Soaked in period detail, the third remake of Raymond Chandler's eponymous novel is fascinating to look at if a mite leisurely in pacing. Gumshoe Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is hired by mountainous criminal Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) to find a former girlfriend. Raymond Chandler had many qualities as a writer but reverence was hardly one of them. Thus, the reverence for the period, manifest in the impressively detailed art direction, seems strangely out of place for a writer whose tone of cynical romanticism often expressed contempt for the Los Angeles of the '30s and '40s, the time and place of which he wrote. The film has retained his romanticism but muted his biting wit, and in casting the laconic, aging Mitchum to play the younger, highly verbal detective, and insisting on a halting pace, it casts its lot with nostalgia rather than excitement. But, if less well-made than the previous version, Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944), the film has its pleasures, among them the iconographic performance of Mitchum, the wonderful camerawork of John Alonzo, and the brooding score of David Shire.
Trouble Is a Lonesome Town was Lee Hazlewood's first proper solo album, following his prosperous late-'50s partnership with Duane Eddy and prior to his mentoring and making of '60s boot-walker Nancy Sinatra. Hazlewood considered it a "writer's album" from which other artists could cull songs, but Trouble is a perfectly legitimate effort in its own right and characteristically wonderful Hazlewood. The songs are succinct, country-drenched cowboy ballads given a certain undeniable authority by Hazlewood's warm, bottomless baritone, which booms out of the music like a voice amplified from the heavens. The album runs through jail songs ("Six Feet of Chain"), railroad songs ("The Railroad"), traveling songs ("Long Black Train"), and cold-hearted love songs ("Look at That Woman") peppered with outlaws, itinerants, dead-end women, card players, and beat-down heroes, too. Between the songs, Hazlewood shows his storyteller's gift by offering up bits of narration, and the album itself is a storyteller's record. Trouble is like a cross between a novel full of idiosyncratic character studies (à la Faulkner) and a John Wayne Western, with Hazlewood -- looking a lot like a dharma bum on the album cover, sitting on the railroad tracks with his guitar and a dangling cigarette -- spinning out intricate yarns about all manner of interesting souls with names like Orville Dobkins and Emory Zickfoose Brown, all residents of the hard-scrabbled fictitious town Trouble ("nothing with a railroad running through it"), which is loosely based on his birthplace. The music is as somber and loping as such subject matter demands, mostly consisting of strummed acoustic guitars and woeful harmonica wails that weep the blues. But it is in the purposefully humorous, sympathetic, and colorful storytelling that the distinct, dead-on Americana heart of Trouble lays
Milos Forman had proven his talent for astute social comedy in such earlier Czech films as Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1967), and his adept treatment of Cuckoo's Nest's metaphorically loaded conflict fulfilled the promise of an immigrant observer of American culture indicated in his first U.S. feature, Taking Off (1971). Shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital, and visually imprisoning the characters in tightly framed compositions, Haskell Wexler's and Bill Butler's cinematography underlines the psychological as well as physical confinement dogging the patients. The restrained, soft-spoken control of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched contrasts with the thoughtful vigor of Jack Nicholson's McMurphy, further emphasizing both the need to revolt and the difficulty in doing so posed by such consistent, quiet, internalized power. For a culture battered by the chaotic rebellions of the late 1960s/early 1970s, and the serial failures of institutional authority culminating in Watergate and the fall of Saigon, Cuckoo's Nest's resigned yet hopeful portrayal of spirited non-conformity touched a nerve, turning it into one of the most popular films of 1975. The independently produced film became only the second film in history to sweep all five top Academy Awards, winning Best Picture for producers Saul Zaentz and 31-year-old Michael Douglas, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay for Lawrence Hauben's and Bo Goldman's adaptation of the Kesey novel. Shrewdly combining roustabout fervor and humor with an acknowledgement of society's different limits, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest effectively communicated the disillusionment of the waning counter-culture even as it optimistically asserted that one rebel could make a difference.
Expectations for Sleater-Kinney's fourth album were stratospheric, with the raging, tuneful feminist catharsis of Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out having garnered near-universal critical raves and outlandish media hype. Afraid of falling into a predictable rut, though, the band bravely pushed its range of expression into more personal, subdued, and cerebral territory on The Hot Rock. That means the record isn't quite as immediately satisfying as its two brilliant predecessors, but it does reward those willing to spend time absorbing its nervy introspection and moodiness. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein push relentlessly for more complex interplay, both in their vocal and instrumental work; even the gentlest songs might break into unexpected dissonance or take an angular, off-kilter melodic direction. As such, there's never an obvious, gut-level anthem that jumps out at the listener in the manner of an "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" or "Words and Guitar," but the intensity simmering under the surface does bubble over often, thanks to the group's greater use of dynamic shifts. There are fewer protest songs this time around, as most of the lyrics explore failed relationships and personal uncertainty, yet it manages to retain the sense of empowering catharsis that makes the group so compelling. The Hot Rock can invite comparisons to a less jam-oriented Television or a minimalist version of indie compatriots Helium (not to mention the obvious Kim Gordon homage on "Get Up"), but in the end, it stands on its own as Sleater-Kinney's most progressive and experimental work, as well as their darkest.
In the Mood for Love is a lushly romantic, intensely sensual film, even though the two principals rarely so much as hold hands onscreen. The leads are photographed to emphasize their movie star looks, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung each give the sort of performance in which a glance or gesture means more than much of the dialogue. Director Wong Kar-wai's use of color, music, and sound is simultaneously nostalgic and refreshingly original. The gorgeous photography pours color through each scene, making everything from Li-Zhen's extraordinary dresses to the drab hallways seem beautiful. One often thinks of great cinematography as being stunning scenery, but the canvas here is of alleys, stairways, cramped offices, and even more cramped apartments and is every bit as breathtaking, perhaps even more so because beauty has been found in the most unexpected of places. Wong's use of tight shots and low lighting adds to the intimate atmosphere, as well as his reliance on a slow-moving camera that takes its time to absorb all that is going on, practically moving in sync with the music. Similarly, there is the continual presence of food. In scene after scene, the characters are either eating or preparing to eat, creating the feeling for the audience that they are peeking in on the characters' quieter, more personal moments. Throughout the film, what is unsaid is almost more important than what is actually said, and there is a sense that the film is a memory of one or both of the leads, looking back with regret at lost opportunities. In the Mood for Love ultimately provides a rare look at a director who is maturing as a cinematic storyteller.
It may be a bit reductive to call Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the Reckoning to Slanted & Enchanted's Murmur -- not mention easy, considering that Pavement recorded a song-long tribute to R.E.M.'s second album during the Crooked Rain sessions -- but there's a certain truth in that statement all the same. Slanted & Enchanted is an enigmatic masterpiece, retaining its mystique after countless spins, but Crooked Rain strips away the hiss and fog of S&E, removing some of Pavement's mystery yet retaining their fractured sound and spirit. It's filled with loose ends and ragged transitions, but compared to the fuzzy, dense Slanted, Crooked Rain is direct and immediately engaging -- it puts the band's casual melodicism, sprawling squalls of feedback, disheveled country-rock, and Stephen Malkmus' deft wordplay in sharp relief. It's the sound of a band discovering its own voice as a band, which is only appropriate because up until Crooked Rain, Pavement was more of a recording project between Malkmus and Scott Kannberg than a full-fledged rock & roll group. During the supporting tour for Slanted, Malkmus and Kannberg recruited bassist Mark Ibold and percussionist Bob Nastanovich, and original drummer Gary Young was replaced by Steve West early into the recording for this album, and the new blood gives the band a different feel, even if the aesthetic hasn't changed much. The full band gives the music a richer, warmer vibe that's as apparent on the rampaging, noise-ravaged "Unfair" as it is on the breezy, sun-kissed country-rock of "Range Life" or its weary, late-night counterpart, "Heaven Is a Truck." Pavement may still be messy, but it's a meaningful, musical messiness from the performance to the production: listen to how "Silence Kit" begins by falling into place with its layers of fuzz guitars, wah wahs, cowbells, thumping bass, and drum fills, how what initially seems random gives way into a lush Californian pop song. That's Crooked Rain a nutshell -- what initially seems chaotic has purpose, leading listeners into the bittersweet heart and impish humor at the core of the album. Many bands attempted to replicate the sound or the vibe of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but they never came close to the quicksilver shifts in music and emotion that give this album such lasting appeal. Here, Pavement follow the heartbroken ballad "Stop Breathin'" with the wry, hooky alt-rock hit "Cut Your Hair" without missing a beat. They throw out a jazzy Dave Brubeck tribute in "5-4=Unity" as easily as they mimic the Fall and mock the Happy Mondays on "Hit the Plane Down." By drawing on so many different influences, Pavement discovered its own distinctive voice as a band on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, creating a vibrant, dynamic, emotionally resonant album that stands as a touchstone of underground rock in the '90s and one of the great albums of its decade.
A tribute to American film noir, Blood Simple was the Coen Brothers' remarkably confident film debut. It introduced the world to the brothers' dark and enjoyably warped vision, setting the tone for their later and increasingly famous works. Blood Simple also established the Coens as some of the most innovative filmmakers of their generation, featuring acrobatic camera manipulation and stunningly effective point-of-view shots, the most memorable of which is M. Emmet Walsh's view of a dripping sink. For his part, Walsh gave one of the best performances of his career, a savory blend of amoral sleaze and mean-eyed greed. His performance is the black heart and soul of Blood Simple, a film that churns with sadistic good humor as it delivers a brutal yet beautifully executed shot to the head.
Already a well regarded pop singer, British blonde Dusty Springfield landed in Memphis in 1969, and the stage was set for her finest hour. Dusty In Memphis is a beautiful marriage of immaculate production work, classy string-heavy arrangements, a great band of session players, and truly wonderful vocals (by Dusty and the Sweet Inspirations, whose backing vocals bring a gospel touch to the proceedings). Considering the circumstances and production personnel (the legendary team of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin), one might’ve expected this to be a gritty soul album in the grand old Atlantic/Stax tradition. Instead we get treated to an exceptional album of symphonic pop songs, and though the album didn’t sell in impressive numbers upon its release it has since been belatedly recognized as a classic of blue-eyed soul. What makes these intimate pop songs so soulful is Dusty’s ultra sexy voice; her husky, hushed tones have a naturally sad pitch that conveys a sensual sense of longing. Interpreting songs from some of the best and most sophisticated songwriters of the day, including four compositions from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the album contains a warm, lushly layered sound that is singular in its stately elegance. I could go on and name some standout songs (“Son Of A Preacher Man” is the album’s best known song and its lone hit), but the whole album is one big highlight that should be listened to in its entirety. Out of print for some time but reissued by Rhino Records in 1992, Dusty In Memphis shows off a great singer in the right place at the right time at the peak of her powers
Hal Hartley's second excursion to absurd suburbia, Trust offers audiences the surreal farce and deadpan wit that Hartley made his calling cards. It also offers a surprisingly touching romance, marked by wry irony and universally resonant concerns, centering on trust as a substitute for love. Trust also works as a calm, unforced, deeply precise meditation on identity, and the ways in which it can be built, destroyed, and re-formed into something new and unanticipated. Clad in purple lipstick and a neon mini-skirt at the film's beginning, Maria (Adrienne Shelly) gradually transforms into a serious, intelligent young woman, with glasses and pulled-back hair. It's a believable transformation, thanks to Shelly's remarkable performance; one of the film's truest moments comes when Maria writes in her diary, "I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid." Fortunately, in Martin Donovan's Matthew, Maria finds someone who understands this. Donovan makes no apologies for his character's difficult personality, making the misanthropic, emotionally stunted repairman's idiosyncrasies raggedly endearing. He and Shelly navigate the flat Formica landscape of Hartley's dialogue with great ease, their blunt, no-frills performances forming the heart of an ornery but immensely satisfying film.
Jazz and film noir are perfect bedfellows, as evidenced by the soundtrack of Louis Malle's Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). This dark and seductive tale is wonderfully accentuated by the late-'50s cool or bop music of Miles Davis, played with French jazzmen -- bassist Pierre Michelot, pianist René Urtreger, and tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen -- and American expatriate drummer Kenny Clarke. This recording evokes the sensual nature of a mysterious chanteuse and the contrasting scurrying rat race lifestyle of the times, when the popularity of the automobile, cigarettes, and the late-night bar scene were central figures. Davis had seen a screening of the movie prior to his making of this music, and knew exactly how to portray the smoky hazed or frantic scenes though sonic imagery, dictated by the trumpeter mainly in D-minor and C-seventh chords. Michelot is as important a figure as the trumpeter because he sets the tone, as on the stalking "Visite du Vigile." While the mood of the soundtrack is generally dour and somber, the group collectively picks up the pace exponentially on "Diner au Motel." At times the distinctive Davis trumpet style is echoed into dire straits or death wish motifs, as on "Generique" or "L'Assassinat de Carala," respectively. Clarke is his usual marvelous self, and listeners should pay close attention to the able Urtreger, by no means a virtuoso but a capable and flexible accompanist. This recording can stand proudly alongside Duke Ellington's music from Anatomy of a Murder and the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me as great achievements of artistic excellence in fusing dramatic scenes with equally compelling modern jazz music.
Maggie Gyllenhaal's first starring role provides her with the opportunity to explore a rather demanding character, which she performs with depth and humor in Secretary. As Lee Holloway, she portrays a young woman with a strange addiction to pain, but remains engaging and easily empathized with. Lee's endeavors in the "real" world, after a youth with an emotionally disruptive family life, prove to be a bizarre representation of one's willingness to comply, in order to fulfill one's desires. By taking a secretarial job with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), she learns that taking orders is not only within her capacity as an employee, but in fact, serves a higher purpose for the whole of her person. Gyllenhaal makes magic as Lee, with a blatantly erotic upward gaze somehow innocent enough to leave both Mr. Grey and the audience wondering whether Lee -- or Gyllenhaal herself -- is aware of just how hot she really is. Lee becomes both emotionally and physically charged by her encounters with Spader's Mr. Grey, who issues commands in an unbearably sexy low voice. Spader's attractive forcefulness equals Gyllenhaal's more vulnerable role in its effectiveness of characterization. Tenaciously exacting, Mr. Grey's affection for obedience turns darkly appealing when sexy Spader ruthlessly delivers his demands. This strong opposition might suggest issues of stereotypical gender roles, but the film does not presume to make generalizations. Instead, it speaks specifically of the circumstances within one unique relationship that will define itself by the needs of the two individuals involved, however disturbing they may be. Within the deep mental and emotional issues of a somewhat alternative relationship, director Steven Shainberg creates a careful balance of mood using well-timed humor to prevent getting bogged down by the severity of the story. Meanwhile, the film pushes the boundaries of the R rating by use of implication. The things it doesn't show explicitly -- like masturbation -- are more than hinted at, while not officially breaking any limits. Taking metaphor to the extreme, Secretary allows access to the laughter and the pain of love in raw form.
The most inventive, assured, and playful debut in hip-hop history, 3 Feet High and Rising not only proved that rappers didn't have to talk about the streets to succeed, but also expanded the palette of sampling material with a kaleidoscope of sounds and references culled from pop, soul, disco, and even country music. Weaving clever wordplay and deft rhymes across two dozen tracks loosely organized around a game-show theme, De La Soul broke down boundaries all over the LP, moving easily from the groovy my-philosophy intro "The Magic Number" to an intelligent, caring inner-city vignette named "Ghetto Thang" to the freewheeling end-of-innocence tale "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)." Rappers Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove talked about anything they wanted (up to and including body odor), playing fast and loose on the mic like Biz Markie. Thinly disguised under a layer of humor, their lyrical themes ranged from true love ("Eye Know") to the destructive power of drugs ("Say No Go") to Daisy Age philosophy ("Tread Water") to sex ("Buddy"). Prince Paul (from Stetsasonic) and DJ Pasemaster Mase led the way on the production end, with dozens of samples from all sorts of left-field artists -- including Johnny Cash, the Mad Lads, Steely Dan, Public Enemy, Hall & Oates, and the Turtles. The pair didn't just use those samples as hooks or drumbreaks -- like most hip-hop producers had in the past -- but as split-second fills and in-jokes that made some tracks sound more like DJ records. Even "Potholes on My Lawn," which samples a mouth harp and yodeling (for the chorus, no less), became a big R&B hit. If it was easy to believe the revolution was here from listening to the rapping and production on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with De La Soul the Daisy Age seemed to promise a new era of positivity in hip-hop.
The Birds features a classic Alfred Hitchcock setup: average people placed in circumstances turned upside down. And of course, there are the requisite dark insinuations and strange psychological underpinnings. Though we're never sure why the birds are rising up, their behavior seems to be a response to humankind's complacency and arrogance. It's a frightening yet sportive vision of Judgment Day. As in Psycho, Hitchcock's previous film, the normalcy of the setting is allowed to set in before the audience is thrown into the perverse drama. When the bird violence comes, Hitchcock pulls out all the stops to make it as realistic as one could imagine. There are 371 trick shots in the film. Some have dated, but for the most part the effects are still effective. The last shots are especially memorable. And the movie features a unique soundtrack from frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann: no music, only bird sounds organized as if they were music, for maximum creepy impact. The Birds stands as the end of an unprecedented period when Hitchcock could no wrong; he made only five more features, with decidedly mixed artistic and financial results.
After a three-year break, Neu! members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother buried their differences temporarily, and reunited for another go at the "motorik" sound they had developed with their debut in 1971. The strange tension and presentation of Neu! 2 and the emergence of their former band Kraftwerk may have precipitated the reunion, but, whatever the reason, the end result proved worth the time, effort, and bickering it took to crank this one out. One thing that is noticeably different on 75 is the presence of synthesizers and the preference of them, it seems, over Rother's guitar. "Isi," which opens the album, features Dinger's metronymic percussion holding down the 2/4 rhythm and a trademark one-note bassline provided by a piano, but the gorgeous sonic washes and flourishes normally handled by Rother's guitar-slinging hands are now painted with a synth. "Seeland" offers a return to the six strings with what would in subsequent years become Rother's ornate "singing" style of playing. Dinger's rhythmic patterns here are deceptively simple. They create a long, trudging 4/4, syncopated every other line, and punctuated by a small ride cymbal at the end of each phrase as Rother's guitar provides both cascading single string notes and a shifting, pulsing bassline. It's a beautiful wasteland, this track; sparse yet full of melodic interplay and layered guitars and keyboards. The last track on side one is "Leb Wohl," an exercise in white noise, industrial textures, and natural or, "found" sounds, a piano and gorgeous, spare and intricate guitar chords. For side two, Neu! adds Dinger's brother, Thomas, and Hans Lampe on various percussions to allow Dinger to play guitar, piano, and organ, and to add some bottom end to the band's sound. The funny thing is they come off sounding more like a melodic punk band on "Hero," with Dinger's growling vocals being reminiscent of a young Mick Jagger on steroids. His Keith Richards-style chords stand in stark contrast to Rother's more lyrical approach. Perhaps this isn't such a surprise when we consider the Damned's first album was recorded in 1975. The ten-minute "E-Musick" becomes Neu!'s signature track for this disc, however. With distorted percussion -- courtesy of a synth and sequencer, as well as a drum kit put through a phase shifter, Rother's melodic synth lines are free to roam, wide and far, carrying within them a foreshadowing of his guitar solos a few minutes later. These long screaming lines, reminiscent of Steve Hillage at his best, with Dinger's wonderful rhythm backing and treatments of the instruments, provides a definitive statement on the Neu! "motorik" sound. This is music not only for traveling, from one place to the next, but also for disappearance into the ether at a steady pace. This may have been Neu!'s final statement -- at least in the studio; Dinger issued (without Rother's permission) an inferior live '72 album -- but at least they went out on a much higher note than Neu! 2, and in a place where their innovations are still being not only recognized, but utilized.
Based on Lionel White's novel Obsession, Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965) transforms a story about a couple on the run into an existential romance and an essay on the possibilities of film. With no script, Jean-Paul Belmondo's and Anna Karina's flight to southern France becomes a spontaneous series of incidents that reflect on romance, aesthetics, story-telling, and art as an antidote to alienation. Equating men with the intellect and women with the body, and using the widescreen frame to emphasize the couple's psychic division, Godard unites them in romantic moments and musical numbers, but these gestures cannot prevent their final, explosive separation. Stylized colors and compositions celebrate art for art's sake (even though the colors also carry potential meaning), as in the repetition of the couple's response to a murder in three different shooting styles. Allusions to other films, the brief appearance of Hollywood tough-guy director Samuel Fuller, and references to writers, writing, and painters all emphasize Godard's concern with the meaning of cinema and art, and their place in life. Though not as popular as its predecessor Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le Fou won the Critics' Prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, and it was a key precursor to his most radical 1960s film, Weekend (1968).
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard Staring: Jean-Paul Belmndo, Anna Karina
On paper, two Ohio white guys forming a drum-and-guitar blues duo seemed like the last thing the world needed in 2002. Fortunately, the guys revisiting the tried and true were guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney a.k.a. the Black Keys. With the former's blown-cone distortion and slinky riffs, and the latter's positively Bonham-esque way of inhabiting each change with a loose power, they smacked judgment out of one's brain before anyone could call it cliche. Taking cues from Fat Possum-centric blues legends like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside (both covered here on the first two tracks) and garage fetishists like Billy Childish and Jack White alike, the Akron duo arrived with swagger on these 13 tracks. Tackling covers traditional (like Sleepy John Estes's "Leavin' Trunk") and non (the Beatles's "She Said, She Said") and their own workouts (the aptly titled "Heavy Soul"), THE BIG COME UP wins on the strength of Auerbach's ravagedly expressive vocals--which match the egdes in his guitar tone crag for crag.
William Friedkin's crime thriller, based on a book by U.S. Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, concerns an arrogant Secret Service official who wants to get his man at any price. Willem Dafoe plays Eric Masters, an ultra-smooth counterfeiter who has managed to sidestep the police for years. He is so up-front about his dealings, in fact, that when some undercover agents try to make a deal with him at his health club, Eric tells them, "I've been coming to this gym three times a week for five years. I'm an easy guy to find. People know they can trust me." But when young and eager Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) finds out that his partner has been cold-bloodedly murdered by Eric, he trains his relentlessness upon capturing Eric -- whether it means robbery, murder, or exploiting his friends and associates. As Chance erases the dividing line between good and evil, he drags his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) and Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), an ex-con, down into the maelstrom with him.
Directed by: William Friedkin Starring: William Petersen,Willem Dafoe, John Pankow
This soundtrack to the flash and clever Superfly is as pleasing and pretty in your living room as it is mingled with the images that it aurally represents. In fact the anti-drug message on the record is far stronger and more definite than in the film, which was diluted by schizoid cross purposes. Superfly, the film, glamorizes machismo-cocaine consciousness while making a political moralization about the process that keeps drugs illegal yet sees that they are supplied in quantity to the ghetto. The only way that black political consciousness is treated is to make it seem impotent and trivial.
Yet the implied "plot" in Curtis Mayfield's music and lyrics closely follows the line of the film; each song is readily identifiable with various scenes; the many attitudes and poses that Curtis adopts in his music, whether it be the tough-yet-sensitive persona or a sort of narrative third person, all point to rejection of dope control and self-liberation, the most positive themes of what will be a heavily influential film.
But the greatest quality of any soundtrack is that it can stand alone. Superfly is not only a superior, imaginative soundtrack, but fine funky music as well and the best of Curtis Mayfield's four albums made since he left the Impressions since the "Gypsy Woman" days. The Mayfield-Pate team dipped into three distinct musical satchels to pull out this lovely and energetic song cycle -- the established Shaft system of dramatic, heaving chords and souped-up, insectine guitar and synthesizer chops by Isaac Hayes; the lyrical power of the song style and orchestration of Marvin Gaye and David Van dePitte; and, certainly not least, the amazing emotive skill of Curtis Mayfield, whose technique is honed and carried to strange extremes. "Pusherman," the major vocal theme of the film, identifying the protagonist ("a man of odd circumstance, a victim of ghetto demands"), is almost scary and perverse, given Curtis' manner: He kisses the word "pusherman" rather than sings it. The implications are so heavy that this truly amazing song, with its metallic percussion and hypnotic, drugged tone, couldn't possibly be released as a single. The more conservative "Freddie's Dead," which deals with the demise of a sad fat stooge, was doled out instead to a faunching public and is now at the top of everyone's Hot Hundred.
"Little Child Runnin' Wild" sets the tone of the whole record -- episodic, tragic, hungry and telling tales of psychic misery. The story is that the coke dealer wants to split the scene, leave it clean and is all pent up with conflicts of values. Mayfield's soothing falsetto purr transforms into an anxious cry during climactic moments in the song/stories -- he is a tremendous vocal actor: "Pusherman," "Freddie's Dead" and "Eddie You Should Know Better" are crawling with tension; "Nothing On Me" and "Superfly" are triumphant and wailing, and "Give Me Your Love" is fine accompaniment for the slippery bathtub-fuck scene that makes the whole picture worthwhile for many of its patrons. The moral is that ol' Superfly is still badass stuff even if the cops are behind it, and also that this record is currently selling as well as good coke and deserves to do so.
- Bob Donat, Rolling Stone, 11/9/72.
U2 weren't known for their ambiguity, but by 1991 they'd turned into a teenager: pissy, confused, quitting sports they were good at. From Achtung Baby on, panoramic ballads sat side by side with mini-rebellions masquerading as "art," peaking with 1993's Zooropa, also included here, featuring Bono's drag-queen falsetto on "Lemon." Repackaging it all as a six-disc set (including remixes and alternate versions) is pretentious, extravagant, and romantic -- U2, after all.
In the 19th century, society had a method for sweeping women whose behaviour was deemed strange and unusual under the carpet: they’d be spirited away to places with large lawns and high walls, and left to keep counsel with sprites and faeries on a brainful of laudanum. Thankfully, in the liberal and enlightened 21st century, we now recognise that they’re actually far better suited to being pop stars, an arrangement that’s worked out happily for everyone.
In fact, now that their male counterparts have retreated onto the endangered species list, the onus of providing pop music with the “strange fascination” that Bowie once sang about has fallen more or less squarely on the padded shoulders of the Lady Gagas, Janelle Monáes and Florence Welchs of this world. Like those artists, Florence is possessed of her own idiosyncracies and odd preoccupations (sometimes self-consciously so: she recently told one interviewer that her favourite pastime was “dancing down supermarket aisles”), but she’s no fool. For evidence of that, you only need to listen to ‘Ceremonials’ and consider the album she could have made.
When asked by her label if she fancied following the massive success of her 2009 debut by recording its follow-up in the States with a phalanx of exorbitantly priced R&B producers, Welch toyed with the notion, but ultimately had the good sense to decide, “No. No. No. No! I can’t do that. I can’t just suddenly leave behind everything that made ‘Lungs’.” The record she has made is really more of a refinement of ‘Lungs’’ sound and spirit than any sort of departure. Indeed, you could argue ‘Ceremonials’ is actually quite a cautious album. It’s also a very good one.
From the off, everything is (of course) bigger, grander, more dramatic; this is an album that’s absorbed every kitchen sink hurled its way and is still ravenous for more, like the matter-engorging spawn of a collision between Large Hadron Colliders. Opener ‘Only If For A Night’ blows away the cobwebs with a fragmented dream-narrative about a ghostly visitor for whom Flo oh-so-quaintly does “cartwheels in your honour” over palindromic layers of stiletto strings and crashing drums, while the chorus of ‘Shake It Out’, the first single proper, announces itself with a sudden, overpowering immensity akin to sheets of ice being atomised by a ruddy great hammer. It’s as though indie’s self-styled Lady of Shalott has discovered how to emote through a bullhorn.
There’s more to ‘Ceremonials’ than simply ‘Lungs’-with-bigger-lungs, though. She might have sidestepped the venal, vapid pop album her label were nudging her towards, but nonetheless, there’s a distinct R&B flavour to songs like ‘Heartlines’ and, especially, ‘Spectrum’, whose histrionic urgings to “Say my name!” are a bit like having your eyes angrily jabbed out by an irate Beyoncé (a good thing). Elsewhere, she indulges her love of ’60s soul on ‘Lover To Lover’, taking a sound that’s become as second nature to today’s female singer-songwriters as drawing breath, and bucking the odds by eking what must surely be the last remaining ounce of fun from it.
We’ve mentioned before that ‘Ceremonials’ is big. Clocking in at a shade under an hour long, it’s perhaps a little too big. The album closes on a frustratingly superfluous note with the shallow bluster of ‘Leave My Body’, and a few other tracks (the enchanting, but scarcely epic, likes of ‘Seven Devils’ and ‘All This And Heaven Too’) feel abnormally drawn-out. On a record of big ambitions and grandiose production, that’s an easy trap to fall into, but a little brevity – think of what ‘Kiss With A Fist’ achieved in just 124 seconds – might’ve gone a long way.
No matter. There’s an air of inevitability around this album’s impending ubiquity, and its success will be richly deserved. It’s not a strategy that will work indefinitely, but by taking what worked about ‘Lungs’ and amplifying those qualities to a natural, satisfying conclusion, Florence has made a near-great pop record that should afford her the creative freedom to do whatever the hell she wants next time around. She may be away with the faeries, but she knows exactly what she’s doing.