Sunday, May 28, 2006

(Murray Lerner, USA, 1967, 95 mins.)

Well, all you ladies gather around.
The good sweet candy man's in town.
It's the candy man, candy man.
-- Mississippi John Hurt (1963)

Because the answer is still blowin' in the wind, Festival is a welcome reminder about the breadth and depth of folk. Since the genre has been around for so long (seemingly forever) and shows no signs of stopping--whether we're talking the polished folk-pop of Jewel or the freak-folk of Devendra Banhart and friends--it's easy to take for granted. It's just as easy to forget that folk isn't a singular look or sound, and that there was a time when it captured the popular imagination the way rock would in the 1970s.

There are glimpses of the decade to come in this handsome B&W film, which looks at the Newport Folk Festival, circa 1963-1966: In Paul Butterfield's rocked-up blues, in the newly-electrified Dylan, and mostly in Howlin' Wolf, kicking up a sweat-stained ruckus in a way that would have a profound effect on an upcoming generation of British rockers (especially Led Zeppelin). Then there's his hyped-up growl of a voice. It may be a slight exaggeration, but I can't imagine Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits without it. And if it sounds like I think Wolf is the shit, that’s ‘cause I do!

But Festival isn't just about the big names. It's also a glimpse at the smaller, more eccentric ones (Cousin Emmy, Almeda Riddle, Fiddler Beers, et al.), as well as the thousands of fans who made the Rhode Island gathering a major cultural event in the 1960s, leading up to Monterey Pop and Woodstock later in the decade, and numerous festivals in the present day, like Lollapalooza and Coachella, the latter of which will have its own film screened as part of the "Music Festivals on Film" series (see below).

Both stylistically and chronologically, Lerner's Oscar-nominated doc lies somewhere between Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960) and Wattstax (1973). That means musical performances combined with artist interviews (Joan Baez, Mel Lyman, etc.) and commentary from the crowd. There's even an act who appears in two of the films: The Staple Singers. There may be others, but it was the Staples who caught my attention as they were more of a gospel act in Festival. By the time of Wattstax, they had completely--and gloriously--funkified their sound.

I've mentioned few of the folk acts most closely associated with the era. Rest assured they're there. In terms of screen time, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Dylan (both before and after he plugged in), get plenty of it. It's just that I was most looking forward to the bluesmen, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Mississippis Fred McDowell and John Hurt--and yes, that marks the third time I've typed the words "John Hurt" in the past two weeks. What the hell, he deserves it (both Johns, that is). All deliver, especially the latter with an entrancing version of "Candyman."

On the down side, Johnny Cash's iconic "I Walk the Line" isn't shown in its entirety and that was a disappointment (it isn't the only such instance). I don't think Cash has ever looked happier, and I was totally digging it. I was also amused to note that he was chewing gum. It reminded me of the Jam's appearance on the recently released DVD The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave. Between verses of "Pretty Green," Paul Weller smacks away on his gum. It's still a great performance.

Also, the way Lerner (Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight) cuts between the casually dressed Mike Bloomfield and sartorial splendid Son House is irritating at first, i.e. young, old, white, black, plain, fancy, etc. At the same time, it's kind of cool, because Bloomfield ends up giving one of the funniest interviews in the film. Frankly, I was a little shocked when he dropped the intel that his dad's a multi-millionaire (and that he had a rockin' bar mitzvah). It wasn't hip to cop to that kind of thing back then--better to pretend to be working class. Still, Bloomfield admits that House is blues in a way he'll never be, but that smokin' harmonic player Paul Butterfield comes close.

Festival ends with a group sing-a-long led by Pete Seeger. It represents another link with the present as Bruce Springsteen has just released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The fact that Seeger is still kickin' in his 80s makes the timing all the sweeter. (Too bad Woody Guthrie didn’t live to see Wilco and Billy Bragg introduce him to a new audience via Mermaid Avenue.) Not only is it the best thing the Boss has done in years, but Seeger's songs are more relevant now than ever--yet more evidence that folk lives on in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of people.

Note: Click here for alternate version. Images from the AMG.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On Covering Gainsbourg:
Part II (or III)

After writing about the Cat Power/Karen Elson take on "Je t' non plus" a few weeks ago, I finally got the opportunity to listen to the entire Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited release. Consequently, I wanted to share this passage from Verve's press notes:

Anyone who thinks these interpretations are sacrilege should know that Gainsbourg was overjoyed when his work was readapted, especially by those brave enough to get inside his head, dismantling his work for material to build something else. As he put it, "songs are a minor art form, not for worshipping, but rather for twisting our way."

For the record, I don't think these English-language covers are sacrilegious. However, I do think Gainsbourg's compositions sound best and make the most sense when performed in French. Therefore, I find it ironic that one of the most successful interpretations is Carla Bruni's "Those Little Things" ("Ces petits riens"). Most of the other artists are British (Tricky), American (Michael Stipe), Canadian (Feist), or Scottish (Franz Ferdinand). Bruni, who is of Italian descent, is from France and sings with a French accent. It's not the same as singing in the original language, but every bit helps. (Gallic Gainsbourg muses Françoise Hardy and Dani also contribute en Ingles.)

On that note, I should mention that Bruni was able to make a successful transition from modelling to singing with her bestselling debut, Quelqu'un M'a Dit. Previously I wrote that Elson has a formidable challenge ahead of her in trying to attempt the same segue when so many models before her, like Naomi Campbell and Rosie Vela, have failed. I had forgotten about Bruni.

Lastly, for those who can't get enough of the former model--once best known for her affairs with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton--she has three tracks featured in the split screen romantic dramedy Conversations With Other Women, which is playing at this year's Seattle International Film Festival. The film stars a Brit (Helena Bonham Carter) and an American (Aaron Eckhart) and takes place entirely in a Manhattan hotel, so I'm not sure how French chanson ended up on the soundtrack, but it worked for me.

Note: This is actually part four in a series. Images from the AMG,, and SIFF. Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited will be released on 6/20/06, while Bruni's brilliant sister, Valérie Bruni Tedeschi (5x2), can next be seen in François Ozon's Time to Leave.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Marisa Monte, Infinito Particular and Universo Ao Meu Redor, Metro Blue/EMI (9/12/06 release date)

Next out of the gate is Infinito Particular ("The Particular Infinite"). Of the two simultaneously released recordings, it sounds most like a product of the present. It's also a smoother affair, the opposite of Seu Jorge's Cru. Or to paraphrase the Fine Young Cannibals, Universo is "the raw," i.e. the cru, while Infinito is "the cooked," i.e. the cozinhado (if my translation is to be trusted). That said, it's more mellow and downbeat.

Like Universo, Infinito isn't jazz, new age, or adult contemporary, although it could appeal to some of the more adventurous fans of those genres. And if Monte hasn't entered the world of the soundtrack yet, I hope she does, as Infinito sounds like it could be the accompaniment to something cinematic--a film by Lucretia Martel (The Holy Girl), perhaps. Granted, Martel is Argentinian, but it could work.

Despite her effortlessly enchanting vocals and the involvement of the multi-talented Jorge, who co-wrote "Levante" ("It Rises") and "O Rio" ("The River"), and Philip Glass, who provides string and wind arrangements, for the title track and (the untranslatable) "Gerânio," Infinito failed to ignite my imagination the way Universo did. It's still a fine album, especially the soaring "Levante," which features infant babbling mixed in amongst the brass. The underwater gurgling in "Aquela" ("That One") is another inventive touch. Overall, Infinito is more lush and ephemeral than its partner, but also less lively and immediate.

In retrospect, I wish I'd listened to these CDs in reverse order as I think I might appreciate Infinito more otherwise. And it is growing on me the more I listen to it. But it's too late to turn back the hands of time, so I declare Universo Ao Meu Redor the winner.


Marisa Monte shares a label with France's Keren Ann and a sensibility with Argentina's Juana Molina (who, like Seu Jorge, will be coming to Seattle this June). For listeners, like me, who are more familiar with those veteran performers than this equally experienced Brazilian talent, these self-proclaimed "non-identical twin" albums, are sure to come as a welcome revelation.

Note: End part two of two. Translations from Babel Fish. All images from the AMG.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Marisa Monte, Universo Ao Meu Redor and Infinito Particular, Metro Blue/EMI (9/12/06 release date)

After reading the press release regarding these two recordings, I thought: Too bad I'm not on Metro Blue's mailing list as I'd love to give 'em a listen. Well, lo and behold, UPS delivered both albums just yesterday. I guess dreams really can come true!

So, what was it about Metro Blue's announcement that caught my attention? To start, I'm interested in MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira), but the most significant morsel of information was that the platinum-selling Monte, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, has worked with most of the leading lights in the Brazilian diaspora, including Seu Jorge and, especially, New York-based guitarist Arto Lindsay (DNA, the Lounge Lizards, the Ambitious Lovers). As I quite like their work, I was anxious to hear what their collaborator sounds like. Further, Monte has also worked with such fascinating figures as Laurie Anderson, Gilberto Gil, and Naná Vasconcelos.


First up is Monte's sixth full-length, Universo Ao Meu Redor ("The Universe Around Me"), her tribute to the samba. It was co-produced by Mario Caldato (the Beastie Boys). The title track is a slinky number decorated with whistling in a distinctively 1960s style (visions of Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, and Catherine Deneuve are dancing in my head). Guilherme Calicchio's whistle returns in "Quatro Paredes" ("Four Walls"). On this piece, I was reminded more of Geoff and Maria Muldaur's version of "Brazil" (Ary Barroso/Bob Russell), now most closely associated with the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, but originally the highlight of their overlooked covers collection, Pottery Pie.

"O Bonde Do Dom" (roughly translated as "The Beat of the Drum") plays Monte's wistful voice off against a jaunty beat and Jaques Morelenbaum's mournful cello. There's a nice push and pull between the joy in her light, yet precise phrasing and the sadness of his strings. In "Lágrimas e Tormentos" ("Tears and Torments"), Cristina Braga (harp) engages in a pas de deux with Cézar Mendes (acoustic guitar) as Monte watches, as it were, from the wings. Then in "Statue of Liberty," she engages in a "deux" herself, this time with co-writer and ardent Brazilophile David Byrne. The only English-language track on the CD, it's over far too quickly at 1:13 minutes. (Guess she really is a fan of the quick-draw Muldaurs.)

It might sound as if Monte is living in the past, but that isn't quite right. Both "Statue" and "Satisfeito" ("Satisfied") feature Fernandinho Beat Box on the--you got it--beat box. And, after all, the album was produced by the man behind the boards for both Check Your Head (1992) and Ill Communication (1994), even if the trip-hoppier tracks conjure up more '70s-era Stevie Wonder than, say, '00s-era Danger Mouse. Still, the subtle electronic touches here and there tether the record to the present, no matter how tenuously.

A layer of "joy" floating atop a layer of "sadness" could, I suppose, describe the entire enterprise. While it's nothing new to describe a Brazilian release/artist as "summery" or "perfect for summer listening," I just can't resist. There's nothing cold, clinical, or calculated about Monte's celebration of the samba. The vibe is warm and inviting; relaxed, but never rambling or self-indulgent.

Endnote: End part one of two. Translations from Babel Fish. If anyone can provide more exact interpretations, please give a shout. According to the AMG, "Brazil" was originally called "Aquarela Do Brazil" (1939), is featured in Disney's Saludos Amigos (1942), and is one of the 20 most recorded songs of all time. Next up: Infinito Particular. All images from the AMG.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Joli Mois de Mai

Here are the reviews I'm working on for this month.

Amazon: Clean (Olivier
Assayas and Maggie Cheung--
together again!), Awesome; I...Shot That! (Beastie Boys concert shot by fans), The Golden Girls - The Complete Fifth Season [three-disc set] (my third Golden Girls review), The 4400 - The Complete Second Season [four-disc
(character-driven sci-fi series from Francis Ford Coppola's
production company; I also reviewed season one), An Unfinished Life (Lasse Hallström with Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman),
The Devil's Miner (intimate doc about a young Bolivian miner),
The Closer - The Complete First Season
[four-disc set] (TNT
tective drama with Kyra Sedgwick and J.K. Simmons), Like Mike 2 - Streetball, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? - The Com-
plete First Season
[three-disc set], and Elizabeth I (HBO-
Channel 4 mini with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons).

Resonance: Various Artists - Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited.

Siffblog: SIFF press screenings began on 5/1, so I'll be writing
more reviews than usual between now and mid-June (the fest
runs 5/25-6/18). They'll also be shorter, though I reserve the
right to ratchet up the word count whenever something like, say,
last year's The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard's
audacious take on James Toback's Fingers) crosses my path.

So, here's the haul for this month, including four non-SIFF-related
titles: Classes Tous Risques, Pusher II - With Blood on My Hands
(with the marvelous Mads Mikkelson), Crossing the Bridge - The
Sound of Istanbul
(music doc from Head-On's Fatih Akin), Draw-
ing Restraint 9
(Matthew Barney and Björk), The Road to Guan-
(Michael Winterbottom is he is every year), Sev-
en Swords
(fantastically inert actioner from the legendary Tsui
Hark), Love Streams (final go-round for John Cassavetes and
Gena Rowlands), and Festival (sketches of Newport Folk).

Endnote: Clean image from

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On Mick Harvey

I neglected to mention in my previous post, On Covering Gainsbourg, that Bad Seed Mick Harvey has issued two albums of English-language Gainsbourg covers. I remember hearing The Intoxicated Man on KCMU upon its release in 1995. (Pink Elephants arrived two years later.) At the time, I wasn't too familiar with the original material. I liked what I heard.

I'm not sure what I'd think now that I've absorbed more of Gainsbourg's work. Sylvie Simmons (A Pocketful of Gitanes) claims that Harvey's translations are some of the best, i.e. they come closest to the author's original intent. The idea of translating them at all still bugs me. Once I've had time to give both a listen, I'll post my thoughts. What I'm looking for is this: Is Harvey able to make the English thing work, in a way Cat Power and Karen Elson weren't, or did he--artistically, rather than commercially--compromise the integrity of his tribute by changing the lyrics?

Endnote: Part three in "On Covering Gainsbourg." Image from the AMG (Joe Dilworth credited). The Amazon listing for Intoxicated Man notes that "customers who bought this album also bought" Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson and Jane Birkin et Serge Gainsbourg, so it isn't just Harvey/Nick Cave fans snapping up these discs. And if they're heading for Gainsbourg after hearing Harvey, I think it's fair to say he's done more good than harm!

Monday, May 01, 2006

On Covering Gainsbourg

Creativity is a good thing. No, strike that, it's a great thing. But there's a lot to be said for rules. Granted, the very word makes many uncomfortable as we all have to live with them and most of us would rather make up our own--or do without altogether--but they're necessary, dammit. Sure, too many can stifle creativity, but too few can lead to blunders like the following...


So I just heard the new Cat Power/Karen Elson cover of "Je t' non plus." It comes from the album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, which includes Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Michael Stipe, Tricky, and the Kills. I've gotta weigh in. Because I love it? No. Because I hate it? No. Because I both love and hate it. On the one hand, it takes an admirable risk. On the other, it takes an unforgivable one. Written by Serge Gainsbourg, the song was originally sung as a duet between France's favorite hood-eyed lothario and his then-lover/soon-to-be-pregnant-wife, Jane Birkin [above right], the British actress/model/Hermès bag namesake with the era-defining sheet of straight hair.

"Je t'aime" was, naturally, released in 1969, and instantly became Gainsbourg's biggest hit. (That same year, he released "Soixante Neuf Année Erotique," i.e. "69 Erotic Year.") Many albums, soundtracks, and movies later, it remains his best known, best loved creation. It's pretty, poppy, and unabashedly sexy. Ridiculously so, as Birkin doesn't sing her lines as much as sigh and moan her way through them. And yet it's tasteful in a way the equally infamous Giorgo Moroder/Donna Summer aural orgasm, "Love to Love You Baby" (1975), is not. I love "Love," by the way, but I wouldn't use the word "subtle" to describe it.

As with Gainsbourg in the '60s, Cat Power (Chan Marshall, below with the Birkin bangs) in the '00s is a known quantity, so I'll leave her be, but what of Elson? Allow me to review her history before taking a look at this track, the only one of hers I've heard. First of all, Elson is, like Birkin, a (British) model. And not just any model, but a top model. Note that I didn't use the word "super." Elson isn't a personality or a corporate shill. She's "simply" a model, who has worked extensively for Vogue (which I read religiously). She's a tall thin twentysomething with delicate features, red hair, and white skin. Guess who she married last year? Why, Jack White of the White Stripes. As with Birkin, she proceeded to have a child with her new hubbie (the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg was l'enfant numéro un to result from the Gainsbourg/Birkin union).

Since she first materialized in magazines, Elson has been one of my favorite models. Simply put, she's striking, yet "relatable." Victoria's Secret cover girl Gisele Bundchen may be the most famous model in the world, and she's definitely beautiful, but she isn't relatable. Most women will never look anything like her, so why would we compare ourselves? (Even doe-eyed Daria Werbowy, below left, is more relatable.) Aside from the fact that Elson possesses a certain joie d'vivre, she's shockingly plain without makeup. She may not be stunning, but she's certainly unique. Of course, her svelte figure is rather unatainable for the average woman, but her adaptable face is her fortune.

Once I read that Elson was giving up modeling to sing--cutting back, at any rate--I became concerned. Other models, like Naomi Campbell, have tried the music thing. Most have failed. With the rise of MTV in the 1980s, it was predicted that only the prettiest would prevail. For a short while, that prediction seemed to come true, but most of the pretty faces turned out to have the shortest careers (Sebastian Bach, anyone?). We all age, after all, and if you don't have much talent in the first place... But more than that, the public tends to be particularly hard on models: "What makes them think they can sing, act, do anything other than...pose?"

If a model also happens to be married to a famous musician, like Jack White, the public, critics--everyone with access to a computer, a typewriter, a pen, a stick--is even more likely to give her a hard time. The assumption is that she's just riding on his coattails, i.e. working with his songs, his players, his producers, etc. If the end result is listenable, she's still likely to be wrung through the ringer for those very reasons. The assumption is that she never could have pulled off the feat on her own. Well, maybe she couldn't have, but in the end, the music should matter more than the method. Plenty of successful "musician-musicians" got where they are by riding on someone's coattails.

Well, I have no idea how Elson ended up working with Marshall on this Gainsbourg cover, but I have to admit that the very idea made me smile. As with the original song, we've got a musician trading verses with a model (ex- or otherwise). We've also got two women. Now this is the part that I would consider an "admirable risk." Not necessarily an original one, but a risk nonetheless.

Alas, this duet just isn't sexy. Is that why I think it's an unforgivable risk? No, but if someone else should make that argument, I'll be happy to back 'em up. Gainsbourg's ouvre, as a whole, represents some pretty sexed-up stuff. If you're gonna cover it--any of it--you should definitely make it sexy. Honor "Un Con" by adding some of your own sexiness, however you choose to define it. No, what's unforgivable is that, throughout the album (which I haven't yet heard in its entirety), Gainsbourg's original French lyrics have been translated into English. What the fuck were they thinking?

I'm not a Francophile, but nor am I a Francophobe. (I am an Anglophile, but that's neither here nor there. Plus, I'm part-British--why shouldn't I be?) But that has no bearing on my thoughts about Gainsbourg as a songwriter. When he wrote his songs, he wasn't just thinking about the words, i.e. what he was trying to say, but how they would sound together and what sorts of puns, double entendres, and such he could create from his choices. Consequently, his are some of the wittiest, most euphonious lyrics ever written. Also, the dirtiest!

Granted, my knowledge of French is limited, but I know what sounds good. I realize that reads a lot like, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." I'll stand by it. In regards to Gainsbourg, at any rate. "Je t' non plus" translates to "I love neither." (Or "neither do I.") In French, the two phrases are in opposition, but sound great together--"You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!" In English, the two phrases are in opposition, and sound like it--"You got your ketchup in my chocolate!" (As it were.) Big, big mistake.

In 1995, when Luna [above right] and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier covered Gainsbourg's 1968 duet, "Bonnie and Clyde," this time with pre-Birkin lover/musical protégé Brigitte Bardot [below left], they sang in the original language. Frankly, Sadier and Dean Wareham have more conventional, less distinctive voices. Nobody does that alcohol-meets-unfiltered-nicotine talk-sing thing quite like Gainsbourg, with the possible exception of Lee Hazlewood. It's pretty much a note-by-note rendition, but it sounds good. Creative? Not really. If anything, they could've taken a few chances, broken a few "rules"--sped it up, slowed it down--tried something that hadn't already been done. But the bottom line is that it works (and the "Bonnie Parker" version on the "Bonnie and Clyde" EP does change things up a bit). But Wareham and Sadier follow the cardinal rule when it comes to covering Gainsbourg: They don't translate the lyrics into English (even though Luna's New Zealand-born Wareham is a native English speaker).

With few exceptions, I think that's how it should be done. So far, I've only heard one deviation from "the rule" that doesn't rankle my nerves, and I've written about it in a previous post: Seu Jorge's Portuguese cover of "Chatterton." Heck, Gisele's countryman doesn't just translate the lyrics, he changes a few of the words. As a Gainsbourg purist, I should be offended, but I'm not. Why? Because although I love our crazy, patchwork-quilt of a language, Portuguese shares many of the same qualities that make sung French sound so beautiful (like fewer of our harsh-sounding consonants). Jorge really sells the song. He honors it and makes it his own at the same time. Sure, the original's better, but this is one rule-breaking Gainsbourg cover done right.

Despite the innate excellence of the song selection, despite the fact that Marshall and Elson have nice voices (though there should be more contrast between them), despite the pleasant arrangement, "I love neither" is Gainsbourg done wrong. My solution? Pretend that this cover does not exist. For my money, it doesn't take anything away from the excellence of Cat Power's The Greatest. In fact, it has nothing to do with the album, one of her best. Also, it may not have anything to do with the solo career Elson is preparing to launch. Or it may have everything to do with it. In any case, I sincerely hope Elson's debut will be judged on its own merits, even if folks like Marshall, White, and the Raconteurs (White's new band) are all over it. And as a corrective, I offer the following: Get two men--one "manly," one not--to sing the song, say, Mark Lanegan and Antony. But most of all: In French!

Note: Part two in "On Covering Gainsbourg." Images from Amazon, the AMG (Stefano Giovannini credited for Cat Power, Jill Greenberg for Luna), Google, Saigon Net, and ...Simply Daria (David Ferrua). Incidentally, this piece was already too long without mentioning model Rosie Vela. Even with the help of Mssrs. Becker and Fagen (Steely Dan), her music career was a bust.