Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rockin in 1970

ON Friday I have a New York Times review of an interesting if imperfect new book called Fire and Rain, which looks at the year 1970 and the making of four hugely popular records -- The Beatles' Let it Be, CSNY's Deja Vu, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

If you love all these artists, by all means pick up David Browne's book. Otherwise -- as I get into in the review -- it's a mixed success.

Browne's key records sold like crazy at the time -- but even then there were people who considered them insubstantial. "I consider his soft sound a cop out," Ellen Willis wrote of Paul Simon in the New Yorker. "And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation, like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore." (My guess is that she was rocking out to CCR at the time.)

(This BBC video of James Taylor from 1970 is better than almost anything on his albums, by the way.)

More on all this later. What's your favorite record from 1970?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Return of the Archers of Loaf

WHEN the band filed at the Troubadour the other night, I wondered if this might be an Archers of Loaf cover band -- a Chapel-Hill-meets-'90s nostalgia version of Beatlemania. But despite the fact that gawky, bespectacled Eric Bachmann has transformed himself into a lumber jack since the band's late-'90s breakup (don't rock musicians usually waste away?), this was the Archers of old -- all the hummable melodies, modern jazz-meets-Sonic Youth-inspired harmonic weirdness, the onstage jumping around, and those unforgettable songs like "Web in Front" and "Wrong."

This was one of those reunions I never thought I'd see, and I certainly did not think this North Carolina band that never got its due would make it to the West Coast. (They ended up with two sold-out nights at the Troubadour to kick off a whole West Coast tour.) I went to school in Chapel Hill in the early '90s, so this is a band I've been seeing for a long time -- real pleasure to see their genius undiminished.

HERE is a Spin piece by my Raleigh-based colleague on their reuniting. The tour still comes through New York, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, Phil, NC, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

The band's albums are also being reissued by Merge.

All hail the Archers!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Britain's "Electric Eden"

THE best of it still sounds as fresh as the day its long-haired practitioners pulled out their mandolins and plugged in the amps: British folk rock is one of the great unsung stories, at least in this country. The new book, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, gets at the movement's greatest musicians -- Vashti Bunyan, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs, many others -- and connects them to currents deep in British literary and cultural life, including the resistance to industry, the flight to the landscape and the search for a distinctively British (and sometimes pre-Christian) culture.

HERE is my LA Times interview with author Rob Young, former editor of Wired magazine and clearly a major Brit-folk obsessive. He was inspired to write about music by Revolution in the Head's Ian MacDonald's book on Shostakovich and sees the aim of music writing as deciphering cultural codes.

This is a wonderful and well-researched book, though like the music it chronicles, it rambles a bit. It's hard to imagine an American publisher allowing this much backstory -- William Morris, Holst, druids, etc. (The book is put out by FSG in this country but is primarily a reprint of a Faber and Faber book published previously in the UK.)

And while this was not the book's primary goal -- which was to chart the late '60s/early '70s heyday of British folk rock -- I would have liked to see a bit more on the contemporary scene. Gen X West Coast artists in particular -- Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart -- have been voracious at consuming and reviving this stuff otherwise ignored by the marketplace. (It recalls to me the way Boomer musicians both in Britain and America helped bring black blues figures -- Lonnie Johnson, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt -- back into the light in the '60s.) 

Here are some bits from my conversation with Young that did not make it into my Times piece:

Which recordings or artists from the classic period seem to hold up best?
I guess that's a cue for some of my personal favorites. If you allow that the classic period is 1969–72, which I call the Indian summer of folk-rock, then I'd have to mention Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam And The Big Huge, Fairport Convention's Liege And Lief, John Martyn’s Bless The Weather and Sandy Denny's The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. 
All very different: Drake is Romantic in the original sense, and his "River Man" is a haunting and supernatural vision, with the ghostly string arrangements of Harry Robinson. Martyn is ecstatic and almost funky, using his Echoplexed acoustic guitar for the first time in scintillating patterns. Fairport's album is one of the cornerstones of modern English folk, with rocked-up ballads and wistful, melancholic songs written in a traditional idiom. 
ISB are on a personal quest, and their album pulls in all kinds of ethnic and exotic instruments in a panoply of world religions and spirit codes. Denny's LP is loaded with omens and her songs are autumnal, washed by the unruly sea of fortune. I could have chosen many more but this is a radiant selection that couldn't have come from anywhere else but Britain. 
The Incredible String Band
Where can we hear the legacy of this period in contemporary music? Did it leave any traces in mainstream – or not so mainstream – culture or thinking in Britain or the States?
Well, I hear it in all sorts of unexpected places -- the weirder side of Kate Bush, the pulverising, organic avant rock of late Talk Talk, even the uncanny electronic reveries of Boards of Canada. But this is not too much about the folk tradition any more, more a shared set of sensibilities that tap into the complex British relationship with the landscape, with memory and nostalgia, the constant longing to reconnect with a more innocent age. 
Interestingly, the musicians who I find most convincingly replicate the sound world of classic folk-rock tend to be Americans -- Joanna Newson, Devendra Banhart, Espers, Matt Valentine's various projects... There seems to be an empathy in musical terms there – whereas it's hard to find current British folk music that doesn't sound trite, but which preserves some of the mystery, the occult presences that the best folk contains. 

Making "Winter's Bone" a Reality

ONE of the best films of 2010 was Winter's Bone, a kind of little movie that could which ended up with an Oscar nomination for star Jennifer Lawrence and her very tough performance as a determined Ozarks girl. (The actress just showed up in various states of undress in the latest GQ.)

Tonight the wonderful country-folk band that plays throughout the film performs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as part of a national tour.

It's easy to forget that this movie came close to not happening at all; it was largely due to the determination of its director and producers -- and some good luck -- that it saw the light of day. Here, in an exclusive for The Misread City, is how it happened. 

Much of the praise that greeted Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik’s lean, mean tale of a determined girl on the trail of her reckless father – focused on its setting in Missouri’s poor, isolated Ozark Mountains: This was not the kind of film Hollywood is often accused of making, in which a film crew condescends to or caricatures a region far from Brentwood or the Upper West Side.

“The last thing we wanted to be,” says producer Alix Madigan-Yorkin, “were tourists dropped into the Ozarks. Every aspect of the life was really well observed before the production.”

Part of what led to the nuanced treatment of the setting, oddly, was the long uphill climb to financing. “The fact that we couldn’t find funding for three years,” says Anne Rosellini, both a writer and a producer on the project, “was our best friend.”

As the New York-based filmmakers – who had come together over their love of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone novella and the subsequent scripts -- waited for this or that source to come through, “We kept going down to the Ozarks to do research – with our d.p., bringing back look books,” that captured the region’s cabins, ponds and hillsides, and the beauty that survived the poverty and ravages of crystal meth.

“If this thing was going to convey some tone and flavor,” says Granik, “we needed to get our asses down there. And to marry the screenplay to lived reality. Find a house, a school, that [heroine] Ree would really inhabit.” There was no way to rush it."

“We were able to take a really deep look,” Rosellini continues. “And we shot the film on location, on people’s private land – that took years to line up. Two New York women can’t just show up and do what we did.”

Winter’s Bone has also drawn enormous acclaim for Jennifer Lawrence’s staring role. The Louisville native plays the implacable teenage girl who marches over fences and across frozen ground, defying violent neighbors in an effort to track down her father, who is wanted on bond and quite possibly dead. This aspect of the film, too, would have turned out very differently if its funding path had been more conventional.

“We went through the standard way of trying to get this off the ground,“ Madigan-Yorkin says of the early stages of development. “Trying to attract an actor who could draw funding.” One early potential funder, “was pushing us toward names that were more familiar.”

When expected financing fell through, on Halloween 2007, it was devastating, says Granik. “This company eventually said, ‘We’ll lose our shirt.’ It was truly dreary at the end.” She felt such a sting at her American story being rejected by American financiers that she wished she could flee to Europe. “You feel like one of those disenfranchised jazz musicians. We felt throttled down.” 

But the financing they eventually landed – which was modest -- offered a major advantage: “We could cast who we wanted, Madigan-Yorkin says. ” And for the viewer, “You could disappear into the film: Actors faces and names weren’t jumping out at you.”

By the time $2 million in funding came through – mostly from a group of New York based private investors – the team was ready to make the film their own way.

The resulting film developed significant buzz after its first Sundance screening, attracting Roadside Attractions to distribute and winning the Grand Jury Prize.

Winter’s Bone – which was on the regional film festival circuit for months -- also won something that may be more valuable, Madigan-Yorkin says. “This earned most of its money in the heartland. The people in Missouri, where we shot it, really embraced it. Usually you make your money in the standard art house circuit,” in big cities on the coasts.

Rosellini credits that resonance to the respect they showed that setting and the time they had to sink into it. “You get financing from a production company and you don’t get the luxury of that kind of research,” she says. “If Debra and I could have been in development forever… That’s the most fun time. In this case there was no one to tell us no.”

“If we’d gotten the funding earlier – and we were pretty far down the path with someone – who knows.”

Monday, June 6, 2011

Downtown LA Bookstore for Sale

JUST shy of five years ago, I went to visit a sharp new bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. It arrived at a time when downtown, and particularly the Old Bank district, seemed to be sparking: Pete's had opened recently, and a video store and (if memory serves) good new Vietnamese place were a few steps away.

The sudden appearance of Metropolis Books startled so many locals that some thought it was a movie set.

The shop's owner seemed very sincere about the endeavor, and the stock was on the small side, but well put together. I think I bought my beloved copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas that day and still have the store's bookmark.

Here is the 2006 LA Times story I wrote on the place and its hopeful future.

Well, all good things come to an end, and bookstores in Southern California have been ending a lot recently. LA Observed reports today that the place is for sale.


Friday, June 3, 2011

New Music Festival in Venice

PLEASE NOTE: This is a post that went up last month; Blogger has misdated it. Trying to fix. Don't go to First Lutheran this weekend unless your aim is to praise the Lord.

The Calder Quartet
THIS Saturday sees two programs of contemporary music, by composers well known and obscure, that tries to take the measure of the classical scene in 21st century Los Angeles. It's called Hear Now and includes solo performers and the Eclipse, Lyris and Calder Quartets.

I spoke to Hugh Levick, both the organizer of the festival and one of the composers -- he's up alongside more famous names, among them Thomas Ades and Esa-Pekka Salonen -- whose work will be performed at the First Lutheran Church of Venice.

First Lutheran
As a young man, Levick earned a writing degree at the University of Iowa and headed to Paris to write a novel, but his interest in jazz saxophone and its furthest edges brought him back to music. He's a guy inspired equally by Kafka, Coltrane and Walter Benjamin.

HERE is my brief piece on his work and influences.

MOCA's "Art in the Streets"

THE other day I belatedly made it over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for its celebrated -- and blockbuster -- Art in the Streets show. I can't remember longer lines for a museum show; maybe Murakami or something.

Overall, this seemed to me a strong and engaging show. If anything it was perhaps too large and complete, in its commandeering of the entire Geffen Contemporary space and aiming to tell the history of graffiti, skateboard culture, tagging, hip hop and related phenomenon from the early '70s to the present. (As you'd hope from a show at a Los Angeles museum, the West Coast was not entirely overlooked, as it sometimes is in histories of contemporary art. But see below.)

The volume at times was overwhelming, with some parts verging on theme park, but mostly this was a well balanced and at times exciting show. I especially enjoyed the display of schooled artists inspired by street art -- the Juxtapoz crowd -- which included Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen. (Two of California's greatest artists of my generation; LACMA, during an earlier regime, both commissioned and later destroyed some of their work.)

So with all this popular, rad, exuberant and accessible street art, why do I feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing? Part of it is that I'm smelling the acrid scene of hype. LA Times critic Christopher Knight got at some of my misgivings in an provocative essay that I fear will be overlooked because of its appearance on Memorial Day weekend.

His Sunday essay argues that MOCA's claims that street art is "the most influential art movement since Pop" is "overblown." Here's Knight: 

"Art in the Streets" cites global reach, including London; São Paolo, Brazil; Athens; and Tokyo, as evidence. (Sixty artists are surveyed.) Since the 1970s, however, the deepest impact on art culture has come from Conceptual art, not graffiti.

Conceptualism is the primary lingua franca of art today — like it or not, and for good or ill. 

Knight has other problems with the show, including some artists he considers overlooked (I wrote about LA artist Gajin Fujita hereand an issue familiar to West Coast culture vultures:

Mostly MOCA tells a mythic tale in which graffiti, an Expressionist art form, is largely born in Manhattan, spreads across the country and finally envelopes the world. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it replays New York School legend, long since discredited, about Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1940s. 

Another sour note: We've all been complaining for years that museums build their exhibits around their gift shops; British street artist Banksy even has a film called Exit Through the Gift Shop

But this may be the first show I've seen in a long time -- and I've been going to big exhibits in London, New York, D.C. and LA for more than 20 years -- where you are basically forbidden to go into the gift shop. At least, that's the way it seemed when my wife and son walked into the museum store and I, lagging along by a few feet so I could reed a wall label, was kept out because the shop had reached capacity. Soon a substantial line had built up, and the museum lost both my loyalty and the $20 or $30 I might have spent on a book. (If the guard had been less rude it would have pissed me off less.)

In conclusion, despite some mixed feelings about the genre and the exhibit itself, this show did a lot to win me over. Knight excepted, I don't seem to be alone here. My four-year-old son -- who is by now all too familiar with museum shows -- reclined on the bean-bag chairs in the theater showing Spike Jonze's inventive skateboard videos and offered, "Dis is da life!!"

And who can argue with that?