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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Film Review: Wall-E Takes Film to New Heights

Review by Noah Mallin

Notice I said "film" in the headline and not animation. Oh Wall-E, like the rest of Pixar's films is the result of gloriously detailed brilliantly rendered computer animation all right. There are people who loathe animation, who think it's kid's stuff, or that it's not serious. Those people are idiots. OK, I've said it. I'll grant that the likes of Happy Feet, the umpteenth Shrek film, and Kung-Fu Panda have muddied the waters but a film like Wall-E is proof that no medium brings the possibilities inherent in motion pictures to life better than animation. To paraphrase a paraphrase - to hate Wall-E is to hate cinema. It has as much to say about who we are as any of last year's best picture nominees -- it has heart, humor and deep emotional resonance.

The touchstones are Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as you may have surmised from the too-cautious ad campaign. Now include Stanley Kubrick (not just of 2001 but also of Dr. Strangelove), Ridley Scott, a dollop of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, even a pinch of Terry Gilliam to get the real picture of this dark, satirical enchantment of a film.

The plot is simplicity itself -- Earth, in the future, is a wasteland of abandoned cities and garbage piled higher than the skyscrapers. Only two creatures survive -- cockroaches and a lone robot still toiling at it's trash compacting task. Wall-E (for it is he) also has a penchant for odd offbeat finds -- Rubik's cubes, a old videotape of Hello Dolly!, a lightbulb, that he uses to decorate the inside of his shelter. The image of him trundling through the abandoned cityscape strewn with detritus is suffused with melancholia. Watching him as he watches the fuzzy old film is heartbreaking.

His routine is suddenly broken by the arrival of a rocket ship which mysteriously deposits a new robot, a sleek shiny iPod in comparison to Wall-E's dented and pinged lawn mower looks. Her purpose is mysterious but, without using actual words (ok maybe one) we get a clear sense of gender and even of the two robots discovering each other and their unique personalities.

The second half of the film takes an unexpected turn not signaled by the advertising, and I'm loathe to spoil too much. I will say that the human race didn't all die (though there is significant ambiguity over whether they all lived.) Their ancestors' lives are a brutally on-target satire of American-style consumerism. The words "Stay the course" are uttered and despite director Andrew Stanton's denials there are poignant echoes of some very recent leadership failures.

Did I mention that the film is funny, and the robot love story is utterly charming, and that Fred Willard is in it? Wall-E is the best film of the year so far, which is damning with faint praise indeed. It's more than that though, one of the best of the last decade, a future classic, a triumph of cinematic art. Go see it, and leave the kids at home.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Design: California Italian Style - Ferrari California Set to Debut

Design Critique by Noah Mallin

Pininfarina, Ferrari's favored design house, has allowed images of the new production California hardtop to trickle out. I've withheld judgement for a few weeks but having seen a fair number of images I can officially pronounce it as "so-so." Of course seeing it in the sheetmetal will be the final test. It is pretty cool to see the power hardtop go up and down in a matter of seconds like Optimus Prime's toupee however.

This is not to say the car is ugly, just that with Ferrari and Pininfarina the bar is set awfully high. The overall design is nice and some of the details are very well handled but the roofline is a bit too Mercedes for my taste. There is also the question of the convoluted rear haunches and the character line that sweeps from the side vents up into the rear fender. Sinuous indeed, but I'm not sure that it works to tie the design together.

The stacked quad exhausts at the rear are pretty cool but the overall design looks a bit busy, especially with that odd gray panel breaking up the surfaces in the middle. The front is more successful though I'm not sure I like the placement of the headlights so far forward in their nacelles.

Design: Dynamic's Dubai Twisting Tower Totally Twisted

By Noah Mallin

If you were wondering where the money you spend filling up your Hummer is going to wonder no more. It's all going to build the incredible skyline of Dubai, and today's announcement of a twisting moving skyscraper by the aptly named Dynamic Group led by architect Dr. David Fisher (not to be confused with a TV mortician.) Check out the mini film on what promises to be the most nauseating address in the middle east.

Design: The High Line - New York's Coolest New Park

By Noah Mallin

Awesome architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro unveiled more views today of what promises to be New York City's coolest new park when it opens sometime around January. The High Line is an abandoned elevated freight train track that runs along the West Side of the city. Field Operations is the group responsible for the cutting edge (heh heh) landscaping. I can't wait to see this opened!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Comedy: Legendary Comic George Carlin Dies

By Noah Mallin

I remember watching HBO as a little kid and being totally blown away by the ribald, mind-expanding commentary of George Carlin, who died today at 70. I collected a whole bunch of his cassettes by the time I was 14 including Toledo Window Box, Class Clown, FM & AM, and An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo.

Lenny Bruce had opened the door to a new style of comedy in the 1960s before his tragic death, and he payed dearly for it. Carlin was already doing comedy at this point but in a gentle, observational vein more reminiscent of Bob Newhart. By the early 70s he had transformed into a counterculture hero, sticking it to religion, government, and especially the foibles of everyday life.

He suffered his share of abuse and arrests for his profanity-laced material, as Bruce had. He also shared Bruce's penchant for drug use if not for the types.

His most famous routine is the "Seven Dirty Words" which actually led to a Supreme Court case upholding a fine against a radio station which dared to play his bit detailing the words you couldn't say on television.

Carlin would win a boatload of Grammys for his records and Cable Ace awards for his 14(!) HBO specials. He grew crankier and more philosophical as he got older but he was almost always able to locate the humor in his observations of everyday life.

There is almost no comedian working today who wasn't influenced in some way by Carlin.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Film News: Another Cool Trailer -- "The Wackness" Shows No Slackness

By Noah Mallin

Those of you who have caught Drake and Josh on Nickleodeon know that the duo is composed of teen girl-bait guitar playing singer Drake Bell and goofy lunk Josh Peck. Turns out Peck has lost a ton of weight and also grown some impressive acting muscles opposite Ben Kingsley judging by his new impossible-to-market film The Wackness. Flick is set in mid-90s NYC and features drug dealing, head-shrinking, and an Olsen twin. Check out the trailer:

Film News: Coen Brothers Get Goofy Again For "Burn After Reading"

By Noah Mallin

Fresh from the trailer bakery is the new one from the Coen Brothers, and it shows them reverting back to screwball form after the existentialist noir of Oscar winner No Country For Old Men. Burn After Reading stars Brad Pitt, Coen vets George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich in a cloak and dagger caper. Judging from the trailer it looks like a winner...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Net-tards : Planet of Sound and Sight Joins AP Boycott

By Noah Mallin

Yes, well this weekend the Associated Press proved that they were dumber than a box of rocks and shot themselves in both feet. I blogged about this in depth here
but suffice to say that the news agency feels that they ought to get paid for as few as five words from one of their stories on a blog, link back or not. Fine. You don't want link, you don't get link. Let's see how your newspapers like it when that pricey feed of yours brings a handful of people back to their sites and they can't charge the kind of ad rates they'd like. Hah!

Robots: Tiny Little Robot Companion Has "Love Mode" -- Only in Japan

By Noah Mallin

I like love mechas as much as the next guy, but I like mine bigger than a Barbie. Not so the lonely Japanese gentleman!
Sega Toys has introduced 15-inch tall girl robot EMA. Says their spokesperson:"
She's very lovable and though she's not a human, she can act like a real girlfriend." Hmm...back in my bachelor days I may have dated a one of these. In case you're wondering, EMA stands for Eternal Maiden Actualization -- obviously!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Design: BMW Flashes Their Hot Cloth-Covered GINA -- Six Years Late

By Noah Mallin

So this is what BMW designers come up with when nobody is around. The GINA, just unveiled (if that's the right term) by the Bavarian company, was actually put together six years ago as an advanced design study by Chris Bangle's team. Yes that is high tech cloth subbing for stiff body panels covering GINA's frame. It can be split down the middle of the "hood" to get to the engine (top photo) and the rear spoiler and doors stretch and bunch the fabric at full extension.

The effect, especially in silver, is a bit Zeppelin-like but fascinating all the same. Designers often try to capture the tension of stretched fabric in sheet metal and Bangle simply eliminates the secondary medium. The solution for the taillights is ingeniously simple. Overall this is a brilliantly visionary design, impractical though it may be.

Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution Brings Hollywood Turning Point to Life

Harrison: "Keep your damn muzzle shut about Newley if you know what's good for you..."

Book Review by Noah Mallin

Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution is subtitled Five Movies and The Birth of the New Hollywood and it concerns itself with the five films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture that year. It's a clever hook and allows Harris to dish juicy stories about Warren Beatty, Rex Harrison, Sidney Poitier and Kate Hepburn among many others.

The book's central scene is a July 4th party thrown by Jane Fonda and her then-husband Roger Vadim in 1965. The guest list was a who's who of Hollywood on the cusp with old schoolers and young turks each staking out their own ground. In attendance were key players in each of the nominated films that Harris covers in depth: In The Heat of The Night, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, and Dr. Doolittle.

Harris does a great job in illuminating the often tortured creative process of each film while uncovering surprises along the way. We find out that Bonnie and Clyde was very nearly directed by Francois Truffaut, Poitier refused to shoot In The Heat of The Night in the segregated South, Rex Harrison was a drunk pain in the ass and directed anti-Semitic slurs Anthony Newley's way, and Mike Nichol's was accused of making The Graduate too autobiographical by casting Dustin Hoffman instead of Robert Redford in the lead. His insight into the murky relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is particularly compelling.

The story of each film is filled with improbable actions and strange turns of luck and disaster, all aided by Harris' sharp storytelling. He lays out clearly where each film lay on the spectrum of Hollywood maverick-ness, with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate as the new guard, In The Heat of the Night somewhere in the middle, and Dinner and Doolittle as the last gasp (for Spencer Tracy quite literally) of the old guard.

Pictures at a Revolution is damn near perfect for any film fanatic, a real treat.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Design: Tweak Yo' Sneakers

By Noah Mallin

My father always told me you can judge a man by his shoes, which at least gives you something to do on the subway to work. Yeah, that's right, that was me judging your Keds on the E Train. Anyhoo the freakazoids at Sneakart have designed clever stickers for your kicks, and you can even upload your own custom designs. I know a certain friend named KBall who will be very excited by the possibilities! The best part is it's only 4.95 pounds, which is foreign Brit money that is roughly 12 million dollars at current exchange rates.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Music: Flashback - 1968 - The Year in Singles Part Three

Compiled by Noah Mallin

Wrapping up our trip to 40 years ago, 1968 was a great year for singles. This was true of almost any year in the 60s, even though the album format was starting to become more dominant in rock. There was still a whole mess of soul, country, and other genres best heard on singles, and many rock bands like the Stones and The Beatles were still releasing key songs only as singles:

Here's 21 through 30, in no particular order:

21) James Brown – "Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud"
It's hard to overstate the importance of James Brown groundbreaking anthem to black pride. 1968 was a tough year with widespread rioting in black communities, particularly in the wake of the murder of Dr. King. Before 1968 the word "negro" was often used to describe African Americans but afterwards it became tainted, relegated to the dustbin by Brown and others.

22) Moody Blues – "Ride my See-Saw"
Plenty of bands still had more psychedelia left in them and the Moodys had morphed from a soulful British Invasion -era beat combo to one of the most commercial purveyors of slightly pretentious psilocybin silliness. They also knew how to write a killer single. By the early part of the 70s progressive rock would change the parameters and force ever more flashy musicianship and song structures on what was once psych-rock. The Moodys however stuck to their poppy guns and kept having hits.

23) Archie Bell and the Drells – "Tighten Up"
"We can dance just as good as we walk" Archie Bell was probably not dancing much as the infectious "Tighten Up" climbed the charts and he found himself on his way to Vietnam, a victim of the draft.The Quintessential let every member have a chance song, a damn good recipe if you ask me. So good Roxy Music used it at the end of "Re-Make/Re-Model"...

24) Beatles – "Hey Jude"
Paul wrote this to cheer up John's son Julian (of "Much Too Late for Goodbye's" semi-fame)who was depressed over his parent's split-up. When John heard it he thought it was a song giving the thumbs up to his budding relationship with Yoko. Paul himself was thinking more of Linda as he fleshed the lyrics out. Either way, one of the Beatles best and the longest number one single in Billboard chart history. Anyone who doesn't have the urge to go "Judee Judee JUdee Arrrrrghhhh..." during the coda has icewater for blood.

25) Desmond Dekker – "Isrealites"
Dekker was one of reggae's biggest stars and this was his first massive hit, splicing Rastafarian bible interpretation to everyday struggles to get by, all to a loping jaunty groove. "I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde..." he laments, trying to feed his family in a nation that oppressed his religious beliefs.

26) Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel – "You’re All I Need to Get By"
Many thought that Tammi and Marvin were an item and hearing them harmonize on songs like this classic its easy to see why. The classic vocal hook is underpinned by lithe bass and quivering strings all climaxing together in a great big chorus. Whew, I need a towel.

27) Wilson Pickett – "I’m a Midnight Mover"
"Wicked" Wilson Pickett was a pioneer of what would become funk. Always deep in the pocket, exhorting the band with his gravelly voice and spacious bouncing arrangements he rivaled James Brown for sheer killer charismatic groove, if not innovation. This is one of his best.

28) Donovan – "Hurdy Gurdy Man"
Like the Beatles Donovan went to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's retreat and came back with a clutch of songs. At this point the new Dylan tag was long past but Donovan was still capable of writing great pop including this off-kilter trippy dirge full of fuzzed out guitars and rolling drums.

29)The Who – "Magic Bus"
1968 found the Who touring and prepping their 1969 opus Tommy. "Magic Bus" was a great percussion driven placeholder, and one of their biggest American hits.

30)Rufus Thomas – "The Memphis Train"
Rufus Thomas' recording career stretched from the mid-50s until his death in the 90s. In between he was one of Memphis most beloved DJs and the father of Stax star Carla Thomas. "The Memphis Train" is one of his best, a bumptious rollicking good time.

Music: Flashback - 1968 - The Year in Singles Part Two

Compiled by Noah Mallin

Wrapping up our trip to 40 years ago, 1968 was a great year for singles. This was true of almost any year in the 60s, even though the album format was starting to become more dominant in rock. There was still a whole mess of soul, country, and other genres best heard on singles, and many rock bands like the Stones and The Beatles were still releasing key songs only as singles:

Here's 11 through 20, in no particular order:

11) Simon and Garfunkel – "At The Zoo"
"Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo, I do believe them, I do believe it's true..." I have no freaking clue what they're going on about in this song other than checking out the Central Park Zoo but it ain't no thang. When that portentous sizzling sound leads into the barrelhouse piano and they get into the rave-up it's just all the stuff I like in a Simon and Garfunkel song (and I don't like em all.)Even if it's not a patch on The Kinks' "Animal Farm".

12)Tyrone Davis – "Can I Change my Mind"
Tyrone Davis is all, "Whoa, baby, OK I was a total asshole" but it's so too late. Damn baby, can I change my mind? The player plays himself. Did I mention the killer riff and horn chart?

13) Procol Harum – "Homburg"
Procol Harum is mostly remembered for their 1967 classic "A Whiter Shade of Pale" but there was plenty more where that came from. "Homburg" is one of their best, a stately Dylanesque lament that finds insult in inept haberdashery. Oh yeah, and killer piano line.

14) Tommy James and the Shondells – "Crimson and Clover"
Tommy James knew his way around a pop song and the shivery "Crimson and Clover" is no exception. An unusual combo of swagger and longing, Joan Jett would unlock the sapphic raunch embedded in the James original when she covered it in the 80s. James' original actually prefigures some of the sound of glamsters like T. Rex and Bowie but their poppiness meant that most rock critics looked down on them until relatively recently. It didn't help that Hubert Humphrey wrote the liner notes to one of their albums.

15) Aretha Franklin – "The House that Jack Built"
Aretha had a lot of great songs during 1968 but this is my favorite, mostly because it rocks like nobody's business. The backing vocals nag, the drums thwack and the horns saunter while Aretha cuts Jack down to size.

16) Creedence Clearwater Revival – "I Put a Spell on You"
You gotta have pretty big balls to cover a Screamin' Jay Hawkins song but CCR pull it off ably with this track. This is before John Fogerty would find his feet as a songwriting genius cranking out track after classic track throughout 1969, but this is where the band's skill and chops at song arrangement come to the fore.

17) Delfonics – "La-La Means I Love You"
What'd you think it meant? The Delfonics took soul into a buttery smooth zone that would begin to dominate in the 70s under Philadelphia producer Thom Bell. There's at least one foot in the doo-wop of the past but the light approach sweetened with strings set the scene for a whole new sound.

18) Tammy Wynette – "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"
Like Aretha, Tammy's simply had enough of her no good man. Divorce was a growing national phenomenon but it wasn't much talked about. Her comes Tammy, spellin' it out so the brat don't know. Once again soul and country were tackling social realities that rock, for all it's supposed frankness, avoided.

19) Steppenwolf – "The Pusher"
One thing rockers did know about was drugs. Here Steppenwolf helpfully educated about the difference between some dude who sells grass (good) and the pusher (bad).Damned if I can tell 'em apart, 'cept "The Pusher don't care if you live or if you die.." Ok. helpful hint everyone.

20) The Temptations – "Cloud Nine"
The Tempts get all proto-funky on "Cloud Nine," and like the Supremes they were all about Motown's nascent social conscience. Poking a hole in all those folks who try to live on "cloud nine" while Detroit was falling apart the song struck a definite nerve. It helps that the arrangement is spring-tight with every piece of the Motown machinery locked into a great groove.

Music: Flashback - 1968 -- The Year in Singles Part One

Compiled by Noah Mallin

Wrapping up our trip to 40 years ago, 1968 was a great year for singles. This was true of almost any year in the 60s, even though the album format was starting to become more dominant in rock. There was still a whole mess of soul, country, and other genres best heard on singles, and many rock bands like the Stones and The Beatles were still releasing key songs only as singles:

Here's 1 through 10, in no particular order:

1) Loretta Lynn – "Fist City"
Coal miner's daughter Loretta Lynn was one of country's biggest stars in the 60s, telling it like Her feisty persona is summed by "Fist City" in which she promises the town harlot a one way ticket to the titular town.

2)Marvin Gaye – "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"
One of the great songs in pop history and a song that signified all kinds of things to different listeners. On the face of it a heartbreaking song about discovering infidelity from gossip, the pounding drums and pulsing beat suggested a suffusing dread that seemed to find it's counterpart in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy and the mounting civil unrest of 1968.

3)The Nazz – "Open My Eyes"
Before Todd Rundgren became a solo star in the 70s he was part of garage rockers The Nazz, caught here ripping off the opening riff of The Who's "Can't Explain" red-handed. It hardly matters as they burst into the phased chorus and a glorious bridge that pointed the way to Rundgren's solo work.

4) Sly and The Family Stone – "Everyday People"
Producer Sly Stone was fast becoming hit songwriter Sly Stone as 1967 rolled into 1968. His optimism would begin to curdle into paranoia and dread but "Everyday People" found he and the interracial Family Stone laying out a vision of everyone getting along and doing their thing.

5) Otis Redding – "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay"
By 1968 Otis Redding had become the biggest star on the gritty Memphis label Stax, the antithesis of Detroit polished Motown. Redding's phenomenal voice and delivery and solid songwriting chops ("Respect" was one of his) had taken him right to the brink when an appearance at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967 found him blowing everyone else off the stage. Redding and begun to work in a subtle new direction, melding his raw R & B style to contemplative folk when he died in a plane crash in December of that year at age 26. "Dock of the Bay" was the first and only song reflecting this new direction and suggests the colossus that Redding may have been had he lived. Released posthumously, it stands it's simply one of the greatest pieces of music by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

6)Rolling Stones – "Jumpin’ Jack Flash"
The Stones were eager to soften audiences up for their return to rawness and discard the psychedelic trappings that had cluttered up their previous few releases (though lovely b-side "Child of The Moon" felt much like the rest of that era.) "Jumpin' Jack Flash was a wake-up call, all lean riff from Keith, pumping bass line from Wyman and Jagger's sneering vocals. One of the Stones all time best.

7) Big Brother and The Holding Company – "Piece of My Heart"
The cult of Janis always bothered me a bit as she didn't really bring much new to the table that hadn't already been done by other female singers who just happened to be black (Erma Franklin, the original singer of this song and Aretha's older sister among them.) Yet her voice is undeniable and Big Brother's supercharged arrangement finds quite a bit of Stax in the song.

8) Diana Ross and The Supremes – "Love Child"
The received wisdom is that pop music didn't tackle "serious" subjects until Bob Dylan and The Beatles came along to explore weighty issues -- which of course is utter bullcrap. This isn't to say that "Love Child" is "Blowin' in the Wind" but Diana's pain at having a Daddy who abandoned her and not wanting to make the same mistake spoke directly to plenty of kids.

9) The Maytals – "54-46 (That’s My Number)"
Though still obscure outside the newly independent island nation, Jamaica's music scene had exploded into a creative riot of sound. The Maytals were exponents of ska, which took the beat from American soul and shuffled it up. Later this would all be slowed down into reggae. These guys weren't talking about phone numbers either - 54-46 was Toots Hibbert's prison number.

10) Eddie Floyd – "Big Bird"
"Big Bird" is a stomping hot soul number with a killer guitar lick from Stax sessioner Steve Cropper. It's a prime example of the rawness of the Stax sound in contrast to Motown's expansiveness. There's also a poignancy in his exhortation to the plane to "get on up" beyond the phallic as label-mate Redding's death was still fresh in people's minds.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Music: Public Image Limited on American Bandstand -- Thanks WFMU

By Noah Mallin

This was a YouTube fave before the man (not sure if in this case it was Dick Clark or Johnny Rotten) pulled it down. Follow this link to see something truly wonderful -- The classic PIL line-up on American Bandstand circa 1979. Jah Wobble rules!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Culture : Near Star Trek Reunion On Tap For Sulu Takei's Wedding

By Noah Mallin

George Takei, known to millions of 40-year old virgins as Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, is celebrating California's legalization of gay marriage by tying the knot with his longtime partner Brad Altman. The couple have set their nuptuals for September in Los Angeles' Democracy Forum at the Japanese National Museum. The best man? Walter "Mr. Chekov" Koenig. The matron of honor? Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols. Even Vulcan death grip master Leonard Nimoy will be in attendance. But what of Captain Kirk? According to the AP "Takei has said Shatner didn't treat him and most of the cast very well."
Guess Denny Craine won't be handling the airtight Massey pre-nup.

Of course another kind of tension might explain the awkwardness of Kirk and Spock attending the same event. This one's for friend-of-the-blog Jabelson:

Film: Surprise Casino Audition Unearthed

Via Boing-Boing

It appears Pesci wasn't Scorsese's first choice opposite DeNiro in Casino. In fact he was so taken by the young upstart here that he asked Pesci to model his performance after this audition:

Monday, June 2, 2008

Music: Bo Diddley, Founder of Rock and Inventor of a Beat, Dead

An Appreciation by Noah Mallin

When the pioneers of rock n' roll are mentioned Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley often vie for the top of the list. The late great Bo Diddley however was just as important to music. The singer, songwriter and guitarist was one of the greatest American musicians. It's one thing to name a song after yourself (which he did frequently). It's another to invent a beat. And not just any beat.

The so-called Bo Diddley beat (which had a long complex derivation before he popularized it) would underpin songs from Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, The Jesus and Mary Chain, George Michael and countless others.

He didn't just invent the beat, he invented himself as a glasses wearing swaggering woman-taming cowboy with a homemade square guitar. His sound was actually more varied than legend suggests ranging from ballads to outright rockers. With sidekick Jerome Green he developed an outrageous call and response that echoed in the rough and clownish contrast of Chuck D. and Flava Flav in Public Enemy. His chicken-scratch guitar style prefigured funk and he toured with a sexy female guitarist in the late 50s and early 60s who could play just as sharp as she looked named Lady Bo. In short, he was the coolest man in the world.

In 1979 The Clash asked him to open up for their US tour, but by then he was already a legend freighting his substantial back catalog of songs with him from concert to concert. It's that catalog that survives him and defines his legacy.

Neophytes should immediately seek out the two-disc Chess Records anthology and then the fantastic Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger LP to truly appreciate a musical giant who is with us no more.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Music: Flashback -- The Best Albums of 1968 Continued - Part 2 of 2

By Noah Mallin

Here's the last installment of our survey featuring 1968's best albums.

11) The Kinks – Village Green Preservation Society
The Kinks were one of The Beatles most serious rivals in 1964, with singer Ray Davies capable of writing more and better songs than the Stones still nascent Jagger-Richards combo. By 1968 a dispute with the musicians union in the United States was preventing them from touring and a whole spate of other bands and sounds had eclipsed Ray Davies' still formidable writing prowess and his brother Dave's guitar skills. Village Green was The Kinks turning their backs on the United States and centering their songs on particularly British subjects emerging with a record that was a commercial flop but has become the most beloved in their venerable catalog.

12) Sly and The Family Stone – Life
was Sly and The Family Stone's third album, and their second of 1968. Where their first two albums had a great deal of filler this one showed the depth of Sly Stone's vision while it's optimism was as yet undimmed. The lack of big hits actually contributes to the unified feel of the record. The punchy drums and fuzztoned guitars point the way to funk while still retaining the immediacy of great pop.

13) Family - Music in a Doll's House
Family were a sadly underrated band who made several solid albums in the late 60s and early 70s including this, their debut. Their blues based background was typical of the British scene that spawned Fleetwood Mac, The Yardbirds, and others, as was their fondness for blending it with jazz and folk flourishes. What set them apart was the sharpness of their playing and arranging and their intricate band composed songs. It doesn't hurt that Traffic's Dave Mason and Stones producer Jimmy Miller were on hand to deliver an atmospheric and rich sound. At times they rock as hard as Led Zeppelin would barely a year later.

14) The Doors – Waiting For The Sun
This is not the Doors' best album but even a middling effort from them was pretty damn cool. "Hello I Love You" is sleazy stuff delivered with a knowing leer, "The Unknown Soldier" is as harsh an indictment of Vietnam as the band would deliver, that is until you get to "Five to One", the records hard rocking highlight. Some of the ballads undoubtedly bring out the worst in Morrison's pretentious writing and delivery but fail to sink the album.

15) Velvet Underground – White Light/ White Heat
Lou Reed and John Cale jettisoned Nico and her sponsor/band Svengali Andy Warhol by the time their second album White Light/White Heat came out. Even more polarizing than the first album it goes from mellow drones like "Here She Comes Now" to the skronk of "I Heard Her Call my Name" to the head ripping fierceness of the 17 minutes plus "Sister Ray." This is not to mention Cale's two showcases, the hilariously twisted shaggy-dog story of "The Gift" and the mesmerizing "Lady Godiva's Operation." This album laid down a gauntlet that the Stooges and Modern Lovers would later pass down to the first punk rockers. It would also be Cale's last studio album with the band.

16) Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For The Money
Like the Velvets, Frank Zappa found the whole peace and love hippy vibe of 1967 to be totally alien and even repugnant. We're Only in it For The Money was his dystopian masterpiece, swinging a bat at the head of the counterculture and the establishment. Even better was his re-purposing of 50s and 60s doo-wop and R & B to underpin songs like "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" (your brain, natch.)

17) Cream – Wheels of Fire
Cream were a far from perfect band and the overlong 2 LP set Wheels of Fire is a far from perfect album. The high points do represent some of the band's best work including "White Room" and "As You Said." The live stuff on the second record is often over indulgent but "Crossroads" shows off guitarist Eric Clapton's legendary playing to great effect.

18) Gilberto Gil – Gilberto Gil
Gil was one of the leading lights of the "tropicalia" movement that was taking Brazil by storm in 1968. This, his second album was a strong driving work with a particular rock bent. The sound of the record sometimes feels akin to coming across a band like The Animals playing carnival music. In fact Brazil's military junta felt that his openness to new sounds was such a threat that he and Caetono Veloso (see Part One) were both jailed at the end of the decade. Gil would flee to the UK in the early 70s before returning.

19) Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Controversial both at the time of its release and today, Sweetheart of The Rodeo found Gram Parson's joining the Byrds and taking over the direction of the band. The sound not surprisingly veered to traditional country, seen as a bastion of the establishment in 1968 music circles. In addition Parsons was a wealthy high-living trust-fund kid which still leads to charges of cultural slumming for daring to tackle the Louvin Brothers "The Christian Life" and Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison". Bushwah says I. Sweethearts is a landmark of country rock and Parsons comes to the music with love and appreciation.In addition the countryfied cover of soul classic "You Don't Miss Your Water" is flat out genius.

20) Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Unlike the Byrds, no-one ever questioned Johnny Cash's legitimacy or right to sing songs of prison life. Cash feeds off the energy of his literally captive audience and they feed of the dark despair at the heart of so many of his best songs. An indelibly great performance.

Culture: Did I Mention That Harvey Korman was in The Star Wars Holiday Special?

By Noah Mallin

The late, great Harvey Korman did an awful lot of work and we were all the luckier for it. Still, nothing quite reaches the surreal heights of his appearance in alien drag in one of his three roles in George Lucas' disowned Stars Wars Holiday Special. Watch and marvel: