Monthly Archives: December 2019

Rocks In The Attic #817: Matt Morton – ‘Apollo 11 (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

RITA#817On the last day of the year, I thought I’d post about my favourite release of 2019. I don’t tend to buy much in the way of new music – I’m so out of touch, the list of food-trucks at Auckland’s Laneways festival always catches me out as they could be band names for all I know – but I do buy lots of soundtracks, for films both old and new.

For me, 2019 was a year punctuated by two huge let-downs. First we had Ari Aster’s follow-up to his wonderful 2018 debut Hereditary (or should that be Her-head-hit-a-tree?). Midsommar should have been a sure-fire hit. Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter star as a group of American college students who take a trip to the northern Swedish countryside with their Scandinavian college friend. Aster then follows the script of The Wicker Man with unapologetic audacity, closely following the major plot-points in everything but location.

RITA#817aIt looked great, and sounded even greater with a wonderful score by Bobby Krlic, but the film’s unoriginality is just unforgivable. I guess it must be okay to steal so shamelessly from a 46-year old film as most of your target millennial audience won’t have seen it, and any older viewers might not remember it?

The other let-down was Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth and his weakest offering since Death Proof. I’ve already written about that disappointment, and I’m sorry to say that a second viewing made me dislike it even more.

Instead, I found greater enjoyment in two documentaries: Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 and Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona. Both films offer a fresh, new perspective on their subjects and both demand repeat viewings. I’m hoping Antônio Pinto’s score to the Maradona film will eventually see the light of day on vinyl, it’s a genuinely beautiful accompaniment that works as a piece on its own (I’ve been thrashing it on Spotify ever since I saw the film). The strength of the film can be demonstrated by the fact that it almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.

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The score to Apollo 11 is similarly fantastic. Miller’s film eschews the standard talking head interviews that slow down most documentaries, and ditches the concept of a narration track of any kind. Aside from Matt Morton’s score, all sound contained within the picture is real-life diegetic sound. All that is left is just chatter on the mission’s microphones, and background sound.

About 30 seconds into the film, I had to check on IMDb what we were watching. Was this a documentary with computer-generated effects shots to bolster the launch and space sequences? No, but it looked like it. The images were just too good. The opening shots of the film, showing the rocket on the launch-pad at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral look uncannily like CGI but they’re not. It’s in fact footage shot by NASA on huge 70mm film-stock (essentially the size format IMAX screens were built for), and mostly unreleased by the space administration until now.

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My only regret is not seeing it on an IMAX screen as that would have been superb. I’m hoping it will continue to play on an occasional basis, given the film’s timelessness.

As iconic as the events of the film are – spoiler alert: they land on the moon, Michael Collins goes for a ride around the moon, picks up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and they fly safely back home – the film’s real power for me is in its soundtrack. Composer Matt Morton went to great lengths to only use period-era analogue synthesisers (the liner notes state: ‘All instruments and effects existed at the time of the Apollo 11 mission’), and so the music sounds just as ‘1969’ as the action on screen. It’s a wonderful score, building and building in tension as the three-man crew pass each milestone in their journey.

2019 was a tough year for me in both health and work, and also for our country with two international-scale tragedies and a shocking murder-trial. And so it isn’t hard to understand why I’ve taken so much joy from two films focusing on former glories. Here’s to a better 2020, hopefully without that idiot in the White House.

Hit: The Burdens And The Hopes

Hidden Gem: Liftoff And Staging

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Rocks In The Attic #816: Tin Machine – ‘Tin Machine II’ (1991)

RITA#816Sometimes you just have to treat yourself to an expensive record. I’d all but given up hope on finding this in the wild, like I did with the band’s 1989 debut, and a reissue seems unlikely unless they include it in the ongoing box-set campaign. One of the local New Zealand sellers found a copy of Tin Machine II when he was overseas, and held on to it for me until he got back.

In terms of production, it’s more of the same: a noisy wall of guitars with Bowie’s vocals sounding somewhat out of place; all influenced by what was happening in Seattle at the time. It’s just a shame the songs aren’t a little better. There’s one thing that both Tin Machine albums are lacking in, and that’s melody. It takes too much of a back seat for the songs to ever breathe.

Imagine an album like this, but with songwriting to match the output of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It’d be unbeatable, and would have introduced Bowie to a much younger audience. As it is, it seems that the project passed most people by, particularly those in smiley-face t-shirts and plaid.

If I didn’t find Tin Machine II after twenty years of searching, it seems even unlikelier that I’ll run into a copy of the band’s only live album, Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby, and so that’s definitely one for Discogs.

Hit: Baby Universal

Hidden Gem: One Shot

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Rocks In The Attic #815: Various Artists – ‘Christmas In England’ (1957)

RITA#815Christmas in New Zealand is definitely a different prospect than Christmas in England, and after twelve years I’m only just getting used to it.

I have my own kids now, so it’s a busy, busy day. After opening a few presents, we visit my father-in-law and his family for a pancake breakfast. This usually involves pigging out on a mountain of pancakes, complimented by a batch of bacon cooked on the barbeque.

Then we rush back home, collecting my mother-in-law on the way, for Christmas dinner back at ours. The sun’s usually out all day, so it adds an unreal element to the proceedings, compared to the cold and snow I grew up with. It’s not the peak of summer yet, which is fortunate as the stress of Christmas Day cooking would be so much worse with the humidity of a hot day.

RITA#815aWhile the temperature might not be too high, it’s just past the mid-point of our seasonal year. The longest day of the year – June 21st in the Northern Hemisphere – falls on December 22nd here, and so Christmas Day feels a lot longer than it does in the UK. There are no woolly hats or big coats; Christmas dress is a pair of shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt. And a Santa hat, of course.

One of the oddest things about a New Zealand Christmas is that, just like the UK, we get the Queen’s Speech at 3pm on Christmas Day, which means we see it approximately 12 hours before it goes out on the BBC. This has never felt right, and I don’t think people would be too bothered if it was held back to Boxing Day.

RITA#815bChristmas TV is the same. We get the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and the usual festive programmes. But by this time, I’m in a food coma and have consumed a flagon or two of cider. The only thing I’ll have room for – and this is when that second stomach reserved exclusively for dessert comes into its own – is for a door-stop sized portion of pavlova and cream.

This record, featuring choral arrangements of all the Christmas classics, is a great help in setting the mood. These songs really send me back to the UK, before the dark times, before Wham.

Hit: Ding Dong Merrily On High – King’s College Chapel Choir Of Cambridge

Hidden Gem: The Very First Christmas Of All – Ruby Murray With Ray Martin’s Orchestra

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Rocks In The Attic #814: Linda Ronstadt – ‘Living In The USA’ (1978)

RITA#814Living In The USA is Linda Ronstadt’s seventh studio album, released in September of 1978. Its cover image, of Ronstadt standing in a corridor wearing a pair of roller-skates, is credited with increasing the popularity of skating in the United States.

It was a different time.

In fact, the album looks like an advertisement for roller-skates, with the front, rear cover and inner sleeve depicting Ronstadt either putting on her skates, struggling to stand up in them, or struggling to skate in them.

I’m not quite sure why I have any of her records at all in my collection. I’m sure she’s seen as some of national treasure in her native America, but she always felt more like an imported curio in the UK. She seems to get a fair bit of radio airplay here in New Zealand, but it’s the kind of middle-of-the-road AOR that fits the Dad-Rock demographic of the Kiwi stations. Perhaps if she had done a Bond song, she might have ended up with the kind of longevity that Carly Simon has.

RITA#814aLiving In The USA features songs made popular by Chuck Berry (Back In The USA), Elvis Presley (Love Me Tender) and Elvis Costello (Alison), but ultimately, the fact that Ronstadt doesn’t write her own songs is a major limit to her credibility. She’s essentially a cover-artist, a pub-singer who got lucky, the Jane McDonald of the 1970s. Her only solid contribution to popular culture was bringing together musicians Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Henley together to play on her second studio album, Silk Purse. The band gelled so well on stage, they stayed together and called themselves the Eagles.

Hit: Love Me Tender

Hidden Gem: Mohammed’s Radio

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Rocks In The Attic #813: Super Furry Animals – ‘Guerrilla’ (1999)

RITA#813Blimey, has it been twenty years already? Give it another twenty years and maybe an elderly Giles Martin will be doing a full remix at Abbey Road. Or not. I doubt the Super Furries would be interested in such an establishment move, but their record company might.

Released in 1999, the year I finished university, Guerrilla is the third studio album by the Welsh band. That year also marks the first time I saw the band play live, on the Other Stage at my first trip to Glastonbury. And what a show. Touring to support this album, they encored with a freak-out version of the Steely Dan-sampling The Man Don’t Give A Fuck, a crazy guy drove his van into the middle of the audience, and some Mr. T-looking motherfucker stood on top of it, throwing off anybody that dared to climb aboard.

RITA#813aI used to DJ with this record a lot, so my lovely original pressing looks like it has seen better days. Northern Lites, in particular, used to go down very well at Oldham’s 38 Bar, although I’m not sure why I used to take the record out with me when I had the 7” of that single. Do Or Die used to get a good play as well so maybe that was why, as that single didn’t come out for another seven months after the album. This album sounds like Saturday nights to me, and makes me think of some other great singles released in the same year – Sexx Laws and Mixed Bizness by Beck, Sometimes by Les Rythmes Digitales, Sunburn by Muse, and Pumping On Your Stereo and Moving by Supergrass – all of which would be staples of my set.

Deliberately conceived by the band as a commercial-pop album, Guerrilla definitely sounds more focused than their first two albums. I prefer it to Fuzzy Logic and Radiator but I’ll always lean more towards Mwng and Rings Around The World as the band’s peak. The album’s lead single Northern Lites is its centrepiece and the song’s commercial sheen took it to #11 in the UK charts (the album fared slightly better, reaching #10). Fire In My Heart definitely sounds like the band trying to be taken seriously, but the ballad only reached #25. Third single Do Or Die hit #20, but by then the momentum of the album had been lost.

RITA#813bI remember reading in the NME that the working title of one of the band’s later albums, Rings Around The World, was ‘Text Messaging Is Destroying The Pub Quiz As We Know It’. Sadly that’s not true – the NME journalist saw it written on an ‘ideas wall’ in the band’s recording studio but the band deny that it was ever considered for an album title. It wouldn’t have been too hard to imagine such a song though; Guerrilla features the band’s ode to cell-phone technology in Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home). That song ends with the once ubiquitous cell-phone interference which sadly you don’t hear too often these days.

Cut at 45rpm over two discs, the album also features the now standard artwork by Pete Fowler, including a pop-up gatefold sleeve depicting a man facing a bank of controls (possibly connected to the giant satellite dish on the sleeve’s rear cover). The album has just been reissued, and so I’m guessing Rings Around The World will be next in 2021, with Mwng already being reissued back in 2015.

Hit: Northern Lites

Hidden Gem: Some Things Come From Nothing

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Rocks In The Attic #812: Various Artists – ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

WARNING! SPOILERS!

RITA#812Half-way through Quentin Tarantino’s ninth picture, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character, stuntman Cliff Booth, visits Spahn Ranch. Reminiscent of the ‘glass of milk’ scene in Inglourious Basterds, or that same film’s later bar scene, it’s a deliciously tense moment in an otherwise bloated film. Booth suspects that there’s something amiss about the group of hippies living at the ranch owned by his former colleague. Unlike the audience, he doesn’t have hindsight of the Manson family, but still feels that something isn’t quite right.

He insists of seeing his former colleague, George Spahn, to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of, or worse. After much obstruction by the Mansons, Booth finally speaks to a grouchy Spahn who insists that everything is okay. He might be being taken advantage of, but seems relatively content about it.

And so, a wonderfully tense fifteen-minute scene ends in an anti-climax; a metaphor for the film itself.

RITA#812aOnce Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t a bad film, but it’s a huge disappointment. It’s up there with Ari Aster’s unapologetic ­Wicker Man­ rip-off, Midsommar, as the biggest let-down of 2019. To say that four years ago, I met Tarantino and practically begged him not to retire after his tenth film, I should have spent that precious time asking him to be more careful with #9 and #10.

People tend to forget that what originally made Tarantino’s films so interesting is that they normalised dialogue between henchman, bad guys and crooks. They did horrible things but they still had small, human problems. Thirty years after the 1-2-3 success of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and we’re faced with a picture that, despite its depiction of infamous events, is just dull. That throwaway book-reading scene between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his 12-year old co-star is painfully dull.

In fact, the whole DiCaprio storyline is boring. Death Proof levels of boring.

My main issue with the film though, is its skirting with reality and its subsequent failure to end with the Sharon Tate murders. Tarantino has played with revisionist history before: a Jew murdering Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in Basterds, and Jamie Foxx’s slave rising up to avenge his former slave-owners in Django Unchained. Here though, he kind of gets away with it because, as the film’s title suggest, it’s a fairytale. A happy ending. An allegory for Hollywood itself.

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My preferred ending to the picture would have kept the meeting of Dalton, Sebring and Tate on the driveway, but the crane shot would have swept back to the open gate to reveal another car full of Manson children, implying that fate cannot be stopped.

I’m probably more disappointed about what the film could have been rather than how it turned out. Tarantino directing a period film in 1960s Los Angeles sounds unbeatable. First, we get that classic period-era Columbia Pictures studio ident at the top of the film, to set the scene. Then things start to break down.

Five minutes in, we get a blast of narration from Kurt Russell’s Randy Miller: ‘That’s a fucking lie!’ Do we get any more? Yes, but much, much later in the film (following Dalton and Booth’s return from Italy). Cliff Booth has a clunky flashback as he fixes the aerial on Dalton’s roof. Do we get any more flashbacks? Nope. And those crazy cuts – hat on, hat off – in the first scene between Dalton and Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy? What the hell is going on with these half-hearted narrative devices?

The script across the film’s opening scenes – Booth explaining in the car who he is to Dalton, and Dalton explaining who Roman Polanski is – feels very clunky, like a first draft even. I did chuckle at the random line of dialogue: ‘Don’t cry in front of Mexicans’, which sounds like the oddest piece of racist advice from Brad Pitt’s character.

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And to expand on the issues with Pitt’s Cliff Booth, where do I start? The implication that he killed his wife, and the insinuation that she deserved it for being a nag, is just awful. As is the portrayal of Bruce Lee in the next scene. After two viewings, I still can’t understand why Bruce Lee is a character in this film. Is Tarantino making an example of him because he’s a mainstream kung-fu star, and Tarantino prefers more obscure films from that genre? What else could it be? I don’t think it’s particularly racist, but it’s definitely disrespectful, and more importantly, downright lazy.

I do love the soundtrack though, with the radio station framing – Boss Radio featuring Humble Harve and the Real Don Steele – harking back to Steve Wright’s radio announcements on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. It’s odd that the vinyl version of the soundtrack retains that compressed radio sound for the songs introduced by the Boss radio DJs, but the digital version I’ve heard on Spotify abandons this and plays the standard versions.

My only gripe with the soundtrack is the inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, a song that just feels too popular, too obvious, to be in a Tarantino picture. I did hear Tarantino explain in an interview with Edith Bowman, for her excellent Soundtracking podcast, that in fact the song choices were made for him. Looking for archival recordings of radio stations from the time, they found that somebody had recorded audio from Boss Radio in 1969 and he used this as the basis for sides A and C of the eventual soundtrack release. If songs weren’t played during this found recording, he didn’t put them on the soundtrack.

Overall, I expect better from Tarantino because he’s shown how strong a filmmaker he is. Man, I hope film number ten is a vast improvement on this let-down.

Hit: Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel

Hidden Gem: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (Quentin Tarantino Edit) – Vanilla Fudge

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Rocks In The Attic #811: Pearl Jam – ‘MTV Unplugged (1992)

19075921591_JK001_PS_01_01_01.inddAnother year, another Record Store Day: Black Friday event. These have always been hit or miss for me in the past. Most years I’ve stumbled into my local stores on the weekend following the Friday and picked up one or two things, and some years I’ve disregarded it completely. Back in 2012, I walked into Real Groovy on the Sunday following Black Friday and picked up their only copy of the super-limited 10” pressing of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, now highly sought-after but evidently not by Auckland folk at the time. Last year, I think my only purchase was a rainbow-coloured vinyl pressing of the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing.

The continued rise of soundtracks has meant that the last couple of RSD events have seen some interesting releases. Earlier in the year, at the main April event, I picked up soundtracks to the Knight Rider TV series, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Lost In Translation and Howard Stern’s Private Parts: The Album. This Black Friday, I was lucky enough to pick up soundtracks to Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Bill Conti’s score for 1987’s woeful Masters Of The Universe.

One of my non-soundtrack purchases from this year’s Black Friday event is this 1992 classic: Pearl Jam’s entry to the MTV Unplugged series. Strangely, considering the band’s stature during the grunge years of the early ‘90s, this marks the first time that the performance has been officially released on vinyl (several bootleg releases have made it to market in 2016 and 2017, but this one’s the real deal). R.E.M., Nirvana and Alice In Chain’s respective entries into the Unplugged cannon have slowly crept into each band’s back catalogue as essential releases, and so it seems like this will do the same for Pearl Jam. Now, if only they would release Stone Temple Pilot’s performance officially, so I can retire my bootleg copy.

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Comprised of six songs from their debut album Ten, plus one of their contributions to the Singles soundtrack (State Of Love And Trust), Pearl Jam’s set starts off slowly with the slow-burning Oceans. ‘A little love-song I wrote about my surfboard,’ Eddie Vedder tells the audience, as the applause dies down. There isn’t a great deal of communication with the audience, and very little of the surprisingly amusing banter you can hear on Nirvana’s Unplugged performance (‘What are you tuning? A harp?’). It’s this earnestness which turned me off Pearl Jam from the start, and which I’ve only been able to look beyond over the last decade or so.

All the big hits from the band’s debut are covered – Alive, Jeremy, Evenflow – but if anything it feels a bit too short. The seven songs featured are the same as those which were broadcast in the original 60-minute (including commercials) TV special. Their cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World is omitted, plus any rehearsal and off-screen performances.  I have a bootleg of the full Aerosmith unplugged performance from 1989 which is almost twice the length of the version that was broadcast. I wonder if the same can be said of Pearl Jam, particularly when we’ve just recently seen a reissue of Nirvana’s unplugged set containing previously unreleased rehearsal takes.

The one thing I can’t stand about these early ‘90s unplugged releases is the amount of whooping and hollering from the audience. I can appreciate the applause when a song ends, but the ‘realisation’ sounds of approval from the crowd, one or two bars into each song really irks me. It reminds me of ITV’s Stars In Your Eyes when the studio audience would give a complimentary round of applause one line into the first verse of Rocketman when they suddenly realise that yes, that tubby little IT consultant from Walthamstow really does sound like Elton John.

Hit: Jeremy

Hidden Gem: State Of Love And Trust

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