Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cinebomb #5: Brewster McCloud

There are probably better ways to spend your off hours at work than watching Robert Altman's bizarro Brewster McCloud but I can't think of any. You're in luck too, 'cause the entire film (indeed) is posted on YouTube. Thank BrandPiano for that because it's really the only way you can see this film at the moment.

Brewster McCloud (originally titled Brewster McCloud's (Sexy) Flying Machine) is the late Altman's 1970 follow-up to his beloved M*A*S*H (also 1970). The film stars Bud Cort as Brewster, a kid who lives in a fallout shelter beneath the Houston Astrodome and dreams of becoming a bird. Brewster's only real companion is Louise (played by Sally Kellerman) who may be a gaurdian angel or given the long scars on her back and the fact that she sometimes warbles and coos may be a bird. A series of strange murders - all involving bird droppings left on the victims - brings detective Frank Shaft into Brewster's odd orbit. Is he really just a quirky kid building himself a pair of wings or is there something more sinister going on? (Watch for Stacy Keach's hilarious turn as the wheelchair bound Abraham Wright.)

Calling Brewster McCloud odd is stating the obvious, the film is a true cinematic freakout in the grand Bunuel tradition. Perhaps most of the credit for this odd melange of dark comedy and magic realism goes to writer Doran William Cannon who scripted the equally weirdo flop Skidoo (1968) and the seldom seen Hex (1973). (Hex is another Cinebomb classic, the re-imagined folk story of WWI biker vets mixing it up with Native American witches.) Today, Cannon teaches creative writing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iron Curtain

It could be debated for months, maybe lifetimes, whether a record is worth $500. When that record is something like Steve Field's obscure minimal synth project Iron Curtain, little heard outside of California, the debate can intensify even further. Why would anyone in their right mind pay half a grand for a 4 track EP of droning synth from 1982? Is it because it's just an incredibly rare but brilliant slice of DIY vinyl or is there something more? Well, you'd actually have to have heard the album to know.

Like most obscure regional vinyl, Iron Curtain's sound requires some patience. At first blush it's childlike. The same chords, the same drum loop, and endless droning. But after about the fourth listen to something like "First Punk Wars" from the Tarantula Screams EP you hear something behind the hypnotic backbeat -- there's an atmosphere that develops over the 6 minutes of the song that's undeniably appealing. Sure, it's cheap and it's dirty synth but it's catchy. Field's is no great musician, he sings like a robot on lithium, but he lulls you into a nice place. A very '80s place that conjures up all sorts of images of arcades and Tron and better tomorrows and neon super highways. Then you listen to his queasy sci-fi lyrics and suddenly you're really loving it. I mean, who envisions Metropolis replayed as a punk apocalypse? Field's sings, "All the workers are slaves... wealthy families/took their sons to universities/in the first punk wars."

The EP opens with the title track, a humming droning combination of bass and clickety-click guitar that's cloaked in an industrial fog. It's reminiscent of Peter Schilling's early work but it's not clean -- it doesn't have that sanitized German slickness. The lyrics are some acid-trip about a screaming tarantula or so I gather (there's also something about a "racing car on fire.") He could be talking about something more important but it's not clear. What is clear is the hypnotic swing of the relentless beat -- it's cold but it's not scary.

"First Punk Wars" is the second track on the A side and like "Tarantula Screams" it's got a rollicking programmed beat that hammers away on auto like a Wesley Willis abomination but hey, this was 1982. It's like Field's just pressed play and then stepped up to the mic and let the accompaniment roll in the background -- the lyrics come and go seemingly without timing, just long interludes of the drone. And there's this feedback-like synth wail (or maybe that's actually a guitar) that blankets the whole song, you only hear it on the third or fourth listen but after you pick it out it's hard to hear past it. While "First Punk Wars" is hobbled musically it's quite compelling lyrically and conjures up all manner of Mad Max-ian images.

"The Condos" is the EP's finest track musically. The programmed beat is sped up but there's more going on besides the chugg-chugg of the bass guitar and the muted synth burbles. The lyrics are further developed, though again I don't really know what's happening other than "going to the condos/me and all my friends/moving to the condos..." and a bunch of futurist talk. The song really works because Field's plays the chorus up; this is certainly the only real "radio friendly" track in the lot. Though that might be stretching it a bit.

Lastly we've got "Love Can Never Die" which starts slowly -- with a simple Casio styled rock II beat -- but builds into a swirl of synth atmospherics and half-whispered vocals. Reminiscent of Pieter Nooten's "Sleeps with Fishes." This is lighter, peppier stuff and possibly the weakest track on the EP.

Fields and crew (Doug Norton (mini-moog) and Bruce Cooper (bass guitar) with the addition of Olga Torres) returned for the superior single "Terror Story" in '83. This one, like all the others, opens with a simple beat and some stabs at keys but Field's drone is gone and replaced by spoken lyrics and a haunting chorus. The song's about a killer -- from the perspective of the killer -- and despite the simplistic beat there's something incredibly evocative here. Disturbing but arty. "Can you feel my stare? / I see you walking by me..."

The flip side is "Anorexia" a traditional Field's track of simplistic programmed beats and synth drones.

The next single was '85's "Like a Family." It's slick and not droning. More a dance record than anything else. The B side "Telephone" is poppy mulch. Field's followed that in '87 with "Shadow" in '87. It continues the dance trend with all manner of New Order-like handclaps and some stringy guitar works. Hell, Field's even tries his chops at some real singing but fails pretty miserably. ("Drifted away/Crossing the state line") The sound isn't bad -- reminds me of the first Clan of Xymox album -- but it doesn't have the tortured obscurity of the EP of "Terror Story" single. It's like Field's threw down some Duran Duran and realized, Aha! that's how it's done.

So, is either one of these worth more than a few dollars? Who can say. What is clear after a good listen is that Steven Fields - whoever the man is - remains a fascinating unknown. A guy with a keyboard and thing for sci-fi who wound up in a Santa Barbara recording studio making records that aren't really easy to classify. Sure, minimal synth works but there's something "brut" about Iron Curtain. It's simple, monotonous and droning. The vocals are buried and obscure. The instruments cheap and fuzzy. But it sinks its claws into you if you've got a soft-spot for music cobbled together in a basement from dreams and hopes and whispers. Field's recordings are the things of record collector's fantasies -- unknown, unheard but fascinating relics from a hidden corner of the world. When you own it, you join a nearly unique club. Perhaps that's worth $500? I wouldn't know -- I just downloaded the ripped tracks.

Thanks to SomebodySomewhere for the rips.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Judy's Tiny Head

Boston has produced it's fair share of bands but nothing quite like Judy's Tiny Head.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


It's incredible how one image can shape a childhood. When I think back to my youth - 1982 in particular, when I was 7 - I think of Ian Miller's illustration of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (above). Though I was oblivious to the story surrounding the image, I was dumbstruck by this castle perched so precariously. It fascinated me like no other. Maybe it was the color scheme, the browns and whites resembling the pale Colorado winters. Or maybe the crumbling facade of this city-like castle reminded me of houses I'd explored in my dreams. Scanning the illustration, I would creep over every nook and darkened cranny hoping to spot some semblance of life in this strange place. I think there were even times I held a magnifying glass to the image in an attempt to ferret out some hidden face or animal. Not knowing Peake's story, I made up my own. This was a post-apocalyptic city perched high on some remote mountaintop overlooking a desert valley of desolation. There were only three people who lived on here; a father and his two sons and they warred with mutants who would crawl out of the dusty landscape below. Or sometimes this was a bustling city, a place where people came for enlightenment and riches. Other times it was a city of newts. Ambulatory, intelligent newts. Okay, I was a weird kid.

Today, having read Peake's books, I understand the illustration. It fits perfectly with the tone of Peake's writing and it's now impossible to separate it out from it's intended purpose. I can still look at it with awe, more entranced today by Miller's skill, and every so often - when I stumble across it - I'll scan the page hoping to see something in there I didn't see before. Still, no luck.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

ptr svll's lphbt

Sure, it's a bit old hat. Fans of New Order and Factory records have long been aware of Peter Saville's distinctive design work, but here's an opportunity to see the (in)famous "color alphabet" in motion. I'm really not sure what this short clip was designed for but try and see how many words and phrases you can find in these 9 seconds.

Don't know how to decode the color alphabet? Torbjorn Ivarsson (posting on the Ceremony-Digest listserve way back in 1997)explains that you need to look at New Order's "Power Corruption & Lies":

"To decode the wheel, use only the outer two rings. You could divide the outer two rings into full colour, various on green, and various on yellow. The inner segments appear to be meaningless. Start with the full colour sections, the first of which will be the green one... This is 'A'. Work your way clockwise naming each colour the next letter. There are exactly 26 segments around the disc. From 'Z' work back into the full colours, the first of which is '1'. This means that the full green segment is either 'A' or '1', and the colour for 'I' is also that for '9'.

You should be able to decode the squares now. Start with the 5 on the front of Power Corruption & Lies, and you will find (if you have the vinyl) that the first 4 squares spell 'FACT' then next square is divided into two, with the lower half being '7' and the upper half being '5'. Therefore the code is 'FACT 75' which is the Factory number for this release. The code for the CD front cover is 'FACD 75'."

So, bust our your LP and start decoding! What? You don't have one? Do I have to do all the work for you?