Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Heavy rotation

Cobra Killer is the Carl Stalling of gonzo tech-punk. Few bands so habitually confound expectations and so cleverly weave strands of disparate musics into consistent albums.

As I wrote in this week's Time Out (link not up yet for some reason), Cobra Killer is scheduled to hit Tonic tomorrow evening. Gina V. D'Orio and Annika Line Trost are off the charts (to quote Dina Martina) live, not to mention among the nuttiest interviews I've ever done, even if it was by email. And since they cancelled their past two NYC shows at the last minute, all digits are crossed for this one.

While Cobra Killer's often been compared to Peaches because they all are women who at one point relied on basic electronics, the comparison treads water, especially now that Peaches' radical rep solely rests on her lyrics, as she's considerably streamlined and beefed up her sound, and the days of triggering her sampler on stage have given way to touring with a full band (more later on last week's show at Irving Plaza, if I can find some time). Cobra Killer, on the other hand, confounds pretty much all the expectations you could have from people making music, down to their relationship with their instruments (they basically shun them live). What they play is deceptively simple but on stage they take it so far as to be in a league of their own.

For now, here are a few tunes to enjoy while counting down the minutes to the show.

"H-Man-A Psychocat" and "Loaders in Octobers" are pulled from CK's sophomore album, 2002's The Third Armpit. Released on the Australian label Valve and relatively hard to find, it marked the band's transition from saturated digital-hardcore ADD to cleaner swinging Berlin.

Plus! Special extra-super-duper geek-out bonuses with…side projects! Because Trost and D'Orio just can't stop the music, and I can't stop hunting it down. D'Orio has released the solo CD Sailor Songs on Australia's excellent label Dual Plover; minimalist half-booty musicalizations of American high-school dramas with Patric "ec8or" Catani under the name A*Class; and Bass Girl, a collaboration with Like a Tim, from which "I Only Have Eyes for You" is pulled. Meanwhile, Trost has released two solo CDs; "I Was Wrong" is on the latest one, Trust Me (2006).

Cobra Killer: "H-Man-A Psychocat"
Cobra Killer: "Loaders in Octobers"
Like a Tim and Gina V. D'Orio: "I Only Have Eyes for You"
A*Class: "I Don't Like the Prom"
Annika Line Trost: "I Was Wrong"

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Oh hell…

Double bummer reading the Times yesterday: Betty Comden and Anita O'Day died on Thursday.

Comden and her writing partner Adolph Green were my favorites in the world of stage and film musicals. Their lyrics could put high-brow references in a decidedly low-brow context, or turn the banality of everyday life into elegant melancholy—qualities that are exactly reflected in their scripts for On the Town and The Band Wagon. Comden and Green were open to the world around them, and connected to it with an uncommon relish that gave their work a unique verve and humor.

Below you can download their own versions of a pair of songs from one of their lesser-known efforts, Two on the Aisle, a 1951 stage vehicle for Dolores Gray and Bert Lahr.

As for Anita O'Day, she was my favorite jazz singer—and among my top five favorite singers, period—though I discovered her not through jazz but through show tunes. More specifically, her rendition of "Who Cares?," from the 1931 Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing. O'Day's voice had a smoky texture not unlike Dusty Springfield's (another entry in the all-time list). There are many things to praise about her but my favorite aspect of her performing style was the way she could sing very, very fast with no loss in clarity or interpretative subtlety whatsoever. Her 1959 album Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May, of which "Just One of Those Things" is the opening track, is packed with breakneck takes on Porter classics. As for the details of her life, the title of her autobiography, High Times Hard Times, pretty much says it all.

Comden & Green: "If"
Comden & Green: "Catch Our Act at the Met"
Anita O'Day: "Who Cares?"
Anita O'Day: "Just One of Those Things"

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Does anybody remember laughter?

I've said it before but there's new evidence that we're in the middle of a rather good season for comedy. The new production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Seviglia at the Met is a heap of giddy fun, though this has little to do with director Bartlett Sher: The man should count his blessings for scoring a dream cast that's like a bunch of homing pigeons with an unerring sense of their comedic (and vocal) home. The three leads, in particular—Peter Mattei (Figaro), Juan Diego Floréz (Count Almaviva) and Diana Damrau (Rosina)—could not have been better suited to their roles; in fact, they could have been planted on a traffic island in the middle of Broadway at rush hour and they'd still would have killed.

Sher's own contributions to the comedy unfurling on stage were modest: extending the stage to a runaway going around and in front of the orchestra pit; the hapless silent servant; the giant anvil that falls down and squashes a cart at the end of Act I—a bit of literal illustration of the lyrics that was so OTT that it worked for me. Funny biz, but really, how do you improve on genius cartoon director Tex Avery when it comes to dropping anvils? As for the rest, Sher ably moved the cast about the stage and wisely stayed out of its way: Barbiere is naturally packed with action and it'd take someone with actual ideas—like Chuck Jones, the director of Rabbit of Seville—to make it even zippier. (For a director who actually makes a funny show funnier, try to catch Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado, set in the 1920s, at City Opera.)

Even the business with the several free-standing, movable doors dot the set seemed to function in spite of Sher's intentions. When I first saw them, I thought he was making a visual reference to the comedy of slammed doors of Feydeau, but reading his notes in the program at intermission, I discovered he intended them to suggest a sense of claustrophobia. Right, the dark, edgy stuff that must be injected in comedies lest the audience think it's paying $275 for fluff! At least he completely failed in that respect.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Madame la Présidente?

Psyched!!! In a primary, the members of the French Socialist Party chose Ségolène Royal to carry their colors in next year's election. (Fine, I fess up: I was a due-paying member for years but decided not to renew after the banlieue riots of 2005, and so didn't vote in the primary.) Truly, no other choice was possible since the other two candidates—super-technocratic Dominique Strauss-Kahn and perennial arriviste Laurent Fabius—could never have won against the likely candidate of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy. Ségo hatas had predicted that she wouldn't get a majority and that there would have to be a second round, but she sailed through with 60 percent of the vote.

To me, this means that barring an unforeseen disaster (and maybe with some underhand help from Chirac, who hates Sarko and many think would rather see a Socialist win rather than him), she will become the next French president. French politics are going to be very interesting in the coming months, especially since Ségo can expect some backstabbing from within her own party.

Now we need the non-Socialist left to get its act together and not spew several candidates who may split the vote during the presidential election's first round, the way it happened back in 2002, when it led to far-right scarecrow Jean-Marie Le Pen battling lame-duck Chirac in the second round. Though I suspect that even with the usual suspects threatening to clog the first round again (can't the goddam Trotskyists pack it in already?!), voters may have learned a lesson.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

From Sweden, with angst

New Yorker Films recently released on DVD two striking Mai Zetterling films which show the Swedish actress to also have been a pioneering director. Loving Couples (1964) interweaves the back stories of three pregnant women who happen to all be in the same hospital at the same time (around the beginning of the 20th century), and also happen to know each other. The gorgeous b&w cinematography—well it can be gorgeous, it's by Ingmar regular Sven Nykvist—reinforces the unblinking sharpness of Zetterling's look at the relations between men and women. (Needless to say, the title is highly ironic.) The movie ends with what looks like a real birth, which I'm sure must have gone over well with 1964 audiences.

But even Loving Couples pales in comparison to The Girls (1968), whose modernity just blew me away. I don't understand why this movie isn't hailed as a prime example of 1960s modernism. Perhaps the DVD will help change that.

The Girls follows a predominently female theater troupe as it tours Lysistrata in Swedish backwater towns and as its leads (Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom, no less) express a growing feminist consciousness. But the best thing is that Zetterling goes all Godard on us, playing out her manifesto in a way that seems to imply that traditional filmmaking is a tool of the patriarchy and subverting it is a feminist imperative. And so she plays with the superimposition of sound and image (one preceding or following the other for instance), with fantasy sequences, with chronology, with editing. Plus every shot looks incredible, ready for framing—what an eye Zetterling had! The Girls is a triumph of form and function.

Wrapping up my Swedish week was El Perro del Mar at Joe's Pub. Sarah Assbring (who basically is El Perro del Mar, though she was backed on stage by a few guys) plays intimate pop songs that feel like Brill Building anthems with all the fun sucked out of them. She was stylish but dry dry dry, and her stern demeanor hid lightweight songs.

Émilie Simon, who followed her up on stage, was the exact opposite: a serious experimenter (she studied at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM) under a foofy exterior. Simon's released three popular electronic-based albums in her native France, including the original soundtrack for March of the Penguins. Because her musicians got last-minute visa problem, her New York debut also was her live-solo debut as she accompanied herself on guitar or on piano, with some prerecorded stuff coming out of a laptop perched on a chair. She occasionally shot sideway coy glances at the audience while singing in her girlish voice—all things I usually hate in performers but which she managed to pull off, coming across as endearingly kooky rather than clumsily flirtatious.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Moving to bigger—better?—things

Over the past few days I had the opportunity to re-see Grey Gardens (left) and The Little Dog Laughed, two Broadway shows I'd first caught in their Off incarnations. Both had serious flaws that have been only partly fixed, and both illustrated why seeing a show in a smaller setting tends to be preferable.

Grey Gardens is based on the Maysles brothers' doc of the same title, which portrays the decrepit life of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie, in the early 1970s. The show's second act follows the movie pretty faithfully, with Mary Louise Wilson and Christine Ebersole giving stunning performances as Edith and Little Edie, respectively. The problem is that book writer Doug Wright added a whole new prelude set in 1941 in which we see how the mother-daughter duo (with Ebersole playing Big Edie and Erin Davie playing Little Edie) got that way. But did we really need any insight into how the women of Grey Gardens (the name of their mansion) turned out the way they did? Why this mania to explain everything? Couldn't the show have been a one-act, 90-minute piece set in the 1970s? One of the reasons the movie is so fascinating is that there are suggestions to a past grandeur but the women's eccentricities stand on their own.

While the musical's first act has been tightened up, its pulse rate is still flat. It feels like a drawing-room dramedy, making the second act even more stupendous in comparison: Suddenly, you feel as if you're watching a completely different show, and a much better one at that. And it was even better Off Broadway, where the cozier setting allowed the mix of pathos and ridicule to gel to a highly uncomfortable degree.

As for The Little Dog Laughed, it is still very funny and it feels good to have a genuine comedy on Broadway. Douglas Carter Beane has a way with one-liners and the cast ably delivers them. And yes, Julie White—as a Hollywood agent with her tongue set to stun—is amazing. But this time around she turns it up a smidgen too high, as if she felt she had to fill every nook and cranny of the bigger house. Her performance was absolutely perfect when the show was at Second Stage; now it feels a bit shrill, especially in the first act, and rates only as almost perfect. Still, this is a quibble: Comedic tours de force such as the one White delivers nightly are too rare to be missed.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stop the presses!

Rumor has it that Madonna is set to record a new track with Agnetha and Frida (the singers from Abba of course. Sheesh, do I need to tell you everything?). Now if this turns out to be true—the reputable source of information known as The Sun broke the story after all—this would be a 124.8 on the Richter scale of popquakes, just below an actual ABBA reunion or Dusty Springfield coming back from the dead for a cryogenic show.

So many urgent questions! Will the three women write the song together? Will it be done for charity, as these projects so often are? What name will the trio use? (Some wags suggest MABBA, but MAA would be more accurate since Benny and Björn aren't likely to be involved.) Will the famously reclusive Agnetha fly to England to record or will she make the others fly to her in Sweden?

Oh, I need to go to bed with a wet towel on my burning forehead.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Lepideptora Majora

Anthony Minghella's never really done it for me as a film director because he never digs very far beneath the surface and seems to be adverse to actual perversity (e.g., The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), but his Madama Butterfly at the Met is stunning.

Minghella doesn't offer any new reading of the tragic story of Cio-Cio-San, the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who's seduced and abandoned by US Navy lieutenant Pinkerton, then commits suicide three years later, after Pinkerton comes back to Japan and threatens to take their son away from her. So no, Minghella doesn't interpret, he illustrates—but what illustrations! Stealing his blues and reds from the palette of Robert "If Only I Had a Heart" Wilson, Minghella unfurls one stunning visual composition after another, and salvages Madama Butterfly from the kitsch heap it so often ends up in. Butterfly's death has to be the single most striking visual I've seen all year (you only have three more opportunities to see it this season) and the use of a bunraku puppet for her son is heartbreakingly efficient. I cannot fathom why there's been so much hostility for that concept from some opera corners.

But the beauty of what's on stage never gets in the way of actual emotion, even if I do have a bone to pick with the decision to play Cio-Cio-San like a shaky, timid, virginal girl in the first act. She may be only 15, but she's also a geisha. I'd have loved to see Cristina Gallardo-Domâs at least suggest a smidgen of flirtatiousness when she meets Pinkerton. Her gradual crushing in Acts II and III would still work: Just because she's a ho doesn't mean Butterfly can't develop real feelings for her new man, as anybody familiar with Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity, Irma La Douce and the R&B canon will know.

If this production is indicative of the Met's new direction under Peter Gelb, count me in. Even the playbill looked better, as if the Met had finally discovered there's something called desktop publishing out there; and it wasn't all cosmetic, the content was spiffier as well. For now Gelb's strategy seems to work at least in terms of creating a new sense of urgency and relevance. Not only were there actual scalpers outside, but the crowd did look a little with it. Plus I was sitting across the aisle from Patti Smith, who may not be young and with it but still was the coolest person in the room.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reno 911!

Over the past few years, Jean Reno has replaced Gérard Depardieu as the embodiment of a certain kind of French maleness in Hollywood, so much so that in the new DreamWorks/Aardman feature, Flushed Away, he voices a character named Le Frog.

When Hollywood needs a Gaul, Reno dutifully punches in his time card—except that unlike Depardieu and earlier imports such as Charles Boyer, his characters aren't sexual. I think it all started in ’95 with the horrid Meg Ryan/Kevin Kline vehicle French Kiss, in which Reno played an inspector. Then he was a French secret agent in Godzilla, a French cop in The Pink Panther and The Da Vinci Code, a French Airforce pilot in Flyboys. Lots of manly-man stuff—albeit sometimes of the bumbling kind—but not much traditional sex-ay action. Interestingly, the disappearance of the sexy French stud from American movies (except for Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful I guess) has corresponded with the years in which France has become the symbol of fey European weakness for a lot of red staters Gone are the days of Le Shaggeur, welcome to Le Frog.

This year's Goncourt

The Goncourt, France's biggest literary prize, has just been attributed to Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes. I've only reached page 250 (out of 900) so will refrain from commenting for now, but a small detail buried at the end of a Libération article about Littell struck me: Apparently, the American-born author, who's lived in France and wrote his novel directly in French, was turned down for French nationality twice. That decision strikes me as ill-considered and embarrassing (I'd be curious to know on what grounds Littell's request was turned down), especially since I myself got dual French-American citizenship a few weeks ago. But of course it's only part of France's generally awkward, to put it politely, attitude toward immigration. If the Yale-educated son of a best-selling writer (Robert Littell) gets turned down for French citizenship, just imagine the obstacles put up in front of immigrants from Mali or Afghanistan. What most impressed me when I took the oath at a Brooklyn courthouse was the sheer diversity of the 400 or so people in the room with me. Of course this doesn't mean American immigration policy is so hot right now—the country is building a wall on its border with Mexico after all—but it strikes me as still more accomodating than what passes for immigration policy in France.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Last remarks on the French trip, I swear!

This didn't feel like it belonged in the Quartett post, but there were actually other things happening in France. (I know, I know…)

• Oddball stage adaptations: There's now Bagdad Café: The Musical, adapted by director Percy Adlon from his own inexplicably overrated 1987 film. But perhaps you'd prefer Dolores Claiborne, a play based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, and starring comedian Michèle Bernier?

• Also live in the flesh in Paris: Hollywood's favorite Hire-a-Frog Jean Reno, Alain Resnais regular Pierre Arditi, diaphanous blonde Isabelle Carré, snooty brainiac Jeanne Balibar, dryly funny Catherine Frot.

• But wait, there's better: Dita von Teese was making her debut at the Crazy Horse Saloon! Like the Lido, the Crazy Horse Saloon is a Paris-style cabaret, meaning it doesn't involve Gershwin or Porter but topless ladies cavorting on a small stage while the audience dines at surrounding tables—kinda like Cristal Connors's numbers in Showgirls but, you know, with French boobs.

• What's up with Harlan Coben?!? French libraries stack his books in huge piles and every other person on the metro seemed to be reading him. Not only that, but Coben's thriller Tell No One was turned into one of the fall's big French films, Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis à personne. Actually, someone should look into how American or English thrillers often are adapted into completely different but very good French movies: Ruth Rendell's A Judgment in Stone became Claude Chabrol's The Ceremony and Jim Thompson had the honors twice: Pop. 1280 became Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon (transposed to colonial Africa) and A Hell of a Woman became Alain Corneau's Série Noire.

• And speaking of books: On my next-to-last day I gave in to curiosity and purchased Jonathan Litell's mega-hyped doorstopper, Les bienveillantes, a book mentioned as a candidate to every French literary prize. Even better, I bought it at a supermarket in the Corsican boondocks, putting it in my basket between the chestnut pasta and the yogurts. For indeed many French supermarkets carry books and CDs. Just imagine being able to buy a 900-page novel narrated by a gay SS officer at Key Food…

Crawling back into dilettantism

Yikes, vacation sure can take its toll on a blog, though it's also great to leave the web alone for a while. A few thoughts to wrap up the French trip, which was lighter on the gulcher than usual (though I'd certainly include watching Over the Hedge, which includes a brilliant voice-over performance by Steve Carell, on video).

I suppose the main event was seeing Heiner Müller's Quartett, which I've alluded to before. The text is based on Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses, which Müller has boiled down to its two key characters, Valmont and Merteuil, and to a dozen incredibly dense pages. I'd love to see it again in a production emphatically not by Robert Wilson, whose formula just feels tired and mercenary at this point—mercenary because based on the past five-six shows by him I've seen, he now applies the same predictable boilerplate tricks to whatever he's meant to stage at one of the many international houses of culture that inexplicably keep on hiring him. In the case of this Quartett, Wilson incorporated elements from two of his own previous stagings. From the 1988 New York production, for instance, we seemed to inherit the three extra characters—including an old man—and a prologue of a sort in which the actors seat at a banquet table.

While Wilson had Lucinda Childs as Merteuil back then, we had Isabelle Huppert, who was the show's main draw. The command she had over the technical aspects of her performance was astonishing, something that was obvious from her first line, which she repeated over and over with barely perceptible variations in speed and pitch, incongruously—and somehow convincingly—sounding like a spoken version of a Philip Glass piece. It's hard to talk about anything that's not purely technical when referring to actors in a Wilson piece anyway, because to him they are nothing more than elements in his visual compositions, no more or less important than the lighting, costumes or set. No wonder he makes them move slowly and adopt dramatically geometric gestures: The only obviously human component he allows them is speech (and in this case not even to all of them—of the five people onstage in this Quartett, three remain silent). In his notes on the show, Wilson explains that "en 35 ou 38 ans de travail, je n'ai pas une seule fois dit à un comédien ce qu'il devait penser en termes de texte, de sentiment, d'émotion." ("In a 35- or 38-year career, I've never once told an actor what he should think in terms of text, feeling, emotion.")

I don't actually have a problem with that approach, except that to make an impact, you need to deliver superb visuals and topnotch sound design. Alas, Wilson's well seems to have gone dry: At times Quartett felt dated, at others slightly ridiculous (and let's charitably ignore the attempts at humor). I'd be curious to see how long Wilson can continue to coast on two blue spotlights and three red frocks.