin, a bustling night out -- "I duck into this public house / and get shattered by the din" -- and the singer upping stakes and sailing across the sea.

Hay's songwriting here has always felt very evocative to me, sketching in a few telling details with the lyrics and the very full, pub band meets world music feeling. "Into My Life" is a charming little love tune that captures a relationship in all its passion and frustration -- "We drink until we get too tired / Even though you try to dance for me / I still can't light up your fire." "Dream On (In The Night)" or "Not So Lonely" are fairly conventional torch songs but it's the purring warmth of Hay's voice that makes them soar and little touches like the chanting Gaelic backing chorus on "Not So Lonely." A marvelous jangly mandolin and soaring chorus on the anthemic album closer "Ya (Rest In Peace)" bring us back to where we started, back to the bustling public house that we heard in the opening tune.

It may not quite be a hidden masterpiece, but "Wayfaring Sons" is my favorite of Hay's solo discography by a long shot, and kind of nearly makes for a "lost" Men At Work record. Hay may be a 'one-hit wonder' to much of the public at large, but I've enjoyed many of his songs over the years. It's one I like to spin on occasion and think of foreign seas.