Kidney stones are disruptive. Once you've had one, you never forget it, and you spend much of your subsequent life in fear that another stone is on the way. As awful as they feel, you'd think you always knew when one had arrived, but that's not precisely true. For the last several days, I've been laid up with what feels like a kidney stone. But a kidney stone isn't something you confuse with something else ... when you go into emergency and they ask you how bad the pain is on a scale of 1 to 10, the answer is always "10". So I've been in the candy-ass 2-6 zone, which means it's probably not a kidney stone, but I worry nonetheless, and I've been useless all week long as a result.
So here's a Music Friday quickie, to make up for my absence the last few days.
Spotify is giving users their annual "Spotify Wrapped", which summarizes your listening for the year. Suffice to say that the first 14 tracks on my list are from 1970 or earlier, and after a one-track break, 13 more come from that same period. I'm getting worse in my old age.
Here are some of the post-1970 songs that I managed to sneak into my 2019 listening, in chronological order:
This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":
Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.
If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.
This weekend I took in my 16th and 17th Sleater-Kinney concerts, the first ones without longtime drummer Janet Weiss. Since Weiss had played on their latest album, these concerts were the first real test of new drummer Angie Boylan. Katie Harkin, the guitar/keyboard/vocals 4th member who started touring with the band on their last tour, was back, along with Toko Yasuda, the new 5th member who performed some of the same things as did Harkin. Both were very good at filling out the sound of the band, but Boylan is the one people had their eyes on. She was just fine, and of course, why wouldn't she be? The one thing of note was that she was playing Janet's parts, that is, I didn't get a feel for what Boylan might add on her own, because she was mostly just replicating what Weiss had done on record. If Boylan sticks around, we'll get a better sense of what she brings. For now, no harm no foul.
What really stood out was how much Janet's absence turned Sleater-Kinney into a two-piece, Corin and Carrie with three backup musicians. While the two stars interacted as much as ever, there was little crossover into the Backup Three, and you realized how Janet was more than just a great drummer, she was an integral part of the band. Boylan could play Janet's licks, but S-K didn't really bother to replace Weiss as part of a trio. They just played like a duo, which is how they started, so I guess it wasn't that odd.
Other than that, there was nothing particularly new at these shows. Well, each night they played every song from the new album, but the key was still Corin's otherworldly vocals and Carrie's rock star charisma and idiosyncratic guitar work. I have never seen Carrie smile so much, and with her large mouth covered in red lipstick, those smiles were hard to miss. Both of them were having so much fun, and after reading Carrie's memoir and finding out how miserable she often was, it was something of a relief to know she has hopefully gotten past that.
Reviewing The Center Won't Hold, I wrote, "Ultimately, we may not know just how good The Center Won’t Hold is until later in Sleater-Kinney’s career. I want to see these new songs live, mixed in with older classics, and to see how they work with a new drummer. I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'." Now I've seen them live, and the best of the songs are already integrated firmly into the live set. To that extent, The Center Won't Hold is established as part of S-K history, no matter how different it sounds from their earlier albums. What I can't tell yet is how many of those new songs will still feel vital down the road, the way classics like "Jumpers" and "One More Hour" and "Entertain" and "Modern Girl" continue to resonate today. But that the band is this far along in their journey, and they are still relevant, is remarkable in the rock world.
They did me the favor of playing "Youth Decay" on Saturday ... I had been bugging them on Twitter to do so, not that I got their attention. It has always been my favorite Janet song, so for me, it was a real test of Angie Boylan, and again, she played the Janet part accurately. They were a bit more talkative the first night, and I especially appreciated Carrie's introduction to "Modern Girl" ... she noted that she wrote it when she was very depressed, and that it is a depressing song (the crucial line "My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day" points out, it should be obvious, that her life wasn't sunny, it was like a picture of sunny). She expressed surprise that some people use "Modern Girl" as a wedding song.
The major difference for me in the two shows was that I was on the floor the first night, but sitting in the balcony for Night Two. It had a much larger effect than I might have imagined. Being in the balcony placed a distance between us and the band. It's silly in a way ... it's not like the first night Corin and Carrie were looking directly at me, 2/3 of the way back on the floor, performing just for me. But there is something about being on the floor that connects you viscerally to the band, and that was absent in the balcony. I am used to sitting in balconies, especially as I get older. But, to cite the two artists I see most besides S-K, Bruce Springsteen and Pink bring the spectacle to their shows, and while I've been up close for both of them, the distance isn't a deal breaker ... Bruce has a great ability to turn an arena into a small club, and Pink is famous for flying around the arena so everyone at some point is "close". Sleater-Kinney offers none of that. Oh, they earned the warning we got entering the theater that strobe lights would be on display. But ultimately, their entire live act is focused on a one-on-one relationship to each of us that, no matter how silly it is, has an honest feel to it. And that silly honesty was lacking from the balcony.
I suppose the #1 thing I learned from this weekend is that I am too old for consecutive nights on the floor. I loved the first night, but I was very sore afterwards, and was thus very glad I was sitting for the second night. The balcony experience convinced me I want to be on the floor for Sleater-Kinney ... my creaking bones convinced me I'm no longer the young whippersnapper who could do consecutive nights on the floor.
Here they come again. This weekend, I will see Sleater-Kinney for the 16th and 17th time. No one whose name isn't Springsteen comes close.
I tend to remember dates by the events that accompanied them. We moved into this house in 1987, and I remember that because the Giants almost made the World Series. My daughter was born on January 15, 1978, the day after I saw the Sex Pistols, and I'm never quite sure if I remember the Sex Pistols' date because of my daughter, or the other way around.
My wife and I go way back with Bruce Springsteen, seeing him for the first time in 1975. It's a way of marking the passage of time ... remember that first concert? Remember when we were in the third row? Remember when we followed him up and down the west coast? Remember when he turned up as a surprise guest at a Gary U.S. Bonds show? Remember, remember, remember? (For the obsessive-compulsive among you, the years for those particular memories were 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.) It's understood that our experiences with Bruce have covered a lot of years. Hell, Bruce is 70 years old now.
Well, sometimes I think of Sleater-Kinney as a band of riot grrrls, emphasis on girls. They weren't exactly girls, even when I first saw them (Carrie was 23, Corin was 25, Janet was an ancient 34). This is no longer true, and their music reflects their middle-agedness. At a show a few days ago in Texas, Corin celebrated her 47th birthday.
And so now I realize they have been around so long, and been important in my life for so long, that I can use them to mark time. Or I can just use them as another example of how time flies (i.e., I am getting old). I first saw Sleater-Kinney in concert more than 20 years ago, and that simple fact blows my mind. Let's put it in blog context: I saw them five times before I started this blog, and this blog is almost 18 years old.
That first show in 1998 was at the Great American Music Hall, which holds 600. It remains the smallest venue I've seen them at, and I've seen them there 7 times. Here they are in 1998:
Here they are in 2000, back when Janet would tell jokes:
And from the last time I saw them, New Year's Eve, 2016/7:
And most obviously, here is a complete show from a month ago:
The Sound of My Voice suffers from some of the usual problems that come with documentaries about musicians. Most notably, we never get a full version of any songs, just excerpts. We get plenty of examples of Linda Ronstadt's remarkable voice, but each time, we're left wanting more.
Still, this is preferable to standard biopics that invent life events to match the songs the artist produces. And you don't have to worry about someone else singing for Ronstadt ... that's her on the soundtrack.
Ronstadt fans can rest assured, though. They will enjoy the musical moments, and the presentation of her life in music is straightforward, if mostly on her side. You will come away with a better understanding of why Ronstadt moved so easily between so many genres. As she says at one point, "People would think I was trying to remake myself, but I never invented myself in the first place." Gilbert & Sullivan, classic pop standards, Mexican canciones, all of these were part of her musical upbringing. However it might have seemed to audiences, Ronstadt was just singing what she knew.
The film presents a who's who of musicians and industry people who rhapsodize about Ronstadt. There is, in fact, too much of this ... every repeated gushing story takes the place of the music we came to hear.
Epstein and Friedman sidestep the issue of Ronstadt's tour of South Africa during the cultural boycott of that country. It is mentioned once, she gives a brief statement about politics and singing, and it's forgotten.
The Sound of My Voice isn't great, but fans won't care. And the final scene, of Ronstadt singing gently with family as she suffers from Parkinson's disease, is moving.
For those who want to read a detailed analysis of Ronstadt's music from a critic/fan, I recommend the 1978 essay "Living in the USA" by John Rockwell.
Mink DeVille, "Spanish Stroll." Somehow, this song manages to be vaguely New Wave while recalling the kind of culture that might have also spawned disco. We saw these guys once, and the opening act was an unknown local comic named Dana Carvey. Carvey was funny enough, but who comes to a rock concert to see a comedian? So he wasn't going over very well, and at one point he did some bit about a then-current commercial for Irish Spring soap. When no one laughed, he ad-libbed "what, you guys don't wash?" To which I shouted in reply, "We don't stink!" It was the only good heckle I ever got off. Robin liked Carvey, though, and so she wrote him a note on a napkin saying she thought he was funny and had our waitress take it to him. No word on whether or not he actually saw the note. He doesn't stink anymore, though.
The band was touring behind their first album, which made #29 on that year's Pazz & Jop poll. They had begun as Billy de Sade and the Marquis. As Mink DeVille, they were a house band at CBGB. That first album had a few memorable songs besides "Spanish Stroll", including a favorite of ours, "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl".
The band lasted until 1986, and Willy DeVille had a solo career, releasing albums through 2008. He died in 2009.
Here is an Irish Spring commercial from the late-70s:
As for Dana Carvey, well, you know him. Here is my favorite Dana Carvey bit ... I believe this is from his tryout tape for SNL:
David Browne has a piece in today's Rolling Stone about Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, which was released 25 years ago today. Browne does an excellent job of putting us back in time ... his angle is that he attended the taping for the show, which was a year earlier. As Browne notes, by the time the album was released, Kurt Cobain had been dead for more than half a year, which affected how the album was perceived.
The high point ... not sure that's the right term ... came when Cobain performed the traditional "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", a song recorded by many, including Lead Belly, who put out several versions in the 1940s. Cobain was working off of one of Lead Belly's recordings for his arrangement.
Browne writes of Nirvana's cover, "[T]he moment we all remember – when Cobain, pushing his voice up a register, shreds the word 'shiver' in the last chorus with a phlegmy rasp – remains one of the most jolting things I’ve experienced at a concert." Christgau wrote of the entire album, "The vocal performance he evokes is John Lennon's on Plastic Ono Band. And he did it in one take."
The simplest thing to say from a consumer guide perspective is that if you love Bruce, you'll like this movie. If you love his latest album, you'll love this movie. If you don't have an opinion about Bruce Springsteen, I'm not sure what you'll think, but it will give you insight into a 70-year-old rocker who still has a lot to say.
There are two things to address here. One is the music. At its core, Western Stars is a concert movie, where Bruce and a large band play the songs from the Western Stars album. He has a huge string section, and they kick ass ... their unison playing gives the songs something of a Phil Spector feel. As is often the case with Bruce, the songs benefit from being played live. Favorite songs are even better, songs I didn't much care for are better than I thought. If you're looking for familiar faces, you'll find Patti and Soozie and Charles and Lisa. The music sounds great played in Bruce's old barn.
The other thing is the movie-as-movie. There is no escaping the fact that the songs, and their performance, are what matters. But it's a gorgeous movie, from the way the inside of the barn is lit to the wide-open spaces of Joshua Tree. The brief commentary that accompanies the songs is just enough to expand our appreciation. It's hard to find anything to fault in Western Stars as a movie.
I don't know if a newcomer to Bruce would be convinced by this film. Emotionally, the songs represent a culmination of his life's work, but the music is different from his usual, and I don't suppose you should start here. But for long-time fans, the movie adds greatly to the album. The intimacy is lovely and rewarding.