Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Prairie Wind

I have been loathe to provide too much context for my writeups for "Journey Through the Past," trying to evaluate the albums in a vacuum (to the extent that it's possible) and appreciate them for their own, self-contained merits. But its hard not to acknowledge that Neil had had surgery for an aneurysm around the time he recorded Prairie Wind. This fact adds a strong poignancy to what is the defining album of his reflective, nostalgic Old Man period.

Neil had been exploring the themes of childhood, memory, family and old age in several of his previous album, but his new found sense of mortality allowed him to approach them in a deeper, more touching, perhaps more philosophical manner than before. Both "Far From Home" and the title song touch on his youth in Canada, as he requests that we "bury him out on the prairie" when he's gone. Are You Passionate? had two songs about his daughter leaving home, but this album has his best: Here For You, all the more touching for its indications of Neil learning to let go ("Yes, I miss you/But I never want to hold you down"). A darker expression of letting go can be found on "Falling Off the Face of the Earth," and I think its title sums up its tone pretty well. It's hard to pick a favorite song on an album this excellent, but I might go for "It's a Dream," a beautiful and haunting ballad about the elusive nature of the past ("It's only a dream/Just a memory without anywhere to stay").

That Prairie Wind is an unabashed folkie throwback to albums like Harvest, Comes a Time and Harvest Moon is appropriate to its atmosphere of reminiscence; Neil is reflecting on his past, and on his relevance in the modern world. It shares aesthetic and thematic similarities to Silver & Gold (which can almost be seen as something of a test run for this album), but Prairie Wind's naked, honest sentimentality and stronger, sturdier songwriting place it far above. Both albums deliberately recall to his classic, popular folk rock style, but Prairie Wind can stand tall with his classics as a great album.

The only real detraction from the album is "He Was the King," a silly, stupid tribute to Elvis that stands out as a lighthearted track on an album of deeply moving material. I don't mind him throwing a little levity into the mix, but the song is inconsequential to the degree that I forgot it existed before I heard it again. Also, it doesn't help my opinion of it that it clocks in at an obscenely bloated 6 minutes. Or that, as Chuck D memorably put it, Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.

Prairie Wind ends with "When God Made Me," perhaps the most plainly philosophical song in Neil Young's long, varied catalog. Its an attempt to tackle nothing less than the meaning of life, by pondering what his creator might have had in mind when he made him ("Was he thinking about my country/Or the color of my skin?/Was he thinking about my religion/And the way I worshiped him?"). Typically, this deep into a musician's career, i'ts not surprising if it seems like their glory days are far behind him. But here Neil is, at 60, putting out one of his personal bests.

Rating: A

Monday, June 28, 2010

Greendale (with Crazy Horse)

Greendale requires from me a bit of a personal, philosophical statement of my tastes before I can make any real criticisms. For me, the "music" on an album (that is to say, things like the melody, structure, "sound" or atmosphere, chord progression, and so on) will always be more important than the lyrics. That's not to say I don't appreciate good lyrics; preferably, a song should have both good music and lyrics. But if I'm honest, at the end of the day, I can forgive a pop song for having mediocre lyrics if its music moves me, and likewise a song with greatest lyrics in the world won't mean much to me if its flat and tuneless.

I have a certain degree of respect for what Neil did with Greendale. It's the closest he's come to doing a full-on concept album; it's lyrics tell a complicated story involving the citizens of the fictional town of Greendale, in particular the Green family and what happens to them when their junkie family member Jed kills a cop. The album is ambitious and multifaceted, with Neil often switching perspectives between a wide array of characters, even trying to adopt their voices in the lyrics. The story touches on broad themes important to Neil (environmentalism, media sensationalism, corporate corruption, and American life post-9/11, to name a few) while trying to maintain a solid, emotional core that's empathetic to its characters. I've never considered Neil much of a storyteller, and while this album has plenty of problems in that department, this is likely his best attempt at it.

Thing is, there is barely a song on here that I can simply enjoy as music. The music is at the behest of the lyrics, and Neil often settles for monotonous electric-blues riffs, endlessly repeated to give him ample time to tell his story via literal, sometimes rather unlyrical lyrics. The median song length is approx. 7 1/2 minutes, yet few of the songs build, change or climax in any meaningful way, their extended lengths determined solely by the words and not by any sonic concerns. There are few memorable melodies or riffs to be found; unlike a good musical, you won't find yourself humming any of the tunes after listening to Greendale. I find this at least mildly ironic, as Neil released a film of the same title, unseen by me, that was essentially a rock opera with the album as the soundtrack (I guess with a cast lipsynching to Neil's vocals).

Returning to Greendale nearly 7 years after dismissing it, I do appreciate it, even if I don't enjoy it, more than I did back in 2003. The lyrics, although sometimes awkward and not always successful at effectively or convincingly getting into the minds of the characters, do weave a complicated tapestry of themes, plot and ideas into a story that is slightly more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. I'd even go as far to say that it is occasionally a little poignant. And its not quite the musical dead zone I once considered it (although there's still not enough going on): "Bandit," the album's only acoustic track could work on its own terms as a song, and "Double E" actually builds to a rousing conclusion, as does the album's closer "Be the Rain."

Yet those are moments I was only able to pick out after repeat listenings. What I keep coming back to is the music, and it doesn't do much to move me. The things I have learned to appreciate about Greendale are primarily intellectual and not emotional, which is not enough for me. Unlike nearly every other album I've listened to for "Journey Through the Past," I felt actively hesitant every time I was about to put this one on; I wouldn't go so far as to call that feeling dread, just the recognition that I was never in the mood to listen to it, and probably never would be.

Rating: C -

Are You Passionate?

The closest comparison to Are You Passionate? in Neil Young's discography is This Note's For You, an album I don't particularly care for. Recorded with Booker T. & the M.G.'s as his backup band (except for one song, "Goin' Home," done with Crazy Horse), Passionate is as foolhardy a mixture of styles (in this case, soul and R&B mixed with Neil's signature rock 'n roll sound) as Note, and yet there is a charm in tone and strength of songwriting on this album that makes the experiment work.

Neil has at this point fully embraced his status as a senior citizen, writing wistful songs about family, love, and regrets... but done with more warmth and energy than on Silver & Gold. He has not one, but two songs that touch on his daughter growing up and moving out: opening track "You're My Girl," a bright and corny song about saying goodbye, and the heavier, less specfically focused, and more poignant "Differently," where Neil attempts to put a positive but bittersweet spin on the changes in his life ("When I'm away I call you up/And you don't seem to miss me that much/But I know our love is still there in your heart/Just differently"). The passage of time is an important theme in general on the album, like when he talks about "New buildings going up/Old buildings coming down" on "When I Hold You In My Arms." Another excellent track is "Mr. Disappointment," a serio-comic song where Neil personifies and confronts his regrets, apparently singing in different voices for himself and the titular character (on the chorus he answers "I'd like to shake your hand, Disappointment" with "Hey, how ya doin'?" on the backing vocals).

One of the nicest things about Are You Passionate? is that it's one of the more focused and crafted of his rock albums he had recorded in a good long while. The Crazy Horse albums of the 90's could feel unstructured and self-indulgent, stretching songs out to interminable length and featuring aimless, repetitive guitar solos. The songs on Passionate aren't short, per se, but find a nice groove, stick mainly to a solid sound (warm soul with a rock edge, heavy on backing vocals), and have strong, clear melodies with memorable lyrics. Even Neil's guitar playing is markedly different; frequently melodic and performed-as-written (as opposed to improvised), rarely used for the noodling and exploration that is typical of his style.

At the time, I believe the album was best known for it's one hard rock-ish cut, "Let's Roll," an earnest 9/11 tribute about the passengers on flight 93. I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. The main riff is catchy but repetitive. I respect that the song mainly shies away from rah-rah jingoist bullshit, and admit that it has a certain emotional impact... but I wonder if, not unlike Paul Greengrass's film United 93, the emotional impact is truly earned and not simply a by-product of my strong feelings about the actual event.

The worst parts of the album are when Neil's style clashes a little too much with the material. The biggest and most obvious complaint is song length. The songwriting itself seems more clean and straightforward than anything Neil had done in a while, so I'm not sure why he lets so many tracks float past the 5 or 6-minute mark, when 3 or 4 minutes probably would have sufficed. Especially in some cases when the song cycles back to the same guitar melody 2 or 3 times and repeats a chorus ad naseum; it can put a (slight) damper on otherwise excellent music. The exception is the closing track, "She's a Healer," a 9-minute jam that's the grooviest thing on the album, and which I significantly under-rated when the album originally came out 8 years ago.

My complaints are minor, really. If we do the math, of Are You Passionate?'s 11 tracks, 4 or 5 are excellent, another 3 or so are pretty good, and the rest, if mediocre, are passable. It's soul elements make it stand out (in a good way) from the rest of his discography while still sounding inescapably Neil, and it has some of his finest crafted tunes and most disciplined performances in a non-folk album since Freedom.

Rating: B +

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Road Rock Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives

The first sign that this isn't a superlative Neil Young live album on par with Live Rust or Weld is that Neil has never released a Vol. 2. Part of the problem is that, similar to Year of the Horse, there's a little too much fat (the 18-minute version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" doesn't really justify its length). But the real problem is that it lacks too many of the things that make the best Neil live albums so good.

Yes, there are a few pleasantly unexpected song choices ("Walk On" and "Peace of Mind"), an enjoyable previously unreleased song ("Fool For Your Love," which sounds vaguely Everybody's Rockin'-esque), and an absolutely great performance of "Tonight's the Night" (but, come on, this has to be like the 4th great live version of that song he's released).The performances collected here are more good than bad. What Neil doesn't do is deliver any reworked versions of classic songs, or pluck any overlooked or mediocre songs from his discography and imbue them with a new energy that makes you reconsider your original feelings about them. Worse, the version of "Motorcycle Mama" here makes me think I've probably overrated it previously, despite not being that crazy about it in the first place.

I still maybe have a moderately favorable opinion of most of Road Rock, but its biggest disappointment is its main event, an 8-minute version of "All Along the Watchtower" (done in the style of Jimi Hendrix's famous cover version, and not the Bob Dylan original) with The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde on guest vocals. On paper, that sounds like something I should absolutely love, but its sadly underwhelming. This past weekend, I listened to Hendrix's Are You Experienced? for the first time in years, and its obvious that his guitar style was hugely influential on Neil. Problem is, Neil is not a notably gifted guitarist on a technical level, while Hendrix had more chops than a kung fu fight in a butcher shop. I'm sure it was meant in tribute, but by playing a song so closely associated with a genius like Hendrix, it works to highlight Neil's weaknesses.

Rating: C +

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Silver & Gold

On the opening song of Silver & Gold, Young sings "good to see you again," and that may be something of a self-conscious nod on Neil's part to the album's deliberate return to his old folkie sound. After a decade where Neil frequently took his music to hard rock extremes, this is one of the most mellow records he's ever released. As with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Rust Never Sleeps, and Freedom, there often seems to be a sense of change or course-correction to the albums that Neil releases when entering a new decade. Silver & Gold is about Neil finally becoming an old man, and looking back on his life and music.

At its strongest, Silver & Gold is a beautiful and evocative as similarly laid back classics like Comes a Time or Harvest Moon. At its weakest, the album is too lethargic and, perhaps worse, naval-gazing. Neil's always been best at talking about himself (as opposed to, say, being more of a storyteller), but sometimes when he gets too specific he makes his music seem too self-serving. "Daddy Went Walkin'" rubs me the wrong way every time I hear it, not the least because, like George Carlin before me, it bothers me to hear a grown man refer to his father as "daddy." The song is simply Neil reminiscing about his dad without much of a point, and not to be a dick, but "I sure did love my pa!" is not a very compelling subject for a song. (There's also an unintended bit of comedy in its musical and tonal similarities to "Old King," a song from Harvest Moon about a dog Neil used to have.) Musically, I like the song "Buffalo Springfield Again," but the subject is a bit, um, literal, don't you think? And while nostalgia sells, I'm not sure its that interesting to hear a musician reminiscing about being rich and famous. (Also, since Buffalo Springfield's second album was already called Buffalo Springfield Again, I submit that the proper title for the song should be "Buffalo Springfield Again, Again.")

But I bitch too much, there's still a lot to like about this album. My favorite song is "The Great Divide," a delicate and slightly haunting song that touches the themes of change and regret in more abstract, poetic terms, a style Neil is better at. The other classic on here is "Red Sun," a song that sounds to me like Neil was attempting to write an Irish folk song. The entire album is similarly quiet and peaceful, but the best tracks tap into a fragile beauty that Neil had not much explored in the past decade.

Rating: B -. Inconsistent, but the best moments are classics that stand tall with his best work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Looking Forward (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

A few reasons why I prefer Looking Forward to American Dream, the previous CSNY album. 1) It's an actual folk-rock album this time, a throwback to their old sound and not a piece of overproduced 80's adult contemporary hackwork. 2) There are only 2 David Crosby songs, and neither contain the lyric "Like a fish out of water/Waiting for the mercy of the cat." 3) It's shorter (less than 45 minutes) and sweeter, with less of a sense of self-importance and more of a nostalgic tone (exactly the kind of tone a pointless reunion album should strike). 4) There are four Neil songs, and they are all worthwhile. 5) Although, frankly, just as corny as American Dream, the nostalgia and gentleness of much of the album make Looking Forward corny in a more charming way.

It's far from perfect. It suffers from the typical CSNY problem: outside of CS&N harmonizing well, it doesn't seem like there is much of a collaboration going on. It sounds like a compilation of B-sides from each member's solo material. CS&N all have their talents, but in my esteem Y towers so far above them that I'd rather just listen to one of his albums. I think the best CSNY compilation album would be called Young, Young, Young & Young and it would just be a collection of songs the group recorded that he wrote. Hell, if that existed, I bet I'd give it an "A."

Still, this is an improvement over their last album, even if it still sorta smells like a cash grab. CS&N each contribute some of their best material ("Stand and Be Counted," "Faith in Me," and "Heartland," respectively). Though the album is called Looking Forward, it's old school in sound and in mindset. I'm not sure they intended it, but occasionally the album is a touching portrait of their growing irrelevance and disconnection from modern times. Mostly it's kind of sweet, but I would not be doing my duty if I didn't single out Stills' "Seen Enough" as embarrassing, get-off-my-lawn rantings of an old fogey. Hearing him sing about "gigabyte meth freaks" who are "removed from reality by silicone diodes" would be funny if it didn't make him sound so much like Andy Rooney.

After a decade of mostly Crazy Horse and Horse-esque projects with only a few stray ventures into folk, this album shows Neil transitioning into his next (and perhaps final?) phase: Old Man Neil. Old Man Neil likes to wax nostalgic about his past, sing about his kids, mull over his regrets, write love songs about his wife, and talk about getting old. His best song here is the title track, a sweet and funny ballad where Neil says he's "not waiting for times to change" and jokes that he's "trying not to use the word 'old'." The song is a potent mix of sadness, humor and hope, what will turn out to be the predominant themes for the next decade (and beyond?)

Rating: B -

Friday, June 11, 2010

Year of the Horse (with Crazy Horse)

"They all sound the same... it's all one song," says Neil right at the beginning of Year of the Horse, a live album/soundtrack to the (reportedly terrible) Crazy Horse documentary helmed by Jim Jarmusch. It's a fitting opening, as this album suffers from indulging in many of the group's worst tendencies: bloated, shapeless improvisations and repetitiveness. I've been repeatedly on the record as enjoying the Horse's endless jam sessions; I'm not just talking about length here. The 13-minute "Danger Bird" on this album is a worthwhile addition. But some songs are worthy of the Horse treatment, and some aren't. "Barstool Blues," "Sedan Delivery," "Slip Away" and "Big Time" exponentially depreciate with each additional minute Neil & friends insert into them. The worst is a butchering of "Prisoners of Rock 'n Roll" (here just called "Prisoners" for some reason), a goofy song from Life that I always loved that clearly should not be stretched out to 7 minutes. It devolves into a shapeless, irritating wank-fest where everyone seems to be playing whatever they please without any consideration to what the other musicians are playing. (Neil comes off as weirdly proud of this fact, proclaiming at the end that you could "smell the Horse on that one!")

What somewhat redeems Year of the Horse is its offbeat track selection; it provides live versions of some excellent, underrepresented Neil Young songs like "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks" and "Scattered," and some effectively reworked versions of some songs, like a way laid-back "Human Highway," an electric version of "Pocahontas," and (making what must be its 5 millionth appearance on a Neil album) "Mr. Soul" done as acoustic blues rock.

Rating: C. Some worthwhile cuts, but a lot of meandering crap. Stick with Weld if you want a good latter-day Crazy Horse live album.

Broken Arrow (with Crazy Horse)

The 90's were. for Neil, a decade dominated by his hard rock, Crazy Horse sound, with relatively few detours. This lead to some of his best heavy music since the 70's (Ragged Glory, Weld), but after a while there were diminishing returns. Broken Arrow is an album that travels to the most extreme reaches of Cray Horse-dom, and suggests that maybe the group works better when Neil and co. reign themselves in (pun!) at least a little bit. When you read this next sentence, keep in mind it was written by a guy who loves it when Neil goes on long, unstructured jams: the jams on this album are way too long and not structured enough.

Half of the songs are 7 1/2 minutes or longer, and none of them justify that length. In some cases, like "Big Time" and the cover song "Baby What You Want Me to Do" it takes a perfectly acceptable song and deflates it by stretching it out to an unpalatable length. In other cases, namely "Slip Away" and "Loose Change" (in which I swear at one point they just play the same chord over and over again for several minutes) they take a mediocre song and make it unbearable.

Which is a shame, because this overshadows the more worthy other half of the album. "Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')" is a strong, moody slow rocker, and "Changing Highways" is a fun bar-rock type jam. The best song is "Music Arcade," a first-rate offbeat ballad which amusingly subverts its pretty, mellow melody (it sounds kind of like it could have been on On the Beach; Broken Arrow's aimlessness sometimes recalls that album's) with some goofy lyrics ("I was walkin' down main street/Not the sidewalk but main street/Dodgin' traffic with flyin' feet/That's how good I felt.")

I think what could have saved this album is if Neil had gone Time Fades Away with it and made it a live album of new material. The extended jams might have been salvageable with some live energy behind them; in the the studio they sound dull and listless.

Rating: C. This grade feels harsh to me, but I feel like I need to crack down and grade Neil on a harder scale than I have been doing. Maybe after this is over, I should go back and revise the grades.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Marathon Blogging Indefinitely Postponed

It dawned on me last night that this whole vacation blog-a-thon thing was a horrible idea. It's preventing me from relaxing because I feel like I have to carve out time to write up each movie I watch... and as a result the posts have been rushed and virtually devoid of any insight. I apologize for that. Rather than continue writing a bunch of half-assed posts just because I said I would, I am just going to stop and try to enjoy my vacation. I may try to do a roundup at the end, we'll see. Don't hold your breath.

Journey Through the Past will continue, however.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sugar & Spice

I never said they'd all be pretentious art films. I saw this goofy comedy about cheerleaders robbing a bank way back in 2001 when it was in theaters, and considering it was 9 years ago I had a pretty clear memory of the whole thing. It's no great shakes, but a little sharper a quirkier than this kind of bullshit has any right to be, and PS I was drunk when I agreed to watch it this time. I'm on vacation, after all.


Robert Bresson's Pickpocket reminds me of another film of his, A Man Escaped, in the way it simply but precisely shows a man set himself to a task and accomplish it. In this case, we see the tricks of the trade of a pickpocket (who would have guessed?), and for me the high points of the film where when the main character set about his business. Much like A Man Escaped, I suspect that there is a religious/moral layer to this film that I'm not fully grasping because of my relative ignorance of Judeo-Christian religion and its imagery. No worries, as I think the films works on its surface levels even if I'm not grasping any potential allegory.

Syndromes and a Century

Told you I planned on watching this one. I already mentioned it in my Blissfully Yours post, so I'm not sure what else to say other than to briefly mention the films structure. The film is split into two halves, one set at a hospital in the countryside, the other set at a hospital in the city. Each half involves some of the same characters involved in similar situations, almost as if the two halves are parallel universes. This leads to a lot of interesting instances of doubling; scenes or images in each half that seem to echo each other... but I can't figure out what, if anything, it's all supposed to mean. This is the 3rd time I've watched Syndromes and a Century, and I find it endlessly fascinating, enigmatic, mysterious. In a rational sense, I'm not sure that the film "means" anything (although I could throw out some theories), and I don't think it needs to. Its more of a meditation of life in the city vs life in the country (or maybe even more generally nature vs technology) and an evocation of a weird, haunting mood.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Boyfriends & Girlfriends

Another filmmaker I've been watching a lot of is Eric Rohmer, who passed away earlier this year. He was a director associated with the French New Wave, who made films from the early 60's all the way up to his death. They remind me of the kind of films I love that Richard Linklater sometimes makes: low-stakes films about ordinary people having ordinary problems, told with deep insight and a delicate touch. From what I've seen, a typical Rohmer film is about a small group of people hanging out, talking about life and other ordinary crap, usually being faced with some sort of minor moral or emotional quandary. The films never tip over into heavy-drama or self-seriousness, they are sweet and playful, and kind of perfect.

Boyfriends & Girlfriends is primarily about Blanche, who finds herself in a tricky situation when her best friend announces that she's thinking of leaving her boyfriend. Blanche and the boyfriend start to sense a real connection together, and the friend has seemingly given Blanche her blessing, but something still doesn't sit right with Blanche. Part of the joy of a Rohmer film is the quiet, unforced way the romantic entanglements become wildly complex before anyone has realized what is going on, only to resolve themselves in a warm, humanist manner rather than resorting to false drama. Boyfriends & Girlfriends builds itself to a sublime climax in which Blanche and her friend make confessions to each other expecting to hurt the other's feelings, each thinking the other is talking about a different person. It's an old comedic setup, the conversation where every sentence can be taken two ways, but its handled with such grace and subtlety by Rohmer and the actresses that the audience doesn't even realize what is going on until the conversation has become wonderfully confusing for both participants.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

I have been meaning to see this 1975 film, I believe considered something of a Feminist classic, by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman for a long time. The description, believe it or not, was irresistible to me: it's a 3 hour 20 minute film about a single mother who works as a prostitute, where most of the "action" consists of her daily routines. Meaning that the film treats us to extended, often single-take sequences of Jeanne cleaning, shopping, preparing meals, bathing, and so on.

Obviously, this is not a film for all tastes, but for those adventurous filmgoers out there, I would say its worth the time commitment. The first half, or so, painstakingly details Jeanne's seemingly obsessive daily routine; the second half shows small fissures opening up under her impeccable surface, culminating in... when, something rather major, but its not the kind of thing I would dream of spoiling, given how minimalist the film is.

I'm not sure if the film's style of leaving in all the mundane details of everyday life was an attempt at realism, but the effect is almost the opposite. Because of its extreme "banality" I was kind of hyper-aware of the fact that I was watching a film, and watching an actress perform all sorts of ordinary, boring tasks at great length. I don't mean that as a criticism, per se, but Jeanne never felt like a character to me, despite Akerman's detailed portrait of her life, so much as a film subject.

Blissfully Yours

One filmmaker I've been familiarizing myself with lately is Apichatpong Weerasethakul (but you can call him "Joe"), a true one-of-a-kind original from Thailand. I think the best description I've heard of his films was by the AV Club, who said something to the effect that they "redefine inaccessible." On the one hand, they are clear and direct, based usually in everyday human interaction, sometimes even a little funny and charming. On the other hand, they are completely unpredictable and strange, and mysterious. You can follow them moment by moment with little trouble, but its never clear how everything connects or what any of it means. In a completely serene, deadpan, down-to-Earth way, his films are almost works of surrealism.

I've become obsessed with his Syndromes and a Century (which I will likely be watching again on my vacation), and though none of his other films I've seen have matched that one in obscure fascination, they've all been worthwhile. Blissfully Yours seems to have no greater aim than to capture the feeling of laying out in the woods on a Spring afternoon with a loved one. And literally shows that, at length, with minimal interruptions of "plot" or any such nonsense. It's slowly paced and deliberately uneventful to such a degree that I can't see the majority of folks appreciating a film like this. But it's done with such a sense of time and place, and such an offbeat sensibility, that cinephiles owe it to themselves to try him out.

As boring as I'm making his film's sound, there's a weird playfulness about them. One detail about Blissfully Yours that threw me for a loop and made me laugh out loud is that the opening credits don't begin until about 45 minutes into the film, abruptly, in the middle of a lengthy scene of two characters driving out to the middle of nowhere.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Code Unknown

So, great job, me. My first official vacation, and for reasons I will not get into, I only managed to watch one movie for my marathon. Which, you know, is about the same number of movies I have time to watch on a work night. Again, I won't spell out the whole obnoxious story as to why I only watched one, but suffice t to say that I did also see about half of Alain Resnais's Mon Oncle D'Amerique and will probably never get to see the rest of it.

Code Unknown is classic Michael Haneke: precise, provocative, elliptical. Each sequence of the film begins and ends abruptly, each one filmed in one take. (One clever sequence appears to have a bunch of cuts, but then the camera pulls back and reveals that it's a movie that some of the characters are watching). It tells several intersecting stories of different people in Paris, touching on issues of miscommunication, immigration, racism and homelessness. It sounds a bit like Crash, but really it is sort of the anti-Crash in the way it refuses to generate any false drama, or to explicate the connection between all the different scenarios. If I was left scratching my head a little bit as to some of the details of the story, I think that was Haneke's intent; his long take, sometimes deep-focus style uses the margins of the frame to sneak in important details, and I'm not sure I caught all of them. I'm sure that's alienating to some viewings, but I like the way that Haneke tries to force the audience to be as active in its participation as possible. It's not as mysterious as Haneke's Cache, but I think does warrant another viewing some day to grasp the full picture.

Mirror Ball (with Pearl Jam)

Grunge gives back, as Neil teams up one of the genre's biggest acts for what could have been a mindblowing collaboration. I'm not a huge Pearl Jam fan, but its obvious to me that this pairing had potential. There are plenty of decent songs on Mirror Ball, but it often feels like a missed opportunity. The problem may be that there simply wasn't enough collaboration, and Neil essentially uses PJ as his backup band. He wrote all of the songs by himself save one (cowritten with Eddie Vedder), and they are all repetitive, midtempo rockers... What I'm getting at is that this is basically a Crazy Horse album, but with a slightly more polished, technically focused rhythm section. Which, in my opinion, is not an improvement. You get a lot more drum fills and guitar noodling and the occasional Vedder vocal, but it lacks that special 'Horse energy.

Some of my problem may be the production, which is a repetitive fuzz that often masks Pearl Jam and doesn't allow them enough room to establish themselves on the songs. Also, Neil's lyrics often seem oddly focused on talking about old hippie themes ("Jimi's playin' in the back room/Led Zeppelin's on the stage"), which strikes me as inappropriately retrospective considering the nature of this collaboration. He should be looking ahead, not back.

Still, there is some good material here, "Song X," "Downtown," and "Peace and Love," all solid hard rock songs with a good groove. The best song is easily "I'm the Ocean," 7-minutes of Neil and Pearl Jam blasting away at the same four chords over and over again that somehow never gets boring, and in fact seems to grow with intensity every second. (The final track, "Fallen Angel" uses the same melody, but is just Neil singing and playing an organ). I have a feeling that the material on this album would have come off better live, where Pearl Jam could have really dug into the material and put their stamp on it.

Rating: B -

Sadly, I do not own Merkin Ball, the companion release, a 2 track single with Neil playing back-up to Pearl Jam, although I really should try to pick it up some day.

Sleeps With Angels (with Crazy Horse)

Sleeps With Angels is probably best remembered now because its title track was a tribute to Kurt Cobain, who had famously quoted Neil in his suicide note. I believe most of the album had been completed by the time of Cobain's suicide, so it's not right to credit that event as a primary influence on the music. Still, it's an (unfortunately) timely fit, as this is probably the darkest sounding Neil album since the "Ditch Trilogy." Though far more polished than Tonight's the Night, it similarly strikes a tone of beautiful melancholy.

Well, chalk this one up as yet another album I seriously underrated back in the day. Although the second half maybe (maybe!) isn't as strong as the first half, there is a high concentration of good-to-great songs on Sleeps With Angels. It opens with "My Heart," a pretty, but dark, piano number with surprisingly bleak lyrics ("When dreams come crashing down like trees/I don't know what love can do"). This sets the tone for much of the rest of the album: darkly atmospheric, downbeat rock songs like "Prime of Life," "Driveby," and the winner of the award for Quirkiest Neil Young Song Title: "Safeway Cart." It's atypically mellow for a Crazy Horse album, only really cutting loose on the playful, appropriately ramshackle "Piece of Crap." (Sample lyric: "Saw it on the tube/Bought it on the phone/Now you're home alone/It's a piece of crap/PIECE OF CRAP!").

One weird experiment he tries here is that two songs, "Western Hero" and "Train of Love" have the same music, but different lyrics. Previously, he had done different versions of the same song on albums like Tonight's the Night, Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom. And on his next album, Mirror Ball, he would do two songs with vastly different arrangements and lyrics, but the same melody. But musically, "Hero" and "Love" are identical. It's kind of weird and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Both songs, on their own, are incredibly beautiful, contenders for best on the album. Yet coming only four songs apart from each other, its saps some of their power. Then again, I guess it does make the listener ponder the lyrics more than they may have originally.

Not necessarily the best song, but the standout classic is "Change Your Mind," a 15-minute Crazy Horse jam. What sets this song apart from the usual Neil Young epic is its chillness; it's a laid back, maybe vaguely trippy song that is unmistakably Neil, while not quite sounding like anything else in his discography.

Rating: A -

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Given my admittedly limited knowledge of Korean cinema, it seems to me that, in general, their filmmakers aren't afraid to go boldly melodramatic, and aren't often restrained by good taste. Oasis is about, get this, a romantic affair between a retarded man and a woman with cerebral palsy. It is... exactly as uncomfortable and button-pushing as it sounds, as manipulative of a tear-jerker as any Patch Adams type crap. On that level, I kind of hated it. On the other hand, I had to admire its unflinching, sometimes graphic take on the material. It doesn't pull any punches, unlike Patch Adams type crap. So let's call it a draw.

Side note: this has to be the 4th or 5th apparently major Korean film by an apparently major Korean filmmaker I've seen that deals, at least in passing, with a grown-up retarded man who wanders around on his own and can't keep himself out of trouble, and is mistreated by authorities. Is this some sort of prominent social issue in Korea? Or an overused cliche in their fiction? Or have I just coincidentally seen the only 4 or 5 Korean films about this subject?

Notre Musique

Last year I made a concerted effort to familiarize myself with the early works of Jean-Luc Godard. I didn't see everything, but I saw enough to get a sense of how I felt about him. More often than not, I could appreciate some of what he was trying to do, and admire his skill, but did not enjoy his sometimes scolding, didactic tone. I also felt like I didn't grasp all of his political allusions, not having lived in France in the 60's (considering I wasn't even born then).

I've slowed down my progress, but I'm still working my way through some of his better known films, and figured it was high time I saw something of his that was relatively recent. Notre Musique doesn't feel a whole lot different from the 60's movies I saw, except maybe more serene. That means some of the same problems: characters speaking in slogans instead of having conversations, holier-than-thou political condemnation, a dense layer of references and allusions that's hard to sort out. But his deft skill is still apparent as ever, and he still knows how to wow with his technique, and provoke with some of his philosophical inquiries. I think I've made peace with the fact that I'm never going to love JLG the way many cinephiles do, but there's no denying that he's a unique talent whose work is worth exploring.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

I wasn't crazy about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which this is a semi-sequel to, although it's funny enough. If I like Get Him to the Greek at least marginally more, its because of the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, and because it irons out some of the flaws from the first film. Sarah Marshall's biggest flaw was that it gave its female leads approximately none of the funny material, and probably 90% of the obnoxious romcom idiot-plot bullshit. You ended up hating them both by the end, and I for one could not give a shit if the boy and girl got together. Greek solves this problem by shuffling the female characters far, far off to the sidelines to focus on the boys. Yeah, the Apatow family still hasn't figured out how to write funny, interesting female characters, but at least they seem aware of that flaw this time.

(Sidenote: Carla Gallo, a pretty, funny actress that I'll always fondly remember from TV's Undeclared, is again trotted out for another humiliating cameo, after appearing as the toe-sucking girl in 40 Year Old Virgin, the period blood girl in Superbad, and the gag-me girl in Sarah Marshall. I won't say what happens here, but as opposed to the Virgin and Superbad scenes, it's not very funny, and makes me wonder why they keep bringing her in to these movies just to debase her. I'll give her credit for her balls, but they need to give her a real role.)

Nicholas Stoller really isn't much of a director yet; there's too much awkwardness and too many scenes with potentially funny ideas that can't seem to find the right pace or punchline. The film starts with a poorly constructed montage that's supposed to explain to the audience the career of Aldous Snow, but mostly mistimes a bunch of jokes in the service of clumsy exposition. A better film would have skipped this and figured a way to work it into the story.

But. BUT! Stoller is showing serious signs of improvement. The comedic centerpiece of this film, involving Hill unknowingly smoking a bizarre drug cocktail known as a "Jeffrey," builds wonderfully in comic intensity until it has the whole audience rolling in the aisles. And, surprisingly, the whole sequence is stolen from Hill and Brand by none other than Sean "Diddy" Combs.


Oh my god, you guys, do you remember the 90's? Bill Clinton was president, and we all dressed in flannel and watched Boy Meets World and the Spice Girls were at the top of the pops and we watched Titanic like 50 times and cried every time. And, holy shit, remember MTV's Unplugged series, where they had beloved artists play acoustic versions of their songs?! It was so rad!

Okay, I'm being flip, but Unplugged was actually a pretty awesome concept that lead to some decent albums by Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Jay-Z. (And actually, wouldn't you know, they apparently still do it periodically, although its been years since an artist I give a shit about has done one).

Neil's is pretty mixed in terms of performance quality, but what's cool about it is he takes the concept to heart and reworks some of his hard rock songs into acoustic versions. I mean, he stills plays some of the obvious songs ("Pocahontas" "The Needle and the Damage Done" "Harvest Moon" and so on). But the real fun is the unexpected stuff, like acoustic versions of "Long May You Run" "Mr. Soul" and "World on a String." Or the upbeat version of "The Old Laughing Lady." Or the organ version of "Like a Hurricane."

The best is probably his folk version of "Transformer Man," a beautiful song that I sense has been unfairly dismissed because of the electro-pop trappings of the album version. The unplugged version is normal enough that it might make some converts.

The other notable track is "Stringman," which as far as I can tell has never been released on any other album. It's not a great song, but, you know, I'm something of a Neil completist, glad I have it in the collection.

Not all the experiments work out, frankly, but they are irresistible to a fan, at least to hear once. As I said before, the performance quality is not consistent, so you're left with an interesting album with a few standout tracks, but it's not one of the live albums you'll return to often.

Rating: B -


I hadn't seen this film, Kurosawa's final samurai epic, in a good 5 years, so I jumped chance to see it on the big screen when I found out that E-Street Cinema was doing a revival this weekend. I had enjoyed it back when I had originally seen it, but that was before I had really explored Kurosawa, and I wondered how it would play now with a better knowledge of his filmography.

I don't consider it one of his best, but it's definitely a must-see. My main problems have to do with story and structure. It's loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear, which I must admit, I've never read or seen performed. The plot is a little dense and hard to follow at times, regarding an aging warlord who leaves his kingdom to his eldest son and inadvertently sets off a power-struggle. Part of the problem is that Kurosawa does little to distinguish the warlord's sons, except to color code them so that the viewers can tell their armies apart. Otherwise, it's hard to tell who's conspiring against who and for what reasons. The focus is on the warlord for much of the film, but in the middle numerous subplots emerge and distract from the main narrative, and then in the finale the warlord seems to drift into the background. So it's a little hard to get too invested. Many scenes are interesting in and of themselves, but the characters and relationships never seem as well developed as they should be because of the shifting focus.

The reason this is a must see is because Kurosawa brings the spectacle. Besides the constant presence of bright primary colors and lots of precise, eye-drawing framing and camera movement, Kurosawa stages some epic battle scenes that will make your eyes bug out. An attack on the warlord's castle about an hour into the film is especially powerful. Kurosawa drops out the dialogue and sound effects and fills the soundtrack with haunting, mournful music, as a seemingly infinite number of men are cut down by swords and filled with arrows, and the entire stronghold drowns in blood.

Dreamin' Man Live '92

The latest release in the Archive Series, Dreamin' Man is a collection of solo performances of all the Harvest Moon songs. Previously, I have noted how many of Neil's weaker song are vastly improved when performed solo. Turns out, sometimes the opposite is true. Maybe it's just that these performances aren't up to snuff, but this album is surprisingly bland.

I mean, the songs are still good songs, don't get me wrong, but these performances are repetitive and dull. A few songs stand out, like the title track and "Such a Woman," as worthwhile, possibly even improvements over the album versions. But everything else makes you wonder why you aren't listening to the real album instead. Part of the problem may be the format... it's all the songs from Harvest Moon, but in a different order. It makes the album feel redundant; why not a mix of the material he was performing on this tour?

But I think the main problem is that songs like "Harvest Moon" are dependent on their lush production for their atmosphere and effect. Played solo, they sound a little empty. It doesn't help that the recording quality doesn't seem so great; the album feels almost like hastily recorded demo songs for Harvest Moon.

Rating: C. It might play better if you isolate single tracks, rather than sitting through the whole thing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

From Beyond the Grave

A British anthology horror movie, not dissimilar from Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror. This one has Peter Cushing running an antique shop, where strange, supernatural fates befall the customers who try to screw him over or rob him or whatever. The best story is a more comedic one where a dude is followed around by an "elemental," a nasty little invisible creature that becomes very territorial. Some decent atmosphere, nice production design, and excellent cast (also including David Warner and Donald Pleasance) make From Beyond the Grave a decent one of these movies, but far from the best.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

2010 Summer Stay-cation Blog-a-thon

Okay gang, here's the deal. After tomorrow, I'm going to be on vacation for about 2 1/2 weeks. Travel plans have sadly not worked out, so I should be in Arlington for most of this time. Although I'm bummed that I won't be, say, visiting Patrick in Chicago, I figure this is a good opportunity to watch a bunch of movies.

The plan is to write a little mini-post for every movie I watch over vacation, sort of like I did back in '07-'08 for an entire year. This will only be for half of a month, but I figure it might be fun any way. I plan on squeezing in mostly a bunch of pretentious art flicks and shit, but I'll be posting every, so also expect a lot of horror movies, hopefully a few new releases, etc etc.

I will also continue to work on "Journey Through the Past," so expect shitloads of updates between June 4 and June 21.

Harvest Moon

The title "Harvest Moon" should tip you off that it's a return, maybe even self-consciously so, to the straight-up folk sound that Neil had been famous for, but hadn't realized utilized since the late 70's. Obviously the title recalls Harvest, with which the album shares a few similarities (pedal steel and female backup singers abound), but I'd say its even closer in sound to Comes a Time: mellow folk-rock (light on the rock), carefully crafted songs with strong melodies, wistful atmosphere.

I'm noticing that, not always, but often I've been grading the more mainstream Neil Young albums higher than some of his more experimental work. I feel a little like one of those people who only gives a shit about Martin Scorsese when he directs a mafia movie, like I just want Neil to stick to making pleasant folk tunes and stop with all the quirkiness. But what can I say? Deliberately commercial or not, Harvest Moon is a classic.

Opening cut "Unknown Legend" is a dreamy tribute to a once-independent woman now settling into middle-age, and establishes the growing-old motif that seems to be the album's main theme."From Hank to Hendrix" one of the most affecting break-up songs Neil has ever written, continues this, chronicling a long-term relationship by cultural touchstones ("From Marilyn to Madonna/I've always loved your smile"), and "One of These Days" is a thank-you letter "to all the good friends I've known." Even the album's goofiest track, "Old King," a tribute to "the best ol' hound dog I ever did know", is about a dog that died, therefore lending the song a slight sense of nostalgia.

The production on this album, arguably a little too-polished, is still rich and layered. The title track in particular, which features a sweeping broom as part of the percussion, is a lush blend of smooth sounds that effectively adds to the lyrical love story it tells.

The weaknesses of Harvest Moon that keep it from being on Comes a Time's level have to do with a small amount of bloat and mawkishness. Some of the songs could be tightened, but that's only a minor complaint. "Such a Woman" and "Natural Beauty" are both pretty, but they amp up the emotion a little too high in the choruses and lose some of their effectiveness. The worst song is "War of Man," unnecessarily long at 5 1/2 minutes, with on-the-nose lyrics ("No one wins/Its a war of man") and a painful earnestness that rises to the level of corniness.

Still, this album is more great than not, and highly recommendable to anyone who treasures the warm, folk balladeer Neil Young.

Rating: A -

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Weld (with Crazy Horse)

At two hours for only 16 tracks, with several songs expanding past the 10-minute mark, this Ragged Glory era live album is probably insurmountable to those who aren't already sympathetic to Crazy Horse's overarching style. For the rest of us, I think this may be the best CH live album, one entirely focused on rocking hard and never quitting. The performances here, perversely drawn out as they may be, are electrifying. It's probably most comparable to Live Rust (they perform six of the same songs from that album), but with all the quiet songs removed, a liberal dose of Ragged Glory tracks (5), and a sprinkling of classic hard rock songs he had penned between those two albums. And, I would argue, stronger performances than on Live Rust, despite the fact that this was recorded 12 years later. Live Rust was energetic and playful, but, in its best moments, Weld is white-hot.

Not much else to do but list the highlights. Most unique is an electric cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which borrows the ambient, rhythm-section-free sound of Neil's "Mother Earth" and adds in some other weird touches, like air-raid sound effects. The album's biggest "redemption" is a seven minute version of "Welfare Mothers," which imbues my least favorite song from Rust Never Sleeps with a new found sense of energy and improvisation. There's a kick ass electric version of "Crime in the City," in which Neil changes the lyrics so he now flips off his bible school preacher, instead of just talking back to him.

Neil ends the album with two songs from Tonight's the Night. His version of the title track manages to shake off the original's existential funk and transform it into a rousing celebration of the life of Bruce Berry. Even better, though, Neil closes out with "Roll Another Number (For the Road)." It's a sad fact that a few too many of the same songs pop up on Neil's live albums, so it's always exciting when a great version of one an under-represented favorite turns up.

There aren't any weak links on Weld except, shockingly, for a tepid 9-minute rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World." How they managed to strip such an inherently awesome song of its power is beyond me, but it goes to show you that sometimes Neil and the Horse can wreck a song by dragging it out too long. Usually not, though, and otherwise, Weld is a minor classic that highlights latter-day Crazy Horse at their best.

Rating: B +. Doesn't exactly make Live Rust and Ragged Glory obsolete, but does what they did, and better.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Arc (with Crazy Horse)

Originally put out as a limited release with the live album Weld (which I will cover next), Arc is less of a rock album, and more of a sonic experiment/art project. Taken from live performances, it is a 35-minute densely layered mix of guitar feedback, song intros and outros, and incoherent riffing. It is not pop music in the traditional sense, although occasionally bits and pieces of the vocals from song verses (usually "Like a Hurricane" or "Love and Only Love") are tracked over the abstractions.

Yes, I have listened to the entire thing. Yes, more than once.

At best, most folks dismiss it as a quirky indulgence. At worst, some consider it an absurd waste of time. Both of those are fair opinions that I would never begrudge someone for holding, but as a Neil devotee, I think Arc is worth listening to and contemplating. At least a little.

I don't know jack shit about "noise rock," or whatever the fuck it is that some people consider this album. But it does seem like an earnest attempt on Neil's part to explore some of his avant-garde interests in general, and his obsession with guitar feedback, "bad" aesthetics and purposeful sloppiness in specific. The album can be experienced as an expression of the philosophy of Crazy Horse, distilled to its most basic elements.

I'm sure by my description it sounds intolerable, but it's surprisingly listenable and even, dare I say, well produced. It's been edited in such a way that it frequently builds, climaxes, and builds again, almost like "real" music. Take that for what it's worth. It's not entertaining or pleasing in the way normal music is, but it is at least defensible as a work of art.

Rating: N/A. It just doesn't seem right to compare Arc to his other works. You might as well compare one of his albums to a painting or a sculpture. Either that, or consider the "N/A" rating a simultaneous "A +" and "F -."