Friday, September 9, 2011

God's Twin

“God of the rich man ain’t the god for the poor.”
Clouds by The Jayhawks

We once thought we were praying to the same god. And the results left us confused. Those praying for a cure for cancer, or a little more time to make that payment before the lights got shut off, or a bed to sleep in that night, those people usually waited a long time. But the people waiting for their big defense contracts to be signed, for their tax breaks to be extended, for their sons and daughters to be spared strapping on those boots on the ground, those people seemed to have an express line. And sometimes, they even claimed god talked to them.

Come to find out, he did. Or at least one of them did. One of the gods. Come to find out, there are two. And they are brothers. Theoretically, they are both all powerful, Jesu and Larry, but Larry has an inferiority complex. He could do some serious damage to Jesu, if ever he got the gumption. But he doesn’t think he can. He thinks he has to do everything Jesu tells him to do.

So Larry monitors the prayer circuits of the poor and needy. He listens to all of the sad stories, then reports to Jesu. Jesu takes the reports and files them and produces a giant marketing database for the people whose prayers he answers, the people who are just right, the ones that do seem to be made in his image. And when those people need something, Jesu gives it to them and balances the scales on the backs of Larry’s people. Divine intervention is a zero sum game, you see.

Larry can’t talk to his people. Jesu talks to his people all the time. Directly. Lunches with them, although that’s kind of a courtesy, really, because Jesu doesn’t really need to eat. But if he shows his image once in a while, sometimes his people will commission a really cool painting about the experience, and they will wind up paying a painter, usually one of Larry’s people, for the job. Jesu thinks in that scenario, everybody wins. And sooner or later, a software giant or an oil tycoon will need that money back, and Jesu will raise gas prices.

Larry always objects, of course. He’s a decent sort of god. But Jesu knows how to put him in his place. “What do you matter, anyway?” he’ll say. “For all you’ve lobbied for these people, never once have they written ‘Larry, Joy of Man’s Desiring.’ There’s not even a Latinate translation for ‘Larry.’”

Larry will sulk back to his prayer banks and listen to all of the pain and suffering, and wish liquor affected him.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Music: A New Song, "Live Through You"

A new song, shot somewhere in the vicinity of the computer what posted it, and edited shoddily by the musician:

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OC-Ed: Sometimes A Good “Fuck” Is Called For

The King's Speech will get a new
sound edit to move from R to PG-13.
The King’s Speech won big at the Oscars last night, taking home awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth in the title role), Best Director (Tom Hooper), and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). That’s going to mean more theaters for the drama, about King George VI struggle to overcome his stuttering to address a nation sorely in need of leadership as it heads to war.

And now, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the film is going to get a quick edit so it can exchange its R rating for PG-13, which would allow more people to see it. The Weinstein Co. wants families to be able to see the film together, so they have removed the word “fuck” from the film by muting the sound whenever it is said.

The King’s Speech is a wonderful film, a great story told with humor, passion, and empathy. I am all for more families seeing the film. It’s inspiring. But cutting the language seems like a desperate grab to wring a few more dollars out of the screenings.

The word “fuck” in the now Oscar-winning script is not gratuitous. It perfectly expresses the anger and frustration that King George VI feels as he receives his tutelage from Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush in what was also an Oscar-worthy performance). I’m sure ever utterance of the word was agonized over by Seidler and Hooper, and it is used to great effect, sometime bursting a bubble of tension that has been skillfully built throughout a scene. Cutting it, or muting it, hurts the film.

For what it’s worth, Firth agrees with me. Backstage at the Oscars last night, he told the Hollywood Reporter that he does not support the new edit of the film, which he said has “integrity as it stands.”

"It serves a purpose," he told the Reporter, mentioning that he doesn’t take profanity casually, but that he takes his children to soccer games where they might hear swearing because he still wants them to experience the game. "But in the context of the film, it couldn't be more edifying, more appropriate. It's not vicious or insulting. It's not in the context that might offend."

When I was a kid, my parents allowed me to hear all kinds of language in film. They trusted me to handle it. We would sometimes watch fucktastic flicks like Scarface, the atomic profanity weight of which was the rough equivalent of uranium. We made a joke of it. It was absurdly profane and over the top, something we acknowledged in its context and moved on. In my admittedly biased opinion, I was not harmed from it.

We would have watched a film like The King’s Speech without flinching. The profanity (I agree with Billy Connolly on this – it is not “cursing” or “swearing,” there is no oath taken here) is organic to the scene and the character. The character of King George VI presented in the film is tightly wound and has a rash temper. He can even be a little mean. A handful of well-placed “fucks” is exactly what the script calls for.

We are too shy about language as a culture, which is somewhat amazing. Context should matter more than it seems to. Cee Lo Green had a viral video hit over the summer with “Fuck You,” one of the most joyous, soulful songs I have heard come out of the mainstream in years. But in order to reach more people, the song got changed to “Forget You,” a version that loses a lot of its potency. It was terrible on Glee, it was terrible on Saturday Night Live (but still great on Later with Jools Holland). The groove was there, but without that lynchpin profanity, the urgency of the narrative is gone.

Which of these moves you more?

I see you driving round town with the girl I love
And I’m like, fuck you
I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough
And I’m like, fuck you and fuck her, too


I see you driving round town with the girl I love
And I’m like, forget you
I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough
And I’m like, forget you and forget her, too

The guy in version two is milquetoast. I don’t care what he is feeling if all he can muster from his pain and frustration is “forget you,” which is a meaningless stand-in. The phrase is counter-intuitive in the context of the song. There is no release in it (pardon the roundabout pun).

Sometime post-Oscars, the original version of The King’s Speech will fall out of circulation in favor of the sanitized version. So if you want to see the film that just won four Oscars, get out and see it before it leaves. And if you want to hear Cee Lo’s song the way it was intended, the video is below. And for good measure, the next time you see Scarface on network TV, skip it. It’s not worth it.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Allison Moorer Interview - Moorer Stretches Out with Crows

Allison Moorer's 2010 album, Crows.
Last Year, I reviewed Allison Moorer’s CD Crows for The Boston Globe. It was one of my early favorites for best album of the year when it was released in February, and remained so throughout the year. There was something different about Crows, Moorer's follow-up to her covers album, Mockingbird. Even though she was working with frequent producer R.S. Field again, the songs sounded different, and the lyrics were different as well, in some subtle way, from Moorer’s previous work. There is a story here, or at the very least a progression, with the narrator starting on her knees in “Abalone Sky” and ending up looking back at how she survived in “Crows,” the closing song.

After the review, Moorer was kind enough to agree to an e-mail interview. Because of a personal illness, I was not able to tend to the Curmudgeon for a while, and the interview was never published, until now. As I publish this, Moorer is planning her first album together with her sister, Shelby Lynne, and getting ready to go on tour with husband Steve Earle when he releases his next album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

So if you haven’t listened to Crows in a while, or you never caught up with it, now is the time to fire it up, and to read what Moorer has to say about it.

Did you write and arrange this album specifically to be a departure from your previous work?

I’ve never consciously decided to “depart” from any album, or an style of music I’ve explored. I’ve just followed my path and have done what felt right at the time. It has not been calculated. However, I knew that I was exploring some new territory on this album, from the poetics in the songs to the musicality of them, to the way I sang them. I think that’s okay to do, and if you’re not growing and changing, are you really doing your work as an artist?

Did you work with R.S. Field any differently this time out?

One of the great things about working with R.S. on this record was that we already have a “language” – we know how to communicate with one another, so there was no guesswork as far as that part of making the record was concerned. I didn’t want to have to get over that communication hurdle, so that was one reason why I asked him to produce it. Plus, he’s really great. The only thing that was different from the other records we’ve made together is maybe that we had the most fun doing this one than any of the others.

Did any of the artists you covered on Mockingbird influence your writing or performing on Crows?

Absolutely! Though I can’t and won’t analyze how, if you don’t mind.

Are your influences as a singer different from your influences as a songwriter?

That’s a very good question – I’ve never really thought about it that way. I guess I like all kinds of singers – from the traditionally “great” voices to the singer/songwriter voices that may not be thought of as classically beautiful. At the end of the day, I like artists that move me, and there is something good and informative to find in all the music that moves me.

Someone may be surprised to learn that I consider Astrud Gilberto and Chet Baker influences on my singing because they both sing/sang so softly, but it’s about the economy they used. Dinah Washington was also a really economical singer though she had a much bigger voice and more sheer vocal presence than the previous two I mentioned. But just because a singer influences your own singing doesn’t mean you try to sound like them. The same goes for songwriting, I believe –you can have an influence, but the listener may never pick up on it.

I got the sense of an arc on Crows, or at least certain stages – a reticence at the beginning, questioning in the middle, reminiscence, resolution, and then a postscript in Crows, looking back from a healthier place. Was that purposeful, or am I reading too much into it?

There is definitely a beginning, middle, and end to the record. For me, it’s a song cycle – not one as literal as I did on The Hardest Part, but it’s there if you’re listening, which you obviously were!

Were you conscious of how fans might react to a less twangy sound?

I didn’t really know I wasn’t being twangy. But I guess I never considered myself to be twangy in the first place. I sound country from time to time, but I can’t help that, and don’t guess I would if I could. That wouldn’t be honest, now would it?

“Should I Be Concerned” stands out to me, vocally. Was there a particular source of inspiration for it?

I wanted to write a big time, pull out all of the stops dramatic ballad. The inspiration was, believe it or no, poking fun at being down in the dumps. Sometimes you have to laugh at your own funk to pull yourself out of it.

Are you in a groove with this new sound? Is it something you think you’ll stick with for another album or two?

Oh my goodness. I never know what I’m going to do next. It frustrates the hell out of my audience! God bless them for sticking with me.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

OC-Ed: When the Black Eyed Peas Were Good

The Black Eyed Peas
I know a lot of people who will be turning the channel when the Black Eyed Peas take the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show Sunday. My ears burn now whenever I hear “I’ve Got A Feeling” and it’s not by the Beatles. The Peas are ubiquitous now, and the songs get dumber as the grooves get bigger and the sales get higher. “Let’s Get It Started” was originally “Let’s Get Retarded,” one of the few instances of censorship making a song better.

But it wasn’t always like that. Years ago, when the Peas first came out, they were a great band, in the vein of Arrested Development or De La Soul. They used to brag about being a band that didn’t wear Tommy Hilfiger or baseball caps. “We don’t use dollars to represent” they rapped on “Falling Up.”

They found fame and enormous success after Fergie joined the band in 2003 and they started cranking out more product-placement friendly tunes. Hard to begrudge them their living, but the music changed considerably, and for the worse.

So for those who don’t remember the old Peas and want to dismiss them outright, here’s a reminder of better, leaner times.