A Boston duo—Margaret Garrett, guitar, Tara McManus, drums and organ—recording in Memphis, then calling out from the Memphis murk. They go back, past Mazzy Star, Robin Lane, the Spikedrivers, to young white men playing blues in the Sun studio in the mid-fifties, then back from there, to a bar where the customers are so drunk they can’t even tell what color they’re supposed to be. The result sounds as contemporary as anything by such like-minded outfits as the White Stripes, the Kills, the Fiery Furnaces: an insistence that the present is a con, the past a myth, music a mask. You don’t think about that in the stomp of “Red Light” or the haze of “Don’t Know Why,” but in “Wait for Your Love” the vocals are buried, and so are the guitar and the drums. Everything takes place behind a curtain, until with a final whamwhamwham the band hits and runs.
2. Kill Bill Vol. 1–Original Soundtrack (Maverick)
Not that there’s anything less than fabulous here, but the eleven minutes plus of Santa Esmeralda’s mariachi version of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is almost beyond human intent.3/4. Cold Mountain—Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (DMZ/Columbia) and Goodbye, Babylon (Dust-to-Digital 6-CD reissue, 1902-60)
The sensibility that producer T Bone Burnett brought to the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack doesn’t work for Cold Mountain; Jack White and Alison Krauss seem to be looking over the horizon at something else, something that actually interests them. The new recordings of Sacred Harp singers—people following a primitive notation system as the means to bring a whole community into a complex song—have spirit, but there’s no ground in the sound. To hear what the form, or philosophy of life, can be, seek out the country-religious music collection Goodbye, Babylon. Pressed into the tinny confines of commercial 78s from the 1920s or ’30s, people stand and deliver themselves to God, as if by pure will they can make him listen. If he can turn away from the Huggins & Phillips Sacred Harp Singers’ 1928 “Lover of the Lord,” with the lead voice of a nerdy teenage girl deep inside the sound, he’s not worthy of them—not worthy of the dead. As an all-night DJ shouts in Geoffrey O’Brien’s forthcoming book Sonata for Jukebox, “Alabama gospel records from before recording was invented”—that’s the feeling.
5. Spam e-mail (Jan. 3)
Why is it that the words “Young Goodman Brown”—referring to the 1835 Nathaniel Hawthorne story where a devout Puritan is drawn into the devil’s forest (“On he flew, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy”), toward a coven of Satanists and, at its center, his wife, Faith—keep popping up in the upper-left corner of Paris Hilton video ads?
6. Hootie & the Blowfish, video for “The Goodbye Girl,” from the TNT original movie Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl (Jan. 16, 18, 20)
It runs on Law & Order central as an endless commercial: the musicians playing in the rain plus Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond as a wan middle-aged woman acting mainly with her nose job and Jeff Daniels offering come-hither eyes in a sad-puppy face—compared to this, his Dumb and Dumber character was Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. Cutting in and out of the movie, the band seems inspired, risking anything, even electrocution, to pay homage to David Gates, who first recorded this terrible song, back in 1978, right about the time Bread stopped fooling anybody.
7. American Blues Festival 1962-1966, 2 DVD set (HIP-O Records)
Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Slim, even Howlin’ Wolf, and more, in Germany, in hokey but appealing stage sets or before polite audiences, and all giving at best 10 percent of the minimum they could have gotten away with back in Chicago. Except for T-Bone Walker on “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” plainly too much of an artist to think he’s more the owner of the music than it is of him.8. The Cooler, directed by Wayne Kramer (Gryphon Films)
There’s nothing happening here but Alec Baldwin’s performance, pushing far beyond his 1992 role as the sales-force executioner in Glengarry Glen Ross. The scene where Baldwin’s Old Vegas casino boss explains his values to Ron Livingston’s New Vegas business-school mobster is supposed to dramatize passion and experience against callowness and training, and it does—as a display of what it means to disappear into a character, to let him walk without the puppet strings the director is so obviously using on Livingston. Also featuring an unsurprisingly convincing turn by ‘N Sync’s Joey Fatone as craven lounge singer Johnny Capella.
9. Arthur Moore, Security Service Individually Watermarked (Maverick)
A letter accompanying this pre-release CD stated that for security reasons the object in question could not itself carry the information that 1) Arthur Moore was in fact Alanis Morissette, 2) Security Service was really an album titled So Called Chaos, 3) “By accepting this CD” one was agreeing not to copy it, play it in a computer, put it on the internet, lend it to anyone, or play it for anyone, and 4) that any such use of the object in question could somehow be traced. So I can’t tell you anything about it. Or wouldn’t be able to even if I had listened to it, which I was much too scared to do.
10. Sarah Vowell reports from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Dec. 21)
“Went to visit the Arizona this morning. What really got me was the little marker to the lower left of the wall of names: the vets who survived but wanted their ashes sprinkled in with those of their comrades. Two of them died just this year. Then I took the bus up to the North Shore to watch the surfers. My sister and I always had a thing for surfer movies. There was one called North Shore that came out when we were teenagers in Montana about a kid from Arizona who learned to surf in a wave pool and moved to Oahu where the real surfers looked down on him but then he won them over and got the cute Hawaiian girl.
“Off to watch the sunset and listen to Warren Zevon. Last night I was doing that and the sun dropped below the horizon line just as his version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ was ending, thereby proving that if there is a God, he directs really hack videos.”
City Pages, January 14, 2004