Monday, December 16, 2013

Seeing the Diamond Beneath the Paste

Latest viewing experience: D.E.B.S.



The trailer is a bit of a bait and switch; what we really have here is a cheerful lesbian coming-of-age story. The superspy stuff is an overlay. The two lovers are, respectively, a superspy and a supercriminal who are supposed to be thwarting one another, not sneaking around and dating, and the tale of treachery and betrayal serves as an objective correlative for the socially imposed tensions of the love that still dare not speak its name in many quarters. It's a nifty idea, this stitching together of different misbehaviors to illuminate the unnecessary dangers of same-sex love, but what makes sense in theory fails in practice because the superspy genre elements mostly just lie there. Lots of candy colors and outsized props strive for cartoonish low camp but just look stagy, and the writer-director doesn't generate any thrilling thriller tension. Cat-and-mouse sequences are carpeted with techno music that's clearly meant to drive the energy, but someone chose chill house music instead of edgy tracks, so the chases are way too relaxing. In one scene there's an extensive establishing shot of a fancy restaurant that mimics the upward tracking shot of the opera house in Citizen Kane, showing us just how immense and fancy this restaurant is, but then the scene that plays out is a conventional restaurant scene that makes no use of all that fanciness. Then there's a long sequence in which the protagonists navigate a road-to-the-batcave route to a secret exclusive dangerous nightclub... that just seems like any old nightclub. People dancing, hanging, having fun. Lots of mohawks and spikes, but it still seems as safe as an after-church reception. 

 So why am I hammering on this mediocre movie? I watched it because the writer-director, one Angela Robinson, wrote (several years after making D.E.B.S.) some of the best episodes of True Blood. Her scripts blended and interconnected comedy, action, drama and suspense with acrobatic alacrity. She earned her money and how. Her scripts were jim dandy. Alan Ball (The auteur of True Blood) and company saw and nurtured something in Robinson that, on the basis of D.E.B.S., most of us would never have guessed was there. How does one spot the potential lurking behind a failure? Clearly the producers of a campy vampire soap opera know something about talent spotting that eludes most of us.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 2

Fragile, 1971.  If you can't imagine any Yes album being essential, this one just might change your mind.  Band tracks are interspersed with short solo pieces, and while the solos are hit and miss, they demonstrate what each member brings to the mix.  Lead singer Jon Anderson's tape-loop-heavy concoction demonstrates, probably, a fondness for Revolution #9, but maybe also Steve Reich; Anderson's pseudo-koan lyrics are front and center. on those tape loops.  Bassist Chris Squire's spot may be more notable for the work ethic involved in multitracking a zillion bass lines than for anything else.  Keyboardist Rick Wakeman tries to do a Wendy Carlos thing with some Brahms, demonstrating that he should probably create, in Brian Eno's phrase, frames for other peoples' pictures, (as he did with his delightful piano work on David Bowie's album Hunky Dory) rather than pictures of his own (bear this in mind before buying any of Wakeman's showoffy solo albums).  Guitarist Steve Howe does a lovely tribute to Jose Feliciano.  One of the things I find most invigorating about Howe is that he crafted a rock guitar sound that was rooted in everything BUT the blues.  Drummer Bill Bruford's brief burst of rhythmic danger is titled "Five Percent For Nothing" in honor of a former manager with a contractually obligated cut of the band's take, but it could be titled "Audition For King Crimson," the edgier band for which Bruford would soon leave Yes.

But the group efforts are what make the album.  Roundabout is the signature song, but South Side of the Sky, which could have coasted all the way on its rollicking riffs, includes a lyrical (but lyricless) piano-and-voice interlude and some thoughtful lyrics about death that I still find reassuring.  Long Distance Runaround could almost pass for a Thelonius Monk composition.





Close to the Edge, 1972.  When I discovered this album I spent a lot of time around high leafy trees, craggy cliffs, organs, choirs, sailboats, yellowing fantasy paperbacks, bibles and Beatles albums, sunbeams and moonmist.  This album seemed to pack it all together in 40 minutes of Stravinsky-loving symphonic rock.  The cheerful obscurantist lyrics bring a bit of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons to the mix, and some lines wouldn't seem out of place in John Ashbury.  If you only buy one Yes album, this is the one.

Tales From Topographic Oceans, 1973.  An Anglo attempt at a Bitch's Brew that seems to go down smoother with stoners than it does with the rest of us, this blend of english folk and Epcot multiethnic jazzless jazzing around is 2 LPs long, but doesn't have 2 LPs worth of inspiration; merely 2 LPs worth of ambition (and rawk star ego).  I can relate.  Its repetitions have grown on me over the decades; by turns simpleminded and convoluted, struggling for expansiveness yet bound up in indulgence, it mirrors my own mind.

Relayer, 1974.  This album cast a spell on me once, and I came to regard it as the last Great Yes Album.  Now I see the seeds of everything I don't like about Yes sending up shoots here.  The lyrics are plainspoken but banal (We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly by the bridge... did they hire Thomas Kinkaide as a consultant?) and the straightforward ideology (war is bad, mystical illumination is good) doesn't enrich the music the way the bewildering lyrics of prior recordings did.  Perhaps the irritable public reaction to Topographic Oceans put them off modernist verse.  Much of one song is just a syke-a-delick guitar solo, skillfully done but not an interesting solution to an interesting problem.  There's a lot to love, though.  The music is lush yet jarring, Telecaster instead of Les Paul, jazz touches instead of classical flourishes.  It's producer Eddie Offord's last full album with them, and he weaves a rich tapestry of layered sounds.  The closing sung passage has incomprehensible lyrics (by which I don't mean I defy anyone to explain them, but that I can't make out the words) that weren't documented on the lyrics sheet; a welcome final burst of inscrutability.


Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 1

I'm going to comment on each of Yes's studio albums.  It's my blog, and my life, and this is what I choose to do with it.


Yes, 1969.  I've read multiple testimonies that the original lineup of Yes could delight crowds, but this album doesn't reflect such power.  In an interview (Source: something I read somewhere) guitarist Peter Banks said that neither the producer nor the editor assigned to work on the album was accustomed to working with rock bands, and kept telling them to turn it down.  They refused to believe that if you're playing rock loud, you're doing it right.  Perhaps this blunted the results.  There is something this uneven but charming post-Beatles recording does demonstrate, though: one of Yes's big breaks came when Sly and the Family Stone couldn't make a show, and Yes filled in.  Even though Sly Stone has more funk in his earwax than Yes has in its entire discography, the two bands had more in common than is obvious.  Sly's band was integrated along racial and gender lines, while Yes was all white guys, but both bands integrated an array of popular musical modes into ambitious, multifaceted songs without seeming like dilettantes.  



Time and a Word, 1970.  Guitarist Peter Banks told interviewers that he had a quarrel with the producer of this album; being a young man Peter did the only honorable thing and threw a guitar at the guy.  It's no surprise that large chunks of Peter's guitar work got replaced with orchestration on the finished album. and that Peter was fired.  According to Wikipedia, his last band was named Consolation in Isolation, which was also the title of an instrumental he recorded a couple decades before his death.  We can surmise he had a tougher life than he might have had if he hadn't thrown the guitar.


The Yes Album, 1970.  New guitarist, new producer, new success.  I used to assume this was the first really successful Yes album because of guitarist Steve Howe, but now I think the arrival of producer Eddie Offord was the exponential upgrade.  Offord midwifed their best work.  This time out, Yes expanded their ambitious suite song structures and crafted some of their concert chestnuts, like Starship Trooper, which ends on a riff that can be expanded, inflated, and fiddled with all night.  One can measure Yes's artistic decline by how long and bombastic Starship Trooper became in concert.  My favorite ditty from this album is Perpetual Change, which mixes its musical themes, tempos and moods with aplomb, and includes some of the most cogent, tough-minded lyrics they'd ever write.  Tough-minded lyrics were not to be a Yes mainstay, but they did it once.