RECENT LISTENING #10

Welcome to L.A. OST, Steve Gunn & the Black Twig Pickers, Clandestine Quartet, Pebbles Vol. 1 Thailand Vol. 1, Bill Direen, KMRU, Om

Welcome to L.A. OST (UNITED ARTISTS) I’m 13 or 14 years old and see a couple ads on network TV for a film called Choose Me. It looks pretty darkly romantic, even erotic (Lesley Ann Warren, after all) and a little strange (Keith Carradine, after all). I see Siskel & Ebert do a review of it, Ebert in particular praising the film and its writer/director Alan Rudolph. Such concepts as ‘adult seriocomic televisual storytelling’ and ‘commercially unsuccessful critics’ darling as a modest career path’ become more fully formed in my mind. I’m like, “I’ve gotta check out this Alan Rudolph guy.” 35 years later I finally do check him out, when I notice his 1976 debut film Welcome to L.A. is leaving the Criterion Channel in a couple days (pretty much the only time I ever watch any film is when it’s leaving the Criterion Channel in a couple days). Put it on, and within seconds there’s that strong downbeat 1970s L.A. vibe, though I am nonplussed by the opening credits song, which is the expected California soft rock but with a distractingly bad lead singer. The credits note that the film is produced by Robert Altman, and indeed here’s Keith Carradine waltzing around as an ennui-filled songwriter, boozing it up, being a jerk, serial womanizing. While this and many other intriguing characterizations start to very slowly pick up tempo (Sally Kellerman, Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, Lauren Hutton, Sissy Spacek, Denver Pyle, more), of course I’m already reading about the film on my phone, how Rudolph was the assistant director on Altman’s Nashville from the year before, and I’m like, “Wow, they took Carradine’s character from Nashville and just kept going with it.” 20 minutes later, all those characterizations are starting to hum and coalesce, and I find myself falling DEEP into the film’s languidly obtuse and depressive rhythms. I realize that the distractingly bad singer from the title credits is actually a centerpiece of the film, in fact its Greek chorus: singer/songwriter/actor Richard Baskin, who was the musical director for Nashville, portraying a mysterious rock star (yeah right, with that voice?) named Eric Wood (not the one from Man is the Bastard). Wood has no spoken dialogue, but appears singing and playing piano throughout the film in a recording studio, making an album of world-weary neo-noir songs written by Carradine’s world-weary songwriter character, Carroll Barber. These studio scenes are constantly intercut as the film languidly moves from one lonely one-night stand to another, Baskin with his session-cat band, singing the film’s thesis “City of the One Night Stands” over and over again, along with several other surprisingly haunting late-night soft-rock songs. His voice is still terrible, but it grows on you, and the next thing you know you’re singing along with every word, “when those silky infatuations come, enticin’ me… invitin’ me… excitin’ me, then god damn it, it’s the best temptation of all….” Before I had even finished the film, I had ordered the soundtrack LP on Discogs for less than $2, and I’m pretty sure it’s all going to haunt me for the rest of my life. The internet is so much fun. POSTSCRIPT: So much fun that three weeks later I’m still reading anything about the film I can find on my phone, and about Alan Rudolph in general, like this great quote by him in a Film Comment interview that explains a lot: “I used to prowl record stores after work every Friday night and I’d buy albums to tape them. I must have had a hundred tapes without knowing what was coming up next. It was a primitive version of shuffle. I’d walk around Manhattan and watch a movie unfold on the sidewalks listening to how it was scored in my head. But it’s funny, the number-one album was always Kind of Blue. Without that album, I’m not sure I would have been able to make films. Kind of Blue was my film school.” POST-POSTSCRIPT: I’m also finding these crazy harsh reviews of Welcome to L.A. from right when it came out, like Ruth Batchelor in L.A. Free Press, who says “it’s the most depressing movie I’ve seen and that includes Nazi-atrocity films,” and also says “the songs are as depressing as the people.” Richard Eder in the New York Times goes even harder on Baskin: “The songs are a particular torment. The music whines, the lyrics complain, and Mr. Carradine sings them with a kind of hushed writhing, like a worm dying at the bottom of a barrel.” He probably meant Mr. Baskin, although Mr. Carradine does sing Baskin’s songs a couple times in the film, and several times on the soundtrack LP. I mean, of course Eder means Baskin, because Carradine is actually a pretty good singer, with a tone and delivery much less like a dying worm. POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: Okay, enough negativity about Welcome to L.A., let’s end on a contemporaneous high note with the words of Jack Kroll, who, despite being an unbelievably square john (as displayed in that 1969 talk-show interview he did with a justifiably impatient Susan Sontag and Agnes Varda, always getting pulled from YouTube and Vimeo due to copyright), wrote beautifully and accurately about the film in his Newsweek review from February 21, 1977: “[Welcome to L.A. depicts a] Los Angeles that's a shimmering Xanadu of psychic uncertainty. Mirrors reassemble people into soulless human collages. The swoosh of Hutton's ever-present Nikon sounds like a little guillotine beheading reality. The quavering cadences of Baskin's music evoke both the sweetness and self-indulgence of Carroll Barber. Cinematographer Dave Myers works like the new realist painters, capturing a metropolis of burnished surfaces that seems to dissolve the will in an amber nullity of light." Good stuff, Kroll. Good stuff indeed. POST-POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: Meanwhile I’m also trying to find out just who the hell Richard Baskin is, and it turns out his last name is familiar because his dad was THE Baskin from Baskin-Robbins. Welcome to L.A., it’s a small world after all. And you know what, I’ll give the real last word, even if buried inside a post-post-post-postscript, to Richardbaskin.com, because it lays out the whole genesis of Welcome to L.A.: “Rudolph and Baskin met in 1975 while working on Robert Altman's classic, Nashville. Alan Rudolph was Altman's assistant director, and Baskin the composer and musical director on the film. The two became friends and when Baskin played his songs for Rudolph, Alan responded: ‘I could make a movie out of that.’ Working quickly, Rudolph adapted the themes and relationships of the songs into characters and wrote the screenplay during the filming of Nashville. When that shoot ended, the two presented the idea to Robert Altman, who agreed to produce the film as Alan Rudolph's directorial debut.”

STEVE GUNN & THE BLACK TWIG PICKERS Seasonal Hire (THRILL JOCKEY) I already loved Jack Rose & the Black Twig Pickers, and now I also love Steve Gunn & the Black Twig Pickers. This record was released in 2015, but I’m just now realizing it exists, or remembering it exists, not sure which. And I should note that I also love the Black Twig Pickers by themselves, without any special guest bandleaders, and I love the solo albums by key Black Twig Picker Nathan Bowles too, especially A Bottle, a Buckeye (2012, Soft Abuse). Seriously, it’s all good. Stomping bluegrass mountain music. Social music. But these guys aren’t old-timers, they probably weren’t born until the 1970s or even the 1980s, so they’re young enough to also fully understand the Velvet Underground and that post-war avant-garde sense of the timeless driving monochord. Such a nice approach to fuse with good ole heartfelt authentic mountain bluegrass social music.

CLANDESTINE QUARTET One for the Fossa, Two for the Wolverine (33-33) Talk about clandestine, did any other Sun City Girls heads know about this LP from back in October (2019)? It features SCG brothers reconnected Alan Bishop on bass and Richard Bishop on guitar, and they’re joined by Chris Corsano on drums and Michael Flower (of Vibracathedral Orchestra) on “his signature amplified ‘Japanese banjo’ (an Indian keyed zither).” This is big news! What a great lineup! And this is a very well-recorded, well-considered, and, in case you’re worried, very structured and sometimes quite beautiful set of music. (That’s right, this album contains no boom-box recordings of kazoo-and-voice-only Cloaven Theater pieces that go on for 30 minutes. Not that we don’t love those too, because WE DO.)

VARIOUS ARTISTS Pebbles Vol. 1, Thailand Vol. 1, Orginal Artifacts From the Psychedelic Era LP (PEBBLES LABEL?) Spotify somehow leads me to this amazing comp and I can’t even tell if it was ever released on vinyl. Well, I’m listening to it anyway, thanks to Spotify aka Capitalism, and whoever the person was that picked these songs and put them in this order. Ever noticed how after all the other Pebbles and Cambodian Rocks and Cambodian Cassette Archives comps and Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten OSTs have passed your way, and you think you’ve heard it all, sometimes one more comp of Asian garage rock and pop music from the 1960s and 1970s can still hit you so hard, and still sound like perhaps the truest apotheosis of the modern cultural/global/human movement we generalize as Rock and Roll? It’s that good, and you’ll know it long before you even get to track ten, where one Srueng Santi blasts Black Sabs’ “Supernaut” riff into his own inzane tune called “Mai Rack Yar Rack.”

BILL DIREEN A Memory of Others 2LP (SOPHOMORE LOUNGE) Posted this on the ‘gram right when it came out, but just wanted you all to know that it’s still getting very serious rotation. There’s a lot of material here, 26 songs in all, spanning a good 25 years, some tracks taken from Direen’s classic early records (some of his ‘greatest hits’ even, like “Love in the Retail Trade” from 1984), some live, some previously unreleased, or previously released but barely, all presented in no chronological order whatsoever, and it’s all so good as it jumps decades, altogether dashing the idea of any one ‘greatest’ Direen record or period. It would seem that the best Bill Direen is whatever Bill is doing right now, much of which has been recorded over the years, creating a kaleidoscopic effect from any present viewpoint, and I can get lost inside of every single track on here. Beautiful intelligent and restless rock’n’roll music played and sung by an actual poet. Record is sold out at Sophomore Lounge, but go to their Bandcamp right now and at the very least stream yourself track five “Circle of Blood,” also from 1984, one of the greatest and most intense post-punk songs ever recorded, in my humble and hyperbole-free opinion. (Spoiler alert, the way the already frightening and tense song climaxes with Direen shredding the lines “You don’t want it, give it back/Sit and watch the walls collapse/You don’t want to lose your mind," goddamn….)

KMRU Opaquer LP (DAGORETTI) New electronic music from Africa (Nairobi, Kenya to be more specific) and the label is run by Pete Larson, formerly of Bulb Records, who lived in Nairobi from 2014 to 2017? Sure, I’ll check it out… and I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed after the first couple tracks, thinking it was good-not-great, in almost a 90s bliss-out style… but something happens as the album continues, picking up around track three “lulla” and then really settling in with the next one, the almost title track “opaque.” Something uniquely electro-rhythmic, strong and persistent without being house music, subtle and loose without being ambient music. Dagoretti is quickly shaping up to be a very interesting label… also check out the blistering Heart of the Ghost records, and Larson’s own band Dr. Pete Larson & His Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band, and lots more (even some Bulb classics) at petelarson.bandcamp.com.

OM Conference of the Birds LP (HOLY MOUNTAIN) I have a rule that if a record comes with printed lyrics, don’t even think about following along until at least the 10th time you’ve listened, if ever. Well, I’ve had this Om LP for almost 15 years, and didn’t even remember that it came with printed lyrics, so might as well follow along now… and it turns out this whole time Al Cisneros is singing a post-Wolfe sci-fi concept album about… apertures? You know, “Sentient ground of the light shrine shining/Aperture on door the lind-hymn stone,” and so on. I’ve read and heard a LOT of weird lyrics in my day, but Al Cisneros = weirdest lyricist ever? (Compliment, btw.)