Sunday, December 30, 2007

Raymond Chandler | The Long Goodbye

Early in The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s brilliant, Lombard Street-plotted mystery, private detective Philip Marlowe describes himself. “I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich...I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things…when I get knocked off in a dark alley somewhere…nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.” What Marlowe left out is that he is a romantic who values loyalty, love, and friendship, but who is incapable of displaying those without a good dose with cynicism and acidic humor. These qualities are palpably present in this novel, Chandler’s sixth of seven to feature Marlowe.

The detective’s refusal to abandon the memory of his friend Terry Lennox exacerbates his drinking and relationship with the cops, but people still seek him out for jobs. After encountering a cast of characters that include a publisher, a nymphomaniac, a gangster, an alcoholic novelist, and an obsessed-wife, Marlowe finally learns the truth about Lennox. Like Chandler’s best known novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, his typically serpentine plots aren’t the point in his novels. It’s the dialogue, the pacing of the story, the crisp descriptions, and the beautiful similes. Not a mere mystery stylist, Chandler explores the depths of post-World War II depravity with an unflinching lens, Marlowe, who takes punches with a wink, a smile, and a snide remark, who ultimately uncovers lies and liars, who has no regard for those concealing truths. Once Marlowe has finished his work, the world remains corrupt and vicious, filled with people who feel they can get away with anything. But Marlowe isn’t here to save the world; he is here to be its unrelenting conscience.
(Photo credit: Random House)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Superbad Soundtrack

Perhaps the title isn’t meant to be merely ironic. How could a couple of awkward, inexperienced high-schoolers be Superbad? Lyle Workman’s wholly anachronistic funk soundtrack injects much-needed coolness to the clumsy travails of the young men played by Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in the film that opened in August. But it’s the performances of James Brown’s greatest rhythm section and the juxtaposition of music to film that separates this soundtrack from non-essential counterparts.

On the soundtrack, rhythm guitarist Catfish Collins and his brother Bootsy, the funk architect and co-writer of “Sex Machine,” are joined by Clyde Stubblefield and Jab’o Starks. The Superbad sessions marked the first time these musicians were reunited since 1970. Keyboard virtuoso and ex-Parliament/Funkadelic Bernie Worrell joins the old gang for this album.

Of the 18 tracks on the album, 11 are original compositions performed by the Bootsy-led ensemble; the rest of the tracks are old funk and R&B nuggets. “SuperWhat?,” prominently featuring Bootsy’s wah-wah bass and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo singing style, stands out because it alludes to the characters’ attempts at losing their virginity. The horns in the verse point at mid-´70s Stevie Wonder, and the bridge’s hard, propulsive funk-rock suggests the sound that characterized Funkadelic’s best albums, notably Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. It’s no coincidence that the musicians freely quote that album since the characters in Superbad are perpetually stuck in the libidinous limbo the album title refers to. “Evan’s Basement Jam,” the oddest original piece, is a striking mélange of sharp, distorted guitar with a jazzy Medeski, Martin & Wood-style clavinet.

Like the main characters in the film, most of the vintage songs in the soundtrack are unapologetically horny. Jean Knight demands to be sexually satisfied in “Do Me” (which is heavily indebted to her previous and biggest hit, “Mr. Big Stuff”), and in “Bustin’ Out (On Funk)” Rick James makes the case that it is better to be stoned while having sex. Unlike the film’s characters’ though, these songs don’t fantasize or merely talk about sex; they are direct statements of desire.

It isn’t the film’s characters that are superbad; it’s the musicians. After all, Jab’o, Catfish, and Bootsy performed on James Brown’s 1970 hit “Super Bad, Pts. 1&2,” proclaiming that to be a sex machine one not need be super bad. If only the characters knew that before pouring liquor in a detergent container.

(Photo credits: Columbia Pictures and Robert Knight)

Chromeo | Fancy Footwork

Without the liner notes or knowledge about the group, the listener could mistake Chromeo’s second album Fancy Footwork for an R&B dance album from the first Reagan administration. The duo seamlessly combines the electro beats of Dirty Mind-era Prince with the talkbox groove of Zapp & Roger and the pop hooks of Hall & Oates without sounding unintentionally corny or ironic.

The duo is comprised of Montreal-based childhood friends Pee Thug (Patrick Gemayel) and Dave 1 (David Macklovitch) who have described themselves as walking hip-hop encyclopedias and as the only successful Arab-Jewish partnership. Though they seldom play bass and guitar, they are obsessed with keyboards, synths, Moogs, and drum machines. When not recording and touring, Dave 1 is a Ph.D. student in French literature at Columbia University. While the duo’s synth sound and lyrical focus on free-spirited romance were probably not covered in Dave 1’s lit classes, these were strongly featured on their first album, 2004’s She’s In Control. These are improved when paired with outstanding hooks, as they are on Fancy Footwork.

The title track, whose lyrics are about a man trying to impress a lady with cool dance moves, begins with a not-so-discreet homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” The funky verses lead to the fabulous chorus, where a keyboard lick and layered synths showcase the melody’s rhythm.

Yet without Dave 1’s flirtatious voice, the melodies would be less than memorable. When he sings hilariously sexy lyrics in “Bonafied Lovin” like, “Nevermind an SMS/What you need is a sweet caress/Everybody wanna talk too much/But what you need is a special touch,” his sweet naughtiness and tone complement the content.

Like many tunes on the album, “Call Me Up,” a gem in the strong latter half, weaves the duo’s strengths to create a unified piece. Dave 1’s earnest and playful voice elevates the sweet, poppy melody in the chorus to R&B heaven. While the majority of today’s R&B is lost in the din of total synthesization, Chromeo make a completely synthesized groove sound organic and loose.

Chromeo seem to understand something that others in R&B do not. Hip-hop should be an influence, in lyrics, attitude, and style, but hip-hop should not be the music of R&B. If we listen to instrumentals of the biggest hits in contemporary R&B, they sound like hip-hop tracks. Timbaland, the producer behind massive hits like Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” has used synths and electro beats in his productions, but the tracks feel dry and static. For that reason, the songs lack warmth and groove, and the singing is sometimes so exaggerated it sounds absurd. By using synths and drum machines as more than mere devices, Chromeo have separated themselves from the factory tracks that currently litter radio and music television, and have created the definitive party album of 2007.
(Photo credit: Paul 107)