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NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand

PARADISE COVE

(QUIVER DISTRIBUTION/VOLTAGE PICTURES/CRASHING WAVE PRODUCTIONS/SUNSET PICTURES/THUNDER STUDIOS (144 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

I don’t know, sometimes it’s not that complicated. Despite the fact I’ve been watching more movies than usual in the pandemic era and have in general been predisposed to like most of them, I still require an engaging plot and some kind of cinematic ZIP to push my thumb to the UP position. And the little sucker is resisting efforts to do so when it comes to PARADISE COVE, a new Malibu-set thriller directed by Martin Guigui. The only known star in this thing is Mena Suvari, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long while. It was good to have a new appearance by her as kind of a guide, and she’s decent here as the restless, aching-to-get-pregnant wife of a guy who just took possession of the shell of his late mother’s beach house in Malibu, which needs – let’s just say – a ton of work. The setting is lovely enough, and our young couple, Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Suvari) are shown admiring the view, playing with their tiny dog, and clinking wine glasses together as they discuss how much they want to have a child and Tracey’s apparent difficulty getting pregnant. Knox doesn’t seem too bothered by anything, and assures his wife that everything’s going to work out fine.

PARADISE COVE (TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

It’s a jolt, then, to discover that they have a mysterious squatter living below their abode-in-progress. That would be Bree (Kristen Bauer van Straten), a shifty, wild-eyed woman who looks older than her twenty-something age and is more than well-known to the locals, including a bar maid who telegraphs that something may be amiss with this gal, and to Sheriff Garcia (Ruben Garfias), who sees her mostly as a harmless nuisance. Ah, but Bree is more than just a danger in paradise. She is clearly unhinged, manipulative and not receptive in the least to Knox’s efforts to get her to relocate. A bit of background is provided about a tragedy she endured with a young son, and Knox tries to be sympathetic to her. But she’s not the sort to “work out a deal” with him or anything. And she quickly gets on the bad side of Tracey, too, who hardly wants to set aside her preoccupations with pregnancy and finances to deal with this crazy lady. Sparks are gonna fly, you might say. And sharp knives, hammers and coldly barbed insults are also gonna be utilized. That kinda stuff can definitely impinge on the aesthetic beauty of crashing waves and crying seagulls outside the window. A scene of Bree sneaking into the shower with Knox is downright ludicrous, and it’s sort of where I began losing patience with this film. Although Bree is reasonably attractive, I simply did NOT believe Knox would react as he did in this scene, not after what had already happened. In fact, Knox’s less-than-smart decisions throughout the movie detract from the sympathy he might have earned as the central character. He’s not all that bright, slow at putting the big picture together, and less than a truly reassuring husband for poor Tracey. As an actor, Grinnell LOOKS the part of an in-over-his-head husband, and he fits nicely with Suvari’s mostly plaintive, concerned wife. But he’s missing something in the charisma department, and his performance is simply too low-key in these proceedings. By the time a big confrontation occurs, there has not been enough energy built up to give this “thriller” an actual thrill. You just sort of want to get it over with.

PARADISE COVE (MENA SUVARI, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

I will say that the premise is a reasonably interesting one – the list of movies about deranged homeless females in Malibu is a short one, as far as I know. And Bauer van Straten’s is the notable performance here. She’s a character who is not overtly psychopathic… more someone who gets under your skin by being rude and insensitive, and then starts doing increasingly nasty things without warning until you and your new place are in BIG trouble. The character has some compelling moments, and yeah, she’ll likely creep you out plenty. There’s a bit of “Fatal Attraction-lite” about Bree and her doings here.

PARADISE COVE (KRISTIN BAUER VAN STRATEN, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

But ultimately this movie is somewhat of a tiresome watch, despite the scenic setting. Nobody is genuinely likable, the plot pushes at the limits of credibility a bit too often, and Knox and Tracey, while you basically ROOT for them, are kind of a bland, unromantic couple. The film lacks any big or genuinely impactful scenes that would make you invest more deeply in these characters. And as a so-called “thriller,” there’s a paucity in that regard, also, except for one or two sudden moments. Mena Suvari fans might enjoy seeing her in a sizable role like this, and some may find the film an okay diversion. But my stomach felt empty at the end of the movie and so did my brain. Not exactly “Paradise,” in other words, for my cinema-loving self.

PARADISE COVE is available now On Demand.

PRETENDERS: HATE FOR SALE

(BMG MUSIC GROUP; 2020)

When I heard that there was new music coming from Chrissie Hynde and Pretenders, I must admit I was pretty happy! HATE FOR SALE was released this past July, their first album of new music since 2016’s ALONE. There are a couple of new faces in the band’s studio make-up (a couple have been part of the group’s live line-up for quite awhile): James Walbourne on guitar and keyboards, Nick Wilkinson on bass, Stephen Street on keyboards and percussion, plus the studio return of original drummer Martin Chambers, who hadn’t recorded with the band since LOOSE SCREW in 2002. Of course, the linchpin, the main star, band architect and leader, Chrissie Hynde, sounds incredible; her songwriting, guitar work and readily recognizable harmonica blasts are feisty and ready to rock. Her voice, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful.

HATE FOR SALE isn’t very long… just a little over 30 minutes, but you certainly get your money’s worth with every song. Those songs flow well as the band moves flawlessly from one to another. Though I really do like all ten tracks here, I think my favorites are “Turf Accountant Daddy” and “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely,” which just rock with reckless abandon. There’s an interesting kinda Reggae thing called “Lightning Man” which moves directly into “Turf Accountant Daddy” that manages to mix things up a bit. The record ends with a nice little tune, a beautiful piano ballad called “Crying In Public,” an emotional side that we rarely see from Chrissie.

PRETENDERS (James Walbourne, Nick Wilkinson, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde) (uncredited photo)

Martin Chambers sounds great throughout and I’m so glad he’s back, but this is obviously Chrissie’s album and she makes the most of it. She’s been in the business for over five decades and I have certainly enjoyed her work. Having lost track of what Ms Hynde and her band had been up to in recent years, I was curious when I heard they had new music out. I was totally happy and surprised when I finally got to hear it. I’ve seen the group in concert a couple of times, once right after their debut album came out in the States, opening for the Who and once on a package tour with ZZ Top and Stray Cats. Both good shows (though they were nearly “Who’d” off the stage during the first one!) and I’ve always liked their music, but this new one, HATE FOR SALE, has become one of my favorites of this year. Stephen Street did an excellent job producing and mixing, giving the music a very clean sound. The entire record hits you right in the gut… in the best way possible! Pretenders were scheduled to tour with Journey earlier this year but, like countless others, those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic. So, even though we didn’t get live Pretenders this year, we did get an absolutely incredible record from them. For that and for decades of musical brilliance, I say, “Thank you, Chrissie Hynde!”

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.

JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.

JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.

SCOUT DURWOOD: COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE

(EP; BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

There are a few ways to be funny in a song. One is to do a straight-up parody, a la Weird Al Yankovic or, in the old days, Spike Jones. Another is to offer a song packed with wryly humorous observations about human life and behavior, which John Prine and Harry Nilsson did quite often. And you can generate laughs with complete bizarre vocals and instrumentation, too… I have plenty of examples of that in my record collection… Ween comes immediately to mind. But to make electronic pop music with silly, often riotous lyrics that you have to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy, well, that’s a bit different. And for actress/writer/comedian/singer Scout Durwood, the sheer panache needed to produce something like COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE, a 5-song digital EP that is undeniably entertaining, is worth pausing to appreciate. Durwood can count TAKE ONE THING OFF, a 22-episode digital TV series which got plenty of attention (and her debut recording of the same name) among her previous accomplishments, and a stint on the Oxygen Channel’s FUNNY GIRLS. She’s also done at least one comedy special. Born in Kansas City but based in LA these days, Durwood seems to be an unstoppable bundle of energy. With many different talents already on display, it’s curious that she wants to record goofy original songs. But she’s done just that here.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

Durwood lures you in subtly, by starting this EP with “Steal UR Girlfriend,” an infectious, synth-driven rocker that sounds commercial and catchy from a distance… something that no one would object to casually. Start listening to the lyrics, though, and you realize something different is going on here. It moves real fast, but I caught lines like “I’ll take your princess home and I’ll ‘Leia’/You thought you’d have a threesome, but you left with your Han solo.” There was also a reference to Justin Bieber and a recurring phrase about a “predatory lesbian.” Durwood can sing and manipulate words and she’s a hottie, so there are plenty of ways she can get attention. To make you tap your feet and laugh a bunch seems genuinely ambitious to me. “I Don’t Want to Hold UR Baby” is next, and you gotta watch the YouTube video to fully appreciate this bit of nuttiness. Surrounded by dancers of both genders clad in ridiculous pink swimming attire, Durwood speaks assertively for the contingent of folks who, that’s right, have ZERO interest in holding your cute little infant. “”You’ve always wanted to be a mom/So you know, so you know, so you know/I’ve never even wanted to be an aunt/Maybe I could handle like a distant aunt, like a once a year aunt/Who drops off a gift and gets high in my car/Cuz babies freak me out.” This is zany stuff period, but coming from a woman, the comedic impact is undeniable, and Durwood wrings every bit of mockery the topic clearly inspires, from both the song and the video.

For those of us who are writers and musicians, “Sad Ukulele” is some kind of classic, though, with endlessly quotable lyrics. “Sad songs are inappropriate when you sing them on a ukulele,” Durwood begins, playing said instrument almost guiltily. The simple theme here touches on unsatisfying relationships, a sad tale of a sick old man in Durwood’s building and his cat that may need care, and random bursts of existential dread that eerily come close to actual conversations I’ve had with one of my own musician friends. “Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night/Having a panic attack that sexual slavery exists… what dark part of humanity can possibly explain it?” After many lines of this sort, Durwood can only conclude “It’s hard to acknowledge social justice on a ukulele.” To hear such sentiments sung in this context is somehow both bold and blackly comic, underscoring how, in many cases, laughter may be the ONLY remedy for some of us. “Sky Dancer” is a kind of exaggerated dance song with raps included… Durwood’s musical approach does allow her to explore this kind of musical setting, but the arrangement feels a bit frantic and cluttered to me. Much better is “Sexually Implicit,” a creatively ribald wordplay exercise that’ll having you listening close to catch everything. Mostly the listed words either SOUND sexual or are sex-related in nature. But Durwood mixes it up for maximum silliness. “Nut butter, Oedipus, oral, panties, peacock, penal code, pendulous, penultimate, pounding… pro bono,” one section goes (not totally sure about a couple of those). This is actually, by my reckoning, a pretty ambitious song, and a listenable one. Maybe Durwood will inspire some listeners to look up a few words, or to just get in the mood. But she’s doing something fun, witty and even literate here, and it’s been a while that I’ve been able to say that about a pop offering.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

I haven’t heard Durwood’s previous full-length recording, so I can’t make comparisons. I can only say that, as a newcomer to her kooky, upfront talents, I was truly entertained by both the music and the two videos I watched. Anyone likely named after a beloved character in Harper Lee’s classic novel immediately puts me in a certain frame of mind. And this “Scout” is doing some “mocking,” all right – birds, babies, business and a whole lot more. Well worth your time if you want to giggle at life’s absurdities and enjoy a fresh, bracing new talent.

KEN OSMOND: AN APPRECIATION

KEN OSMOND, 1995 (photo credit: CBS VIA GETTY IMAGES/photo copyright: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE)

I wanted to share a few thoughts about actor Ken Osmond who played Eddie Haskell on the classic TV sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, as well as its revival, THE NEW LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, in the 1980s. Kenneth Charles Osmond passed away on May 18, 2020; he was 76 years old. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER ran for si seasons, from 1957 to 1963, and is still widely distributed in reruns. The Eddie Haskell role was originally to be a one shot deal, but the producers of the show really liked Osmond’s portrayal and kept the character in the series. Eddie appeared in 96 of the series’ 235 episodes. He was shrewd, under handed and, even if he wasn’t up to something, he always LOOKED like he was up to something that was borderline legal. Eddie was everything that his best friend, Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow) wasn’t; Wally made good grades, was an athlete, popular with girls and well liked by everybody. Eddie was none of those things and, maybe that was the secret of their friendship. I think at times that Wally secretly wanted to have a little more of the bad boy in him.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, circa 1958 (Hugh Beaumont, Barbara Billingsley, Ken Osmond, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers) (publicity still)

Wally’s parents, June and Ward (Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont), always saw through Eddie’s saccharine politeness (“Gee Missus Cleaver, your hair looks real pretty today.”), but generally let things be; he was always welcome in their home and they never told Wally that he couldn’t hang out with Eddie. Another friend, the loutish twenty year old high school senior, Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford (wonderfully played by Frank Bank), sometimes accompanied the pair, falling in with Eddie on whatever scheme he had in mind. Likewise, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (played with kind of a dumbfounded simplicity by Jerry Mathers), had his share of friends who led him into mischief: Larry Mondello (Robert “Rusty” Stevens), who appeared in 68 early episodes and later, there was Richard Rickover, Gilbert Bates and Whitey Whitney (Rich Corell, Stephen Talbot and Stanley Fafara) to lead the gullible Beaver into some fairly far-fetched misadventures. But, it was Ken Osmond’s Eddie Haskell who was the gold standard for the bad boy character, played with an unctuous charm and a certain indefinable refinement that you really couldn’t help but like. We all knew (or was) an Eddie Haskell in grade or high school, so both kids and adults could easily relate to him and to the show. A few years back, TV GUIDE named Eddie as one of the most iconic characters in television history. It’s been said that Eddie was the role model for Bart Simpson.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, circa 1958 (Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers, Ken Osmond) (publicity still)

When LEAVE IT TO BEAVER ended, Ken made guest appearances in other series in the mid-to-late ‘60s (THE MUNSTERS, PETTICOAT JUNCTION and LASSIE, to name a few) and a handful of TV movies, but, he was so typecast as Eddie Haskell, that his career never fully recovered; he ended up playing the character in …BEAVER reunion movies and series, as well as reprising the role in a couple of ‘90s series, PARKER LEWIS CAN’T LOSE and HI HONEY, I’M HOME. With a wife and a new baby on the way, Osmond became a Los Angeles motorcycle cop, serving from 1969 through 1988, when he was granted disability due to an injury suffered in the line of duty eight years earlier. He wrote a book in 2014 called EDDIE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AMERICA’S PREEMINENT BAD BOY, definitely a fun read. After 60 years, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and Eddie Haskell’s slimy machinations are still fun to watch. I wanted to thank Ken Osmond for giving me a lot of laughs and a great character to remember him by. In a favorite episode, June says to Ward, “Of all the boys around, Wally would have to pick Eddie Haskell as his best friend.” Ward replies, “Oh, I don’t know dear, we need someone to blame Wally’s faults on.” And that pretty much sums it up for me!

All six seasons of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER are available on DVD and Blu-Ray, either individually or as a “Complete Series” box set.

SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”