Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2018 April 30 • Monday

The big orchestral score is still an important part of many movies. It's impossible to imagine Marvel and DC movies without them, for example. And in some cases deliberate nods to composers and genre are a starting point or guideline, Michael Giacchino being an obvious example.

The 515th Soundtrack of the Week is another example, Eric Neveux's score for Les aventures de Spirou et Fantasio.

What is this? Apparently a recent movie adaptation of a classic French comic book that I never heard of.

The music is fun to listen. While the sonics of it are a little too modern and bright for my ear, the intelligence behind it is very 1960s, drawing inspiration from Lalo Schifrin and John Barry's James Bond music: bongos, overblown flutes, sultry percussion, clavinet, mischievous guitar lines and sinuous lines for wind instruments.

For a 21st-century update of these conventions, it's quite good and even throws in some less conventional elements, some guitar lines and sounds that go in unexpected directions, for example.

It's always active and engaging. I'd like to see the movie.

2018 April 25 • Wednesday

Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 is 613 pages long and for more than 500 of those pages it's amazingly good.

In the mid-22nd century climate change has done what almost everybody now expects it will do. Sea levels and temperatures have risen and the world is different, especially on coasts.

This huge shift in physical environment hasn't caused much change in human environment. People are still people and the relationship between financial titans and governments, central to the plot of this novel, is essentially the same as it is now.

Stockbrokers and financial speculators are the same a hundred years in the future and subprime has been replaced by submarine. Liquidity is much more closely related to actual liquid and wet equity has replaced sweat equity.

And New York is still New York, even if Canal Street is now Canal Canal and underground clubs have become underwater clubs.

Robinson is at his best in revealing his created world to the reader, perfectly pacing each new exhibit. While a long book, it's not sprawling. Strucutrally it's more like a spider's web, which we circle while moving toward the center.

It's divided into eight parts–one for each leg of the spider, perhaps, though the eight-tentacled octopus is mentioned several times, while spiders are not—with intriguing and thematically harmonious names like "The Tyranny of Sunk Costs", "Expert Overconfidence" and "Escalation of Commitment".

Other ideas, such as ease of representation and the mongrel nature of life, particularly human life and culture, are persuasively presented and agreeably handled with a light touch despite being important to the story.

Literary allusions abound, from Melville to Nero Wolfe, Waiting for Godot to Huckleberry Finn. And in the first half of the book (but only the first half, so far as I noticed), Robinson deploys another group of eight, this time mostly author-specific neologisms for various descriptions: "whitmanwonder", "gehryglory", "pynchonpoetry", "calvinocity", "melvillemood", "lethemlucidity", "russrage" and "thoreautheater".

A reference to the planet as a "drowned world" might be intended to remind the reader of J. G. Ballard's novel of a submerged Earth, "Ezra Fripp" might be intended as a mash up of Ezra Pound and Robert Fripp, the fact that a main character has the same name as mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong might be significant. All of this is a pleasure, none of it is a burden.

The story is told from various points of view, cycling between such different characters as a couple of street urchins, a building superintendent, a TV star ("cloud" star), a police officer, a breezy unnamed NYC citizen who's a fascinating source of interesting information about the city's history, and an assets trader.

Each chapter is prefaced by a little something, usually a quote and almost always enticing. On some occasions, it gives the reader some of the most memorable and poignant moments in the book, such as this one:

Early in 1904, three of Coney Island's elephants broke out of their enclosure and ran away. Gee, I wonder why! One was found the next day on Staten Island, and therefore must have swum across the Lower Bay, a distance of at least three miles. Did we know elephants could swim? Did this elephant know elephants could swim?

The other two were never seen again. It's a pleasure to think of them skulking around in the scrawny forests of Long Island, living out their lives as pachydermous yetis. But elephants tend to stick together, so it's more likely the other two took off swimming with the one that was found on Staten Island. Not such a pleasure, then, to imagine them out there together, dog-paddling soulfully west through the night, the weakest eventually slipping away with a subsonic good-bye, then the next weakest. Lost at sea. There are worse ways to go, as they knew. In the end the surviving one must have lumbered up onto the night beach and stood there alone, trembling, waiting for the sun.

In addition to being a touching vignette, it ties in with the main theme of the book, namely that humans will sink or swim together and cooperation, community and a concerted push against the corruption of demoracy by coercive capitalism.

This is also deftly drawn. Robinson can do a lot with a few brushstrokes. Take for example the private security firm whose name, RNA, for Rapid Noncompliance Abatement, disguises a squad of thugs who do the bidding of the ultra-rich. It's as real, as believable and as much a part of life a ribonucleic acid.

The story kicks into gear with two computer programmers, who might immediately remind you of Vladimir and Estragon, attempting to change the world for the better with a bit of computer hacking sleight of hand.

For their efforts they are immediately disappeared. Enter the police officer and almost every other character, of whom almost all live in the same building where these two men were last known to be.

This is the throughline for a big chunk of the book, which builds up to a bravura hurricane sequence. Reading it is as rewarding as it is addictive.

After the storm, though, is where it collapsed for me. All of this energy and brilliance lead to what I thought was a ridiculously frictionless "happy ending" that felt rushed and arbitrary.

Throughout the book I had noticed the conspicuous absence of some of society's strongest poisons, namely religious fanaticism, militarism and the advertising industry.

All three of these would surely be much more powerful and pervasive in a world as radically changed by its climate as this one is, and all three would be massive obstabcles to any significant change in society and government.

But they are not addressed at all. With the exception of the cloud star's sponsors and an appearnnce by the National Guard, they don't even exist, as far as I can recall.

Without an explanation for their removal from our affairs or accounting for the role their influence would play, the conclusion of this extraordinary novel falls flat and actually might anger some readers as it did me.

The peremptory wrapping up everything with a bow felt wrong enough to retroactively diminish much of what I had enjoyed in the previous pages.

What was the point of writing and reading all of that if this is where it was going? The entire world is changed for the better with such ease that it might as well have been accomplished by supernatural forces. A rain storm that makes the entire world's population more civic-minded, less fearful, less greedy and less selfish would have been only slightly less believable.

(It's true that one important power player in government has reasons to go along with this new deal, but the circumstances place too much strain on the reader to ignore coincidence and contrivance. And this is just one player on what must be a huge chess board.)

I'm glad that I read New York 2140, despite its resolution, which left me thinking it was either much too long or too short. As one proverb puts it, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and I hadn't traveled so hopefully in a book for quite a while.

2018 April 23 • Monday

Ten years ago the Film Forum in NYC screened a retrospective of movies starring the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai. Among these was the bizarre and brilliant spy spoof Age of Assassins, directed by Kihachi Okamoto, one of the best and most interesting filmmakers of all time, with music by Okamoto's frequent collaborator and Gutbrain favorite Masaru Sato.

The score from this delirious pop-art masterpiece was just released by the invaluable Cinema-kan label and it's our 514th Soundtrack of the Week.

Like many a score, this one relies on just a very few themes. The main theme is an innocently jaunty number dominated by the harmonica, giving it a fuzzy-headed sort of feeling that is perfectly in tune with the wacky and whimsical nature of the film's plot, which does involve an insane villain with a deadly plan that can only be foiled by the mysterious character played by Nakadai. He's either the world's biggest nerd loser, whose socks smell so bad that he accidentally kills trained assassins who are out to get him, or he's that characters identical twin, a highly trained secret agent who can out-Bond Bond in his sleep. (A third possibility are that these two are the same person. As I recall, it's left ambiguous.)

The other main theme is a reworking of the popular song "O Sole Mio", whose melody received an additional boost in recognition when Elvis Presley recorded a version with different lyrics under the title "Now or Never". You hear this tune many times in the movie and I'm not really sure why. Sato certainly could have come up with his own original piece that would have been at least as good.

Dexter wanted me to mention that one of the cues on the CD has has high-pitched sound that hurt his ears.

The other notable element is the electric guitar when it appears. It's a deliciously rich and mellow surf guitar sound and had me wanting to know exactly what I was hearing, as in exactly what guitar and what amp and what reverb device. Because whatever it was, I'd like to have it!

2018 April 16 • Monday

The 513th Soundtrack of the Week is a CD with music from one of our favorite film series, the Japanese Red Peony Gambler movies, staring Junko Fuji as master gambler and swordswoman pursuing trails of vengeance and justice.

These movies have a lot going for them: acting, photography, stories and of course the music.

I'm not really sure what's going on with this CD. If I've been correct in deciphering the few Japanese characters that appear to be relevant, then this disc has music from two of the movies, the third and sixth in the series.

Of the two, Takeo Watanabe's music from number three, Hibotan bakuto: hanafuda shobu, is the most rewarding.

Electric guitar is the main voice here, dark and reverberant, faintly recalling a merger of Duane Eddy and a rainy day. Spare and restrained use of organ, strings, percussion and a few other instruments helps to create powerfully emotional atmospheres and dramatic underscore.

The other film on here, Hibotan bakuto: oryu sanjo, has a score by Ichiro Saito, who relies mostly on a traditional orchestra for more familiar-sounding cues, some of them perhaps aspiring to Akira Ifukube's magnificent and transcendent gloominess.

So this is for the 1960s yakuza film freaks. I'm probably one. I bought some of these movies on DVD the only time I ever went to Japan, even though they weren't subtitled and my knowledge of Japanese wasn't even close to allowing me to understand what people were saying.

2018 April 09 • Monday

A movie can be based on anything and a few of them are based on popular songs. One such is our 512th Soundtrack of the Week: Harper Valley P.T.A., whose score is mostly by Nelson Riddle.

No surprise that the first track is the title song, the source material for the movie itself. It's sung by Jeannie C. Riley and its popularity made her the first woman to hit the tops of the Billboard. Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles charts with the same song (according to Wikipedia).

It's a good song, similar to "Ode to Billie Joe", which was also made into a movie and which similarity was apparently intentional. Tom T. Hall wrote the song "Harper Valley P.T.A." and a couple other songs to the movie, "Mr. Harper" and "Widow Jones", both sung by Barbara Eden and both zeroing in on characters mentioned in the title song. They're both good but not at the same level as "Harper Valley P.T.A.".

There are some teenager-oriented songs in here as well, such as Jerry Lee Lewis's classic rocker "High School Confidential" (which was also used as the title song for a movie, in 1958) and Johnny Cash's "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (so far not a movie though that could change at any time).

The only other song of note (excepting an instrumental version of the title song) is a somewhat bizarre Carol Channing and Rita Remington number called "Whatever Happened to Charlie Brown". It's an uptempo country song that's quite nice and of course is memorable for Channing's unique and odd voice.

The rest of it is Nelson Riddle score, which ranges from easy-listening lounge jazz ("Dee's Visit" and "Alice's Place") to more late-night sultry moods ("Willie May"), a disco number ("Ice Cream Disco") and for some reason a Mozart piano sonata credited on the record as "Twin Tune" by Nelson Riddle.

Riddle chooses to feature the clarinet quite a bit in the music here and it would be useful to know who's playing it, but there's very little information here.

2018 April 02 • Monday

Way back when, in a summer music camp, we were learning some basics of music theory. How to remember which interval is minor sixth? "Easy," said someone. Then they hummed the first few notes of the theme from Love Story by Francis Lai. And that score is the 511th Soundtrack of the Week.

This is a movie you probably know about even if you've never seen it. You can probably quote one of the two famous lines and I bet you know the theme.

It's probably incredibly corny and hokey but I'd like to see it. According to Wikipedia Judith Christ called it "Camille with bullshit", which sounds like a recommendation to me.

So what about the music? Most of it is dominated by that theme, and various arrangements, quite often a fugue-like version to harmonize with the ambition of one of the characters to be a classical musician. The theme is overplayed and probably cloyingly sentimental but it's still effective and powerful and I'll confess to liking it though I don't really ever need to hear it.

I do, however, need to hear "Snow Frolic", which is a groovy and swinging number with some Edda dell'Orso-like wordless vocals. It was apparentl released as a single, perhaps the B-side to the main theme.

There's some Mozart and Bach on here and a couple of other bits of score business, such as the Morricone-esque "The Christmas Trees".

I hesitated to buy this but decided to take a chance on it and I'm glad that I did.