Real Life Rock Top 10

Joan Osborne, Elvis Costello and the Marquis de Sade. Ten observations on pop and its discontents, from the noted critic and author.

By Greil Marcus
Published August 21, 2000 7:27PM (EDT)

1) Walter Ruttmann, "Weekend Remix" (Intermedium)

Tricky, tricky, tricky. In 1930 filmmaker Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941) premiered an 11-minute, 10-second radio play: a sound collage depicting an ordinary Berlin weekend. Ruttmann used street sounds, speeches, a cat meowing and children playing, and what he got were changes in mood and meaning every time you listen. Heard now, the cadences of men engaging in public address inescapably call up the cadences we know from Hitler: That was the time, and those were the rhythms of that time's speech. So doom and portent are coded into the piece after the fact, and you can't get rid of them. Simultaneously, though, you hear people out for a good time: You hear free time. The work is absorbed by the history that followed it; then it escapes that history, and your own sense of what happened, the knowledge you bring to the work that it doesn't have, sucks you in. You are listening to what life was like in one place before that place would force a change in what life was like, all over the world.

Barbara Schdfer and Herbert Kapfer of Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich -- a radio station responsible for the most ambitious and inventive radio plays being produced today -- invited six contemporary sound artists to take on "Weekend," lost until its rediscovery in New York in 1978. Here, bits of sound that are peripheral on the original may come to the center; bits of contemporary songs weave in and out of tones and mechanics that are undeniably far away; new rhythms are made with the sound of cellphones and computers at work. DJ Spooky and John Oswald achieve the most extreme displacement -- a sense that we remain right where Ruttmann found his century, 70 years ago. Or should have. Or could have.

2) Jason Starr, "Nothing Personal" (Four Walls Eight Windows)

Crime fiction: panic as a complete version of ordinary life. No special effects. Plus, a happy ending, if only for the least deserving characters.

3) Submarine, "Skin Diving" (Kinetic/Reprise)

In demeanor, tone and the way they rush a phrase or a beat, this London trio catches a genre-scrambling but time-specific combination: '60s Italian go-go movies where nothing can go wrong and late-'50s French new-wave movies where nothing can go right. For the first few numbers -- "Sunbeam," "Heartfailure" -- singer Adaesi Ukairo, drummer Richard Jeffrey and guitarist Al Boyd are in the imaginary Europe conjured up not long ago by Hooverphonic of Belgium. A high, female voice working through a simple techno structure suggests a new world that never appeared, not 40 years ago and not five: What makes this world so alluring is also what leaves you stranded. After that, the band loses focus -- but the opening cuts may bring you back again, certain you are missing something, which I'm sure I am. In a perfect world the press release would be the liner notes: The anonymous writer reports that while Boyd, listed as an M.D. as well as a guitar player, "ceased any meaningful dialogue with other humans at about the age of seven when he first heard Boston's 'More Than a Feeling,'" the band as a whole is so fixated on da Vinci's "The Last Supper" that "in 1999 they launched a (so far unsuccessful) campaign to have a reproduction of the painting mounted in every public access building in England and Wales."

4) Jill Scott, "Who Is Jill Scott? -- Words and Sounds Vol. 1" (Hidden Beach)

You're supposed to say, "No one will have to ask after this," and this debut by the writer who has worked with ambitious hip-hop group the Roots is utterly expert and assured: soul nouveau without received mannerisms or borrowed style. It's also as self-congratulatory as a magazine piece by Wendy Wasserstein or an obituary by Christopher Hitchens.

5) Joan Osborne, "Righteous Love" (Interscope)

Finally, after five years, a follow-up to "Joan Osborne" and "One of Us." What's new: every '80s neo-hippie Hollywood studio clichi known to humankind (you can see the tie-dye on the walls), plus some no one ever thought of before -- as neat a trick as Osborne's vocal attack, a unique combination of bombastic and coy. What's strange: a cover of Bob Dylan's bombastic "To Make You Feel My Love," the one atrocity on his 1997 "Time Out of Mind." Osborne sings it in a small voice, with no flourishes, no big gestures, so that even the most pretentious phrases ("the highway of regret") sound like something someone might actually say.

6) "Quills," directed by Philip Kaufman (Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 1-4)

It's in the last 45 minutes or so of this blazing fiction about the end of the Marquis de Sade -- due for general release in November -- when the film begins to move like a piece of music, gathering its rhythms and concentrating them into a force that takes on a life of its own. In the Charenton asylum, Geoffrey Rush's Sade has been stripped of his pen and paper, but he can't not create stories. From his barren cell he begins to shout a new tale through the walls, each sentence carried by a bucket brigade of inmates and workers until, garbled but not lost, the words reach Kate Winslet's laundress, the devoted reader who writes each fragment down -- and then all hell breaks loose. After that there is only madness on all sides, libertines and censors, lunatics and doctors. It's no small irony that Sade's nemesis, Michael Caine's Dr. Royer-Collard, was famous as the leader of the Doctrinaires, who were not the first French doo-wop group but should have been. The result is a horror movie about the rights of man.

7) "Kim Gordon, Ikue Mori & DJ Olive" (SYR)

A Kim Gordon noise project, with its strength in her singing. At times Gordon's meandering lines are just finger painting; more often there are hints of trouble her band Sonic Youth hasn't touched in years.

8) Sally Timms & Jon Langford, "Songs of False Hope and High Values" (Bloodshot)

On leave from the Mekons, why are they wasting their precious time with Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" or Dolly Parton's "Down in Dover" when they have songs of their own as fragile as "I Picked Up the Pieces" to play?

9) Elvis Costello, "Brilliant Disguise" (Warner Bros., 1996)

"A demo for George Strait," the DJ said of this extra track from Elvis Costello's "It's Time" single. (Thoughtful of him to be pitching Bruce Springsteen copyrights rather than his own, but never mind.) With Costello's acoustic guitar leading and bare bass and drums muffled in the background, the number comes across as a folk ballad, leaving the original overstated and unsure of itself. This seems to go on and on, as if it were "Barbara Allen," and you can hear how subtle the song really is, if it is.

10) Keith Bradshaw, "G.M. Has High Hopes for Vehicle Truly Meant for Road Warriors" (New York Times, Aug 6.)

A clarion call for the George W. Bush era, at least up to Nov. 7 (reading the Times' political coverage, you'd think he'd been elected months ago): "The rugged individualists," says division manager Michael DiGiovanni on the marketing of the H1 model of the Hummer, the latest in personal tanks -- guaranteed higher pollution, lower gas mileage, greater visibility obstruction and higher other-to-self roadkill ratio -- "are people who really seek out peer approval."

Greil Marcus

The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.

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