Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thunderbird Jam: Harry Connick, Jr. – SHE (1994)

1994 was a monumental year for American music. It saw a sea change in rock and hip hop with the release of such albums as Green Day’s Dookie, Weezer’s “Blue Album”, Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and Warren G’s Regulate…G-Funk Era. It was also the year that Kurt Cobain shot himself, Left Eye burned her boyfriend’s house down, and The Beatles and Led Zeppelin saw at least partial reunions.

In the midst of this musical tempest, an unlikely pop artist would decide to branch out, making one of the most dramatic stylistic shifts one could imagine and releasing a record that was a near perfect synthesis of the grunge, rap, punk, and funk that was surrounding him.

That album was SHE. The artist was Harry Connick, Jr.

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If you’re still reading this then we must be really good friends. Most people that I try and talk to about this album walk away from me before I can get the “Junior” out. I know what you’re all thinking…

“That Frank Sinatra wannabe who married a supermodel?” Yup. That guy.

“The mother f’r who had all those ABC Christmas Specials?” Yeah. That mother f’r.

“The guy who murdered that chick in the bathroom stall in Copycat?” Yes. But he also kissed on Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats, so cut him so slack, ok?

By 1994, Connick was 27 years old and had been releasing records for the better part of his life. His first two records, produced in the late 70’s when he was just a boy, were Dixieland throwbacks. Him and a group of veteran New Orleans musicians releasing standards, banking on the fact that folks would be impressed by the fact that the piano impresario at center stage was only 10 years old. This may sound like a gimmick but I encourage you to look up Stevie Wonder’s first few records and see how he was marketed at age 12 before becoming the genius that we love today.

Once Connick hit puberty, he only slightly modified his musical style, now he played Sinatra era big band hits; crooning out numbers that seemed formulaic but nonetheless interesting in the anthro-musicology sense. He won over a large audience with the release of 1989’s soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally…, Connick introducing a whole new generation to standards originally made famous by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong. His musical chops were not in question, but how original, how lyrical, how stylistically talented was this guy if all he was doing was rehashing the past?

Fast forward five years... by this time Harry Connick, Jr. has begun a successful film career that will prove to be as cofounding and risky as his recording career. He has married a Victoria Secret supermodel (further infuriating a section of America who hates his good ole boy image) and now he will embark upon a 3 year musical foray that will alienate even his most ardent fans.

SHE was released in July of 1994. It’s a little over an hour of some very strange, very smooth New Orleans funk music, interspersed amongst it’s eleven tracks (each an average of five minutes in length) are brief, grungy experimental spoken word narratives that are borderline industrial- hip hop music.

Connick was backed in this effort by an all- star group of New Orleans funk legends, including most of The Meters. His touring guitarist, Jonathan Dubose, sets fire to several tracks with explosive solos on “Between Us”, “Safety’s Just Danger…”, and an ode to Connick’s mentor James Booker entitled, simply, “Booker”. Connick’s piano playing is never better, the most prominent feature of songs like “Trouble” and “To Love The Language”. The album’s centerpiece is a slow, sultry seven minute jam called “Joe Slam and The Spaceship”, drenched in organ and heavy bass. The songs range from second-line ready parade jams to dark, brooding, and distorted funk ballads. Some sexy love jams are included but the eclectic eccentricity of the album cannot be overstated.

Anyone who loves The Neville Brothers, The Meters, and Professor Longhair will probably eat this album up. But in 1994, Connick’s fans were wealthy retired white folks who wanted to hear Sinatra redux and when he came to town with 12 burly, black funk musicians and pumped up the volume, they didn’t react kindly. Connick’s SHE tour was notorious for walk outs, many of his audience simply disturbed by the lack of swinging dance numbers. In a 1996 interview with AP, Connick addressed the controversy, “I don't like to upset anybody. I did my best to inform everybody that I was going to be changing musical styles, but not everybody got the message and some people were misled” Connick was earnest as ever but also stuck to his musical guns, at least for the moment. “It wasn't World War III. It was just a change in musical styles."

Set side by side with the other hits of the day, the album seems an odd anomaly; perhaps Connick’s desperate effort to ingratiate himself upon an audience more apt to wait in line for the newest Alice in Chains or Dr. Dre album. But now, almost 20 years later, the album can be seen as a talented and multifaceted artist trying to embrace a beloved musical form and realizing that his audience won’t always (to borrow one of the album’s song titles) “Follow the Music Further”. Connick would release one more experimental funk album in 1996, Star Turtle, before succumbing to studio pressure to return to form and churn out big band hits.

Harry Connick Jr.’s career, on screen and in the studio, is a fascinating one; an old fashioned kind of performer living in a modern age where catering to niche markets will fare better than playing a broad range of styles. He’s a guy who can star in films as an alien hunting playboy, a charming romantic lead, or a brutal serial murderer and not bat an eyelash. He can release retro-jazz albums that play well to the masses or unleash complicated heavy funk to folks who could care less. He has a reputation as a perpetual boy next door… a Wonder Bread brother trying to mix it up with real NOLA boys… but he is beloved in his hometown and he was taught by James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. He’s got the cred and he’s got the chops. It’s just that pesky audience acceptance that eluded him.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Film Pick- David O. Russell's THREE KINGS (1999)

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We live in perhaps the bleakest era of American filmmaking; the bloated summer blockbuster season now nearly 5 long months of YA adaptations and third phase re-boots of franchises not even a decade old, costing an average of 150 million dollars a pop, while independent films are now a quirky crowd sourced caricature of themselves. There is virtually no trace of the subversive, biting cinema introduced in the 1970’s that simultaneously criticized and galvanized American culture.

Living through this dark age of American film, it’s sometimes hard to believe that just 15 years ago, it was a different story all together. In the late 90’s you could still convince a studio like Warner Brothers to take a chance on an indie-filmmaker who wanted to direct an art film action adventure about the aftermath of the first Gulf War, starring two hip hoppers, one first time actor, and a TV soap opera doctor.

But that’s exactly what David O. Russell did and the result is one of the finest films about contemporary warfare ever made. Three Kings, released in 1999, met with rave critical reviews but a somewhat tepid box-office reception. It was completely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences who were enamored with a more domestic (and now quite dated) portrayal of millennial America, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

Three Kings takes place in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. The ceasefire has been signed and American forces are being pulled out. Spirits are high and soldiers are partying even though Saddam Hussien is still in power (will remain so for another decade) and will soon begin a violent suppression of the resistance exposed during the short, violent, but media sanitized war. By setting the film in the precarious aftermath, with a ceasefire and backroom politics limiting the capabilities of our characters, Russell is able to expose the shallowness of nationalism and the whitewashing of the war by American media. “Because the war itself, to me, wasn’t very interesting,” Russell explained. “The war was six weeks of bombing. What was interesting to me was the moment everybody stopped paying attention.”

The plot revolves around a rag tag group of enlisted men; new father and boy next door Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), high school dropout and impressionable bone head Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), and their NCO, a devout Christian and Detroit refugee Chief Elgin (Ice Cube). While trying to reach their post-war quota of Iraqi prisoners of war, they discover a map of Hussein’s stolen Kuwaiti gold in the ass of a captured Iraqi infantryman. Enter George Clooney as disillusioned ex-Special Forces turned media liaison officer, Archie Gates, two weeks from retirement and sick of playing the weapons of mass- distraction game with the ratings rabid American journalists he’s been assigned to protect. When rumors of the “Iraqi Ass Map” spread around camp, Clooney takes control and makes a plan to steal it, making himself and the enlisted men rich.

The plan quickly goes awry when the misfit group, trying to find the gold, instead stumbles upon a group of Iraqi citizens held captive in a torture chamber of Hussein’s Imperial Guard. Faced with the victims of the unrealized revolution that American forces are now abandoning, the enlisted men and officer Gates now have to choose between their pockets and their conscience. Are they thieves or are they freedom fighters? I won’t ruin the rest of the movie for you entirely but let’s just say the ceasefire gets broken.

Three Kings is so many things at once… a fast paced comedy, a satirical look at media manipulation in modern warfare, a brutal action film, and a heartfelt glimpse at the often invisible victims of our Mid- East wars. David O. Russell based the films plot off of a one line synopsis of unproduced scripts provided to him by Warner Brothers. John Riley’s Spoils of War provided the initial inspiration but Russell never even read the script. He preferred to create his story based off of the full color newspaper images in the New York Times. The bleached out coloring of the desert coverage inspired the unique cinematography that sets Three Kings apart from almost every other film of the time period.

Another distinctive characteristic of the film is the rather slow and calculated pacing of the action sequences. Gun battles are often portrayed in slow motion, their destructiveness illustrated with intensely graphic shots of the bullet entering internal organs. In an interview with Salon.com in 2000, Russell spoke about his stylistic choice, “…one of the ideas was to resensitize us to violence. A bullet is a very big deal in anybody’s life, so I wanted to slow it down to make you feel that each bullet counted in that way.” They certainly do count. There is no gratuitousness to the violence. It is deliberate, sobering, and terrifying.

There is also a constant reminder of American pop culture and rampant consumerism on each side of the war. American forces are shown partying in their pop tents with boom boxes and CD players, watching CNN coverage of the war they are fighting on battery operated televisions. Iraqi forces are shown watching bootlegged VHS copies of the Rodney King beating, hoarding Cuisineart blenders, and listening to Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” in their bunkers. The saturation and appropriation of American pop culture is certainly humorous but can also take a darkly disturbing turn. In one scene, Wahlberg’s Troy Barlow is captured and tortured by the Iraqi Imperial Guard. His interrogation begins with his captor delivering a monologue about America’s betrayal of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and ends with Barlow being forced to drink crude oil. All these interrogation techniques were taught to them, he explains, by American forces during the Iran/Iraq War.

The film is layered, suspenseful, and hilarious. The excellent script and characterization manages to deliver hard lined critique of American foreign policy without being skewed by a particular political agenda. It’s portrayal of American military personel is the most diverse and un-romanticized since Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and like that film, manages to humanize and sympathize with characters who would otherwise be footnotes to a grander more glorified war film. Ice Cube’s Sgt. Elgin is a multidimensional character, a Christian man who looks at the military as his way of escaping poverty and violence in Detroit. Spike Jonez’ Conrad Vig is a redneck who spouts racist epithets and adores violence, but only because he is undereducated. The economic necessity of their enlistment should bind them closer together but the racially reductive politics of America has driven them apart. Not until they’re faced with a tragedy larger than themselves are they brothers in arms.

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Three Kings is a film that would never be made in today’s cinematic climate. It would be too controversial for a large studio and too ambitious and humorous for an independent production. It was made in that magnificent pre-9/11 period when criticism of our country was looked at as patriotic. When a film with political substance wasn’t exclusively looked at as having a conservative or liberal bias. When it was understood that art and entertainment was pointless if constricted by ideology. When the best plot point was instead, humanity.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Talking a little shop... Interviews with Lannan Fellows

The Lannan Writing Residency is a three to eight week program where authors of any genre are invited to live and work in Marfa, Texas and read at the Marfa Book Company. Over the last couple months I've had the immense privilege of interviewing the Lannan fellows for our local NPR affiliate. In addition to reading their exceptional books, its a joy to be able to talk a little shop with writers who are reaching their prime after years of hard work.

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David Truer - Interview May 17th, 2013

David Treuer is the author of the novels Little (1995), Hiawatha (1999), and The Translation of Dr Apelles (2006); one book of essays, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual (2006); and one work of nonfiction, Rez Life (2012), and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and fellowships from the NEH, Bush Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.

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Alan Gilbert - Interview July 12th, 2013

Alan Gilbert writes poems and about contemporary poetry. He’s the author of the 2011 poetry collection, Late in the Antenna Fields, and a 2006 collection of essays entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight, and his latest poetry collection, The Treatment of Monuments. Gilbert’s poems and art writing have appeared in numerous publications, including ArtForum, Bomb, Brooklyn Rail, Cabinet, and Parkett.

I hope you enjoyed the interviews and if you're interested in purchasing any of the work discussed,follow the links below. I can't recommend these books highly enough.

Late In The Antenna Fields by Alan Gilbert (2011)

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The Translation of Dr. Appeles by David Truer (2006)

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The Treatment of Monuments by Alan Gilbert (2012)

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Rez Life by David Truer (2012)

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