Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Eternally Stylish Dick Farney

Gotta say, this time I prefer the cd to the 78. It's just older.

The sterling El label put a lot of Dick Farney's records out on a single cd last year, aptly titled The Eternally Stylish Dick Farney. Which is fantastic, because I'd never heard of him.

My ear's been bending these days in the direction of Dick Haymes, Dean Martin, and all the AM radio honeydrippers relegated to antiques malls and sleepy bookstores at the shore, bountiful stuff in flea markets and the cheapo piles at the busiest of used record outlets. Farney, a Brazilian singer popular in the 1940's, fresh from aspirations of a recital piano career, had a startling, quiet voice that, in keeping with a Hollywood formula of the day, drew women like zombies to his heart--often below a saturatedly white moon. He was the antecedent of Joao Gilberto, the man who joined the hands of Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim, so they say.

And they say its a trick certain evil men know, a way to speak low so as to lure curious prey closer. George Sanders and a few others less remarkable did it with success while maintaining the darkness.

Dick Farney fit right in with the pop vocalist crowd; his willfully seductive delivery counted on many a teenage boy's and girl's exotic notions of a Latin Pied Piper. Or a least his manager counted on them.

This 78 copy of "Marina", my unparalleled favorite of Farney's songbook, arrived at the office on Friday--a scant three weeks overdue. It was exquisitely packaged--I'm compelled to say--and the Baptist leaflet with the pic of the Twin Towers ablaze on the cover, included in the parcel, clarified maybe why the quality of the object wasn't better, or more accurately described, on eBay.

In a reverie I imagine a slightly tanner, aloof Barry Corbin, rising from an online Texas Hold 'Em chatroom (the cards have topless girls!), glancing down at his Dick Farney 78/beercoaster and concluding, "Everything my mama graced was perfect".


Wouldn't you know that I was the jackass with blinders on who rose with paddle in hand to proclaim, "Sold!"

Jesus, it's a pretty song.

And the deluge of stylus-ravaged noise tells me someone's mama had a great many satisfying daydreams in the meandering winds that separate Brazil from her bedroom. If I close my eyes I can see the chair.

The recording (for the Majestic label, probably early 50's) is from a later session than the one I took to on the El label cd (40's?) Or maybe it was just the American market recording. Whatever the circumstances, the drowsy piano was switched out for a Nelson Riddle style orchestral arrangement, which is fitting since Farney borrowed his share of sugarcubes from Sinatra. A real flesh human, this Dick Farney. And that guyish flawed quality made the swelling, votive-dappled nocturamas upon which he relied that much more compelling.

Still, the "Marina" I had very much come to love--like maybe all music of late I've come to love, derived of Shaker basics, rendered in piano, voice and nothing else. I picture even the rain being ushered from the studio with a condescending word. Too much pomp and circumstance, the engineer would've said. What a joker, the rain. Which gives me good pause. I'll save this one for a storm.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Just over there

Lately I've been reading a lot of the Magicistragic weblog, a relatively new venture helmed by an old pal (and some ragtag nutters along for the ride). Not since his days in the once respectable pages of Alternative Press has his vast cranial emporium of pop music fact and observation been put to such apt use. Each post explores a record that fell far through the cracks, and resolves whether or not justice was served by it having done so. I was pleased when he asked me aboard as a guest writer not so long ago. Just today Magic ran my first entry--a misfit toy from the purple scumstorm of 1997, a little-remembered disc by a Brit Pop band called Baby Bird. Check it out.

And while you're there dig into the stacks. I think the lot of it is fantastic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Given the opportunity I paint brilliantly. This is my friend, Wendy's old pal
seen peering into--if not the abyss, then some dinner-based comparison
meaningful to a cat.

"Let's go back to the cottage, light a fire and you can play me the Schumann."

"Schu-bert! Schumann is flowery. Schubert is--reminds me of you, the sad one."

"Schubert. You have to teach me all that. I'm so ignorant to classical music."

-from the Woody Allen movie, Crimes & Misdemeanors

Woody Allen might be the great socialite-aesthete of our age. Just think: Truman Capote is gone, celebrity roasts have become grotesquely adaptable to cable tv, and orgies just plain old don't happen anymore. At the very least the quality of grapes has declined.

I love him because, beyond his great movies, he has great taste. Whether it's the taffysweet V Disc-era vocal pop of Radio Days, the Djangiography of Sweet and Lowdown, the fetishistically crackling Caruso 78's of (the odious) Match Point, or the animal violence of Schubert adorning Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen always tracks his work with terrific music, never losing count of the senses in his command while he has your attention.

This juxtaposition is fantastic because--savvy to the way us dummies think, Woody Allen wrote into Dolores' character ("I'm so ignorant to classical music") the intuitive linkage of Schubert and Schumann (cross index: SCHU-) eliding the century discrepancy by imagining them as next-door neighbors, on a street for big-haired composers, houses alphabetically assigned. Which for most of my life is what I did. And frankly if I'd never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors I would to this day.

There is so much confidence and pretentiousness in any given Woody Allen movie that one easily loses sight of the fact that he's a self-taught man.

Or am I wrong?

Is it that his erudition is so glaring and proud that had it developed by any means other than self-improvement it would be certainly much less confrontational? Well, both possibilities make sense. For now, kindly humor me. Let's go with the former.

I ask you to because the larger point I was trying to make was that pop culture is our widest (most natural) berth to the fine arts. If you're my age you can associate particular Hollywood movies (we could scarcely argue over which) with a poem by W.H. Auden; a double-sided painting by Wassily Kandinsky; Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto; the hampered ambitions of court composer, Antonio Salieri; the biographic pathos of Van Gogh's Crows Over the Wheat Field; and so on. We get turned on to new worlds, but there's a cost. We have to suffer that nasal voice from saint elsewhere.

My big problem with that bit of dialogue printed above is the same problem critics have with Wikipedia, what certain other reasonable critics have with organized religion. You can hide a lot of hogwash in a big book. Doesn't matter who wrote it.

I've come to regard Robert Schumann as the sad one; he's not flowery at all, at least not by comparison. At 18 Schumann was scarcely a man when the Austrian maestro, Franz Peter Schubert, his unaffiliated parapatronym, passed.

As a product of the 1970's I'm faithful to the notion that the documented life began in Plato's illuminated cave and became progressively more serious over time. It was inevitable that I sympathize with Robert Schumann.

There's a sophisticated wretchedness in Schumann, even as a novice listener I can hear it. Lately I've hunkered down with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, op. 54. It has a loping, cosmopolitan exterior, and a folksy gait inherited in Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos, and thereby (possibly?) emanating an early idea of modernism. There are moments when left to the the soloist one can observe a bunching of notes, as if prowess and not balance was dictating the language of the work. Elsewhere, later in fact, there is such a sloppy tranquility--met by both piano and orchestra, that its modernity feels at odds with what we know, it feels anachronistic--like something Harmony Korine would rely on, or an avuncular note to Vice Magazine--so true and unembarrassed are the measures of loveliness and inevitable decline.

In the end it matters what Woody Allen meant when he wrote that Schumann was "the flowery one", that a clingy stewardess could embody him. Not that I don't appreciate Angelica Huston. But it matters that a canal of readership lies open, that we're soft to what gets said in a serious tone in Hollywood or out of Hollywood. And that our dull softness relies on the self-taught to govern a pause between pleasure and utmost privacy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Opposite of Hallelujah

I remember back about five years, the first time I heard a Jens Lekman record, wishing like hell that I was going through a good messy breakup. It didn't make sense enjoying his songs while feeling stitched up right.

Well, if the genie is to believed I still have two wishes left.

Jens Lekman has been a foil through this most recent parting-of-ways--I'll admit it's been a soft one. I'm still not entirely sure a turbulence so mild and warm even warrants this kind of indulgence, but they say I shouldn't postpone joy.

Lekman's appeal is like that of the Smiths to many thirty-somethings, or The Magnetic Fields to twenty-eight-somethings (Stephin Merritt's voice is frequently compared to Lekman's.) Of course there is the class fayness he shares with Belle and Sebastian. But look to the broader arc, evident in his style and influences--as well in those of Phoenix via Todd Rundgren, latter-day Jamie Lidell by way of Squeeze, and one of my favorites, The Hidden Cameras via Motown(after seeing the last open a double bill at the Khyber with the progressive gunk-funk, Fiery Furnaces, I left after the Cameras, elated, saying, "that was my very first Marvelettes show!"). There is a triangulation of old soul faves with white guy intercedents. The Nick Lowe resurgence mounts.

In fact, like the best of his generation (I suppose like the best of any generation) Jens Lekman's charm lies in the finesse of his bedroom errors before the closet door mirror, hairbrush mic in hand. He owes a debt to the new wavers and British pub rockers of the late 70's and early 80's. He's clumsy, cliched, synthetic, plagiaristic, unheedingly philosophical, and often silly.

Our memories are so polluted with how these things can kill an otherwise stable talent that, from the outset, the list seems to form a prohibitive criticism. It doesn't. He's not the Barenaked Ladies.

Until I get that podcast working (it's coming, I swear!) you'll have to trust me to chew your food for you. Here's a rundown of some top Jens magic hour moments:

Julie-Try to imagine Paul Simon having written "Cecilia" after his South African pop awakening. Lavish Ladysmith Black Mambazo drums elevate this little name-ballad, and give the characteristic grandness to Lekman's childlike--almost moronic, romantic promises. Pay special attention to the hire/fire rhyme: it's a doozy.

A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill-Unselfconsciously cool music doesn't get made much anymore. So this a kind of generational victory. Jens reminisces about "Regulate", with Warren G...back in the sweet summer of 1993. Little more than a snappy trumpet line, hand claps, and Jens' fond memories, the effect is so ethereal that it completely transcends the anachronistic beatnik vibe it gives off. The idea is that in fond memory all time is cool.

A Postcard to Nina-A fave among many fans, "Nina" is one of the strongest pieces of storytelling in the Jens Lekman songbook. Sung to a nouveau Isleys soul pop, the story follows our infatuated hero on an O Henry-like errand with his lesbian friend to her strict Catholic family's house where he must play the romantic beard. The father takes a shine to Jens, while tipping his hat to the ruse in play. Of course the real shenanigan is our hero's hopeless motive. Was it Seinfeld or George Plimpton who once lamented on dating gays, "they don't lose many players"?

A Little Lost-Like Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley five years ago, Arthur Russell is now one of the most misguidedly covered artists of the hipster canon. That said, Four Songs by Arthur Russell, a one-off made for Record Store Day 2008, is surprising in both the restraint and effect. Jens nails this daydreamy caprice, playing it close to Russell's original style, sparely arranged, with a sympathetic lilt in his throat. They're simple words and they grow ten times their natural size. Magic beans never grew so high.

Rocky Dennis' Farewell Song-Why would anyone gut the piano melody from Joe Jackson's "Breaking Us in Two" and use it to basically retell the based-on-a-true-story Cher vehicle, Mask? It's a reasonable question, because the premise of this song very much tries the nerves. But the tune is so spectacularly pathetic, and the lines are sterling: Mama told me I was born a lion/Mama told me I was born with a belly to lie on. I'm way over the Apatow-derived pop-culture as comic relief device, but the depth of Lekman's internalization outstrips the easy payoff you might expect.

Black Cab-With its strident, amateurishly miked strings it could easily be passed off as the 70th Love Song in the Magnetic Fields' cycle, were it not for Jens' unironic glee. Add some manic panic rhythm guitar color-notes from The Cure's Wish, and you have, well, a pretty stealthy dirge. I'd put this one on my funeral program.

Pocketful of Money-If you need a formula for this stuff here it is. Start slow, schmaltzy, and solipsistic, maybe borrow a walking-around storyline from John Lee Hooker. Next you're going to want to cool off the adoring eyes you've attracted. Easy enough. Enter a bassy group of doo-wop back-up singers (in the cloying caricature model of Zappa/Mothers). Last, let the moronic fire/fire rhyme scheme rub til it soothes. Won't take long, actually.

The Opposite of Hallelujah-Jens reads Catcher in the Rye with notes from Phil Spector on the business of disguising tears. It's a deceptively jolly number, and the marvels of youth lie at the center. Trouble-minded older brother chaperones kid sister, imparting faulty wisdom and embarrassing truths along the way: You still think I'm someone to look up to / I still don't know anything about you. It's puerile, but something in soul music puts us in the mood to forgive. Besides, like its author, this hero is just a kid in many ways...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

But what is it?

Communication is huge. I mean, if you really ended up on a desert island would you really listen to those ten records? Or any for that matter? And with whom would you share what you'd found?

I say, you wouldn't; you wouldn't; and no one, respectively.

Hopefully I could be magnanimous, choosing ten records I'd only heard good things about, taking them along to form feral memories once I got there. I've never heard one of the good Little Feat records, never (really) gave Jay-Z a chance (though truthfully the sandiest isle is unlikely to change that), never got to hear the really good first Scorpions record about which Max speaks so highly. Ideally some day I'd be rescued from beach and music alike, and those memories would emphasize a faith in mystery and a reliance on the kind of hope that doesn't cling to old markers.

I mention it because lately I've been listening to classical music more frequently, and as often confronting questions obstructed by a real language barrier. I have no idea how--beyond a kind of non-descriptive, basically grunt-like, effusion to communicate about what I hear. And suddenly that is a very big problem.

Scholars want to talk about theory, remote points of historic interest, and in such a jealously encrypted adjectival language; everybody else wants to talk about The Scorpions.

Maybe I'd be luckier if I ended up on a desert island with just the greats--all of them in encyclopedia form, and no distractions. I could just listen and learn, like it was 'Spanish'. Then with luck I might eventually find my way home, bringing with me with some sound linear perspective on what made Hector Berlioz Hector Berlioz.

For now it is the enjoyment of labels like Columbia Masterworks in the 50's (the lp shown above was made in 1953) which seemed capable of transcending the communication woes commonly associated with listening to classical music, using the art, graphic detailing, analog austerity, and last but not least, musical substance. To use a term commonly associated with Ben Shahn, the artist whose work decorates this cover, it is humanistic. Somewhere in its aspirations is a good-hearted desire to explain something that cannot be explained, merely sensed and accepted--non-descriptively grunting all the while if need be.

On a final, digressive and somewhat deranged note...

It seems only appropriate to conclude with a recurring dream seeing how it expands on some deeply seeded, but evidently manifested misgivings I have about the desert island disc list concept. In this dream I am waylaid on an isle roughly the size of a portobello mushroom. I'm satisfied with my new fate for a while. However, all too quickly the satisfaction fades, and my interest in all foreign mysteries such as they are, fades with it. Desperately I shape a blade from a wedge of volcanic stone and cut myself on the wrist as I'd seen done in movies. Then, for what reason is unclear, I jump back into the ocean, perhaps hoping the surf will render me unconscious and I don't suffer so much. Great tumbling occurs, interspersed with white and green arcs of water. I'm spit back down on the beach only to find the wave has cauterized the wound. Disastrous. More desperately still I cut more away, fingers, the hand, to the elbow the arm, etc. But each time, having returned to the sea I am spit out with wounds sealed. Finally vanity intercedes, and I stop. I haven't so much left to cut off, and I do want something left to be held by the ladies when I get back.
Look, there he goes. He's the one who conquered Nature. My hero. He has the hands of a sculptor who has worked in iron for many years.