"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Friday, December 15, 2006

In Your Ear

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


The Black Swan

P-Vine, 2,520 yen

Revered in Britain since his debut in the mid-'60s, Scottish folk guitar wizard Bert Jansch has undeservedly cruised just under the radar in North America, never achieving the wide popularity of a James Taylor or even a Don McLean. His latest album The Black Swan is unlikely to break into MTV's Big 10 or be featured on Total Requests Live any time soon, despite Neil Young comparing him favorably to Jimi Hendrix.

Jansch's appeal as a solo artist and as part of British folk supergroup Pentangle has never fit with mainstream pop tastes--he doesn't prance around in spandex, date starlets or regularly get arrested. What he does do is sing, write interesting songs and play the acoustic guitar very, very, very well.

Jansch's guitar on Swan is as warm and refreshing as a sudden shower of rain on a hot, sunny day. There are no head-melting solos, just solid, consistently interesting and off-beat instrumental work as Jansch backs up his own dry, deep vocals and those of guest Beth Orton on a selection of sparsely arranged tracks built around his guitar. The tracks run the gamut from meditative ballads such as "High Days" to folk blues such as "My Pocket's Empty" and the titular sci-fi story-song. There are even a pair of protest songs--"Texas Cowboy Blues" and "Bring Your Religion."

An excellent antidote to the commercial hurly-burly of the holiday season.


The Very Best of Jerry Garcia

Rhino/Warner, 3,150 yen

'Tis the season for greatest hits collections, and Rhino has assembled an excellent cross section of Jerry Garcia's recordings as a solo artist.

Best known for his lengthy guitar solos in concert with psychedelic jam icons the Grateful Dead, Garcia started his musical career as a folk banjo player, and his musical tastes pretty much covered the waterfront, something reflected in this collection that includes covers of songs by Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Alan Toussaint, the Beatles and Jimmy Cliff, as well as numerous joint efforts between Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter.

The first of the two discs is drawn from Garcia's solo studio rock albums recorded in the '70s and early '80s and not all of it has aged especially well. The second disc, made up of live recordings from 1973 to 1990, offers a better example of Garcia at the top of his game, stepping out for extended solos and crossing genres from bluegrass to folk-rock to reggae.

While it contains some absolute gems, the album could have been shorter and is better suited to fans and Garcia completists than neophytes.


Live at the Fillmore East

Reprise/Warner, 2,580 yen

While not technically a "best of" collection, this 1970 concert recording of Neil Young and Crazy Horse showcases the group at their best.

Young, in 1970, had not yet reached the peak of his fame and it was performances like this one that earned him a place in guitar hero Valhalla. He wails, crunches and twangs his way through an energetic set of his early material with extended pregrunge workouts on "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand." Also included is an early version of "Wonderin'," a minor hit for Young when he finally recorded it in 1983. This album is must-have for fans and will come as a revelation for those who only know Young's Harvest-era folk material.
(Dec. 16, 2006)

RIP Ahmet Ertegun
The R&B and soul music pioneer who popularized Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and opened the door commercially to the British Invasion, was also a big soccer fan (betcha didn't know that!)
I think he probably went the way he wanted to go - he fell and hit his head at a Rolling Stones concert and just never woke up. I wonder what song the boys were playing at the time?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The art of headline writing
About the level of quality we expect from CNN:
"Leahy wants FBI to help corrupt Iraqi police force"

and from the "hell in a handbasket dept."
"'Moral decay' behind library vandalism"

(sniff) Do you smell that? (sniff)it smells like.....Pulitzer!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dark look into underground
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

A Scanner Darkly

2.5 stars out of five

Dir Richard Linklater

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder

Paranoia, betrayal, dependence and confused identities are not exactly standard themes for an animated film, but then not even the animation is standard in director Richard Linklater's adaptation of sci-fi noir author Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly.

The film was made using an animation technique known as digital rotoscoping that allows animators to essentially trace and overlay photographic images with digital graphics, resulting in an impressionistic film in which characters look and move like real people, but with the altered perspective of the filmmaker superimposed.

Set in the near future, the film follows an undercover narcotics officer codenamed Fred (Keanu Reeves) who is assigned to investigate suspected drug dealer Bob Arctor. Undercover police agents in this world are fully undercover, their true identities concealed even from their coworkers and superiors through the use of a so-called scramble suit worn at the police station that completely masks their appearance and voice. Arctor is suspected of dealing in the pernicious and highly addictive substance D, a drug that gradually splits the user's mind into multiple personalities.

We quickly realize that Fred and Arctor are the same person, but what isn't clear is whether Arctor is posing as a Fred or vice versa, or whether either is aware of his link to the other.

Aside from a few twists and turns, the story follows Fred/Arctor and his friends through their descent into further drug addiction and eventual attempts at redemption. The narrative often takes a backseat to dialog-heavy set pieces revolving around urban legends, low humor and drug-induced obsession and paranoia. While the set pieces are often amusing or sad, they slow the pace of the story to a glacial crawl.

In a stroke of obvious but effective casting, noted Hollywood druggies Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. play Arctor's housemates, with Harrelson's dopey hippie an ideal comic foil for the fast-talking, occasionally sinister character played by Downey. Where Harrelson's character is generally just spaced out, Downey's is more mischievous and conspiracy-minded. One funny scene in the film has him convincing another character that he can make cocaine out of Solarcaine sunburn spray.

Downey's performance is definitely a bright spot in the film, as is that of Rory Cochrane, best known for his turn as a conspiracy buff in Linklater's Dazed and Confused and his work on the various CSI television programs. The less said about the wooden Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, the better, though Reeves' lack of affect does give the character the sort of blankness that can pass for confusion over his true identity.

While there are a number of laughs in the film, most of them courtesy of Downey, the overall tone is fittingly very dark as we watch the main characters spiral down into madness, desperation and even suicide.

Linklater made good use of rotoscoping to convey a sort of cinematic version of magic realism in his 2001 film Waking Life and it serves him well here, allowing him to show the jangled, stuttering and occasionally hallucinatory point of view of the main characters as they slide in and out of drug-induced psychosis. While occasionally distracting, the effect is key to the overall atmosphere of the film.

Unsuspecting fans of animation, science fiction and Keanu Reeves should be forewarned that this is a film with an important message.

At its heart, A Scanner Darkly is a plea for a more forgiving and humanitarian approach to drug addiction. In an epilogue to the novel reproduced at the end of the film, Dick wrote: "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow."

Linklater has taken a book that is clearly dear to his heart and rewritten it for the screen, probably with the foreknowledge that it would be difficult to translate the novel into a film, but he did it anyhow, because sometimes the message is more important than the medium.