Thursday, 23 February 2012

All My Favourite Singers Couldn't Sing

Poor old Whitney, eh?

In the end it was so easy for her to illicit a little public sympathy - all she had to do was die. Suddenly years of schadenfreude were magically transformed into a public outpouring of grief and exclamations about how she was the greatest singer ever and touched so many lives.

I'm not one of these people. I'll admit she had a technically brilliant singing voice, but is that really enough? If you deconstruct her songs they are basically bland AOR backings of safe standards with an (admittedly) exceptional singer appealing to the worst of 80s yuppie excesses.

I even think her signature tune 'I Will Always Love You' was performed better by the author of the tune Dolly Parton. It's much more simple and direct than Whitney's version which is overproduced and loses the sorrowful edge and intent of the song due to a ridiculously overblown vocal performance. Maybe I just abide by the less-is-more approach.

When I look through my record collection I notice there are quite a few artists that have at best limited vocal ranges and at worst simply terrible voices. I think the reason for this is because if an artist has a terrible voice then they have to make up for it in other ways: witty lyrics, an original point of view, well-written songs, competent musicianship or just a sexy swagger. Sometimes just being bat-shit crazy is enough to peak my attention. (Whitney wasn't crazy in an interesting enough way for me).

Someone I always return to as an example of an average singer with great songs is Silver Jews frontman David Berman. He's from the Lou Reed school of the speak-sing vocal and usually delivers his lines in a flat deadpan baritone. He's probably not as street-smart as Reed but has more of a sarcastic sense of humor and an eye for the ridiculous. the Silver Jews' 1998 album American Water is a bit of a landmark album in my opinion and has the rare honour of grabbing my attention from the first line of the album in the song 'Random Rules'. The line is - 'In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection'

It's a vague yet intriguing line that to me sums up the intersection between the bravado of youth and the sobering realization of mortality. I also think the year 1984 was chosen because it gives the line sinister Orwellian overtones. That's a lot to take in from just eight carefully chosen words! I wasn't surprised to later discover that Berman is a published poet and has a great collection of poems called 'Actual Air'.

To me, shows like Australian Idol would be much more intriguing if they were about song writing rather than singing. The only problem with this is audiences would soon discover that good songwriters are even more rare than good singers, but at least people would listen to the songs rather than the technicality of the delivery.

Mainstream audiences don't listen to songs. You need no further proof than Leonard Cohen's sublime but hideously over-exposed song 'Hallelujah'. A couple of years ago there was a campaign to make the song a Christmas number one in Britain. There were three versions vying for the title - Leonard Cohen's original, Jeff Buckley's and some talent show winner who is probably forgotten by now. I can't think of a less Christmassy song! It has vaguely atheistic overtones in lines such as 'They say there is a god above but all I ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya' and is based on the old-testament story of King David who, despite all his power could not win the love of Bathsheba, leaving him feeling impotent and love sick. Hardly 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer'.

I suppose a Good performance of a song comes down to intent and on shows like Australian Idol it always appears to me like the performers are focused on creating a fan base and a career in the industry rather than interpreting a song. Young Talent Time is worse. I hate seeing the fear in the eyes of the young performers as they contemplate being beaten up at school on Monday or displeasing their pushy parents who are vicariously living their dreams through their children.

Ultimately I think there is nothing wrong with someone being a good singer as long as they interpret the song with some feeling, have a sense of understatement and can deliver a song with honesty. It's hard to think of anyone who is the whole package. Even if the performers possess all these criteria they end up being achingly attractive which makes it hard for me to buy the idea that they have ever been hurt in love. Maybe Susan Boyle should sing Silver Jews songs.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Blazing Saddles

Whenever people ask me what my favourite comedy film is I always say Blazing Saddles.

I think it's a truly subversive yet hilarious film. Some people say in this modern politically-correct age a film like Blazing Saddles wouldn't get made. They may be right, but I think it is a perfect product of its time (the1970s).

The reason I think it really struck a chord with me is because I saw it at the right time. I was probably about fourteen. A time where you notice a disconnect between what adults say and how they act. This doesn't happen in Blazing Saddles. Most characters are ignorant bigots and proud of it.

The film concerns a sleepy town called Rock Ridge that is home to some of the most proudly racist characters to ever spout the 'N'-word in a major motion picture. A greedy mayor (played by co-writer Mel Brooks) sends a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) to divide the town and drive people away so that it can be demolished to make way for a railway line. As well as racism there is also a liberal dose of sexism, corny slapstick comedy and possibly a small amount of mocking of the mentally challenged.

But it works. Probably for two main reasons. The first being that it is a well written script and extremely funny, due, in no small part to co-writer Richard Pryor who I imagine wrote the bulk of the race-based humour. His writing lends a slick urban charm to proceedings. I'm a Mel Brooks fan and especially like Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs but Pryor and Brooks together have both the Jewish and Afro-American perspectives sewn-up which gives this film an extra dimension.

Richard Pryor, I would also argue, is one of the top ten swearers to ever have walked the earth. His swearing never sounds forced or done for effect and fits perfectly with the rhythm of his stand-up comedy. I remember as a kid seeing a trailer for a concert he did which said it featured edited footage so as not to offend the g-rated audience. It featured Pryor on stage uttering two words: 'Good Evening'.

I don't mind a lot of the modern Judd Apatow comedies but I always find his insistence on letting actors improvise detracts from the pace of his movies. He'll often try and wring as many laughs as possible from a scene which tests my patience. Blazing Saddles never does this. It seems like the actors were enjoying themselves, but they were all there to serve the movie rather than try and out-do each other.

I suppose a major flaw in the film is that it doesn't really end well. It's similar to the end of Monty Python and The Holy Grail where absurdly the police suddenly arrive before the epic battle scene. In Blazing Saddles the absurd ending happens when the hapless cowboys break through the set and onto the sound stage of a big budget musical which erupts into a fight between the two casts. It's still funny though!

The second thing Blazing Saddles has going for it is a great cast. Cleavon Little as 'Black Bart' works well as a partnership with The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) who is a washed-up gunfighter and sympathetic to Bart's predicament as sheriff in a town full of racists. Wilder does a great job in spite of being called in at the last minute by Brooks after the original actor turned up drunk on the first day of shooting. He must have been a method actor!

Madeleine Khan also has a great role as Lilly Von Schtupp. A world weary cabaret performer who is tired of playing to taverns full of drunk, horny cowboys. Her signature tune 'I'm Tired' is a great parody of German actress Marlene Deitrich. Khan sadly died recently which is a great shame because she was one of the greatest comedy actresses of all time. Special mention should also go to Harvey Korman who plays the snivelling, greedy railway owner Hedley Lamar and Slim Pickens who is the quintessential shit-kicking redneck cowboy.

The true test of greatness for any comedy comes down to how well it is remembered. Blazing Saddles to this day still has the greatest on-screen fart joke involving a bunch of cowboys eating beans around a campfire and an hilarious dim-witted thug called Mongo. Mongo actually punches a horse in one scene! Mongo is such a hip character that there is actually a band in the US called 'Candygram For Mongo' after a line from the film. This is almost 40 years after the film was released!

So I reckon this film has everything: A great premise, well written, a great cast and memorable dialogue... and it's funny and a little bit offensive. You can also get it on DVD and Blu Ray which is good because then you can always be sure 'the sheriff is near'. (if you don't get that last line then you haven't seen the movie - go get it now!)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gettin' Started

Hello readers,

Are you ready to delve into the murky depths of my mind? Be wary brave traveller because these waters are treacherous and only the most pure of spirit will be able to withstand the punishing mental torture I am about to unleash. Spare a thought for me, I have to spend my entire life trapped in this seething maelstrom.

Actually, it won't be that bad. Ummm... the plan is to try and do a regular blog about things I like which include books, movies, art, people and places as well as any random musings which so far disappear into the ether rather than be immortalised in the digital realm (most of the time that is a good thing).

So once I figure out how to drive this thing I will try and post a blog by the end of the week.

Glad to have you on board, soldier, I look forward to working with you.

Your pal,