Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Film Pick- Sweet Dreams: The Patsy Cline Story - 1985

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I’m a sucker for rock ‘n’ roll movies. Even the bad ones. The Fabulous Stains… dig it. Rock N Roll High School… so much fun. That Thing You Do… who doesn’t love The Oneders? Backbeat… ok, well maybe not Backbeat. These films tend to be formulaic and cheesy, glossing over major life milestones of their characters without so much as a dramatic pause (I’m looking at you Ray, with your ridiculous 5 second heroin withdrawal scene). They also tend to ramp up the drama with over the top scenarios that are completely out of character for the artists portrayed (Johnny Cash introduced to the evils of drugs by Elvis? Come on, dude. That’s total BS.) Often they have actors playing these rock legends who make no sense whatsoever, but somehow kind of pull it off (Gary Busey = Buddy Holly? Val Kilmer = Jim Morrsion? Bette Midler= Janis Joplin?). When all is said and done though, these are movies about rock music and the crazy people who make it, so how can you not have fun?

One of the awful gems of the rock movie genre is the 1985 film Sweet Dreams, starring Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline. It’s guilty of all of the genres faults and is riddled with historical inaccuracies, but somehow it still hits some right notes and ends up being a terribly entertaining, albeit very frustrating, movie. Written by Robert Getchell, an eclectic screenwriter with credits as diverse as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Mommie Dearest, Point Of No Return, and Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory (Woody Guthrie = David Carradine?). The script is sometimes romantic, sometimes disturbing, ultimately tragic, but always well written. It’s ably directed by Karel Reisz, whose career was otherwise unremarkable, but the real strength of the film lies in the top-notch performances by Lange and her co-star Ed Harris, who plays her 2nd husband Charlie Dick.

The most controversial aspect of the film is the tumultuous relationship portrayed between the two. After leaving her first husband Cline gets into a passionate and abusive love affair with Dick (and he certainly is one). While Ed Harris begins as convincingly charming he quickly becomes barbaric. The scene of Charlie Dick beating up Patsy is deeply disturbing. You almost wish her name was Patsy Corleone instead so that he could get his comeuppance from an enraged James Caan. The worst part about this plot point is that it is perhaps completely unnecessary. Many of Cline’s real life band mates, country contemporaries, and her own Mother claim that despite their relationship being rocky it was not so brutally abusive. No one can say for sure how their marriage really was, but if this is one of the classic pitfalls of the rock movie genre, it is a crueler than average misrepresentation.

The music is dubbed, with Lange lip-syncing to Cline’s original tracks. I personally don’t mind that. I don’t want to heat Joaquin’s Cash impression, I want to hear the Man In Black. Despite not actually singing, the performance scenes are still smoky, sticky barroom style perfect. Reisz does a fine job of capturing the sexy side of the Country circuit scene. Many people argue that the chronology of the songs represented is inaccurate, but they make for fine listening. The tragic and sudden ending of the story is unfortunately accurate enough. Cline, like so many other rock legends, met her maker far too soon in a plane crash, chronicled in frighteningly abrupt fashion in the final moments of the film.

The true redemption of the movie is Jessica Lange. Lange is always gorgeous, but as Cline; clad in sequence and fringe and an “Aw shucks I just wanna sing and drink whiskey” attitude, she is stunning. She plays Patsy with an underlying rebelliousness that makes you re-evaluate the woman with the honey dripping voice. If you hadn’t listened to “Walking After Midnight” in a while and had somehow forgotten, Lange’s portrayal reminds you of a simple yet life affirming truth… Patsy Cline was a total bad ass.

In this film, however, that’s not enough to keep her from getting beaten to a pulp and crashing a plane into the side of a cliff.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lilly Hiatt & The Dropped Ponies - Let Down

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On October 23rd Lilly Hiatt & The Dropped Ponies released their debut record, Let Down. Lilly is a child of Nashville through and through and it shows on this impressive collection of country tinged rock n roll. Produced by Doug Lancio (whose work with Jeff Finlin and Patty Griffin is easy on the ears to say the least) this ten song collection is Hiatt’s first effort with her Dropped Ponies. She formed the group three years ago with guitarist Beth Finney, honing songwriting chops and crafting a collection that is more polished and mature than most debuts. I was lucky enough to have a few moments of Lilly’s time as she geared up for the release to talk a bit about Let Down, forming the Ponies, and how heartbreak and hangovers can be a songwriter’s best friend.

“I was newly single. Partying real hard and getting fucked up,” Hiatt recalls her band’s humble origins, “I went to a party at this guy’s cabin and a girl shows up with a guitar, orange crush, and vodka and says ‘Let’s Drink.’ I got her number and courted her.” That’s how Hiatt met guitarist Beth Finney, whose work on Let Down is exemplary. “Beth was the first person to hear my stuff and not take it to a twangy place. In terms of sound, I knew I wanted a little edge, I didn’t want to be just another Americana band.”

Finney’s range as a guitarist is broad. Often mellow, sometimes fuzzed out and crunched, but always assertive, dovetailing with Hiatt’s verses to make a cohesive sound. “People Don’t Change” and “Angry Momma” are perfect examples. The melancholy of Hiatt’s words are supported by a subtle solo in the former and a sharp gut buster in later. Both stick with you long after the tracks end. “Beth’s guitar conveys a lot of emotion and we met at that weird spot when hangovers stop being funny and things start getting sad.”

Filled out by Jon Radford on drums and Jake Bradley on bass, the Dropped Ponies are a tight band, maintaining a coherent sound while experimenting with many different styles. “A band helps you solidify structure,” Hiatt explains, “It opens up more possibility for your sound. They make it rowdier.”

Perhaps the most traditional track on the record is “Knew You Were Coming”. A slow, somber ballad with a beautiful, spacey Lanoisesque guitar part is the strongest on the record. Lilly sings as sweet as Emmylou but with the dark lyrical cleverness of John Prine.

I thought about touring and I thought about school,

I thought about drowning in the swimming pool.

It’s a song about the march of time and a lineage of women in their various emotional stages. “I remember writing it and thinking it was nothing. I had just had a shitty summer and I felt so vulnerable cause it was so straightforward.”

It’s a testament to Hiatt’s songwriting skills that such a tender track is followed up by the barn burning album closer, “Big Bad Wolf”. The wry humor that makes the inward reflection of “Knew You Were Coming” so poignant is the same trait that makes “Big Bad Wolf” and its barbs so blistering.

I never really thought you were my better half, More just something fiery sneaking up my calf.

At first I was the host, the perfect southern belle, Now every single part of that is shot to hell.

Hiatt isn’t a punching bag. She has taken her licks but is quite capable of dishing them out as well. “Guys drive me fucking crazy. I was pissed off and blurted that song out. I took it to Beth and she immediately brought it right to that level.”

Whether born out of anger or love, Hiatt’s songs consistently hit the mark. “I’ve always been a weirdo with compassion,” Hiatt explains, “People are exciting and I’m fascinated by them. But I’m a bit of a loner.” This dichotomy provides a tension throughout Hiatt’s songwriting. Lonesome observation of the sadder aspects of life mixed with a stalwart resolve to brush off and move on. “Morality is substantial to me. It’s what all things come down to. The right amount of hopeful and the right amount of solitude.”

Lilly Hiatt & The Dropped Ponies debut album Let Down is available now from Normal Town records.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thunderbird Jam - The Jesus & Mary Chain feat. Hope Sandoval - Sometimes Always (1994)

Sometimes (always) there is a jam so simple and familiar, without any pretense or desire for originality, that it immediately ingratiates itself upon you and inspires non-stop repetition for weeks on end.

“Sometimes Always” is just such a jam. The first single off Stoned & Dethroned, the fifth album by Post-punk brothers in arms The Jesus & Mary Chain, is a mid-tempo head bobber about a dysfunctional relationship (what else could a 90’s song be about?). Sung as a duet between Jim Reid and his then girlfriend, Mazzy Star front woman Hope Sandoval, the song comes off as intimate and confessional even though its lyrics are some of the most straightforward, simple, and universal ever written. Seriously, they actually rhyme Back with Back and That with That in more than one verse. The moral of the story is; never knock simplicity.

In this case it’s all in the delivery. Reid’s cocky, spaced out vocals cut through the bullshit, singing such swaggering lines as “I always knew you’d take me back” and somehow managing to make it sound sweet. Sandoval’s famous voice is as sensual and soft as ever, inspiring heart palpitations when she sings a line like, “Oh you’re a lucky son, lucky son of a gun…” Good lord, Hope. Put me out of my misery and marry me.

In the midst of these elementary, lovelorn lines comes William Reid’s bright, slashing guitar, grounding the love song in the fuzzed out pop sensibility that had cemented Jesus & Mary Chain as heirs to the “authentic” rock’ n ’roll legacy since the late 80’s. It’s what makes this song fit so well not only within their own canon (Head On, Just Like Honey) but the overall sonic landscape of 90’s rock (Gin Blossoms, The Breeders).

Give this song a spin, but be forewarned… you won’t be able to stop playing it.