Several Hungarian blues bands

One of the recent arrivals on our faculty is a Hungarian combinatoricist, who I hang out with a fair bit, since we’re both junior faculty and in closely related fields. It took him a whole 5 months to discover that I was a dangerously obsessive Magyarophile, which says something either about my restraint or his powers of observation (I’d like to think it’s the former). Instead of fleeing from the crazed stalker like a sensible person, he’s been kind enough to give me a chance to listen to his excellent collection of Hungarian blues musicians. So now I have impressions to write up about the albums I’ve been listening to.

The tl;dr version: Blues Fools has one album and it’s an awesome harmonica-driven blues work. Charlie’s a pop-star with a gravelly voice who’s not actually a blues artist. Ferenczi György’s albums are hit-or-miss but occupy a nice funk-blues place on the spectrum. Hobo Blues Band is at their best a Muddy-Waters-esque rhythm-driven classic blues band, but in the late 80s branched into some experimental and progressive work which is unusual if not artistically sterling. Mátyás Pribojszki Band is basically Blues Fools dragged in a jazzy direction. The Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band is a creative Chicago-style blues band often wandering out of that mold. Tóth Bagi is competent but missable. Tűzkerék is fundamentally hard rock, not blues.
Individual writeups on Blues Fools, Charlie, Ferenczi György és a Herfli Davidson, Hobo Blues Band, Mátyás Pribojszki Band, Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band, Tóth Bagi Band, and Tűzkerék

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

[Screenshot]Theremin had a pretty meaty story, and it mostly did right by it. The story is that of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, an eccentric blend of Nikola Tesla and Robert Moog. It seems to pretty much scrape the bottom of the barrel with historical video, since there simply wasn’t that much to begin with, so the video is sometimes inconsequential and it’s much happier when it can find an appropriate still. The discussion of the historical role of the thereminvox is balanced and accurate, and there’s a lot of good footage of its role as a performance novelty in the 20s and 30s, as a film-score adjunct in the 40s and 50s, and as a respectable popular-music accompanying instrument from the 60s to the present (with, alas, the much-debunked assertion that the theremin appeared in Good Vibrations). The actual focus on Lev Termen’s life was somewhat less effective: the chronology of his time as a social butterfly and popular genius in the 20s is well-presented, but his return to Russia, forced labor, and eventual rescue are played pretty flatly and summarily (possibly due to a lack of actual information or good backgrounds to talk over).

Still, for all its flaws, Theremin is a film well worth the seeing, if only because its subject is so rich. If you’re into theremins, it’s a must, and even if you’re not, you may well find it fun.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown: A music factory of the non-C&C variety

The tagline for this film challenges us to believe that the Funk Brothers were responsible for more hits than any other person or groups of people. With all due respect to the group, I’m wondering if this isn’t technically inaccurate: Hal Blaine was one of the most ubiquitous people in the LA music scene in the 60s (and into the 70s), so he might have them beat. I’m not brining up Hal Blaine frivolously:the Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew, separated by most of a continent, present two sides of a coin.

It’s an article of faith among indie-rock geeks and other folks on the fringes of modern music that factory-produced music by stars-of-the-week are essentially negligible. This is (among other reasons) why people continued to sneer at Britney even after she put on some damn pants. I’ll agree that the modern music star-of-the-week scene is sick, but not that factory-produced music is inherently uncreative: a great deal of the most groundbreaking music of the 60s was factory-produced, by either Tamla-Motown or Phil Spector. Which brings us back to the mechanics toiling in those factories, which is what this film’s really about.

Motown developed a distinct sound, and produced a bajillion records exploring every facet of that sound. They did this with good production, good A & R, and one hell of a studio band. This documentary tries very hard to play up the tragedy of non-recognition of thier importance to the process. “Tragedy” is, in my mind, a bit strong, except inasmuch as it killed James Jamerson, but it is indeed a shame how little-known the Funk Brothers are, because those backing tracks are rich and imaginative, and apparently a lot of the credit for that goes to the Funk Brothers.

This is where, once again, I draw a dichotomy between the LA and Motown sounds. Some of the difference is racial, but I think a lot of it’s just plain cultural: LA was all about polish and veneer and still is. I haven’t heard or read about Phil Spector in the studio, but I’ve heard the Wrecking Crew reporting on working with Brian Wilson, and Spector must have been far, far harder on them. That scene was very controlling, very specific about what they wanted, very focused on production, whereas the Funk Brothers, talking about their role in the creative process, draw a picture of a scene where by day they basically wrap whatever sort of jam they threw down in a club the night before around someone else’s song. The scene sounds very extemporaneous and improvisational, and somehow it came out right.

Those are basically my thoughts on the film’s primary message, which I suppose was supposed to raise awareness of the studio band as an entity deserving of respect in its own right, but I was sort of aware of that already (although not much of the Funk Brothers, so I’m grateful to learn more there. Considering the film’s delivery of that message, however, I was generally pretty pleased with the interview portions and narrative, but I could have done with more original performance footage. The Funk Brothers did tour with Motown performers occasionally, so it’s not like the footage doesn’t exist. The new stuff is decent in a not-really-what-I-expected kind of way: these reunion gigs are always a bit bittersweet, and some of the vocal talent was decidedly odd: Joan Osborn was a treat (both auditorily and visually, ahem) on “Heat Wave”, but she seems to have stepped into completely the wrong song for “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”; even Colin Blunstone’s voice is more suited for it. I was also underwhelmed by Chaka Khan on “What’s Goin’ On”, but although her Marvin’s not too hot, she’s got a decent Tammi, since “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was well-done.

In summary, it was a nice look at different people from a different scene. 60’s retrospectives are all about California, and even when they mention Detroit it’s all about the vocal talent. Nice to see the underdogs finally getting the respect they deserve.

An American in Paris: Less talking, more dancing, please

This one had its high points, but most of it came out sort of limp to me. The singing was pretty good, and the tap routines were OK, but tap’s never really been my thing. The setting was good, hit all the obligatory post-war Paris concepts, but the characters never came alive to any real degree. Mostly, I wish there was a lot more good dancing. The final dance number was quite fantastic; if there’d been more of that sort, along with the brilliantly Gershwinian Gershwin backing it up, then we’d be talking. Honestly, it would have been a better movie if they’d lopped off, or at least condensed, the first hour, or broken it up with a good ensemble dance number or something.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Stop Making Sense: Epilepsy as performance art

I’m a not-rabid sort of Talking Heads fan. I always saw David Byrne as more a songcrafter than a singer, an inspired Dadaist geek with an actually rather irritating voice. Sort of like Bob Dylan, except for the Dada part. Stop Making Sense pretty much reinforces this perception, although I’ve also learned that he has a lot of manic energy on stage, which manifests itself in really twitchy dancing. Anyways, I usually cut concert recordings a bit of slack, but this is a rather unusual concert recording, because it was apparently cinematically coceived, and because the Talking Heads can’t do anything normally.

The music is… well, it’s Talking Heads music. All the really well-known ones are there and a bunch of the better obscure ones. That aspect is pretty good in the way the Talking Heads are, so you probably already know if you’d like it. The visual elements are the highlight of the film, which, as I mentioned, tries to be cinematic. It’s hard to do cinema live, even if you splice different shows together (instead of one take per scene, you get three. Somehow, that fails to lead to cinematic perfection). So one has to forgive the occasional gaffe, such as David Byrne’s face being in the shadow of his microphone for a whole song. Or maybe that was intentional. The advantage of having a reputation for wackiness is that there’s very little you can’t claim you meant to do. I’d imagine that’d be the excuse for the half-assed choreography: this was planned — storyboarded, for God’s sake — so couldn’t they come up with some slightly less ghastly dance moves? Flailing your arms and jogging in place will only get you so far. I felt bad for the backup singers: at least the band had instruments which basically worked as body-motion props; the singers had to do their godawful steps without anything to hide behind, and to add insult to injury, in baggy clothes in totalitarian-state-prison-camp-jumpsuit grey. The rest of the band seemed reasonably dressed (with the infamous “Big Suit” making its obligatory appearance for “Girlfriend is Better”).

The visual spectacle is generally actually pretty good, except for the band themselves. The stage is stark, the visual images projected onto the backdrop have high contrast and a weird illogical appropriateness, and the audience is cleverly avoided with the camera until the very end. If only the band was worth putting in such a scene.

Final note: after writing this, I went to IMDB and looked at what other people said. Some of the comments have spoiler warnings. How can you spoil a concert? Is “At the end, they play ‘Crosseyed and Painless'” a spoiler?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.