Music

Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen

The king of lit-rock's three earliest -- and most permanent -- albums receive a deluxe repackaging.


Leonard Cohen

Songs of Leonard Cohen

Label: Columbia Legacy
First date: 1967
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-04-23
Amazon
iTunes

Leonard Cohen

Songs from a Room

Label: Columbia Legacy
First date: 1969
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-04-23
Amazon
iTunes

Leonard Cohen

Songs of Love and Hate

Label: Columbia Legacy
First date: 1971
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-04-23
Amazon
iTunes

When Songs of Leonard Cohen dropped in 1967, Rolling Stone critic Arthur Schmidt was underwhelmed. “There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits,” he proclaimed. Reading Schmidt’s review, I feel validated in my own struggle to enjoy an entire Leonard Cohen album. “Teachers”, “Winter Lady”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, at least half of Songs from a Room, and the better part of the albums Cohen’s recorded since the mid-1970s –- neither their lyrics nor their melodies move or intrigue me. Even his best songs, such as “Suzanne”, do not yield for me the riches that Cohen’s devotees find in them. And when I ask these Cohen-ians which truths and beauties I’m failing to discover within their hero’s tower of song, they pelt me with the same vague generalizations: he’s a poet, he conflates Biblical and erotic imagery, he’ll whisper wisdom into your ear when you’re having a rough day. Even Anthony DeCurtis, the Rolling Stone contributor who penned liner notes for each of these reissues of Cohen’s first three records, often stumbles in his role as a Cohen apologist. With the exception of a paragraph of helpful song analysis in his discussion of Songs from a Room, DeCurtis simply rehearses the same old set of Cohen platitudes (“He’s literate, timeless, etc”) while failing to support his remarks with suggestive evidence.

Milquetoast liner notes aside, these new deluxe editions of the three works with which Cohen established himself as a songwriter for the ages –- Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1971) -– provide all of us with an excellent opportunity to relisten to and reevaluate Cohen. For one thing, some exquisite remastering allows us to hear this music at its fullest; these albums are for the first time actually worth owning on CD or as MP3s. The bonus tracks are also elucidating: the demos tacked on to Room and Love and Hate show that Cohen’s lyrical and vocal presence transcends accompanying musical arrangements. (The two previously unreleased tracks that have been added to his debut are lite fare.)

When revisiting Cohen’s first record, I noticed just how fully formed an artist he was when he entered the pop world. Blame age and experience: Cohen had already published loads of poems and a couple of novels in his native Canada before deciding in his early 30s to pursue music. He had also gotten a chance to warm up by writing tunes for other artists; Judy Collins’s version of “Suzanne” met with warm critical and commercial reception two years earlier. One more reasons Songs of sounded so mature: it was helmed by John Simon, a fantastic producer best known for his work with The Band. Cohen disapproved, famously, of the baroque flourishes that Simon added, but I find touches like the sawing strings in “Master Song” to be delightfully surreal. By offsetting the Cohen’s world-weary monotone voice and leaden guitar strums with music box sounds and angelic female choruses, Simon underscores the strangeness of this seasoned writer’s foray into pop. Remember, the people who would buy Cohen’s records weren’t supposed to trust anyone his age.

Cohen’s age and allegiance to an older generation of bohemian culture allowed him to forge a distinct artistic voice with his first album. These qualities also rescued his work from the flaws most prevalent in the countercultural music of the late ‘60s. His first album’s clunkers -– “Winter Lady” (forgettable melody), “Teachers” (strained and awkward), “Stories of the Street” (lyrics rife with profundities that aren’t actually profound) –- are noble misfires when compared to the cliché-ridden duds that clutter up so many psychedelic long-players. One could even argue that Songs of’s sense of timeliness stems not so much from its Biblical allusions and musings on human nature as from the fact that it wasn’t even a natural product of its on day.

Speaking of Biblical allusions, Cohen makes one of his most compelling references to the Good Book in Room’s “Story of Isaac”. Here he retells a story from Genesis in which God tests Abraham’s fate by asking him to sacrifice his newborn son Isaac. At the beginning of the third verse, Cohen interrupts the narrative to make a didactic pronouncement: “You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore.” These lines encourage listeners to link the Biblical tale of sacrifice with the US government’s willingness to sacrifice its young to Vietnam. This connection remains tenuous, however, as Cohen’s lines never posit the Biblical story as precise allegory.

Tenuous connections are fine for Cohen, though. He views all events –- historical, personal, textual -– as mythic, as illustrative of eternal, transcendent struggles. And once events become myth, they become ripe for reappropriation -– they become, in other words, the stuff of pop music, that art form that thrives on its listenership’s ability to make sense out of songs by interpreting them in light of personal experiences. (Note how he often signals these reappropriations with the indefinite pronoun “some”, as if to revel in just how easily one can reread and recontextualize figures like the Biblical Joseph) To achieve this sense of mythic transcendence, Cohen often cuts out significant details. For instance, we know little about Suzanne other than that she serves tea and oranges. The motivations of both her and that song’s narrator are left mysteries –- if they weren’t, maybe you or I would have more difficulty plugging ourselves into the song.

At his worst, Cohen sings lyrics that are too vague to stand on their own, sounding as though he’s pandering to depressive undergrads in need of a pop song in which to wallow. And at his best -– well, Cohen still begs us to complete the picture, to establish the significance of his famous blue raincoats without his help. Truth is, Cohen’s lit-rock approach doesn’t elevate the pop muse as much as it exemplifies it. A Cohen tune, just like a Madonna tune or a Nickelback tune, seeks a broad audience by allowing for a strikingly wide range of interpretations.

Cohen always remains keenly aware that pop’s charm lies in its utility. Humming, wordless singing, and muffled, echoing voices haunt each of these albums, often functioning as cathartic finales to disturbing songs (as in “Sing Another Song, Boys” and “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”). He anticipates that his melodies will live on, with only a fragment of their content intact, in the minds of his listeners. He also suggests that a song’s true emotional impact rests not on its words, but on more primal, sublinguistic forces. I won’t disagree. Sometimes a drunken chorus of “la”s voices a feeling more eloquently and intelligently than an epic simile. And perhaps this is why Cohen’s own charms cannot be fully explained by generations of otherwise articulate scribes. At the end of the day, early Cohen is gut music.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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