Sunday, July 06, 2008

Four Albums In Search Of An Audience

This article appeared in the May issue of TRAFFIC Life.

So often we find albums that were the rage when they were out, growing stale within a couple of years. Think of James Blunt’s nasal route back to bedlam. Once in a while, we find a popular album standing the test of time; sounding as fresh decades later as it did when it was just released. Revolver still sounds stunning today, 42 years after it was released.

Ever so rarely, we find an album that comes along and gathers dust on music store shelves, until a few years later, when critical opinion catches up with the art.

This story is about four such great albums that didn’t get their dues. It’s about four great albums that had a sense of identity, a great sound, a unique feel, a personal style, yet didn’t quite cut it.

What follows is, at best, a personal appreciation of these albums. At worst, it’s an exercise in cultivated irrelevance. So.

Grand Hotel: Where Fortunes Speed and Dissipate

Better Known For
Their debut Procol Harum; the hit single A Whiter Shade of Pale; and their third album, A Salty Dog.

Procol Harum can be unbearably pretentious, it’s true. (I mean, Christ!, they named their ninth album Procol’s Ninth.) But they can also be wonderfully poignant and melancholic. Their best-selling single A Whiter Shade of Pale, and their eponymous debut album don’t really work for me, with its hotchpotch of classical music and blues-inspired pop. But their seventh album, Grand Hotel, showed a certain unique baroque sensibility that was taking wing.

The album suffers from all the problems that routinely plague Procol Harum – problems other than Keith Reid’s puerile songwriting, for whom there really can be no excuse – namely a lack of direction in terms of the sound, a lack of vision and extreme self-indulgence.

However, where Procol’s Grand Hotel succeeds, is in finding suitable content for their pop-magnified-into-classical-music form. The title track, with its many segments lending the song an eerie atmosphere of pretense and charade, sets the tone for the album. The second track, Toujours L'amour is a guitar vamp-driven song that bounces off its considerably more conservative rock sound against the glitzy decadence of the title track. A Rum Tale builds on the previous track’s themes of love and loss, with a greater use of Procol’s trademark Hammond-organ-and-piano sound.

T.V.Caesar is easily the pick of the album. The humorous yet poignant song, revolving around a mouse who acts mute observer of the protagonist’s lonely life, mostly spent in front of the television (when he is not partying at the Grand, one assumes). Most unusually for Keith Reid, the lyrics do not bluntly bludgeon the unsuspecting listener’s head with the idea, using simple yet eloquent direct speech instead. (T.V. Caesar mighty mouse/ Tops the pops in every house/ Sandwiched in between the ads/Something for the mums and dads/ ‘Great to have you on the show’/ ‘Sorry that you've go to go’/ T.V. Caesar mighty mouse gets the vote in every house)

Souvenir in London too is a fine song, about some contraband material that the narrator has bought as a souvenir in London. The track makes unusual use of the organ’s vamps to build the song’s narrative, instead of trying to create more pompous gravitas.

The good work on the previous three tracks are almost undone by Bringing Home the Bacon, which marks a return to the kind of glorious self-indulgence that gives all progressive rock a bad name. Long repetitive guitar bridges make the song rather intolerable, in spite of the competent lyrics. Although the arrangement is rather unremarkable, the song forms a kind of bridge between the opulence that marked the album until this song and the tales of misery and death that follow. With this track, the sang-froid of the grand soirees described in the first half of the album give way to the misery that lurked beneath. And even a song about jilted love – A Rum Tale – begins to assume greater significance.

Chris Copping’s organ rises up to the occasion beautifully with For Liquorice John. The song, about a man who ‘fell from grace’ and died upon his return from an unnamed city, fits in rather neatly with Souvenir from London. At least, enough to make one wonder if the souvenir was dope that he OD-ed on. For when the protagonist of this song died ‘the doctors didn't hesitate/ what he had they were not sure’.

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) builds on the theme of misery that informs the second half of the album and elaborates it to the misery of war. If anyone ever wanted evidence of Procol Harum’s utter lack of self-censure, this is it. A slow, stately bass line and an annoying vocal input from Christianne Legrand don’t improve matters at all. For best results, skip track.

The album ends with a song about a man in great pain who asks for a remedy. The inconclusive end to the album works by removing the events of the last track a long way off from the hedonism of the first half of the album.

Well, why did I pick this album?
It may not have the best writing, best arrangements or even the best performances, but Grand Hotel did have character – a distinct character that makes even the worst of Reid’s gems bearable. I mean real gems like: The cord that they knotted to keep us apart/ Could never be broken: it was tied to my heart/ She grew thin and I grew fat/ She left me and that was that.
And that is saying something!

Countdown to Ecstasy: Loss and Longing in a Desolate Land

Better Known For
Aja; Gaucho; for breaking up and producing each other’s solo efforts; for patching up after 20 years and recording the superb Two Against Nature.

Steely Dan has released many fine albums, Aja, Pretzel Logic, Gaucho, Two Against Nature, among others. Can’t Buy a Thrill, their debut release, was widely acclaimed for its jazz-inspired groovy numbers.

Countdown to Ecstasy, a more challenging album, followed Can’t Buy a Thrill. Even at the first listening, it’s obvious why an album such as this would never outsell their easy-listening debut.

But in many ways, Countdown to Ecstasy is significant, for Steely Dan came into its own here. This album has edgier songwriting, giving full wing to Steely Dan’s trademark irony, populating this album with unforgettable dramatic moments. Also Donald Fagen finally came around to the view that he alone could bring out the sense and rhythm of Steely Dan’s extraordinary songwriting.

Dan’s songwriting is often described as suave, sophisticated, worldly-wise, darkly humourous… well, you get the idea. It is all of that, but above all, Dan’s songwriting is dramatic – it attempts to capture dramatic moments. Haitian Divorce, on The Royal Scam, readily leaps to mind. Countdown to Ecstasy too shows the same dramatic genius at work – the narratives written with a sardonic empathy that is uniquely Steely Dan’s.

The album deals with typical Steely Dan obsessions of love, longing, and nostalgia, but all delivered in a flurry of stunning images. Sample the concluding track, King of the World, which describes a lone man’s cry for help in a post-nuclear scenario. No marigolds in the promised land/ There's a hole in the ground/ Where they used to grow/ Any man left on the Rio Grande/ Is the king of the world/ As far as I know. Even while writing about a grim situation such as this, Steely Dan’s irony cannot be under wraps for too long. There's no need to hide/ Taking things the easy way/ If I stay inside/ I might live till Saturday.

In musical terms, this album has a guitar-driven sound, although it isn’t as predominant as in The Royal Scam. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter is in top form on at least 2 tracks, Boddhisatva and Boston Rag, while Rick Derringer plays a superlative slide guitar solo on Show Biz Kids, one of my favourite Steely Dan numbers.

Boston Rag is one of the best tracks of the album, a narrative poem about nostalgic recollection of a drug trip. The song complements superb songwriting with excellent musicianship. Any news was good news/ And the feeling was bad at home/ I was out of mind and you/ Were on the phone/ Lonnie was the kingpin/ Back in nineteen sixty-five/ I was singing this song/ When Lonnie came alive.

The impotent rage that informs Show Biz Kids is balanced by the playfulness of Rick Derringer’s slide guitar. Becker and Fagen take apologetic cognisance of their growing celebrity and the excesses that come with it – the show biz kids they’re talking about ‘got the Steely Dan t-shirt’.

Pearl of the Quarter is an example of why Steely Dan songs could never work with another singer. Fagen twists around lines with characteristic self-deprecatory humour that makes their songs humane, insightful, and wickedly affectionate. The uncharacteristic pomp in using religious imagery is offset by the self-consciousness of the narrator, making him appear to be a character as humourous in his self-appraisal as Steely Dan is. I walked alone down the miracle mile/ I met my baby by the shrine of the martyr/ She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/ Singing voulez vous/ She loved the million dollar words I say/ She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her/ She said she loved me and was on her way/ Singing voulez vous.

You may not necessarily agree with Donald Fagen who called Countdown to Ecstasy the best ever Steely Dan album. But you’ve got to concede he’s got a point.

White Light/ White Heat: Split Your Mind Open

Better Known For
The Velvet Underground & Nico; for being Andy Warhol’s protégés; and above all, for being relatively unknown.

It’s almost customary to begin any article on The Velvet Underground with Brian Eno’s homage that although only a few thousands bought VU albums, almost all of them were inspired to form their own bands. Whatever the truth of that, fact remains that VU is not your average rock band. Until their last two albums, they had neither hummable radio-friendly songs nor catchy instrumental arrangements.

Their effervescent debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, has quite rightly been hailed as a classic. However, it was after having drifted away from Andy Warhol and his Factory in the wake of their debut that VU’s morbid vision came into its own in White Light/ White Heat.

White Light/ White Heat has none of the finesse and structural density of a Venus in Furs, and that is its strength. The album bears the seeds of what would later become punk rock, with tracks such as The Gift and Sister Ray exploding with the raw, almost anarchical, spirit that later imbued punk rock. Most of the tracks on this album have this raw, edgy, jangly feel to it, anticipating, outdoing, later punk bands such as The Sex Pistols.

The relentless experimentation lends the tracks in this album an intensified energy, pitching the events of the songs to a certain hyperrealism, elevating the dysfunctional lives described here to mythic proportions.

White Light/ White Heat also has a certain white sound, and this white wall of sound permeates all the songs on the album. Even on The Gift, a Lou Reed short story narrated by John Cale, is coupled with a raucous edgy rock instrumental in the background. And while the writing is vintage VU – always dark, always disturbing, always demanding and dense, it never reaches the rarefied heights of Venus in Furs.

The jangly, almost-pop-but-not-quite title track is the tightest song of the album; and that sounds almost like a disqualification when the album you’re talking about is White Light/ White Heat. Reed’s droopy singing is an unlikely highpoint of the song – lending a superb feel to a song about an amphetamine trip.

The Gift is one of my favourites from this album; I definitely like it better than Sister Ray. The story starts out innocuously, replete with mundane events showing Marsha’s sexual promiscuity and Waldo’s sexual inadequacy. As the story comes to an unexpectedly grisly end, the rock instrumental reaches ear-splitting levels of disruption, superbly complementing Cale’s calm narration of the macabre incident.

The protagonist in Lady Godiva’s Operation is an unforgettable VU character – a transsexual whose sex-reassignment surgery is botched up by the surgeons. The surgeon ‘cagily’ covers this up by performing a lobotomy on Lady Godiva. The song gains in significance when one realises the barbaric practice of lobotomy was very much in vogue less than 20 years before the song came out. This song is a great example of VU’s uncompromising subversive vision, in both musical form as well as lyrical content.

The achingly beautiful Here She Comes Now is a great counterpoint to the disquiet of the rest of the album. The song, sung in perfect harmony by Reed, displays a certain sense of economy that marks it out with respect to the rest of the album. The song, a hallucination about the narrator’s lover returning, is tempered by the semi-realisation that it isn’t all real Ah oh, it looks so good/ Ah oh, she's made out of wood).

Here She Comes Now assumes greater importance when the manic guitars of I Heard Her Calling My Name take over. The furious riffs in this track have played their part in defining the sound of punk rock. The previous track paints a hopeful picture of life after the lover returns, but the facts prove quite grim. She ‘said she never understood a word from me, because’. The line breaks off without finding any answers. The narrator returns to his dreams, finding no solace in the woman, reassuring himself with: I know that she cares about me/ I heard her call my name/ And I know that she's long dead and gone/Still she ain't the same. Some read the last two lines as indication of necrophilia. Knowing VU, it’s perfectly possible, but I tend to see the ‘long dead and gone’ figuratively, meaning the relationship’s dead. Eventually he concedes ‘his mind split open’ in a haunting ending to a great, and disturbing, song.

Sister Ray, much celebrated for its 17 minute instrumental jam, is a fine example of the poignancy VU can bring to their matter of fact descriptions of dysfunctional lives. The song describes desolate, lonely lives spent in drug-induced excitement, with a long improvisation at the end forming a sort of musical counterpoint to the monotonous lives detailed in the lyrics. The song centres chiefly around themes of sex, violence, masturbation and drug abuse – all described as desolate, lonely activities that alienate the characters further, reducing their sense of reality to an uncertain haze. The shooting of the sailor is described casually, using multiple sexual innuendos, with someone reproaching the killer for ‘staining the carpet’.

While my prosaic paraphrasing of the song makes it seem either like a morality tale on the perils of what has today come to acquire the lazy label of ‘the rock and roll lifestyle’, or a ballad romanticising ‘the rock and roll lifestyle’; the experience of the song is far richer and more complex. It is nothing short of poetry – not so much the lyrics alone, but the song itself – making it a word-and-tone poem of many complex and dark undertones. The long jam at the end has its roots in blues, but the grating tone and loopy structure again point to punk.

This is a great album – one that I hold in the same high regard as Revolver or Abbey Road, Zeppelin IV or Surrealistic Pillow. And perhaps more so than in any of those great albums, White Light/ White Heat fuses words, music, and sound to create truly subversive, transcendental art.

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus: Mingus Presents Dolphy

Better Known For
Pithecanthropus Erectus; the legendary 1953 Massey Hall concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Max Roach; for his fearsome temper; for anticipating the Third Stream by fusing composition and improvisation

Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone gets the blues, as much as Lightnin’ Hopkins or Robert Johnson. His saxophone not only plays jazz, it also sounds human, and creates moods that had not been heard on an instrument other than the human voice.

The human wailing inspired improvisation that was uniquely Dolphy’s, drew upon blues shouting as much as on traditional jazz, forging it into a new jazz form that has come to be known as free jazz. While Ornette Coleman played his part in the evolution of free jazz, Dolphy’s contribution in tying in the older jazz forms with the emerging free jazz forms cannot be understated. In a way, Dolphy and Coltrane formed the bridge between the more traditional forms and free jazz, or New Jazz, as it was called then. If Coltrane represented one within the traditional form reaching out, Dolphy was one out there reaching backwards. He was, to use the lingo of the day, the outside-inside man.

While the inside men such as Miles Davis denounced Dolphy’s experiments, Mingus, imperious as ever, declared that ‘these free jazz guys are simply running their fingers over their instruments’ and teamed up with Dolphy to create some truly heady jazz.

Although I tend to rave about Dolphy, this quartet must be one of the strongest in jazz history – Dannie Richmond on drums and Mingus on bass must surely be among the greatest rhythm sections ever. Ted Curson is versatile and energetic and shows a superb ability to add power to Dolphy’s delicate playing.

Dolphy’s work on Folk Forms No. 1 is incredible. Backed by Ted Curson’s muscular trumpet, Dannie’s Richmond’s superb anticipation, and Mingus’ solid bass, Dolphy’s playing makes the opening track at once delicate and powerful, multi-layered, and improvisational. Ted Curson complements Dolphy perfectly, filling in gaps – and Dolphy leaves a lot of those – without obliterating Dolphy’s intricate structures. About 5 minutes into the track, Mingus clearly demonstrates why every jazz bassist must live with being compared with him. His solo is simply superb, accepting sporadic bursts from Dolphy to add colour first and then to slowly build the bass solo into a full-fledged theme for the ensemble. Dannie Richmond too plays a great drum solo, with some very vocal encouragement from Mingus, whose bass line takes over from the drum solo and returns the track to its the melodic centre. The track disintegrates dramatically, with Dolphy’s alto saxophone choking on its sound, and Richmond’s superb syncopation giving it the impression of winding down.

Original Faubus Fables is an instance of traditional call-and-response blues, shouting elevated to a complex jazz form. While this is no doubt impressive, it is Dolphy again who astonishes with his ability to wield the alto saxophone with such fluency as to replicate human wailing without which the blues wouldn’t be the blues. However, I must add that Mingus Sextet’s version at Cornell in 1964 may have an edge over this album version, especially since Mingus and Richmond don’t feel compelled to sing at Cornell, and Jaki Byard on piano is a great addition.

What Love? is a beautiful track, with Dolphy sounding as quiet, economical and lyrical as he did on some of the best tracks of Out There, particularly Serene. Mingus chips in again with another superb solo, mirroring Dolphy’s in its economy and lyricism. An Ellingtonesque ‘exotic’ strain runs through the entire track, showing its full contours only occasionally. Mingus hints at the ‘exotic’ strain in his solo, and this is picked up by Dolphy and given spectacular form.

The outrageously titled,
All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother, shows some furious playing from Dolphy and Mingus. I have no clear insight as to why this track is called what it is, nor why Mingus chose to dedicate it to all mothers. Well, he was Mingus, and I suppose that'll have to do for the rest of us.

Now What?

I’m sure there'll be many who will disagree with the views expressed here. The idea was never to reach a consensus. After all, between the warm contours of Clifford Brown’s trumpet and Miles Davis’ icy depths, lie worlds waiting to be described.

Cross-posted on Swung Notes.

Judging A Cover By The Album

This article appeared in the July issue of TRAFFIC Life.

Eulogy For A Pop Art Form

I can only imagine it must’ve been like to walk into a record store and see the iconic mural-style design of Pithecanthropus Erectus rubbing shoulders with the extravagant pastiche of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. I am not old enough to have bought 12-inch vinyl records, but CD covers too do just fine. It’s the now extinct audio cassettes and the upcoming digital music that have no use for cover art design. Here’s my two-bit eulogy for what has always been a rather underrated and undervalued pop art form.

Heady Concoction, That: Bitches Brew

Album Artist: Miles Davis

Cover Artist: Mati Klarwein

Bitches Brew is a dividing line in more ways than one. Look at it one way, and it divides jazz into pre and post categories. For if Bitches Brew had not been made, would jazz fusion even have been acknowledged as an important jazz form? Look at it another way, and it divides Miles Davis fans into pro-Bitches Brew and anti-Bitches Brew categories. And would Miles’ Davis electric phase have been as influential if not for his most popular electric album?

This two-facedness is the central theme of Mati Klarwein’s design for the album cover – with the gatefold cover showing a Janus-like character looking to the past and the future. The sense of occasion is not too far off the mark, for the earliest jazz fusion bands were born here, from Weather Report, to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, from Return to Forever, to Mwandishi Band.

If the bold African motifs reflect the album’s intensified African rhythms, their modern look has the same spin that Miles Davis put on those African rhythms to create the slick modern sound of jazz fusion. The cover is a nod to the blues roots of jazz, with a caveat that this is not more of the same but a new art form forged anew fusing the traditional with the modern. The cover not only captures the lacerating bursts from Miles’ trumpet in the title track, but also the sophisticated modal variations of Joe Zawinul’s Pharoah’s Dance.

Mati Klarwein, the album cover creator, is nothing less than a celebrity in the field of cover art design. Incidentally, the cover for Santana’s Abraxas is a painting by Klarwein called Annunciation. While I’m pretty certain Bitches Brew won’t be remembered best for its album cover, perhaps the cover art deserves more attention – certainly more than Andy Warhol’s self-indulgent album covers.

Raw, Menacing, and Incendiary: Junk Yard

Album Artist: The Birthday Party

Cover Artist: Ed Roth

Nick Cave is the enfant terrible of the post-punk scenario. And The Birthday Party is the band that helped create that raw, bruising style of music that he would create in the years to come. Junk Yard is one of The Birthday Party’s crowning achievements, having created the true menace that The Sex Pistols yearned for, and arguably, failed to achieve. Nick Cave’s menacing baritone, the dark atmosphere of danger created by exceptional bass work from Harvey and Pew, make this an angry, unrelenting masterpiece.

The album’s fury is well demonstrated by Ed Roth’s cover design featuring the hot rod masterpiece Rat Fink. In the heydays of punk rock, Ed Roth’s hot rods (customised cars that had a certain edge to them in terms of design) were championed by the do-it-yourself crowd. Rat Fink, popularised by Ed Roth, became a sort of shorthand for the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock, a sort of metaphor for the loosely-produced unpolished sound of punk. Junk Yard has none of that loosely-produced sound, yet it sounds raw, as if band members were lacerating each other during the recording.

Rat Fink’s hunting of the cat, a reversal of the typical cat-and-mouse game; the menacing creature that holds aloft a birthday cake, visually punning on the band’s name; the snorting hot rod, externalising the seething anger, and the twisted delight the anger holds for both the creature and Rat Fink, make this cover design as nothing less than spectacular. And no less significant is the congruity between the cover design and the album’s sound.

The album’s sound – dominated by Nick Cave’s menacing baritone and the dark atmosphere of danger created by exceptional bass work from Harvey and Pew – is angry and incendiary. Ed Roth’s cover design manages to recreate that sound, creating a cover design worthy of a great album.

Political Edition: Sometime In New York City

Album Artist: John Lennon/ Yoko Ono with Elephant’s Memory

Cover Artist: Michael Gross

When you think of John Lennon’s solo work, Sometime In New York City is not the first to leap to mind. It isn’t even the second or third.

His most overtly political work, Sometime In New York City, has neither the immediacy of his previous album, Imagine, nor the tonal sophistication of his last authorised album, Double Fantasy. What it does have, however, is a political vision characterised by urgency. The album translates that sense of political urgency into sound, mostly thanks to the exceptional Elephant’s Memory, led by Stan Bronstein whose saxophone and clarinet bring a breathy sharp edge to Lennon’s singing. Elephant’s Memory and Yoko Ono create much of the unique sound of this album – Yoko’s thin steely cold voice smacking of punk, and Stan Bronstein’s sax showing a certain affinity for discordant sounds of Captain Beefheart.

The album cover, designed by Michael Gross, is a simple newspaper layout that contains song lyrics in place of stories. The newspaper layout seems dated now, but at the time, it was quite the in thing. Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, released in the same year, used a similar cover design. Given the album’s uncompromising political stance, with songs ranging from John Sinclair to the Attica State Prison riots, the newspaper layout seems particularly well-chosen. Now whether Lennon and bandmates used the cover design as an inside joke about the mainstream politics of the mass media is an interesting point to speculate.

Clean White Sands, Clean White Sounds: So Far

Album Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Cover Artist: Joni Mitchell

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young epitomise so much that is typical of the Southern California scene – the clean bright sound, the political slant that comes with their folk-rock influence, the distinctive harmonies, and the jangle-pop inspired guitar picking.

So Far, a compilation album released in 1974, repackaged material from Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu. Containing no new tracks, and no real sense of musical identity (I still love this album though, mostly for nostalgic reasons), the most remarkable thing about this album may be the album cover design by Joni Mitchell.

A felt pen and paper sketch, the cover design works beautifully in that it captures the sunny sounds of CSNY. The half-profiles of the band, showing them picking their guitars – one can almost hear them singing their jangly harmonies – a throwback to the acoustic sound of the old folk musicians. While the incomplete themes and the skewed perspectives wink at psychedelia, the sharp lines, the sunny feel, and the warm colours serve as reminder of the band’s clean sounds that weren’t half as psychedelic as, say, Jefferson Airplane.

The single most important reason why I think it suits the album, is its clean simplicity. Perhaps I can explain what I mean by pointing to the contrasting versions of Wooden Ships by CSNY and Jefferson Airplane. While CSNY’s version makes you think it’s a twisted love story, Jefferson Airplane’s creepy version opens out the possibilities of anti-war anthem that captures a moment in a post-nuclear scenario.

Judging A Cover By The Album

You’re probably wondering if the album covers are really as remarkable as all that. Would we be able to appreciate these album covers the same way if we weren’t familiar with the music? Probably not. But then again, why would you notice an album cover if the music was no good?

Perhaps album covers will die as digital music takes over. Perhaps they will be reborn in another form. Perhaps album covers from 60s and 70s rock and jazz LPs will be recognised as a legitimate pop art form – one best viewed in relation to the music.

Cross-posted on Swung Notes.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

ah, let's get it over with

The title refers to the blank blogger page I've been staring at for a few minutes now. A look at my blog tells me the last post is close to a year old.

Time to start all over again, I suppose. This is mostly a test blog, mainly to get myself blogging again.

Some updates:
  1. I've started a new blog called Swung Notes: On Three Chords which is mostly going to be about music, film, and maybe even theatre.

  2. This blog will continue to be about my many disgruntled rantings.

  3. Some posts that suit both descriptions will be cross-posted.

  4. The comments section on both blogs is now moderated. This rather cumbersome measure is in light of the highly entertaining flaming I was treated to a year back. It was good while it lasted, thank you, and I was quite glad a la Philip Pullman, to have brought some excitement to what must be very boring lives.

  5. So until I start updating either Swung Notes, or angry fix, hold on.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

he thinks he thinks

Via Uma, I discovered Shashi Tharoor's latest article with many a pearl of wisdom.

For instance, how he felt, in China and Japan, a perverse pride that we in India had entered the 21st century in clothes that our ancestors had sported for much of the preceding 20.


I continue, then.

The assumption of women having to be alluring is so preadamite that one is too disgusted to even argue. What is disconcerting is the brazen sexism in the whole article, beginning with the moot point of: why can't women dress up as I like seeing them dolled up? to mocking at some arbitrary notion of liberation revolving around wearing a salwar kameez that women supposedly have fostered over the years.

In the article, he posits some manufactured notion of modernity versus tradition, ice-skating precariously on the issue, and making me recall with great affection the nuanced treatment Orhan Pamuk lends the same question in his superb novel,
Snow. (Of course, that is not to say Snow was about this question alone.)

Sigh, Shashi!

Cricketers retire, coaches get murdered, actors fade away, politicians get assassinated, the better writers get fatwaed... but fools, they endure. Nothing ever affects them.

Related links: A spirited response from Emma; Nanopolitan's take; Soultrot's argument; Arvind's superb satirical reworking of Shashi Tharoor's article

Thursday, March 01, 2007

ends and beginnings at prithvi theatre

Shoestring Theatre's Ends and Beginnings, based on Samuel Beckett's Endgame, has shows at Prithvi Theatre on Tuesday, March 6th and Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.

Please to arrive in hordes!
Also bring the wife along.

Click to enlarge the poster below, courtesy Siddharth, who plays Clov in Ends and Beginnings.

Also check out the Shoestring Theatre blog.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

that's the idea, let's abuse each other

From Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

That's the idea, let's abuse each other.

They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.








(with finality). Crritic!


He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

In a related development, my review of Writers' Bloc has been generating some heat and dust.

Apart from the comments on my original post, there is a very entertaining discussion comment thread I've been following.

It's been hilarious reading so far, occasionally even flattering.

Comments however, are still welcome.
On this webspace, or the next.

In the absence of intelligent argument, I will settle for entertainment .

Related links:
Intersexual bums and other critiques, my Writers' Bloc review

Monday, February 12, 2007

swar thounaojam, author of turel, harassed

Swar Thounaojam is a playwright from Manipur, currently based in Bangalore.

Her excellent play, Turel, was part of Writers' Bloc 2.

The last few days, she has been facing harassment in Bangalore.
She has filed a case and she and her husband, Amit, are fighting the case.

Amit has regular updates on his blog.
On 5th Feb, the Cauvery verdict was announced. A local KMF retailer in my neighbourhood overcharges each time there is a hint of trouble in the city. At 8:30 in the evening, my wife went to buy milk from this chap. As usual he was demanding more money than the MRP. She brought to his notice that overcharging is illegal under the Packaged Commodities Rules (PCR), which state that any trader charging more than the MRP mentioned on the package can be prosecuted. Upon hearing this, he turned extremely abusive and verbally assaulted her. He insulted her, threatened her with physical and sexual harm and physically intimidated her. A crowd gathered but nary a person came to her rescue and to restrain the milkman.

See the original post.

Related links: Amit's blog

Friday, February 09, 2007

writers' bloc 2

Rage’s Writers’ Bloc 2: Fostering an Endangered Species

Rage’s Writers’ Bloc provides new ground for what they themselves call an endangered species – the Indian playwright. It is certainly cause for celebration that such

a forum has opened up for new playwrights, and one may reasonably hope that the quality of playwrighting will improve.

The festival was a very enjoyable theatre experience. From the excellent platform performances, to the installation art inspired by the plays, the festival gave the impression of being efficiently, and tastefully, organised. Among platform performances, Kishore Kadam’s poetry reading effortlessly transcended language and was enjoyable purely for the sense of timing and showmanship he brought to the reading. Faezeh Jalali’s rope malkhamb was another memorable performance, and so was Mumbai-based band Minority Report’s unplugged session.

These are some of my thoughts on the festival during the first fortnight at Prithvi. +

Epilogue: Uncertain Journey Into Other Worlds

The festival opened with Epilogue, written by Maia Katrak and directed by Rajit Kapoor.

Epilogue revolves around the themes of the transformative power of human relationships, and the transcendent human soul. The play opens with the protagonist trying to cheer his family up at his own funeral.

The play details the travails of the dead protagonist as he attempts to change the lives of his family. He is aided in his efforts by two soldiers, also dead, and stranded in the middle of heavenly nowhere by some ingenious metaphysical occasion. (One small question: Why were they soldiers again? Was it a bad intertextual pun because they were stranded in no-man’s land?)

While the basic premise of the story was outlandish, the tepid direction and tame acting let the play down. The visualisation of the play, apart from the few moments with the soldiers, was completely at odds with the script. Perhaps the play would have benefited greatly from a little irreverence.

Also, one got the impression that the otherworldly device was simply one of convenience. What could have been a penetrating device, turned into a charming novelty, never rising beyond mere plot detail. The defamiliarizing device was used neither to shed light on the world as the playwright sees it (as Dostoevsky does with characteristic poignancy in Bobok), nor to satirize it (as Brecht does to hilarious effect in The Good Person of Setzuan when gods who descend to earth). The play seemed to reaffirm the motives, actions and conventions of the world of the play, which in turn were not too far removed from the world outside. The play remained completely familiar, and the otherworldly device remained an uncertain gimmick. In this respect, one could argue the director was faithful to the script by remaining realistic.

The soldiers, played by a superb Neil Bhoopalam and Mukul Chaddha, provided the only respite in the play. The writing in these parts too was extremely funny, and employed some delightful non sequiturs. The set for the soldiers’ scenes, a stylized representation of a diabolical-looking machine, with gears and clockwork, presented interesting possibilities that were largely left unexplored.

On the bright side, the play was genuinely funny in parts, and the actors had the audience eating out of their hands.

Aaltoon Paaltoon: Rites of Passage

If the outlandish Epilogue was acted out with the blandest realism, the realistic Aaltoon Paaltoon benefited greatly from actors who enlivened the stage with some reasonably high-pitched energy levels.

(These thoughts come with the rider that I don’t follow Marathi, but the actors being more than engaging, I could more or less follow the action.)

Aaltoon Paaltoon, written by Irawati Karnik and directed by Adwait Dadarkar, is about two characters who meet at an old-fashioned dresswala’s shop. Niranjan, played by Subodh Khanolkar, lives at the shop, and Rama, played by Leena Bhagwat, takes shelter in the shop on a rainy night.

The tension between the two characters was maintained superbly by the actors, and Subodh Khanolkar delivered one of the better performances of the festival.

A coming of age story, the play revolves around the chance encounter between Niranjan, a rather naïve young man, and Rama, a troubled and forlorn mature woman.

The play, marred by unimaginative direction, succumbed to many unpardonable clichés. The lovemaking scene between the characters was suggested with almost comical reticence. (In spite of my Marathi, I believe this wasn’t so much a textual feature, as it was a director’s interpretation.) Moreover, the play fell apart in the scenes when the action shifted out of the room, and showed a flashback of Rama with her husband. The encounter between Rama and Niranjan may have assumed greater proportions, and remained open to multiple interpretations, had the room been the only setting, and the husband only a figure in Rama’s story.

In spite of the nondescript direction, the play manages to do well, because of the actors, and what looked every bit like a tightly woven script. If the play failed it was only in creating the sense of hazard that every chance encounter implies, the kind of unpredictability and impending disintegration that rites of passage are meant to symbolise.

The play had a memorable opening pre-set, which showed Niranjan gazing at a hairdresser’s model, with a wig for practice. Throughout the play, the model is a safety zone for Niranjan, and he pretends to be busy practising on it. The closing set is similar opening pre-set, except the model doesn’t have a wig anymore, and Niranjan places a topi (which is a symbol for the games Rama and Niranjan play) on it. The closing set becomes a powerful symbol of how the encounter has unalterably changed the lives of Niranjan and Rama.

Dreamcatcher: Dreams of a Dangerous Kind

Vijay Nair’s Dreamcatcher, directed by Faezeh Jalali and Trishla Patel, was typical of the festival, but not only was it deeply ‘personal’, it was entirely devoid of political content, and utterly self-indulgent. One could even go so far as to say that it was even offensive in parts.

Stereotypes abound in the play – from the prudishness of the protagonist, to the sheer vulgarity of the younger sister. While the accents were mercifully not as clichéd as Lolakutty, they were nonetheless all over the place. For a family from Palakkad, they had surprisingly thick Tamil accents, with stilted Malayalam thrown in for good measure. (And it’s perfectly acceptable to expect accuracy from a play that sets out to be realistic.)

The binarized depiction of the sisters’ sexuality was perhaps the most offensive aspect of the play. The younger sister Vanaja Chari was shown to be a free-spirited rebellious angsty type figure, using the most obvious means – vodka in the morning, “I dance for myself, and I don’t care for the purity of your classical art” and all the rest of that. In a scene that managed to be both theatrically embarrassing and politically offensive, the younger sister was shown throwing herself on a waiter she had hardly known a few minutes ago. It isn’t the act of making sexual advances to a waiter one finds distasteful, it is the entirely artless treatment accorded to it. (One couldn’t help but think of Arundhati Roy’s humane handling of an analogous relationship, that of Ammu and Velutha in The God of Small Things. Even making allowances for the vast differences between fiction and drama, the sheer crudeness pervading Dreamcatcher was galling.) The play’s questionable politics came to the fore in showing the sexually empowered as wanton, crass and indiscriminate.

In stark contrast to the younger sister’s wantonness, the protagonist, Padmaja Chari, was depicted as being extremely prudish. In a scene as enraging as the one with the younger sister and the waiter, Padmaja was shown talking to herself in the mirror. Apart from the externalised monologue being one of the oldest (and tiredest) stage devices, the sheer cultural implications were appalling. Padmaja addresses her imaginary lover, looking at herself in the mirror, and sheer lack of humanity that made it possible for the play to laugh at her (for it was comic, and none too ingenious at that) made one wonder if it was the character’s cultural identity that was comical. At least for the audience, the accent was certainly, what made it funny.

The play, for all its attempts to signify to the audience its intellectual gravity and aesthetic formalism, failed to rise above the immediate, the banal and often, the prejudiced. The opulent red drapes, the gilded dressing mirror, the dancing childhood alters of the sisters, the spectacular gobo (as far as lighting goes, that certainly was interesting), all seemed to suggest a self-indulgence that was part of the many attempts to bludgeon the audience into accepting the play’s obvious ‘tastefulness’, and apparent transcendence over the immediate.

At the end of the play, one only had questions:

Was the play a comedy of manners? If so, what was the object of the satire?

Was it a coming of age play? If so, what was the locus of development, the actual event or its retelling? How did the characters evolve, or change?

Was it a play about a delicate inner world set against the turbulent backdrop of riots? If so, how did the riots relate to their ‘inner world’? Or was the turbulent backdrop simply a conveniently transferred epithet, a short hand?

Ultimately, what was the play trying to say, do, or create?

Centre of Gravity and The Edge: From Flippancy to Insignificance

Rajiv Rajendra’s Centre of Gravity was a clever, self-conscious take on the sitcom. A convoluted plot involving 3 pairs of lovers, the play could’ve fallen to the lowest levels of sheer boringness, but for Vikranth Pawar’s upbeat direction, and Zafar Karachiwala’s superbly ironic high-volgate performance.

The play fell flat in parts when it started taking itself seriously, for instance when lovers speak to each other – one to break up an engagement, and the other to stave off a marriage proposal. These scenes were played out with an absolute lack of irony that made one blanch at its banality.

Sohrab Ardeshir, as Newton, is hilarious, and the scenes between Karachiwala and Ardeshir had the audience in splits.

The play fell precisely because it took itself seriously. One suspects the play may have been far more effective had it restricted itself to being solely a satire on the psychobabble-friendship-love-intrigue-more-psychobabble brand of plays.

Manjima Chatterjee’s The Edge, directed by Akarsh Khurana, was perhaps the most disappointing play at Writers’ Bloc. The script was banal, the acting nondescript, the direction unimaginative. This was probably the only play at the festival that did not have the audience on its side, and the unrest in the audience towards the end of the play was barely concealed.

The Excavators: Nihilistic Metaphors

Ajay Krishnan’s The Excavators is an allegorical play built around the central theme of digging. While the play is no doubt clever, it ultimately had no central binding idea, theme, force, or emotional core.

The Excavators starts off with a bare stage with actors creating everything with minimal props. While the play may have failed, the risk it takes with a bare stage, with no real textual development, renders it an honourable failure.

Apart from the self-consciousness that such a minimalist play with a broadly allegorical style may be expected to have, the play was considerably handicapped by its more apparent self-reflexivity, the motif of the play-within-the play. While one didn’t quite know how the rehearsal scenes fitted in with the rest of the play, the constant references to “normal fare”, to “experimental” theatre were very tiresome.

The central idea of the play seems disturbing. The motif of digging seems not an activity to engage with life, but a means of running away from life and its uncertain complexities. Such a shallow nihilistic central idea, when juxtaposed with many of the devices Ajay Krishnan borrows from the repertoire of absurdist theatre, seems to reinforce a common misreading of existentialism in general, and absurdist theatre in particular – that of an unqualified rejection of life.

Turel: The Personal as Political

Swar Thounaojam’s Turel, directed by Sunil Shanbag, was undoubtedly the pick of Writers’ Bloc 2. The play, revolving around the theme of individual liberty, becomes a powerful metaphor for the turbulence in Manipur. Of all the self-absorbed plays revolving around personal issues that comprised Writers’ Bloc, Turel (“River” in Manipuri) was a glowing exception. It was personal, no doubt, and was certainly more concerned with the relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha, and Luwangcha’s identity, than with Manipuri politics, but Sunil Shanbag’s nuanced handling of the play leaves us in no doubt that the personal too was political.

Kumud Mishra as Luwangcha was the standout performance of the festival, and the construction of Luwangcha’s complex identity was perhaps the most telling instance of the play’s all-encompassing humanity.

The poignant relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha – their capacity for love and friendship, the upright Eigya’s companionable tolerance of the vagabond Luwangcha – succeeded in creating a delicate world that one wished would not ever be disturbed. Not that the play is idyllic – the opening scene is one where Eigya’s grandchild is being buried – but the tragedies of the play’s first half allow the characters at least the appearance of being in control of their destinies. There is a brooding sense of loss in the first half; Eigya’s grandchild is dead, Luwangcha’s partner has left him. Yet their lives go on, unhurried as the river on whose banks their world plays itself out.

The sense of brooding loss slowly, imperceptibly, turns into menace. The characters’ fundamental liberties are threatened – like in the brilliant scene when Eigya's son bullies Luwangcha to live like a “normal woman” – and unseen forces start hounding them. A violent soundscape of explosions replaces the unhurried gurgle of the river.

The forces that intrude upon the inner world of the play, are sharply etched in the person of a soldier. The soldier, in the one scene when he appears, kidnaps Luwangcha, and rapes him. The young soldier works himself up to a blind rage when he finds Luwangcha defying a curfew, and believes Luwangcha to be armed. The soldier’s fear, and the inhuman brutalities it leads him to, are superbly depicted in the play.

The play culminates with Eigya’s death in a blast, leaving Luwangcha distraught. Nothing resolved, nothing concluded, yet everything said and done.

In Luwangcha’s unconventional identity, Eigya’s acceptance of him, and its brutal violation by external forces, Swar Thounaojam has created a powerful metaphor for the political dilemma of Manipur. Yet, at the end of Turel, what one remembered was not the metaphorical, but the immediate.

+ I missed Crab, The President is Coming, and Poornaviram, and although I watched the Marathi play Mazha Vatanicha Khara-Khura, I could not follow the action. Naturally, this review excludes those plays.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

writers' bloc: epilogue and aaltoon paltoon

These are some random thoughts about the first two plays at Rage's Writers' Bloc-2. My review of the plays at Rage's Writers' Bloc-2 should appear in the March issue of Prithvi Theatre Notes.

Day 1: Maia Katrak's Epilogue
Director: Rajit Kapoor

9th Jan, 2007, Prithvi Theatre

The first play that flagged off the festival was Maia Katrak's Epilogue.

The play was about this dead man who wants to stand by his family in their trials. The family happens to be a Parsi family, and by an equally improbable happenstance, the old man happens to be Sohrab Ardeshir. In his efforts, he is aided by 2 soldiers, also dead, who're stranded (by some ingenious metaphysical occasion) in the middle of heavenly nowhere.

While the basic premise of the play was intended to be outlandish, the acting and the direction proved to be tame and at odds with the writing. Also one suspected, Maia Katrak's intention in using this other-worldly device was not exactly to shed light on the one we know, (as Dostoevsky does with his brilliant, and hilarious, short story Bobok, where dead people talk to each other while the protagonist listens to them) and neither was it to satirise it (as Brecht does in the opening scene of The Good Person of Setchuan where three gods descend to Setchuan). The impression that one got at the end of the play was that the attempt was only to reaffirm the motives, actions and conventions of the world of the play, which i turn were rather close to the familiar world outside.

While I expected some irony, structural or textual, in a play with such a delightfully audacious premise, the play left me cold by cheerfully, and coldly, charging through "the story". What could've been a penetrating device, turned into a merely charming novelty

On the bright side, the play was genuinely funny in parts, and the actors had the audience eating out of their hands, mostly by virtue of lines easy to speak and easier to laugh at. Neil Bhoopalam and Mukul Chadda excelled as the stranded dead soldiers, particularly Neil Bhoopalam. (One small question: why were they soldiers again? Was it a bad textual pun because they were stranded in no-man's land?)

Expectedly, Sohrab Ardeshir was funny.

The play was preceded by a
superb platform performance, an unplugged session by Mumbai-based band Minority Report where they played mostly original music. Very enjoyable.

Day 2: Irawati Karnik's Aaltoon Paltoon
Director: Adwait Karnik
10th Jan, 2007, Prithvi Theatre

If the outlandish Epilogue was acted out with the blandest realism, the utterly realistic Aaltoon Paaltoon benefited greatly from actors who pushed the limits of action, within the limitations imposed by the play.

I can't say I followed the whole play, thanks to my non-existent Marathi, but the actors were more than engaging.

The play was about 2 characters who meet at an old-fashioned dresswala's shop. Niranjan (played by Subodh Khanolkar) lives at the shop, and Rama (Leena Bhagwat) takes shelter on a rainy night.

The tension between the two characters was maintained superbly by the actors, and Subodh Khanolkar as Niranjan was superlative.

The play was marred by unimaginative direction, which turned what could've been an almost surrealistic encounter into a mere meeting.
The latent violence that could've been tapped into a situation such as the play's was completely missing. Perhaps this was a textual, but I wouldn't really know, guessing as I was at the dialogue. The action shifts out of the room a couple of times, to show Rama with her husband, and this completely mars the play. The encounter between the Niranjan and Rama may have worked much better, and been open to greater interpretations, if the room had been the only setting, and husband been a figure in Rama's story.

The play succumbed to unpardonable cliches, such as in the lovemaking scene.

But in spite of the unimaginative direction, the play still manages to do well, mostly because of the actors. One image that stuck in my mind is the pre-set, which has a sharp profile spot on a hairdresser's model, with a wig for practice. The closing set in the play is similar, except the bust doesn't have a wig, and Niranjan places the topi (which is a symbol for the games Rama and Niranjan play) on the model. The closing set becomes a powerful symbol of how the encounter
unalterably changes the lives of the characters.

The light execution deserves special mention.
Very rarely is a play drastically affected by the lighting. It occasionally happens when the light design and execution are superlative, but mostly when the light execution is so bad that it calls attention to itself. The light execution for Aaltoon Paltoon was an example of the latter. The light intensity varied for no obvious reason in the middle of action, not once but many times over. The transitions were all jerky, and terribly uncomfortable to watch.

PS: If you find any other reviews on the web, please drop me a line.

Related links: Schedule on Mumbai Theatre Guide, Rage's Writers' Bloc-2 feedback blog

Category: theatre, mumbai