Randy Newman's Faust
It's probably been a decade, maybe two, since Randy Newman was remotely current musically. Subtle satiric lyrics and melodic complexity have not been the stuff of platinum records in recent years, and this is, after all, a man who composed a gorgeous song ("Sail Away") about the splendor of the Atlantic coast as seen from a slave ship. As the statute of limitations passes for his involvement in the famously unpopular televised police musical, Cop Rock, Newman releases a musical-theater update of Goethe's Faust, another far-out project bound, unfortunately, to fall on deaf ears.
Here, God and the Devil--a little bored, a little restless--make a wager on the soul of Notre Dame freshman Henry Faust. Should Lucifer corrupt him, the dark angel regains a seat in heaven. The casting seems too clever to be true. James Taylor plays the voice of God. Don Henley plays Faust, a petulant, self-involved creep. Elton John plays an overwrought angel. Yes, Yes, Yes. Filling out the cast are Newman as the Devil, and Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt as love interests Margaret and Martha. About half the songs feature Newman's familiar New Orleans piano shuffle; the other half are split between ballads and more complex arrangements influenced by his film scores. They grow on you. While the lyrics are a little toothless by Newman standards, the liner notes, in which he has his way synopsizing Goethe's plot ("the Lord's personnel resources are staggeringly comprehensive") are alone worth the price of the album. (Michael Tortorello)
Plenty of folks say that Gordon Lish--scrappy guru of modern letters and one-time fiction editor of Esquire--is mad. Bats. Loony-toon-toony. I can't really say, as I've never met the man (though I have on occasion, like so many others who write or write about fiction-with-a-pulse, gotten a hastily scrawled note from him about something done well or not). But I can say I'm happy to rediscover The Quarterly, a literary journal edited and published by Lish which had 25 volumes issued by Random House until corporate wisdom sent its firecracker prose and poetry packing a few years back.
With five issues published by the small-but-illustrious Gutter Press of Toronto--a city which is to cutting-edge lit these days what Seattle once was to rock & roll--The Quarterly looks better than ever. It's beautifully wrapped by überbookdesigner Chip Kidd, and full of flying id and sleeping superego. Some names you'll recognize--Barry Hannah, Dawn Raffel--but most are new explorers, whose short-short stories, poems, linguistic freeplay, and cartoons fit together here as if part of a single, collective jump-cut text-dream. The insider rants about the lit world may be lost on some (the cover epigram on issue #30 brands Esquire "the Tikkun of tits and ass!"). But the cryptic, paranoid, comic and finally beautiful spirit of Q, channeled by Lish's laser-guided aesthetic, captures the essence of modern American culture better than any literary mag I know. Which means, sure, it's got some madness going on. You know a good doctor? (50 Baldwin St., #100, Toronto, Ontario, M5T IL4; 416-977-7187) (Will Hermes)
The spittle-spotted tantrums of angry white males over the F-word (feminism, that is) ain't nothing compared to the introspective migraines the women at Maxine seem to be experiencing. Their chicks-to-power zine wrestles with the thorny girl-on-girl dynamics of feminism '95 and offers up painful essays (losing your best girlfriend to a boy), morose fiction (heroine fends off deluded jocks drunk on Penthouse Forum), and locker-room talk ("he has a dick this big ... It tilted to the side and it was that kinda purple color, you know?").
Touting itself as a response to the MTV-style commodification of subversive young gals, Maxine's mission statement asks, "How is it that the word grrrl has quickly turned into shorthand for a target market of young fun angry women and has wiped out discussion about the complicated reality? Why does dialogue on culture, gender, sexuality and feminism stop with flashy signifiers?"
Provocative and sophisticated questions like these set the tone for this literate, elegantly designed zine. Features include a pensive article by a female staffer at Playboy; an online discussion among butch and femme dykes, whose awkward grad-school headiness ("Perhaps the containment occurs within the signification") fortunately gets doused by a few livelier participants; and my favorite piece, a citation of 20 years' worth of rad culture (glam rock, indie rock, Diamanda Galas, sex-toy emporiums, Susie Bright, and Lisa Suckdog, for example) as grounds for trashing Camille Paglia. A notable debut. (send $3 to Maxine at 2025 W. Augusta, Chicago, IL 60622; e-mail: MaxineChi@aol.com) (Josh Feit)
Chermayeff, David & Richardson
RuPaul's finally legit as a supermodel with his exclusive contract for MAC cosmetics, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert won an Oscar for ostrich feathers and bell bottoms, and transvestites dishing coast-to-coast on talk shows are de rigueur. It's no wonder any John, Wesley or Patrick thinks he can put on a dress and become a drag queen. Welcome to the mainstream, honey--what took you so long? So now comes Drag Diaries, a full-on, coffee-table how-to book for all would-be glamour gals. What's between the covers here aren't really true diary entries, but carefully edited interviews masquerading as diary-like entries. These stories of artists and performers forging a brave new world for themselves paint a lively portrait of the happy coexistence of the masculine and feminine that lie within us all.
Thankfully, the overpublicized likes of Lypsinka, Holly Woodlawn and Quentin Crisp are balanced with the equally fab though strangely lesser-known Mathu & Zaldy, Jem Jender and Joey Arias (however, the need for the remedial "insights" of Dille, the Belgian Divine will forever escape me). Of course there are omissions, some of the more egregious being that pistol Dame Edna Everidge, the hard-rocking Mistress Formika, and any drag queen who's working it in America's heartland. Still, these diaries deliver entertainment with a pleasantly high Vicarious Thrill Factor. And with the added bonuses of a drag reading list, filmography and shopping guide, it's enough to make you want to kick up your size 11 heels yourself. (Andrew Peterson)
Too Soon To Tell
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
In a town that boasts "perhaps the most ridiculed newspaper in the country" (The Strib, according to a recent New York Times article), this book is a valuable opportunity for us non-transplanted Midwesterners to get a sustained dose of a graceful and thoughtful--even literary--syndicated columnist. In Too Soon To Tell's 94 essays, culled from five years' worth of work, Trillin makes Mike Royko look like a snot-nosed tee-ball player, and Ellen Goodman like a tongue-tied charwoman. Essays about butchering a monkfish, or about a man who stayed in his room for 20 years after his parents refused to buy him a motorcycle, show Trillin at his creative best, taking a story devoid of any news value and pumping life into it with light-handed and intelligent prose.
Even though his formula can wear thin (take one weird news story, couple the wife's wry response with a self-deprecating schtick, wrap it all up with a strained metaphor foreshadowed in the opening hook), there are some pithy jewels here: Trillin's really at his witty best when he's sinking his teeth into some beefy political conceit or moral hypocrisy. It's especially enjoyable when he takes what appears to be a goofy, shallow topic--the rise of casual names in the White House, for instance, beginning with Jimmy Carter--and ends up unpacking the national psyche in under a thousand words. (Hans Eisenbeis)
Dance Me Outside
I wouldn't even attempt to explain why so many coming-of-age movies mix up sex and death--Kids being only the most recent and explicit. The sprawled female body in Bruce McDonald's Canadian rez tale, then, comes as no surprise; what's intriguing is the way Dance Me Outside--based on a book by W.P. Kinsella--uses the murder to ask unexpected questions about both male-female and white-Indian relations. Baby-faced teen Silas (Ryan Rajendra Black) is going to mechanics' school with his goofy buddy Frank Fencepost (Adam Beach) if they can only finish the application, which requires them to write a story about themselves. But nothing seems noteworthy. Nothing ever seems to change, not even Silas's longtime peaceful groove with girlfriend Sadie (Jennifer Podemski).
Then Silas's sister returns with a priggish white husband, the same day her hunky Indian ex-lover gets out of jail. And Silas and Frank find the dead body of one of Sadie's best friends. This murder mystery is no whodunnit--a scummy white lout gets off with a two-year manslaughter sentence--but a whowilldoit: Who will avenge this white-on-red, male-on-female crime? Part of the answer has to do with Silas writing his story (or is that "history"?). Part of it has to do with Sadie rewriting her story (history becomes herstory). Along the way, the white husband actually proves himself plucky, if not potent, in a mischievous scene tweaking white expectations of Indians and vice versa.
Dance Me Outside sometimes sings, sometimes stumbles on its low-budget awkwardness. In its wily embrace of context--racial, sexual, historical--Dance Me Outside makes me rethink recent, more hyped teen cinematic rites, from River's Edge and Heathers to Kids. What is the vacuity, the affectlessness that haunts those white adolescent killers and victims? Is it that catchall crutch, alienation, or something even more familiar--the willful ignorance of history, disguised as innocence? (Terri Sutton)
Hallmark Home Entertainment
Any contemporary black-and-white film must be suspected of harboring serious artistic intentions. Thus I am pleased to report that Suture, though not entirely innocent of the charge, is kind of fun to watch. This is one art film with a substantial plot. Vincent, a nasty specimen of the idle rich, has killed his rich and nasty father. While the police are closing in, Vincent discovers that he has a half-brother, a working stiff named Clay, who looks exactly like him. So he concocts a scheme: he will blow up his own car, with Clay in it; and everybody will assume that he, Vincent, is the corpse, because nobody knows of Clay's existence. Clay, however, survives the explosion. Now Vincent's life--his lucre, social standing, and murder rap--belongs to Clay, who's suffering from amnesia.
Classic scaffolding for a film noir, but there's a twist in the presentation as well as the plot. The attentive viewer will not fail to notice that Vincent is played by a white actor (Michael Harris), whereas Clay is played by a black actor (Dennis Haysbert). And the script never acknowledges this screaming incongruity: Vincent and Clay see each other as virtual twins, and the other characters take Clay for Vincent at face value. Aha! you think. It's a movie about race! Well, what makes Suture provocative is that it adamantly refuses to relate the actors' difference to the racial politics of 1990s America, focusing instead on the slipperiness of personal identity. If post-multiculturalism is coming, then Suture may be a harbinger. (Steve Schroer)
It's been a few years since L.A. burned, and almost as long since anyone in Hollywood seemed to care. In Floundering, however, Peter McCarthy--writer and/or producer of Repo Man, Tapeheads, and Sid and Nancy--resuscitates the memory of this decade's finest urban hours. John (the estimable James LeGros from Drugstore Cowboy and My New Gun) is plagued by a post-riot malaise. He can't sleep at night. His brother Jimmy needs three grand for drug treatment. The IRS demands four grand in back-taxes. His casual-sex buddy is not being true. And L.A., with its unrepentant police chief, roving homeless recyclers, and revolutionary crackheads, is teetering on the brink of chaos, as always. It's Falling Down for lefties.
Voice-overs are the last refuge of the badly scripted and the under-funded, but McCarthy (writer, director, producer, editor) keeps Floundering from doing just that with his odd pacing and droll fantasy sequences (think Johnny Suede with a conscience). Ethan Hawke, Steve Buscemi and John Cusack make cameo appearances; look and listen for a flock of L.A. punks as well. For all this, it's anyone's guess as to where Harry Dean Stanton and the seemingly omnipresent Eric Stoltz are. As if the film's moral has not become clear enough in the preceding 97 minutes, an epigram from Thomas Jefferson scrolls before the credits: "The Tree of Liberty must be watered with blood every twenty years." Whether renting indie noodlings like this can make the next White Panthers out of the post-collegiate cinéaste set remains unknown. (Michael Tortorello)
What Athens was to R.E.M., Wichita was to The Embarrassment--who by all rights should have gone as far as those inaugural superstars of indie rock. I remember the implication that their unglamorous hometown was a part of their cachet back in 1983, when a musichead friend urgently recommended their swan song, Death Travels West. That idea of regionalism as being crucial to an indie band's identity comes through more clearly, and endearingly, on The Embarrassment's Heyday, a 43-song CD from Bar None's "Retro-Future Series," intended to give great but overlooked bands their due (kind of an small-label twist on K-Tel). It's as if the heartland roots of these guys--who may have been somewhat dorky, but were all the more sarcastically saucy for it--tempered the caustic sound of bands like Gang of Four and Wire and then put their own twist on it.
An early song like "Sex Drive" (sex on the cruise strip, in a bus, traveling with the wife) is fueled by a crudely spastic adolescent energy, and "Sexy Singer Girl" revels in a fantasy most people would be, well, embarrassed by: the notion of being that "special someone" picked out of the crowd by a rock star ("I know the house is full and I know she's onto me, she's comin' on to me"). "D-Rings" and "(I'm A) Don Juan" are part of a batch of all-around more sophisticated songs in which they take their lessons in dissonance and bristly guitar from Gang of Four to heart, but "Drive Me To The Park," one of my all-time favorite songs, is pure Embarrassment: a heady ode to nothing more than the first great day after winter, rushed through with infectious abandon. Another high moment comes with a goof on Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," complete with bad falsetto. As the later material begins showing glints of genuine pop polish, Heyday winds up as a sigh of indie rock nostalgia for what could have been. (Julie Canigia)
The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics 1925-1948, Vol. 1 & 2
It would seem that world music recording in the West began with earnest ethnomusicologists schlepping portable reel-to-reels around the world on their backs, making long-winded dissertation soundtracks that--academic/historic value aside--would barely tip the needle on the average listener's pleasure scale. Thankfully other, perhaps more crass preservationists were also at work during the first half of this century, entrepreneurs who simply hustled international artists in front of a microphone in hopes of capturing a fresh two minutes-and-change-worth of song that might move a few thousand copies on 78.
The Secret Museum collects 46 examples of the latter from every corner of the planet--including Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean--and the pleasure quotient is mighty high throughout its two volumes. For example, check "Fiorassio," the startling solo recording by Effisio Melis, a master of the ancient triple pipe of his homeland Sardinia who plays with such speed and respiratory muscle it might've given Charlie Parker pause. There are also plenty of soulful vocal pieces, such as the breathtaking "Alegrías" by flamenco diva Pastora Pavón, or "Techudo Techudiessa," a meditation on home by Russian gypsy singer Savelli Walevich, recorded in 1928 in the same Camden, New Jersey studio where the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers sang about their own humble roots.
The songs on Secret Museum are all about tradition, but they're also pop music made for the marketplace, focused and shaped for maximum impact in minimal time in ways that the musicians' ancestors might not have understood or necessarily approved of. But this was the future, so to speak, and there is way too much authentic joy in these well-preserved grooves to worry the matter much. (Will Hermes)
The Presidents of the
United States of America
My first college crush was a menacingly tall, pale, ebony-haired, and sneeringly clever bastard who nailed baby dolls to his wall, quoted Sam Shepard, and balanced his reverence for Jello Biafra with just enough irony to make it jiggle. When he predicted the Beastie Boys' rise to power, we puzzled. When he assured us of the coming scenester status of Seattle, we rolled our eyes. But when he gave us all tapes of his friends' basement band, The Dukes O' Pop, we got religion. These guys were a brainbox of spillover pop energy that way prefigured the present formal resurgence. Conjurer Chris Ballew's brave geek voice and absurdist sensibility had us dubbing off copies of tunes that lyrically raided the Brady Bunch's "Tiki God" episode, green Keds and Little Foxes with equal fervor.
And where are they now? They've been reincarnated into The Presidents of the United States of America, and are hammering you with a tune called "Lump" (rumored to be about Courtney, but what song isn't these days?). If you listen to Rev-105 or The Edge, by now you either love or despise it. Trust me, they might seem lame, but they're really way ahead of us, creating a world where faking the funk, rhyming "brain" with "insane," sliding into insulting drawls, writing songs with unabashedly silly lyrics (Five thousand fishies rockin' really really really hard/ nobody taught them how!), and getting faux-sensitive ("You seem cool, for a naked chick in a booth") is the coolest and most profound way to fly. We just don't know it yet. The Presidents' eponymy is gonna be worth something someday, and even if I'm wrong, everybody's got somethin' to hide; why not this? (Laura Sinagra)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.