Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Hogmanay

The Typing Monkey will bring more exciting criticism of media and culture, both popular and occult, as soon as the black bun and whiskey wear off.

In the meantime, please enjoy Aztec Camera's Scot-pop chestnut, "Oblivious." [Insert sound of party favor horn here.]

[Courtesy Stevebhoy7]

(No, hogmanay is not mentioned in this song, but in "The Boy Wonders" from the same album. What are we, stupid? That's a great song too, but more people know "Oblivious." Hooray for Roddy Frame!)

Getting Instrumental, Part I


The TMI music library has a generous portion of instrumental selections, but very few could be classified as "ambient." As a style, ambient music can be dead boring (this means you, Brian Eno's Music for Airports) or so aimless and that it should really be tagged "pink noise for pretentious people."

Some fans of the form might balk at the suggestion of similarities between indie-approved ambient music and new age music, but the line is often as vaporous as the music itself. Besides, this kind of thing is all about mood and execution.

Here are two new ambient instrumental discs that made an impression, and yes, one even drifts into new-age territory.

The Distance Brings Us Closer
The sprays of fuzz, feedback and (possibly imagined) overtones created by this husband and wife duo treads territory familiar to anyone reasonably familiar with shoegaze rock, especially the stuff that eschews drums completely. Distance marks the band's fourth LP, with a few EPs and live recordings in-between. Earlier efforts, per the band's MySpace page, have tribal elements. The lack of percussion here indicates a common evolutionary process for bands that produce this sort of trance-like material. "Born Yesterday" launches the listener gently down the stream-of-consciousness with a full 15 minutes of rippling static and drone. A short series of sci-fi pulses breaks up "Dimanche" just after the six-minute mark -- but don't let that jar you. This is ideal listening for a winter commute when it's not rainy or dark enough for something more immediate.

Reference material: If Seefeel's colder, cosmic crop-dusting experiments appeal to you, Northern Valentine will satisfy. And you should probably check out Louis and Bebe Barron's way-ahead-its-time soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.

(Noise Order)
This Seattle trio provides a perfectly good excuse for laying on the couch, after dark, staring at the mood lighting and waiting for a nice cozy feeling to kick in. "Whiteout" sounds like a medieval madrigal for the well-tempered synthesizer, and as such stands out from the rest of this debut LP. Unlearn uses keyboards, drums and guitar to weave gauzy stretches of chords that sometimes coalesce into twinkling melodies. Yes, there's some soundtrack sounding moments, but one of these guys might own Piana's Snow Bird -- and that helps keep it interesting.

Reference material: Unlearn's press materials mention the "conversation that Sigur Ros brought to the mainstream" but that band's from Iceland and The Typing Monkey didn't understand a word they said. Check out Piana, as we mentioned earlier.

Epilogue: If the suggestion that there's a permeable membrane between ambient music and the crystal healing power of new-age music has you composing an angry letter to The Typing Monkey, please listen to The Best of Hearts of Space: First Flight before you do. Or go to the Hearts of Space Website and read both "A Brief Profile of Space and Ambient Music" and "The N Word" from the "The Music" section of their site.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"Useless Insignificant Poetic"

The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and "The Bundy Drive Boys"
By Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard & Bill Nelson
(Feral House)
The Bundy Drive Boys drank like they meant it. And no matter how bohemian, heroic or tragic any of us have ever felt, chances are one of The Boys proved himself to be more so.

The true star of this biography is the painter John Decker. A master imitator of the great masters, he had no qualms about selling forgeries to clueless celebrities who'd suddenly decided to invest their movie money in fine art. The story of how Decker got to California deserves its own book.

And Mank makes a convincing case that Decker, not Barrymore or Fields, was the leader of The Bundy Drive Boys -- a collection of movie and media stars who found comfort and encouragement in one another's company.

They shared a love of booze, women and bawdy humor, and their meetings consisted primarily of staying up until the dawn, reciting Shakespeare and filthy jokes at Decker's Bundy Drive residence in Los Angeles.

Other Bundy Boys included newsmen-turned-screenwriters Gene Fowler and Ben Hecht as well as junior members John Carradine, Errol Flynn and Anthony Quinn. A fringe member, Sadakichi Hartmann -- equal parts crank, poser and earnestly misguided artist -- behaves almost as a subplot in the book.

Through their stories, first told in rapid, short chapters detailing the adolescence and early adulthood of each member, Mank and his co-authors not only render a vivid picture of the film industry in its infancy, but paint a sordid mural of the now rote narrative arc of American celebrity.

Hollywood's Hellfire Club reminds the reader that these are the magnificent first-generation stars of the talkies, an essential move to earn our sympathies. But it still stings when the text reveals the mania that fueled their creativity -- the women they loved and tormented (and who loved and tormented them); and the excess of vice allowed by too much money and too few boundaries.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

River's Taking Care of Me

If the encroaching darkness of winter -- and all the cold, wet bleakness it brings -- affects your mood, indulge in some movies that match the season's chilly atmosphere.

The following three films share these elements: A murdered woman, the murderer with a disturbingly slippery conscience, and a large, slow-flowing river. In each movie, the river behaves as both silent observer and participant. The icy current suggests, or openly provides, a means of escape for certain characters. But it's never that simple.

Dir. Fritz Lang
(Republic; 1950)
Lang lets the moonlit water and marsh of his unnamed river exude an eerie, judgmental stillness. Though the waters running through the film's Victorian-era American village linger in nearly every scene of the first two acts, the final act is confined almost entirely to the wonderfully dark interiors of the killer's gas-lit mansion.

However, the river asserts its power in the third act by depositing the corpse of a murdered maid onto the shore. No matter how hard the rich, sex-crazed husband works to pin a murder he committed on his stoic brother -- while keeping his increasingly suspicious wife in the dark -- the river brings biblical justice.

The story unfolds carefully, Lang's use of shadow and light enhances the mood, and the acting is solid all around. What could have been a melodramatic morality tale is instead a morally squishy psychological thriller.

Dir. Charles Laughton
(United Artists; 1955)
A false preacher, a stash of pilfered cash, an hysterical widow, two children left to fend for themselves, and a scripture-quoting old woman who runs an ad-hoc orphanage during the worst of the Great Depression -- what else does anyone need to know about this film that hasn't been said better elsewhere?

Robert Mitchum is terrifying, the photography and permanent-twilight lighting is a visual feast, and the kids (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) give a master class in child acting.

Here, the river is a shaky ally for the children as they escape Mitchum's evil preacher by letting the current pull their raft away from him, but never fast enough. Until Lillian Gish offers the kids true safety, the river proves only marginally more reliable than all the adults in their lives.

Dir. Tim Hunter

(Hemdale 1986)
The river in this film remains silent throughout, never really a part of the story so much as a pastoral setting for a series of tragic and horrifying events.

A group of small-town teens from families with little money and fewer prospects have all gone to the bank of the river to see the body of their dead friend. She was murdered by her ox of a boyfriend and left there in the tall grass. Worse, none of the kids seems too eager to report the crime. After establishing that set-up the remainder of the film is a tense waiting game to see who will crack first.

Young Keanu Reeves plays the nervous moral compass, but he's overshadowed by Crispin Glover's speed-addled metal head and Dennis Hopper's paranoid dealer. Unlike the previous two films mentioned, the body of water in this film has no capacity for symbolic morality, nor does it offer a hint of safe passage.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Holding in the Spirit World

The Typing Monkey likes to pretend that there are no other media outlets, but the guys in typesetting brought an article to our attention that merits mention. (That they stopped giggling long enough to put together a complete sentence surprised us all.)

The mummified remains of a 2,700-year-old corpse were uncovered in China's Gobi desert recently. Buried along with the man was a musical instrument, a bow and arrow, some other odds and ends and a big bag of marijuana. Not hemp for rope and clothing, but good old fashioned pot -- the female buds of the plant that some folks smoke or bake into brownies for the purpose of getting high.

Now, burying your dead with items they prized while living is not unusual. And sending loved ones into the great beyond with tools they might need in the afterlife is not unheard of either. The Egyptians put wine and other gifts into tombs so that the deceased could gain entry into the next world.

What's worth noting in the article is that the scientists who examined the Gobi mummy's personal effects are puzzled by the absence of a pipe or other smoking device. Academically, they not only wonder if the cannabis was for "spiritual or medicinal" purposes, but how this man and his people enjoyed the benefits of their marijuana since it's not clear how he was supposed to torch up in the great beyond.

The Typing Monkey offers an alternate theory. Let's cast aside the idea that his rolling papers disintegrated, or that a clay or wood pipe that was interred with him decayed over the centuries. This gentlemen's stash is an offering for the inhabitants of the next world.

If you're bringing wine to Zeus and his fellow gods and goddesses, you don't bring some crummy bronze goblet you bought at the open-air market. They live on Mount Olympus -- they have quality drinking vessels. Just bring your best wine and let them serve it up. Likewise, you don't bring a stein for Odin. You bring some quality mead and hope he welcomes you and your gift.

Whoever this fellow in the Gobi believed he was going to meet once he crossed over into the great beyond, he did the right thing by brining the best his people had to offer and counted on his ancient Chinese deities to have a proper smoke-delivery system. The gods gave him the cannabis, surely they know how to indulge.

Here's the article.