What makes Elvis great?

Notes on the Big E with a focus on the 68 Comeback Special.

The question is heavily rhetorical ― to me it’s self-evident, redundant. But for my many colleagues past who’ve heard me warbling about Charlie Hodge and Cadillacs and blue Christmases, or who think he’s a kitsch joke in a gawky suit, I always like to run through a little pop-list of angles on the Big E.  Continue reading “What makes Elvis great?”

Beethoven — Symphony #9, 3rd movement

A genial plateau of near-religious, sublime music melding lightness with gravity. Sublime is the operative word ― I don’t generally go for Hegelian definitions of The Sublime, but if I was pressured to analogise the cool, abstracted air of Sublimity and had sufficient leeway of criteria, I’d tick the box marked Beethoven and lock in this Adagio (molto e cantabile). Continue reading “Beethoven — Symphony #9, 3rd movement”

Radiohead — In Rainbows

Wonderfully coherent, thoroughly of our time, strictly Radiohead and yet gilded with a strange and subtle beauty ― a really great album of non-pop at last.

This is an essay in two parts. I want to discuss the download issue separately from the musical content of the album, because in too many articles the latter is dismissed to focus on the former. If you don’t want to hear any more about online distribution, then flick straight to part II. Continue reading “Radiohead — In Rainbows”

Meditations on a U2 B-side

Notes on The Formula and a glorious b-side from The Unforgettable Fire period, with additional commentary on Success and always trusting your bass player.

What privilege, what artistic prestige, to be able to make the music one wants ― the only music one can ― and be wildly successful. And what an abused banality that is ― surely all musicians get to indulge their creativity and vision? I think your average session or pub musician is hemmed in by demand and directive, play this or do that set of covers; and when your income depends on it, you accede. But when your income is stratospheric, like the established and world-dominating behemoth of U2, you get to indulge your creative (and pretty much any other) urge quite a bit. Which is not to say that U2 are pushing the creative flight envelope so much any more ― the last few albums were pretty standard-mould U2. They’re just trying to stay relevant, and engaged; which, beyond talent, is the harder thing. Continue reading “Meditations on a U2 B-side”

Federico Fellini – 8½

A mad cinematic moment of uncertainty at the height of creative ability and success…

Commencing with the nightmarish traffic shot of silent, hemmed-in despair, and ever after that open to dream, suggestion and imagination, this is the culmination of a kind of cinema we’ll never see again. The era of Cinecitta, of oligarchic producers and fabulous set pieces and swirling arrays of extras, littered with personal recollection, wish fulfilments and fear. And total dubbing. And wholly personal, boyish, poetically inventive direction. I love that his critic-character, besides spouting an endless bilge of intellectual clichés (all of the time), states early on that his film is nothing more than a sequence of disconnected scenes — a film about filmmaking must employ self-criticism at some point, and when he talks about the failure of a scene with the dream-girl at the therapeutic springs, which we’ve just seen, well, it’s significant that it doesn’t deflate the narrative at all. And of course the critic hangs later on (how could he not see that coming). Continue reading “Federico Fellini – 8½”

Catherine Millet – The Sexual Life of Catherine M

Er, sorry folks: no picture for this review. But get a load of all that group sex action.

Ostensibly a portrait of group sex, which I don’t think has been given its full literary due since de Sade, this is also an interesting read in feminine sexuality, or feminine sexual desire, to be more precise. Compared to other dabblers of group sex (Houellebecq comes to mind, positively juvenile in contrast, though juvenility is an interesting starting point here too), Millet comes across like an old hand at the game. She’s thorough, honest and precise in recounting the blur and the gross joys of group action. She’s got a finger on the resultant memorial contours of intimacy and space, from the outskirts of Paris parking lots to domestic nooks and crannies. She’s got an appreciably serious and hungry eye for sex and larger scales of satisfaction; Paglia would no doubt detect a trace of masculine perspective and attitude in her ability to project (imagination-wise, here) and indulge the raw desires as just that, raw, slightly detached, self-pleasing love of detail and variety in number etc. Continue reading “Catherine Millet – The Sexual Life of Catherine M”

Grant Gee – Meeting People is Easy

Avoid peril. Hands on the wheel. You are a target market. Calm, fitter, happier. Enter the visual nerve-storm of the modern rock-god-celebrity experience with your pals Radiohead. And whatever happened to all that Pre-Millennial Angst?

It was a while before I could get my mits around this side-promo-rockumentary filmed in the immediate aftermath of OK Computer’s release. No commercial broadcaster would play a doco whose promotional time-frame has expired the way this has, but it’s still a highly revealing and slightly disturbing look at the chaotic miasma and flashing hypermedia of the modern pop success phenomenon. Continue reading “Grant Gee – Meeting People is Easy”

David Foster Wallace – Everything and More

A delayed quarter-review of DFW's study of Cantor and Infinity. Or, how to avoid serious mathematics.

Rarely does a reader begin a book certain of its unfinishability. There are, of course, examples to the contrary, but they’re usually study-based, or socially motivated “required reading” — the sort of thing that forces the Zeligs of the world to read as much of Moby Dick as they can. This is not the case with my reading (or quarter-reading, or even eighth-readings) of David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More. I chose it; I willed myself to read it. Sure, it was on a bargain table ($8) and thus easier to excuse, but I nonetheless got it aware that as a reader I would never fold its last page with the kind of completion-satisfaction even a bad book can provide. I could only excuse such a wasteful purchase on the inverse of future completion satisfaction: completion anxiety (bear in mind that this is a book about Infinity after all). As an ailment, this is closer to what record collectors suffer, tossing in their sleep about that rare Pavement 7-inch with the B-Side cover of the MC5’s ‘The Human Being Lawnmower’ (more on that soon). Continue reading “David Foster Wallace – Everything and More”

Duke Ellington – Blues in Orbit

There's a tendency to think of the Blues as an easy genre for amateur guitarists and old black singers with lotsa heartbreak, an all-too-familiar vernacular riddled with cliches and guitar faces.

But jazz did manage to do something amazing with the blues, with swing and the blues together. And it was The Duke who turned the blues into a truly sophisticated art form beyond three chords — into a complex, composed and supremely flexible art form. First he made an ensemble of distinct voices, and then scored them with adventurous elaborations of the blues mood. There’s not a single three-chord progression on this album; just superlative little pockets of blues in and around three minutes in length. Moody chords and warm solos. Hodges in fine, clear form. Nance, Carney, Strayhorn, all in compact/expansive jazz miniatures. Laid-back, lively and amazingly free with the genre, really putting the format out there, composing by tonal band colours with a supreme understanding and mastery and brevity. Not a cliché to be found.

Duke Ellington — Blues in Orbit. 1958, Columbia.

The Necks – live in Dublin

I consider it my patriotic duty to pay witness to the greatest Australian band (in the field of improv) whenever I can.

After more than five years of fandom, I should get frequent Necking points, or maybe even a sunhat. It was a piece of luck that I heard about the gig — there is a small centre devoted to improv music here in Dublin — which in itself is heartening. The tickets were just raffle stubs. I tried to get some colleagues excited and inarested to no avail. But the music, the music. I was kinda keen at one point to catch the opinion of the Germans sitting behind us (Das is Motorik, ja?), but I stopped caring. What’s the point when you’re listening to the sound of creation? The performance contour hasn’t changed much (still in the mode of the last studio and live albums); the improv is startlingly unique every time though actually quite consistent in range: Lloyd’s looping 4/4 riffs, Abraham’s asynchronous drones bordering on mental despair at the top of your head, and the superlative percussion work of Tony Buck — probably the greatest percussionist in his field. You tend to forget there’s more to rhythm and percussion than just hitting things. Tony scrapes, scratches, taps, tickles and trawls an astounding variety of sounds from a limited kit. First cymbals, then a ratchet ‘round the snare rim, a hand (or suspended, or China) cymbal running over the floor tom to make a crusty old machinic sound, a brush of tindersticks tightly packed, now agitating a bunch of brass bells with his foot as though crockery’s being stacked somewhere in the distance — all the while pacing and slowly evolving the pattern and the syncopated growth. The total percussionist as artist, he is. It’s amazing to see a band who not only have immense respect for each other’s musical space and interplay, but who take an almost infinite care with the texture of improvisation. I sat three metres away from Buck in humble thrall. If only writing could be like this, I asked a mind thrown back on itself and which answered It is, it already is when you consider the creation of it. It’s in the care and attention to detail, the controlled permutation, the seemingly organic growth. That tension of control and freedom chaos, the seeming freedom which obscures a complex ability. The joy of ordered play in seeming-chaos — so refreshing compared to the at-times wilful chaos of Dublin. And that charmingly off-guard surprise and casual bewilderment as they walk offstage to the cheering and totally tuned audience. Jubilance at shared creation. Chuffed smiles.

The Necks live at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin, 25.11.04