Books, Music

Reading At the End of the World: Daisy Jones & The Six

Midway through reading Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s oral history of a fictional rock and roll band from the 70s, I feel this desperate urge to pause and listen to the Fleetwood Mac album Rumors. It was not a normal, hey-I-need-to-check-this-out feeling, it was somewhat akin to craving for a drink on a hot summer day, when you lick your lips and want that first swig of a cold beer to fill that ferocious vacuum in your head and belly all at the same time.

If you read the book, and get to the portion where the band’s seminal album ‘Aurora’ is being made, you may understand why. Of course, you also need to know something about Rumors, in order to make sense of the relationships unraveling on the page and how this very real album, to me, seemed like the only piece of musical history that could provide the musical resonance the book needed. I listened to the first few songs from Rumors, skipped to ‘Songbird’, a track that lacerates and heals my heart every time I have played it in the last twenty-odd years, and then carried on reading.

It is incredible how great the format of the book works for the subject. It is completely immersive, and visual in a way that most books try to be, but do not succeed. The picture that emerges from the juxtaposition of multiple people talking about the same sequence of events, with viewpoints switching in near-real time, makes it feel like I am reading a transcript of a documentary video. Reid captures the distinct voices of the characters in an incredible manner — no one is peripheral, and while the bulk of the focus is on the talented duo of Daisy Jones and Brian Dunne, it is the reactions of characters like Eddie and Camille that garnishes the story, shows you the debris the main characters leave behind, and enriches our experience. The experience, just so you know, is not just that of music, or love, or drug-fueled tours, it’s about the way the writer manages to capture the zeitgeist of the seventies, and a female perspective to rock and roll that I have not seen outside of Patti Smith’s autobiographies. The way the characters of Daisy, Karen, Simone, and Camilla are so different, and do not exist as cliches or tropes of the genre, is astonishing to say the least.

My favorite moment in the book comes when the author (not Jenkins Reid, but the fictional author of this fictional band) breaks character, with a short note explaining why, and the pages that come after not only signal the beginning of the end, but also gives you an idea of where things are about to go. Like turning the viewfinder of a lens that brings a blurry image into focus. It ends with a letter from a mother, and then all the lyrics of the songs in Aurora, one after the other, in the order of appearance in the album.

It is not surprising to learn that Amazon Studios is working on a TV adaptation of the book, and I have no doubt the production team has a tough time ahead of them. And it’s not just the music, it’s about adapting the iconography the book flaunts — be it Daisy’s drug-fueled vulnerability, or the way her voice changes on the fifth take of ‘Impossible Girl’, or the visual description of the album cover shoot of Aurora. It will be hard to match up to what’s in our heads when we read the book, and I am not holding my breath.

But what got me grinning like an idiot was reading the acknowledgements by the author (Jenkins Reid this time), and finding this dedication to her husband:

To Alex: It was hard to know where to acknowledge you because you have your hand in every aspect of this story. You came up with the idea with me, taught me about music theory, listened to Rumours with me, fought about Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie with me, gave up a job to be home more, became the primary parent, and read the book approximately nine million times. And most of all, you make it easy to write about devotion. When I write about love, I write about you. We’re ten years into this party and I’m still mad for you.

Turns out the entire framework of the book is based on the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks dynamic!

Standard
Music, Today I Learned

Sakhi Maro/Tu Mera Dil

I listen to a lot of music. This is known.

A byproduct of that is that for long periods of time, certain artistes take on more, or very little, prominence in my playlists, a function of recent release schedules, my soundscape mood (there are times when nu-retro reigns supreme on my headphones, for example, or ambient anime piano), and pure serendipity.

The third factor, that of serendipity is what leads to goosebumps, when a song that I haven’t heard in a long while suddenly emerges front and center. Today was one such day, when a tune from Susheela Raman’s Love Trap, an album that defined 2004-05 for me, materialized in my head, and of course, I had to play the album from beginning to end. I was going about my morning with a smile and a skip, as song after song came on, releasing dopamine hits and unlocking half-buried aural memories. Suddenly, it was ‘Sakhi Maro’ on the speakers. If you know the song, you know it melts you like butter on a warm slice of bread. But today, out of all the times I have heard ‘Sakhi Maro’, I realized that the opening bars of the song reminded me of something else. Another song.

But what did it remind me of? I paused the song for a bit and thought about what exactly brought about that stray memory? It was definitely not Susheela’s voice or the tune itself. When I played it again from the beginning, it hit me. The gentle, melodic strumming that is the bedrock of the track reminded me of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track from one of his collaborations with Michael Brook. There being two of those albums – Musst Musst and Night Song. A bit of quiet contemplation brought me to the exact track. It was the opening track to Night Song, called ‘My Heart, My Life’, with the exact same strumming that was part-guitar, part-harp.

Now I had always thought most sounds on the Brook albums were the Infinite Guitar, the musician’s own modification of the electric guitar. As it turned out, the sound on both the songs was a West African instrument called the Kora. It has 21 strings and has features of a lute and a harp. And once you hear a kora and realize how versatile it is, it’s hard to ever miss it. Tom Diakite plays the instrument on ‘Sakhi Maro’, Kaouding Cissoko from Senegal plays it on ‘My Heart, My Life’. On both the tracks, these guys steal the bulk of the thunder.

Here’s a minute long video that shows how the same instrument produces different kinds of sounds, demoed by musician Toumane Diabate.

And here’s an hour-long concert that’s a cello-kora duet featuring Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal.

On an aside, the MTV Unplugged version of ‘Sakhi Maro’ has Sam Mills playing the guitar on the track, which added to my confusion. The track also features renowned percussionist and singer Kutle Khan on vocals and the khartal, making it arguably better than Susheela’s original interpretation.

I cannot but be awed by the things that I still do not know, and by the secrets these familiar friends from decades ago still manage to unravel.

(Also, this is the second time in a year that I have gone back to Susheela Raman on the blog. That must count for something!)

Standard
Movies

An animated discussion

For the sake of my sanity, I avoid being emotionally invested in the Oscars every year, and use it primarily as a checklist of movies that escape my radar every year. Los Angeles also brings it with it an incredible selection of free screenings during Oscar season, most of which are accompanied by interviews with the director or the cast. Of specific note, these past few years, has been the Best Animated Films nominations. The award has, with the exception of last year, been won by a title backed by a powerful studio – usually the predictable, family-friendly crowd pleasers. But the nominations for the category prove to be fertile hunting ground for titles that I wouldn’t have noticed.

In 2016, for example, I saw The Red Turtle. It’s one of the few movies I bought digitally, at full price — and trust me, that’s a big deal for me. A Belgian production that was distributed internationally by Studio Ghibli, the film lost to Zootopia. I don’t think the winning title was all that bad, but placing a work as emotionally hard-hitting as Red Turtle on the same platform as that unsubtle, pun-ridden roller-coaster was a travesty.

Coco won in 2017, beating the visually spectacular Loving Vincent. To be honest, I love Coco, it was one of the few animated movies that made me bawl. It was also Pixar making a two-punch comeback, along with Inside Out, after years of mediocre offerings and half-hearted sequels. But the sheer visual chutzpah of Loving Vincent sets it apart. More than 100 artists painted individual frames in Vincent Van Gogh’s style to animate the story, 43000 paintings in all. The Aero in Santa Monica screened the film with the directors present for a Q&A afterwards, and the passion with they approached their project, which ended up taking 9 years to go from an animated short to a full-fledged feature film, gave me goosebumps.

(Also, looking at the previous award years, Wallace and Gromit beat out Howl’s Moving Castle? Big Hero 6 beat Song of the Sea? Fucking Rango got the nod over Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris! Frozen beat The Wind Rises. If I was a little more delicate, I would be calling for smelling salts right now)

This year, I saw the passion project that will probably not win, but is a spectacular offering in the category — the French animated film I Lost My Body, with a story adapted from a novel called Happy Hand, by Guillaume Laurant (who wrote the original book on which Amelie was based). It is, on the surface, a surreal journey of a disembodied hand that tries to find its owner across the city, an epic adventure filmed at angles and perspectives one does not encounter in conventional animation. It is the story of Naoufel, a broken young man, and about how he comes to terms with loss, in more ways than one. The film talks about destiny and choice, of connections, to one’s past, to humanity. It also has, surprisingly, a romantic subplot, one that begins with ten minutes of conversation via an apartment security system. Tread carefully, though, because Jeremy Clapin has a tendency to unsettle.

I Lost My Body is that rare film that goes in completely unexpected directions, and as the non-linear narrative comes together, a spiral of flashbacks and foreshadowing that culminates in a fifteen minute climax, you will find yourself holding your breath until the screen fades to black. And then maybe you find your eyes wet, or that could just be me.

Oh, and turns out the mesmerizing soundtrack, with its haunting recorder melody backed with orchestral strings and repeating synth patterns, was composed by Dan Levy. Dan is the ‘D’ in the band The Dø , one of my favorite French outfits and one whose next album I’ve been waiting for 5 years. It was fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about how Dan refused to look at the visuals and ‘audition’ for the role of composer, when asked. He instead composed 20 minutes of music based on the brief story narration Jeremy gave him, to give an idea of the mood he was going for. That worked perfectly with Clapin’s sensibilities, and fit the narrative in a way that traditional scoring wouldn’t, imbuing the story with a pathos and a grandeur that is nothing short of extraordinary. Small wonder then that I have been listening to it on repeat the last two days.

The contenders this year, other than I Lost My Body, are Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: Some Vapid Sub-heading, Klaus, and Missing Link. I would dismiss Dragon and Missing Link outright. Toy Story 4 is running on Pixar goodwill fumes and may be the one to win. Klaus is the interesting one — it is also a Netflix exclusive, like Body, and has been winning awards in the same circuits as the latter. Both won at the Annies, with Body winning the best Indie Animated feature, while Klaus walked away with the overall best animated feature. But on the other hand, Body won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes (the first animated film to ever win this). My gut feeling is that Klaus may win just because it’s the more family-friendly of the two, and that follows the historical trend. We’ll see in a week.

Standard
Music

you open the door to another door to another door

The title of this post is a reference to my first new album of 2020. Which came to me in a dream, believe it or not.

So this is what happened. I was lying on the bed reading (the third book of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, called Solea, after the Miles Davis album), with Spotify playing over my headphones. At some point, I drifted off, floating along with the music in that happy blissful state of lucid dreams and semi-awareness. When you know that you are asleep but you haven’t quite lost control yet.

I found myself hovering back into reality, coaxed out by this beautiful voice singing, and through the haze of my not-quite-nap. The song meshed with the random visuals in my head, in the best way possible. “Caroline Polachek”, I read on the phone. The song was called “Door”, and committing that to memory, half-worrying that maybe I was still dreaming all this, I fell back to sleep.

I played the song later that evening, in the car. The chorus was like hot chocolate and pine-wood smoke, smooth, sophisticated, but very tender. But hold on, the voice sounded familiar. I have heard her before. I stop the car on the side of the road and google the artiste’s name.

Yup, Caroline Polachek was the singer on the Brooklyn band Chairlift, whose album Moth was one of my favorites of 2015-2016. It also so happened that despite buying tickets to their show at the Observatory, and driving 45 miles one Sunday evening to see them, I couldn’t. Because the show was cancelled. I got my money back, but the tinge of regret remained with me. More so because they disbanded a year later, in 2017, after playing a final show in Brooklyn.

And now, four years later, Ms Polachek has released a solo album, called Pang. It released in October, and for whatever reason, I had no idea of its existence until two weeks ago. Of course, in that time span, I have heard the album an umpteen number of times. I love every minute of it, from the haunted opening of ‘The Gate’ flowing into the title track ‘Pang’, to the closing notes of the tender ‘Parachutes’. Even though I could recognize her voice on the album, the mood, and the production were both very different from that on the Chairlift albums. For one, this was clearly an album about love and heartbreak and all of the feelings. It’s an album where slide-guitar licks morph into dance patterns, otherworldly beats and rhythms coalesce into splashes of intensity and adrenaline, and through all of these, Caroline’s voice weaves and wends through various moods and tonalities, gentle whispers to full-throated vocal riffs that advertise absolute control. And possibly a fair degree of auto-tune, but the electronic effects are tweaked to just the perfect degree of alien and human.

This is one of those rare album that feels like each track is better than the previous one. No wonder, then, that the first single, and accompanying video, was ‘Door’, which is the penultimate track of 15 songs, and runs a radio-unfriendly 5 minutes and 23 seconds. But it goes places. believe me, both visually and in sound and mood. The opening guitar riff, and the way the beat builds up slowly into that chorus is sublime. The alien vocal echoes on the word “door”. The guitar bridge. And that final humming that closes the track. Holy shit.

My personal favorite in the album, at the moment, is ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Many reasons, including the upbeat 80s vibe, the catchy vocal riff that begins the track, the “woo” when she sings the chorus, that sharp intake of breath just before she sings “I get a little lonely”. And of course that semi-awkward, all-Caroline dance routine in the video, so reminiscent of ‘Ch-ching’ from the Moth album. The chorus, when I first heard it, sounded like “Show me the banana”, and I ran to check what it actually said. “Show me the love, nanana”. Pooh. I prefer “show me the banana”.

I could listen to it all day, except ‘Door’ starts playing just after, and then once the album finishes with the downtempo ‘Parachute’, I have to go back to track one again.

‘Ocean of Tears’ comes closest to the Chairlift sound. You could play the opening to me and I would have identified the song as one of theirs. Of course it’s fantastic, the bass throbs and then the rock guitars playing over the chorus.

Caroline plays at the Fonda Theater on February 1, and even though tickets are sold out, something tells me I will show up there, somehow.

Standard
Books, Comics

An Apocalypse of Cockatoos

Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons

Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989

Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and

At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, OnePiece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.

But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.

A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.

By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.

The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.

It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?

Alan Moore – From Hell

The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.

I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.

Standard