Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Music Review: Wilco: (the album)

"Are you under the impression this isn't your life?" begins Wilco's latest LP, entitled, Wilco: (the album). Jeff Tweedy, lead songwriter and singer for Wilco, is beginning to receive widespread notoriety. Based in Chicago, their music is rooted in the American Midwest. Formed after the break up of the pioneering alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco has crafted some of finest music in the past two decades. Wilco: (the album) is a great starting point for anyone unfamilar with their music since it has all the best aspects of their previous work.

The band's history is not lacking in drama. In the mid 1990s they were on the vanguard of the alternate country scene, but quickly moved on. Their 1996 double album, Being There, moved them in a more classic rock direction; a retro homage to the great 1970s bands. Wilco's next project was of a collaboration with the British folk singer, Billy Bragg, of unrecorded Woody Guthrie tunes. In 1999 came Summerteeth, a departure into pure pop music. Tweedy's dark lyrics juxtaposed with Jay Bennett's heavy production redefined Wilco. The signature track, "Via Chicago," opens with the line, "I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me," in a haunting, but beautiful journey into a nightmarish landscape.

The year 2001 brought the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. An instant classic, it was almost left on the shelf after their record company dropped them for being too experimental. Differences between Tweedy and Bennett led to his departure (Bennet passed away last May). Everything was captured in the documentary, I am Trying to Break your Heart, - the Let it Be of this generation. Some songs were released on the Internet that created a buzz and brought them more fans. Yankee is truly unique album that sounds traditional and futuristic. The follow up in 2004, A Ghost is Born, had a bit of everything, from the 12 minute surrealistic epic "Spiders" ( a showstopper at their concerts) and 16 minutes of drone. In 2007 came Sky Blue Sky with a revamped line up of musicians brought them back to earth after two experimental albums.

Their latest album has brought them national attention from major media outlets, including the cover of Spin. While the album lacks the controlled chaos of the Tweedy/Bennett era, the spirit is still there. Some highlights include a charming duet with Feist on "You and I," an ode to civil war conscript "I'll fight," and a parody of American nostalgia in "Sonny Feeling." Finally there is "Bull Black Nova," imagine an Edgar Allan Poe tale set to electric mayhem.

Wilco is a great live band as well, playing sets that often last 2 1/2 hours. Rumor has it they will begin recording new material in January, so fans can eagerly await which direction Tweedy will take them. Hopefully, they will keep making great music.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Seeing a Bob Dylan Concert

I've never met anyone famous. Nor have I traveled to all places I wish to see. But about a year ago I did get to see Bob Dylan perform. One of my heroes that's actually still alive. It was on a rainy, chilly November night in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A Bob Dylan concert is a unique experience, and one will leave feeling they've just been through something . . .

So along with my sister we made the trek to Kalamazoo to see the aging icon of the 1960s. I've read enough about Dylan to know that he's no saint. Our society demands much of its heroes and Dylan would scoff at the very notion of hero worship. In "Subterranean Homesick Blues" from 1965, a stream of consciousness rant, Dylan proclaimed "don't follow leaders." His music is honest, sometimes panifully so about life. My first memory of his music is hearing "Positively 4th Street" and having a vague idea of the song's meaning. The comforting organ sound juxtaposed with the searing lyrics of either a jilted lover aimed at someone or maybe at the folk community who thought him a sellout for playing rock and roll. It's really hard to pinpoint the exact meaning towards any Dylan song.

The concert opened with a rollicking version of "Maggie's Farm." That was the song Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a rock band that enraged the folk community. Dylan's voice has aged and it's hard to decipher at times. On his first album, Bob Dylan (1962), he was a 21 year old trying to sound like an old man - so things have come full circle for him. But there's a poignancy to the voice . The second song, another 60s classic, Rainy Day Women 12 & 35 had a joyful carefree spirit. Towards the end his band performed 'Ballad of a Thin Man," perhaps the most searing condemnation of the American establishment ever written.

There were many memorable moments. Some of the best material from his recent trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006) were highlights. These recordings are just as relevant anything Dylan recorded in the 1960s. They are like a history of American music told through emotion rather than fact. The best word to describe them is timeless.

The two encores, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower have now transcended the 1960s. One a sermon on self-reliance, the other a vision of impending doom made famous by another major Dylan fan - Jimi Hendrix. At the end Dylan introduced his band took a bow and left the stage. Many get miffed he rarely recognizes the audience, but his fans realize that's just Dylan.

In all his many guises - scion of Woody Guthrie, Mod Rocker/Romantic poet, Old West outlaw, born again Christian, has been rocker, world weary prophet - all endear us to him. Dylan is a survivor of an America that seems distant to my generation - Cold War, Vietnam, Civil Rights, assassinations, and Watergate - as one who lived up to his early promise. In future ages scholars will look to Dylan's words to unravel the elusive American character. As for myself, that one encounter with greatness will always be with me.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rebooting the Second World War: Inglorious Basterds ****

Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds has the attitude of a Ramones album and the virtuosity of a Thomas Pynchon story. Tarantino's past films have taken formulaic genres and reinvented them. He threw out all the rules of Hollywood film making and a tidal wave swept the film industry. Inglorious Basterds takes things further and defies history itself. Movie goers will be discussing it for years to come, at least I will.

The title's somewhat misleading as there are four storylines which all converge at the end - very much like another WWII epic Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a moonshiner from Tennessee who leads an all Jewish unit that wage "Apache" warfare on the Nazis. We never learn much about them except that they love scalping Nazis. One of them beats them to death with baseball bats. The Basterds are an obvious nod to The Dirty Dozen (1966), who are group of violent misfits we can get behind because they kill Nazis.

Another unforgettable character, the "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa (Chrstolph Waltz) easily steals the film. Colonel Landa hunts his victims through charm, intimidation, and intelligence. The opening scene in which he interrogates a French farmer would make Hitchcock proud. Hollywood has a history creating sadistic Nazis, perhaps most memorably Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. He was a barbarian thug. While Landa is nothing of the sort, instead he's cultured, charming, and, a master of languages. An important point since not all Nazis were thugs; they were cultured people who listened to Beethoven. Tarantino's decision to create charismatic Nazi villain is actually truer to history than many WWII films.

Strong female characters also play a key role. Melanie Laurent plays a French girl who witnesses her family getting massacred and plots revenge, similar The Bride in Kill Bill. Diane Kruger plays German movie star Bridgette Von Hammersmark. These story lines, particularly Melanie's, add an emotional element to the film.

A few words about the film's violence. First of all, it's tame for a Tarantino film. Some may be repulsed by the the basterds - others gleeful. What's better than Nazis getting what they deserve? Does Tarantino dare his audience to cheer on the violence? There is no simple answer. The Allies also did horrible things to win the war such killing thousands of innocent civilians in their strategic bombing campaigns (not to mention the use of nuclear weapons). The cartoon violence in the film will excite and unsettle audiences.  If anything, it should make us think about violence, instead of simply responding to it.

Finally the war depicted in the film is more like a fantasy loosely based on the actual war. History has taken a course no one can change. Everyone wishes Hitler had been stopped in the 1930s and the war could've been avoided. The film offers some wish fulfillment on the surface, but also forces us to think of alternative paths to history.

Inglorious Basterds is an immensely entertaining film. Mike Myers plays a Scottish Colonel recalling Trevor Howard in The Third Man. A David Bowie song randomly appears. Tarantino has made his war movie; he has raised the bar once again.