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December 19th, 2008

SOHO JOURNAL REVIEWS: PART 2.

by John Coakley

Little Honey
Lucinda Williams
CD
Lost Highway
2008

Decades ago, when Bessie Smith sang Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine, it was pretty clear that she was not really touting her culinary virtues. She was talking about something else altogether that had all the menfolk lined up at her door. That tradition of barely veiled sexual joy is continued on Lucinda William’s new album Little Honey with the song Honeybee: “Oh, my little honey bee/I’m so glad you stung me/Now I’ve got your honey/All over my tummy.”

The music matches the playful exuberance; it’s a greasy, rowdy, roadhouse stomper that captures the joy of finding that special someone who knows how to get you happy in that special way. Then you have songs like Knowing, a soothing bit of melancholia that sounds like finally getting home after a long, hard day of work. Rarity continues that mood with quiet, almost elegiac horns, while Jailhouse Tears is a comic/tragic duet with Elvis Costello, Lucinda’s raspy voice working well against Elvis’s tortured croon. Little Honey is Lucinda’s most consistent album since 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Anyone who was disappointed by her work after that classic should give this one a try.

One Day As a Lion
One Day As a Lion
CD
Anti
2008

When Rage Against the Machine broke up, it would have been hard to predict that every member except for the singer would find success in a new band (Audioslave). But that is what happened. Zach de la Rocha has been largely out of circulation for the past eight years–popping up on other people’s albums here and there, or getting together with his former bandmates for the occasional reunion. Now he has returned with One Day As A Lion, a project featuring Zach on vocals and keyboards and Jon Theodore on drums. The keyboards employed here are ornery, old, and loud—they sound more like distorted guitars than something you’d here on a new Britney single. The drums sound huge, like hip hop beats as if played by Nirvana-era Dave Grohl. Put those two sounds together with De la Rocha’s commanding vocals and you have one powerful EP. That’s right—you only get five songs. But those five songs are an excellent way to wake up, get through that last mile on the treadmill, or start a mosh pit in your living room. It’s a politically minded, musically furious stress release valve. Not a bad thing to have during the holidays in the midst of a tanking economy.

TOTAL SOUL CLASSICS
Legacy recordings has released a series of reissues that celebrate 70’s Philadelphia R&B, as best exemplified by the work of producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. This era sometimes gets left behind when people look back on the history of soul music, with more attention being paid to the polished Motown gems (i.e. the Supremes) or the raw power of Stax (i.e. Rufus Thomas). But any serious fan of music needs some Philly in their collection. The talent pool was immense, and Gamble & Huff were a force to be reckoned with in both songwriting and production.

Back Stabbers
The O’Jays
CD
Total Soul Classics/Legacy Recordings

The O’Jays had been around for a few years by 1972, but this was the album that opened the door for them. Songs like When the World’s at Peace proved that Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was not a fluke—there was more to be considered in soul music than simple tales of romance gone right or wrong. Their hit Love Train took that argument even further. Still, romance and its perils were not ignored on Back Stabbers. Listen to the Clock on the Wall artfully conveys the anxiety of infidelity, while Eddie Levert’s enthusiasm about his lady on Mr. Lucky is both powerful and infectious. The music is by turns funky, intense, and thoughtful, with the usual rhythm section and horns supplemented by sometimes ethereal organ and vibes. The result is a record that feels organic, as if studio trickery was kept to a minimum and every song could have been replicated perfectly well in a live setting. This is a solid introduction to both the O’Jays and to the Philadelphia sound as a whole.


Life Is a Song Worth Singing

Teddy Pendergrass
CD
Total Soul Classics/Legacy Recordings

This 1978 album was only Teddy’s second solo record, but he had been known as the singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes for some time. His reputation for sophisticated intonation with a gruff, powerful voice was established, and Life Is a Song Worth Singing only strengthened Teddy’s rep. Close the Door is a classic, “lay down on my bear skin rug by the fireplace while I get ya some Chablis, baby” slow jam. If you were born in 1979, there’s a very good chance that you were conceived to this song. That might creep you out a little bit, but listen to it anyway. Only You is a strong, funky jam whose refrain of “you got, you got what I need!” inspired one of Eddie Murphy’s funniest stand-up routines. And Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose is as much of a party starter as the title suggests, complete with the whole record company staff bringing calls of “paaaaaarrty!” and “Hoo! Hoo!” into the mix. The bonus disco version is especially hot. The only problem with this album is that, compared to Back Stabbers, the production is a little too slick—the horns and strings are pushed up and the guitars pushed down. But that’s one reviewer’s subjective call, and a complaint about 1978 as much as it is about this album, which is still worth your time.


Break Up the Concrete
The Pretenders
CD
Shangri-La Music

This is being touted as Chrissie Hynde’s Americana album; if that’s true, then it just goes to show how expansive that genre really is. It’s true that Hynde reached back to the music she grew up with to find new inspiration, but that music includes Rockabilly, Bo Diddley, and the country-tinged rock of the 60’s and 70’s that is most often associated with Americana. It’s all recorded loose and dry, with Hynde commanding an instructive “Again” at the end of a few verses. Autotune? Overdubs? Not this time.

This is the first Pretenders album to not feature drummer Martin Chambers, the only consistent member besides Hynde herself since the Pretenders began back in 1978. He’s replaced by session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner, a man who has played with Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Crowded House, and every Beatle except Paul. As strong as Chambers is, it’s clear that the change has done Chrissie a world of good. The music breezes along at a brisk pace, perfectly matching the rapidfire lyrics conveying the singer’s still punk view of the world. It’s true that this album lacks jaw-dropping Pretenders singles on par with Back on the Chain Gang or Message of Love, but Break Up the Concrete is a remarkably consistent album. You won’t want to skip a single song, which is a rare accomplishment these days.


Vampyr

DVD
Directed by Carl Theodore
Dreyer
1932
The Criterion Collection

Vampyr is one of those seminal horror films that probably used to cause ladies of weak constitution to faint in terror. After all, ladies of weak constitution were falling prey to an undead, bloodsucking crone in this atmospheric film from the man who gave us The Passion of Joan of Arc. The intensity of cinematic horror, needless to say, has continued to leap ever higher hurdles over the years; Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, and Halloween all made vampires seem quaint by comparison. So why watch a film whose villain looks like a grumpy old woman, rather than, say, the iconic bloodsucker in Nosferatu?

Well, for starters, the film looks beautiful. The transfer, in typical Criterion fashion, is virtually flawless, rendering the shadows all the more ominous. That is especially evident during a bizarre sequence where the protagonist discovers a town where the citizen’s shadows dance while the actual people toil away. It’s an amazing bit of cinematic magic that all of the computer generated trickery in the world could not improve. And therein lies the current appeal of Vampyr—not the promise of being shocked out of your wits, but rather of being pleasantly creeped out by an atmospheric, early sound era film that relies on lighting and slowly turning doorknobs to create a feeling of macabre fascination. That can be pleasure enough.

This DVD comes with a second disc that features two documentaries on Dreyer’s work. It also includes a softcover book that not only includes the film’s script but its alleged inspiration: Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampiric novella Carmilla. Vampyr would be an excellent gift for any cineaste interested in how people used to be scared senseless.


Noise

Director: Matthew Saville. Starring Brendan Cowell, Maia Thomas, Katie Wall.
Film Movement
Australia, 2007
109 minutes
DVD

A young woman gets on a commuter train, lost in her headphones and carrying a large, wrapped frame. She sits down, looks at the picture and smiles, before noticing that the elderly lady in the seat ahead of her has slumped down to the floor, lifeless. Then she snaps out of her reverie and realizes that everyone on the train but her has been shot dead.

And you thought your commute sucked.

The crime is being investigated by a likeable but lackluster cop who suffers from an ever-worsening case of tinnitus—a constant, high-pitched ringing in the ears. The nagging sound is used to great effect when we experience things from the cop’s perspective. It also serves as an allegory for the tension the whole town feels over the killer not being found. That tension is portrayed subtly, with a keen eye for nuance in both sight and sound. Even those not so taken by mysteries will find much to enjoy in the characters themselves.

Noise
was a selection from Film Movement, a club that sends members a new independent or foreign film each month. Many of the features haven’t found American distribution yet, making Film Movement the only way to see them. Each DVD comes with special features and a bonus short film. A smart gift for the film lover on your list.

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | Commentary

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