Category Archives: music

Bruno’s tunes

Regular readers of this blog — to the extent that such people exist — know of my admiration for Dr. Jacob Bronowski, still best known for his magnificent BBC series The Ascent of Man. While doing some research, I came across this January 1974 entry in the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program, in which Bruno listed eight records he would take with him for castaway duty. Bronowski was a formidable polymath but he often joked that music was a language in which he stuttered. Despite all that, his list is intriguing: Winterreise alongside The Threepenny Opera, Ewan MacColl rubbing elbows with Marlene Dietrich, Benjamin Britten playing next to Tom Lehrer. Of course, Lehrer and Bronowski were both mathematicians; when you hear Bronowski’s remarks about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you’ll realize the two men shared other qualities as well. 

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Drive, he said

Cosmopolis, an unreadable novel by Don DeLillo, has begotten a somewhat watchable film from David Cronenberg, which in turn has begotten a highly listenable soundtrack by Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator, Howard Shore. And I do mean “collaborator.” Cronenberg gave Shore his entree to film scoring with The Brood in 1979, and he’s used Shore’s music on all of his subsequent films except The Dead Zone.

Though there are plenty of long-running relationships between directors and composers — I’d be hard-pressed to think of a Steven Spielberg film that hasn’t been scored by John Williams — few compare with Cronenberg and Shore in terms of artistic quality. Alfred Hitchcock relied on Bernard Herrmann to give his films warmth and humanity, to the point that I’d give Bennie co-auteur status on just about all of Hitch’s certified great films. But Shore’s approach is more adaptive than Herrmann’s. His scores for Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash, for example, do not announce themselves as Shore’s work the way Vertigo, Marnie, and North by Northwest are instantly recognizable as Herrmann’s compositions. Shore is also exceptionally astute in his choice of collaborators. His use of Ornette Coleman makes Naked Lunch an exceptional soundtrack. The Lord of the Rings is a showcase for beautiful female voices, such as Aivale Cole, Isabel Bayrakadarian and Emiliana Torrini.

Shore’s work for Cosmopolis has some of the same metallic sheen as Crash (appropriately, since cars figure heavily in both flicks), but without the earlier film’s spiky menace. Shore wrote his music to be performed by Metric, a Canadian band with a bright, synthesizer-heavy sound that works for the protagonist’s disaffected mindset. Like the young financier in his stretch limo, the music combines forward motion with a sense of drifting. There are very few composers whose work I want to get even before the film comes out. Shore is one of them.

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The Southern thing

The news that Lynyrd Skynyrd, the onetime standard-bearer for Southern rock, will no longer use the Confederate flag as the backdrop for its shows has sparked a very interesting discussion on the band’s website.

Though I can only laugh at Rossington’s statement that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” I can also sympathize with people who try to make symbols mean what they want them to mean. But when the commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans calls the NAACP  a hate group along with the Ku Klux Klan, that suggests something quite a bit nastier (or, at the very least, howlingly ignorant of history) is going on with the complainers.

It’s a fact that many Southern states only resurrected the Confederate flag in response to the civil rights movement. For a long time I had problems listening to Skynyrd’s signature song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” because the reference to George Wallace was so ambiguous. It took the Drive-by Truckers and their album Southern Rock Opera to get me to listen with fresh ears. Along with “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” posted above, the album has a song called “The Southern Thing” with these great lines:  

“You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright/ You wonder how I sleep at night/ Proud of the glory, stare down the shame/ The duality of the Southern Thing.”

Since I’ve spent my years living comfortably above the Mason-Dixon Line, there are probably lots of people who’ll say I have no busy chiming in on this argument. But since the flag represents a foreign nation that tried to rip our country apart, all to preserve a decadent society built on the sale and exploitation of human beings, I think we Northerners have the right to make our voices heard as well.

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Bobby and Neil

My consolation for seeing the summer come to an end is to have not only a new Bob Dylan album to appreciate — Tempest, his best since “Love and Theft” — but a fresh Neil Young release, Psychedelic Pill, coming to banish the stale aftertaste of Americana, a disc that’s already faded from memory only a few months after its appearance. Talk about a banner fall!

Since I started listening to both artists in roughly the same year — 1975, when Blood on the Tracks knocked me sideways, and I had the previous year’s On the Beach and the new Tonight’s the Night and Zuma to obsess over all all in a batch — I’m struck by the difference in the way each man has aged. Dylan, 71, is only about five years older than Neil Young, but for the past two decades his voice has gone from craggy to croaking. Young sounds older, but not in the same way. From Neil Young and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere to Americana, Young’s alley cat yowl is instantly recognizable. Play Tempest after Blood on the Tracks — or even Oh Mercy — for someone untutored in His Bobness and try to get him to believe he’s hearing the same guy.

So what has Neil Young been doing that Bob Dylan hasn’t? Since Young acknowledged in his recent New York Times interview that he’s only just sworn off marijuana, while Dylan has been a heavy cigarette smoker much of his life, maybe this is another argument for legalizing pot. Is there any evidence for dope being easier on the vocal chords than tobacco? Inquiring minds want to know.         

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A Bernstein moment

Glassworks has always been my favorite Philip Glass disc, but it became immortal when I played the lovely “Opening” for my eldest when she was about six years old. I had just played her “Evenstar,” Howard Shore’s beautiful song from his soundtrack music for The Two Towers, and she responded with a slow, pensive dance that matched the mood of the piece. Then “Opening” came on, and after a few movements she stopped and said, “Daddy, this music is making me chilly.”

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Just because

I think I’ll move Blue Monday up a bit, just because I heard Zoe Saldana has been signed to play Nina Simone. That makes a whole lot more sense to me than Nicki Minaj.

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Summer days, summer nights are (nearly) gone

Yes, the end of the summer is near, and yes, I’m grumpy about it, but at least I can console myself with the prospect of a new Bob Dylan disc to ponder on. The advance word on Tempest has been excellent, but that’s nothing new — Bobcats and critics (to the extent they can be told apart) hail each new Dylan release as “a return to form” as regularly as Big Ben tolls the hours. But the pre-release taster, “Early Roman Kings,” had a nice line of surrealistic humor, and after Modern Times, Together Through Life, and Christmas in the Heart, Dylan has the requisite number of duds to overcome. So I’m optimistic. 

I’m also a bit worried. Plenty of other writers have wondered if the title’s Shakespearean echo is a signal that the magician is getting ready to drown his guitar — with his publisher expecting two more installments of Chronicles, Dylan could hardly drown his book. In his Rolling Stone interview, Dylan made one of his trademark non-denial denials, having his enigma and eating it, too. If Dylan is Prospero, then I guess A.J. Weberman would be Caliban, and Woody Guthrie would be . . . Sycorax? Bob Neuwirth and a host of others have auditioned for the role of Ariel, but the Prospero of Hibbing always keeps aloof . . . jeez, see what a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan does to your mind?

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