Friday, May 28, 2010

Be Kind Rewind

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Rewind # 1: Iron Man 2 is most obviously a sequel, the more full-bodied follow-up to the streamlined Marvel Comic actioneer that took audiences by storm in 2008, an entertainingly schizoid movie that works hard to deliver some more snack, crackle and pop for the multitudes of fan boys. The cool thing is that actor/director Jon Favreau almost subversively pumps some real directorial charm and panache to the non-action scenes, almost to the point of emasculating the go-for-the-popcorn high-tech effects, comic book clashes, and over-the-top spectacle. Audiences seem to be responding well once again, upping the possibility that if Favreau goes for another shot at the franchise, it might be the most gonzo Part 3 yet.

The movie is extremely shiny and tempered, but the overt story and the CGI spectacles take a certifiable second place to theatrics and repartee among the movie’s big name part-playing population, beginning with the rapid fire mumbling oratory of Robert Downey and his time-warping charm. Downey’s a true propellant contemporary movie star, and the narcissistic air of a nervy capitalist suits him exquisitely, delivering each new bombastic comic book line with a curry-and-par swipe and a hilariously provocative aplomb. Downey is so right on as the guy without the suit, that each of the movies suffers a bit each time the super hero metallic duds are donned and his twisty yapper gets hidden away.

Favreau is an actor’s director, and he allows all of his principles to follow Downey’s animated flow, causing actual sparks to fly in Downey’s sideways exchanges with an impeccably subtle Gwyneth Palthrow and an appropriately campy (and comely) Scarlett Johansson, much of it coolly conjuring up the patented stylings of screwball comedy. The sharp repartee and the heightened dialogue is also neatly bandied about by such nifty scene stealers as Don Cheadle as good buddy and sidekick, Samuel Jackson as a robustly macho military man, fave rave scene-chewer Mickey Rourke as Russian baddie with a cockatoo, and secret weapon Sam Rockwell as perhaps the drollest comic book villain so far, all of them trading barbs, eye-rolling, and put-downs with sleek fervor. Iron Man 2 doesn’t mean much of anything, and doesn’t purport to, it simply swaggers its way to the finish line, providing some first class diversion between the sound of metal clanking and things blowing up.

Rewind # 2: Like most knee-bending worshippers to the altar of rock and roll, I can’t resist a rock doc, and I’ve probably screened a few dozen of them. The vast majority traffic in broken dreams, past glories, druggy excesses, psychological afflictions, rise and falls, or just plain ascensions to rock and roll nirvana. It’s a Bash!, a new rock doc that chronicles the story of Attleboro-formed and Providence-made Neutral Nation, operates with a decidedly alternative mind set, unwinding as a true life tale of infectious rock and roll spirit, ongoing camaraderie, and working class pluck.

Director David Bettencourt (rapidly becoming a local filmmaker of some note, responsible for two highly credible prior works, You Must Be This Tall: The Story of Rocky Point Park and On the Lake: Life and Love in a Distant Place), does a wonderful job recreating the resolutely typically tale of the band’s movement from in-yer-face noise-makers to beloved local music scene headliners, gathering some smartly reflective and self aware talking heads footage from the individual band members (particularly Mike Yarworth, Tom Buckland, and Dave Chabot), and handsomely piecing together the Providence/ Living Room spawned scene of punk and indie rock.

Of course, I spent a whole lotta of my time embedded in that very scene during my youthful glory days, and the film helps prove that Neutral Nation were indeed something special, regular guys who, in their heyday, conveyed an ever widening sense of New England tribal inclusiveness and a constantly burgeoning down-to-earth craftsmanship, making a particular mark as one of those special bands with a whom audiences want to share a sensibility, a song, and a beer. Whether you catch the documentary, or catch the boys live at one of their perpetual reunion shows, you’ll never have to worry about Neutral Nation delivering the goods, with passion, verve, and some crooked smiles.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mark Cutler's State of Grace

Even at my straightest, most coherent, sharpest, extreme state of awareness I couldn’t even attempt to actually put a real number to the numerous times I’ve seen Mark Cutler play live music, numerous being a riveting understatement. Over the thirty years that I’ve been both a fan and personal friend with the guitarist/bandleader/songwriter, I’ve seen him play arenas, clubs, bars, restaurants, diners, coffee houses, cafes, packed houses, empty rooms, dank basements, amusement parks, songwriting circles, backyard celebrations, weddings (including two of mine), birthdays (including my 30th, 40th, and 50th), I’ve seen him open up for everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis, Boy George, Bob Dylan and then-Presidential candidate Obama. I’ve seen him rip up his guitar like he was ringing a bell, attacking it with both the ferocity of Fred “Sonic” Smith and the shamanistic explorations of Tom Verlaine, and I’ve also seen him gently stroke his acoustic guitar and sing songs of tenderness and beauty and sadness that rival those of Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle. I’ve seen him cover everyone from Iggy Pop to KC and the Sunshine Band to Mink Deville. 1000 gigs? Double that? I’m really not sure, although I am sure that whether my pallie Mark was fronting the Schemers, The Raindogs, Lexington 1-2-3, The Dino Club, or the The Men of Courage, or sitting on yet another stool, hunched over with solo intensity, he was giving it his all, playing with both gusto and sincerity, and of course, playing yet another new song from his seemingly never-ending supply.

Among Mark’s circle of friends there’s a longstanding joke that’s partly ironic, partly worrisome, and fully accurate: The MC Credo: When in doubt, write a song. In emotional, financial, or familial trouble? Write a song. Good times? Write a song. Terrible times? Write a song. Blazingly sunny, reinvigorating day? Write a song. Winter storm howling against the windows? Write a song. Rent overdue? Write a song. Worried about political policies and continual American social ills? Write a song. Watch a Scorsese film? Write a song. You get the simple, straightforward picture: When in doubt, write a song. Mark has spent nearly a lifetime attempting to reach a state of grace through songwriting, written reams of choruses, hooks, and heartfelt lyrics, and also covered countless nuggets, gems, and classics from every pop genre, all of which brings us to his newest collection of a dozen songs, just released on a new CD entitled Red.

In the interest of full disclosure (not that may actually matter in the nebulous state of the blogosphere) I’ve had the occasional unique (and truly cool) opportunity to work alongside Mark as a lyricist and co-songwriter, with Red even containing one song, “Miss Connected”, co-written by the two of us, so I figure I’ve have a certain insight into his material. On the other hand, as a once practicing rock nitcrit, and, as a guy who’s heard a ton of Cutler’s tunes delivered by divergent musical configurations, in an ever-changing array of arrangements and styles, I’ve also developed an even more keen perspective on Cutler the songwriter’s thematic predilections, ongoing themes, and overall lyrical and aural landscapes. (Believe me, even my usually understanding wife worries about my bit too fervent interest in the guy’s music.)

At both his edgiest and most delicate, a vast majority of Mark’s material has always tinged with a certain melancholia, and constantly sprinkled with an understated bitter sweetness, with many of his songs chock full of characters striving to the right thing despite their cloudy pasts, shaky futures, or forays to the dark side. Red’s plaintive but fully descriptive titles (“Cousin Mary’s New Car”, “You Know What to Do”, “We Shall Always Remain Friends”, “Can’t Give it Away”, Jumpin’ Time”) paint a terrain of weathered and smarting middle-aged seekers, somehow simultaneously disconsolate and sanguine. He is a decidedly Catholic songwriter, and Red’s songs feature Saints named Annie, Marie, and even Mary, who happen to be jostling for space alongside bloodless vampires, miracle men, evil twins, bag men, and even the ghost of Doc Pomus, with frozen moments amidst midnight moves, tower guards, mamas crying, river’s bending, blanketed rafts heading down streams, and a whole passel of cruel disguises. Cutler’s usual fallible narrators hover above the clouds, dangle down at the edge, duck into the shadows of the descending sun, and seemingly just exist a paycheck away from yet another personal calamity yet somehow striving for some sort of sanctity.

Red goes beyond Cutler’s typically streamlined 4/4 rock, with supple keyboards and mandolin brushes, a spare and focused sound with contributions from a number of RI stalwarts, including bass players Jimi Berger and Mike Tanaka, keyboardist and accordion master Dickie Reed, drummers Rick Couto, Bob Giusti, and the late Phil Hicks, and secret weapon, the ever subtle David Richardson contributing some lovely mandolin playing and a neat baritone guitar flourish. Red was produced by Cutler and longtime collaborator Emerson Torrey, and it might be the best sounding recording of his lengthy career, as it the two have avoided overproduction, crafting a record that sounds both pristine and felicitous.

In the real world I make a living as a Union Representative, and I know that Mark would make an ideal rank-and-file member, because as a songwriter and performer he’s both diligent and honest, his work ethic is fairly legendary, he consistently manages to deliver what he promises, and he sports a blue collar aura that just can’t be faked. Quite simply, he defines that warhorse of an expression, “the real deal”.

The Cutler record release party for Red is scheduled from my home away from home, Nick-a-Nee’s, tomorrow, Saturday the 8th from 8:30 on, and it promises to be quite the celebratory evening, featuring Mark Cutler and more than a few of his various musical permutations. Make sure you grab a word with him between sets, don’t let him retreat to any corners or the privacy of his car, because, if left alone, he may feel a powerful draw to start writing yet another song, and lord knows, it kinda (heh-heh-heh) gets a little sickening after a while.