Friday, March 31, 2023

Freedom down the bending avenue

Songwriter Peter Case has a new record just out from Sunset Blvd Records. Entitled Doctor Moan, it's his first album of original songs since HWY 62 in 2015, and his first ever on which the piano, rather than the guitar, serves as his primary instrument. The shift isn't entirely unprecedented, since two years ago he alternated a bit between the two instruments on a collection of covers of folk songs and blues called The Midnight Broadcast, but still, it's a move into new songwriting territory. It's not entirely a clean break, as there's one tuneful guitar-driven track, "Wandering Days," that wouldn't have been out of place with his work with the Nerves in the mid-1970s. Most of the record, though, draws as much from the postwar generation of jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner, as well as bits of classic gospel, soul, and blues, as it does from pop and rock. (As it happens, Case has been sitting in on piano now and then at the Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco, and he's been known to sneak in a few bars of "Blue Monk" during warm-ups.)

My favorite track so far, "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" is built around a few gorgeous dark chords and makes delicious use of the piano's lowest keys. Like much of his songwriting, it explores the world of the down and out (in the West Coast style familiar from Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits) while at the same time weighing the possibilities for redemption. The bridge here is particularly lovely, both tonally and lyrically:
There's freedom down the bending avenue
Do you see someone coming?
Something you can do?
There's one thing I know for sure is real
The moment you surrender
The wounds begin to heal
Here's your reprieve
Ask and you'll receive

"Downtown Nowhere's Blues" engagingly captures the denizens of a joint called the Round-the-Clock Diner:
Out front by the curb they're making noise
A bunch of old men that act like boys
Big T turns to me while I'm try'na chew
Says "If I had a dog half as ugly as you
I'd make him walk backward through Downtown Nowhere"

There are some interesting reverberations between these two songs: "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" speaks of "the Holy Ghost / Coming down the alley / Just like a megadose," while a woman in "Downtown Nowhere's Blues" who is on "a microdose of LSD / [...] fiddles with the jukebox and her destiny." Different paths, different revelations.

Other than Case's piano and the one guitar-based track, the instrumentation on Doctor Moan is sparse but effective; it features Jon Flaugher on bass and Chris Joyner on organ. The cover art depicts the vintage Steinway upright Case used to record the album. This is definitely a record worth checking out.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Hearts of Literary Men

Dard Hunter:
Legend has it that Emperor Wu (A.D. 1368-98 ) tried to procure a suitable paper for the printing of money and to this end consulted with the wise men of his realm for advice. One of the learned group suggested that counterfeiting could only be prevented by mixing the macerated hearts of great literary men with the mulberry-bark pulp. The Emperor is said to have taken this suggestion under advisement, but at length he decided it would be a grave mistake to destroy the literary men of China simply for the purpose of using their hearts as ingredients for paper. In talking over the problem with the Empress she suggested that the same result could be achieved without interfering with the lives of their scholarly subjects. The Empress brought forth the thought that the heart of any true literary man was actually in his writings. Therefore, the wise Empress asked the Emperor to have collected the papers upon which the great Chinese authors and poets had set down their writings. The manuscripts were duly macerated and added to the mulberry bark and it was thought that the dark grey tone of the money papers was due to the black ink used in the calligraphy upon the paper.

Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dream House

In an era of computer animation wizardry it's nice to see older technologies like stop-motion animation being reinvigorated and put to use for intelligent visual storytelling. A few months ago we were pleasantly surprised by Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and just last night we stumbled upon this little gem. Written by Enda Walsh, The House is made up of three narratives supervised by three different directors, with the common thread being the title building and how it embodies both the nightmarish aspects of home ownership and our insistent need for a place to hang our hats. (For reasons I won't go into, we found it uncannily appropriate to our circumstances.)

The first segment begins in folktale fashion with a poor couple who, after an encounter with a mysterious stranger, find themselves in free possession of a rambling mansion in the British countryside, the only requirement being that they surrender the smaller house that is their own. The focus of the segment is on the older of the couple's two young daughters, who, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, is more alert to the dangers of temptation then her parents are. Increasingly creepy as it progresses, it is the only part of the film that features human subjects, here represented by doll-like and delicate figures whose faces convey boundless melancholy.

By the second segment, the rural landscape has become urbanized and contemporary, and the house is in the possession of an ambitious developer (literally, a rat) who has furnished it with the latest mod cons in the hopes of making a killing in the real estate market. When the house is ready for showing everything possible goes wrong, and, what's worse, two sinister creatures — are they rodents, or something unimaginably worse? — take up residence uninvited and show no sign of leaving.

In the final segment, the house has become isolated by rising seas and is now owned by a long-suffering cat named Rosa, who struggles to maintain it and run it as an apartment building with little help from her two tenants, neither of whom pays cash rent. Gentler and more wistful than the other two parts, it ends in a way that is ultimately liberating.

Here and there I sensed affinities with, but rarely overt allusions to, everything from Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle to the scratchboard artist Thomas Ott and Terhi Ekebom's lovely graphic story Logbook. The trailer below gives a good idea of the film's visual styles, but, inevitably, exaggerates its pace. The film largely avoids the lamentable tendency of contemporary animation to fill every possible second of running time with frenetic activity. When the story is sound to begin with there's little need for all of that.