Culture To Go
Elvis Costello and Bill Frisell
Deep Dead Blue
Warner Bros./Nonesuch (import)
In this seven-song concert, recorded this summer, Costello teams with guitarist Bill Frisell, a certified instructor at the John Zorn/Knitting Factory Institute of Swingless Jazz. Both Costello and Frisell have tackled the American songbook in recent years: Costello on the Kojak Variety and Frisell on the brilliant Have a Little Faith, where the guitarist covered songs from early American avant-gardist Charles Ives through Madonna. The two connect here over Charles Mingus's "Weird Nightmare" (originally from the Hal Willner tribute LP of the same name) and visit Lerner and Loewe's Gigi before closing with an original collaboration, the album's title track. Costello's compositions ("Love Field," "Poor Napoleon," "Baby Plays Around") could not be mistaken for popular highlights of his career, but what Deep Dead Blue mostly proves is that even the underappreciated orphans of his catalogue stand above most contemporary songwriting.
Frisell is on a short leash in the background, but he's up to his usual tricks with the volume pedal, wobbling and warbling behind Costello's quivering and crooning. Which reminds me that I'd like to punch whomever taught Elvis to "sing" (a talent first manifested on 1989's Spike and reaching heights of intolerability on The Juliet Letters). I am startled by his range, yes, and his voice is more expressive than it was in the bilious early years when I considered Costello only slightly less fallible than the pope. The ultimate question, then, is this: How can an album as good as Deep Dead Blue only serve to confirm that Costello's most germane work is well behind him? (Michael Tortorello)
Homely Girl, A Life and other stories
Miller once wrote about how taken he was with the fact that George Washington, Jefferson, and other founding fathers were deists who saw the world as a clock that God had wound once, then gracefully turned away from. Homely Girl, A Life includes his first fiction in many years, along with two previously published stories, "Fame" and "Fitter's Night," and it continues his lifelong labor of describing how people find themselves left to tick.
"Homely Girl" begins with its namesake's waking one morning to find her husband lying "heavier than usual"--that is, dead. What follows is a stream of thoughts that have occurred over the course of her life, during which we witness Janice's struggle to sync her Disraeli-like face with her sexual astuteness and and an equally wily body. For instance, "at parties she had many a time noticed how men coming up behind her were caught surprised when she turned to face them." Her understanding of the ironic juxtaposition of her staid face and her own sexual ardency allows her to see through popular ideologies of the day, as well through various lovers and family members.
"Fame" tells of a playwright struggling to maintain his spirit when he can't walk down a New York street without being recognized (a perhaps personally inspired story?); and in "Fitter's Night," Brooklyn Navy Yard shipfitter Tony Calabrese finds himself undertaking a potentially life-threatening job, for no reason other than to satisfy a previously unknown sense of dignity. Read together, this trilogy creates a random, and therefore accurate, sketch of human motivation. (Amanda Ferguson)
Soft Skull Press
Can a 24-hour copy shop symbolize the American Dream gone askew? Well, in Sander Hicks's off-off-Broadway play Cash Cow, the idea certainly takes on a menacing charm. This clever, bitter allegory quickly reduces the staff of Infinity Copies to livestock: beef (for company profits) and teats (for consumer nurturing). The 24-year-old Hicks (a former Kinko's employee--surprise!) is a rising star in NYC's theater scene, having written and produced two original installments for St. Mark's Studio theater. And while Cash Cow is often burdened with his awkward Patti Smith imitations, the play eventually offers some poignant--and dare I say it--brilliant sequences.
Most of these center around Allen, a beatific 35-year-old copy machine whiz who hovers like an otherworldly celeb among his twentysomething coworkers. This avid Alice Cooper fan winds up emceeing his own open-casket funeral and poetically detailing his afterlife, where he un-copies, de-collates, and "tears apart perfect bindings." In the play's startling finale, the staff cashes in Allen's paycheck for a BBQ steak dinner, which they demonically feed to the customers. This twisted feast offers a thrilling glimpse of Hicks's potential to move beyond sophomoric, anarchy-zine dialogue and craft human characters out of a collated and processed world he so clearly dreads. (Josh Feit)
Karl Taro Greenfeld
Japan's Next Generation
Greenfeld's sociological diatribe locates the warts on the smooth exterior of Japan's no-crime culture. Its population includes 17-year-old motorcycle thieves hot-wiring everything in sight, a porn star named Choco Bon-Bon searching for the "perfect tuna" female, and the notorious bosozoku (speed tribes) of juvenile delinquents racing around in fancy cars and hot-rod motorcycles, wreaking havoc on quiet Japanese society and aspiring to join the Yazuka mafia. On the flip side we see members of the elite, dedicated bookworms only until their acceptance into the prestigious Todai (University of Tokyo)--after which they slack off into a decadent life of self-serving luxury. This isn't the Japan we've heard about in the media.
Speed Tribes is cast as a series of fictional narratives based on true stories; it's impossible to tell where reality ends and fabrication begins. Which is too bad, really, since it misses the opportunity to stir up some true scandal. Hailed as "the Douglas Coupland of Japanese youth culture" by the L.A. Times Book Review (is this a compliment?), Greenfeld often seems to be searching for dirt where there appears to be none. But why not? To assume that all is well in the state of Japan, Inc. is as ludicrous as Newt's vision of America. Speed Tribes, like the work of Ryu Murakami and his young Japanese fiction-writing peers, delivers the seedy underside we've always craved. (Eric Dregni)
Paradigms in Progress: Life Beyond Economics
Henderson's 1981 Politics of the Solar Age lit up the landscape with an alternate vision of our possible future, countering the pie-in-the-sky optimism of the era's knee-jerk free marketeers. Paradigms continues her analysis of the failure of economic policy and theory; it's enriched with futurist observations on our current course, along with plenty of suggestions and prescriptions--a constituent noticeably missing from many forward-looking but fuzzy-headed books.
A director of the Worldwatch Institute, Henderson breaks down how standard economic models fail to account for such factors as long-term environmental costs, resource depletion, and social displacement costs. She illuminates the fallacy of the "invisible hand" of markets, explodes the myth that full employment is possible (the idea was based, after all, on a '50s economy where half the labor pool didn't actually work), and lays out the costs of our competitive, energy- and capital-intensive economic paradigm. As alternatives she suggests energy-efficient regionalization of industries, a more cooperative outlook, and a revisioning of economic statistics that value money movement and dysfunctional growth. (The cleanup costs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, for example, were added to the GNP. Nice job there, boys!)
By re-evaluating the true costs of our present system, and creating an economic model that comes closer to approximating the dynamism and chaos of a biological life form, Henderson asserts we can create an economics for a new and changing world, and we must: The 300-year-old system currently in service is slipping into obsolescence as we speak. (Chris Parker)
As you might suspect from the title, this straight-to-video curiosity is a sex romp all right (it stars teen confection Alicia Silverstone, before her star turn in last summer's Clueless), albeit one that also purportedly harbors Serious Intentions. Based on Robert Coover's landmark experimental short story, the babysitter of the title is not your typical protagonist, but rather a sort of a hub around which rotate the fantasies and frustrations of various males. There's the current boyfriend, Jack (glasses + letter jacket = Good Guy); Jack's former friend Mark (cigs + leather jacket = Trouble); Jimmy, the babysitter's prepubescent, Playboy-peeping charge; and Jimmy's lecherous father.
Coover's story is a literary channel-surf, darting among multiple points of view (including a constant spew from the TV) and sexual scenarios that are at first plausible, then increasingly perverse and preposterous. This effectively Cuisinarts the plot, eliminates reality, and implicates everyone as psychologically creepy (that is to say, human). Ferland's adaptation, however, isolates the babysitter as an angelic heroine (he even patronizingly grants her a name in the end), while hypocritically exploiting Silverstone's nubile allure. (The fantasy scenes are introduced with sledgehammer cues like "Can you imagine that?" or "I don't even know what's real anymore!") Tellingly, the babysitter's own daydreams are omitted from the film: A curiosity about men's underwear and a dislike of squalling infants are apparently too hot to handle. I can only hope the TV-movie quality music was intended mockingly. What could have been an obscure experimental film is destined to become an obscure rental on the order of Johnny Be Good, with Uma Thurman: It'll get picked up mostly for the novelty of seeing a currently reigning babe in her more humble days. (Julie Caniglia)
Warner Home Video
I saw the first Batman at a drive-in; my sole memory of the film is of a screen so relentlessly dark that I walked into a truck on the way to the bathroom. Of the second, I remember wishing Tim Burton had ditched the winged wonder for a certain raunchy feline. So no one around my house was rushing out to see Batman 3--especially since Burton's reins had been taken up by the same hands that set St. Elmo's Fire. The rather overwrought media vitriol directed at Joel Schumacher's costly cartoon did make me curious, however, as did critic Amy Taubin's suggestion that this abrupt dismissal had much to do with Batman Forever's campy aesthetic.
Certainly, there's plenty here to get the defensive heterosexual ego squirming--and not just because Robin finally shows up. From our heroes' absurdly muscled outfits and bike fixations to the Riddler's diva sequins and spotlights, the movie owes a visual debt to throbbing disco dens past and present. Many critics damned Val Kilmer's Batman as "expressionless" (like Michael Keaton boasted more than a whimsical eyebrow?), when I suspect they were more worried about those soft, pillowy lips and the emasculations he suffers from both the pushy Chase (Nicole Kidman) and the extremely butched-out Robin (Chris O'Donnell). Finally, in a film full of split personalities, Jim Carrey's elastic villain asks the scariest riddle: What looks male, moves female, and knows what color suits a "summer"? Answer me that, and you'll see why the Riddler gets the last laugh. Not a great movie (neither were the first two), but definitely not a "confusing," "boring," or "pointless" one. (Terri Sutton)
Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?
In 1947 a flying saucer crash-landed in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. Of this we can be certain, because the government denies it. Our masters in Washington, for sinister reasons of their own, do not wish us to know that visitors from outer space are incompetent pilots. And they will stop at nothing to conceal the truth. How, then, should we explain the appearance of this program on a highly publicized Fox Network special and its release on video just a few weeks later? Sure, extraterrestrials and other species of weirdness figure into a large number of current TV shows, but all those shows--except, of course, The X-Files--are mere fantasy.
Alien Autopsy cannot be so easily dismissed. This documentary, hosted by an actor with a beard, examines a mysterious film that recently surfaced in England. The film purports to be the record of an autopsy performed on a space alien who died in the Roswell tragedy, and nobody has been able to prove that it's a hoax. Well, where's the cover-up? Has the government suddenly gone crazy? The answer is yes--crazy like a fox. Take a close look at the evidence. Externally, the alien is a funhouse-mirror version of a human being; internally, the organs are completely different from ours. Does that make sense to you? Here's my theory: The government has given up trying to convince us that aliens are good pilots. Now they want us to believe that aliens simply do not exist. Diabolically clever, eh? Think about it. (Steve Schroer)
The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl
Is Leni Riefenstahl wonderful or horrible? Was her aesthetic that of a radically unfettered female gaze, or was it truly fascistic, as evidenced by Triumph of the Will (pictured), the film of the Nazi 1934 Party Congress? Is her work--which includes an epic on the 1936 Munich Olympics (Olympiad), and numerous photo studies of African tribes--a glorification of oppressive maleness, as her detractors contend? Or was she simply brave enough to explore the sexiness of power, only by accident gaining the ardent admiration of Hitler?
"To be sorry is not adequate," says the eccentric artist-cum-villain, referring to her undeniable (though, she claims unintentional) advancement of Nazism. Documentarian Ray Muller tries to balance Riefenstahl's charisma with a running critique: Pre-war propaganda is one thing, but using Gypsies from a concentration camp as film extras in a pinch? Unfortunately, his tactics frequently backfire. Turning some chatty tête-à-têtes into sloppy interrogations, or using a softspeak voice-over like a female version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal can't compete with the intensity of Riefenstahl's films nor the feisty 90-year-old's own eloquent animism. The infectious excitement she conveys is not undercut by Muller's sly revelation of her irascible attempts to put the final spin on her own legacy by commandeering this very film, trying to set up shots that portray her most favorably. Even though Muller's underwater ending--Riefenstahl photographing sea life--bespeaks a final retreat from judgment, the moral questions linger nonetheless. Rarely is the relationship between life and art so seductively posed. (Laura Sinagra)
Arto Lindsay Trio
Knitting Factory Works
Arto Lindsay is a kind of renaissance doodler of the avant-experimental/weirdo wing of contemporary music. An American who grew up in northeastern Brazil with Sgt. Pepper going in one ear and the wild world of '60s Brazilian pop-folk into the other, Lindsay landed among the no-wave cognoscenti at the height of punk madness and just said No New York with his band DNA's fiercely atonal noise candy. Later he conjured up all-star noise-funk with Anton Fier in the Golden Palominos, and funk/samba/pop/anarchic hybrids with the Ambitious Lovers.
Aggregates 1-26 revisits some of this same territory. Much of it's surprisingly accessible, even catchy, with recognizable song structures and melodies. Other cuts seem like disjointed sketches from a sonic notebook: some fascinating, some self-indulgent, but rarely boring. That's due in part to the solid work of bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Dougie Bowne, who provide a foundation for Lindsay's exotic forays. Although there are no specific references to Lindsay's Brazilian roots, they constantly infiltrate his work because of the primacy of his rhythms--even the vocals are rhythmic devices.
On the opening cut, "Be Great," a series of compact fusillades from Bowne are echoed by similarly brief, staccato torrents of lyrics from Lindsay, creating a surging, sexy tension. The rest of Aggregates moves from funk-noise raves like "Imbue" to tidal waves of distorted grunge guitar to short bursts of obtuse tedium. Nothing here blows the lid off quantum mechanics or anything, but as a whole these 26 aggregates create a cohesive tension that's as intriguing as it is subversive. (Rick Mason)
Although the target audience may not exactly be a wide demographic, Anthrax is the world's best thrash-metal band for self-aware losers. The macho protagonists populating Stomp 442 are too terrified to preen; they know they're getting old, fucking over their few good friends and lovers, reaching out for help a split-second too late and then loathing themselves for their vulnerability. The current crop of punk revivalists should only be this honest.
Musically, despite abandoning hip-hop trimmings and deploying a patchwork of guest guitarists to replace the departed Danny Spitz, this is the most riveting Anthrax CD yet. While Pantera's Dimebag Darrell is the most renowned of the rented axemen, it's band friend Paul Crook who emerges with the most taut, memorable solos, fueling a quicksilver sludge that, as always, is superbly driven by drummer/songwriter Charlie Benante. Using producers The Butcher Brothers (Urge Overkill, Cypress Hill) was another inspired choice, as they provide just the right mix of audio separation and murky density. Last but not least, vocalist John Bush has settled in on his second record with the band, taking the choruses into overdrive with shrieks that don't have to sacrifice their snarling bottom tone. This is a key virtue in a band that demands a lack of musical self-pity as their songs' narrators bellow and cry into their beers.
Like all the great metal groups, the blues are at the core of Anthrax's music and philosophy. Right now, their relationship with those roots is less florid than what Metallica has churned out, less pretentious than Megadeth, and less retro than AC/DC. This is music that dares to look in the mirror and flinch in all the right directions. (Britt Robson)
The publicity photos alone--five pouty young Londoners in slick suits, shaggy haircuts and eyeliner--are enough to set even lightweight American indie devotees running the other way. That's unfortunate, because Menswe@r are a perfect aural antidote to alterna-nobodies like CIV and Letters to Cleo, and have the delicious gall to christen their debut Nuisance. The boys (at 24, debonair vocalist Johnny Dean is the eldest member) signed to a major label after only a handful of gigs and no demo (natch). Surprisingly, Menswe@r manage to turn a potentially obnoxious dud into one of 1995's true British firecrackers.
As for influence-spotting, "Daydreamer" mixes the spiky guitar noise of Wire with the keyboard blips of Roxy Music's "Virginia Plain," for instance, while the ghost of Adam and the Ants haunts the corners on "125 West 3rd Street;" we'll wish you happy hunting for the others. England's newest cover boys also keep most songs under a charming three minutes, and restrict lyrical concerns to sex, drugs, and fame (you were expecting something else?). But in avoiding the guitar histrionics that often mar Oasis tunes and the music-hall smarm that made such a mess of Blur's latest, Menswe@r are poised to kick the door in on a generation of music fans weaned on 120-Minutes. Too bad that Yankee snobbery will most likely stop them in their pretty little tracks. (Matt Keppel)
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