A Streetcar Named Desire

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine


Stacey Kors
January 7, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Well before "A Streetcar Named Desire" had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera September, it was evident that Andri Previn's first opera was in for a bumpy ride. In the months prior to its opening, more than a few critics grumbled about the idea of setting Tennessee Williams' renowned drama to music. No surprise, then, that the majority of those same critics reviled the work in their reviews -- the setting was unsuccessful, the music nothing new. And, of course, there were the countless comparisons to the Marlon Brando film, which is so ingrained in our cultural psyche. When the opera was broadcast on PBS and released on CD in December, the complaints resurfaced.

The most common criticisms were also the most unjustified, based on preconceived prejudices regarding the opera's concept more than its actual execution. Many thought it a mistake for librettist Philip Littell to use the text of the play almost verbatim, arguing that the musical setting couldn't possibly do justice to the power of Williams' words. Yet what would have been the reaction if Littell had actually altered those immortal words? And as for the music of "Streetcar" being derivative, does anyone really expect that, in this age of musical postmodernism, a contemporary opera will sound completely fresh and innovative? After all, Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" was labeled "derivative" when it premiered back in 1949.

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These criticisms aside, how does "Streetcar" hold up as an opera? The performances on this live recording are quite good: Rodney Gilfry makes a virile Stanley; Renie Fleming plays a psychologically compelling Blanche; Anthony Dean Griffey offers a heartfelt portrayal of Mitch; and Elizabeth Futral is phenomenal as the emotionally torn Stella -- in fact, the young soprano's performance was one of the few things in the opera that was universally praised. Some of the music in "Streetcar," like the jazz-inspired opening theme and the haunting final chords as Blanche is led away, is extremely evocative and cinematic. And, to his credit, Previn also picks up on some of the more subtle aspects of the play -- especially its humor -- that were lost in the famous film adaptation.

But "Streetcar's" major flaw is that its music lacks cohesion. This may be due in part to the score's odd amalgam of musical styles, but it's probably more directly related to the absence of set pieces and ensemble work. There is only one real set piece in the entire opera -- Blanche's beautiful aria, "I Want Magic!" -- and even that wouldn't have existed if Fleming hadn't specifically requested it. Set pieces are what make opera so engaging -- and what help staged works like operas and musicals make successful transitions to audio recordings.

It's not, as many critics have suggested, that Previn's version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" fails because Williams' powerful play shouldn't have been turned into an opera. Rather, it fails because it wasn't turned into one.

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Silver Jews
AMERICAN WATER | DRAG CITY
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-->By Meredith Ochs | Silver Jews were formed by David Berman, Steven Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich during their college days, before the "side project" of the latter two, Pavement, pretty much defined indie rock for a generation of overeducated underachievers. So archetypal was their slacking that the Jews' first recordings consisted mainly of just turning on a tape machine while the players ambled about their house. Over the years, though, the boys have honed their twangified experimental rock into something as pointed as whittled wood, while still retaining the spacious, untidy feel of a palatial Southern mansion gone to seed. This is the essence of "American Water." Though the Silver Jews are primarily an outlet for Berman's ramblings and rumblings, he and Malkmus are soul mates after a fashion, sharing a knack for clever word play that can make even dumb jokes sound smart (who says English majors are only suited to drive cabs?), as well as a warble that gives voice to post-Prozac babies everywhere. Setting indie's angular melodies to prairie rhythms, "American Water" is what would've happened if the Velvet Underground had turned "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" into a full-length album.

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The Black Crowes
BY YOUR SIDE | COLUMBIA
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-->By Julene Snyder | Ever seen the bumper sticker that reads, "Rocker dudes will never die, they just smell that way"? It's a safe bet that the Black Crowes sweat up a fairly smelly storm when playing, judging by the swaggering cock rock of "By Your Side," their much-anticipated return to the roots-rock mixture of vintage Stones-ian rawk and phlegm-filled Faces-ish vocals that got them noticed in the first place.

When they first came out of Atlanta with their 1990 debut, "Shake Your Money Maker," hardly anyone was making raunchy rock records anymore, except maybe a few holdouts like Guns N' Roses (and, of course, the Rolling Stones themselves, who won't quit until they're hunted down and physically forced to stop). Now, years later, the Black Crowes have gone back to the basics they started with: Lead singer Chris Robinson sounds uncannily like Rod Stewart in his poofy-haired heyday, and his brother, Rich, does the riff-heavy guitar thing with bombast and gusto, if little imagination. The current lineup includes drummer Steve Gorman, Eddie Harsch on keyboards and bassist Sven Pipien; bassist Johnny Colt took flight in late 1997, just a few months after guitarist Marc Ford exited the group.

Abandoning the psychedelic stylings that found them headlining 1997's Furthur summer tour -- which, by all accounts, attracted more than a few lost, ever-twirling Deadheads looking for an engine to hitch their collective caboose to -- the Crowes have put together a solidly mediocre record with "By Your Side." While none of the 11 songs here are terrible, none are particularly noteworthy either. One blends into the next, leaving an amorphous blob of secretions that smells all too familiar.

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Kalyanji, Anandji and Dan the Automator
BOMBAY THE HARD WAY | MOTEL RECORDS
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-->By Adam Heimlich | Brothers Kalyanji and Anandji Shah were but cogs in the staggeringly productive machinery of the Indian film industry in the '70s, when "Bollywood," as the Bombay film center is called, was making a transition from Busby Berkeley-style musical super-extravaganzas to low-budget James Bond-inspired thrillers. Their job was to extrapolate a culture-specific version of the new genre's music from the Western original. Apparently, Kalyanji and Anandji spent a lot of time locked in a room with nothing but the scores from "Dr. No," "Shaft" and "S.W.A.T.," a Casio keyboard and a sitar. What they produced, with the help of an orchestra of Bollywood session players, outstrips mere imitation. Like the best Bollywood films, it presents a reinterpretation that is at once shamefully derivative and proudly original. Folks with a less critical ear might simply call it "bizarre," and they wouldn't be wrong.

While Kalyanji and Anandji's suspended animation of opposing musical values is part of the East's version of the birth of hip-hop, the tricky part comes in reinterpreting their reinterpretation for young Westerners. "Bombay the Hard Way," a selection of Bollywood soundtrack music composed by Kalyanji and Anandji set to hip-hop beats, arrives at the very moment when cultural difference itself is becoming a selling point, no reconfiguration required. New Agers buying Tibetan chant CDs and college kids getting off on Japanese muzak are, as we speak, replacing the old problem of fashion-focused aesthetics with culture-focused fashion. This doubles the challenge faced by a label trying to put interesting foreign music in discerning domestic hands. The album is like a needle in a field of exotic haystacks -- and the people who like needles have stopped looking.

"Bombay the Hard Way" has intentionally degraded its exotica pedigree by hiring Dan the Automator -- producer of Dr. Octagon and a few tracks on the last Cornershop and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion albums -- to re-engineer Kalyanji and Anandji's tracks. His trademark is a hermetically-sealed quality that envelops the music's many out-of-context samples. The result is closer to that of the neo-lounge projects. The album doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the Indian originals, but that's for the best. "Bombay the Hard Way" would be no more a purely Indian artifact if left in its '70s form. It makes more sense to build on the composers' original project and tweak it, again, to fit another world. In this spirit, the album tags its "new" Kalyanji and Anandji tracks with names like "Fists of Curry" and "The Good, the Bad and the Chutney." To the Automator (aka Dan Nakamura, a Japanese-American from the Bay Area), this process of snowballing recontextualization must be the essence of beat science -- he's pictured in the "Bombay the Hard Way" booklet wearing a lab coat and safety goggles.

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The Automator's slick segueing makes for the first reasoned, Western response to the jarring anti-narratives of Hindi pop. The "Mission Impossible theme collapses into a snippet of raga performed by a staid string quartet on "Fear of a Brown Planet"; a bit of dialogue from a Bollywood movie ("Now let's walk English style!") introduces "Satchidananda," driven by an electric bass mimicking the sound of a finger skipped across the head of a tabla drum. "Ganges a Go-Go" sounds startlingly like something off "Nuggets" (with English lyrics "I've got no time to think/Cause I need somebody to love," it could be an outtake from the "Wild in the Streets" soundtrack), but with a bit of badly dubbed film dialogue, the whole bit comes off no stranger than your everyday Wu-Tang kung-fu/rap juxtaposition. "Theme From Don" introduces a blaxploitation funk theme, then (without warning) a classical Hindu theme, and then bravely merges them, all over a steady beat.

There's someone else who speaks Kalyanji and Anandji's language of odd rests and alarming changes. When "Bombay the Hard Way's" dozens of Bombay surf-rock and Parliament-by-way-of-Loony Toons interludes give way to longer, more grandiose cinematic material, they come off a lot like the restless soundscapes of DJ Shadow. The restrained precision of the beats from "Fists of Curry" and "Satchindananda," for instance, boast a vision every bit as three-dimensional and peacefully progressive as Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." Those beats make the best argument for the notion that DJ culture can make sense out of the gaps in music history.


Stacey Kors

Stacey Kors is a freelance classical music writer in San Francisco.

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