Top Five of the Day

[Christopher Arnott continues to expunge his old singles collection.)

1. Torn Apart, Extermination EP.
I honestly can’t remember why I own this generic hardcore 4-song slice of a guy screaming “Die!” Knowing myself as I do, and noting that this was purchased at the Tune Inn record shop (for $4!), I can only conclude that I saw this band play there—I was unlikely to purchase their record otherwise. I’m filing this under “Must have been better live.” On Life Sentence Records out of Baltimore.

2. The Pastels, Unfair Kind of Fame EP
The Pastels was my favorite band of the 1990s, an impossible broth of everything I held dear in rock at the time. I can shorthand their sound as bubblegum pop, slowed and sung deliberately off-key, but that doesn’t capture the mystical elements which emerged when this Scottish act set about to deconstruct and postmodernize pop music.
I saw The Pastels play twice, both in New York City. Once was at a hip indie club downtown. Once was in the Village (I think) at a sort of community center, where they were part of an Up Records showcase during the CMJ (college music journal) festival. Both shows blew my mind so profoundly that I couldn’t register the sounds made by the bands which went on after them—and which everyone else in the room was there to see. At the club show the headliners were The Pastels’ friends and benefactors Yo La Tengo. At the CMJ show they were followed by Elliott Smith. I had to leave the venue, even though Smith was all the indie rage at the time. The room was filled to capacity, so when I walked out, somebody was allowed in from outside. By a divine coincidence this happened to be Mark Mulcahy of Miracle Legion. The Pastels cause that sort of magic all the time. They’re still at it, releasing a whispery-sweet collaboration with TennisCoats in 2009.
This 2-record 4-song EP is related to the Pastels album Illumination, which I was given an advance CD copy of at that CMJ show. The EP includes the pick-hit from the album, “Unfair Kind of Fame,” non-album B-sides “Frozen Wave” and “Windy Hill,” and a My Bloody Valentine remix of the song “Cycle.”

3. The Chipmunks, The Alvin Twist b/w I Wish I Could Speak French.
The difference between “my” Chipmunks (the 1960s Saturday morning TV version) and my daughters’ Chipmunks (the two feature-length movies) is little more than the quality of the animation. The Peck’s Bad Boy attitude, the sped-up harmonizing, the harried guardians, all are classic; only the pop culture references change. But the original, pre-animation Chipmunks of the late 1950s, I’ve come to find, are infinitely cooler. With cartoon or CGI Chipmunks, the songs are backdrops to other action. The only joke in the song is that The Chipmunks are singing that song.
But the early Chipmunks singles, starting with The Christmas Song and definitely including The Alvin Twist, are self-contained dramatic confrontations. There’s the joke of the song itself, but then there’s the joke of when Alvin will revolt, and the anticlimax of when Simon & Theodore go wild as well. There’s the punctuation of David Seville’s slow burns. There are the set-ups: Alvin has hired an orchestra for the recording session, or Alvin doesn’t want to sing, or Alvin would rather play the harmonica. Then there’s the imagination angle, which is what really makes The Alvin Twist come alive—thinking about a chipmunk doing the Twist is funnier than seeing someone create it for a movie. You also have to give Chipmunks founder Ross Bagdasarian his due as producer and music arranger. I own a lot of cheap dance records from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the band’s don’t often know enough to rock out. Not so for The Alvin Twist, which ends in a frisky guitar solo.

4.Reunion, Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me). A mid-‘70s Top 40 masterpiece which speed-raps through a zillion rock band names before slamming into a middle-of-the-road sing-along chorus. It takes the whole concept of rock nostalgia—a young science at the time this record hit—and confuses it beyond recognition: “B.B. Bumble and the Stingers, Mott the Hoople, Ray Charles Singers,” the chant begins. Can it get more random than that? The flip side, “Are You Ready to Believe?” is such a cheesy bit of soft-rock crap, replete with flute intro and faux tropical beat, that you are ready to believe that “Life is a Rock” was a divine miracle.

5. Trash, Carol’s Talking/Sheila 83.
The A-side has vocals by my hero Willie Alexander and Billie Montgomery (once his wife, married since 1985 to Joe Perry of Aerosmith). The whole band are Boston scene stalwarts, from keyboardist Lord Manuel to guitarist to Mr. Curt to bassist Brad Hallen. This is an uninspired ‘70s rock tune, over in a flash, but Alexander (who paces the vocal expertly) and Montgomery (whose main contribution is to moan sexily as the title character—make it distinctive. A wonderful rediscovery.

Rock Gods #64: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Sex and rock & roll go together as smoothly as do sex and drugs, or drugs and rock & roll. But the devil, as Car Wild is discovering, is in the details.
The band’s leader, Ian G., wrote a concept album based on a book he loved, a small yellow volume that’s been in his family for generations and which he first discovered when he was 10 years old. He is of course a known commodity from having playing guitar in The Earnests (later known as The Bunburys when The Earnests UK sued over the name) for a decade or three. So he was able to put together a short tour of small clubs and casino lounges for a concert version of the record, which came out on his own Devoted Friend label late last year.

The reaction wasn’t exactly what he expected. “Let’s just say my intentions were misread,” Ian allows. “Anybody who knows about the original author of this book mostly knows that he was put in jail for being gay 100 years ago. I just hadn’t realized that certain works of his are just never done, because they can’t escape that context.
“Everywhere I played, it was like a big gay dance party. I was congratulated for coming out—which I haven’t, by the way. I feel weird having to say this now, but I just don’t happen to be gay. The album isn’t a gay album. Yet all I was getting was gay audiences—who were expecting something very different.”

It doesn’t help that Ian G. dresses, in his own words, “foppishly” on stage, is slim and handsome and youthful, and even looks like he wears make-up. He swears he doesn’t—“My whole family has long lashes and red cheeks.” (True; witness his sister Windy of The Mere Fans.) He says he’s never minded if people speculated about his sexual tastes—goes with the ‘70s rock territory he was once immersed in, he figures. He simply does not want his private life to be entangled with his work, which is currently entangled with the life and work of a prominent homosexual historical figure.

At first Ian played up the connection between the album/concerts and the book and its author. Then he subdued the writer’s name and just mentioned the book. Then he downplayed the book’s title.

Leaving it out altogether isn’t an option. “This is one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t want to be accused of plagiarizing it. I’m proud of my adaptation. But I’m not adapting some subtext of the novel, or the realities of the writer’s life. I’m telling the story, and people don’t seem to want to get that.

“I’m proud of this project, worked on it for years. But I clearly haven’t worked out how to present it yet.

“Part of me still thinks that I’m going to be in my 40s and people are still going to be looking at me wondering if I’m for real. But I know in my heart that’s silly. The art is over there, and I’m myself, over here. I even think how people look at that author, and that little yellow book, will change.”

Notice how we got through this whole column without mentioning the noted author who’s colored this whole project with his irritatingly influential brilliance? That was intentional, though we don’t think it helped much.

Ian G. performs Friday in the Music School concert hall of the college on the hill. The solo set will include a suite of songs from his concept album plus a few Earnests hits.

The Saviles, The New Helen and Under the Balcony pop until they drop for an early show Saturday afternoon. But wait—there’s more! Millie and the Model Marvels are doing a one-off gig with vocalist Les Ballons of In the Gold Room, as The Model Millionaire. The live music rages from 2 p.m. until some sort of televised sporting match begins… Panthea, Roses & Rue and Quantum Mutata keep the gloom throbbing for a sardonic Saturday at Hamilton’s, where the big screen TV’s in a whole other room… The True Knowledge and Young King, Christian reggage, at D’ollaire’s…

Christopher Arnott Theater Projects You Can Join

A couple of real-world theater pursuits to share in:

1. I’m leading a theater workshop Tuesday Feb. 22 from 2-5:30 p.m. at Never Ending Books, 810 State St., New Haven. Children are especially invited, but it’s open to all ages. The concept is that we will collectively adapt, build, rehearse and perform a short play based on a theater classic. (For this first attempt, I’ve narrowed it down to either Chekhov or Aristophanes, depending on who shows up.) If this one works out, I’ll definitely do more. Admission is free. Call Never Ending overseer Roger Uihlein at (203) 773-9510 for more info.

2. I will be starting a new Playreading Gang, real soon, at the wonderful Institute Library on Chapel Street. A lot of folks remember that I used to gather with friends at Rudy’s Bar in New Haven and read theater scripts aloud. That gang lasted for over five years of Sunday night meetings, and led to several full-fledged theater productions in town. This one is likely to be somewhat more sedate, considering my age and sobriety, but some of the scripts will likely be the same and I’m hoping it will bring the same opportunity to share our theater tastes in a vocal, interactive manner. There’s a prerequisite to joining this Playreading Gang: membership in the , Institute Library, which currently costs $25 a year. Library membership has many other privileges: see for details. We have not yet scheduled when the readings will be. I’d like to hear from a few potential members and find out what’s best for them before finalizing the schedule. But it will be a regular thing, and I want to get started pronto!

Rock Gods #63: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Men in Bondage on an Easter Sunday have changed their name to Two Teachers—Nuts, Two Human Beings… Blurbs & Statements is now Ubiquitous Mailer vs. Monolithic Me… The Fabulous Dickie Boy undergone a sex change of sorts and reemerged as My Sister, Joyce Brothers… The 215,000 Word Habit has become The Kerouac Legacy…. Hearing the Story changed to This Cat’s Story… Inside the Green House has spun off into Two Hermit Gamblers… Coming Back to New York has expanded to Our Lunacy in America… City of Scars is toying with the new name How I Hated London Before I Got to Like It a Lot & Then Had to Go Away…

…and we can’t remember our new debit card password.

Theater Book of the Week

And The Show Went On—Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

By Alan Riding. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010. 400 pages.

Nice to see a book like this come out from a mainstream rather than an academic publisher. It can be a trying subject, explaining how the arts maintain themselves during times of governmental crisis, but former NY Times European cultural correspondent Alan Riding explains circumstances without getting too wonky, and has the taste and talent to make you appreciates the art he’s writing about.

Riding’s chosen a fascinating time and place in history to open what he instantly turns into a grander exploration of the relationship between art, commerce, national culture and politics. He tells, with far-flung sources that range from contemporary art reviews to obscure French history tracts (in French) how some arts thrived, others ebbed, and expensive media like film were practically snuffed out. Famous names like Andre Malraux are put in new context, having to publicly defend—or hide away because of—their political views whilst creating their art, or interrupting long-term projects for topical protest-oriented ones. The aftermath of the occupation, when Nazi sympathizers and collaborationists were put on trial, adds a concluding central platform for a book that’s already full of scattered episodes of questionable behavior during wartime: Maurice Chevalier explaining why he performed for POWs in Nazi camps, for instances.
The little-known adventures of big celebrities adds to Alan Riding’s already lively style. His chapter titles couldn’t be more inviting: “Resistance as an Idea”; “Writing for the Enemy”; “The Pendulum Swings”; “Surviving at a Price.”
This is as valuable a book about how artistic temperaments cope under political pressure as anything written about the Hollywood Blacklist.

Rock Gods #62: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Tik-tok has changed. It began, and thrived for a time, as a mechanically inclined dance beat machine with better than average vocals and vocabulary. The new tik-tok recordings, however, are ghost and slick and ornamental. It’s hard to get get into them, they’re so ghost.
But help may be on the way. We hear a record label has asked Tik-Tok to remix and remaster the tracks, and all have agreed that another local techno-charged band of note, The Wheelers are the ones for the job. We never know what exactly to do with information like this, since if it all falls apart on the rocks, nobody in either camp is likely to let us know. But we’ll keep an ear to the ground, and stay hopeful that others will eventually hear these songs besides us and a few sleep-deprived studio cave-dwellers.

Happy hour featurettes at the Bullfinch: Langwidere, followed by Billina. A strange pair. Let’s hope Langwidere has her head on straight (inside joke) and that Billina does that blues song where she cackles like a chicken. At the same time, if she doesn’t, she’ll probably be right not to. Nobody can read a crowd like Billina. She can look at the faces around her and decide the perfect set list on the spot. Just magical.

Hamilton’s has just got DJs tonight. Hope that doesn’t become a trend, though they happen to be good ones: The Oz Bros., TW and SC. Hey, why weren’t THEY considered for the Tik-Tok remixes?… D’ollaire’s is dark all the way until Thursday. Renovations, or inventory, or payback for that recent raid where underage drinkers were found—can’t remember which it is this time…