Shifting gears in vinyl

Vinyl-philes will forever confidently rattle off the myriad ways in which their musical format of choice is superior to all others. There’s the sound quality argument, which, depending on the day, rests on one of two legs. First, phonograph records achieve the highest fidelity to the original performance — at least as it was captured on master tapes in studio recording. This is something the bits and bytes of a digital file can only approximate. Second are those lovable pops and scratches as the needle makes its way through the groove of the record. Since no two records are alike, this random byproduct becomes part of the listening experience. Meanwhile, digital files offer a soulless level of clarity, from versions 1 through 1 million, that only a computer could enjoy.

Add to this the jacket art, lyrics and liner notes. With their comparatively tiny canvasses, CDs lost out on this big time, while digital files have rendered the bells and whistles of physical packaging expendable casualties of technological advancement. But is it just an accessory or a necessity? For some people, it’s one piece of the artistic presentation, and as such is as important as the vinyl inside.

I can go either way in this debate, but one of the unique features records offer is the ability to alter the playback in a decidedly low-tech manner. The impish experiment of playing a 45 RPM single at 33 1/3 RPM could be an amusing diversion for any youngster interested in, say, making John Lennon sound like an actual walrus. Conversely, on older turntables, you could shift him up into chipmunk range at 78 RPM. And what teenager interested in exploring the dark side could resist disengaging the drive belt and manually spinning a song backward in search of hidden messages?

In a more creative context, there’s a reason turntable spinning, scratching and sampling became such an integral part of hip-hop. Via relatively simple and inexpensive means, you could use existing music to make new music. I’m sure there are sophisticated digital players that offer an unlimited range of playback speed, but the simplest creative tinkering tends to happen on the flip side of the digital revolution.

Case in point: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” a classic early hit for the country star that resurfaced on YouTube, slowed down to 33-1/3. This is rises above adolescent hijinks. Parton’s songbird voice and the uptempo rhythm of the original 45 keep the song from dropping into unrecognizable sonic depths. But the alteration is significant in ways that are worth pondering. There’s a slow groove not normally found in Parton’s catalog, and a haunting vocal that, while faintly familiar, rests eerily between the male and female, though no less pained in its delivery. And, importantly, this version stands on its own, giving us two songs for the price of one. For all of the wins the digital age has rung up (and there have been many), the advantage goes to vinyl on this one.

Listen for yourself. Here’s the original:

And here it is at 33-1/3:



A Fab Christmas

One of the pleasures I derive from my Sirius/XM subscription is coming across strange, offbeat musical offerings commercial over-the-air radio wouldn’t touch. I have at my fingertips access to the newest indie releases, deep album rock buried treasures and pre-rock ‘n’ roll blues and jazz to open my mind to a world beyond Boston and Fleetwood Mac. This holiday season, however, it’s been a wacky collection of Christmas songs by the Fab Four that have caught my ear.

As you would guess, the Fab Four is a Beatles tribute act, a dedicated subgenre of which there is no shortage of adherents, but this particular venture is unique. Think of it as the Rutles doing Christmas songs. It’s a musical chemistry experiment of sorts, a blending of melodies into a recognizable variation of a Beatles song while remaining faithful to the original Yuletide lyrics. What results is something between clever and gimmicky, and while my initial inclination leaned toward the latter, it was the warping of “What Child Is This” into a fantastically adept re-invention of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that sort of, well, blew my mind. Well done, lads.

Line, please

I’m not at all schooled in the visual arts, but, as they say, I know what I like. Whether it’s a painting, etching, sculpture or building, I love lines. Lines are the way I “read” the work, as they define the story that I think the artist is trying to tell. Are they long and dominant? Short and playful? Is there conflict? Harmony? A painting lacking effective lines may as well have no color, a building without them no bricks or mortar.


Nadia in Sharp Profile

In a visual work of art, there’s the elemental function of a line — together with other lines, they establish the template of the image that’s being represented. Is it a person? A glass? A tree? Even a layman like me knows lines serve to give an object shape. But what strikes me as gifted is the ability to do so with a bare mininum (yes, I’m a sucker for minimalism — check out the name of my blog theme) .

I saw this talent firsthand last year in an exhibit of prints by Henri Matisse. The process of print-making was a diversion for the French painter, but the work displayed in this exhibit, particularly the lift-ground aquatint titled Nadia in Sharp Profile, demonstrates his mastery of lines. It’s difficult to determine where one stops and another starts, so I can’t count the exact number he uses, but the work nevertheless contains remarkably few of them. With no visual depth, color or physical detail, Matisse still is able to offer a vibrant representation of a woman, with all the warmth and personality of the real deal. There’s no skin tone, no cheekbones and only a hint of a hair style, but with some well-placed lines I feel I know Nadia better through this print than had she been photographed. That, for as little as I know about artistic technique, is why I love it.

Swearin’ to Dad

When you’re young, the mark of a great song is its ability to rile your parents. That’s been the measuring bar for rock ‘n’ rollers from AC/DC to ZZ Top — once your parents find them acceptable, they’re finished in your eyes.

My first encounter with an artist who had the ability to do what I didn’t — openly defy my father’s conventions — was Elton John. It wasn’t Elton’s outrageous public persona that got to my dad, nor his (then fairly private) homosexuality. I doubt he followed pop music closely enough to know who Elton John was. But one word got the singer on Dad’s radar. It burst unmistakeably forth as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” blared from the living room radio I typically parked myself in front of, eliciting an immediate, admonishing “hey!” from Dad as he passed by:

“It’s four o’clock in the morning
Dammit, listen to me good
I’m sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time
Thank God my music’s still alive

“Dammit.” In front of the most powerful man in my life, Elton defiantly spit it out in a way I never could have. And the reaction it got gave me a thrilling glimpse of the possibilities of rebellion I could never own. Elton was cool. Dad was the rule. I was stuck somewhere in between.

When I was older I came to understand the sentiment expressed in that song as that of a man so desperately opposed to the prospect of marriage that he was willing to commit suicide. Had my dad understood, or had I been able to explain it to him as a 6-year-old, he might not have found one word so objectionable in light of the pathos the song evinces. Then again, had he understood popular music of the time better, he might have taken greater issue with songs like “Slow Ride” and “Afternoon Delight,” songs with decidedly more base subject matter that, had I any comprehension of what I was singing along to, would’ve opened a messier can of worms than a flashy cuss word.

Breaking the mold

Released smacked dab in the middle of a decade steeped in formula comedies (the 1980s), by a director known for his mastery of formula comedies (John Hughes), “Weird Science” actually takes some fairly original turns. It starts outlandishly enough with a geeks-create-ultimate-computer-woman premise, which leads to a set of adventures that typically don’t occur in the suburban teen/high school romance landscape that defines much of Hughes’ ’80s work.

To be sure, the main protagonists, the aforementioned high school geeks played by Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who?), could be found in an assortment of Hughes films, as could upperclassman bully Robert Downey Jr. Throw in some minor eye candy love interests and major eye candy Kelly LeBrock as the computer-generated bombshell, and we have what producers rightfully would judge to be an offbeat but surefire hit.

And it doesn’t stumble. Downey has his comic moments, and Hall delivers the line that any guy would be wise to borrow when making his move, as Gary assures his human love interest that the fantastical Lisa (LeBrock) “is everything I ever wanted in a girl… before I knew what I wanted.” And who in 1985 wasn’t strutting around their college dorm chortling to “every damn night?” and “in the family jewels!” Good, but not great.

Enter Chet.

This guy is the game-changer. As Wyatt’s (Mitchell-Smith) bullying older brother played to perfection by Bill Paxton, Chet elevates the script from pleasantly amusing to deliciously ludicrous. Mixing juvenile boorishness with a military sense of family discipline, Chet emerges as Wyatt’s chief tormenter and in doing so supplants Downey as the film’s primary antagonist.

Long before the contemporary view of bullying and its tragic consequences came to light, the bully challenge was a common plot device serving to test any worthy protagonist. The idea was that once the protagonist stood up for him- or herself, the bully would back down, representing a simplistic but necessary growth in character that moves the plot forward. Gary and Wyatt do this twice — albeit with some magically powered assistance from Lisa — at first dispatching Downey, then vanquishing a motorcycle gang in what’s probably the weakest plot turn of the movie. They do not, however, get the best of Chet. Only Lisa has the power to handle the lout who grinningly announces his desire to “butter your muffin.”

Frank Burns proved that any truly successful comedy needs a bad guy. “M*A*S*H” wouldn’t have worked without him — in fact the series faltered considerably in the seasons after his departure as script writers struggled mightily to score zingers off of lesser nemeses. Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda” also comes to mind. But Chet is in his own league as I would not recommend “Weird Science” were he not in the film. As it happens, he is, and I can happily give it my blessing.

Clip 1

Quotable: “I’m even considering making up some shit.”

Watch for: The awesome move going back into his room.

Clip 2

Quotable: “For Christ’s sake will you cover yourself?”

Watch for: Keep your eye on the towel.

Clip 3

Quotable: “You die, she walks out of here with a severe limp.”

Watch for: Eenie-meenie-miney-moe with the gun barrel.

Clip 4

Quotable: “I didn’t think it was a whale’s dick, honey.”

Watch for: The (not-so) furtive belch. I’ve challenged myself to keep a straight face through this scene, but when that happens, I’m gone.

Stop, and listen

Every now and then, you hear a song that stops you in your tracks. At home, in the car, at the grocery store. Everything stops and nothing else matters except the song and where it’s going to take you. The first time I heard Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel from Montgomery,” for instance, I distinctly remember holding my breath for fear of missing a note, spellbound as lyric, melody and story wrapped itself around the heartache of an old woman.

How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening
And have nothing to say

It’s an awesome experience made more powerful by the fact that you’ll never have it again — you only get one chance to hear a song for the first time. There’s a beautiful moment there, and just when you begin to suspect it won’t last, it’s over.

So it was when I ran across Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” in the Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me.” Bell is best known as the founder of the critically beloved but commercially underachieving Memphis band, and his mercurial nature contributed to Big Star’s brief but brilliant existence. A deeply religious but also deeply troubled man, he wandered for years in pursuit of a solo career, with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing.

“Cosmos” is a perfectly imperfect record — uneven mixing and the shaky, anguished opening vocal leave some doubt as to whether Bell will make it to the second verse. But he does, and the ensuing guitar solo is a triumphant reminder of what made Big Star Big Star. Bell’s inner conflicts play out with the alternating verses “I really/never want to see you again,” but the jangling guitar and Beatles-esque “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain bring it all back to Big Star’s power pop roots. I probably moped for a week after I watched that documentary. It was like a teenage crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Bell would die in a car accident soon after “Cosmos” was released, while former bandmate Alex Chilton would go on to explore vastly different musical directions (as he should have), bringing one of rock ‘n’ roll’s brief, beautiful, perfectly imperfect moments to an end.

Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos
I am the wind
But that don’t get you back again