2017 April 26 • Wednesday

Here's a neat record: Jack Costanzo, a.k.a. Mr. Bongo!

The cover is really amazing.

This CD compiles various recordings that feature Jack Costanzo on bongos. I'm no expert on hand percussion or Latin jazz, but the music is irresistibly hot and driving. It's almost impossible to sit still for it.

Jazz was huge in American popular culture in the 1950s, as were, briefly, the sounds of calypso and mambo. Costanzo rode this wave of popularity, even getting a cameo in an episode of Johnny Staccato.

Costanzo also taught bongos and had many famous students. Check out this mind-blowing video of him with Marlon Brando.

If you're at all interested, Mr. Bongo is a great CD to have.


2017 April 24 • Monday

Yasushi Akutagawa's music for Writhing Tongue is one of the greatest synth scores of all time, and the 462nd Soundtrack of the Week.

There's a wide range of mood and atmosphere here, especially in the pieces that sound as though they're less likely to have a life outside of dramatic underscore.

It's sometimes textural or noisy, other times lilting, melodic, romantic, groovy. It might remind you of Goblin or Vangelis or John Carpenter but it's very much its own thing.

There's also a bit from the Bach cello suite, actually played on a cello, a stark contrast to the electronic tones that prevail everywhere else.


2017 April 21 • Friday

While I do buy books because I like their covers, one condition is that I have to be able to imagine myself reading them someday. And that's why I ended up reading Edson McCann's Preferred Risk.

Who was Edson McCann? Turns out he was Frederick Pohl and Lester Del Rey, writing under a pseudonym because of the science-fiction contest mentioned on the front cover. Gizmodo has the story.

But I didn't know any of that when I read the book. So how is it, on its own terms?

First let's look at the cover copy. It doesn't have any real connection with Nineteen Eighty-Four. As far as satire goes, it's fairly gentle. There are some pleasing ironies but no horror here, nothing that cuts deeply. The comparison could be argued in that the character is a reverse Winston Smith who goes from loving Big Brother to hating Big Brother. But of course that's the normal course of events in such stories.

As far as the back cover goes, there are no food pills or test-tube sex in the novel. The quality of food that people eat is mentioned several times and tracks with social class. Everybody has the same sex urges and satisfies them in the usual ways.

The first line of the book is "The Liner from Port Lyautey was comfortable and slick, but I was leaning forward in my seat as we came in over Naples".

The Big Brother of this future world is a single global insurance company that controls everyone and everything. Our hero is a devoted servant of it, despite having a blot on his record. When his wife died he lost control of himself and spoke out against the Company, something of a transgression that's left him unusually sensitive and vulnerable and unusually determined to be a model citizen.

I was no longer an ordinary civilian, scraping together his Blue Heaven premiums for the sake of a roof over his head, budgeting his food policies, carrying on his humdrum little job. I was a servant of the human race and a member of the last surviving group of gentlemen-adventurers in all the world: I was an Insurance Claims Adjuster for the Company!

The book starts promisingly, with the introduction of a nemesis of the Company, Zorchi, a man who can regrow his limbs and as a result collects policy after policy for dismemberment. When we first see him he's throwing himself under a train, despite the station's being filled with Company operatives determined to stop him. He loses his legs, again, and collects another payout from the Company.

This is satisfyingly bizarre and intriguing but soon enough the novel settles into a conventional storyline with opposing forces of "good" and "bad" and the standard love interest, betrayals, vengeances, etc.

In its last line it concludes with a final irony, a nod to how power always corrupts. By the time you get there, you'll have had more than enough of contrivances and convenient good luck for the hero, so a dash of weary recognition that the battle will have to be fought again is a welcome balance.


2017 April 19 • Wednesday

Every once in a while I like to read a book that was adapted into a movie. The most recent example is Robert Bloch's Psycho.

That photo is of the same edition as the copy I read, but not of the actual book itself, which was ex-library and contained some startling marginalia.

Alfred Hitchcock is quoted on the cover as saying that "Psycho all came from Robert Bloch's book". I'd like to research that quote, partly because it seems uncharacteristic of that director to give such credit to an author and partly because Hitchcock's movie of Psycho, whose screenplay is credited to Joseph Stefano, makes a few improvements on the novel and some Hollywoodish changes.

The character of Norman Bates, for example, whose last name is an anagram of "beast" and whose first name signals his being neither normal nor man, is fat, middle-aged and balding and wears rimless glasses in the book. He is very unlike the young and good looking Anthony Perkins, who had been something of a teen idol at the time.

Another improvement is Bates's stuffed birds in the movie, which lend resonance to the name of the first murder victim, Crane (Mary in the book and Marion in the movie). In the book Bates's taxidermy is limited to one squirrel and, of course, one corpse.

The famous moment in which Norman tells Marion that "We all go a little mad sometimes" is "crazy" not "mad" in the book. This isn't significant but I think we're meant to remember that line a little later on when Sam Loomis is looking around the small town in which he lives.

The streets of Fairvale were empty on Sunday morning. The courthouse was set back in a square on Main Street, surrounded by a lawn on all four sides. One side contained a statue of a Civil War veteran—the kind cast up by thousands back in the eighties to occupy courthouse lawns all over the country. The other three sides displayed, respectively, a Spanish-American War trench mortar, a World War I cannon, and a granite shaft bearing the names of fourteen Fairvale citizens who had died in World War II. Benches lined the sidewalks all around the square, but they were vacant at this hour.

We all go a little crazy with bloodlust once in a while, don't we? And a desire not to let go of our dead loved ones can be quite strong. And we keep coming up with more efficient ways to kill, from trench mortars to cannons to the orgy of armament deployed in World War II.

And all of this killing is balanced with the presence of the courthouse, the setting for all those Civil War veteran statues, thousands of them. Because we believe in law and order and peace, except when we don't.

It's Sunday morning, so presumably the square is empty because everybody is at church. We believe in "Thou shalt not kill", too, except when we don't.

This is an irony that Hitchcock would have appreciated but perhaps also would have found to be old hat. I don't remember it as being in the movie.

I'd always heard that Bloch had been prompted to write this book by the real-life horror of Ed Gein and in fact, when the story of Norman Bates hits the Fairvale newspapers and then the wire services, "Some of the write-ups compared it to the Gein affair up north, a few years back".

(Norman Bates's cellar contains syringes and several knives, so other murders are implied.)

The exploitation of the tragedy by journalists and politicians, for the advancement of their own careers, as well as by "rumor-mongers", is neatly noted.

One of Bloch's advantages is that he can obscure the truth about the villain's identity relatively easily, since we don't see the action and have to rely on whatever information the author gives us. It's a sleight of hand similar to Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and if you know what's what while you're reading Psycho you can admire how deftly Bloch does it.

There's one place in particular where Norman's internal monologue, as represented by an authorial voice, switches from third to second person.

With its brilliant photography and even more brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, which not only brought the movie to life but saved it from being the failure its director initially thought it was, the movie of Psycho is a less ordinary experience than the novel, or at least as the novel seems now.

But among mid-century crime fiction and thrillers, Psycho stands out as a solid entry, economical and flawless, an entirely satisfying work of craftsmanship whose subject matter was unusual for the time.

The first line is "Norman Bates heard the noise and a shock went through him".


2017 April 17 • Monday

The 461st Soundtrack of the Week has been on my to-do list for a while. There's so much music on this two-CD presentation that I can't hope to do it justice but here it is nonetheless: Hugo Monetenegro's score for Hurry Sundown.

The soundtrack is centered around a rich and compelling main theme that Montenegro arranges the hell out of. It's a deep and complex piece of music that taps into several veins of American musical history: spirituals, jazz and blues as well as the work or such composers as Alex North and Charles Ives.

My favorite parts are the more swinging sections though I find the whole thing to be riveting. There's so much melodicism and lyricism throughout, you can hear reverberations of songs such as "Moon River" and "Once I Loved".

Many thanks to the great Intrada label for making this music available!


2017 April 10 • Monday

Back to one of our favorites of all time, John Barry, for the 460th Soundtrack of the Week: The Last Valley.

This is a powerful score for orchestra and chorus that shows Barry in his strong and serious aspects. It alternates a full-blast main title theme that exploits the density that can be created by slabs of voices and instruments with pounding percussion with an achingly tender "Last Valley Theme" that presents a lovely solo reed voice against a backdrop of ethereal voices and delicately hued strings.

Those two concepts are what this record is. The cues go from one to the other. Each time it feels like a discovery, even if some of it is familiar from other Barry work, such as his concert pieces or some of his score for Moonraker. And you can near echoes of music from Goldfinger in "The Village Attack".

A long time ago I was buying some John Barry CDs in a record store and another customer scouring the soundtrack section saw what I was holding and struck up a conversation with me. He was shocked that I wasn't familiar with The Last Valley and insisted that I buy it.

I did. It was a German import and maybe not quite a legal release. I never sat down and listened to it carefully until the release of this CD, legit and with excellent sound quality, but a soundtrack album and not the complete score.

It's definitely one of Barry's most important works nd we're fortunate to have this presentation available to us.


2017 April 03 • Monday

For the 459th Soundtrack of the Week we listened to another Eurospy movie score, this one by Bruno Nicolai, Agente Speciale LK: Operazione Re Mida.

This movie is aka Lucky, the Inscrutable so the "L" must stand for "Lucky". The main title music is the "Lucky Theme Song" and is a fairly complex pop rock construction, not using a ton of instruments and voices but a handful with a wide range between them. I don't know what the Italian lyrics are saying but it's uplifting anyway. There's an impressive overdriven guitar solo in the middle of it. As usual, the theme reappears in different arrangements.

A few tracks feature circus music and some "classical music" and they're not much fun to listen to. But don't bail out of "Carnival Fanfare" before it segues into "Party", a wildly exuberant uptempo groove number.

"Group Therapy" is an odd cue with various crooning voices and a gong. Vocals are used instrumentally quite a bit on this record.

Whatever that stereotypically "Italian" plucked instrument is, "Lucky in Rome" is all about it.

There are some lounge and jazz numbers as well and an homage to silent movie piano accompaniment in "Funny Trains".

"Escape & Last Goodbye" stands out for its darker tone, harmonica feature and 3/4 time signature. This cue comes back in "Gold Glasses".

Every Eurospy movie soundtrack needs a "shake" number and here it is, predictably enough, "L.K. Shake". It's decent but nothing special.