29 September 2009

Genre genie

Towards an iTunes taxonomy

SONY DSCYou might think I’m foolish.  You might think I’m crazy.  You might even think it’s hysterical that I would freely and of my own volition spend my spare time tinkering with the genre tags of individual tracks in my iTunes MP3 collection.  And yet that’s just what I’ve been doing for the best part of an hour, and I’m only moderately embarrassed to admit that I actually enjoy such an arcane pursuit. 

Perhaps deep within me lurks an inbuilt ancestral impulse of some butterfly or coin collector predecessor, one who spent their lives categorising and cataloguing a myriad of intricate specimens.  But whatever unwittingly trainspotterish heritage that resurfaces now and then, I can freely admit to what should in any case be completely obvious: I am a music geek.

That is not to say that the act of categorising songs in my music collection provides a superior form of recreation to the act of actually listening to them.  It doesn’t.  But what I do enjoy, in the privacy of my own home and hopefully with no major negative consequences for my right-thinking fellow citizens, is perusing vast, seemingly unending lists of songs and muttering to myself, ‘Tut tut, that’s not right – they should be over there.  With that artist’.  As Messrs Yorke & Co. would say, everything in its right place.   

This sort of analysis might not be particularly important for most music listeners, but in my case the size of the music library in question - 7300 tracks and counting - means that it’s worthwhile to impose some sort of reliable structure as an aid to navigation.  But here’s the kicker.  While most of the tracks were actually obtained from my own CDs, the electronic track-naming services on the internet (e.g. GraceNotes) are based on user-supplied information.  Like much of the information on the internet, this can mean that it’s not entirely reliable, but in general terms it’s fairly useful.  Unless you happen to be a finicky sort like me, that is, who finds the prospect of inconsistent music labelling mildly irritating.  Particularly when the labelling has been contributed by people with funny or just plain dopey ideas about music.   

Needless to say, such decisions are highly subjective.  I’m not pretending to be a music expert.  But sometimes it’s better for contributors to services like GraceNotes to just leave the genre tags alone.  Stand well back, but do not light the blue touch-paper.  Because a whole range of pitfalls emerges and the scope for misunderstanding expands dramatically when you’re required to slap a single genre label on a track or indeed the entire work of a recording artist. 

We can start with a simple example: the French group Daft Punk.  One glance at the genre column revealed a horrible mishmash: 11 tracks listed under a combination of five tags - Dance, Electro, Electronic, Electronica and Pop.  Leaving aside the possibility that a group might conceivably dabble in more than one style of music, and therefore thankfully consigning Rod Stewart’s entire ‘70s disco phase to the stylistic wastebasket, it’s much simpler if all my 11 Daft Punk tracks could feature the same genre tag.  Two are discarded immediately: sure it’s pop music and sure you can dance to it, but it’s primarily electronic music, so Dance and Pop are discarded.  And Electro and Electronica are just dullards’ techniques to try to make the Electronic music label sound more exciting, so they go too.  Daft Punk’s tracks are filed under Electronic. 

Let’s be frank though – I’m not about to spend a great deal of time adjudging whether songs by Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn should be filed under Pop, Rock, Pop/Rock or even an overarching New Zealand genre.  These are snap decisions on matters of no great import.  But it’s the aberrant, way-in-left-field or just plain mental tags contributed by internet users that raise eyebrows and generate the odd snort of derision.  Let’s have a quick rundown to illustrate my point:      

Captain & Tenille (Rock)

Yeah, the captain’s hat, the cheesy grins and that awful song about Muskrat Love?  Truly they embody the pageantry of rock and the mysticism of roll.

Indigo Girls – Romeo & Juliet (Comedy)

Okay, are you serious or are you trying to make some kind of obscure point here?  Sure, perhaps the idea of anyone covering a Mark Knopfler song elicits wry snorting in some snide quarters, but Amy Ray’s impassioned performance of this rock standard is surely anything but titter-inducing.

Eurythmics (Rock)

No they don’t

Ali G – Interviewing Economist J.K. Galbraith (Soul)

Seriously - what drugs are you on?  Oh wait, that tag might’ve actually been me, by mistake.  Still, nice to think of a soul revue featuring the sprightly Reverend Al Green, the late, great Godfather of Soul, James Brown, the everlasting Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Sacha Baron-Cohen in a shell suit.

Lily Allen – LDN (Blues)

Wait, are you being ironic?  Granted, there is a knowing current of disillusionment and social realism bubbling beneath the surface of  Allen’s summertime hit, but surely any blues would be instantly dispelled by the jaunty mariachi horns, the ebullient chorus, and the peerless verse:

‘There was a little old lady walking down the road, she was struggling with bags from Tesco

There were people from the City having lunch in the park, I believe that is called al fresco

23 September 2009

How to get good reviews

SONY DSC Several years ago I read a remaindered hardback biography of the Scottish diarist and wit James Boswell (1740-95), whose most famous exploit was to be the friend and confidant of the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who created the first reliable and popular dictionary of English, and whose tercentennial birthday anniversary was recently celebrated in London.  Boswell published his Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791 when he was in his fifties, and it has been a standard reference on the topic ever since. 

In the 20th century Boswell achieved a certain literary notoriety due to the publication of his personal journals written when he was a young buck in his early twenties, which had lain undiscovered in family archives until the 1920s.  The journals, which were written to be read by Boswell’s close friends, came into the ownership of Yale University, and were particularly popular following the publication by Yale in 1950 of Boswell’s London Journal 1762-63, which went on to sell over a million copies.

In his Journal, Boswell recorded his excitement at an early foray into the publishing world, the issuing of a book of his correspondence with a close friend, Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. (which the 20th century Yale editor Frederick A. Pottle summarised as being ‘impudent, frothy, and strenuously facetious, [and] will not be found bad reading by those who retain some taste for childish things’. 

Boswell was by no means a modest man and was a keen self-publicist, as can be seen in this extract from the Journals, Professor Pottle’s footnote to the entry for 29 April 1763:

In the memorandum for this day Boswell instructs himself to “buy another Chronicle”: i.e., another copy of The London Chronicle, which in the number for 26-28 April contains a long and highly laudatory review of the Erskine-Boswell Letters.  The concluding paragraph begins, “Upon the whole, we would recommend this collection as a book of true genius, from the authors of which we may expect many future agreeable productions.”  This would fill one with admiration for the perspicacity of a critic who was able thus early to hail the genius of James Boswell if the memorandum did not provide that critic’s name.  Boswell wrote the review himself. 


The success of the Yale publication was on two accounts.  First, Boswell’s journals are great reading, both for those with a particular interest in 18th century literature, and those readers with a general interest in London in the period.  These are the thoughts of a young man making his way in an exciting city, and Boswell’s scribblings convey the young Scot’s ultimately successful attempts to make a name for himself in the capital city, with plenty of humour and insight on offer.  Second, the reason that the journals lay unpublished for so long is that they include a fair helping of downright rakish behaviour on the part of young Mr Boswell, who writes of his lustful encounters with London prostitutes and details his long campaign to woo and bed the actress Louisa (‘Good heavens, what a loose did we give to amorous dalliance!’), who gives him a venereal disease.  Once Boswell’s children came of age and learned what was contained in the journals, they were consigned to the family archives and were forgotten about for over a century. 

I recently secured a copy of the London Journals at the Wellington Downtown Community Mission book fair, and it was the happiest two dollar purchase I can recall in a long time.  The book uses the same text and the masterful introduction and footnotes by Frederick A. Pottle in the 1950 Yale edition, but was produced by the Reprint Society London in 1952 to bring the Journals to British readers.  It’s a lovely piece of work: its crimson cloth cover is gentle embossed with the Boswell family crest and its motto ‘Vraye Foy’, which is Old French for ‘True Faith’, and the inside covers are adorned with an intricately-detailed maps of Boswell’s London haunts. 


At the time he was writing the Journal Boswell had rooms in Downing Street, which is of course now the residence of the Prime Minister and Chancellor.  His daily thoughts are still being read, enjoyed and discussed nearly 250 years after they were written.  Truly a fittingly stylish tribute to a man to whom we are greatly indebted for his entertaining and revealing diary, which is still as refreshing and diverting as the day it was written.

22 September 2009

Recycled goals

Recycled goals
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
I spotted this discarded garage sale sign on the footpath beside busy Kapiti Road in Paraparaumu Beach a few days ago. I love the way in which the careful mission statement on the left sets out a comprehensive list of goals, perhaps for a retiree or suburban hausfrau, but in the end the pressing need for a garage sale sign proved too great. In comparison, the column on the right, written in the same handwriting, has just the one line. Is Peter much less methodical than his wife? Has he recycled his wife's list without her knowledge? Or is there some tragic pathos at work - perhaps she's no longer around (for whatever reason) and the garage sale is to dispose of her effects? Who would've thought that the suburbs held so many unanswered questions?

12 September 2009

The Kind One


In The Kind One, screenwriter Tom Epperson has produced a successful genre novel in an area that has fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years – the 1930s American gangster tale.  I must admit I picked it up in the Wellington library on the basis of its striking cover – a crisp, evocative monochrome image by Bernard Wolf of a vintage Packard (I presume) in the California desert, the only vestige of civilisation visible apart from the road on which it sits. 

‘Two Gun’ Danny Landon, the novel’s protagonist, drives a Packard (a ‘33 Packard Club, to be precise) as he cruises the streets of the burgeoning City of Angels, ferrying gangster’s moll Darla to eateries, parties and boutiques.  Darla is with Bud Seitz, Danny’s mobster boss, who has the ironic nickname ‘The Kind One’ thanks to the psychotic urges that become increasingly apparent as the story progresses.  Danny remembers almost nothing of his earlier life, having received a mighty crack on his skull from a lead pipe, and this leads him to question whether he really is cut out for a life as a gangster – particularly when he begins to fall in love with Darla and dream of a way out of the criminal scene.

Despite gangster fiction being a major genre for decades, particularly from the 1920s to the 1960s, it’s one I’m not particularly familiar with.  Most of my cultural reference points come second-hand, via homages like the surreal The Singing DetectiveBut it’s an area I’d like to learn more about, given the fascinating historical context and the massive social and economic changes that were taking place in America and elsewhere at the time.  Certainly, the current recession has provided a good excuse for modern writers to remind us that times have been hard before – much harder, if we’re being honest. 

Epperson has plenty of writing experience, although most of it has been for the screen.  He has often worked with hometown friend Billy Bob Thornton, co-writing several films including One False Move.  In its February 2008 review of The Kind One, the LA Times noted Epperson’s proficiency in creating a believable gangster tale whilst avoiding pulp clichés:

Although it may not be hard to imitate a genre's clichés (they are, after all, what generate the genres), it's difficult and exceedingly rare to transcend the clichés and produce a work that can appeal to readers who are not necessarily aficionados of the given genre. Epperson has managed the uncommon feat of writing a genre novel that can hold its own alongside (if not best) other works considered more literary. On every page, the language is crisp and fresh, the details sharp and keenly observed, the dialogue real, never forced. When Epperson elevates his prose to the lyrical, he reads like a streamlined Joseph Conrad.

Epperson has also done plenty of research; I enjoyed the touches of period detail that showed considerable attention to the detail of life in LA in the mid-30s.  It’s set in 1934 – a current newspaper headline on the death of John Dillinger on 22 July 1934 is mentioned.  (While it’s got nothing to do with the novel, this filmed witness statement by a Chicago mechanic is fantastic). 

Epperson’s dialogue is commendably accurate and replete with deadpan humour too.  Here’s Danny meeting a showgirl:

“I bet you think my name’s not really Vera Vermillion”

I shrugged.  I held no opinion on the subject.  She pulled a business card out of her purse and handed it to me.

Vera Vermillion

“One in a Million”

Actress – Singer – Dancer – Et Cetera

The Mel Goldberg Agency

Normandie 3215

It seemed like every girl came with some sort of motto or slogan up here.  One in a Million.  The Girl You Won’t Forget.  Best All-Around Woman.

I started to hand the card back but she said: “Keep it.  You never know when you might need an et cetera”

Very Mae West, don’t you think? 


After enjoying The Kind One and wanting to do a little background research I was pleased to discover that the filmic qualities of the novel had been noted quickly by none other than the famed director Ridley Scott, who intends to film The Kind One with actor Casey Affleck in the role of Danny and Epperson adapting his own novel for the screenplay. 

Perhaps this is a by-product of the relative commercial success of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, which grossed US$189m worldwide on an approximate budget of US$100m, showing that audiences will still pay to see gangster movies.  A 21st-century equivalent of The Untouchables, Public Enemies was definitely boosted by its high-quality cast of Depp, Bale, Cotillard, Ribisi, Crudup, Dorff and Wenham.  But perhaps Scott’s screen adaptation of The Kind One will follow the noir-ish route of classics like Chinatown or LA Confidential, aiming for the lower budgets and art-house credentials.  Either way, it’s an exciting project and one that I’ll be looking forward to seeing. 

Just a suggestion though, Ridley Scott, if you happen to be reading: if you’re looking for an actor to play Danny’s neighbour, the fading, slightly dissolute English scribbler Dulwich, may I suggest John Hurt?  For I can think of no candidate more suitable to evoke the care-worn intellectual who befriends Danny and is his greatest ally in a time of need. 

06 September 2009

The midgets of Casablanca

Until yesterday, Casablanca was one of the multitude of classic films that I’d not seen, due to my peculiar aversion to getting my act together and actually renting them.  But the Paramount in Courtenay Place advertised four days of screenings this past week, so I was finally able to enjoy the film on the big screen. 

I can now see why it’s so popular and iconic.  Sure, it’s got certain aspects of cheesiness, what with the rather shameless repetition of Bogart’s “here’s looking at you, kid” catchphrase (four times, I think) and the similar repeated revisiting of Dooley Wilson’s performance of As Time Goes By.  And while the cast is an excellent and eclectic bunch, no-one could accuse Humphrey Bogart of out-acting anyone – his performance is strictly down the straight and narrow route of stoic reserve, which is no great surprise given that Casablanca was his first romantic lead, and up until then he had been best known for gangster tough-guy roles. 

Of course, Ingrid Bergman is lovely as Ilsa Lund, and the director Michael Curtiz ensured that the camera and lighting lavishes attention on her perfect features whenever possible.  Also of note is a charming performance by Claude Rains as the dapper, dissolute Capt Renault, with his kepi forever skewed at a rakish angle and a dry-witted quip ever ready. 

One of the things that I enjoyed about the rather random way I came to know about Casablanca before I saw it was that the majority of this knowledge came not from movie articles or IMDB, but rather from the lyrics of a Front Lawn song.  ‘Claude Rains’ is a thoughtful ballad from the Front Lawn’s peerless first album, and while I couldn’t find a video performance to include here, I urge you to track it down for a listen.  Although maybe you’d be better to wait until you’ve actually seen Casablanca

Another feature of the film that I discovered after the screening was the cinema trickery used in the iconic airport scene at the film’s conclusion.  In earlier scenes the plane to Lisbon, a Lockheed Electra Junior, was filmed at a distance using a convincing (for the time) model aircraft.  But the final scenes of the film, which required a backdrop of the plane ready to leave the airport, were shot at a soundstage without sufficient space for a real aircraft.  The producers solved the problem by building reduced-scale cardboard replicas of the Lockheed, cranking up a fog machine to obscure the view, and dressing a crew of midgets in overalls to give the impression that the airport ground crew were working on a regular-sized aircraft.  Now that’s creative thinking!

You can see the cardboard Lockheed and the uncredited background performances of the midget actors in the following clip and a still excerpt, and read more about the film-makers’ decision to use the midgets here.

Midgets of Casablanca

02 September 2009

The Girls Guitar Club

Isn’t it funny how interconnected everything seems to be in show business?  On Friday night I saw Christine Jeffs’ film Sunshine Cleaning with Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin giving strong performances in a likeable family comedy-drama setting.  The main subplot for Blunt’s character, the wayward younger sister Norah, has her tracking down and befriending Lynn, a peculiar woman who works in the local blood donor clinic. 

Lynn is played with commendable obliqueness by the actor-comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub.  The name rung a bell somewhere, but not for the most likely reason; I’ve not seen the TV series ‘24’ in which she plays second billing to Kiefer Sutherland as Chloe O’Brian.  Scanning her list of acting appearances, I realised that I’d heard of Rajskub not for her top-rating TV career on ‘24’, but for the low-key cult comedy duo, The Girls Guitar Club. 

Now, to be fair, I’d not actually seen the 2001 short film, The Girls Guitar Club until this evening, when I tracked it down.  (There’s no apostrophe in the title, before you flame me).  It’s a charming 14 minutes of film, and they certainly have impeccable connections, what with Mark Everett (aka E from Eels) playing the creepy indie bearded guy and Grant-Lee Phillips playing the Kontiki Lounge host.  Not to mention the guidance counsellor from Freaks & Geeks, as the record producer: 


Rajskub’s GGC partner, comedian Karen Kilgariff, was a stand-out performer in Annie Griffin’s fantastic Channel 4 series, ‘The Book Group’.  In the second series Kilgariff played the ascerbic sister of the main character Claire, and her cutting dialogue was a highlight of the series, as was her character’s uncanny ability to drive her sister round the bend.  Kilgariff now writes comedy material for Ellen Degeneres’ show, but let’s take a look at one of her own stand-up musical numbers, ‘Problem Parfait at the Fake Gallery’:  

Here’s another example of the GGC’s pleasingly daft stand-up performance from a 2001 TV show:


Rajskub has plenty of recent TV comedy experience too, having recently appeared in the second Flight of the Conchords series on HBO.  Here she is with Jemaine Clement and Art Garfunkel:

01 September 2009

Fish supper, anyone?


A white-faced heron searches for food in a shallow cove on the northern shores of the Pauatahanui Inlet north of Wellington, 30 August 2009.

Another string to their bow

It used to be that actors were expected to have a wide range of performing skills.  Studio stars and starlets of the 1930s were supposed to be able to sing and dance, with male actors having the additional duties of horse-riding and fencing for all those Errol Flynn blockbusters.  Smoking and hat-wearing proficiency was also mandatory.

Even into the 1950s and early 1960s, the last era of big-budget mainstream musical pictures, it was not unusual to see actors singing on screen: think Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Audrey Hepburn crooning 'Moon River' in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Nowadays there's little of that going around, aside from quirky expeditions into the musical genre, like Tim Burton's whimsical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or the over-hyped excesses of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.  But despite this, there has been a small trend of actors crossing over into the pop world to become recording artists, and, perhaps more surprisingly, some of them have been attracting positive reviews for their side projects, despite such endeavours usually being derided by the music press.  (e.g. Willis, Bruce, and Seagal, Steven).

Two recent successful outings by actresses have achieved varying degrees of critical success, if not legendary record sales.  First, Scarlett Johansson released an album of Tom Waits covers, and second, Zooey Deschanel (who first came to prominence in Almost Famous) teamed up with the performer M Ward to form the folky duo She & Him.

200px-Scar_jo_anywhere_album_cover Johansson's album, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’, contained ten Waits songs plus one Johansson co-write with the album’s producer, ‘Song for Jo’.  David Bowie sang on two of the album’s tracks, showing Johansson’s impeccable celebrity connections.  ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ was often reviewed in a way that suggested that reviewers were expecting an awful listening experience, only to discover that it was actually fairly decent.  It achieved a score of 58 on the Metacritic scale, which is fair to middling, and the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey said 'it's a measure of this album's surprising allure that you're left wanting more'. 

200px-She_and_Him Deschanel’s album with Ward, She & Him’s ‘Volume 1’ received stronger reviews, with Metacritic offering a 76 ('generally favourable') rating, and Billboard describing the album as a 'surprisingly rewarding collection of dusky, mesquite-flavored torch songs'.  Deschanel, speaking to the Independent recently on the release of her new film (500) Days of Summer, acknowledged the initial suspicion that often confronts actors trying their hand at the singing game:

For the longest time, I thought that any actor who released an album must be the biggest fool ever but, having been a singer all my life, I've now changed that opinion. No one gives musicians any flack for becoming actors, so I don't see any problem in it working in the opposite direction.  

You can probably guess where this is leading… yep, it’s embedded clips time.  Here’s Johansson performing the first single off her album, ‘Falling Down’, which first appeared on Waits’ 1988 live album ‘Big Time’.  It’s an interesting performance; you can sense the material and the band are in a way compensating for a certain lack of dramatic range in Johansson’s voice – but isn’t the whole point of Waits’ music that you don’t need to sound like a classically trained artiste to get your point across? (For the devotees out there, she's also just about to release another album, 'Break Up', this time with Pete Yorn)

For the second video, it’s hard to go past She & Him’s irrepressibly perky ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?’ with its killer combination of sweet Beatlesque melodies, a cheeky sense of humour, and Deschanel looking almost ludicrously cute in every outfit the wardrobe department could throw at her.  But perhaps I’ll resist the temptation and instead opt for something more traditional.  Here’s Deschanel and Ward performing an acoustic cover of The Miracles’ ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ (which was written by Smokey Robinson and further popularised when it appeared on The Beatles’ second LP in 1963).  This stylishly crafted performance was aired on MTV Canada in July 2008.