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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Magical Mystery Tour

I think everyone knows that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' classic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I wrote about it's fortieth anniversary ten years ago. But The Beatles released another album in 1967 that I think is better than Sgt. Pepper, even though it is not a true album, but half a film score and half a collection of singles.

Magic Mystery Tour was released in November of '67. The Beatles had made a movie of that title, which is almost completely unwatchable, and written some songs for it. Those occupy side one, but what to do about side two? (In Britain, it was released as EPs, which were not popular in the U.S.). So side 2 was a gathering of singles that had not appeared yet on an album. This is where the album soars.

I have a special attachment to this record because it is one of the first albums I bought with my own money. I was about 13, and earned money mowing my grandfather's lawn. He paid me four dollars, and I felt rich. I went to Crowley's department store (department stores used to have record departments, some still do) and bought it. I remember the moment to this day.

Side one kicks off with the title song, a rollicking introduction to the film and an okay song by Beatles standards. Then comes Paul's "Fool on the Hill," which Robert Christgau called the worst Beatles song ever (even worse that "Mr. Moonlight?") I'll admit the lyrics are horrible, but I don't think it's terrible. It is indication of how much the mellotron had become part of their instrument case.

Then comes the oddity "Flying," which is unique in a couple of ways: it is an instrumental, and it is credited to all four Beatles. It has a small charm to it. Following "Flying" is George's "Blue Jay Way,' which despite it's eerie sound is a straightforward tale of how he was waiting for a friend (Derek Taylor) to arrive at his rented house in the Hollywood Hills while he was struggling with jet lag. When I was taking a Hollywood tour we came across the street and I asked the tour guide about it. He said the signs were stolen all the time.

Next up is one of Paul's songs that John derided as "Granny music," "Your Mother Should Know" (it has the distinction of being the final song if you list their songs in alphabetical order--they never wrote a song beginning with Z). Paul loved old music hall-style songs, witness "Honey Pie," and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." It's fine, but nothing great.

Then comes a song that ws in the movie, but also a single, "I Am the Walrus." What does it say about me that this is my favorite Beatles' song? I wrote a paper about it in college. Mostly it is nonsense, in the vein of Lewis Carroll, whom John loved. The opening riff was taken from the sound a British police car siren makes. The song is sort of an alphabet soup of random words--John was amused that professors were giving courses on Beatle lyrics, so he challenged them to figure this one out. Some of the lines have meaning, such as "Element'ry penguin singing Hare Krishna," which a knock on that cult. But what to make of "Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower?" Semolina, I learned way back when, is a kind of wheat, and pilchard is a fish.

The end of the song includes singers making mock laughter, and snatches of a BBC radio production of King Lear. Did John just turn on the radio to record whatever was on? As I wrote in my paper almost forty years ago, King Lear was Shakespeare's play about madness. And the line, "O, untimely death" would have a poignant meaning in 1980 when John was murdered.

Side 2 is the singles side. The A-side of "I Am the Walrus" was "Hello Goodbye," which is basic Paul but highlighted by the coda, which I believe was inspired by something called a "Tyrolean cadence." This is followed by perhaps the album's greatest masterpiece, "Strawberry Fields Forever." This was John's favorites of his, and an allusion to his youth when he and his mates played near an orphanage called Strawberry Fields. Paul wrote the somber introduction, and then John wrote the somewhat cryptic lyrics: "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." The orchestration of this song, with strings, bongos, and brass, plus great drumming by Ringo, make it one of the best Beatle recordings of all time. And that spasm of music at the end, in which we hear John say something--some say it's "I buried Paul," John says it was "Cranberry sauce." They always maintained a mystery about themselves.

Next up was Paul's bit of nostalgia, "Penny Lane," which is a real street in Liverpool (another place where street signs kept getting stolen) that does have a "shelter in the middle of the roundabout." The song is completely charming--I could listen to it over and over again, and is one of Paul's best vocals. It does have one line that invites philosophical musing: "The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray. If she feels as if she's in a play, she is any way."

The penultimate song is "Baby, You're a Rich Man," which has an Indian flavor, courtesy of a keyboard sounding like an oboe. It's one of those songs that John and Paul stitched together--Paul had the chorus, John was working on the "How does it feel to be one the beautiful people," which was a shout out to the hippies in Haight-Ashbury.

The album ends with "All You Need Is Love," one of The Beatles most iconic songs. It was written for a television show, and they were asked to write something with a simple message. Today it might seem trite and naive to think "All you need is love," but there's a sweet optimism to it. The Beatles lip-synched to the record on TV, accompanied by a live orchestra and several big names in rock, like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Keith Moon in the chorus. There are several cameos of other songs--it starts with "La Marseilles" and in the coda we hear "All Together Now," "Yesterday" "She Loves You," and the song some credit to Henry VIII, "Greensleeves."

I've heard this record hundreds of times, and I listened to it on repeat in the car (my new school is a slightly longer drive, so I get to hear more music). So I spent more time listening to the instruments, and especially Ringo's drumming. He was such an underrated drummer. He hardly ever got a drum solo (I can only think of one, in "The End") but had an uncanny feel for a song. His drumming on "Blue Jay Way" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" matches up with any of the other great drummers of the day. He did not get a song to sing on this record, but his presence is very much felt.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

Steven Soderberg has come out of a short retirement to direct Logan Lucky, a heist movie set in the American South. If I didn't know better, I would have thought this was a Coen Brothers' movie, because it is full of seemingly dumb characters and lots of amusing details. Then again, Soderberg has never had a particular style--he has made all kinds of movies--so I guess this one is his Raising Arizona.

Written by Rebecca Blunt, which is thought to be a pseudonym, Logan Lucky concerns two brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) from a West Virginia family. Driver thinks the family is cursed--he lost a hand in Iraq, and Tatum has just been fired from his job because he has a blown-out knee. His ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is planning on moving to another state and taking their adorable daughter with them. What else to do? Plan a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway (where Tatum worked).

The movie does not make much attempt to be plausible. The heist is planned down to the smallest detail, with dozens of people involved, and some of the events are pretty far-fetched (an entire prison has to throw a riot, for example). But if you don't get caught up in the details, Logan Lucky is very funny and entertaining, with a winking sense of humor.

The brothers enlist Daniel Craig (doing a very fine job with a Southern accent) to be their explosives man. Problem--he's in prison. He also wants his two brothers involved, but they act like two in-bred hillbillies. Also part of the plan is the Logans' sister (Riley Keough). By the end, you'd think there wouldn't be enough money to go around.

Most of the film is the heist itself, which proceeds at a casual pace, given the circumstances. It takes place during the Coca-Cola 600, a major race, so there are NASCAR references galore (quite a few drivers make cameos, but I don't know NASCAR so I didn't recognize them). There are an incredible amount of steps involved, as they need to bust Craig out and get him back before he is missed, they need to disable the credit card machines at the speedway so there is more cash, and they must do this while the place is crawling with security guards.

The end of the film drags a bit, as it is about the investigation into the robbery. Hillary Swank, perhaps the most obscure two-time Oscar winner of all time, makes an appearance as an FBI agent.

Why I give Logan Lucky a thumbs up is because of the little things. That the bar where Driver works is called Duck Tape. That the prisoners' demand during the riot is that they get the new Game of Thrones novel, which the warden (Dwight Yoakam) has to tell them hasn't been written yet. That Craig has to alleviate doubts about his explosive device by writing the chemical formula on the wall. These all made me laugh, as did Driver, who I'm learning is an improvement to every movie he's in. I won't quickly forget how he says the word "cauliflower" in his down-home accent.

The bad? Seth McFarlane giving a terrible performance as an English NASCAR sponsor. He's unrecognizable--when I saw his name in the closing credits I couldn't figure out who he played. The character is totally unnecessary.

It should be noted that this is the second film this year that John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," plays an important part. And both of those films, this one and Alien: Covenant, feature Katherine Waterston. Believe it or not.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016

The 2016 volume of The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror is a strong one, as almost all the stories have some value. The first half-dozen or so are extremely good, starting off with "Sing Me Your Scars," by Damien Angelica Walters, which is kind of a riff on Frankenstein, as a mad scientist stitches together a perfect woman. That's followed by "There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom," a very eerie story about a woman who cares more about her doll collection than anything else, with pretty good reason, it turns out.

There are a couple of Lovecraftian stories. "Windows Underwater," by John Shirley, alludes to the human/fish hybrids, while a drolly funny "The Deepwater Bride," by Tamsyn Muir, sees Lovecraft's gods among suburban teenagers. It kicks off, "In the time of our crawling Night Lord’s ascendancy, foretold by exodus of starlight into his sucking astral wounds, I turned sixteen and received Barbie’s Dream Car."

There are some mystery homages, too. "The Street of the Dead House," by Robert Lopresti, is "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" from the orangutan's perspective, and my favorite story in the collection is "Ripper," which is really a novella, which creates a character involved in the Jack the Ripper case. I'm a sucker for anything to do with Saucy Jack, and the author, Angela Slatter, is creative by making the character a woman disguising herself as a man to be a policeman. If I were a director I'd want to make it into a film.

Other good stories are "1Up," by Holly Black, which is about old-fashioned computer games, you know the ones you typed in a response and the computer gave you options? "The Greyness," by Kathryn Ptacek, is about Mary Wollstonecraft, and a mysterious woman in gray who watches over her, and the last story, "Corpsemouth," by John Langan, about a Scottish legend.

There are a few clinkers. Kaiju maximus® 'So Various, So Beautiful, So New'" by Kai Ashante Wilson, has a complicated title and I couldn't make heads or tails of it so I had to quit it. "The Lily and the Horn" is a fantasy that is so steeped in cliches, like unicorns, that I could only roll my eyes at it. Here's an example:"The ladies will bring the peacock soup, laced with belladonna and serpent’s milk, and the men...of Mithridatium, of the country of Yew, will stir it with spoons carved from the bones of a white stag," Not for me.

But overall this book bats about ,800, a good showing, and credit to editor Paula Guran.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Something Rotten!

It's a new season at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts here in Vegas, and the first show was Something Rotten!, a very funny musical that is catnip for anyone who likes Shakespeare and musical theater, or both.

Set in Shakespeare's day, two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom (already we've got a Shakespeare joke) are playwrights who live in Shakespeare's shadow. They are going to do a play on Richard II, but find out that Shakespeare is already doing it. Nick is the businessman of the two, and he hears about a prognosticator in the seedy part of town. That turns out to be Nostradamus, or at least his nephew, Tom. Nick asks him to look into the future to find out what the hot thing in theater will be. "The musical!" he says.

Tom turns out to have a fuzzy view of the future, as he interprets bits and snatches of musicals. The number that he sings, "A Musical," is full of quotes from different musicals, and it was literally a showstopper. The cast had to stop for a minute to bask in the applause.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare is portrayed like a rock star, a preening peacock who "put the I in iambic pentameter." He gets wind of the brothers' new form, and goes undercover to investigate. Nick, heeding Tom's advice, has stolen Shakespeare's idea (even if he hasn't had it yet), but Tom tells him the title is "Omelette."

So there's a musical about eggs, which is funny, especially when we get a cast dressed like eggs. It's all silly fun.

There's a subplot with Nigel, who is the poet of the brothers, falling in love with the daughter of the local puritan leader (everything he says is a gay double entendre), and an even more minor one about Nick's wife disguising herself as a man to get a job. That part of the show is vastly underdeveloped.

As with many new musicals (this one is unusual these days for not being based on a movie, or someone's songs) the music is not remarkable. The music and lyrics are by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick. The book is where the show excels, with lots of great gags that are plays on musicals or Shakespeare, such as when the Omelette show has the line, "Frailty, thy name is egg." The book is by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

It's a very good cast, the highlights being Rob McClure as Nick (somehow he reminded me of Paul Giamatti), and Blake Hammond as Tom.

Something Rotten! is a theater nerd's dream come true.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties was a short story by the great Neil Gaiman, and then a graphic novel, with art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. It is soon to be a major motion picture, but looking at the cast list I see it has been greatly expanded. Instead, it would have made a better half-hour show. Pity the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits aren't still around.

It's really a one-joke story, but with broader implications if you want to see them. Enn and Vic are two fifteen-year-olds. Vic is the more cocksure of them, and leads Enn to a party. Enn is very shy an inexperienced, but tags along. Vic urges him to just talk to girls.

When they get there the party is in full swing, with strange music Enn has never heard before. Vic immediately connects with the girl who answered the door, Stella, while Enn just kind of wanders around until he finds a room with only one girl in it. He decides to talk to her.

She responds with words, though in English, make no sense. He goes along with it, though, as if she were chatting normally. Later he will meet two more girls who do the same thing. One says that she is a living poem, and three different things at once. The reader will get what's going on before Enn does, as all the girls called themselves "tourists." Vic, who took Stella downstairs, will end up running for his life.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is both a gentle comedy about the foibles of hapless teen-age boys, and a primer on how teen-age boys should treat teen-age girls. It's a slim volume--64 pages, and can be read in one setting. For all the big stuff Gaiman has written, this seems like a throwaway. But a nice one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Ghost Story

David Lowery's A Ghost Story is unlike any movie I've ever seen, and for the most part, that's a good thing. The title is literal, but it's not the kind of ghost story we're used to, which is also good. Instead of a fright-fest, it's a meditation on time and grief.

A couple, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, live in a small ranch house. The film has very little dialogue, which is good, because I couldn't hear what the two were saying anyway. I do know that Mara wanted to leave the house, but Affleck felt an affinity for it.

Early on Affleck is killed in a car accident. Mara identifies him in a hospital, but after a while he rises and starts walking, covered in his sheet like a kid at Halloween. No one sees him. A portal to, I suppose, the great beyond opens up, but he chooses not to enter it, and walks back to his house, where he will stay for a long, long time.

Mara eventually moves out, but Affleck is rooted to the spot. She never sees him, but he can make himself known. When she comes home after a date with another man he makes the lights flicker and knocks books off a shelf. There is a ghost in the house next door (wearing a floral sheet) that he can communicate with silently.

Different people come and go in the house. A single mother and her children are driven out by his antics. Other people move in, and we get the longest bit of dialogue when a man delivers a long monologue about how nothing really matters because we're all going to get swallowed by the sun. Affleck makes the lights flicker after he's done.

There's more that includes time-bending. Time for Affleck as a ghost is different than hours, as years go by like seconds. All the while he tries to chip away at paint to get a note that Mara left in a crack in a door jamb.

A Ghost Story is not scary, but it is spooky. Lowery's choice to have Affleck covered in a shroud was a good one. It might seem silly on paper, but having people going about their business while a shroud-covered man watches them silently is arresting. He has two black holes in the sheet, but we can't see his eyes.

The film is very slow moving. For the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it would be torture, because there's a long scene of Mara eating an entire pie, But it picks up and becomes absorbing.

Kudos also to Daniel Hart, who composed an excellent score.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tell Me I'm Pretty

I saw on social media a while back someone stating that rock was dead. This person clearly doesn't investigate enough, as there is still a lot of good rock out there if you look for it. You just have to look for it. The Grammy for Best Rock Album went to Cage the Elephant's Tell Me I'm Pretty, and I'm glad to say that it's good rock and roll.

I'm also glad to say that Cage the Elephant's stuff can be classified as garage rock. Looking through the credits, I see no mention of synthesizers. And singer Matt Shultz styles himself after Iggy Pop, so there's no auto-tune.

There are ten songs on Tell Me I'm Pretty and none of them are clunkers. They are all chugging, drive forward gems--no seven-minute epics, no slow love ballads. Relationships between men and the women they love are the subject of many of the songs, though. The best line on the record that made me laugh every time I heard it is from the closing track, "Portuguese Knife Fight": "I want to waste my life with you." What girl could resist that?

My favorite songs are "Cold Cold Cold," which has some excellent drum work by Jared Champion, "That's Right," which sounds a bit like a circus band, and "Too Late to Say Goodbye," which if you didn't tell me I could guess was released in 1966.

The album was produced by Daniel Auerbach of the Black Keys, and if you've read my reviews of them you know that's a positive thing.

About their name: I'd heard of Cage the Elephant, and always assumed "Cage" was a noun, like it was an elephant named Cage. But no, they got the name from a random lunatic who was screaming, "You must cage the elephant!" So it's a verb. Makes more sense.