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by Matt White

2 Mar 2009

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.

In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.

Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.

The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.

Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.

by Sarah Zupko

2 Mar 2009

Aquarium Drunkard has just announced a very worthy benefit project for No More Landmines. The site has gathered a number of L.A. bands to record a tribute to Paul McCartney’s RAM (1971). The project is available for free download at Aquarium Drunkard, but you are heartily encouraged to make a donation to No More Landmines, a cause supported by Sir Paul, in exchange for the music.

download MP3s

1. Too Many People – Earlimart
2. 3 Legs – Frankel
3. Ram On - Parson Redheads
4. Dear Boy - Bodies of Water
5. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey – Radar Bros
6. Smile Away – Naptunes
7. Heart of the Country - Los Baby Fools
8. Monkberry Moon Delight - Le Switch
9. Eat at Home - The Broken West
10. Long Haired Lady – Amnion
11. Ram On (reprise) - Parson Redheads
12. The Back Seat of My Car – Travel by Sea

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2009

The secret that has torn apart a once close knit family. A room in the brooding clan’s farmhouse that no one ever goes in. The seedy side of Smalltown USA. The distant father who’s unable to communicate with his angry and confused son. The former fling that’s now the voice of law and order in our hero’s humble hometown. If all of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are staples of the iconic indie thriller. Ever since David Lynch explored the dark underbelly of a little burg called Lumberton, directors have tried to imitate his mix of the common place and the corrupt. Lake City is just the latest example of such In the Bedroom tactics. In the sleepy, sometimes inert suspense saga, we get many of the archetypes that reinvented the genre - and that have more or less stunted it ever since.

Billy is in trouble. Seems a mysterious woman named Hope showed up with a knapsack full of drugs and a kid she claims is his, and then just disappeared. Now local drug thug Red is angry, and he wants either his dope or the $100,00 its worth. Naturally, he thinks Billy is in on the con. Escaping to his mother’s house in Lake City, our hero and his underage charge pray they have managed to stay far outside of Red’s reach. Billy even tries to rekindle an old flame friendship with the town’s female sheriff. But when Hope makes another hasty appearance, things go from bad to deadly. It’s not long before the drug dealers are chasing Billy across his ancestral home - and his mother is doing everything she can to keep him safe.

Lake City lacks the one thing that makes all edge of your seat experiences viable - a reason to care. No matter the level of excellent acting skill proffered by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as the mother), Troy Garity (as Billy), Rebecca Romjin (as the recovering alcoholic sheriff), or child actor Colin Ford, this is a story we can’t become involved in. The entire history of this situation is shrouded in ambiguity, and first time feature filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore decide that the best way to handle such vagueness is to keep things even cloudier until the very last minute. We can infer a lot of spoiler-like things from our view within the circumstance, and because of such flagrant foreshadowing, many of the reveals are anti-climatic. As a result, nothing about Lake City appears new…or novel…or interesting. 

Granted, Hill and Moore do paint some absolutely gorgeous pictures. The camera captures the lush Virginia countryside in picture postcard perfection. Scenes of isolated contemplation, a character considering their plight against a sun-dappled backdrop should create all the mood and atmosphere a film needs. But Lake City keeps sliding into predictability, that is, when it isn’t shielding audiences from necessary interpersonal information. We have to guess at relationships. The connection between Billy and Hope is a good example. They have an eight year old child together that our hero JUST found out about. He’s supposedly a musician. Did he meet her at a gig? Is she a groupie who showed up subsequently to preach paternity? We don’t know.

Similarly, the secret between Billy and his Mom is reduced to nothing more than a red herring. The loss of any loved one is impossible to bear, but this situation seems like a literal accident blown way out of proportion. It’s the kind of incident the Lifetime Channel gets far too much mileage out of day in and day out. Spacek and Garity do have the mandatory heart to heart, and tears do flow as the flashbacks finally fill us in. But instead of handling this material in such a stereotypical way, Hill and Moore should have tried to impose something original or unique onto the memory. Why make it the fulcrum that destroys everything? Besides, Spacek’s character seems to have lost a lot lately. What makes this incident more devastating than any of those?

Questions are never good for a thriller. They circumvent any sizzle or suspense you might build up. Even with iconic rocker Dave Matthews as a sleazeball criminal, there’s no juice here. When Momma handles the problematic drug deal, we get a gratuitous false ending that feels so final that the sudden switcheroo throws the entire experience off balance. Nothing like asking a viewer to reconfigure their entire perspective 10 minutes before the movie ends. Similarly, the subplot involving Keith Carradine as a garage mechanic with a thing for Spacek goes absolutely nowhere. Yet every time he shows up, we’re supposed to be prepared for his hopeless romanticism to pay off. It doesn’t.

Perhaps Lake City‘s final fatal flaw is the indie ideal to go low key instead of high energy. Such shoe-gazing may give us some beautiful landscapes to ponder, but we want pulses racing from intrigue, not the verdant splendor of a mid-Fall valley. Hill and Moore do find a few sequences of truth (though NOTHING in the relationship between Billy and his newly discovered young son works AT ALL) and you can’t help but feel the internal strife Spacek is suffering from. But Lake City can’t compete on the same level as similarly styled movies it clearly copies from. Two decades ago, looking at the horrific truths buried within an idyllic setting seemed original and revisionist. Today, it’s a typical episode of Dateline. Hunter Hill and Perry Moore clearly have something to offer the motion picture artform. Next time, they should try for something a little less derivative.

by Jason Gross

28 Feb 2009

Sorry but it has to be said. This was something I was talking about last year around this time but the situation hasn’t improved much.  If you go through the list of bands playing at SXSW, you keep seeing the same thing happening: terrible websites where it’s hard to find anything, especially music (which is the point, right?).  To be fair, some of them are pretty good but I gotta say that most of them just stink up their virtual real estate.

Instead of picking on any particular band and their site, I’d like to offer up some tips about making a good website for your band.

* Make the music easy to find!
It’s sad that this ain’t more obvious.  If a user comes to your site and has to fumble around for a few minutes just to find one of your tunes, you’ve failed.  They don’t have the patience to dig around for it and they have plenty of other sites to visit online.  Make it ridiculously obvious to them- have a nice big button or graphic that says MUSIC right up front or a music player embedded on the home page, ready to pump out your tunes.  Also horrible- a link to ‘music’ that says ‘coming soon’- no one’s coming back to see when you get your act together.

* Make everything else easy to find
Just common sense, right?  You can use all kinds of fancy language to say ‘pictures’ or ‘tour dates’ or bio’ but why make people have to guess where that is on your site?  They want info so give it to ‘em right up front with links on your homepage to all of these things. Going along with that, have links at the top and/or bottom of all of your pages that let users easily get to all the sections of your site.  If you make your site user friendly for your web audience, you’ll get rewarded with more interest and web traffic (assuming that you have some good music…).

* Leverage MySpace wisely
If you can’t get any music on your site for some reason (space, bandwidth, lack of knowledge), you have to let peeps hear your music somehow.  Have a link to MySpace at least.  You’ll want a presence there anyway so the bottom line is that you need a MySpace page along with your own website.  But… it’s better to keep people at your website ‘cause you have a lot more flexibility about how you can set it up with some nice graphics, photos, links to merchandise, etc.. Nothing wrong with having a presence on the web in more than one place (it helps get your name out) but ideally, you should have your site as a home-base for fans and potential fans.

* Ditch the splash page
Your techie friend talked you into have a cool graphic pop up that takes forever to load, just so someone can enter your site.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  It’s annoying as hell and again, your online audience won’t sit through it.  Just have a homepage that’s actually a homepage with all the info about your band easily accessible with obvious links to everything.

* Even with high-speed access, don’t pig out on pics
Now that modems are almost a thing of the past, you’d figure that you can load up as many pictures, songs, videos and media on your site as you want, right?  Nope.  Even on high-speed connections, some web pages are still so bloated with huge pics and media files that they take a while to load.  Again, your audience ain’t gonna like that.  The ol’ rule of thumb was that if it took more than 15-20 seconds to load your page, your user was gone.  That still seems about right and why would you wanna piss ‘em off anyway?  If you have a lot of media stuff to show off, break it out into different pages with links to everything instead of loading it down all in one place.

* Mailing lists are good to gather fans but don’t get carried away
Have a link on your homepage and everywhere else on your site for anyone to sign up for your mailing list.  If you can’t get one going on your own, you can start one up for free at a place like Yahoo Groups without being a techie.  Tell ‘em about upcoming shows, your album coming out, other appearances, etc.. But don’t get carried away and flood ‘em with mail- once or twice a week’s good enough if you’ve got lots of news about the band.  Even in down times where nothing’s really happening, maybe send them some holiday greetings or such, just to keep them in the loop.

Sad to say, I can’t help you with advice about licensing, contracts, etc. but hopefully this’ll give you food for thought about your site.  So please clean up your act, OK?

by Bill Gibron

27 Feb 2009

He remains a symbol of defiance and revolution in a world that’s (supposedly) moved on from his type of gung-ho, guerilla tactics. He’s a hero to some, a demagogue to others, and a thorn in the side of every US administration since Eisenhower. For filmmaker Saul Landau, however, Fidel Castro is a man of many nuances. He’s a powerbroker connected to the people, a liberator looking beyond the basics of Communism to a larger, utopian ideal. After dropping out of graduate school to experience the Cuban revolution first hand, Landau was let back into the country to chronicle the event’s 15 year anniversary. With unprecedented access to his subject and sources, he’s managed to make one of the most intriguing films ever about a would-be world leader.

Part portrait, part propaganda, Fidel! is filled with memorable images: Castro relaxing with pick-up game of baseball; the leader eating in a communal tent with his many military-styled advisers; a group of star struck villagers demanding the man come in for a cup of coffee; a group of school teachers swarming their beloved Fidel, proclaiming his vision for their underdeveloped nation. With newsreel footage of the factual basis for Castro’s rise to power, and the opportunity to witness the country in all its growing pains glory, Landau’s film is a remarkable achievement. It will also definitely chafe those who feel that Castro is a cancer in Latin America, a man who’s mangled Marxism has led an entire people to poverty and almost virtual international isolation.

But this is Landau’s story and he’s sticking with it. As part of the delightful DVD package presented by Provocateur Pictures and Microcinema International, the director is on hand to give a thorough and quite rousing commentary track, and in it, he more or less sets up Castro as one of the key figures of the 20th Century. He points out that, as an idealist, he is one of the few revolutionaries who completely and totally fulfilled the promise of his take-over. Castro wanted Cuba to be its own sovereign nation, unfettered by influence from America (and its corporate clout) and the historical harness of Spain. Landau makes it abundantly clear that Castro did indeed achieve his goals. And since the film finds the country prospering after the entire Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis debacles of the earlier part of the decade, it appears that victory is sweet indeed.

Taken as a simple statement of Castro circa 1969, Fidel! is a fine effort. It applies a cinema verite approach to the narrative, listening in on the leader and his inner circle as they discuss administrative philosophy, the order of power, and the current goals for the Cuba people. Education (and some would say, indoctrination) are the mandates of the day, with Landau visiting schools to show how the new regime guarantees the ability to learn for all. A great deal of Fidel! focuses on the citizenry and its reaction to their enigmatic chief. Castro never panders. Instead, there is a genuineness about his promises that seem sincere, especially in light of today’s “say anything” political ploys.

But one can’t help feel that a really rosy set of lens were used to manufacture this movie. Political prisoners are shown in a kind of photo-op phoniness that, while possibly true, seems unusually lenient for actual enemies of the state. They even sound sorry for being opposed to Castro. Then we see some dissidents waiting to leave the country. They too seem less angry and more apologetic than we expect. Perhaps times have indeed changed. Maybe the rising tensions in South Florida over US policy toward Cuba and sour memories of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 taint our opinion of the man and his manner. Whatever it is, there are indeed times when Fidel! feels forced, like jingoism instead of honest social sentiment.

Still, Landau deserves more than credit for compiling such an intimate look. Castro comes off as smart, savvy, creative, undaunted, and very, very passionate. His speeches combine the best kind of conversational persuasion, and his advisors stands as a loyal group of actual thinkers. Some time is spent on absent Friend of the Revolution Ché Guevara and it is clear that Castro still has uncomfortable feelings over the radical’s death (he died a year before this movie was made). Large landscape portraits of Ché are seen all around Cuba, and his name brings the kind of hushed reverence reserved for saints. Yet this section feels incomplete, as if Landau didn’t want to stray too far from the subject at hand (besides, Guevara is a massive subject to undertake).

As part of this exceptional DVD package, we do get the aforementioned director’s commentary, and it may be hard for some Conservative, anti-Communist Republican types to hear. Landau is virtually in love with Fidel Castro, both as a man and as a symbol of American hubris. He points out the sordid CIA attempts to assassinate the leader, and mocks the presumption that Cuba wanted warmer relations with the Soviets. He sets the record straight about some of the scenes, and even offers us a chance to see a short film he made in 1974 - Fidel + Cuba. It’s an eye opener as well. Along with an old interview that repeats some of the concepts from his commentary, and a look at his production diary, Landau is just as important a part of Fidel! as the iconic ideologue himself.

In 2008, it seems almost silly that the US maintains a staunch and sometimes confusing embargo on an island a mere 90 miles from its shores. Certainly there are reasons both politically and morally for such a stand (at least in the eyes of those harboring hatred for the man who dismantled the Batista regime) and history is never helped by only knowing one side of the story. In Fidel! , Saul Landau does us the honorable service of seeing things from the everyday Cuban’s point of view. This is not the story of the upper class or the rich. This is not the tale of the empowered or the embittered. It’s just a look at one man, his sense of national duty, and the foundation for holding onto his newfound power. Five decades later, it remains a remarkable achievement - albeit a controversial and incomplete one.

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