ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: AMERICANA (Musical movement 1776-present; see also alt-country, No Depression) Often shortsightedly assumed to date back no further than the first Uncle Tupelo record, the Americana musical tradition in fact begins with that iconic, bloodied fife-and-drum trio staggering out of the smoking ruins of the American Revolution. Forsaking macho jingoism for earthy, backwoods aesthetics, Americana is a catchall phrase to encompass the impossibly wide breadth of American roots music, evoking the magnificent vistas of the national geography and the transcendental struggle of the American experience — the good, the bad, the ugly, the high and the lonesome. While rooted in the dusty old glory of homegrown musical traditions (folk, blues, bluegrass, Country and Western), Americana, as we currently understand it, stems from a postmodern remove — what egghead rock critic Greil Marcus calls the “Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard.” In other words, you don’t have to be a farmer, sharecropper or hillbilly to credibly make music in this tradition. In fact, you don’t even have to be American: Two of the most celebrated purveyors of Americana — the Band and Neil Young — are Canadian.
In 1967, Bob Dylan, laid up from a backbreaking motorcycle injury, settled into a country squire convalescence in Woodstock, N.Y., for a summer of reefer-fueled woodshedding in the basement of his backing band’s residence, a pink-tinted domicile dubbed Big Pink. This new musical direction was a sharp turn away from surrealistic folk-rock into a stoned remembrance of all things past: murder ballads, milk cow blues, train songs. Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, the Byrds were trading in the chiming 12-string-guitar-and-harmony-drenched psychedelic pop for a trip to the country. This new direction was prompted by the addition of one Gram Parsons, a trustafarian troubadour from the South who spoke openly of fashioning a “cosmic American music.” The resulting album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, along with Dylan’s The Basement Tapes and the Band’s Music From Big Pink, would become touchstones of modern-day Americana. In the ’70s, Neil Young carried the torch with a pile of raggedly glorious albums, including the career-defining Harvest.
By the mid-’80s, Americana went indie, with the Long Ryders and Green on Red — two graduates of the Paisley Underground school of neo-psychedelia — trading love beads for cowboy hats. Green on Red delivered Gas Food Lodging, a blue highway travelogue set to the seminal twang of Neil Young-style guitar work. The Long Ryders’ high-water mark was the song “Looking for Lewis and Clark,” a rollicking slice of meta-Americana, i.e., American roots music about American roots music. (See also the Blasters, X, the Knitters and, depending on how much they drank, the Replacements.)
In 1990, Midwest cornfield-punkers Uncle Tupelo released No Depression – from which the zine bible of alt-country would take its name — before splitting into Wilco and Son Volt and opening the door for Gen X roots explorers like the Jayhawks, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Lambchop, Beachwood Sparks and, depending on the day of the week, Beck. The ’90s would mark Americana’s most creatively vibrant period to date, with the release of late-career classic albums by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, not to mention Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II, which saw this unlikely partnership fashioning bold new music to finally deliver the dead-letter office lyrics of Woody Guthrie 30 years after the dustbowl bard’s death. — JONATHAN VALANIA
WILCO: California Stars
CINEMA: Tricky Dicks
FROST/NIXON (2008, directed by Ron Howard, 122 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
As George Bush tries to rewrite history by declaring himself a “liberator of millions” Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play Frost/Nixon whisks us back three decades to another President desperate to reform his legacy. Those 1976 interviews, broadcast two and a half years after Watergate forced the disgraced President to resign, may have sealed Nixon fate with the public when he royally declared “if the President does it, it is not illegal” but Frank Langella’s cagey portrayal of Nixon succeeds in re-imagining Tricky Dick in a more flattering light than the man himself would have ever dreamed possible.
While the facts of this historic interview may take a beating, the distortions certainly serve the drama. Frost, played here as on the stage by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair from last year’s The Queen) was not the complete lightweight he is portrayed as here and Nixon did not wait until the final moments of the interview to crumble into his partial confession. Still, shaping the story’s dynamic in this way does allow the drama to unfold as the intellectual dual in which the interview itself was billed. Whatever Nixon’s flaws were, his conflicted character never seems to fails to intrigue and Frost/Nixon‘s backstage maneuvering is never less than entertaining.
It’s the age-old David and Goliath story. The British chat show host Frost is made out to be a ambitious and shallow showbiz playboy sure to be outgunned by Nixon, a master of the slippery reply. If Frost is an opportunistic climber looking to land the big fish, his American researchers supply the film’s heart. Played by seasoned character actors Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, their feelings for Nixon are much more personal. Rockwell’s James Reston Jr. understands the damage Nixon inflicted to the office of President and he sees the interview as a high stakes gamble: either Nixon will be revealed as a criminal or they’ll facilitate the restoration of the ex-President’s’s reputation. Although seething with anger for Nixon, Reston still can’t help but extend his hand when he meets the man in person, calling him “Mr. President”.
Which brings us to Langella’s portrayal of Nixon. It’s masterful acting, he’s conjures Nixon’s blustery cadences, his stiff posture and his fleeting moments of emotion. It’s a performance to behold yet somehow, even with all the detailed nuance, he misses something crucial about the man. Despite the real Nixon’s powerful presence, it would not be confused with the charm and grace of a trained theatrical actor (really, could you imagine Nixon playing a character on stage?). Langella elicits an ingratiating empathy, a wholeness of character, that the sweaty, defensive, self-pitying Nixon never possessed. Even a quick look at the actual interviews presents the self-serving, shifty-eyed sociopathic character who nauseated the electorate in record numbers by the time he left office. Langella and Morgan’s script imbue Nixon with a dignity that seems overly-generous. Staring out to the sea from his home in San Clemente his isolation seems tragic, too tragic for a man whose term as President was filled with episodes of lying, bullying, wiretapping and obstruction of justice. He even declared Paul Newman an enemy of the White House, fer Chrissakes! Ron Howard has stated the Presidency of Bush hung over this project but by delivering this noble, Shakespearean demise he seems to have sadly misread the public’s mood towards conniving Presidents and their high crimes and misdemeanors.
THIS JUST IN: Arcade Fire To Release Miroir Noir Documentary
Available Digitally Monday December 15th at www.Miroir-Noir.com
The film follows Arcade Fire through the making and touring of their 2007 album Neon Bible, documenting the band at their Montreal studio, the making of promotional films and videos, along with live footage and a few short films made on the road. Miroir Noir is directed by Arcade Fire friend and collaborator Vincent Morisset. Vincent was responsible for the interactive video for the song “Neon Bible” and for the Arcade Fire web design. The film was shot by Vincent Moon. The digital download and standard edition DVD feature the 70 minute film Miroir Noir. The deluxe edition DVD contains bonus material including Arcade Fire’s live performances on Jonathon Ross, Saturday Night Live and at Maida Vale. The 70 minute film will be available globally at www.Miroir-Noir.com on December 15th as a one-off download in two sizes to suit preferred players. The physical standard and deluxe DVDs are planned for 2009 delivery (with digital versions delivered instantly).
MAILBAG: Postcard From Up On The Sun
I hope you get a chance to catch the Meat Puppets tonight at Johnny Brenda’s. I saw them last night at Maxwell’s, and they rocked.
For this tour, Curt Kirkwood is playing an acoustic guitar, but he’s wired up to a bunch of foot pedals to get incredible sounds out of it. He might be the best guitar player I’ve ever seen live – Richard Thompson is the only guy who might be better. Last night was more “country-oriented” than the shows I saw last year. They even did a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud.” The only other cover was a cool version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” They did the three MTV Unplugged songs: “Plateau,” “Oh Me,” and “Lake of Fire.” But I guess they’ve disowned their radio hit “Backwater,” because I’ve never seen them do it. For me, the highlight is always “Up on the Sun.” They seem like good dudes too. There’s only one men’s room in the overrated Maxwell’s, so I had a chance to make small talk with Curt and drummer Ted while waiting in line before the set.
You’re probably seeing Neil Young and Wilco at the Spectrum tonight (I don’t blame you if you do.). I’m not sure how often you get up to NYC, but the MP’s are playing tomorrow at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg (the old North Six remodeled as a replica of the wonderful Bowery Ballroom). I’m fortunate to have the best of both worlds: I work and live in NYC (Lower East Side) during the week, and go home to my weekend wife in Lafayette Hill.
Also, thanks very much for the great Jen Aniston picture today. Yeah, I’ll always check out the young girls, but at 51 I definitely have an appreciation for older babes too (i.e. Teri Hatcher, Jane Seymour).